TEL AVIV, Israel — One of the most popular shows on Israeli TV is called “Eretz Nehederet” or “A Wonderful Country.” It’s a comedy show that lives to make fun of Israeli politicians and the absurdities of life here. It recently opened its 2014 season with a cartoon graphic of a beautiful, multicolored, flower-filled garden with a butterfly fluttering across the screen. Then, suddenly, a concrete wall rises up all around the garden, which was an image the producers used last year. But this season, not only does the wall emerge but a glass dome rises out of the wall and seals off this Garden of Eden from above as well.
This scene is noteworthy for a couple of reasons: I’ve long believed that the Israeli-Arab conflict is to the wider global war of civilizations what off-Broadway is to Broadway. It is the small laboratory where trends get tested first, or are perfected, and then go global — from airline hijacking to suicide bombing to the attempt, through force and rebuilding, to create a negotiating partner out of a traditional foe (Israel in Lebanon 1982 and with the Palestinians in the Oslo process; America in Iraq and Afghanistan).
So it is useful to ask: What’s playing off-Broadway now? What do you see? You see Israel, as in the “Eretz Nehederet” skit, literally trying to wall itself off from the multiplying threats around it and contending with all the ethical dilemmas that entails. And you see a wider region that is no longer divided along pro-U.S. and pro-Soviet lines, socialist or capitalist, secular or religious. You see instead a region increasingly divided between “the world of order” and “the world of disorder.”
What Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kurdistan, Turkey, the Gulf states and even to a lesser degree the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank all have in common is that they are islands of order, where at least there is someone to answer the phone, it doesn’t come off the wall when they do and there is a minimum of human security.
That is less and less true today in Syria, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Lebanon and Iraq, not to mention nearby Somalia, Eritrea and northern and southern Sudan.
Guess how many African migrants, mostly from South Sudan, Eritrea and Uganda, have entered Israel in recent years and are here illegally: 54,000! Stroll around the Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv, where many have found shelter, and you’ll see African men on cellphones on every street. They sailed, walked or drove to Israel’s borders and either slipped in on their own or were smuggled in by Bedouins across Egypt’s Sinai Desert. That’s why the latest fence Israel has built is along the Israel-Sinai frontier. The Sinai is so out of control that last week Islamist militants shot down an Egyptian military helicopter there with a surface-to-air missile believed to have been smuggled in from Libya after Moammar Gadhafi’s arsenals were broken into during his overthrow.
I chatted with a Christian Eritrean — “Mark,” age 26 — who opened a makeshift clothing and Internet shop near the bus station. Sitting under a Bob Marley poster, he told me that he had fled from Eritrea’s brutal government to Ethiopia, then to Sudan, then to Libya, tried to sail to Italy but got turned back and eventually walked to Israel. He’s now living here illegally with his father, he said, because Israel has the “most security.”
I wonder if the torrid pace of technological change, the rising education demands for running a successful economy, the superempowerment of individuals to organize as militants or come together against corrupt governments and environmental and population stresses aren’t putting unbearable pressure on fragile states — particularly multisectarian and multitribal ones — and literally blowing them apart. And there is no Soviet Union or America to hold them together as in the Cold War.
The PowerPoint maps that Israeli military briefers use for Sinai, Gaza, Lebanon and Syria today consist of multicolored circles, and inside each are clusters of different armed groups. Israel is like a Petri dish of the new world, with nonstate actors, armed with rockets, dressed as civilians and nested among civilians on four out of its five borders: Sinai, Gaza, Lebanon and Syria.
I understand why all this makes even some moderate Israeli military leaders more wary about any West Bank withdrawal. But the status quo is not neutral. Israel needs to do all it can to avoid turning itself into a kind of forced binational state — with a hostile minority in its belly — by permanently holding onto the West Bank and its 2.5 million Palestinians. That’s exactly the kind of states blowing up in the world of disorder. And it’s why the success of John Kerry’s peace mission is so important for Israelis, and Palestinians.
You don’t want to be in these wars. This is not your grandfather’s battlefield. When the enemy is nested in homes and apartments and no one wears a uniform but everyone has a cellphone camera, you have a real strategic and moral challenge — as the United States has discovered with its own drone wars. It’s hard to defeat this enemy without killing a lot of civilians. It’s no accident that every Israeli brigade now has a legal adviser.
This is what’s playing off-Broadway. Take note. It may be coming to a theater near you.