Global Matters: Living on the fault line

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TEL AVIV — This is certainly an interesting time to be in Israel.

But isn’t it always?

As I sit in the hotel lobby following brunch in a crowded cafe, I’m reminded of prior exceptional visits to this country. There was the visit during the Second Intifada, when the hotels were empty. There was the family vacation when terrorists were caught in Jerusalem’s Old City with a minivan full of explosives.

And now, I’m here during a period of unprecedented regional instability, with the Jasmine Revolution in Egypt still unfolding right next door.

So what are Israelis talking about?

What to do now that one of the country’s two Ikea stores has burned to the ground.

In fact, the Ikea Crisis shines a light on an important aspect of life here. Notwithstanding the continuing terror threat and the encroaching chaos in the Arab world, Israel’s economy continues to grow, and people are shopping and dining out like never before.

The country’s entrepreneurial excellence is becoming the stuff of legend. Gross domestic product grew at a staggering 7.8 percent in the last quarter of 2010, none of it attributable to the export of oil or gas. China and Korea are studying the “Start-Up Nation” to see if they can import what Israel does so well.

So one has to wonder, what could this country be, what more could it accomplish, if it didn’t have to worry so much about security, if it could just make peace with its neighbors?

Americans, and maybe most westerners, tend to view these questions through our own lens, which favors negotiation based upon a foundation of what we assume are shared values and a common vision.

We all want peace. We all want security. We all want a better world for our children. Surely these basic human values support the exhaustive efforts to solve problems which are, we believe, eminently solvable.

But some see it differently. If Israel’s Arab neighbors had wanted to make peace, they would have by now. It’s been, what, 63 years since the founding of the state of Israel? And yet President Obama seems to pressure only Israel for concessions while extending his hand to the Arab world.

And how has the Arab world greeted the president’s open hand? Rather than moderate their positions, Muslim and Arab leaders have exploited his overtures to create fissures between Israel and the United States.

So Ikea notwithstanding, there is real apprehension here and the fall of Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak, coupled with mixed signals from the United States, has only exacerbated it. What is next for Egypt? Will a Muslim theocracy take root in Cairo?

For our part, we want to believe that Egypt is not Iran; that Egypt’s remarkable history and culture distinguish it from radical regimes; that the Muslim Brotherhood really has renounced violence; that the Army and the state (whatever that turns out to be) will respect Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel.

But then some inconvenient facts get in the way.

Last week Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a Sunni cleric banned from the United States and Britain, made his triumphant return to Egypt after 50 years in exile. He has been described as a moderate, but his moderation somehow encourages violence against Israel and American troops in Iraq. The Sheik was welcomed by more than a million admirers in Tahrir Square.

We also know that not only was CBS News’ Lara Logan brutally sexually assaulted in Cairo, but that several days earlier the Egyptian military had accused her of being an Israeli spy. No surprise, then, that during the assault on her the Tahrir Square mob yelled, “Jew! Jew!” as they nearly took her life.

And finally, the Egyptian military has for the first time since 1979 allowed two Iranian warships to pass through the Suez Canal en route to Syria.

I feel a lot better having received Egypt’s assurances that there are no nukes or chemical weapons on board, don’t you?

Americans are an optimistic, future-focused people. We believe we can overcome anything. Hope triumphs over experience.

In Israel, not so much. Optimism is for those who don’t know any better. Optimism leads to being caught with your pants down. Optimism can be dangerous.

So here, in some respects, you sleep with one eye open. You build a society. You make the desert bloom. You create wealth, you cure disease, and, yes, you shop at Ikea.

But you don’t waste time on fools’ errands, and you don’t allow yourself to believe what is too good to be true.

And therein, from an American perspective, lies the problem.

Sidebar Elements

Perry B. Newman is a South Portland resident and president of Atlantica Group, an international business consulting firm based in Portland, with clients in North America, Israel and Europe. He is also chairman of the Maine District Export Council.