On Hold in Israel

The turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa has the country on edge, but not all change is for the worse, says expert

Dana Blander

With much of the Arab world in tumult, Israel is understandably anxious, says an Israeli political scientist who is currently teaching at Tufts. But the only thing the Israelis can do is watch events in the region unfold, she says—as difficult as that may be for a country obsessed with security issues.

“Now is a state of wait and see,” says Dana Blander, a visiting lecturer in political science in the School of Arts and Sciences. “From the Israeli side, nobody wants to make a move, because no one knows where things are going to end.”

Blander, a researcher with the Israel Democracy Institute, an independent, non-partisan think tank based in Jerusalem, says that during the three weeks of protest in Egypt before Hosni Mubarak relinquished power, many commentators in Israel were speculating that his departure would be bad for Israel. It was Mubarak, after all, who had ensured that the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel remained intact. But, she points out, the revolt against Mubarak was driven by conditions within Egypt rather than that nation’s relationship with Israel.

The result of the upheaval, from Israel’s point of view, is far from certain, Blander suggests. “I think nobody knows, not even the Egyptians themselves, where this will take them. I think the internal issue at the moment is for Egypt to decide what kind of democracy they want—what kind of constitution,” she says.

“Some people always think change is for the worse, just because it’s change,” she adds. “The turmoil has created instability in the short term, which of course makes Israel a bit anxious about its security, the future of the peace treaty and relations with the Arab world.”

Her advice? “I think the best thing is to sit and wait,” she says. The result might not be as bad as some people fear. “Nobody expected that Anwar Sadat, after the Yom Kippur war, would come to Israel, but he did. You never know where the peace will come from. Nobody expected Ariel Sharon to withdraw from Gaza and evacuate settlements. The Middle East is very surprising.”

Context Is Everything

Blander, who is spending the year at Tufts through the Schusterman Visiting Israeli Professors program, is teaching two courses this semester that center on Israeli culture and politics. One, Israeli Political System: A Guide for the Perplexed, looks at the governmental structure and domestic politics; the other, Being Israeli and Israeli Being, is a seminar that examines history, society and identity through books and film.

Whether discussing the internal tensions among Israel’s many political parties, the outlook of Israel’s far-from-homogeneous population, the highly charged subject of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the current turmoil in the Middle East, Blander says it’s important to consider context.

“You cannot judge and you cannot understand anything before you get to know the context—and context is never simple,” she says. “If at the end you become a critic of Israel or you become a supporter of Israel, what really matters is that you first need to know the context, the complexity of what it’s like to live in Israel and be an Israeli. We won’t resolve any issues, but we’ll be able to have opinions that are more solid and based on understanding.”

The same is true for Israel’s take on the recent uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, she says. The point to remember is that Israel’s primary concern is how any developments will affect its security.

“The Middle East is not a stable place,” she says. “But the fact that there were autocrats, dictatorships, had some element of stabilizing parts of the Middle East. Now the rules have changed.” Within Israel, she says, “the majority of leaders are actually thinking about the process not from a democratization point of view, but from a security-of-Israel point of view."

“I understand the fear in Israel from the instability, because it’s always easier to deal with something that you’re already familiar with. It’s the state of instability and uncertainty that Israel finds hard to deal with,” she says.

If that last comment sounds as much like psychological analysis as political speculation, it’s because Blander is also trained as a clinical psychologist. Her research often looks at the interplay between the private and public spheres and how political processes reflect psychological conflict, and vice versa.

“It’s important to know the inner dynamics of the individual, and when you look at the individual, you find the society in which he grew up,” she says, “and it’s that everyday reality that shapes politics.”


Helene Ragovin can be reached at helene.ragovin@tufts.edu.


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