Israel marks its birthday with hope and anxiety

Israel marks its birthday with hope and anxiety

Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

Springtime in Israel is an emotional rollercoaster ride. The joy of Pesach is followed less than a week later by Yom Hashoa which, in turn, is followed a week later by Yom Hazikaron, the somber day of remembrance for the soldiers who fell in defense of the land of Israel. That is followed immediately by the exuberant Yom Ha’atz maut, Israel Independence Day. All the domestic and international political issues, as well as the relatively mundane matters of governmental malfeasance, corruption, and religious polarization, take a back seat, as Israel’s leaders and the people reflect — consciously or not — on Israel’s very existence and Jewish history.

The 10,000-pound gorillas, nevertheless, still stalk about the country. Iran, Hizbullah, Hamas, tunnels in Gaza, and saber-rattling throughout the region are never far away. Throughout its 62-year history, Israel has rarely had time when there were not fears and anxieties looming in the background.

If Israel ever thought that the United States was serious about a policy toward Iran — following a failed diplomatic initiative — the leak of a memorandum circulated by Defense Secretary Robert Gates last winter put the kibosh on that illusion. Congress continues to press the fight for serious sanctions against Iran, without any sense of whether they are merely blowing air to lift a non-existent policy. From Israel’s perspective as well as that of the more objective observers, it appears that Iran will not be stopped from gaining nuclear capability, perhaps within months.

The recent arms disarmament conference in Washington did not produce the further marginalization of Israel that had been feared. It also did not achieve much more than some token gestures toward arms reductions and a symbolic commitment to continue pursuit of Iranian sanctions. It also reinforced the message that the Obama administration knows it cannot stop Iran without a major initiative, one with at least tacit Saudi support and meaningful cooperation from China and Russia.

The recent allegations that Syria has delivered Scud-D artillery missile supplies and launchers to its Iranian-backed Hizbullah allies in Lebanon pose two distinct dangers to Israel. First, Hizbullah is tempting Israel to re-enter into a conflict in Lebanon, this time against missiles whose range would include both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Second, Hizbullah is warning Israel that if it opts to attack Iran’s nuclear sites, Hizbullah will retaliate on its benefactor’s behalf.

Hamas also appears to be ratcheting up the tension on the border with Israel. Reports say Hamas has been receiving more sophisticated weapons through the tunnels along the Egypt-Gaza border. If so, Hamas now can target more of southern Israel; it, too, presents Israel with dual threats. If Israel seeks to respond to intermittent attacks from Hamas terrorists, it may become vulnerable to more destructive reprisals. In addition, Iran will undoubtedly urge its Hamas client to be prepared to attack Israel with these longer-range missiles should Israel attack Iran’s nuclear sites.

Israeli contacts with the Palestinian Authority is at a public standstill, and settlers and Palestinians have been clashing sporadically in the West Bank. PA relations with Hamas do not appear to be warming at all, suggesting an ultimate showdown between the rival Palestinian factions in Israel’s backyard.

All of this is occurring while the physical health and political future of President Hosni Mubarak remains unclear and foreboding, as Egypt contemplates its version of free elections in 2011.

Amidst this turmoil and uncertainty, one might have expected that the Netanyahu government would have moved more constructively to resolve its differences with the Obama administration, lest any of the potential concerns move to a more heightened level. Such moves would require a willingness by Netanyahu to take some serious domestic political heat himself, but his potential political rewards could be dramatic. At home, it presents a major political challenge, but the international upside could be significant.

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