We Are Enjoined to Rejoice: Can We?

Sukkot is a unique holiday in the Jewish tradition, and not only because people spend much of their time in funny-looking makeshift huts, turning their back on stability and safety and living closer to the elements. It is also “the hag,” or holiday that carries a religious injunction requiring us to be merry and joyous. After the somber period from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, this is a welcome respite from soul-searching and atonement. But what was there this week (or the one before) for us to celebrate? The global financial crisis threatens the future of all, and saps the strength of America (upon which our survival may depend, in a hostile environment). The Israeli economy was shaken; the riots in Akko (Acre) brought to the surface unhealed wounds; the Iranian leadership was increasingly blatant in its threat to Israel’s survival; and, in the midst of all this, our political leaders were stuck in detailed negotiations over the sharing of power.

What, then, was there for us to rejoice about? The answer may lie in the observation recently made by columnist Tom Friedman (and less recently, by me, in these pages) that in assessing Israel’s future, Warren Buffet’s positive predictions should carry more weight than Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s rants. Here is an attempt to dig a little deeper than the headlines and to touch upon the positives: 

  • A remarkable thing happened to the Israeli Stock Exchange this week. It opened on Sunday, after the prolonged Yom Kippur break (and just before the onset of another holiday), in full expectation that the panic already ravaging East Asian markets would spread to our shores. Plans were made to close down all trading if the key indices dropped by more than 12 percent. None of this came to pass. There was pain, for sure, but in general, the decline was contained and, in some cases, reversed. Backed by a rather solid—and conservative—banking system, Israelis and foreign investors kept their eye on the “real” economy, the productive and effective sectors that have given Israel a stable trade surplus in recent years—and tried to resist the manipulative gyrations in stock prices. They had, in fact, good reasons to do so: The success of the small but versatile Israeli economy, particularly the science-driven industries, has now been recognized worldwide. It withstood the global storm, sending a strong signal to the doubters, in Europe and elsewhere, that Israel is no longer a supplicant, and should be dealt with as befits a successful partner.
  • At the other end of the scale stood—again—Iran’s president, Ahmadinejad, who used the opportunity of his speech in the UN General Assembly to spew hatred, and found himself courted by various American media and greeted warmly by some UN delegations. There was not much new, let alone encouraging, in any of this. And yet for those who read closely the texts and messages emanating from Tehran—and given the growing interest, several groups now offer such readings, in both English and Hebrew, ranging from MEMRI to Iran Early Bird—there were some discernible nuances that could help us focus our minds as we face fateful decisions in 5769.  

To begin with, there was Ahmadinejad’s fanciful—even fantastic—description of the Zionists as a small, wily clique, perhaps only a few thousand in number, who somehow have contrived to carry the rest of the Jews with them into a disastrous adventure: a notion so absurd to anyone truly familiar with modern history that it raises fundamental questions about the wages of ignorance and about “the world according to Ahmadinejad.” But why did he take this tack? And why did he allow his deputy recently to declare that Iran is not the enemy of the Israelis as such—but rather, of their coercive Zionist rulers? Inherent in this play with facts and words is the realization that the overt exterminatory stance taken on past occasions—while still representing Iran’s real agenda—is a bad idea, in tactical terms, when you are simultaneously trying to prove to the world that your nuclear program is utterly civilian in nature. The global pressure on Iran, and the position, clearly taken by both presidential contenders in the U.S., that an Iranian nuclear capability cannot be tolerated, led to a sophisticated effort by Iran to soften some edges, without actually changing any position on Israel’s right to exist. This can perhaps be read as an indication that even Iranian defiance has its limits. Pressure works; more (much more) pressure would work much better. 

Moreover, Iranian listeners and viewers are inundated on a daily basis with official messages (mostly from the Iranian military and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) belittling the role and capability of Israel to do anything to Iran: After all, the IDF—“a small military”—was soundly “defeated” by Hezbollah in Lebanon. A discerning ear may hear therein what could be described as “whistling in the dark”: an attempt to allay real fears that have taken hold among Iranians, and cast in doubt the wisdom of the present course of action. These fears and doubts may lead, in time, to a reconsideration of policy, but only if: 

1.      The threat of truly robust actions against Iran remains credible—above all, in the minds of the Iranian decision makers;

2.      The full range of economic measures is brought to bear, given that the alternative to such pressure could quickly become violence.

3.      Resolute and well-coordinated efforts are made by like-minded nations to exploit and widen any sign of a crack or fissure in Iran’s stance;

4.      Real (and new) leadership rises to the challenge, in both Jerusalem and Washington, and takes advantage of the fact that people who understand so little about their adversaries, as Ahmadinejad seems to, are ultimately liable to stumble. 

These may not be the kind of good tidings we could sing about in our public gatherings, but in the extremely tense and challenging strategic landscape that lies ahead, any nuance should be analyzed for signs of what could turn a dire situation around to a positive one.

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