Critical Currents: Windless

Why aren't Israelis stirred by the Middle East whirlwind of change?

naomi chazan 88 (photo credit: )
naomi chazan 88
(photo credit: )
The winds of change sweeping through the Middle East are bypassing Israel. The reform momentum is everywhere apparent except here. And while Israelis watch, monitor and analyze the popular surge elsewhere, they have been unusually quiescent at home - as if all this has little to do with their situation. The stillness in the air is not only bewildering, it is incredibly stifling. If much-needed adjustments do not take place soon - either through popular demand, leadership initiatives or a mixture of the two - then the present lull portends much stormier times ahead. The events of the past month have unleashed a veritable whirlwind throughout the region. The first direct impetus for significant movement came in the form of US President Barack Obama's Cairo speech, which set forth both a vision for a different relationship between the Muslim world and the West and a strategy for its realization. Rarely has one address had such a palpable impact on its intended audience in such a short period. In many Arab countries, the prospect of new partnerships has been linked to reform. Israelis, too, followed the Cairo presentation with unusual interest. They almost uniformly applauded the Obama rhetoric and embraced the broad principles it contained. Even those who disagreed with portions of its content - especially the segments relating to the resolution of the Arab-Israel conflict through the emphatic adoption of the two-state solution - could not remain unmoved by the promise it evoked. This captivation, however, was not followed by any significant public action. Twenty years ago, Tel Aviv's Kikar Rabin would have been overflowing with people enthusiastic about the president's message and insistent that the government accept his plan. This did not happen. Barely 2,000 people marched in the streets of Tel Aviv to welcome the Cairo speech under the shadow of the 42nd anniversary of the occupation. The Lebanese elections held two weeks ago hardly evinced a glimmer of interest. The victory of the reformists at the expense of the Hizbullah did capture some headlines for a day or so. The usual parade of talking heads interpreted the result and prognosticated about its implications. But for the vast majority of Israelis, the events in Lebanon were, at best, a mild diversion from the escapades of Dudu Topaz. By contrast, the aftermath of the Iranian election has riveted public attention. The intensity of demonstrations following the announcement of the results, coupled with the groundswell of demand for major reforms, has played a key role in humanizing the Iranian people in Israeli eyes. But the capacity of individuals, even under immense duress, to take control of their fate - a key lesson of the present upheaval in Iran - has not been carried over to the domestic scene here. The same can be said for the distinctly tepid response, even in the media, to the potentially path-breaking package deal now being crafted for Gaza by Egypt (with American support and Syrian acquiescence). The linkage of the opening of the border crossings, the initiation of a massive rehabilitation effort, a prisoner exchange (including Gilad Schalit) and a long-term cease-fire through the establishment of an autonomous coalition government consisting of Fatah, Hamas and other factions and secured by external forces has monumental repercussions for Israeli-Palestinian relations. Nevertheless, reactions have been, at best, both sparse and unusually detached. THESE PATTERNS were highlighted most tellingly in Binyamin Netanyahu's speech at Bar-Ilan University last week. The prime minister's address was the embodiment of retrenchment in the midst of significant change in the global and regional environment. Prospective challenges were met with iterations of past positions; the call for new policies with the blatant absence of initiative. The Netanyahu message was crafted to stir the winds as little as possible. And it hardly created a rustle in the trees - the vast majority of Israelis expressed their broad satisfaction, while critics continue to mumble to each other. What is going on? What can account for the unusual passivity, if not paralysis, of most Israelis in the face of changes that directly affect them and their future? The easiest (and the least plausible) explanation is that they are satisfied with what they have and where things are going. But poll after poll shows the opposite: Most of the public is decidedly unhappy with the current state of affairs, is uneasy with policy directions and is increasingly wary of its leadership. Perhaps, then, the answer lies in the decline of the Left and the fortification of right-wing positions. But this reasoning cannot begin to account for the lack of public reaction to recent policy initiatives which affect all citizens regardless of ideological disposition, such as the series of legislative proposals on citizenship prerequisites, loyalty oaths, thought control and rules of governance, not to speak of racial slurs that under other circumstances would not be countenanced. An admixture of disinterest, disaffection, distraction, defensiveness and delusion goes some way toward understanding the current popular silence. Some are totally wrapped up in their own lives, tired of the constant struggle of contending with their surroundings and studiously indifferent to its vagaries. Many are so disgusted with politicians and what they have wrought that they have simply disengaged from the public arena. Others are preoccupied with making ends meet, easily diverted from core issues. Several are still bound by the protective mind-set that has precluded movement in the past. And a few are content to delude themselves that change is unnecessary. This set of explanations, however compelling, is far from sufficient. The present popular immobility also smacks of smugness - a sense that Israel is inured to shifts in attitudes and policies essentially meant for others. This arrogant mind-set fosters a sense of hopelessness among those who have, in the past, attempted to caution against inaction. Constant failures to promote change yield a fatalism which is the worst enemy of reform. It bows to seemingly overwhelming constraints and dampens hope. There are, nonetheless, a few rays of light in this rather dim picture. The partly successful revolt of the opposition against intended changes in the rules of the game is one. The coalitions being formed to map out a horizon for another, more just, country is another. Above all, the array of activists in civil society dedicated to bettering the lives of Israelis by advocating social justice, the protection of civil rights and the achievement of equality among all its citizens keep the possibility of reform alive. These scattered activities have yet to coalesce into a movement capable of galvanizing larger segments of the population and activating them in the quest for meaningful change. If they do not stir the winds, then this period will go down as the quiet before the country is buffeted by an uncontrollable storm.