In pop culture parlance, Israel is entering its “tiger blood” phase. Readers will most likely remember last spring’s schadenfreude celebrity of the moment, Charlie Sheen, who delighted voyeurs with drug-addled pronouncements like, “I have a different constitution. I have a different brain. I have a different heart. I got tiger blood, man.” Obviously, undone by addiction, Sheen publicly destroyed his credibility before CBS officials finally fired him from the smash hit show Two and A Half Men.
In 2012, Israel is the one with “tiger blood,” a nation so riven with internal issues it cannot identify and avoid impending catastrophe. Rather than solve the nation’s primary existential threat – the ongoing occupation of the Palestinian West Bank – secular and ultra-Orthodox Israelis feud.
Known in Israel as the Haredim, the ultra-Orthodox have grown from a tiny minority of a few hundred in 1948 to comprising nearly 10 percent of the total population, and this figure is projected to rise to 33 percent in the next 50 years. Clad in long black coats, hats, and side locks for men and hair coverings for women, the Haredim practice a vigorously conservative form of Judaism. Indeed, the Haredi reject the Israeli state because the Messiah has yet to return.
As their numbers burgeon, the ultra-Orthodox increasingly push their beliefs upon secular Israelis. From stoning buses running on the Sabbath to spitting upon an 8-year old for dressing like a “prostitute,” secular-Haredi clashes occur so regularly that the ultra-Orthodox organized a December protest. Dressing their children in Holocaust-style, striped uniforms complete with a Star of David patch, the Haredi claimed seculars threaten their lifestyle by refusing to adhere to their customs.
Meanwhile, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict not only drags on, but the two sides are not even negotiating. The linchpin to the Arab-Israeli conflict and much of the region’s discord, the two-state solution is also the key to Israel’s long-term viability. Surrounded by more populous Arab states seething with anger over the occupation, Israel simply must broker a two-state solution and establish normal relations with its neighbors.
Unlike CBS executives and Charlie Sheen, America possesses the power and influence to push our wayward ally into “treatment,” or in the words of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, back to “the damn [negotiating] table.” As someone who lives in Jordan every summer and visits Israel and Palestine annually, I not only support Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state but understand their trepidations about the peace process, their Palestinian partners, and the wider Arab (and Persian) world. However, every day Israel does not broker a two-state solution, the situation grows more fraught.
If demography is destiny, then Israel faces significant internal and external turmoil. From Shi'a militants funded by Iran to the growing ranks of Hamas and the newly empowered Egyptian Islamists, the forces of Arab moderation are not on the march. Likewise, the proportion of Israelis who support a two-state solution is also shrinking. With the ultra-Orthodox and secular Russian population expanding, in a few generations the “Greater Israel” hardliners, those who want the West Bank for Jewish settlement, will comprise a majority of the population.
In the face of these harsh demographic realities, the U.S. must pressure Israel, as never before, to the negotiating table. To receive even grudging acceptance by Palestinians, a viable land-for-peace deal must include East Jerusalem and painful concessions, which could endanger Israel’s short-term security. In democracies, this sort of diplomatic arrangement is tantamount to political suicide. However, direct, concerted American political pressure can offer political cover for Israeli politicians to make the hard choice for a viable future.
The plucky, kibbutznik, labor-Zionist Israel of yore no longer exists. Today, Israelis boast the region’s most dynamic economy and an extraordinarily vigorous technology sector. Even David Ben-Gurion, that most far-sighted of Zionist founders, would be amazed by his progeny’s prowess. The founding myth and legacy of Israel’s precarious existence resonates with today’s Israelis. Today, many still think of themselves as a weak and besieged people surrounded by strong enemies. They might be bordered by Arabs seething with resentment, but Israel’s power vis-à-vis its neighbors offers the nation a significant security advantage enjoyed by few nations anywhere on the globe.
The time for a brokered Israeli-Palestinian peace deal has never been worse, nor has it ever been more vital. In 2013, the newly inaugurated president should place the conflict at the top of his agenda. The American Jewish vote be damned, the White House should employ all of its diplomatic, economic, and political leverage toward establishing a two-state solution — sometimes a friend sees your interests better than you do yourself, right Charlie?
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