Categorized | Middle East, Sharkansky_Ira

For Israeli policy makers, wiggling has its benefits

By Ira Sharkansky

Ira Sharkansky

JERUSALEM — Wiggling may not be a central concept in the professional literature of scholars who seek to explain international relations. “Wiggle” is often used with respect to the rapid movement of ears or fingers, but it is also used to describe the act of avoiding something perhaps by devious means.

Its association with deviousness, as in wiggling out of an agreement, bears some relationship to one of the allegations of anti-Semites, i.e., that Jews are unreliable.

“Wiggle room” may be less tainted. It appears in association with difficult situations, where partners need some flexibility to manage a partnership fraught with conflicting pressures.

Wiggling is an appropriate concept for Israel’s international and domestic settings. A host of sensitive and contrasting pressures have marked the country from its beginning. Its roots are much older, and reflect problems of Jews that have existed since there were Jews. Or even earlier, under the labels Hebrews, Israelites, then Judeans.

An event that provoked this concern with wiggling was last week’s meeting between Prime Minister Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The purpose described by Israeli media was Netanyahu’s continued effort to persuade the Russian to limit or exclude Iran and its minions from establishing a secure base in whatever becomes of Syria.

The wiggling appears in the expectations said to be held by Netanyahu. He recognizes the interests of Russia, which include a reluctance to offend Iran. So the Israeli does not expect success, even while he works in a continuing fashion to impress Putin with Israel’s interests in keeping an Iranian threat as distant as possible.

Bibi has also wiggled prominently with respect to Donald Trump. The Economist headlined his support of the American’s comments on Charlottesville, “Binyamin Netanyahu is soft on anti-Semitism when it suits him.”

That Israel’s Prime Minister has better relations with the heads of Russia and the United States than either can admit to having with one another is part of Israel’s capacities as it wiggles between contending forces.

Wiggling ain’t simple. Some do not see it as nice. But it works to preserve a small country with significant but not overwhelming power in a whirlpool of conflicting pressures.

Other examples are the quiet (under the table?) cooperation between Israel and countries whose leaders seem required to condemn Israel in language that is occasionally severe. The list includes Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf States.

The notion of “coping” may be useful for those who don’t care for the notion of “wiggling.” Coping is often used by physicians, psychologists, and other care providers with respect to patients who may be able to manage problems they cannot solve. The issues include incurable disease, chronic pain, and the emotional distress that comes from family troubles. Coping is also useful in politics. Indeed, it may be characteristics in managing chronic clashes of interests in a country’s domestic and international politics.

We can overlook whatever the boundary problems between “wiggling” and “coping.” Neither may be defined with precision, but that’s more or less typical of concepts used in social science. Many, if not all have fuzzy boundaries.

Israel may have to do a bit of wiggling to deal with the effort of Trump to bring peace to us and the Palestinians. So far neither Israelis nor Palestinians seem impressed with the efforts of Trump’s emissaries. It may be impossible to reach a final settlement, but we’ve learned how to get along better than Trump et al seem to realize.

A much dicier problem concerns Iran, and its aspirations to establish a military presence in what used to be Syria.

Wiggling is appropriate to a situation that isn’t all that clear, and it isn’t clear how much of the Iranian leadership’s expressions against Israel are serious, and how much is for cementing its position among the Shiites of Iran and elsewhere. Most likely that Israel has some “red lines,” or actions that will require a military strike.

Wigglers do not move quickly to violence, but it remains an option.

Israel’s coping, or wiggling, is domestic as well as international. It is apparent in dealings between the Jewish majority and the Arab minorities who are citizens of the country or residents of Jerusalem, and the messy boundaries between Israelis and Palestinians, especially those of the West Bank. And there are no fewer problems among the Jews that produce their own examples of wiggling or coping.

It’s not easy to manage a state that is largely secular in its structure and laws, when some 20 percent of the population is Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox, with many of them answering to something higher, and leaders who stand outside of, and occasionally against institutions of the state. That the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox are themselves divided ethnically and theologically with a host of contending rabbis produces additional problems. Chronic disputes include acceptable procedures for conversion, the content of education, demands to separate men from women in various contexts, recruitment to the IDF, and the position demanded of the state with respect to territory that some of the religious see as promised by the Almighty.

Somewhere on the vague borders of domestic or international issues are relations between the Jewish State and the Jewish nation, or the Jewish Diaspora. Somewhere close to the top of what engenders Israeli wiggling are the demands made by American non-Orthodox religious Jews concerned about the status of their rabbis, women, and women rabbis in Israel.

Israel-Palestinian relations are as wiggle-prone as any of the above. Enmity exists alongside cooperation. There are contending charges about “whose land is it,” as well as conflicting claims under the headings of colonialism and terror. Somewhere in the mix are realities of cooperation between security services, and frequent statements by Palestinian leaders that the cooperation will cease, or has already ceased. More than 100,000 West Bank Palestinians come to Israel daily to work, even while complaining about treatment at check-points. Others come to participate in religious rituals, family gatherings, and medical treatment. Individual Palestinians, along with Israeli Arabs and some Jews (Israeli and others), with the help of the Palestine National Authority have led BDS. Israeli officials and individual Jews from Israel and overseas have been able to hold off many efforts on campuses and in communities. The United Nations remains an arena of Palestinian success along with a number of countries that provide their votes even while dealing with Israel elsewhere. So far the symbolic nature of most resolutions has provided ample wiggle room for Israeli officials, businesses, academics, and other professionals.

Wiggling appears in several Books of the Hebrew Bible. Many find firm and universal truths in the holy text, but it just as well can be read to reveal uncertainties, and the folly of relying too much on anything or anybody, including the Almighty.

Judges describes a Promised Land that was not delivered in its entirety. Job probes bad things that happen to good people. Kohlet (Ecclesiastes)–with notions as close to Greek philosophy as to Judaic theology–notes that good coexists along with bad, and pervasive continuity, including that which is not ideal. Ezra laments Jews who choose improper (non-Jewish) wives, and ends without a complete solution.

No doubt other people have wiggled amidst conflicting pressures. But it’s the Jews who had the intellectual capacity to ponder the issue two and one-half millennia ago, and continue today.

*
Sharkansky is professor emeritus of political science at Hebrew University.  He may be contacted via [email protected]

 

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