A country''s politics is a product of big things and little things.
The big things have been around for a long time, and are unlikely to go away soon. They include place (i.e., geography and its implications), the good or bad luck of having or lacking natural resources, and elements of culture that resist change, like beliefs about religion and government.
The little things are those most fluid. They include the individual or party that won the last election, and whatever else is in the headlines.
The big things about the United States begin with it being the last nation standing at the end of the latest and greatest world catastrophe, i.e., World War II. They also include a huge population and great wealth derived from agriculture, minerals, and most recently technological leadership that has come largely from government investments under the heading of national defense.
The US is the functional equivalent of earlier empires, with demands from outside or from inside to control things far from home. The current discussion to dealt (or not) with Syria, and the prospect of Iran are against its frustrations in Iraq and Afghanistan, what is left over from the frustration of Vietnam, somewhat better memories from Korea and post-war Europe, and smaller adventures in Latin America and Africa.
A lot has changed since World War II. The Cold War and come and gone, but some of it remains insofar as Russia and China are still prominent adversaries of the US, if no longer enemies.
Domestically, the current President has had to wrestle--with limited if any success--against American antagonisms to taxation and gun control that have been distinctive in American culture since the 18th century.
Among the changes in the American scene are those terrorists and accomplices from Chechnya, Kazakhstan, and Ethiopia. A generation ago Boston''s problems came from Irish, Italians, Jews, and Yankees, most of whom could not locate those other places on a map.
The big things about Israel begin with its place and the religion of its people and others. The Promised Land has been blessed or cursed by its location on a land bridge between continents whose control has been sought by competing empires. Claiming the birthplace of Judaism and Christianity, and only slightly less prominent in the history of Islam, Israel is assured prominence in media headlines and government agendas. Compare the world''s concern with unhappy Palestinians with its lack of concern with unhappy Welsh, Scots, Basques, Catalans, and dozens of African and Asian ethnic groups who also claim to be unfulfilled or oppressed.
While the big things of politics constrain or limit change, they do not prevent it. Israel''s creation and ascendance to economic and military accomplishments after the Holocaust, along with the creation of the European Community and the development of China should remind us what can happen in a lifetime. The residence of the Obama family in the White House is a small detail in comparison, but hardly less profound to someone who taught at the University of Georgia in the mid-1960''s.
With all of that and what it suggests for those who hope for continued change, the power of the US, the problems of Israel (and the problems it causes others) have long weighed heavily on the daily news.
Two questions come from pondering the big and little things, or what seems fixed and what is highly fluid.
1) Will the US leadership feel committed to the words spoken by the President and take a more active role in Syria or Iran?
Among the ideas are sending equipment (lethal or non-lethal) to the forces opposing the Assad regime, which recall John Kennedy''s early steps of sending advisers to South Vietnam. Even more weighty is the President''s repeated pledge to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, against his obvious disinclination to do anything with military force. Among other things to be pondered by President Obama are the power of his commitments, and the influence of keeping to them or not on the subsequent influence of the United States.
2) How will Israel and Palestine respond to the latest efforts of the current American administration to pry some expressions of flexibility from Arab leaders?
There is no shortage of ideas on library shelves or in recent commentaries about dividing the Promised Land and moving populations. It''s been done before, both in post-war Europe and India-Pakistan. However, Israel appears to be strong enough in economic and military capacity, and its political support to avoid imposed solutions. That is a continuation of conditions that have been present for some years. Even older are the problems of the Palestinians and other Arabs, sufficiently divided by interests and rivalries to frustrate significant compromise on issues that Israel considers important.
Two items are not encouraging. One is that Hamas rejects the idea of the 1967 borders, or being flexible about them. It adhere to all of Palestine, from before 1948 or before Balfour. Another reports surveys of Muslims in 21 countries. Palestinians lead in the percentage (40 percent of Palestinians compared with 29 percent in Egypt and 15 percent in Jordan) agreeing that attacks against civilians in defense of Islam can often or sometimes be justified. The only country close to Palestine on this dimension was Afghanistan, where 39 percent agreed. 89 percent of Palestinians say that homosexuality is immoral, women must always "obey" their husband, and favor the imposition of Sharia Law. Forty-five percent say that "honor killing" (i.e., of a misbehaving female) is sometimes justifiable.
No matter what comes out of the current occupants of the White House, the Israeli government, the rulers of Muslim nations, and the individuals, parties, factions, families, and gangs of Palestine, the big forces of politics are not likely to disappear any time soon. America will continue on the cusp of greater involvement everywhere, with power holders and aspirants competing with ideas about how to bring about desirable changes in the Middle East and elsewhere. Jewish cultural features that have continued from the Biblical Prophets will continue to fuel internal disputes and criticisms of the Israeli leadership for its failures on one or another standard of justice. Competing Muslim interests, derived from the different perspectives rooted in the histories of Indonesia across the globe to Central Asia and West Africa, will get in the way of one another.
One of the most recent headlines may signal the onset of great change. However, we cannot be sure which of those headlines will prove to be important, or if any of them will bite into the big things that have been around for a long time.