Saturday, December 26, 2009

For Israel, Good Prospects in 2010

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By Barry Rubin

In contrast to my rather gloomy assessment of the Obama Administration’s prospects in the Middle East, Israel’s prospects look rather good. This is granted, of course, that the chances for any formal peace (note the word “formal”) with the Arab states or the Palestinians are close to zero. In addition there are two longer-term threats in the form of Iranian nuclear weapons and Islamists one day taking over one or more Arab states.

But let’s enjoy ourselves while we can. It’s also important to remember in the Middle East, optimism does not mean forecasting blue skies but merely ones only lightly overcast.

It’s funny, though, how much better Israel’s situation is than it’s generally perceived. Consider the pluses:

--The potential of a clash with the United States has been averted, most likely for the remainder of President Barack Obama’s term. All the lessons received by the United States in the region—to whatever extent it learned them—are favorable to Israel, showing how ready Israel is to help U.S. efforts at the same time as demonstrating how hard it is to get peace and how limited is the other’s side’s cooperation or flexibility. The possibility of U.S. rapprochement with Iran or Syria has been destroyed by the latter

--On the surface the situation with Israel looks dreadful but where it counts the support is sufficient. France, Germany, and Italy have friendly governments while in Britain an acceptably positive regime is about to be replaced by a warmer one. (It helps to have low expectations.)

--Despite their rhetoric, Palestinian Authority (PA) leaders are basically satisfied with the status quo. Their strategies for forcing more concessions from Israel without giving anything leave them smug but without prospects for success. The danger of a Hamas takeover has been averted. The economic situation on the West Bank is about as good as it’s ever been. And the PA rulers prefer to avoid renewed violence. That’s not nirvana but it ain’t bad either.

--Hizballah doesn’t want renewed war this year, seeking to carry out revenge terrorist attacks away from the Lebanon-Israel border. Hamas is probably cowed enough by the early 2009 fighting (outside observers still don’t realize the extent to which its gunmen broke, ran away, and hid behind civilians, but the Hamas leadership knows), though this can’t be taken for certain.

--While the international economic slump has hit Israel, the country has been more insulated than one might have dared hope from its negative effects. Its remarkable technical innovation on hi-tech, science, medical, and agricultural technology continues to make rapid progress.

--Israel has a government with a high level of popular support which really seems—after so much ineptness and ingenious plans that didn’t do much good—to be on track. There is, by Israeli standards, a high degree of national consensus.

--Iran still doesn’t have nuclear weapons.

That’s not at all a bad list. There are many who think that Israel cannot flourish, perhaps cannot even survive, without having formal peace with the Palestinians or perhaps also Syria and the Arabic-speaking world in general. This is simply untrue. The lack of a signed peace treaty with everyone (not to mention that such documents exist with Egypt and Jordan) is not the same as war. From the usual standards of no war, no peace this is a pretty good one.

Of course, there are negatives yet they really don’t amount to anywhere near as much as it seems on a superficial glance. The virtual defection of Turkey’s regime from the Western alliance (yes, it really is that bad) and the end of the special relationship between Jerusalem and Ankara is a bad thing. But the Turkish semi-Islamist rulers are restrained by their desire to play a role in regional peacemaking and not to make the Americans or Europeans too angry.

Most distressing of all is the noise. The virulent hatred of Israel by large sections of the American and especially European intelligentsia goes along with the endless outpouring of academic, media, and EU sniping can be dispiriting. Yet even here there is some silver lining. The more extreme and outright crackpot the attacks, the less credible they are. Public opinion polls, especially in the United States where they are through the roof, are not so bad. In addition, the lies and screaming have little material effect on the region itself. Something to worry about but don’t lose sleep.

What’s most important of all is this: A willingness to assess your problems accurately, guided by reasonable expectations. Not being crippled with ideology, blinded by misconceptions, swayed by bad international advice and the desire to be popular. And with determination and courage to implement policies that do the best with the hand you’ve been dealt.

If only others were doing the same thing, the world—and especially the Middle East—would be a better and more peaceful place.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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