The gathering of Holocaust deniers in Tehran—absurdly pretending to be revisionist “historians” and “scholars”—would have been the subject of rich comedy (the ayatollahs meet The Producers?) were not the underlying regional realities giving it a specific and sinister meaning. This was made explicit by the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and his government: namely, that by casting the veracity of the Holocaust in doubt, they seek also to raise a question mark over Israel’s right to exist. (Ahmadinejad unambiguously warned the rest of the world against the consequences of their continuing to support “the Zionist regime in Palestine.”) This prospect was sufficiently attractive to draw to Tehran a group of Neturei Karta activists, bringing their rabid anti-Zionist campaign to an all-time low and providing the eager media with the bizarre spectacle of a group of ultra-Orthodox Jews paying their respects to a Holocaust denier and would-be exterminator.
Ahmadinejad, indeed, used the podium to repeat his familiar assertion that Israel’s days are numbered, and it will soon go the way of the Soviet Union and depart the international scene. By God’s grace, he claimed, the trajectory of Israeli achievement and growth has already been reversed, and the trend of decline will now persist and accelerate. One may assume that both the Disengagement in the summer of 2005 and the Hezbollah War in Lebanon this summer served as proof, in his mind, that Israel is now weak and tired (a claim echoed by some of the language in the Baker-Hamilton report). But is he right?
There is ample evidence disproving the Iranian assertions. Clearly, economic indicators are of little value to the present Iranian leadership (as indeed they are bound to be, since judged by this aspect, the Iranian revolution itself—despite the recent relief provided by the steep rise in oil prices—is a disastrous economic and social failure). But to much of the rest of the world, they do tell a story, and offer robust evidence that Ahmadinejad’s predictions are misguided. In fact, Israel is now experiencing a remarkable period of achievement and growth.
There have been such periods before—in the 1960s, notably after the Six-Day War; and again in the 1990s, spurred by the massive aliyah from the Former Soviet Union. But now, for the first time, Israel has crossed the magic threshold and become, on a consistent and verified basis, a net exporter, running a significant trade surplus (despite the shekel being overvalued against the dollar, due to the inflow of investments). For years, this goal was sought by Levi Eshkol and Pinhas Sapir, the legendary figures who, in earlier stages, led the nation’s economic policy. Their import substitution strategies failed, however. The present orientation, based on a commitment to globalization and focused on securing a competitive advantage at the high end of the science-driven industries, has succeeded. In recent years, the relative success in suppressing the effects of terror; the positive global trends; and macroeconomic policies that enabled the country to take advantage of changing conditions have led to the emergence of Israel as a promising economic prospect.
Still, an unmistakable sense of anxiety can, in fact, be felt in Israel at this time—not least because of doubts about our political leadership and governmental competence, which arise from a broad range of issues: from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s unfortunate slip of tongue on Israel as a nuclear power, all the way to the unhappy affair of the escape from police custody of a dangerous rapist and the haphazard manner of his recapture two weeks later. Questions as to the conduct of the war in Lebanon, as well as retrospective second thoughts about the Disengagement, linger on. Even more significant is the sense that our future may now depend on the outcome of events over which we have little or no control:
- The escalating internal crisis between Hamas and Fatah, which already has claimed several lives in recent days and might explode into a full-scale civil war at any time;
- The parallel crisis in Lebanon—another derivative of the broader struggle against totalitarianism—could also lead to large-scale violence right on our border, or could even drag Israel (and Syria) into the vortex. It could also lead to a Hezbollah takeover and the loss of all gains achieved in the war.
- The tensions swirling around the crisis in Iraq, and the prospect—unaffected (despite the Baker- Hamilton assertions) by any development Israel might choose to initiate in Israeli-Palestinian relations—of a region-wide Sunni vs. Shi’a confrontation, could further complicate our own range of choices.
It is very much at times like these that the special relationship with the U.S.—vital as a key not only to our own survival, but to the broader regional balance—becomes ever more important. Thus, the troubling signs of tension—from the Iraq Study Group report to the Jimmy Carter book and the Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer paper—loom large in the minds of Israelis at various levels. Aspects of U.S. policy and politics that are often the domain of a narrow circle of practitioners suddenly come into the public eye and win front-page attention in the Israeli media. Whether the anxiety is well warranted, it is there as a political and even strategic fact; and if the impression takes hold, despite the prime minister’s efforts (this week, in Germany and Italy) to garner international support, that “Israel has been left to stand alone,” this might well lead to dangerous developments.