In my most recent note I put tongue in cheek and described Israel as an island of quiet in a region roiled by violence and potentially worse.
Now I must take the tongue out of my cheek and ponder the implications of our own roiling.
It comes not from the guns of January but the manipulations of politicians. Defense Minister and Labor Party Chair Ehud Barak left his party along with four of his Knesset colleagues to create a new party they call Independence.
What remains of the Labor Party Knesset delegation may yet split in two. The once mighty party that ruled Israel gained only a bit more than 10 percent of the votes in the most recent election, and polls from before the current swirling indicated it getting about half of that in the next election.
Most commentators are focusing on the personalities involved, and dumping on Barak as a self-centered politician who thinks only of preserving his position in the fluid Netanyahu government. The Labor MK's Barak left behind represent the party's left wing. They moved themselves out of the Netanyahu government, so it shifts to the right. Some are saying that the greatest beneficiary is Avigdor Lieberman, and calling him the effective prime minister.
The local and international left has said that Lieberman is the greatest threat to Israeli peace and democracy. It labels as "McCarthyism" his proposal to investigate the international funding of Israeli civil rights organizations.
There is some truth in all of these commentaries, but I see more in what has happened.
I begin with the crumbling of the Israeli left. Labor and Meretz together managed only 16 out of 120 Knesset seats in the most recent election. Notice that I do not count the Arab parties as part of the relevant left. They render themselves insignificant by obsessing about 1948 (the creation of Israel) or 1917 (the Balfour Declaration).
While loyal socialists and peaceniks assign the left's weakness to a "lack of leadership," I'm inclined to focus on the international drift away from socialism and Israeli frustration with Arabs who call themselves partners for peace, but aspire to turn the calendar back to 1967, 1948, or 1917.
I may be seeing what I would like to see in the comments of others, but I perceive in Hillary Clinton's recent statements, and silence from the White House that ranking Americans also feel frustration with Mahmoud Abbas and his colleagues. The Obama peace drive has not worked for the same basic reasons that the Clinton-Barak initiative of 2000 did not work, and the Olmert initiative of 2008 did not work.
The international left composed of European, North American, and Israeli academics, assorted activists and some politicians may not accept my view of what is happening. Recent endorsements of Palestine in Latin America strike me as the latest signs of that region's comic opera. Rumblings in Europe and posturing in the United Nations may become more serious, but so far are not much more than lip service.
Nervousness about Tunis, Lebanon, Iran, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Pakistan, as well as North Korea strike me as worthy of more thought than domestic maneuvering in Israel.
A Russian friend describes Avigdor Lieberman as a gangster, but he voted for his party and challenges anyone who says that his comments about Arabs are inaccurate.
Lieberman's principal constituency, but not all of his votes come from the million Russian-speakers who have arrived since 1988. Another of my Russian friends is closer to Meretz than Lieberman, and some have donned kipot and vote with the Religious Zionists or the ultra-Orthodox. For the most part, however, it is fair to equate Lieberman with the Russians.
Their votes have made him Foreign Minister, but not exactly. Netanyahu is sensitive to Lieberman's reception, and has kept him away from the heavy stuff dealing with the United States and Western Europe. Netanyahu has also paid attention to the commotion surrounding Lieberman's proposal to investigate the funding of left-wing NGOs (non-governmental organizations). If the prime minister allows that proposal to move through the Knesset, it will most likely be broadened to include an inquiry of international funding of all Israeli NGOs. Involved in that semantic change might be Irving Moskowitz, the man from Miami who is paying for those Jewish settlers in the hostile Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem. His actions may be legal in both Israel and the United States (leaving open the question of whether he is claiming them as legitimate tax deductions), but he is causing at least as much trouble for us as the civil rights organization B'tselem.
Stay tuned. The future is not yet here.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem