Carlo Strenger
Haaretz (Opinion)
June 30, 2011 - 12:00am

One of the best-known Yiddish expressions is ‘Gevalt, Yiddelech, Gevalt!', a phrase best translated as ‘catastrophe, Jews, catastrophe!’.

I would suggest that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition officially be named the Gevalt! Government. Listening to the utterances of our ministers, you would come to the conclusion that the State of Israel is about to be erased and the Jewish people are in danger of immediate extinction.

In fact, it is nowadays the bon ton to join the Gevalt! chorus. Those who say that all this panicking is irrational are considered to be unpatriotic. A true Zionist and a good Jew is supposed to be in constant dread and must brace for the ultimate fight for the Masada that Israel has become and that is under threat from everywhere.

Here is another way of looking at Israel’s situation: Israel is quite safe and has a lot of constructive options. Palestinians were never as willing to move ahead toward peace with Israel. In the long run, the new developments in the Arab world are likely to lead to more democracy and stability; Israel still has the option of normalizing its relationships with the Arab world that has now been on the table for almost nine years, through the Arab League Peace Initiative. This is also indicated by a new poll showing that two thirds of Egyptians favor maintaining peace with Israel.

This is not the assessment of some starry-eyed idealist. It is that of the hard-headed and daring former Mossad chief Meir Dagan. The brouhaha that ensued after he gave his assessment showed that the Gevalt! Government is incapable of living with level-headed, calm and rational thought.

While its constant fear-mongering about existential threats is at times almost comic, it unfortunately has the consequence to push Israel from one blunder to the next.

Let’s look at three instances:

One is Netanyahu’s constant warning that the world is delegitimizing Israel’s very existence. Shlomo Avineri, one of Israel’s most senior political scientists with a lot of experience in international relations has pointed out, that this is simply not true.

Except for Iran, its proxies and the extreme fringes of left-wing academia, nobody in the world says that Israel doesn’t have the right to exist: The free world is simply unwilling to put up with Israel’s settlement policy and continuing foot-dragging about a peace agreement with the Palestinians and the Arab world.

It’s rather clear why Netanyahu keeps spreading this disinformation and heating up fear. He can’t survive politically if he does the simple, straightforward thing: continuing negotiations with the Palestinians where the Olmert government stopped.

As the Palestine Papers leaked by Al Jazeera showed, the story that ‘there is no partner’ is ludicrous: The sides were actually rather close to an agreement. But Netanyahu keeps repeating that Palestinians have never accepted Israel’s existence, never mind the evidence to the contrary, because he needs to keep the level of fear high. At this point even his long-time supporter and ally Ron Lauder is getting sick and tired of Netanyahu’s inaction.

The second is the enormous noise that the government is making about the second Gaza flotilla as if it were a real threat to Israel. Stopping the first one was utterly irrational to begin with, and the damage done to Israel’s already shaky standing in the world was considerable.

What on earth will be the damage if the flotilla lands in Gaza? The overwhelming majority of the world thinks that the blockade on Gaza is inacceptable anyway. A few peace activists showing solidarity with Gaza’s population will cause Israel a lot less damage than another violent confrontation at sea.

But our ministers keep talking about this flotilla as if it were a major military attack endangering Israel. And the Netanyahu government is likely to turn the second flotilla into another major political debacle instead of just letting it pass by.

An interesting and less predictable utterance has come from a minister who generally doesn’t contribute to the general atmosphere of doom. In a panel on conversion, Justice Minister Ya'akov Neeman found it necessary to say that assimilation of world Jewry is fulfilling Hitler’s vision. Neeman pulls the darkest figure of Jewish history to indicate that the Jewish people is about to be wiped out.

Neeman’s statement is quite remarkable in its lack of respect for the vitality of Diaspora Jewry – and its factual falsehood: The most recent census showed that there are actually one million more Jews in the U.S. than the previously assumed figure of 6.25 million.

Jewish life in the US is flourishing in all respects: It is culturally rich; it is religiously diverse, and Jews contribute to all facets of American life, culture and economy. So why does Neeman feel the need to lament the disappearance of the Jewish people?

It seems that the mentality of the Netanyahu government is driving everybody connected to it out of their wits: They actually get to the point where they believe that Israel is under existential threat; that the Jewish people is about to disappear and that only crying Gevalt! means that you are a good Israeli and a good Jew.

This leads us to the final point: Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s statement that Israel is awaiting a ‘diplomatic tsunami’ in September has become something like an accepted truth in Israel, as if UN recognition of a Palestinian state threatens Israel’s existence.

Looking at this calmly one realizes that the maximum that can happen is that the UN will accept Palestine as a full member. This will indeed make Israel’s occupation of the West-Bank, any military presence and settlement activity officially illegal.

But it is quite simply wrong to say that this endangers Israel’s existence. I have argued a number of times in the past that Israel should actually endorse UN recognition of Palestine along the 1967 lines.

Such a UN resolution would give Israel an internationally recognized Western border, for the first time in its history, as Shlomo Avineri has now also pointed out. While this would mean the end of the dream of the greater Israel that quite a few members of Netanyahu’s coalition haven’t given up on, it would also mean the end of Hamas dream of abolishing the state of Israel – and hence would actually increase Israel’s long-term security and legitimacy.

But such rational thinking is highly unpopular in the current government, and it will continue to fight UN recognition, instead of engaging with it in constructive ways.

For those who are sick and tired of hearing ‘Gevalt, Yiddelech, Gevalt!’ and want to see what a constructive Israeli policy could look like, I strongly recommend looking at the Israeli Peace Initiative that includes former IDF Chief of Staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, General Amram Mitzna, former Mossad Chief Danny Yatom and former heads of the Shin Bet Yaakov Peri and Ami Ayalon.

The voice of reason is there to be heard – one just needs to listen.


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