Monday 2 January 2012

The Best and Worst of 2011

As we welcome 2012, it gives the opportunity to reflect on the best and worst parts of 2011.  In Israel, 2011 was an eventful year, including a number of interesting and challenging events.  For some, it was a year that they would prefer to forget.  Despite many negative aspects to the year, I think that Israelis will regard 2011 as having been a year that was more positive than negative.  Here are the main reasons why I think that this was the case.

The best story coming out of 2011 was the release of captured Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit.  It is not only the fact that Gilad was returned safely to the arms of his family that makes this story good.  The fact that the Israeli government was finally able to agree and execute this deal sends some amazingly strong and positive statements to all Israelis.  For me, this is a classic story where the right thing finally triumphed.  Like all good stories, this has a negative side to it as well.  I really cannot blame all of those who opposed the deal due to the "price" that had to be paid in terms of the number of Palestinian prisoners who were released, even those who have murdered Israelis.  I also know how paranoid the Israel Defense Force (IDF) is about the possibility of soldiers being kidnapped in the future, and the measures that have been put in place to try to avoid this at any price.  I feel that working to avoid future kidnappings is a better reaction than leaving Gilad in captivity under the conditions that he was held.  This was, by far, the highlight of the year in my view.

Another good story of 2011 was that of the social protests.  Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to demonstrate against lack of social justice, and of the dramatic increases in the cost of living without commensurate increases in earnings.  This was a great story for a number of reasons.  It was good to see the Israeli public having the time and energy to devote to social issues, and behaving in a manner that most "normal" countries behave.  In the 63 years since Israel's independence, most of the time has been spent worrying about an existential threat.  Wars have been fought, terror attacks overcome and many people have been left dead and injured.  This allows little time or energy to give even a fleeting thought to daily social issues.  The fact that hundreds of thousands of Israelis were able to come out into the street to protest social issues gives some indication that the existential threat is not quite at the same level as it has been in the past.  It also shows what Israelis really care about, and shows the real democracy that exists in Israel.  On all of these levels, the protests were extremely encouraging.  These good points, however, should not cause us to lose sight of the core issue of these protests - the economic inequality and hardships that many people are suffering.  Unfortunately, the government has not responded sufficiently to the message of the protest marches, and this issue is likely to plague us for some time yet.

A further good story for 2011 was the extent to which the economy succeeded in holding up during the year.  Even though this seems to be at odds with the message brought by the social protest movement, more Israelis were in employment during 2011 than at any other time in Israel's history.  In addition, while economies around the world were floundering and suffering all types of economic problems, Israel somehow managed to keep its economy on track.  This does not mean that the year translated into a boom year for Israel.  It does, however, continue the theme of displaying a real underlying strength to Israel's economy that was shown during 2008 when the credit crunch hit many economies so hard.  Once again in 2011, Israel's economy has performed admirably.  Along with the good things, come some very difficult questions.  Why are so many Israelis struggling financially when the economy is at almost full employment?  This is clearly something that needs to be addressed as part of the social equality agenda.

The major regional story this year was the unfolding of the Arab Spring in countries in the Middle East and North Africa.  The way in which the Arab Spring has swept through the region could never have been predicted.  Even though this is great news for democracy in the Middle East, it has created an instability that is proving to be negative for Israel, and many countries in the western world.  While the free world has an obligation to support the move towards democracy in principle, there is a real problem about whether these countries are really ready to embrace democracy.  In many respects, stability in the Arab world is more important than democracy.  As things seem at the moment, the two don't seem to be able to live side by side.  The change of regime in Egypt is particularly concerning, with the increasing popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood.  The protest movement in Syria also promises some dramatic changes to regional politics, and they are not necessarily all going to be positive.

The second major regional story surrounds Iran's development of nuclear weapons.  2011 can be characterised as a year of confirmation and inaction where this is concerned.  The international community were presented with irrefutable evidence of Iran's development of nuclear missiles.  Even the International Atomic Energy Agency were forced to accept that Israel's representations about Iran's nuclear program have been correct all along.  Having had this fact confirmed, the best that the international community could muster up, were a few ineffectual sanctions.  It has become clear that Iran is not only setting out to threaten Israel.  The events over the past few days in the Straits of Hormuz are a clear challenge to the US.  The military exercise on this occasion closed the straights for only a short period of time.  The next time could be for longer, precipitating a potential military conflict with the USA.

Despite the fact that 2011 was a hugely eventful year, it seems only to have set the scene for what awaits us in 2012.  Israel's social justice movement is likely to be more vociferous, particularly if the economy suffers more than it did in 2011.  The government will need to be prepared to commit to spend more money on social issues, and to see these promises through.  This is an issue that is no less imporant than Israel's security challenges.

The Arab Spring will come to a head in Syria.  It seems as though the Sunni Muslims, who represent over 70% of the population, are likely to gain the ascendancy after having been ruled by the minority Alawites for many years.  The Spring could yet spread to other countries in the region, and this could present a greater threat to Israel as more of her neighbours became destabilised by these events. 

I expect that 2012 will also see the Iranian nuclear issue come to a head, as Iran continues to intimidate and provoke Israel, the USA and other western countries.  All of this adds up to 2012 looking to be a tough year.

In between the pessimistic expectations are a few rays of light.  Even though I expect a great deal of instability during 2012, it is my hope that this will then bring a period of greater stability as is often the case.  I also hope that the unfolding Arab Spring can create a new, more compromising, reality with the Palestinians to allow moves towards a genuine peace based on mutual recognition and respect.

It is my hope and prayer that 2012 holds only great things for all of you.  Happy new year!!

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