Opinion // Israel: “Close to Perfect”
A bereaved mother reflects the surprisingly optimistic Israeli outlook.
by Shmuel Rosner
Rachel Fraenkel, mother of Naftali Fraenkel, one of the three Israeli teens whose kidnapping and murder started the current crisis, recently gave her first lengthy interview to Yediot Daily. It was clear that she is an impressive woman, wise, calm and sober, and that her tragedy has catapulted her into a yet-to-be-defined leadership position. But what people all around me are still talking about is the way this interview ended.
“Life is so good, after all,” the grieving mother told her interviewer. Her son was 16 years old when, hitchhiking his way home, he was lured into the car of Hamas terrorists and slain with his two friends, Eyal Yifrah and Gilad Sha’er. Yet his mother refused to be despairing and bitter. She concluded her comments with the following jaw-dropping sentence: “People ask me, ‘How are you, Racheli?’ And I say, ‘You want the truth? Close to perfect.’”
“Close to perfect” (in Hebrew, “kim’at mushlam”) should probably be the motto for all Israelis now. If I understand Fraenkel correctly, the phrase contains no kernel of sarcasm. It is a call to look at the glass as half-full even when circumstances seem dire. There is still war around Gaza, rockets are still falling from the sky, and Israeli civilians are still drafted for reserve duty. Hamas is not yet tamed, Israel is often denounced in international forums, and there is growing frustration with the government’s inability to end the strife. And yet—and yet—Israel is doing fine. The number of civilian casualties is minuscule. There is a strong sense of unity and purpose. There is strong support for the military and its actions. Look around the region and then look back at Israel, with all of its many problems, and you’ll realize that in a broader sense, it really is almost perfect.
Last week, former minister Dan Meridor, one of Israel’s most experienced politicians, interrupted his vacation in the Galilee Mountains to meet with a group of American visitors brought by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). We should remember, he told them, the days when Israel’s north was constantly under rocket attacks and the days when Israel’s eastern border was constantly infiltrated by Fedayeen, gangs of armed Palestinians. We should also remember the days—years—when buses and cafés blew up in cities all around the country. So now we have rockets from Gaza. That’s unpleasant, and we should fight to put a stop to it, but it is also not the end of the world. Israel can absorb it and keep moving forward.
Of course everything is not really perfect. The “almost” hints at the work still to be done. One thing that needs urgent attention is the curious gap, possibly the widest gap ever, between how Israelis see themselves and their situation and how the world looks at them. This is somewhat troubling, even dangerous. It makes Israel a bubble where conversation is largely detached from the conversation about Israel elsewhere. Unsurprisingly, the more Israelis see international players criticize Israel, the more Israelis feel isolated and cling to their own narrative. The more Hamas shoots at Israel, the more Israelis become indifferent to the narrative that highlights the suffering of Palestinians in Gaza.
Of course, Israelis have good reasons to feel isolated: The reaction of critics in the world to Israel’s necessary action is hypocritical and enraging. And to become indifferent: When at war, occupying oneself with the suffering of the enemy is a disruption. Israelis must accomplish a tricky maneuver. They must keep eye contact with a world of which they are a part, while fighting a war that the world doesn’t seem to understand—or want to understand. It’s easy to feel righteous over the British foolishness or anti-Semitism that led the Sainsbury grocery store to remove kosher food from its shelves. What’s hard is to find a way to prevent such incidents. And a too-strong sense of righteousness makes it harder by rendering Israelis somewhat deaf to other viewpoints.
But really, what solutions do they hear from outside observers? Critics of Israel’s policy focus on its many failures to advance a viable peace process. But it’s not easy to connect the dots between a calmer Gaza and a peace process with the Palestinian Authority. Some people now claim that Hamas attacks Israel because of the lack of a viable peace process; but the same people used to say that Hamas attacks Israel to stop a viable peace process. And those preaching for Israel to ease its restrictions on imports to Gaza offer no good mechanism to prevent these imports from helping Hamas bolster its military capabilities.
One thing Israelis understand better than most of the rest of the world (though the Egyptian government also seems to get it) is why Hamas wants to build these capabilities. The more power Hamas has, the less likely that it will ever hand Gaza to the Palestinian Authority and the more brutal the next round of fighting will be.
In fact, the most efficient defense of the Gaza population is Israel’s Iron Dome. Since Israel doesn’t have to absorb many casualties, it can respond to the fire from Gaza with relative restraint. If Hamas gets more arms and the power to inflict more damage, Israelis will be hurt—but Palestinians will be hurt worse. Those wanting Israel to worry about Palestinian suffering should realize that the current state of affairs is much better than most alternatives.
The only better alternative for Gazans—and in this they have something in common with Israelis—would be to weaken Hamas or topple its rule over Gaza. Gaza without Hamas would still be cursed with poverty and radicalism, needing vast investments. It would still be a huge headache for any policymaker truly attempting to assist its civilians. Getting rid of Hamas rule would not make the Gaza situation perfect for either Palestinians or for their Israeli neighbors.
But maybe it would be a tiny bit closer to perfect.
Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor for The Jewish Journal and contributing opinion columnist for The International New York Times.