Up until the mid-1960s, when I was young, the television news and airwaves at this time of year were full of references to the "Holy Land." There were endless melodious carols and much sacred music portraying cities such as Bethlehem and Jerusalem, and many other geographic names such as the Jordan River, and even Babylon, in sanctified tones, as quiet, spiritual places. Of course, decades of bloodshed, terrorism, and confected and orchestrated sectarian hatred have engulfed the region since those days and have diluted those Christmas time references and altered the tenor of seasonal comment.
After the freshet of euphoric early responses to the so-called Arab Spring, it has become fashionable to wring hands and declaim the dire challenges to Israel. The usual sources of placatory advice for the Jewish state cranked up to maximum volume as Tom Friedman and his benign but rather predictable ilk warned the Israeli government to stop building settlements and put out a conciliatory peace proposal to the Arab powers before the Muslim Brotherhood took over in Cairo. There appears to be a widespread consensus that Israel's position has never been more precarious, especially in the light of Turkey's recent belligerent posturings and abandonment of its longstanding kindly disposition toward the Jewish state.
It is a proverbially tumultuous area, and predictions about the Middle East are extremely hazardous, but I think that Israel's prospects have never been brighter. The Arab powers are in complete disarray within and among each other. The Islamists may be gaining ground but all indications are that the Arab masses are finally becoming more skeptical about the endless recourse to the red herring of Israel by their leaders to distract them from the despotism and misrule that has been imposed upon them by theocracies and secular states alike throughout the post-colonial era.
Even if the Islamists shoulder aside the military in Egypt, only the military could return to a war policy against Israel and the Egyptian army won't do it. The hotheads can burn the Israeli flag in Tahrir Square in Cairo and even sack the Israeli embassy as they started to do last month, but no one is taking Egypt back to war with Israel.
Syrian President Bashir Assad cannot survive as the absolute ruler of that country. The sequential litmus test of this sort of discontent are: Will the regime order that live ammunition be fired at the people? (The shah and Mubartrak failed this test.) Will the order be carried out? (Ceausescu failed this test and they shot him instead.) And if it is carried out, will it subdue the unrest? Assad, like Qadaffi, is failing this test.
There are steady defections from the Syrian army, pressures from the Arab league, which is always ineffectual but is something of a weather vane, and the Syrian army is incapable of silencing discontent as Assad's father did with the wholesale murder of thousands of his countrymen with chemical weapons. The enfeeblement of Syria will weaken Hezbollah and Hamas, and fray the supply line from Iran, and reduce pressure on Israel.
The Palestinian attempt at U.N. membership has failed; the claimed community of interest between Hamas and the PLO is a Swiss cheese, the ultimate quarrel among thieves; West Bank prosperity continues to increase and violence in Israel is at a recent historic low. There have been large oil and natural gas discoveries just offshore in Israel; the problems of Europe are in distinct contrast to Israel's sharply rising levels of prosperity and economic growth. And the new state of South Sudan is decrying Arab racism, and Muslim racism generally against black peoples, and has cracked the solidarity of the Arab-led claque in international organizations which has turned many of those organizations into Israel-bashing fronts. It is setting up its embassy in Israel in Jerusalem.
No Arab country has stable political institutions, and none of the non-oil producing Arab states can generate any serious economic growth. After the usual posturing and primping, this fact will take hold in Egypt. The agitation about settlements is nonsense. Israel demonstrated in Sinai and in Gaza that it is prepared to uproot settlers for peace. This is just another episode in the protracted Arab canard about trading an instantly revocable peace for irretrievable Israeli concessions of land. Israel should just continue to prosper and build its economy, and not negotiate with any entity that does not accept at the outset the right to exist of the Jewish state, albeit with borders still to be defined precisely.
Except perhaps for the demented genocidal ravings from Tehran, which may have to await a new administration in Washington to receive the abatement it requires, the rest of Muslim sabre-rattling against Israel is just histrionics. Turkey won't send anymore ships to Palestine, and nothing will happen in the Arab world until some of the Arab countries, like the Eastern Muslims (Indonesia and Malaysia), develop some capacity for self-government, generate economic growth, and start to bootstrap themselves out of underdevelopment, as East and South Asia and most of Latin America have been doing.
References to the Holy Land are rare. And Christmas carols and sacred music that celebrate wondrous events and saintly people in the Biblical lands may hit a wall of momentary implausibility. But more purposeful hymns like "Onward Christian Soldiers" still resonate well.
So does Hatikvah.
I wish all readers a happy 2012.