Tel Aviv, Israel
It is hard to spend a week in Israel and not come away feeling that Israelis have the wind at their backs.
They’ve built an awesome high-tech industry, and everyone’s kid seems to work for a startup. Even Israeli Arabs have caught the bug — the number studying for B.A. degrees at Israeli universities rose 60 percent in the past seven years, to 47,000. Regionally, the Arabs and Palestinians have never been weaker, and under President Donald Trump, Israel has never had a more unquestioningly friendly United States. Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, asking Israel for nothing in return. The Arab states barely made a peep.
Alas, though, all of this wind has whetted the appetite of Israel’s settlers and ruling Likud Party to go to extremes. Reuters reported Dec. 31 that the “Likud Party unanimously urged legislators in a nonbinding resolution ... to effectively annex Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, land that Palestinians want for a future state.”
Sure, the world would scream “apartheid,” but Israeli rightists shrug that the world will get used to it.
And then it popped into my head: I’ve seen this play before. It was May 17, 1983 — the day Israel, a year after invading Lebanon, signed a peace accord with Beirut. “Signed” isn’t exactly right. Israel (backed by the U.S.) imposed virtually all its security demands on a weak Lebanese government, including a framework for normalizing trade and diplomacy.
Back then, Israel also had a right-wing leader, Menachem Begin, embraced by a superfriendly President Ronald Reagan. Egypt had just signed a peace treaty and dropped out of the conflict, and another young Arab leader — Lebanese Christian warlord Bashir Gemayel — beckoned Israel to join him in crushing the Palestinians and remaking the Middle East together.
My Washington Post Beirut colleague Jonathan Randal wrote a book about that moment, “Going All The Way: Christian Warlords, Israeli Adventurers and the War in Lebanon.”
I always loved that title — going all the way. It’s a recurring theme out here, and it almost always ends with a “Thelma and Louise” moment — partners driving over a cliff — and so it did with Israel in 1983.
Lebanese militias, led by Hezbollah, quickly emerged to resist the May 17 treaty. On March 5, 1984, only 10 months after it was signed, I wrote from Beirut: “Lebanon today formally canceled its troop withdrawal accord with Israel,” marking “the end of the so-called ‘Israeli era’ in Lebanese politics and to shift Lebanon solidly back into the Syrian-Arab fold.”
Why do I tell this story? Because everywhere I look today I see people going all the way.
I see Republicans trashing two of our most sacred institutions — the FBI and the Justice Department — because these agencies won’t bend to Trump’s will. I see Iran controlling four Arab capitals: Damascus, Sanaa, Baghdad and Beirut. I see Hamas still more interested in building tunnels in Gaza to kill Israelis than schools to strengthen Palestinian society.
I see Turkey’s president silencing every critical journalist in his country. I see the Egyptian and Russian presidents eliminating all serious rivals in their upcoming elections. I see Bibi Netanyahu trying to derail a corruption investigation by weakening Israel’s justice system, free media and civil society — just like Trump and for the same purposes: to weaken constraints on his arbitrary use of political power.
Worst of all, I see an America — the world’s strongest guardian of truth, science and democratic norms — now led by a serial liar and norms destroyer, giving license to everyone else to ask, “Why can’t I?”
Can anything stop this epidemic of going all the way? Yes: Mother Nature, human nature and markets. They’ll all push back when no one else will.
Look at Gaza. Due largely to Hamas’ malevolence and incompetence, but also some Israeli restrictions, Gaza has limited hours of electricity each day. Result: Gaza’s already inadequate sewage plants are often offline, and waste goes untreated straight into the Mediterranean.
Then the prevailing current washes Gaza’s poop north, where it clogs Israel’s big desalination plant in Ashkelon — which provides 15 percent of Israel’s drinking water, explains EcoPeace Middle East, the environmental NGO. In both 2016 and 2017, the Ashkelon plant had to close to clean Gaza’s crud out of its filters. It’s Mother Nature’s way of reminding both that if they try to go all the way, if they shun a healthy interdependence, she’ll poison them both.
Iran’s military boss, Qasem Suleimani, thinks he’s a big man on campus. His proxies control four Arab capitals. All bow down. But then out of nowhere, Iranians back home start protesting against Suleimani’s overreach; they’re tired of seeing their money spent on Gaza and Syria — not on Iranians. And, just as suddenly, the biggest internet meme in Iran becomes an Iranian woman ripping off her veil and holding it up on the end of a stick.
And if you don’t think markets have a way of curing excesses, you weren’t paying attention when the Dow Jones dropped almost 1,200 points last Monday.
So to all of you going all the way, I say: Watch out for the market, Mother Nature and human nature. Because, noted Israeli political theorist Yaron Ezrahi, the first two are “uncontrollable and the other is irrepressible.”
Thomas Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times.