Israel at 70: A strategic assessment
Apr 30, 2018 | Efraim Inbar
At 70, Israel stands strong, yet debates about its health persist. The radical Israeli Left seems most concerned about the country’s future, arguing that there is great urgency in solving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict; otherwise, Israel is doomed. The Left contends that Israel’s democratic character, its international legitimacy, and its ability to withstand protracted conflict all are threatened by the ongoing stalemate.
Indeed, Israel has faced existential threats from its neighbours since its establishment. And as a small state its existence is precarious. Moreover, Jews with a historical consciousness remember that a Jewish state was twice destroyed by powerful empires. So nothing can be taken for granted.
However, time seems to be on Israel’s side. A review of the balance of power between Israel and its foes, of the domestic features moulding Israel’s national power and of Israel’s standing in the international community validates the assessment that Israel has the dominant hand for the foreseeable future.
The National Security Arena
The balance of power between Israel and its neighbours is the critical variable in Israel’s quest for survival in a bad neighbourhood. As long as the power differential between the Jewish State and its foes is growing, then Israel’s capacity to overcome regional security challenges is assured.
Israel has built a mighty military machine that has been successful in overcoming many military threats, benefiting from skilled and well-motivated manpower, as well as advanced weapons. The military victories have signalled to Israel’s foes that Israel cannot be destroyed by force. The most recent large-scale conventional military encounter that involved aircraft and tanks was in 1982. Moreover, a peace process with Arab states has started, effectively lowering the chances of a large-scale Arab-Israeli conventional war.
Since 1982, Israel has employed force primarily against armed organisations, such as Hezbollah, Palestinian terrorist organisations, and Islamist militias, which use a combination of methods: terror, suicide bombings, and guerrilla tactics. Israel also increasingly faces the use of missiles launched at its strategic assets and population centres. Terrorism is the weapon of the weak and terrorists are less dangerous than states, although the struggle against them is often costly in blood and treasure.
The capabilities of non-state actors to harm Israel is amplified by the support they receive from nation states, such as Iran. For example, the arsenal of more than 100,000 missiles in the hands of Hezbollah poses a very serious challenge for Israel. The enemy strategy is to inflict pain on Israel and to test its resolve. Israel has established a multi-layered anti-missile system, but this is unlikely to provide foolproof defence.
Israel’s anti-missile systems are impressive. The Iron Dome batteries deployed to intercept missile threats of up to 70 kilometres registered an impressive 88% interception rate in Gaza encounters. The David’s Sling missile defence system for meeting threats of up to 300 km is also operational. Israel has also deployed Arrow-2 and Arrow-3 interceptors, designed to work against long-range missiles. The defensive perimeter established reflects the excellence of Israel’s military industries, an important component in Israel’s military superiority. But again, these systems cannot provide a full defence in view of the numbers of missiles arrayed against Israel.
Israel has also developed a nuclear option, buttressing its image of a strong state. Such weapons serve as a constant reminder that attempts to destroy the Jewish state could be extremely costly.
In contrast, Israel’s rivals in the Arab world suffer from great weakness. Their stagnant societies still grapple with the challenge of modernity as the upheavals in the Arab world indicate. Their ability to militarily challenge the status quo is limited.
In short, over time Israel has become stronger, while its enemies, with the exception of Iran, have become increasingly weaker.
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 Gulf and Caspian Basin. While the world has become more attentive to Israel’s perspective on this matter, the international community, by supporting the July 2015 JCPOA, has failed to stop Iranian progress in its quest for a nuclear arsenal. It is quite possible that Israel may be left on its own in dealing with the Ayatollah’s nuclear aspirations. Fortunately, obstruction and perhaps even destruction of the Iranian nuclear program is not beyond the capabilities of Israel.
A Strong Economy
Military and economic power are related and reinforce each other. Israel’s edge over its Arab neighbours continues to grow also because of its economic prowess. Israel’s strong economy is a result of wise economic policies, stressing market values, and adapting to globalisation. The main driver of the economy is the science and technology sector. Israel’s manufacturing and agriculture, despite limited natural resources, is highly developed and sophisticated.
In recognition of its economic achievements, Israel was admitted in 2010 to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which brings together the 33 most developed countries that are committed to democracy and a market economy.
After years of annual growth rates above 5%, the economic expansion has been slowing down. In 2016, growth was 4% and in 2017 it was 3.4%. Yet, the long-term projection for 2020 is 4.1%. Israel also managed to reduce its debt/GDP ratio from 100% in 2002 to 74% in 2012 and to 61.9% in 2017.
Israel’s 2012 budget deficit and unemployment were 4.2% and 6.9% respectively. In 2016, the respective figures were 2.5% and just above 4%. These figures are much lower than the OECD average.
