Looking back, looking ahead

Since there is no point in a guilt trip that doesn’t take you anywhere, here are some reflections on the year coming to a close and thoughts on the year ahead, 5779 according to the Hebrew calendar.

Slihot at Western Wall, September 4, 2018 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Slihot at Western Wall, September 4, 2018
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is as much a guilt trip as a spiritual journey. Not for us parties and fireworks. We use this time of year for a unique period of soul-searching, “heshbon nefesh,” being grateful for having been inscribed in the Book of Life for the past year, praying the same for the year ahead.
Since there is no point in a guilt trip that doesn’t take you anywhere, here are some reflections on the year coming to a close and thoughts on the year ahead, 5779 according to the Hebrew calendar.
During the earlier part of the outgoing Jewish year, Israel commemorated the centenaries of the Battle for Beersheba, the Balfour Declaration and the arrival of Britain’s General Allenby in the Old City of Jerusalem, in effect ending four centuries of Ottoman rule.
It’s doubtful anyone in November 1917 could have imagined that the Jewish state would be created so soon, and turn into such a success. As Israel celebrated its milestone 70th anniversary in May there were good reasons to blow our own horn, or shofar.
The country received a wonderful present. US President Donald Trump made good on his campaign promise and moved the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem as the Israeli capital. “This is nothing more or less than a recognition of reality,” Trump declared in December. “It is also the right thing to do.”
Trump’s “Deal of the Century” hasn’t yet been revealed and there was not even a “Deal of the Year,” but something has changed. This week, Trump announced he was cutting the funding of UNRWA, the UN body whose sole purpose is to cater to and fund Palestinian refugees in perpetuity. This was followed by reports that Trump had suggested that Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas consider a confederacy with Jordan. Together with the embassy move and the US withdrawal from the UNHRC, it is clear that 25 years after the Oslo Accords were signed, a new age is dawning.
In a speech referring to Trump in January, the aged Abbas turned “Yikhrab beito,” the Arabic curse meaning “May his house be destroyed,” into a Hebrew catchphrase.
The US Embassy opening was swiftly followed by the opening of embassies in Jerusalem by Guatemala and Paraguay, although there were reports this week that the latter would return to Tel Aviv.
The Palestinians in Gaza chose the day of the US Embassy move to increase their attempts to breach the border with Israel as part of the so-called Great March of Return, a name that says it all. Of the 62 people who were killed, 50 were Hamas members by the terrorist organization’s own admission. Nonetheless, Israel was swiftly condemned.
Both the northern and southern borders have been tense throughout the year.
The threat from terror tunnels has largely been addressed by a combination of technological and intelligence means. But low-tech warfare is now seared in our collective memories. This was the year that Gazans turned booby-trapped kites, balloons, helium-filled condoms and even kestrels into weapons. It was the year of the “Fire Intifada” in which hundreds of acres of farmland, woods, fields and nature reserves were heartbreakingly destroyed.
So-called “lone-wolf” terrorist attacks also took their toll. Too many widows and orphans, parents and siblings face their first Rosh Hashanah without a loved one.
The seven-year civil war in Syria wound down, leaving open the questions of Iran’s presence and Russia’s future role. At least Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has managed to maintain a good working relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
ISIS has not disappeared but it is no longer on Israel’s northern border. In the South, the threat of Islamist terrorism in Sinai has strengthened the ties between Egypt and Israel. And whatever ultimately happens with the confederacy idea, it is clear that Jordan has an important role to play regarding the Palestinian issue in the future.
The changes in the Arab world have brought about closer, if not public, contacts between Israel and Saudi Arabia, based on the common threat of Iran with its nuclear aspirations and need to fight Islamist extremism. The rising importance of Saudi heir Mohammad bin Salman is being felt throughout the region although it would be wrong to automatically equate youth with liberalism.
Relations with Poland soured when Polish legislation made it a criminal offense to mention the country’s complicity in crimes committed during the Holocaust. Although Warsaw later amended the law, the incident shows Israel’s uncomfortable situation with the rise of the far-Right in Europe.
And it’s not just the Right. British Jews finish the year with the bitter taste of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s antipathy. Even the first official visit by a member of the British royal family, Prince William’s jaunt in June, barely provided a diversion.
ONE OF THE year’s highlights was an extraordinary intelligence achievement: The Mossad heist of Iran’s nuclear secrets stored in a warehouse in southern Tehran and smuggled out to Israel by the truckload. Another major defense story was not actually from this year: It was the publication in March of details of “Operation Out of the Box” against Bashar Assad’s nascent nuclear reactor in September 2007.
The political scene was marked by changes within the Zionist Union as Isaac Herzog departed to lead the Jewish Agency, leaving Tzipi Livni as the new head of the Opposition in an uneasy relationship with Labor leader Avi Gabbay. Meanwhile, Bayit Yehudi’s Ayelet Shaked is leaving her mark as justice minister.
The threat of early elections waxed and waned, as is to be expected in a country where everything is political.
The never-ending legal woes of the prime minister, his wife and even his sons provided as much fodder for gossip columnists as political commentators. Some time in the coming year Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit should finally decide which of the many “Affairs,” if any, will be brought to trial.
In the utterly disgraceful department, former energy minister Gonen Segev was arrested on charges of spying for Iran.
The biggest hit of the year was Netta Barzilai, whose unique sound, style and #MeToo message in the song “Toy” took her to the top spot in the Eurovision Song Contest in May, and launched the start of the infighting over the funding and hosting of the 2019 contest.
Despite the threats and limited success of the BDS movement, it has been a good year in general for the Israeli entertainment business. And in May, the Giro d’Italia came to Israel to launch the major international cycling event and perhaps put wheels in motion for more world sporting events here in the future.
BDS, however, touched Birthright, which was targeted by #IfNotNow members demanding the tours include more about the Palestinian conflict. Ahed Tamimi (a.k.a. Shirley Temper) became the superstar of Israel’s detractors, after being imprisoned for striking a soldier. Civil society seems increasingly uncivil.
The Nation-State Law caused more headlines than it was worth, since ultimately not much changed other than perceptions. Nonetheless, there is clearly a need this year to try to heal the growing rift with the non-Orthodox streams in the Diaspora as well as the Druze and other minorities at home.
The pharmaceutical giant Teva Industries collapsed but SodaStream, the carbonated drink maker, bubbled over with pride as it was purchased by Pepsico for $3.2 billion last month.
A column like this cannot cover every major event in a country where the news is updated by the minute. There were major figures in the Jewish world and Israel who passed away. And the deaths of 10 pre-army mechina students in a flash flood in May was a tragic reminder that Israeli culture has to move on from the “Smoch alay,” “Trust me, it will be all right” mentality.
May 5779 bring at least closure to the families of IDF soldiers Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul, killed and abducted by Hamas four long years ago, and may it see the safe return of Avera Mengistu, also held by Hamas in Gaza.
Above all, may this be a year of peace, prosperity and improved relationships. And may our soul-searching lead us to a worthy destination.
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