Yesterday we celebrated Shemini Atzeret, which in Israel is also the joyous day of Simhat Torah, the beginning of the annual Torah reading cycle and an opportunity to pay our respects to the book that formed us as a people. The day after that is known as Isru Hag (literally, “bind up the holiday”), a time for the pilgrims in ancient times to go home, and at our modern pace, for all of us to savor the festive atmosphere before it slips away and we are left facing the long stretch until Hanukkah. It is often the moment in our lives when we face the need to implement the vows we made during the intense period of reflection—and, where necessary, repentance—that preceded it; a point of reentry and renewal of our working life and our daily exertions.
This year, however, finds us as a nation still groping for a meaningful framework to define the immediate future, let alone anything over the horizon. In several respects, this remains a period of waiting, with a growing sense of unease, for events that are yet to come upon us—and that may well combine in unexpected ways. There are many more unknowns than givens in this dynamic equation. Here is a list, not necessarily exhaustive, of the unanswered questions we are left with for the time being (but which will soon, one by one, be resolved):
- For Israelis, the outcome of the American elections (all eyes here, as in much of the world, are on the presidential race—although the congressional role in securing support for Israel should have given rise long ago to a more balanced view) is of greater importance, perhaps, than for almost anyone else, including, perhaps, most Americans. A strong, self-confident, and solvent United States is vital to our very ability to survive, to prosper, and to hope for peace in a rough neighborhood. There is admiration in Israel for the two contenders; there is also a good deal of anxiety and apprehension. Bitter Israeli divisions are projected—not always wisely—onto the American landscape. At the end of the day, however, the outcome of this fascinating political spectacle lies beyond our reach; and the premature efforts, by government officials and academic centers, to plan for various contingencies, reflect this uncertainty rather than any sure sense of what lies ahead.
- We are still in the dark, not only about the future of American politics, but of our own. So far, Kadima leader-elect Tzipi Livni has failed in her efforts to put together a viable coalition. Theoretically, she could settle for a narrow left leaning alliance with Labor, the Pensioners Party, and Meretz (59 seats in the Knesset), relying on United Torah Judaism, on one hand, and the three small Arab political parties, on the other, to support it from the outside. The four parties of the right, after all, have only 43 seats among them and cannot conceivably construct a coalition of their own. And yet no Israeli prime minister—even before the recent bout of violence in Acre—would readily consent to holding power under such circumstances, given the problematic positions of these parties on some of our most existential issues; and in Livni’s case, any attempt to function as the leader of a left-wing coalition might mean a walkout by a significant number of her own party’s MKs, already seriously worried by the views recently put forward by Ehud Olmert in the waning days of his term of office. Unless a way is found for Shas to be brought in (a task made more difficult by internal tensions within that party’s leadership), we may find ourselves still waiting by early November—but for early elections, not for a resolution of the coalition talks.
- The task is made yet more complicated because of the uncertainties flowing from the global economic crisis. True, Israel, with a solid record of growth and a stolid banking system, did surprisingly well when tested; but once the global recession begins to creep in, painful consequences are inevitable in a country deeply dependent upon exports as the driving force of the economy. There are already expectations that the unemployment rate will soon rise sharply, after reaching a new low last year. In such times, counsels are deeply divided between those who advocate a fiscal “surge” to stimulate the economy and those who call for even stricter limits on spending; but almost all tend to agree that money cannot be poured once again into child allowances that do not encourage work—precisely the point on which Shas insists for joining the coalition.
- Another stumbling block, in party political affairs as well as in the complex talks with the Palestinians, is the ever-loaded issue of Jerusalem. Shas wants Jerusalem “off the table,” but Livni may not be able to comply without derailing all negotiations. What is the point, however, of a minority government offering concessions it cannot deliver to a fragile partner who cannot reciprocate? How much further and longer can the current negotiations go on, when a parallel effort is under way, led by Egypt, to establish some form of reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, which would, in turn, greatly reduce the former’s room for maneuver? With little results to show, the intense work with the Palestinians since Annapolis, shrouded in secrecy and politically problematic, remarkable as it may be, adds to rather than detracts from our mood of uncertainty and worry.
- Above all, and at all times, we still face the Iranian challenge—posed by leaders (not only President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) whose attitudes are extremely hostile and often erratic. In this context, question marks about the line that will be taken by the next president of the U.S. and the next prime minister of Israel interact with troubling trends in regional politics. The range of permutations and possible outcomes is wider than ever.
We shall soon be wiser: Livni’s extended period of grace, under the law, will soon end. Then will come the U.S. elections. Israeli and Palestinian choices will define the prospects for progress (or failure) and the need, perhaps, for an alternative strategy (regional negotiations? an “economic peace” based on local improvements on the ground?) may become apparent. Above all, we do not have more than a few months, probably, before the crucial decisions are upon us.