Israel. Aargh! My sixth grade social studies teacher (this was 1955) told us that he expected the problems in the Middle East would set off WW III. Basically, for my entire life, it has seemed as though he would be vindicated any day now. You might be thinking that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would be the most likely location today for the outbreak of a new world war. But I would remind you that Putin and Netanyahu are an interesting pair of leaders; they are frenemies in a way that keeps everyone guessing about where their relationship will go next.
A column by Tom Friedman in the Jan.17 NYT urges Biden to make it clear to Netanyahu that the US will not be Israel’s “useful idiot.” Why is he so vexed right now? He sees a political situation in Israel that could dramatically change the nature of the “only democracy in the Middle East.” He worries that Netanyahu will support ultra-conservative partisans in order to avoid the consequences of his own corrupt behavior. The fallout of adopting policies that further privilege orthodox and ultra-orthodox Jews over conservative, reform, and sectarian Jews, plus non-Jewish citizens of Israel, could precipitate a crisis within Israel that would force the US to seriously re-evaluate its relationship with the Jewish state.
I’m fascinated by Friedman’s confidence that Biden is the one person who could prevent Israel from going over this cliff. Perhaps he could talk some fundamentalist Islamic states into backing off their extremist policies while he’s at it. Meanwhile, we are left to watch from a distance and hope that Israel pulls back from the cliff of extremist policies.
But wait! What if Israel doesn’t pull back? Maybe there are some positive aspects of that scenario. At present, many people throughout the western world are concerned about the fate of the Palestinians in territories controlled by Israel, namely the West Bank and Gaza. A few decades ago, Americans still remembered that at the time Great Britain divided the area into Israel and Palestine, the Arabs in and around the territory refused to accept the division; most continue to reject the division today, yet many Americans continue to hope for a two-state solution to this now hopeless conflict. So: what if Israel doesn’t moderate its internal conflict? Might moderate Israelis leave rather than live within Orthodox constraints? Might the country simply implode with some version of a civil war? (That would be interesting because the Ultra-Orthodox do not serve in the military; they might wish they had taken basic training.) Might Israel’s supporters outside of Russia pull back and say, no, we’re not dragging ourselves into this conflict?
Is it possible that Israel will solve our problem for us? If it ceases to be the only democracy in the middle east, it could also cease to be our concern. Where would moderate Israelis go? I’d welcome them here. Most countries love moderate immigrants. Is another diaspora on the horizon?
While I don’t want Israel to disappear, I also don’t want to see it become an extreme religious state. I want Palestinians and other Arabs to support a two-state solution rather than continue to want Israel wiped off the map. I want the vision of a two-state solution to be viable again. Or maybe let’s just bring back the Ottoman Empire. Jews were accommodated in that era, and maybe that’s the best we can hope for.
If you’re interested in some short histories of the Jewish people and of Islam, here are some links: