Looking Toward the Future in Israel

March 10, 2015

5 min read

Ira Sharkansky

I am not a great fan of looking far ahead of where we are. There are too many possibilities capable of foiling the most carefully plotted scenarios.

A small country is especially vulnerable to who knows how many outside occurences, including the unexpected. That is doubly so in the chaotic region of the Middle East, and triply so in the case of Israel, with all its immediate neighbors currently or recently shaky.

Multi-religious Lebanon is always on the verge of civil war, and for the past couple of decades the non-governmental and violent Hezbollah has been more powerful than the government.

Syria has been in a civil war for more than four years, with 200,000 deaths and perhaps three million refugees  and five million internally displaced persons from its pre-war population of about 18 million.

Egypt has endured two regime changes to and from Islamic radicalism in a period of four years, currently is engaged in significant military activity against Islamic extremists, mostly in the Sinai, and its leadership is said to be pondering an invasion of Gaza.

Jordan is the most stable of Israel’s neighbors, but depends heavily on foreign aid and a savvy monarch to balance tensions between Palestinians and Bedouins, amidst poverty, and an influx of Syrian refugees.

And who knows the future of Palestine? Lots of Gazans are living in the rubble produced by their adventures against Israel, and West Bankers are restive under what they consider to be Israeli occupation and their own leaders’ corruption and minimum concern for their welfare.

All countries, even those on the order of China, Russia, and the US, are too small and dependent on what happens elsewhere to consider themselves truly sovereign, or able to define for themselves what happens within and how they should act internationally.

Those who think of themselves living in fortress America may have trouble counting their wars since 1945, the number of Americans who have lost their lives or returned home broken,  the annual incidence of murder in the most violent of western democracies, the resources spent overseas in order to keep up the American image of leadership, or what’s in their future with respect to Iran and the Islamic State.

All that being the case, the best place for one’s head is not in the sand. An admission of great uncertainty and limited control does not excuse us from thinking about the future, identifying major problems and opportunities, and what may be the best ways of dealing with each.

An election provides an opportunity for us commoners to think in bigger than usual terms about needs, threats, and opportunities in the public sphere, and what we may do with our own voice in nudging things one way or another.

Israel’s immediate future appears likely to be more of the same. The two major parties remain very close in the polls, and we’ll be stuck with several middle size parties assuring a tension-filled coalition likely to be short-lived. Nothing has changed greatly in the polls during the campaign despite the drama focused on the Prime Minister’s household and politicians’ efforts to drum up interest in the cost of housing, the general cost of living, the plight of the middle class or the poor, the continued suffering of Sephardim under the dominance of Ashkenazim, plus Bibi’s world spotlighted speech  and an anti-Bibi campaign headlined with former generals saying that he has been a strategic disaster.

Among the considerations that I have heard in conversations with Israelis, including with myself, are the following.

The absence of any impressive campaign for the sake of peace. Most likely this reflects frustration with the Palestinians, threats that change with the day from the leadership of the West Bank, and the violent fanatics of Gaza. While much of the world seems to remain convinced about the justice and wisdom of providing a state for the Palestinians,  most Israelis are more impressed with Palestinian rejectionism and Islamic fanaticism.

A widespread feeling, not explicitly stated by leading politicians, of frustration with the Obama administration. This connects with the above reservation about the Palestinians, and produces an oy gevalt response to the news that Barack Obama intends to devote considerably more time to moving forward with a peace agreement toward a Palestinian state.

This may be the President’s way of punishing Bibi for embarrassing him by a good speech against a lousy deal. It  seems to likely to be another fumbling effort to deal with the problems of the Middle East by a poorly informed Administration wedded to the politically correct. It will be a piece with the Nobel winning speech in Cairo, another speech that combined threat and appeasement aimed at Syria’s chemical weapons, a campaign to deal with the Islamic State by means of American airpower and Arab soldiers, and seeing opportunities to reign in Iranian expansionism via diplomacy despite the strong reservations of Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the Gulf Emirates.

By standing against that peculiar combination of Middle Eastern powers all opposed to Iran, Obama might be making his unintended contribution to Middle East peace, even if the effort leaves the notion of a Palestinian state in the dust.

Also in the air is concern about a SHAS-led campaign in behalf of Sephardi power. It’s mixed with Ariyeh Deri’s assertion of party leadership, and claims of having the endorsement of the iconic ultra-Orthodox Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who has been dead for more than a year, and whose pronouncements were not usually understood by most Israelis for several years before his death.

Deri is campaigning against a former colleague, Eli Yishai, who is claiming his own endorsement from Rabbi Ovadia, and split from Deri and SHAS to create his own party, Yachad (Together). Deri is contending with his own stained past, having spent years in prison on charges of corruption while Minister of the Interior.

While he was formerly a dynamic figure, often appearing as a media commentator and used by other parties to mediate disputes, Deri is now speaking narrowly about discrimination against the Sephardim, and as the sole politician genuinely concerned about lower income Israelis. His video clips feature jumping ultra-Orthodox men singing nothing more than the name of Rabbi Ovadia, and assertions of Ashkenazim keeping Jews of Middle Eastern background from reaching high places in Israel. The simplistic and angry ethnic nature of his campaign against the Ashkenazim isn’t all that different from the racism preached by White Southerners prior to the American awakening in the 1960s.

The most overt concern for ethnicity appears among Israel’s religious Jews, and especially the two ultra-Orthodox communities, each with its own political party. Among secular Israelis, the incidence of intermarriage renders much of the population a mixture of Jewish ethnicities.

Most recent surveys indicate that Deri is likely to poll 6 or 7 seats and Yishai 4 seats, against SHAS’s 11 seats in the outgoing Knesset. It’s hard to see any great accomplishment associated with Deri’s campaign, except perhaps for spurring at least a partial recovery of Yair Lapid.

Lapid’s party, There is a Future, was the most outspoken in the previous government in behalf of pushing the Haredim out of their religious academies and into the IDF or National Service, and then to a life of productive work. Lapid initially declined from 19 seats in the outgoing Knesset to as low as 8 seats in the early polls, perhaps due to his party’s failure to implement what it had promised. More recently the party has been polling 13 seats, which may owe something to SHAS’s campaign bringing Israelis to a reawakened opposition to the ultra-Orthodox, as well as Lapid’s supporters seeing him as the best chance to try something new.

With results not likely to be a clear victory for one cluster of parties or another, the bargaining of party leaders will outweigh the election results in deciding who governs. And by the time it’s over, a couple of months from now, the people in charge may be dealing with things not currently apparent.

Reprinted with author’s permission from The Jerusalem Post

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