As Jews around the world prepare to celebrate Rosh Hashanah - the Jewish New Year of 5773, it is probably fair to say that many of us have significant concerns about the coming year and in particular the situation that Israel is currently facing.
Events throughout the region over the past year have demonstrated yet again that Israel resides in a very unstable and dangerous neighbourhood. The emergence of an Islamic government in Egypt, with its volatile and often hostile rhetoric has led to a heightened level of security on Israel’s southern border and accompanying sense of deep concern.
Events unfolding in Libya, Syria, Afghanistan and other parts of the Middle East have all reinforced the idea that Israel really is an island of democracy and western values in a sea of dark, hostile regimes. As Caroline Glick recently suggested in the Jerusalem Post, many liberals held the optimistic view that these regimes would be “liberated” and would choose freedom in their new transformed governing structures. But this hope has not turned to reality. In fact, even Turkey, a country that once was the example of a true Muslim democracy, seems headed in the other direction. For all the talk of an “Arab Spring” in Egypt, there is no sign that Egypt will be emerging from winter weather any time soon even though summer and early fall temperatures may regularly pass 40 C.
Of course, above all else, the Israeli government, the Israeli press and much of the world media have been consumed with the ongoing threat posed by Iran and the best way for Israel to address it.
There is no easy solution here. Prime Minister Netanyahu has been pushing for a “red line” threat to be presented by the world to Iran, beyond which the world community would take military action to prevent Iran from realizing its nuclear ambitions.
On the one hand, Israel has every reason to be concerned. Iranian leader Ahmadinejad has vowed to destroy Israel and has repeatedly called for its elimination. He has called Israel “a cancer” on the body of the world that needs to be removed. Iran has certainly shown in the past that it is not averse to suicidal missions that could result in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of its citizens if this is viewed as justifiable. Should Israel simply dismiss his rhetoric as that of a madman? This could be a very dangerous miscalculation, as history has shown. This is a very real, existential issue for Israel.
On the other hand, it is not clear that Israel would be able to carry out a successful attack on all of Iran’s nuclear facilities at this time, even with U.S. help, if such help was forthcoming. This does not appear to be the same type of situation that Israel faced in dealing with Iraq’s nuclear reactor in Osirak, Iraq in 1981 or the alleged attack by Israel on the Syrian nuclear project in September 2007. Iran supposedly has many different sites, spread out throughout the country and hidden deep below the ground. These sites have purportedly been designed to repel traditional air attacks.
Moreover, if Israel were successful, it is far from clear that such success would translate into a significant delay in Iran’s nuclear capabilities. Perhaps Israel would gain a year or two or more, but Iran might also redouble its efforts with increased aid from sympathetic countries. As well, Israel could face massive reprisal attacks from a range of sources. Israel had a very difficult time defending itself from rocket attacks in the 2006 war with Lebanon. This time around, the attacks could be far more severe.
Radio talk shows have filled the airwaves in Israel with discussions of possible consequences. One radio show I was listening to was hosting former Israeli generals to discuss competing estimates of potential Israeli casualties in the event of an attack on Iran. The estimates ranged from 300-400 Israelis killed in a “highly successful attack and defence strategy” to tens of thousands in a less successful operation.
Another radio show appealed to the black humour of the Israeli public which is often necessary for those of us living here. Callers were asked to come up with an appropriate code name for the eventual military operation to be undertaken. This show was a few months ago, just after the holiday of Purim (which is said to have taken place in ancient Persia (i.e. Iran). Callers were suggesting names like “Operation Avenge Esther,” “Operation Crush the Hamentaschen” or “Operation Ra’ashan” (a noise maker used on Purim to blot out the name of the evil villain of the story, Haman). Even though the callers were trying to be humourous, one could still sense the readily apparent level of unease.
More recently, much has been made of the apparent rift between Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and U.S. President Obama, particularly over the very issue of whether to proceed with an attack on Iran. Many have suggested that Netanyahu is openly interfering with the current U.S. election campaign by attempting to call attention to President Obama’s failure to give Israel a green light (at least publicly) to proceed with an operation against Iran. Indeed, Netanyahu often seems to be echoing the sentiments of Republican candidate Mitt Romney who claimed that President Obama has “thrown Israel under the bus.”
But President Obama’s record vis a vis Israel is not nearly as negative as one might believe from listening to the words of Prime Minister Netanyahu or Presidential candidate Mitt Romney. In many respects, U.S.-Israeli cooperation in military, economic and technological spheres is the strongest it has ever been. While it is somewhat disconcerting that President Obama has not visited Israel during his first term in office (even while visiting Egypt), it is far from clear that the U.S. President must be seen as supporting every policy of the current Israeli Prime Minister to be viewed as a close friend and ally. In fact, quite a number of Israelis do not agree with many of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s policies. Many Israelis feel that Prime Minister Netanyahu has gone out of his way to try embarrass President Obama and to push for the election of Romney.
While some Israelis might accept Prime Minister Netanyahu’s assessment of President Obama’s views of Israel, it appears that American Jews are remaining supportive of President Obama. According to a Gallup poll released this week, some 70% of American Jews are expected to vote for President Obama in the upcoming elections. While this may signify the fact that American Jews overwhelmingly support more liberal positions on a range of social issues – and these are the issues that dominate an American presidential election campaign, it may also indicate that American Jews still believe that Obama will be fine for Israel in the long run. Many Israelis (and American Jews) would count Democratic President Bill Clinton as one of the best friends that Israel ever had in the White House. On the other hand, Republican President Ronald Reagan was a tremendous friend of the Saudi Arabian regime, perhaps more so than with Israel. It is far from clear that President Bush’s policies (either one of the two presidents) left Israel in a safer, more secure or more stable situation in the Middle East.
Hopefully, despite all of the posturing by Prime Minister Netanyahu, the Israeli-U.S. relationship will continue to be a close, strategic relationship between friends, irrespective of who wins the White House in November. And hopefully, these friends will continue to work together on an urgent basis to come up with the best way of preventing Iran from fulfilling its nuclear ambitions. It may well be that military leaders have a detailed plan for a pending attack that will meet all of its objectives successfully. Or perhaps, there will be other ways to achieve this result.
That’s a lot to hope for at Rosh Hashanah, along with our hopes for peace throughout the Middle East and the rest of the world. But I do believe that we have to be optimistic, even while being realistic and being prepared for a whole range of possible scenarios.
A happy and healthy New Year to all. Shana Tova.