My Word: Weighing in on the Middle East

Peace in the Middle East seems further away than ever, but that does not mean we need to lose our peace of mind.

Egyptian man man prepares a traditional dessert 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS)
Egyptian man man prepares a traditional dessert 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
"You need to watch your weight,” my doctor warned me a few months ago in yet another reminder of middle age. Over the years, I have, indeed, watched it: Sometimes it goes up; sometimes it comes down. After a concerted effort, it currently seems to be fine – and this is good news. I’m one of those people who noshes when nervous but can barely eat when really scared. If I can contemplate my navel without struggling to see it or being disgusted, life in Israel is not as frightening as you might think from the headlines.
Peace in the Middle East seems further away than ever, but that does not mean we need to lose our peace of mind.
I didn’t even lose sleep – or grab a midnight snack – after reading an article in Yediot Aharonot’s health supplement last week entitled “You, me and the Iranian threat.” Having read about the different psychological methods of coping with fear, I realize that my own method is not so much denial as worrying only about those things I can control.
Now I am worrying that perhaps I’m not normal. The Yediot piece, after all, was catering to an audience that is obviously more scared than I am. Or maybe their journalists are more troubled.
At a meeting of Jerusalem Post senior journalists with the prime minister in his office on the eve of his trip to Washington in September, I couldn’t help but notice that Binyamin Netanyahu was both clearly suffering from back pain and making a concerted effort to pick at the fruit on the table, rather than the pastries. He is obviously trying to watch his weight. I don’t think this is what’s traditionally meant by being able to “feel tension” in a room, but it’s probably as good a gauge as the bathroom scales I use.
The prime minister, defense minister, chief of staff and others of similar standing are paid a lot more than me to worry while I’m sleeping. I’m happy to discuss “The Situation” – I don’t think stifling public debate on matters of war and peace will help either – but I don’t see the point in spreading panic. Middle-aged spread is compensated for by experience, and my experience has always been that when it comes to truly critical security and diplomatic issues, those in the know don’t tell.
Without the full picture, it’s hard to throw even my diminished weight behind any set policy. My gut feeling is that Israel’s best course of action in the changing world is to aim to build new strategic relations. And this is what the prime minister seems to be trying to do.
Israel is not the only country affected by the Iranian threat, after all. Perhaps the most positive aspect of the turmoil, as far as Israel is concerned, is the ability to show that it’s not about us. Israel’s relations with the Palestinians are a distraction, not the cause of the problems in the Middle East. And although they might not want to admit it in public in places like Jordan, for example, others know this too. If I were prime minister, I would be working on creating new and improved ties with the Gulf states, for instance.
Similarly, I look to Syria with something close to trepidation, but not enough to make me grab a cream cake and certainly not enough to make me miss a meal.
Bashar Assad has good reason to be losing weight and sleep. His regime could be over by the time you read this piece, and certainly not much later. Is this good for Israel? Not if he decides to try to save his power by throwing blame (and worse) on us. In the long term, the inevitable replacement of the minority Alawite ruling class with one which reflects a Sunni majority might not all be bad. It would, after all, change the balance of power regarding Shi’ite Iran, which would be weakened as a result.
And then there’s Egypt. The medically dictated weight loss of former defense minister and (briefly) Labor Party leader Binyamin Ben-Eliezer has received a great deal of press coverage. I’m not sure I’d follow his lead on much else, however. A few years ago, when he was explaining to the Post editorial board his grandiose plans as national infrastructure minister for shipping water from Turkey to Israel, he dismissed my question of what happens if relations between the two countries deteriorate as typical journalistic doomsaying. Hence, last week when I heard his dire warnings that a confrontation between Israel and Egypt is an imminent possibility – and that the only way to avert this is to immediately re-enter negotiations with the Palestinians – I wondered whether he shouldn’t change his diet.
Of course a conflict with Egypt is a real possibility. It’s one that Israel needs to be prepared for, but I’d be careful not to make it a self-fulfilling prophesy by (a) creating an atmosphere of escalation and (b) putting the emphasis on Israel and the Palestinians.
The situation in Egypt does not look good – particularly in view of last week’s violent Second Revolution in Tahrir Square and the likely results of this week’s elections. But rather than give up and starving myself to death, I think it’s worth waiting to see what can be salvaged.
The average Egyptian is also concerned about the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. Egypt needs peace and stability as much as Israel does. It also needs US economic support and a way to save its all-important but floundering tourism industry. Changes might be on the way, but they won’t all take place overnight.
How far would I go for peace? Well, not “the full Monty,” even if I have come to terms with my body. I was not among the 50 or so Israeli women who were willing to drop all last week in a revealing show of support for 20-year-old Egyptian blogger Aliaa Magda Elmahdy.
Elmahdy came under fire in Egypt for posting nude photos of herself to protest “the lack of freedom of expression” in her country.
It grants Israel’s situation a different perspective. While I am concerned by the current flurry of controversial legislation, I also think the reaction is out of proportion.
The world is not coming to an end; Israel is not coming to an end; and neither is freedom.
Let’s calm down, everybody, and have something to eat and drink. In moderation.
The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post.