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Thoughts on Israel at 73 while flying over the Saudi desert

On this, the independence day of an old-new country, our governance may be ailing, but the hallmark 'superabundant force' of democracy is alive and kicking
Illustrative aerial shot of Saudi desert. (iStock)
Illustrative aerial shot of Saudi desert. (iStock)

There’s a cliche about landing in Israel – about how the passengers always applaud when the plane touches down at Ben Gurion Airport. And sure, many do. But passengers clap on lots of flight landings. It’s understandable. Travelers are happy to reach their destination and they’re relieved that the descent through the clouds didn’t end in a fiery crash. The wheels hit the tarmac and, yay, they clap.

Not me. I’m not that sentimental, and as for being safe, well, I don’t think we’re out of the woods until the plane comes to a complete stop and by then everyone’s on their phones or lunging for the overhead compartments.

* * *

Now, when you fly back to Israel from the United Arab Emirates, as I did this past Sunday, the three and a half hour flight path takes you, through cloudless skies, over 1,400 kilometers of Saudi desert. It’s all craggy sand, with hues that range somewhere between tan and a color my Eye Dropper graphic tool calls RosyBrown.

The wilderness is interrupted by infrequent, haphazard towns or villages, few and far between, connected by a single snaking road.

After so many years of seemingly unsolvable conflict, an Israel-bound civilian plane flying freely over Saudi is pretty mindblowing, but then again you have just been in Dubai, an emirate bursting with marvels of construction and engineering; a steel, glass and concrete metropolis conjured in the grandiose imaginations of the real-estate titans of an absolute monarchy.

The UAE has a Ministry of Possibilities, a virtual ministry created to “develop proactive and disruptive solutions to tackle critical issues.”

The emirate of Dubai has the world’s tallest building and two massive artificial islands in the shape of palm trees, megaprojects fitting for a strongly centralized regime led by a powerful ruling elite of often-visionary sheikhs and sheikhas.

De Tocqueville, the deepest of delvers into democracy – and monarchy – says the virtues of an autocratic regime such as that of the UAE are heroic. It’s the right system for those who wish to attempt “great undertakings” and “leave an immense mark on history,” who aim to “give a certain loftiness to the human spirit.”

This very impulse to “renown and glory” is what made the Abraham Accords possible. A sweeping executive decision by the sheikhs in charge meant the country went from being anti-Israel to pro-Israel virtually overnight, paving the way for a truly “warm” peace.

At the government’s ultra-hip youth hub downtown, we found impressive young Emiratis, the women in black hijab and abaya, the men in white kefiya and robe, studying Hebrew, developing cross-cultural meetup apps, and dialoguing with Israeli visitors. They are fully on board this new national project of peace.

In contrast to Dubai’s bewildering tangle of urban highways, the UAE’s metaphorical road to the future looks to be an Autobahn of friction-free planning and execution.

Sound familiar? I know, not really. Monarchy is foreign to Israelis.

Sure, the autocratic impulse has some traction in Israel, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s supporters sing ”Bibi, melech yisrael – Bibi, king of Israel,” and let’s not forget the scholar king David Ben Gurion of the early state, or its centralized arbiters of culture and language.

But the country remains at heart a profound experiment in relatively egalitarian collectivism. A messy and unpredictable enterprise. The Jewish dreams of Return and Rebirth and Autonomy and Agency collide with the reality of wars and regional threats, economic disparities, ethnic divisions, and, perhaps the greatest test, the parallel aspirations of millions of Palestinians.

Today, at the ripe and also unripe age of 73, our democracy may seem threadbare – it most certainly is at the moment. But by De Tocqueville’s calculations, we are still doing OK: A democracy, he says, “spreads a restive activity through the whole social body, a superabundant force, an energy that never exists without it, and which, however little circumstances may be favorable, can bring forth marvels.”

Now that does sound familiar. The Israeli road ahead, a Zionist and democratic journey, is anything but smooth. It has always been – and forever will be – a dense tangle of forks in roads.

* * *

Playback of flight FZ1163 from Flightradar24 (screenshot)

After flying over the Saudi desert, you enter Jordanian airspace at the pointy elbow of the Jordan-Saudi border and it’s more tan and RosyBrown – but here there is no human settlement. It is barren.

Soon you’re over the West Bank, over mountains and wadis. There are streams –afikim, as the Psalm describes it. Moisture. And because of that, there are clouds.

Through these cotton fluffs, you see the land articulated into hills and crevices, browns and greens, settlements and villages and roads. You fly over Atara and Rawabi and Ateret and Umm Safa and Halamish and Aboud – Jewish and Palestinian outposts of dreams and potential conflict.

You see what you’re pretty sure is the all-too-sensible geometry of Modi’in-Maccabim-Re’ut, with jutting towers and orderly neighborhoods. And just to confirm that you are indeed now back in Israel proper, you make out the unmistakable contours of the Ben Shemen highway interchange.

Soon you even see the Mediterranean in the distance, and the plane descends. You are coming back home to arguments and complaints, to dreams and hopes, to pushing and helping, to a resurrected language, to the vegans and the messianists and the soldiers and the protesters, the thieves and the dreamers.

To your family, to your history, to your future.

You are so glad, so enormously relieved, to be home that this time, when the wheels hit the ground, you actually clap.


An audio version of this piece can be heard as part of a special Independence Day episode of The Promised Podcast.

About the Author
I edit The Times of Israel's Ops & Blogs section, and I also co-host the storytelling live show and podcast WhyWhyWhy! (That needlework in my cover photo is by Yocheved Herschlag Muffs.)
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