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It’s a New World, Bibi

July 6, 2009
The Jerusalem Post Internet Edition

Jul. 2, 2009

I wouldn’t be surprised if Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu were thinking of Tevye these days. Tevye was, after all, a quasi-pathetic character simply trying to make sense of a world changing far more quickly than he might have ever imagined possible. Having granted his daughter, Hodel, permission to marry Perchik the pauper, he wonders, “What am I going to tell your mother?” He didn’t choose Perchik, and he doesn’t really approve. But he is powerless. And when his wife expresses her dismay, the best explanation he can offer is “It’s a new world, Golde.”fiddlerontheroof

“It’s a new world, Golde” is not a claim that Perchik is the right man for Hodel. Or that he’ll ever make a real living. It’s simply a claim that the rules have changed. And in a world with new rules, people must learn to act and respond differently. Tevye never says that, of course. But he is simple, not stupid; and he intuitively understands that he is going to have to learn to navigate his world in an entirely different way.

Tevye is a not entirely inapt metaphor for Israel. We’re living in world operating according to rules that we’re just beginning to understand. Convinced of the legitimacy of at least much of our position, for years we ignored the warning signs that the world was turning on us, that it has grown tired of the conflict in the Middle East, and that it believes we are the reason the conflict will not subside.

The world didn’t change overnight. We simply weren’t watching.

NOW THERE is no more denying the new ground rules. Barack Obama is not really changing them. Perhaps he is shifting America’s position, perhaps not. But more than anything, he is simply articulating infinitely more clearly than anyone else has what it is that the world has come to believe. And we are going to have to learn to operate not in the world we wish existed, but in the world that does exist. And in this new world, Israel is going to be held to standards that are infinitely less tolerant than the standards to which the rest of the world is accountable.

Consider, after all, events of just the past few weeks. In the aftermath of the Iranian election, much of the world watched with admiration and hope as Iranians took to the streets to insist on their (supposed) democratic rights. When the Iranian government resorted to intimidation, silencing of the press, force and then murder, the world was horrified – but it was also quiet. Where were the mass rallies across Europe and on those North American campuses where students were still to be found calling for Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to back down? Where were the heads of state clamoring to get in front of television cameras calling for a new election? To be sure, the world was unhappy, but this was hardly an outpouring of support or of condemnation.

Compare that to the world’s reaction to the Gaza operation half a year ago. To be sure, the circumstances were entirely different. Iran’s election is an internal matter, while the Gaza op was not. And other differences abound. But Israel was responding to eight years of shelling of its citizens in what is undisputedly its territory (unless one disputes the notion that any territory is legitimately ours – which, in fact, is exactly Hamas’ position); nonetheless, even before the urban warfare began, the world was unanimous and vocal that the operation had to end.

An almost deadening silence in one instance. And deafening outcries of excessive force in the other. Welcome to the new world.

OR SUPPOSE that some number of Israeli Arab women decided that they were going to wear the burka as a means of intensifying their personal religious odyssey. And that in response to their decision, Netanyahu said, “In our country, we cannot accept that women be prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity,” or that “the burka is not a religious sign, it’s a sign of subservience, a sign of debasement – I want to say it solemnly, it will not be welcome on the territory of the State of Israel.” One can just imagine the world’s outcry, the accusations of religious oppression, comparisons with apartheid South Africa or, yes, Nazi Germany. But substitute “the Republic of France” for State of Israel, and you have precisely French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s words this week – again, to a relatively silent international community of listeners.

Or finally, recall Obama’s twisting in the wind as he came to realize that his outstretched hand to Iran was not going to be shaken as warmly as he’d allowed himself to imagine. Eventually, he gave in to enormous pressure to criticize the Iranian regime’s repressive measures. But his criticism was tepid – he couldn’t get over his fundamental sense that the world ought not meddle in Iran’s internal affairs. A few days later, however, the press reported that Sarkozy had told Netanyahu that it was time to dump Avigdor Lieberman and restore Tzipi Livni. Sarkozy’s advice, apparently, is considered moving peace forward. Obama’s suggesting that Iran recount the vote would be meddling.

THERE’S NO point railing against a double standard that no one is even inclined to deny. Right or wrong, for better or for worse, we need to adapt. Israel is going to have to learn to get ahead of the curve. Had Netanyahu’s speech at Bar-Ilan University, by most accounts a very good speech, preceded Obama’s Cairo address, Israel would have been throwing down the gauntlet, challenging the Palestinians to recognize the Jewish state and to live in peace beside it. But coming when they did, Netanyahu’s remarks were essentially seen as caving in to Obama – too little, too late. That’s what has to change.

In this new world, the spotlight will almost always be on Israel. Settlement building. Roadblocks. Lieberman. We’re going to have to learn to alter that. Make some accommodations, but demand – clearly and unequivocally – that the Palestinians do the same. Netanyahu, or whoever follows him, is going to have to learn to keep the ball, and the world’s attention, squarely in and on their court. Like it or not, Israel needs to take the initiative, time and time again – because nothing else will work.

“It’s a new world, Bibi,” Tevye would have said. We don’t have to like it. And it may not be fair, or just. But as we are wont to say, “zeh mah yesh” – it is what it is. As Tevye understood, we can either adapt, exerting at least some control over our fates, or we can wistfully long for days when other rules prevailed, even as we get swept away by currents we’ve barely begun to comprehend.

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