Saturday, February 19, 2011

Hot Wind Blowing this Way

The skyline of Jerusalem never fails to stir my imagination on the looping ascent into the capital city. This Friday I imagined a Jerusalem divided in all but name, two capital cities facing off along the twin states of Israel and Palestine. A Jerusalem whose ancient heart is governed by international trustees. The Snake Path no longer simply a side entrance into the Old City but the ascent into an international realm like no other.

My imagination was stirred by a revealing piece by Bernard Avishai in the New York Times Magazine. Based on the proposals that former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas exchanged in the winter of 2008, Avishai maps out how little stands in the way of a viable peace deal. The settlement town of Ariel, the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem and the exact number of Arab refugees to repatriate to Israel are the only logistical issues that prevented a peace deal in late 2008.

Jerusalem was only the start of my mind games. Imagine how different my service would be if that deal had come to pass. Transforming written terms into on the ground reality, redrawing borders that my paratrooper predecessors had expanded over forty years ago, would be my main work as a soldier. Jewish settlers rather than Palestinian militants would likely be the central threat I faced in carrying out my duties.

Instead I am serving in an era of calm. Too calm, if you ask me. With fireworks erupting across the Near East, the respite in Israel increasingly looks like the lull before the storm. Palestinians cannot help but be inspired by the power their peers are taking into their own hands with mass rallies and popular violence in Egypt, Jordan, the Gulf states, Libya and no doubt Syria soon as well. If nothing happens earlier, the spark could very well come by early fall with Palestinian elections and a plan to unilaterally declare independence. Abbas suggests as much in Avishai’s write-up. “If nothing happens (by the fall), I will take a very, very painful decision,” Abbas said. “Until now I am committed to peace. But not forever.”


National pride is part of the reason that mass protests emerged in Egypt rather than Syria. Having visited and observed both countries, I can attest that nationalism is far more alive in Syria—thanks to defensive national attitude towards Lebanese politics and the West at large—than in the streets of Cairo.

Or at least it was. One consequence of the people’s revolt in Egypt is that the populist regime that emerges will rely far more on waving the flag than its predecessor. Firing up nationalist fervor is a rock solid way of shoring up regime support. The problem for Israel is that nothing plays so well for fiery nationalism like scapegoating and militaristic jingoism. Thirty years of frosty peace with Mubarak have done nothing to distract Egyptians, and the newly resurgent Muslim Brotherhood, from viewing Israel as the inveterate enemy. As liberals cheer the democratic impulse in the Arab Revolts, they would be wise to recall the angry nationalism that underlies the popular rage.

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