It has been more than two years, but I am finally back in Israel; my absence, like everyone else’s, thanks to Covid-19.
Inevitably, there are changes and, just as inevitably, Israel is in some sort of turmoil – but actually it is a relatively fascinating turmoil as the country walks a diplomatic tightrope, with the government trying to steer mediation between Russia and Ukraine, mindful of what is going on just over the border in Syria.
It seems as though anyone who is anyone is in Israel this week and next. Britain alone has three delegations from the newly-launched ELNET UK, from Labour Friends of Israel, and Technion UK; the heavyweight board of the powerful American lobby group, Aipac, is in town; and, with a dramatic flourish, foreign minister Yair Lapid has unveiled the Negev Summit, spearheaded by US secretary of state Antony Blinken and featuring Middle East counterparts from the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and, significantly, Egypt.
Egypt was once the undisputed power broker of the region and its presence – at a setting underlining the historic symbolism of the event, David Ben-Gurion’s old kibbutz, Sde Boker – may well have further reverberations.
Two words are on everyone’s lips, of course – Ukraine and Iran. Israel is – not for the first time – caught between a rock and a hard place. Its government has been globally derided for not tying its colours more firmly to the Ukrainian mast. Ukraine’s charismatic president, Volodymyr Zelensky, chided the Knesset for what he sees as just such an omission, with the tacit message that the Jewish state ought to be supporting him, a Jewish president ludicrously accused of being a Nazi by Putin.
But in fact Israel is doing a great deal for Ukraine, from establishing a much-needed field hospital on the Polish-Ukrainian border to sending tonnes of humanitarian supplies. Hatzola is there, too, together with a group of much-appreciated medical “clowns”, Israeli doctors and nurses helping to keep refugees’ spirits up. And that applies as much to the adults as the children.
So what about the other keyword, Iran? Israel has been lobbying religiously against the potential, but imminent, signing of a new nuclear accord between Teheran and world powers. It would mean the dropping of Iran’s fearsome Revolutionary Guard from America’s list of proscribed terror organisations.
Natan Sharansky, a man who knows a thing or two about international realpolitik, has some useful thoughts on the current global situation. Born in Donetsk when it was still known as Stalino, part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, Sharansky knows Vladimir Putin of old, and believes that, over the past two decades, the Russian leader has come to think of himself as this century’s Peter the Great,
with a dream of recreating the Russian empire.
Western leaders come and go because of democracy, which he, Putin, despises,
but he remains the strongman, the leader who remains.
Sharansky’s years in Soviet prisons as a refusenik and Prisoner of Zion has led him to believe that “the ringleader is not the one who has a knife, but the one who is ready to use it… Putin believes he is willing to use his knife and the West isn’t”.
But, Sharansky warns, “the free world is taking steps to take billions of dollars away from Putin, and, at the same time, making sure Iran will receive billions of dollars”. It’s not, he says, a logical position.
Not for the first time Israel finds itself at the vortex of international political developments, as war rages in Ukraine and Iran’s leaders gleefully contemplate the erasure of sanctions as it hold out the carrot of replacement energy supplies for Russian gas and oil.
It couldn’t be a better time to have a ringside seat at history in the making.