The ugly truth: Israel is so Middle East now

The ugly truth: Israel is so Middle East now

I can never forget that one sentence from Thomas Friedman’s legendary book on the Middle East, “From Beirut to Jerusalem.” It was something like this: “Jews would like to wake up in Israel but would like to live next to Switzerland and Belgium.” After 20 years of Likud governments and small immigrant parties holding politics hostage, unfortunately Israel is now no different from any sad Middle Eastern country, except for its relatively healthy democracy.

Israel used to be a beacon of technology, a hub of investment, even a fun place full of stories about the Eurovision Song Contest or the former president’s adultery issues. Now all we read about Israel is its “right to defend itself.”

But this did not happen overnight. Just like Turkey, Israel became an overtly religious, very mediocre, deeply divided and less tolerant society within a decade. Most of this is due to Benjamin Netanyahu’s carte blanche to parties like Yisrael Beiteinu and its hawkish chair, Avigdor Lieberman.

In every society, immigrants bring their own richness and traumas when settling into a new land.

In Israel’s case, the paranoia of being surrounded by highly populated poor Arab countries have made the immigrants from Russia more aggressive. Every new settlement is an issue for them. It is almost like the slums in Istanbul, where once you build 10, no one can remove you from those buildings. You invite your relatives and invade the area, and bingo! The state has to bring you services and protection.

This was not the Israel that I knew 10 years ago. Tel Aviv was a city of arts and intellectuals. However, after Ehud Barak lost the elections, I heard a startling statement from an academic in Israel that basically defined the politics of a decade: “If we do not do anything about this population issue, within a couple of decades an Arab may actually run for a president in Israel and demographically win.”

After this, the wall was built; after this, Hamas came. An obscure organization that Israel had been watching closely became the “fear factor” of less educated, poor Israelis. They adopted a policy of having more children, like the Arabs, and sending all of them to religious schools. The country basically lost its scientific genius. It was not the Israel that would go and hunt its enemies with precision. It became more like an ordinary Middle Eastern country where killing does not mean much because if one child dies - another one will replace him/her.

Remember the Iron Dome a couple of years ago? Is it not working? Why aren’t we reading any strategic analyses from our Israeli colleagues anymore? Has Israel lost its intellectual capacity as well as its democratic and human values?

Turkey and Israel are almost like twin brothers separated at birth. When one goes down, the other follows suit. These two countries’ fates may be even more identical than we could ever imagine. Israel is now in the downturn and it is going to take a while. It has lost its panache, its zing, its charm and ability to bring a different life to the Middle East.

I wish Jon Stewart and Sacha Baron Cohen could come to the rescue.