Israel is small. An obvious statement to make, a resoundingly reductive one from an American fresh out of the states, and perhaps an unnecessary reiteration of basic fact, but a statement I have just made. And a pervasive reality in the way Israel operates.
Israel is small in size of course, which is why the intractable conflict between Palestinians and Jews drags so long. But it’s also small in the way things work, as if the sort of soundstages from which America has exported its slick culture haven’t quite been built up as smoothly in Israel, so that you can see the wires from which the angels fly, the cameramen behind the screen, and the clumsy movements of the actors on and off screen.
It is inevitable that a population of 7.3 million will feel compact, as if you might run into Defense Minister Ehud Barak on the street someday and not blink. In fact, one drives by Barak’s high-rise apartment in North Tel Aviv on main highways. Without tremendous pull and with a little bit of patience and luck, a high school senior can get an interview with President Shimon Peres.
But then there is the smallness of the way the government and political parties operate. The way the war, while launched in response to the ending of a cease-fire set up long before President Obama was an inevitability, wrapped itself up tidily just before his inauguration, down to the targeting of his swearing-in ceremony as the deadline to pull out the troops. The way two of the three major parties held political primaries marred by computer breakdowns (Kadima dodged this bullet, but they also were the last party in line). The way Arab-baiting politician Avigdor Lieberman, of Yisrael Beiteinu is treated with kid gloves by his political rivals in other parties, for fear that calling him out will cost them their share of the valuable Russian vote. And then there’s the whole Arab party issue.
It’s not quite as simple as saying the Jews banned the Arab parties from the next elections out of hatred and a desire to keep the enemy down. While the Arab parties stormed out of the Central Election Committee vote to ban them chanting that Israel is, “a fascist, racist state,” there was at least a quasi-reasonable impetus for the call from Yisrael Beiteinu and another right wing party: some Arab members of the Knesset have been known to not only be sympathetic to Hamas, Hezbollah, and other “enemies of the state”, but were reported to have been in contact with those enemies. They’re also reported to have incited their constituency against this and other war efforts, and to unite in protest that at times turns violent.
Of course, that reminds the reader of plenty of other minority movements in the modern world, most obviously the Civil Rights movement in the U.S.A. that at least paved the way to our current president. If the Arabs were to manage a similar rise to near equity and open opportunity, perhaps the one-state solution wouldn’t look so imposing, and Israel would gain huge lumps of political capital, and all of a sudden the brilliant success of Israel over the last 60 years would look broader, more welcoming, and exemplary.
Instead, the country can barely see past its nose, barely past the next threat or the short term needs, which leads to three-week military poundings, Netanyahu’s return, and the banning of the main minority parties. It’s not so much that any of these decisions are on their own completely indefensible (though the last one approaches it); it’s that the big picture, the broader world’s perception, and the collection of these leanings to the right, to fear, and to paranoia all combine to make the general situation in Israel an unpromising, unpleasant one.
And it’s not just Netanyahu, for that matter: Tzipi Livni still flits back and forth between pragmatic diplomacy and militaristic posturing, and Barak, while certainly capable as a Defense Minister, has no one’s trust for the big picture. There is no uniting outsider force that can take Israel to a better place, whether through peace or through some cohesive security policy.
The country seems untroubled by its increasing international isolation, an attitude perhaps born out of 60 years of making it work underneath improbable, impossible circumstances. If we’ve made it this far, goes the thinking, who the hell is going to stop us? And why change what we’re doing?
The smallness permeates the region, there’s no denying that. Hamas’s efforts to declare victory while still trumpeting their tragedy, the constant side-choosing between Egypt and Syria, and Hezbollah’s saber-rattling, all part and parcel to the region’s problems. But Israel relies on its democratic roots, its troubled past, and its supposed moral superiority to act in a strong and bold way to protect itself. Those grounds are challenged when they go as far as to bar the main representatives to the minorities in their own country.
Kernels of hope exist. For one, the ban was quickly overturned. A recent poll suggests that the majority of Israelis want peace. And then there’s everybody’s favorite deus ex machina, President Obama, who might just swoop in and impose peace on all of us. Considering the candidates for Israeli PM are approaching a “six in one basket, half dozen in the other” phase, this may be our only hope, the only change to believe in, and the only way to break us out of our smallness. Which leaves us fighting for our turn in line along with the rest of the world.