Essay: Time is on Israel’s side
Sep 18, 2013 | Efraim Inbar
The resilient Jewish State
The Jewish state has always attracted the attention of pundits and prognosticators. In recent years, a burgeoning literature of gloom that highlights Israel’s imaginary or real flaws, and even questions its future, has emerged both within and outside the country.
Most concerned is the radical Israeli Left, which argues that there is great urgency in solving the Arab-Israeli conflict and that, in the absence of a peaceful solution, the Jewish state is doomed to disappear. Moreover, Israel’s democratic character, its international legitimacy, and its ability to withstand protracted conflict are questioned.
But while continuous political prudence is recommended, Israel has so far been a great success story, and time seems to be on its side. A review of the balance of power between Israel and its foes, of the domestic characteristics affecting its national power – such as its economy, social cohesion, and political system – as well as its standing in the international community, validates this assessment.
National Security Arena
From a realpolitik perspective, the balance of power between Israel and its neighbours is the critical variable in its quest for survival in a bad neighbourhood. If the power differential between the Jewish state and its foes is growing in its favour, then its capacity to overcome regional security challenges will be assured.
Significantly, Israel has built a mighty military machine that has been successful in overcoming many military threats. The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) is a sophisticated and effective organisation, using advanced technologies and weapons. Its victories have signalled to the Arab states that Israel cannot be eradicated by force and that such attempts will be very costly. Israel’s military superiority largely contributed to the decline in the intensity of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The last large-scale conventional military encounter that involved aircraft and tanks was in 1982. Moreover, a peace process with Arab states ensued, effectively lowering the chances of a large-scale Arab-Israeli conventional war.
After the end of the Cold War, Israel’s strategic landscape witnessed a shift from threats originating in the conventional military might of states to challenges from armed non-state entities, which use a combination of methods: terror, suicide bombings, and guerilla tactics. Israel also faces the use of rockets launched at its population centres. The capabilities of non-state organisations to harm Israel are amplified by the support they receive from states, such as Iran, primarily through better training and access to advanced weapon technology. They intend to inflict pain on Israel and to test its resolve. This is unlikely to change in the near future. The non-state challenge, in essence terrorism, has become central for Israel and has overshadowed the potential threats emanating from the interstate dimension of the Arab-Israel conflict. Noteworthy, too, is that terrorism is the weapon of the weak, and terrorists are less dangerous than states although the struggle against them might be costly in blood and treasure.
Palestinian terrorism has been successfully contained since the large-scale 2002 offensives in the West Bank. The IDF has demonstrated that terrorists can be vanquished, and the prospects of a third intifada, while cause for concern, is bearable. The war against Hezbollah in 2006 may not have ended as decisively as desired, but the punishment inflicted on Hezbollah seems to have created at least a temporary deterrent effect. Its encounters with Hamas in Gaza show a much better record.
In addition, Israel’s defensive measures against all kinds of missiles near fruition. Israel has deployed Arrow-2 interceptors, designed to work against long-range missiles, and has successfully tested the more advanced Arrow-3. Iron Dome batteries set up to stop missile threats of up to 70 kilometres registered an impressive record of 88% interception rate in recent Gaza encounters. The David’s Sling missile defence system for meeting threats of up to 300 kilometres will soon become operational as well.
Finally, Israel also has a well-developed nuclear option, buttressing its image as a powerful state.
In contrast, Israel’s foes in the Arab world display great weakness and their stagnant societies are beleaguered by many problems. The Arab states still grapple with the challenge of modernity and are in a state of limbo, particularly since the beginning of the 2011 upheavals. As they are consumed with their severe political, social, and economic crises, they have little energy and resources to build mighty militaries to attack Israel. The rise in political Islam may bring about a growing motivation to destroy the Jewish state, but what counts in final analysis is capability.
The only grave national security challenge in the region is a nuclear Iran. Such a development is not only a direct threat to Israel but also could start a chain of nuclear proliferation, a change in the regional balance of power, and an Iranian takeover of the energy resources in the Persian Gulf and Caspian Basin.
A Strong Economy
Military and economic power are related and reinforcing factors. Israel’s edge over its Arab neighbours also grows because of its economic prowess. Its vibrant economy is a result of wise policies, stressing market values and adapting to globalisation. Beyond its well-established reputation for producing first-rate military equipment, which contributes to its military power, Israel also has excelled in agriculture, medicine, communications, and high-tech development. In recognition of Israel’s economic achievements, it was admitted into the exclusive club of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in May 2010, which brings together the thirty-three most developed countries in the world that are committed to democracy and market economy.
