There are times when you really want to tear your hair out in frustration. The phrase “once-in-a-century” often sounds like a cliché, but these are not ordinary times. The opportunity now facing Israel is truly a once-in-a-century opportunity. Letting it slip would be unforgivable.
After a full century, the borders of the Middle East are moving. A number of processes that are happening now give Israel the chance to entrench its existence in the region for generations to come. The utter indifference and recalcitrance being demonstrated by the Israeli government in relation to this opportunity is beyond comprehension.
In the 1950s and ‘60s, under prime ministers Ben-Gurion and Eshkol, Israel – which did not yet have nuclear capability, a strong air force or economic power – made its presence felt in the region and took part in shaping it, in the way reserved for historic civilizations. Reuven Shiloah, the first director of the Mossad, Tzuri Sagi, who helped lead the Kurdish revolt, and many other emissaries played key roles in shaping the region. In Iran, Turkey, Ethiopia, Kurdistan, and Africa, Israeli vision and optimism were a model for an activist policy out to shape the future.
With its present-day economic and security might, Israel could have taken steps to ensure its survival for generations and to shape the region’s borders in a way that is optimal from its perspective.
The collapse of the colonial borders of Iraq and Syria; the chance of establishing an independent Kurdistan – a country for the world’s biggest stateless nation, which is also a true friend of Israel and the democratic world; the threats of radical Islam, which are spurring most of the Arabs to pursue life and stability; the determination of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states to stabilize the region in the face of the threats of religious messianism – all these developments create a tremendous opportunity to re-draw the region’s borders, with Kurdistan, Palestine and stable nation-states; with security and graduated arrangements, which are now understood by leading countries like Egypt as being vital to the creation of a barrier against religious violence.
Participation in the stabilization of the region could double Israel’s GNP, open up vast markets and fulfill the yearnings of most young Israelis for a relatively egalitarian welfare state. The regional need to anchor these Israeli capabilities – military, intelligence, economic and Jewish-international – is existential.
And what are Israel’s leaders doing with this once-in-a-century opportunity? What, aside from settlements, anti-democratic legislation and sinking into more racism and messianism? What, aside from turning a spiteful back to the West and this regional opportunity? Nothing.
The movie “Chinatown” concludes with the line: “Do as little as possible.” Under Netanyahu, that motto is being conveyed to the army, the Mossad, the Shin Bet, the police and the State Prosecutor. Don’t show initiative. Don’t be active in the region. Don’t think big. Function only technically. A clear majority of former high-ranking security officials – as well as many who are currently serving – are tearing their hair out. In private conversations, nearly to a man, they cannot fathom how Israel is letting itself disappear into the world of the settlements, paralyzed before the chance-of-a-century.
Time has a unique dynamic. It was only a moment ago, that Obama counted Erdogan among the five world leaders closest to him - just days before his extremism became apparent and the Americans shifted to cooperating with his rivals, the Kurds. This dynamic presents a tremendous opportunity for the nation that Israel was meant to be. But Netanyahu’s Israel remains petrified in its corner.
Netanyahu uses the regional desire for cooperation with Israel only to expand settlements and deepen the country’s racism, for there is no one in the region to pressure him now. It’s as if Ben-Gurion had used the period following the Holocaust and the disintegration of colonialism to intensify his struggle against the Irgun, rather than to focus on establishing the state. The current failure to grasp the opportunity at hand is as egregious as all that.