Israel is also an attractive site for overseas investors, particularly in the high-tech area. Scores of major US manufacturers, including General Electric, General Motors, Microsoft, IBM, Google, Apple and others have Research and Development (R&D) centres in Israel. Israel is a global leader of microchip design, network algorithms, medical instruments, water management and desalinisation, agriculture, missile defence, robotic warfare, and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. The successful integration into a globalised economy also testifies to the fact that Israel is not isolated in the international community – as discussed below.
Israel has the highest ratio of university degrees to the population in the world. Israel produces more scientific papers per capita than any other nation by a large margin, as well as one of the highest per capita rates of patents filed. Most important, 4.5% of its GDP goes to research and development, the highest proportion in the world.
Israel’s robust demography and a record high fertility rate in Western countries of three births per woman, provide a tailwind for its economy. Moreover, Israel’s government is developing programs for training better the Arab and the ultra-Orthodox sectors to increase their participation in Israel’s workforce. Moreover, the natural gas finds in Israel’s economic zone in the Mediterranean allow Israel to enhance its economic viability and achieve energy independence.
Israel’s US$318.7 billion economy in 2016 was larger than all of its immediate neighbours combined, Moreover, Israel’s expanding economy can afford larger defence outlays to meet its national security challenges, and the resources to ensure continued R&D for winning future wars.
A Strong Society
People who portray Israel as a deeply-divided society – a society split into separate tribes – are mistaken. In fact, social cohesion in Israel is greater than ever before. Most of Israel’s social rifts have been bridged, creating a stronger society. This is good news for the ability of Israeli society to withstand the inevitable tests of protracted conflict in the future.
Significantly, the acerbic ideological debate over the future of the territories acquired in 1967 is over. The Sinai that was traded for a peace treaty in 1979, the Golan Heights that was de facto annexed in 1981, and Gaza that was evacuated in 2005, are no longer bones of contention. Over two thirds of Israelis oppose any territorial concessions in the Golan Heights. The civil war in Syria has only solidified such positions.
Concerning the West Bank, there is a great majority in favour of partition – which is the historical Zionist approach. But large majorities also insist on retaining the settlement blocs, holding Jerusalem (the Temple Mount in particular), and the Jordan Rift. The establishment of a Palestinian Authority (PA) in 1994 amounts to another de facto partition, albeit a messy one. Scepticism over the state-building ability of the Palestinians is widespread, but very few Israelis advocate annexing the cities of the West Bank. Moreover, Israel built a security barrier in the West Bank from 2002, signalling determination to disengage from the main Palestinian population centres and marking a potential future border.
The current territorial debate 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 realistic consensus that peace is not around the corner.
Israelis reject the argument that the continuation of the current impasse in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations inevitably constitutes a demographic dynamic leading to a bi-national state. Israel’s willingness to partition the territory, and the ability of the political system to disengage unilaterally from territory heavily populated by Arabs, nullifies the “demographic” argument.
Israelis understand that, alas, they are locked into a long-term, tragic conflict with the Palestinians; and have the patience to wait for better times. Palestinian rejection of Israeli partition proposals (from Ehud Barak in 2000 and Ehud Olmert in 2008) has strengthened the feeling of “ein breira” (there is no choice) – meaning the conflict must simply be managed. This consensus is an important asset in terms of Israel’s ability to fight future wars, if necessary.
Similarly, debates over Israel’s preferred economic regime have long disappeared. Nearly all Israelis agree that capitalism is the best way to create further wealth.
Another long-simmering social rift, the Ashkenazi-Sephardic cleavage, is gradually attenuating. The number of “intermarriages” is on the rise, obscuring ethnic differences. The past three decades have seen a dramatic increase in the proportion of university students of Sephardic origin, and a similar growth in the ranks of the senior officers of the IDF. Sephardic numbers in municipal and national politics have increased significantly.
The only rift within Israeli society which 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. The number of those defining themselves as secular is diminishing (only 40%), 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.
Not everything is perfect in the Israeli society and economy. There is some violence in the streets and in the schools; the education system has problems; the gap between rich and poor is too large; economic competition is insufficient; and housing prices are too high.
Nevertheless, a 2017 Gallup poll rates Israel 11th in the world in terms of happiness. As well, over 90% of the Jews in Israel consistently say they are proud to be Israeli. Ascribing dissatisfaction and discord to Israeli society at large is simply wrong.
A Flourishing Democracy
Part of the frustrated Israeli Left argues that Israel’s democracy is in danger. The frustration stems from the fact that for more than two decades the Left has failed to garner support in the electoral arena for its policies. Yet Israel’s democracy is alive and well. It is far more vibrant and open than it was during the days of the Labor Party’s hegemony (1948-1977). The end of the hegemonic party era democratised Israel’s political system, allowing for new forces to appear on the political stage and for greater social mobility.
