An island in turbulent waters

Compared with quakes, volcanoes, floods, air crashes and economic meltdowns hitting distant lands – the Jewish state actually had a pretty good year.

bushehr 311 (photo credit: AP)
bushehr 311
(photo credit: AP)
Beyond Israel, 5770 was a year of astonishment.
Over the past 12 months an earthquake in Haiti killed, maimed or displaced up to a million people; an Icelandic volcano spewed a pillar of ash that brought much of Europe’s air traffic to a standstill; and in Pakistan, up to 20 million people fled their homes as the Indus overflowed.
Man-made disasters were not much less catastrophic. The Gulf of Mexico drank history’s worst oil spill; in the Philippines, 34 journalists were massacred along with another two dozen people while covering a local election, the worst mass-murder of journalists ever; and in Smolensk, Russia, an air crash killed much of Poland’s political and military elite, including the president and his wife, the army’s chief of staff and the president of the national bank.
Political drama was not far behind. Greece reached the brink of bankruptcy, Kyrgyzstan was rocked by ethnic rioters and in Iraq a general election originally heralded as a harbinger of the first Arab democracy produced instead paralysis, anarchy and bloodshed.
Fortunately, nothing that happened in Israel, from August’s heat to the IDF’s office politics, even came close to the disasters, crises and general sense of perplexity that were so pervasive elsewhere during 5770.
ON THE DOWNSIDE, the most alarming development of the year was in the realm of diplomacy.
Three months on, it is clear that whatever the mistakes during the flotilla affair, in which nine Turkish Islamists were killed by the IDF while intercepting six Gaza-bound vessels filled with political activists – Israel was merely on the receiving end of someone else’s move.
The move, Ankara’s apparent shift from a Western to a neo-Ottoman orientation, remains far from completion and faces some serious obstacles. However, if the country’s religious incumbents continue gathering power as they have been steadily since the late ’90s, they may eventually deal Israel a strategic setback as severe as the loss of Iran in 1979.
The new Turkish outlook effectively despairs of ever being accepted into the European Union, and seeks instead a Turkish-led sphere that will include the Middle East, Central Asia and the rest of the Islamic world. Israel’s place in such a configuration would be marginal at best. While prospects for a hostile Turkey had been considered by experts earlier, in 5770 it became fact, as footage of the assault on the IDF naval commandos peppered with Turkish leaders’ previous and subsequent vitriol convinced the Israeli public that yesterday’s strategic ally is now an adversary, and tomorrow might also be a foe.
In itself, the broader Turkish orientation’s future remains unclear. Egypt’s, Saudi Arabia’s and the rest of the Gulf states’ failure to join the free trade zone Turkey announced in the spring with Syria, Lebanon and Jordan means that others in this neighborhood also dislike the newly hyperactive Ankara, not because of Zionist epiphanies but because of Ottoman traumas. And even if there were a broad Turkish- Arab economic deal, it would hardly change the commercial reality whereby Arab- Turkish trade is minuscule, just as Turkish- Israeli trade, for now, remains brisk, even after the plunge in Israeli tourism.
The Turkish transition’s damage to Israel, therefore, has been less on the bilateral front, and more on the legitimacy front.
THE CLOUDS on the Turkish horizon joined those that had gathered on the eve of 5770 with the release of the Goldstone Report. During the elapsing year, the UN-commissioned document’s harm convinced Israeli politicians, diplomats and pundits that the Jewish state is facing a new type of war, one that aims to deface, delegitimize and ultimately ostracize it through legal harassment and orchestrated media situations.
According to Ambassador to the UK Ron Prosor, the government has yet to recognize this unconventional war as a strategic challenge rather than a mere nuisance. In 5771 this attitude may change, and in any event pressure will continue gathering on this front, first of all from the Diaspora, where Israel’s image is a daily challenge, but also from within the country, where 5770’s experiences have convinced many that the attacks it faced from UN envoy Richard Goldstone and Turkish Premier Recep Erdogan require more than what Israeli diplomacy has so far displayed.
Other than the increasingly prickly issues of law-fare and advocacy, the diplomatic arena was in many ways favorable to Israel.
The most telling development was Barack Obama’s quiet realization that his Cairo speech of June 2009 produced none of the Arab goodwill it was intended to inspire.
Washington’s demand that the Palestinians unconditionally join direct talks with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, and Mahmoud Abbas’s consequent retreat on this front, constituted an Israeli accomplishment.
Within the region, the Palestinian failure in 5770 to reconcile between Ramallah’s and Gaza’s antagonistic leaderships now lands Abbas at the talks shorn of the political depth he must possess in order to deliver a deal.
Though surprises can never be ruled out, the Palestinian Authority president seems resigned to the fact that he is in no position to decide Gaza’s future and would therefore do well to seek a less pretentious deal that focuses on the West Bank’s daily life and leaves the explosive issues of refugees, borders and Jerusalem for the future.
Netanyahu, by contrast, finished 5770 while enjoying all the political depth Abbas lacks.
