Friday, August 19, 2011

A Tense Weekend In Israel

The Jerusalem light rail system opened today after extensive delays. As the new trains roll up and down Yaffo street, they are absolutely packed with people, many of them young religious children. But the excitement about the system is tampered in the wake of yesterday's horrific attacks in Israel's south which killed eight Israelis.

Experiencing these attacks from within the country, one gets a sense of the domestic political considerations as well as the international ones most often the subject of discussion in Washington. The key point to keep in mind is that people here are not just "used" to terrorism. The attacks in Eilat yesterday were just as shocking as a complex attack in Fairfax, VA would be for residents of the nation's capital. As a result, people here feel afraid, and out of control. Their nightmares about the chaos in the region are, in the Israeli mind, becoming confirmed by an attack in which terrorists came from Gaza to Egypt and then into Israel.

The lack of control people feel here isn't something most Americans have felt in a very long time. That a rocket could come at any minute, that one's bus could suffer a shooting attack at any moment, is no way for people to live. Obviously, life in the Palestinian territories is far from a cake walk given the very difficult political and security situation there. But here in Israel, the Palestinian's problems are theoretical, while theirs are here and now. It is this immediacy which most strongly impacts the Israeli mentality.

As a result, Israelis become more likely to support harsh action in the Gaza Strip, even if those policies are not the most efficient options at Israel's disposal. Being able to pound targets and blow up terrorists is a way to regain some sense of control. Emotion is never the best guide for policymaking, but it is intrinsically a powerful influence. Being in the country now, it is very easy to understand why Israelis often support action which in the end contributes to an ongoing cycle of violence. The need to feel control, furthermore, has become exacerbated in a world in which Israelis feel they are targeted by all their neighbors in the region, and one in which they see the international community as complacent towards their well-being.

So what do these domestic political dynamics mean for US policymakers? There are three major guiding principles which can help shape a more effective approach towards advancing US interests with regards to Israel:

1) Avoid policies which frame Israeli leaders' choices as one of reassuring their people or reassuring the United States. Yesterday's comments from the White House Press Secretary are a perfect example of the successful execution of this principle. The US didn't give Israel a blank check, but did give it enough wiggle room to mount a response to those who perpetrated the attack.

2) Frame US policy preferences in terms which reassure Israelis and legitimize that they experience fear. Promote the idea that a tempered and intelligent response, and not falling into a terrorist group's mental trap, shows the strength of Israel and its people.

3) Understand that politics aside, everyone in this region is only human. For these citizens of the Middle East, the conflict isn't a heated discussion at a party or a conversation over catering from Corner Bakery. It's a situation which makes day to day life frustrating and difficult. The people in this region deserve better than that.

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