A State Of High Anxiety


Jerusalem — The Iranian threat. Political unrest in Syria and Egypt. Relations with the Palestinians. Israel-diaspora issues. And, internally, angst over the ever-growing gap between the country’s haves and have-nots, and anger over religious extremism.

Add to this the American presidential elections and possible elections in Israel and the Palestinian-ruled areas, and 2012 promises to be a quite a year for Israel.

By all accounts, 2011 was a relatively introspective period for Israelis. Though Palestinians in Gaza sent plenty of rockets into southern Israel, as well as representatives to the UN, the fact that there was no major war enabled the public to focus on domestic issues like the high cost of living, the distribution of wealth, and religious coercion.

Inspired perhaps by the popular uprisings in the Arab world, ordinary Israelis pitched tents in the country’s parks and demanded a larger slice of the Israeli dream: lower taxes, affordable housing and stipends for young people who serve their country.

Tempers also flared over the attempts by haredi extremists’ to marginalize women by forcing them to the back of public buses, questioning their right to sing at public events and erasing their images from advertisements.

Assuming the security situation doesn’t deteriorate, the trend toward introspection will likely continue, says Yossi Klein Halevi, a Hartman Institute fellow.

In the past year, Halevi said, Israelis made a “conceptual breakthrough” in confronting longstanding domestic problems. If Israel doesn’t find itself in a major war, “that process will deepen,” and focus on two areas: the “imbalance” in the haredi relationship with the Israeli mainstream, and the growing difficulty of the Israeli middle class to maintain a reasonable standard of living.

“The wild card, of course, is Iran and the growing threat of Islamists in the Middle East generally,” Halevi said.

The challenge for Israel, he believes, “is to face external threats which are potentially existential in the short term, without losing its ability to continue the conversation about our domestic problems, some of which are potentially existential in the long term.”

David Passig, the head of the communications and information technology program at Bar Ilan University and author of “The Future Code,” believes that Iran is at the top of the Israeli worry list.

“Most Israelis are very, very, very much concerned. The feeling in the street is that something is about to happen. Something huge. Before the Six-Day War, there was the same feeling.”

Passig wouldn’t be surprised if Israel attacks Iran in the coming months. Nor would he be shocked if Iran and its allies, Hezbollah and Syria, attempt a preemptive strike using conventional weapons.

“I’m talking about hundreds of rockets daily over a very long period,” he said, ruling out nuclear weapons.

If that happens, Passig said, with a flair for understatement, “everything else that happens in 2012 will be colored by these events.”

While Stuart Schoffman, a journalist and fellow at the Hartman Institute thinks that Iran poses a real threat, he believes that threat is “in the forefront” of Israeli sensibilities partly because “the authorities have put it there. It is something that can be a unifying factor, a fear factor, and it is something that is impossible to prove wrong.”

Schoffman said that Israelis are increasingly drawn to social issues like corruption in the Prime Minister’s Office not only because they’re important to society, but also because they’re more palatable than, say, impending nuclear holocaust.

“When social issues are on the front page, it’s a relief because existential danger isn’t the top story,” he said. Having a “wider smorgasbord of news” helps Israelis believe they’re living in a “normal” country.

Like a lot of Israelis, Schoffman is waiting to see whether Israel will hold elections this year.

If elections do take place this year, the process could bring some much-needed change. Or not.

“Is it possible the next Knesset will be even worse than this one?” Schoffman asked. “Is it possible the social protest movement will somehow transform itself into a viable political movement? Will there emerge some charismatic leader beyond the ‘same old same old’ with something serious and productive to say?”

While one can dream, Schoffman has no illusions about Israel suddenly becoming a more tolerant country, particularly with regard to religious pluralism.

“I think the Orthodox hegemony in Israeli politics and culture is deeply rooted.”

And the fact that this is a source of contention with American Jews, the majority of whom aren’t Orthodox, “is not very high on the Israeli political and social agenda,” Schoffman said, clearly frustrated.

Yossi Alpher, coeditor of the political website bittterlemons.net, says overall U.S.-Israel relations should remain “on an even keel” because President Obama won’t risk alienating Jewish voters so close to Election Day.

Alpher also thinks Benjamin Netanyahu is eager to hold elections before Americans go to the polls, not least because he needs a “vote of confidence” from the Israeli public in the event Obama is re-elected.

“He’s afraid a reelected Obama will be tougher on Israel because the president’s hands won’t be tied by domestic considerations,” Alpher says.

Alpher refused to speculate on whether Netanyahu might feel emboldened to strike Iran at a time when objections from Obama could cost the president vital votes.

The analyst did, however, predict that the Israeli government “will continue to be very cautious” toward Middle East countries in the midst of political and social upheaval.

This despite the fact that, Syria, which shares a border with Israel, has descended into chaos.

“What concerns me is that Israel, to my mind, has an interest in the downfall of the Assad regime” because it would deal a blow to Iran’s penetration in the region and could weaken Hezbollah in Lebanon.

At the same time, Alpher said, Assad’s ouster could lead to a flood of Syrian refugees into the Golan Heights, and a Syrian civil war. Things Israel clearly doesn’t want.

“The general inclination is to stay out of it and hope for the best,” Alpher said.

With the exception of such benign actions as working with the Egyptians to keep smugglers and refugees out of Sinai, or meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah to boost the Arab leader’s prestige, Israeli will do its best to butt out, Alpher predicted.

Adrenaline junkies though they are, most Israelis are hoping for a relatively quiet year, where housing prices, not bomb shelters, are the top headline-makers. ◆