Response to Fire Illuminates Israel’s Many Political Challenges



One of the reactions of Israelis to the fact that their government called on the international community for assistance to combat the Carmel Forest fire is a sense of shame. After all, Israel is a leader in the high-tech world and an innovator in dealing with crisis situations. But the nation had to admit that it just wasn't capable of dealing with the furious blaze alone.

For some in Israel, there is a reluctance to admit that Israel is not isolated, that not everyone is against it. The willingness of nations to rush to Israel's side, including the Turks and the Palestinians, challenged this assumption.

When Yitzhak Rabin became prime minister in 1992, his inaugural address suggested that Israelis needed to get beyond the notion that everyone was against them. He argued that this was neither accurate nor productive, as it led to distorted policies. Some hailed him for those comments, while others condemned him.

So how does the response to the fire illuminate these issues in our own time?

I would argue that there are two parallel tracks, both of which need to be understood and factored into policymaking.

First is the dangerous process of delegitimization campaigns against Israel that are gaining momentum around the world. Boycotts of Israel by trade unions, universities and entertainers seem to pop up daily. Israeli officials refrain from visiting certain countries lest they be arrested on war-crimes charges. The U.N.'s Goldstone Report questions Israel's right to self-defense.

Israel is often compared to the South African apartheid regime or even to the Nazis. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad openly calls for Israel's disappearance without any repercussions. And the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva focuses most of its attention on condemning alleged Israeli violations of human rights, as opposed to the actions of other nations.

As a result, there are grounds for concluding that the world has turned against Israel in ways that even suggest a heavy dose of anti-Semitism within it. It is no longer the individual Jew who is the target of anti-Semitism, some argue, but the collective Jew through the assault on the Jewish state. And it is argued, with some reason, that it is not particular Israeli policies, but Israel's very existence that is the problem for many of its critics.

The picture, however, is more complicated, and the response of many nations to Israel's plea for help during the fire suggests the tip of this complexity. Beyond it's special relationship with the United States, Israel also has excellent bilateral ties with other countries, including some that routinely vote against it.

Even in the Arab world, things are not so simple.

It is true that what we all want — acceptance by Arab leaders of the legitimacy of the Jewish state in the Mideast — has not been achieved. Still, there is much more acceptance of the reality that Israel is here to stay. Indeed, Ahmadinejad harps on the idea that Israel will disappear in an effort to get the Arabs to turn back the clock to a time when they not only rejected Israel's legitimacy, but envisioned ways to achieve its demise.

Arab acceptance of Israel's reality is not insignificant because it forces the grappling of how to deal with an entity that's here to stay. Former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's response to that reality after the Yom Kippur War was to make peace.

We see these changes as well in the WikiLeaks documents: Arab leaders such as the king of Saudi Arabia and the crown prince of Bahrain focusing on the Iranian threat, and understanding the common interest Israel and moderate Arabs have in containing the rogue nation.

And now comes the Carmel Forest fire. The fact that both Turkey and the Palestinian Authority provided assistance to Israel is important. It does not negate the problematic aspects of Turkish and Palestinian policies toward Israel. But it should alert Israeli leaders to openings, to shades of gray, to possibilities that things don't always have to remain the same, to the idea that resentment can also be overcome.

The great challenge for supporters of Israel in the period ahead is not to lose sight of either of the two tracks. Israel faces great dangers, and we must do all we can to combat them. But there are opportunities as well, and the mark of leadership is to explore them and seed them, while never ignoring the landmines that lie beside them.

Abraham H. Foxman is national director of the Anti-Defamation League. His latest book is Jews and Money: The Story of a Stereotype.


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