x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Israel's ability to make peace in the region starts at home

Israel's relationship with the Arab world will not improve until it gets its own house in order.

America is worried. As the Arab Spring overturns long-established norms in the Middle East, the superpower sees its influence waning. Israel, long the regional enforcer for America, is growing more isolated and its leadership more intransigent. When the US defence secretary, Leon Panetta, last week urged the Israelis to get to the "damn table" and negotiate with the Palestinians, it was borne of a frustration that Israel's government is making life for America difficult at a crucial time.

Mr Panetta suggested that Israel is becoming increasingly isolated in the region and hoped the country would finally "reach out and mend fences" with its neighbours. Yet Israel's international isolation, while serious, is not the greatest long-term danger the country faces. The greater isolation Israel faces is internal.

Israeli society is fragmented: between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs, between those who trace their ethnicity to European countries and Jews from Arab countries, between Israelis who have lived there for a generation or two and more recent arrivals, between those in Israel proper and the radical settlers on Palestinian land.

These divisions are deep and have an impact on the way Israelis perceive themselves and their place in the world. It also influences their ability to navigate the changes now sweeping the region.

Two recent examples show this tension, between Israeli Jews within Israel, and between Israelis and the Jewish diaspora.

The first can be seen in a recent campaign by Israeli women against a radical movement that seeks to remove images of women from advertising billboards in Israel. The movement, part of an ultra-orthodox religious sect known as Haredim, has waged a campaign against such images for years, forcing companies to remove images of women from billboards and buses.

Some Haredi Jews in particular object to men and women sharing public space, and have campaigned for segregation of the sexes in public. Opponents say this shows the Haredim are trying to erase Jewish women from public life.

But some Israeli women are fighting back, urging supporters to send in photographs of themselves that they hope to compile into posters and display in Israeli cities, as a way of reclaiming the public space. This speaks to how far the secular movement has fallen in Israel that the campaign is having to search for women abroad, in Britain and the US, to get sufficient numbers.

It isn't clear if the push back against the rabbis will be successful. The rising religiosity of Israeli society means those of a secular perspective are increasingly left out and sometimes choose to leave the country altogether.

Another advert illustrates the tensions between Israelis and the wider Jewish community. This month, a campaign by Israel's government ran in American cities warning Israeli expatriates they would lose their identities if they did not return to Israel. Using the slogan "It's time to return to Israel", the adverts stoke concerns that Israelis in America are at the risk of being assimilated and losing their Jewish roots.

In one, a young girl is shown telling her grandparents in Israel that the holiday she is celebrating is Christmas. "Before Chanukah turns into Christmas," the advert concludes, "it's time to return to Israel."

The adverts have not hit their intended targets, and provoked a wave of anger from the American Jewish community. "I don't think I have ever seen a demonstration of Israeli contempt for American Jews as obvious as these ads," wrote Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic. The Jewish Federations of North America called the campaign "outrageous and insulting", while the head of the US-based Anti-Defamation League told an Israeli newspaper the adverts were "heavy-handed, and even demeaning".

So great was the concern at the damage to American-Israeli relations, that Israel's prime minister ordered the campaign ended.

What lies behind this campaign is a particular narrow idea of what it is to be Jewish, a narrow nationalism that sees the outside world as suspect, which sees even American society - a society that has been so generous to Israel - as polluting pure Israeliness.

Not only are Americans, including American Jews, upset at this characterisation of their society, but Israelis themselves are angered by it, especially by the suggestion that if they seek education or opportunities abroad they are somehow lesser Israelis.

What both of these examples indicate is a continued uncertainty among Israelis about their place in the world. And if their place in the world is uncertain, this in turn colours their relationship with it.

Israelis, in particular Israeli Jews, find themselves torn between the majority Arab culture of the region and other cultural influences. This sets up enormous tensions within Israeli society, which has exacerbated the tendency of Israelis to isolate themselves further from the region.

This self-isolation is dangerous at a time when the whole region is in flux. In order to fully make peace with its neighbours, Israel will have to make peace with itself.



Follow on Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai