Opportunity knocks

Is it possible that when you clink glasses and say, “Happy New Year,” someone is actually listening?

That’s what it felt like this week, with two enormous pieces of good news to start the year off.

First there was outgoing Mossad director Meir Dagan’s assessment that Iran’s ability to produce nuclear weapons is not as close as was once thought, is perhaps even as far away as 2015. For the past decade, Israelis have been warning that Nuclear Mullahs are just around the corner. Even when they moved the End Times back, it was never more than a year or two. After Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu bristled at Dagan’s optimistic assessment, the spy chief reeled it in a year, but the fact remains: This is very good news.

What happened? Analysts credit the focused efforts of President Barack Obama, who made strengthening sanctions against Iran a priority. But, even more effective, covert activities carried out by Israel and America have severely hampered the Iranians’ nuclear capabilities. Last weekend, The New York Times provided the most complete account to date of the Stuxnet computer virus, which experts say Israel likely developed.

This past Sunday at the Skirball Cultural Center, former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel used carefully coded language to tell a packed room at the annual conference of the American Friends of The Hebrew University’s Western Region that the Obama administration deserves some credit for Stuxnet.

“In some circumlocutions,” one attendee reported back to me, “he confirmed the Stuxnet story and the fact that it was approved. He said, ‘If you assume that what was in the New York Times was true, you have to assume that something like that couldnt happen without approval at the highest level.’” 

Silently, bloodlessly, the virus crippled thousands of Iranian centrifuges.  

That, combined with a series of unfortunate events that have befallen top Iranian nuclear scientists, gave us all the gift of time.

The second piece of good news came from Tunisia. On Jan 14, in the first popular Arab uprising against a dictator, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was deposed, forcing him to flee to Saudi Arabia after 23 years of despotic rule. The Times’ Roger Cohen called it “The Arab Gdansk,” proclaiming the overthrow to be as potentially momentous as the riots in a Polish shipyard that led to the crumbling of the Soviet bloc.

“Not once in my 43 years have I thought that I’d see an Arab leader toppled by his people,” Mona Eltahawy wrote in The Washington Post (another piece by Eltahawy on Tunisia appears on Page 10). “It is nothing short of poetic justice that it was neither Islamists nor invasion-in-the-name-of-democracy that sent the waters rushing onto Ben Ali’s ship but, rather, the youth of his country.”

Eltahawy and others, among them former Beirut Star editor Rami Khouri, believe that the Tunisian New Year’s uprising may have a profound effect on young, disenfranchised and unemployed Arab youth from Cairo to Tripoli, inspiring them to throw off their sclerotic despots as well.

For Israel, 2011 is off to an especially good start. Through foresight and ingenuity, the state has managed to delay an existential threat from Iran that it once believed imminent, allowing for, over the next three years, even more effective sanctions to take hold and further cripple the Mullahs, or a change in leadership that might bring a more conciliatory regime. Or perhaps Iran could go the way of Tunisia — who knows?

As for Tunisia, if countries could say, “I told you so,” Israel would be well within its rights. It turns out that it is not the Israeli occupation or Zionist expansionism or the Mossad conspiracies that can enrage the Arab masses to the point of open revolt — it is their own leaders, who have used Israel, waving it like a red flag in front of the angry mobs to distract them from their own corrupt, incompetent rule. Go ahead, Israel, say it: “I told you so.”

However, if, as the saying goes, a crisis is a terrible thing to waste, so is good news. Israel and its American supporters now have some time to step out of crisis mode and figure out how to be safe, not just for the next four years, but also for the next 40. Israel must shore up what it is that has made the country strong enough and resilient enough to face down these external threats: its democracy. 

Israel rightly bills itself as “the only democracy in the Middle East,” a crucial selling point in the halls of the U.S. Congress, in public opinion here and, perhaps most importantly, in American Jewish opinion. But Israel’s democracy is imperiled by a policy of occupation that is now almost a half-century old. At some point in the not-too-distant future, Israel will have to give the Palestinians whose lives it controls the vote or the boot — either course will spell the end of the Jewish state or of Jewish democracy.

Within Israel, voices from the far right have called for parliamentary investigations of center- and left-leaning NGOs and for discrimination against Israel’s Arab minority. This is also a a threat to democracy.

If an organization is accused of a crime, let the attorney general bring charges. Anything else is a witch-hunt. As for Arab Israelis, the sooner Israel integrates them fully into society and makes use of their energy and potential, the faster its economy and civil society will grow and improve.

Americans who want to help Israel can help fast-track these difficult steps. Because the best way to kill the good buzz of the past two weeks is to imagine that in 10 years, “the only democracy in the Middle East” will be Tunisia.