JWR Only in the Middle East!

Jewish World Review June 23, 1999/ 9 Tamuz, 5759

Where Israel Needs Our Help

By Neil Rubin

(JWR) --- (http://www.jewishworldreview.com) IN THE PAST FEW WEEKS, a strange convergence of events seems to have ushered in the final bizarre chapter of the 20th century. And it will all seem serene when compared to what’s about to happen in Israel and to American Jews laboring on the Jewish state’s behalf.

World headlines these days reflect this: The Kosovo war – with its new precedents for NATO and reinvigoration of the phrase “never again” -- ended after a brutal several months. Russian and German troops again occupy territory in the Balkans, this time ostensibly under U.S. command. In South Africa, the truly remarkable Nelson Mandela quietly faded into the twilight.

And Pope John Paul II, one of the more charismatic religious leaders of the century, had an emotional and perhaps final visit to his Polish homeland, taking time to speak with the country’s chief rabbi.

On top of all that, a guy named George Bush enthusiastically declared that he wants to be our president.

Econophone The Middle East, it seems, is the only place not leading the news. That’s because, in the generic terms that suffice for knowledge these days, last month’s election of Ehud Barak as Israel’s new prime minister makes everything OK. But just wait. And as we do so, consider these points and what they could mean:

As of this writing, Mr. Barak has yet to form his government. That’s despite the opening of the Knesset last week, which featured the carnation-clad outgoing Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Mr. Barak embracing one another as the old friends they actually are.

Meanwhile, Israel’s new leader has crashed into the much-discussed new Israel, one that for now is as colorful as ungovernable. It features a surging religious party whose leaders call democracy subservient to Jewish law, a reinvigorated secular party whose head calls the religious parasites (and in turn is called an anti-Semite), and a senior Labor leader who demands that American Jews get a life and replace their philanthropic reliance on Israel’s saga with a healthier paradigm.

Now Mr. Barak will form a stable government out of this chaos, and is indeed poised to change the face of Israeli politics. But expect wild headlines from Jerusalem along the way. Even after the government is formed, the rush for influence within will be akin to the jockeying of horses the moment the racetrack gate swings open.

All along, I hate to say it, Israel runs the risk of appearing as if it were a banana republic. How should the world interpret this: A former military chief of staff steps out of uniform and seemingly overnight is running the country, appointing former military colleagues to top posts. But don’t worry; he promises to stem the turmoil and unify the people. What would we think were this the news from Chile or Indonesia?

Israel, of course, is far from a disguised dictatorship. Indeed, the regimes of the rest of the Arab world would likely collapse quickly in the face of Israeli-style openness and democracy. We’re going to need to continue to remind the U.S. Congress and Americans in general about that.

Israel is going through a social Balkanization, not a military one. There are a most-ever 15 political parties in the Knesset in this modern political version of the old “one Jew, two synagogues” joke.

The good news is that, unlike what most people fear, it will not last forever.

The bad news is that the next 12 to 16 years will seem like forever. During that period, the voting laws of this young country will change once again. And most importantly, intermarriage (Sephardi and Ashkenazi, modern Orthodox and secular, Russian and everyone) will diminish the impact of Israel’s powerful tribal politics. Until that day, hold on.

Meanwhile, the Arab camp, led by an Egypt seeking to recapture its role as pan-Arab nationalist leader, is laying the groundwork to push Israel hard on the peace front. Its media offers daily and harsh criticisms of Israel, particularly Mr. Barak’s pledge not to divide Jerusalem – which is silly because the city’s borders will be redrawn and a Palestinian flag will fly over the Arab neighborhoods, but not that of the Old City. Trust me, it’ll happen.

And when it does, signaling the coming end of the formal Arab-Israeli conflict (the informal will last for another century), we will all yearn for the relative serenity of June 1999.

JWR contributor Neil Rubin is senior editor of the Baltimore Jewish Times. You may reach him by clicking here.


© 1999, Neil Rubin