The erosion of socialist practices and the privatisation of a centralised economy contributed to the growth of a non-Ashkenazi middle class. Social mobility has also been enhanced by a greater access to higher learning. During the post-1977 period a large number of colleges of varying quality were opened and competed with the established universities for students and resources.
A pivotal component in any democracy is the judicial system. The ascendance of the Israeli Supreme Court 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, and he was instrumental in the nomination of the interventionist Aharon Barak to the Supreme Court in 1978. The independence of the police and the judicial system in Israel has drastically increased in recent years. Israel’s judicial system fearlessly prosecuted a president, prime minister, and cabinet ministers, becoming the subject of envy in many democratic states.
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 establishment, Arab countries have sought to isolate Israel and deny it international legitimacy. Yet a review of Israel’s contemporary interactions with the international community shows that Israel is not at all isolated. The international campaign to Boycott, Divest, and Sanction Israel (BDS) has failed to make a real dent on Israel’s diplomatic status and flourishing economy, and has only marginally affected its cultural life.
Vicious criticism of Israel, particularly at the morally bankrupt United Nations, has little practical effect on bilateral relations between Israel and most states. At the end of 2017, Israel had diplomatic relations with 158 states out of 193 UN members. Considering that most Arab states and additional Muslim countries do not have diplomatic relations with the Jewish state, Israel’s diplomatic network cannot be much wider.
The emergence of a victorious US at the end of the Cold War boded well for Israel, a valued American ally. Many important countries decided to improve relations with the Jewish state which was perceived as a good conduit to Washington and a strong state, militarily, economically and technologically. The year 1992 marked the establishment of ambassadorial relations by important states such as China, India, Turkey and Nigeria.
While the rise of Islamism in the region is problematic for Israel, Egypt and Jordan still cling to their peace treaties with Israel. Israel conducts extensive, if quiet, trade relations with the Arab world, nullifying much of the Arab economic boycott’s impact. Moreover, the ascendance of Iran in Middle East politics and its nuclear threat makes Israel a potential ally of the moderate Sunni Arab states.
Significantly, relations with the Muslim world have improved as Israel has established cordial relations with Muslim states that emerged from the dissolution of the Soviet empire in the Caucasus and Central Asia, such as Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. The Muslim identity of their populations hardly hinders relations with Jerusalem in areas important to their national interests.
The ups and mostly downs in Israeli-Palestinian relations have little impact on how states conduct their bilateral relations with Israel. In fact, the failures of the Palestinian national movement and the ascent of Hamas in Palestinian politics have elicited greater understanding for the Israeli predicament. The 9/11 attacks and the rise of the Islamic State organisation further sensitised much of the world to Israel’s dilemmas in fighting Palestinian terrorism. Moreover, the challenge of terrorism and radical Islam have pushed many states to seek cooperation with Israel in counter-terrorism.
The two most populous and dynamic states on the world scene – India and China, rising global powers – evince a high level of friendship for Israel. Both are old civilisations that have not been burdened by antisemitic baggage. They treat the Jewish state with reverence, seeing in Israel an old civilisation that has reached remarkable achievements.
Finally, Israel’s ties with the most important country in the world, the US, have greatly improved since 1973. The increasingly institutionalised strategic relationship is very strong. The US will continue to be the leading global power for some time to come, which is good for its small ally Israel.
It is noteworthy that the level of the American public support for Israel has remained remarkably stable over the past four decades, at around 65%. This also translates into congressional support, and it stands independent of any Jewish lobby.
The events of the “Arab Spring” also have strengthened Israel’s status as a stable and reliable ally in a region fraught with uncertainty.
Despite not everything being perfect in the Holy Land, Israel’s time vector seems to be positive. Israel is a prosperous and vibrant democracy that maintains strong internal social cohesion. In parallel, Israel’s international status has improved, and support for Israel in the US, its main ally and the main hegemonic power in international affairs, remains very high. Moreover, the Jewish state is widely recognised as an entrenched reality even by Arab and Muslim states. Israel has built a mighty military machine that can parry all regional threats. The IDF remains the most capable military in the region, with the motivation, equipment and training to overcome the capabilities of any regional challenger. Only a nuclear Iran would be a negative game changer in the strategic equation, and everything should be done to prevent this development.
Discontinuities in Israel’s political, social and economic fortunes are unlikely. This means that time is on Israel’s side. The zeitgeist of this epoch, which stresses democracy and free market values, also favours Israel – as opposed to its opponents. They remain in great socioeconomic and political crisis.
At 70, Israel is a great success story. If it continues prudent domestic and foreign policies and remains successful in transmitting a Zionist ethos to future generations, its future looks bright.
Professor Efraim Inbar is President of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies (JISS). © JISS, reprinted by permission, all rights reserved.