Betwixt and between at age 65

By Sagi Melamed

The age 65 used to be considered the beginning of the end, the milestone where the end of the road can be glimpsed.  But today 65 is the age of transition, of betwixt and between.  It is the period betwixt and between maturing – getting an education, starting a career and raising a family – and the “golden years,” the time of life in which one may enjoy what one has accumulated: equanimity and the privileges of leisure time and freedom of choice.

As Israel reaches the age of 65, it looks as if this year will be a year of flux.  A year of change.  A year of transition.  A year of betwixt and between.

I want to present a few words on “betwixt and between” relating to security, politics, and diplomacy.

Even back in the days when I was doing my army service, over 25 years ago, I would hear that the regime of the Syrian President Assad (senior) was on its last legs.  Somehow those shaky legs managed to hold up for more than 40 years, but today they are about to collapse underneath the regime.

Friday evening, on my way home from synagogue.  A friendly conversation on the sidewalk.  The Shabbat chicken soup will wait another few minutes while I have a little chat with a neighbor, whom I shall call Yotam.  Yotam is an officer in an elite infantry brigade, the pride of the IDF, the first to be sent to the Syrian border.  This Shabbat he was home with his wife and small children.  “What’s new on the northern border?” I asked.  “We’re in a period of betwixt and between,” replied my neighbor.  “We IDF commanders are seeing history in the making.  The regime of Assad (junior) has surprised us with how long it’s lasted against the rebels, but sooner or later it’s going to collapse.  The tense but stable peace that’s prevailed in the Golan for the last 40 years is about to change – it’s just not clear how it’s going to change, so we’re training for different scenarios.  The situation is very murky, a lot more is unknown than is known.  Doctrines that have guided us for decades are soon going to become irrelevant in the face of the new reality.  This is without doubt a period of betwixt and between.”

After Shabbat dinner I immersed myself in my customary reading of the weekend papers.  The front pages were full of the economic measures that Yair Lapid, our new Finance Minister, is getting ready to serve up to us.  The newspapers discussed the new ministers’ first steps at length.  The “new politicians” — those who have just entered politics — are in their 100-day grace period, so the media are still treating them with kid gloves.  But the grace period will end as summer begins, bringing with it heat waves and irritation, and accounts will surely be settled with the politicians.  As a rule, Israelis do not tolerate very much from their elected officials.

Perhaps I am indulging in wishful thinking, or perhaps the green Galilee spring that has not yet abandoned us to the yellow of summer has left me viewing the situation through rose-colored glasses.  But I think a new wind is blowing in Israeli politics.  During the first decade of the third millennium there was a marked decline in the level of public trust in its institutions (as one can see from the publications of the Israel Democracy Institute).  But now, following the elections in January and the formation of the new government, the Israeli public seems more likely to believe that its representatives acquired their positions for the right reasons, for altruistic reasons, and that they truly are trying to serve us faithfully.

One day at lunch in the college cafeteria I sat with Erez.  Erez is about 30, and he works in the communications department at the college.  I asked his opinion of the political situation in Israel.  “I’m optimistic,” he said.  “I’ve started to trust politicians again.  I think Lapid and Bennett are working for our benefit, they’re not just out for themselves.  Look what Lapid did to that tycoon who wanted to leave the country so he would pay less taxes on his profits from selling Israel’s natural resources.”  I believe that Erez voices the thoughts of many.  I am hopeful that politically, too, we are in a period of betwixt and between.

The IDF’s armored corps developed a technique to allow its forces to go through a minefield.  To reduce the time and to prevent unnecessary danger to the mine-clearing troops, they use an “armored snake” – a device that fires a rocket attached to a chain with explosives, which explode in the minefield and clear a path for the armored forces to go through safely.  I consider the recent visit to Israel of the US President Barack Obama to be a kind of “armored snake” that prepared the ground for additional diplomatic forces and initiatives in our region.

Americans believe “there are no free lunches.”  Obama certainly did not come to Israel merely to compliment Mrs. Netanyahu, to be photographed with Israeli soldiers who operate an Iron Dome battery, and to take the Israeli public by storm.  We will soon need to settle the bill for this lunch, and perhaps that is all for the good.  A little gentle pressure from friends is sometimes efficacious for a country, showing it the wisdom of doing the right thing.  Unsettling developments such as the resignation of the Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, the approaching red line of a nuclear Iran, the attempted reconciliation of Israel with Turkey in the face of their common enemies, and the Arab Spring that is showing itself to be more of a Fall, all indicate that the current year will be one of betwixt and between diplomatically as well.

And Israel?  Israel has already reached the age of 65, but is it dreaming of a comfortable and pampered retirement, enjoying hobbies like fishing, bridge and golf, joining a sewing bee, reading books in the comfortable armchair in front of the television?  It would appear not.  In our region and in our situation, Israel’s metaphorical retirement recedes just as the distant horizon recedes from the traveler striding towards it.  But whoever said that keeping busy, challenged, and fit is a bad thing?!

Happy birthday, Israel!