Currently, Israel’s economic indices indicate good prospects despite the continued security issues. For example, during the 2009-12 global economic crisis, Israel experienced a 14.7% growth of gross domestic product (GDP), the highest among OECD countries. It managed to reduce its debt to GDP ratio from 100% in 2002 to 74% in 2012 while most of the world continues to experience a soaring ratio. Foreign exchange reserves – critical to sustain global confidence in Israel’s economy and capabilities during emergencies – expanded from US$25 billion in 2004 to $75 billion in 2012, one of the top per capita countries. Indeed, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) commended Israel’s economic performance and expressed confidence in its long-term viability.
Israel is also an attractive site for overseas investors, particularly in the high-tech area. Its unique and innovative technologies have attracted global giants. For example, Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman, considers Israel “the most important high-tech centre in the world after the US. Warren Buffet – CEO of Berkshire Hathaway and widely considered the most successful investor of the 20th century – in October 2010 added, “If you’re looking for brains, [Israel] has a disproportionate amount of brains and energy.”
Scores of major US manufacturers, including General Electric and General Motors, have research and development centres in Israel. Some 300 US high-tech companies, including Microsoft, IBM, Google, and Apple, also have a research and development presence, and many overseas entrepreneurs invest in or acquire Israeli high-tech companies. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer called Microsoft as much an Israeli company as an American one because of the importance of its Israeli technologies. Israel is a global leader in microchip design, network algorithms, medical instruments, water recycling and desalinisation, missile defence, robotic warfare, and unmanned aerial vehicles. The country’s successful integration into the globalised economy also testifies to the fact that Israel is not isolated in the international community despite what some of its critics contend.
Israel has the highest ratio of university degrees to population in the world, produces more scientific papers per capita than any other nation by a large margin, and has one of the highest per capita rates of patents filed. Most importantly, 4.5% of Israel’s GDP goes to research and development, the highest proportion in the world.
Israel’s robust demography – a record high fertility rate in Western countries of three births per woman – provides a tail wind for its economy.
Although Israel managed to prosper for decades without any significant natural resources, this is changing as the natural gas findings in Israel’s Mediterranean economic zone will allow it to enhance its economic viability and achieve energy independence.
Despite its remarkable economic progress, Israel’s GDP per capita is US$32,511 (less than most Western countries), leaving room for further improvement. Nevertheless, the country’s $247 billion economy is larger than all of its immediate neighbours combined. Moreover, Israel’s flourishing and expanding economy can afford larger defence outlays to meet its national security challenges and has the resources to ensure continued R&D for winning future wars.
A Strong Society
The common image of a deeply-torn Israel is inaccurate as social cohesion is now greater than before. Most of Israel’s social rifts have been bridged creating a stronger society.
Significantly, the acerbic ideological debate over the future of the territories acquired in 1967 is over. The Sinai was relinquished in 1979-82. Over two-thirds of Israelis oppose any territorial concessions in the Golan Heights. The bloody civil war in Syria only solidifies such popular positions. Gaza is similarly no longer a bone of contention after the 2005 unilateral withdrawal.
Concerning the West Bank, there is a great majority in favour of partition – the traditional Zionist position – and in favour of retaining the settlement blocs, Jerusalem (the Temple Mount in particular), and the Jordan Rift. The Oslo process with the Palestinians was fuelled by the desire to part from territories populated by Arabs. The establishment of a Palestinian Authority (PA) in 1994 is a de facto partition, albeit a messy one. The establishment of a Palestinian state, once seen as a mortal danger, is accepted by the Israeli public although scepticism over the state-building ability of the Palestinians is widespread. Nevertheless, very few Israelis advocate reconquering the cities of the West Bank.
The current territorial debate revolves around the percentages of the historic homeland to be relinquished to Arab control and, for the most part, is not couched in ideological reasoning but in a pragmatic assessment of what is needed for Israel’s security and what is least costly in terms of domestic politics. The expectations of the mid-1990s for peaceful coexistence with the Palestinians have been replaced by a more realistic consensus that peace is not around the corner.
Most Israelis reject the argument that a continuation of the current impasse in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations will produce demographic dynamics leading to a bi-national state. The willingness for partition and the ability of the political system to disengage unilaterally from territory heavily populated by Arabs nullifies the argument that Israel is in danger of being demographically swamped. Just as Israel is not concerned about the numbers of babies born in Amman, the same attitude is adopted vis-à-vis the fertility rate of Arab women in Nablus, whose lives Israelis have no desire to control. Moreover, as those living in the West Bank are demonised as “settlers” by the press, their political power to stop potential future withdrawals is seen to be greatly exaggerated; the removal from Gaza illustrates this point.
