One of the reactions of Israelis to the fact that their government called on the international community for assistance to combat the Carmel Forest fire is a sense of shame. After all, Israel is a leader in the high-tech world and an innovator in dealing with crisis situations. Now Israel had to admit that it wasn’t capable of dealing with the blaze alone.
More than that, for some in Israel there is a reluctance to admit that Israel is not isolated, that not everyone is against Israel. The willingness of nations and peoples to rush to Israel’s side, including the Turks and the Palestinians, challenged this assumption.
I remember when Yitzhak Rabin took over as prime minister in 1993, his inaugural address to the Knesset took a different tack than the norm. He spoke to the idea that Israelis need to get beyond the way of thinking that assumed that everyone was against them. He argued that this was neither accurate nor productive, as it led to distorted policies.
Rabin in some quarters was hailed for his comments; in others he was condemned.
Which brings us to our own times: Where do things stand and how does the response to the fire illuminate matters?
I would argue that there are two parallel tracks, both of which need to be understood, taken seriously and factored in to policymaking.
On the one hand is the dangerous process of delegitimization campaigns against Israel. These campaigns are picking up momentum around the world. Boycotts of Israel by trade unions, universities and entertainers seem to pop up almost on a daily basis. Israeli officials refrain from visiting certain countries lest they be arrested on war criminal charges. The U.N.’s Goldstone Report questions Israel’s right to self-defense.
Israel is compared to the South African apartheid regime or to the Nazis. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad can openly call for Israel’s disappearance without any repercussions. And the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva focuses most of its attention and resolutions on condemning alleged Israeli violations of human rights.
In other words, there are grounds for concluding that the world has turned against Israel in ways that even suggest a heavy dose of anti-Semitism within it. It is no longer the individual Jew who is the target of anti-Semitism, some argue, but the collective Jew through the assault on the Jewish state. And it is argued, with some reason, that it is not particular Israeli policies but Israel’s very existence that is the problem for many of its critics.
The picture, however, is more complicated, and the response of many nations to Israel’s plea for help this week is the tip of the iceberg. It is obvious that not only does Israel have a special relationship with the United States, but it has excellent bilateral relations with states throughout the globe, including some that routinely vote against Israel at the United Nations.
Moreover, even in the Arab world things are not simple.
It is true that what we all want, an acceptance by Arab leaders of the legitimacy of the Jewish state in the Middle East, has not been achieved. Having said that, on practical grounds there has been progress over the years in the acceptance of the reality that Israel is here to stay. Indeed, that notion is so strong in the Arab world that Ahmadinejad feels it necessary to harp on the idea that Israel will disappear in an effort to get the Arabs to turn back the clock to a time when they not only rejected Israel’s legitimacy but envisioned ways to achieve Israel’s demise.
Arab acceptance of the reality of Israel is not insignificant because it then forces an answer to the question of how one deals with an entity that’s here to stay. Anwar Sadat’s answer after the Yom Kippur war was to make peace.
We see these changes as well in the WikiLeaks documents: Arab leaders such as the king of Saudi Arabia and the crown prince of Bahrain focusing on the Iranian threat and understanding the common interest that Israel and the moderate Arabs have in containing Iran.
And now comes the Carmel fire. The fact that both Turkey and the Palestinian Authority provided assistance to Israel is not insignificant. It obviously does not negate the problematic aspects of Turkish and Palestinian policies toward Israel. But it should alert Israeli leaders to openings, to shades of gray, to possibilities that things don’t always have to remain the same, to the idea that resentment can also be overcome.
The great challenge for supporters of Israel in the period ahead is not to lose sight of either of the two tracks. There are immense dangers to Israel up ahead, as reflected in the delegitimization efforts, and we must do our all to combat them. But there are opportunities as well, and the mark of leadership is to explore them and seed them while never ignoring the landmines that lie beside them.
(Abraham H. Foxman is the national director of the Anti-Defamation League. His latest book is “Jews and Money: The Story of a Stereotype,” Palgrave Macmillan, November 2010).