By Efraim Inbar
As I travel around the world, I often encounter strong pessimism about Israel’s current situation and future prospects. I want to give everyone some good news. Contrary to widespread perceptions, Israel’s strategic situation and prospects are currently pretty good, despite all the genuine problems. Moreover, time is on Israel’s side.
Famously, Israel has been successful in parrying several military challenges intent on destroying the Jewish state. Over time the power differential between Israel and its regional foes has grown, enhancing Israel’s capacity to deal successfully with security problems. While Israel has become stronger, its enemies, with the exception of Iran, have become weaker. Moreover, the Jewish State is widely recognised as an entrenched reality even by Arab and Muslim states.
The common image of a deeply-torn Israel is inaccurate, as social cohesion is today greater than before. An analysis of the political, social and economic dynamics within Israel indicates that time is on Israel’s side. This is good news for the ability of Israeli society to withstand inevitable tests of protracted conflict in the future.
Significantly, the ideological debate over the future of the territories acquired in 1967 is over. The Sinai was relinquished in 1979 and Gaza in 2005. Over two thirds of Israelis oppose any territorial concessions in the Golan Heights. Concerning Judea and Samaria, 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), and the Jordan Valley.
The current territorial debate revolves around the percentage of historic homeland that can be relinquished to Arab control. The discussion is not ideological, but couched in a pragmatic assessment of Israel’s security needs and domestic political costs. Similarly, the Israeli public accepts the establishment of a Palestinian state, once seen as a mortal danger, although scepticism over the ability of Palestinian leadership to sustain state-building is widespread.
Furthermore, the expectations of Israel’s left for peaceful coexistence with the Palestinians after the Oslo agreements, which elicited ridicule and anger on the right, were replaced by a sober consensus that peace is not around the corner. Israeli society has reconciled itself to the idea that it will have to live by its sword for the foreseeable future and most of it is ready to pay the necessary price of continuous conflict.
Similarly, the debates over economic policies have long since disappeared. Nearly all Israelis agree that capitalism is the best way to create further wealth. Israel’s strong, vibrant economy is a result of wise economic policies, stressing market values and adapting to globalisation. Currently, all economic indices indicate bright prospects despite continuous security problems. A strong economy reinforces Israel’s capacity to withstand the protracted conflict with its neighbours.
The Ashkenazi/Sephardi social rift has also become much less divisive than in the past. The number of “intermarriages” is on the rise, obscuring ethnic differences. The political system has responded positively to complaints of discrimination by significantly increasing the number of Sephardi politicians at the local and national levels. The past three decades have seen an influx of Sephardi Jews into the middle class and into the ranks of the senior officers of the Israeli military.
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, leaving room for finding a reasonable modus vivendi. A growing number of Israelis identify themselves as traditionalists, situated in the middle of the Orthodox-Secular continuum.
In the international arena, developments have been similarly positive. The American victory in the Cold War and in the 1991 Gulf War bode well for Israel, a valued American ally. Despite current tensions between Jerusalem and Washington, the strategic relationship is strong.
The 1991 Madrid Conference, convened by the US, marked greater Arab acceptance of Israel. The Arab League peace initiative (2002) and the Arab states’ presence at the Annapolis gathering (2007) indicated the continuation of this trend.
Many important countries decided to improve relations with the Jewish state due to its perception as a good conduit to Washington and its military and technological strength. The year 1992 marked the establishment of ambassadorial relations by important states such as China, India, Turkey and Nigeria. Jerusalem nourished new strategic partnership and alliances which add significantly to Israel’s national power (despite the recent loss of the Turkish alliance).
The ups and mostly downs in Israeli-Palestinian relations have hardly had an impact of how states conduct their bilateral relations with Israel. Actually, the failures of the Palestinian national movement and the ascent of Hamas in Palestinian politics have elicited greater understanding for the Israeli predicament. The Sept. 11 attack was an event that also sensitised much of the world to Israel’s dilemmas in fighting Palestinian terrorism.
Palestinian terrorism has been successfully contained since the large-scale 2002 offensive in the West Bank. Gaza was similarly subject to military treatment in Dec.-Jan. 2008-9 to limit its violent provocations. The IDF learned its lesson from the 2006 fiasco in Lebanon and seems better prepared to deal with Hezbollah.
In contrast, Israel’s foes in the Arab world display weakness and their stagnant societies are beleaguered by problems. The Human Development reports released by the UN underscore their huge deficits entering into the 21st century. Their ability to militarily challenge the status quo is limited.
The only serious security challenge is a nuclear Iran. It is unclear how the international community will deal with this issue, but the world seems more attentive to Israel’s perspective on this matter. Possibly, Israel might be left alone to deal with the Ayatollahs, but obstructing the Iranian nuclear program is not beyond the capabilities of Jerusalem.
In conclusion, Israel is a vibrant democracy that prospers and maintains strong social cohesion. Significantly, it built a mighty military machine able to meet all regional threats. In parallel, Israel’s international status has improved, while support for Israel in the US, its main ally and the hegemonic power in world affairs, remains high. Israel is a success story. If the country successfully continues to inculcate the Zionist ethos into the next generations, its future looks bright.
Dr. Efraim Inbar is professor of Political Studies at Bar-Ilan University and the Director of the Begin-Sadat (BESA) Centre for Strategic Studies. He recently visited Australia as a guest of Limmud Oz and AIJAC. The above is based on a talk he gave in Sydney on June 16.