Israelis understand that they are locked in a tragic conflict with Palestinians but are willing to wait for better times. The Palestinian rejection of recent Israeli partition proposals (Ehud Barak in 2000 and Ehud Olmert in 2008) strengthens the Israeli feeling of “Ein Breira” (no choice), which is important for fighting future wars. Indeed, the motivation to serve in the IDF among new recruits remains very high.
Similarly, debates over the preferred economic regime have long disappeared. Nearly all Israelis agree that capitalism is the best way to create further wealth.
Another social rift, the Ashkenazi-Sephardi cleavage, has also become much less divisive than in the past. The number of intermarriages is on the rise, obfuscating ethnic differences. Indeed, the post-1977 period has been characterised by increased social mobility.
Tensions between newcomers and established members of society in an immigrant-absorbing country such as Israel are to be expected for a period, but they have not persisted. Most of the immigrants from the former Soviet Union, despite some difficulties, are almost fully integrated. The Ethiopian Jews, from a very different background, have had a more difficult time but are gradually integrating.
The only rift within Israeli society that is still of great social, cultural, and political importance is the religious-secular divide. However, this situation does not differ greatly from the afflictions of identity politics faced by other Western societies.
Moreover, the conflict is not between two clearly defined camps; this leaves room for finding a reasonable modus vivendi. The number of those defining themselves as secular is diminishing (only 20%) while a growing number of Israelis identify themselves as traditionalists, in the middle of the Orthodox-secular continuum. Precisely because there are Jews of different degrees of observance and knowledge, there is room for mediation and a modicum of understanding.
Gays in Israel have successfully gained rights due to the policies of the Supreme Court, and there is greater sensitivity to and corresponding legislation for equality for women and disadvantaged groups. In 2008, the Knesset created the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission to help combat workplace discrimination.
Not everything is perfect in Israeli society or its economy. To mention a few problems: There is violence in the streets and in the schools; the education system has problems, particularly in keeping discipline and in reaching excellence; the gap between rich and poor is large; economic competition is insufficient; and housing prices are too high.Nevertheless, a Gallup well-being poll from April 2011 rates Israel seventh in the world in terms of happiness. Similarly in April 2012, 92.7% of the Jews in Israel said that they were proud to be Israeli. The description of Israeli society as divided and quarrelling is simply wrong.
A Flourishing Democracy
Many on the Israeli Left are frustrated by their failure to garner support in the electoral arena for their policies and thus argue that Israel’s democracy is in danger. This argument reflects a longing for the days when the Left was in power, particularly before 1977.
Until 1977, the Labor camp ruled Israel’s national institutions continuously. Since then, Israel has witnessed shifting political elites as three different parties (Likud, Labor, and Kadima) have led Israeli governments. The end of the hegemonic party era has democratised Israel’s political system, allowing new forces to appear on the political stage.
A pivotal component in any democracy is the judicial system. Israel’s judicial system fearlessly prosecuted a president, prime minister, and cabinet ministers, becoming the subject of envy in many democratic states. The independence of the police and the judicial system in Israel has drastically increased in recent years.
The ascendance of the Israeli Supreme Court, considered the stronghold of democracy by the Left, to its current elevated status started after the decline of Labor. It was Prime Minister Menachem Begin who encouraged a more active role for the Supreme Court.
The media – often viewed as the watchdog of democracy – was also totally transformed after 1977. Almost all political party newspapers have vanished. In their place, a plethora of media outlets with different agendas has emerged.
Additionally, in the area of minority rights, Israel fares increasingly better than many democratic countries. Until 1965, Israeli Arabs were under military administration and the two all-Arab parties in the Knesset were essentially branches of the ruling Labor party. Today there are three Arab parties representing a variety of views, mostly at odds with the surrounding Jewish society.
For a country in which the military plays such an important role, Israel has avoided the coups and putsches that have afflicted many other young democracies. The military was kept in the dark during the negotiations of the September 1993 Oslo accords and recommended against the May 2000 unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon and the 2005 disengagement from Gaza. Thus, the three most important strategic decisions since 1993 were implemented despite the fact that the IDF did not support them, demonstrating that Israel does not have an army-dominated militaristic government.
While there is always room for improvement, Israeli democracy is thriving and fares better on most scores than in the past.
