The Jewish majority in Israel still see their country as ‘a villa in the jungle’ 22Aug13 August 22, 2013

by Aluf Benn     -    The Guardian, UK     -    20 August 2013

Israelis at the beach in Tel AvivA Middle East news summary: deadly crackdown of protest in Egypt, bloody civil war in Syria, a car bomb in Lebanon, refugee crisis and political uncertainty in Jordan, sectarian war resumes in Iraq. Only in Israel, right in their midst, people are busy with their summer vacations. Here, the hottest news in recent weeks was the nomination fiasco of the national bank governor. Even the resumption of peace talks with the Palestinians, after five years of impasse, raises only little interest or hope here.

Israel has never appeared so remote and disconnected from its neighbours. Seen through a mainstream political prism in Israel, the latest switch in the Arab spring revolutions with the military retaking of Egypt simply proves that the Jewish state is, as former prime minister Ehud Barak once said, “a villa in the jungle“. Despite all its inter-tribal rivalries and domestic tensions and even its never-ending occupation of the West Bank, Israel is uncharacteristically an island of calm in a troubled region. Or, in popular terms, “they” kill each other while we go to the beach.

Israel’s Arab community is torn between the duelling sides in Syria and Egypt. But the Jewish majority, viewing itself as an unfortunate bastion of the west, looks at the bloodshed across the border as if it were on Mars. Few Israeli Jews bother to learn Arabic or to immerse themselves in regional culture; cross-border trade is minimal; and the internet has shortened the mental distance from Tel Aviv to New York and Berlin, its cultural beacons.

Binyamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, is an old adherent to “the villa in the jungle” school of thought. His political and cultural references are entirely Anglo-American, he has hardly ever visited an Israeli Arab town, has probably never met an Arab intellectual, and views the neighbourhood with a mixture of suspicion and fear. The upheavals of the past three years merely strengthened this worldview. Netanyahu’s outgoing cabinet secretary, Zvi Hauser, told my colleague Ari Shavit in an interview last week: “Look at the changes that are going on around us. The Middle East is not going forward, but backward.”

In practice, Netanyahu adopted a “leave us alone” policy, keeping a low public profile while tacitly supporting the old regional order and occasionally using force to prevent direct security threats. Israel’s military warns of a dangerous deployment of jihadists across the Syrian and Egyptian borders. This month, two cross-border exchanges of fire marked the deteriorating security in the Sinai, but governments in Jerusalem and Cairo pretended it was business as usual. Then, on Monday, Islamists slaughtered 25 unarmed Egyptian policemen in northern Sinai, close to the Israeli border, showing the Egyptian army’s inability to defeat the jihadists. Yet despite the difficulty in pacifying the Sinai, Israel bets on General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, telling Washington to keep its military aid to Egypt intact.

Next month Israel will mark the 40th anniversary of the Yom Kippur war, its last military confrontation with Egypt. The 1979 peace treaty, which followed the war, has been the cornerstone of Israel’s regional stance: an alliance with the old dictatorships, preferring their state-centered nationalism over pan-Arab or Islamic ideologies, while always fearing an “Iran next door” scenario.

Israel reaped enormous benefits from its peace with Egypt, which allowed it to shrink its ground forces, and now wants Cairo to restore calm and order to Sinai and keep Hamas-ruled Gaza in check. The Egyptian military is seen as a more natural partner to achieve these goals than the Muslim Brotherhood, although the shortlived Morsi presidency kept the peace treaty intact and brokered a ceasefire in Gaza.

Netanyahu will not take sides publicly in the Egyptian conflict; he would merely leverage the upheavals across the border to justify the West Bank status quo. Few Israelis challenge his policy and argue that a peace breakthrough with the Palestinians would support the pro-American regimes in the Arab world far more than the current Israeli isolationism. Most would simply hide behind walls and fences, while planning their next vacation in Europe or Thailand.

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