Though he commands a faction much smaller than the one with which Ariel Sharon quit Gaza, Netanyahu reaches the talks with a stable coalition and a solid parliamentary majority favoring a prospective deal, as the dovish Kadima that is outside his coalition outnumbers those within it who might oppose the kind of deal he may have in mind.
Prospects for another split within the Likud, of the sort that preceded the disengagement half a decade ago, seem low, as even Netanyahu’s adoption of the two-state solution and his freezing of West Bank construction left his party firmly behind him. Avigdor Lieberman can be counted on to continue challenging Netanyahu from the right in 5771, but there is reason to believe that Netanyahu’s current following is a solid nucleus that on the whole will remain with him even if he strikes what he describes as “painful concessions.” Minister Michael Eitan, a party stalwart who didn’t follow Sharon to Kadima, now says that in going to the peace talks in Washington the Likud must concede that its historic drive to settle the West Bank was not joined by enough Israelis, and this failure has consequences. This attitude is likely to shape most Likud members’ attitude toward a deal, should Netanyahu strike one.
THE YEAR was also exceptionally eventless militarily. On the immediate borders, both Gaza and Lebanon remained quietly tense.
The potential for conflagration remained palpable, as demonstrated in last month’s incident in which an IDF battalion commander and four Lebanese were killed, and in Gaza’s occasional spitting of a rocket or two into the Negev. Still, the year’s skirmishes did not even dimly echo last decade’s violence on both these fronts, not to mention the terror war that was waged on the Israeli public 10 years ago this Rosh Hashana.
Surely, no Israeli political or military leader has illusions about Hassan Nasrallah or Ismail Haniyeh having changed their spots.
Instead, their hostility was taken as a given, and 5770’s relative quiet was used to better study them and Iran on the assumption that a major clash can happen any time. As things currently seem, Israel will continue in 5771 to monitor closely the domestic Iranian situation, particularly its restive society and increasingly dysfunctional economy, while seeking assorted ways to puncture its nuclear program. Whether anything larger than this should transpire in 5771 is not for this writer to predict.
What can be predicted is that the American retreat from Iraq will turn Mesopotamia into a great game whereby the American-engineered democracy steadily evaporates as Sunnis, Shi’ites and Kurds vie for geographic fiefdoms, political sway and mineral booty, while Iranians, Saudis, Egyptians, Turks and Syrians meddle throughout. Chances of all this yielding anything good are slim, but then again America’s economic and civic imprint may yet prove deeper than we currently assume, and the Kurds might use the impending confusion to further consolidate their autonomy.
THE SOCIAL instability among Israel’s neighbors, which includes Lebanon where last month saw sectarian violence take several lives in Beirut, should put in perspective what happened here in 5770.
The row surrounding a High Court ruling against a haredi school that refused to accept non-Ashkenazi girls was the closest this society came in the elapsing year to social friction.
Yet the haredi public’s participation in public disturbances in 5770 was lower than in the past, and struggles surrounding a Jerusalem parking lot’s operation on Shabbat and the expansion of an Ashkelon hospital that traversed ancient graves – were quietly abandoned.
If anything, the haredi public continued last year to attend in growing numbers professional colleges that lead to gainful employment and to the social mainstream.
The same goes for the struggle over the future of foreign workers’ children. While pitched, this debate is at the end of the day far from existential, as the numbers at stake are small and the general principle, whereby Israel will seal its borders against illegal immigration, is accepted by Israelis of all stripes, most of all the Arabs, who feel the foreign workers threaten their jobs. That is why the government’s announcement in 5770 that the border with Egypt will be fenced passed with no opposition.
SET AGAINST this backdrop the realm in which Israel had the most to celebrate in 5770 was the economy.
On the symbolic side, this was the year in which it formally joined the Big Leagues, with its admission to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Yet the substantive side was even more impressive, as the economy continued to grow, the shekel remained rock solid, unemployment slid back to its level before the global meltdown, and Israel consolidated its newly earned status as a net exporter. This, while economies like Britain’s, Spain’s and Greece’s, which face no security burden of the sort Israel has faced since its inception, grappled respectively with yawning deficits, soaring unemployment and dramatically downgraded debt ratings.
In a reversal of fortunes no one could have imagined a generation ago, the talk of the financial markets has become Japan’s stagnation and Israel’s resilience, and all this as the Japanese continued to suffer from a complete lack of energy sources, while Israel suddenly found gas in quantities that will likely turn it into an energy exporter.
The property market showed in 5770 some signs of overheating, but the Bank of Israel raised interest rates and had the banks tighten mortgage supplies, thus making it plain that Governor Stanley Fischer will be there to prevent the emergence of a bubble of the sort that debilitated the American economy last decade.
Similarly, Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz’s introduction of a biannual budget proved a success, as it injected into the system a dose of predictability and a measure of stability when they were needed most.
Now, as even the American economy once again makes recessionary noises, it is clear that in 5770, when earthquakes, volcanoes, floods and air crashes hit distant lands; and when its own neighbors continued to flail Kassams, Grads and a nuclear program, too; and even while the urge to dispirit, shame and deface it reached new heights – the Jewish state has actually had a pretty good year.