The International Arena
Since Israel’s inception, the surrounding Arab states have tried to isolate it and deny it international legitimacy. Despite widespread current perceptions of Israel being isolated, a review of the Jewish state’s contemporary interactions with the international community shows such evaluations to be mistaken. Notwithstanding occasional vicious criticism, Israel does not suffer from lack of international legitimacy. At the end of 2012, it had diplomatic relations with 156 states out of 193 UN members. Considering that most Arab states and additional Muslim countries do not have diplomatic relations with the Jewish state, and that they frequently control the agenda of the international community as expressed through the UN, Israel’s diplomatic network is quite impressive.
The emergence of a victorious United States following the end of the Cold War bode well for Israel, a valued US ally. Many important countries decided to improve relations with the Jewish state since it was perceived as a good conduit to Washington and a strong state, both militarily and technologically. By 1992, Israel had established ambassadorial relations with prominent countries such as China, India, Turkey, and Nigeria.
Following its defeat of the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, Washington convened the November 1991 Madrid conference, which marked greater Arab acceptance of Israel. The Arab League peace initiative in 2002 and the Arab states’ presence at the 2007 Annapolis gathering indicated a continuation of this trend. In April 2013, a group of Arab foreign ministers visiting Washington affirmed their commitment to this initiative and even showed some flexibility. While the Islamist surge in the region is problematic for Israel, Egypt and Jordan still uphold their peace treaties. Israel continues to have informal dealings with Arab states of the Persian Gulf and the Maghreb and conducts extensive, if quiet, trade relations with a number of Arab states. The Arab economic boycott has lost much of its impact. Similarly, the international campaign to boycott, divest, and sanction Israel has failed to make a real dent in its diplomatic status and flourishing economy and has affected its cultural life only marginally.
Moreover, the ascendance of a Shi’ite “crescent” in Middle East politics makes Israel a potential ally of the moderate Arab states. The Iranian nuclear threat puts Sunni Arab states’ differences with Israel on the Palestinian issue on the back burner while the recent regional upheavals have kept the Arab regimes preoccupied with their domestic affairs, to the same effect.
Significantly, relations with the Muslim world outside the Middle East have improved. Israel has established cordial relations with Muslim-majority states in the Caucasus and Central Asia such as Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
The ups (and mostly) downs in Israeli-Palestinian relations have hardly had an impact in how states conduct their bilateral relations with Israel. Moreover, the challenge of terrorism and radical Islam has since driven many states to seek greater cooperation with Israel. The Jewish state has much to offer in the area of intelligence, tactical, and doctrinal counterterrorism.
The two most populous and dynamic states on the world scene – India and China – display a greater level of friendship for Israel than in the past. Both are old civilisations unburdened by any historical antisemitic baggage as is Europe and the Muslim world. They treat the Jewish state with admiration, viewing it as an ancient civilisation similar to their own that has realised remarkable achievements.
Europe is, of course, an unfortunate exception. Despite the robust multi-layered bilateral relations of European states with Israel, the EU’s position is occasionally hostile but has never denied the legitimacy of Israel.
Finally, ties with the most important country in the world, the United States, have greatly improved since 1973 with an increasingly institutionalised and strong strategic relationship. Washington will continue to be the leading global power for some time to come, which is good for Jerusalem. It is noteworthy that the level of support for Israel by the American public, at around 65%, has remained remarkably stable for the past four decades. This also translates into congressional support. Israel is still popular in the United States, primarily because of how it is perceived and not because of any Jewish lobby. The Arab upheavals have strengthened Israel’s status in most Americans’ eyes as a stable and reliable ally in a region fraught with uncertainty.
Despite not everything being perfect in the Holy Land, long term prospects seem bright. Israel is a vibrant democracy that prospers and maintains strong social cohesion. Its international status has improved while support in the United States, its main ally and still the foremost international power, has remained very high.
Moreover, the Jewish state is widely recognised as an entrenched reality, even by its Arab and Muslim rivals. It has built a mighty military machine that can parry all regional threats, and the IDF remains the most capable military in the region with the motivation, equipment, and training to overmatch the conventional capabilities of any regional challenger. Israel has managed to contain terrorist activities and has built an effective shield against missiles. Only a nuclear Iran would be a game changer in the strategic equation, and Jerusalem is serious about preventing this scenario. Moreover, in the near future, discontinuities in the political, social, and economic trends reviewed are unlikely. This means that time is on Israel’s side.
At age 65, Israel is a great success story. While peace is desirable, it is not a necessary condition for survival.
Efraim Inbar is professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan University, the Director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies and a fellow at the Middle East Forum. © Middle East Quarterly, reprinted by permission, all rights reserved. Prof. Inbar will visit Australia in October as a guest of AIJAC.