Once again Foreign Affairs has published several essays, in the online edition, about one country: Israel ~ entitled “The Struggle for Israel: An Online Exclusive from the July/August Issue” Taken together four of these essays offer us a reasoned and reasonably balanced (liberal vs conservative) look at the nation and its prospects in a very dangerous corner of a dangerous world.
The first essay, “The End of the Old Israel: How Netanyahu Has Transformed the Nation” is b Haaretz. (One might not be surprised to find that Mr Benn is not overly impressed with the policies and actions of the current (conservative) government.)
Mr Benn says that, “Israel—at least the largely secular and progressive version of Israel that once captured the world’s imagination—is over. Although that Israel was always in some ways a fantasy, the myth was at least grounded in reality. Today that reality has changed, and the country that has replaced it is profoundly different from the one its founders imagined almost 70 years ago. Since the last elections, in March 2015, a number of slow-moving trends have accelerated dramatically. Should they continue, they could soon render the country unrecognizable ... [because] … Israel’s current leaders—headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who metamorphosed after the election from a risk-averse conservative into a right-wing radical—see democracy as synonymous with unchecked majority rule and have no patience for restraints such as judicial review or the protection of minorities. In their view, Israel is a Jewish state and a democratic state—in that order. Only Jews should enjoy full rights, while gentiles should be treated with suspicion. Extreme as it sounds, this belief is now widely held: a Pew public opinion survey published in March found that 79 percent of Jewish Israelis supported “preferential treatment” for Jews—a thinly veiled euphemism for discrimination against non-Jews.” Israel looks, to Mr Benn, at least, as something i said was largely Asiatic: a conservative democracy. But I suspect that what Mr Benn is really seeing is just another illiberal democracy in which some people’s rights are more equal than others.
Mr Benn provides a bit of historical background (reflecting, I suspect) his own,personal biases: “Modern Israel was created by a group of secular socialists led by David Ben-Gurion, who would become the state’s first prime minister. “The Old Man,” as he was known, sought to create a homeland for a new type of Jew: a warrior-pioneer who would plow the land with a gun on his back and then read poetry around a bonfire when the battle was won. (This “new Jew” was mythologized, most memorably, by Paul Newman in the film Exodus.) Although a civilian, Ben-Gurion was a martial leader. He oversaw the fledgling state’s victory in its War of Independence against Israel’s Arab neighbors and the Palestinians, most of whom were then exiled. And when the war was over, the Old Man oversaw the creation of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), which he designed to serve as (among other things) the new country’s main tool for turning its polyglot Jewish immigrants into Hebrew-speaking citizens … [but] … Ben-Gurion was a leftist but not a liberal. Following independence, he put Israel’s remaining Arab residents under martial law (a condition that lasted until 1966) and expropriated much of their land, which he gave to Jewish communities. His party, Mapai (the forerunner of Labor), controlled the economy and the distribution of jobs. Ben-Gurion and his cohort were almost all Ashkenazi (of eastern European origin), and they discriminated against the Sephardic Jews (known in Israel as the Mizrahim), who came from Arab states such as Iraq, Morocco, Tunisia, and Yemen. Ben-Gurion also failed to appreciate the power of religion, which he believed would wither away when confronted with secular modernity. He therefore allowed the Orthodox to preserve their educational autonomy under the new state—thereby ensuring and underwriting the creation of future generations of religious voters … [and] … Menachem Begin—the founder of Israel’s right wing—capitalized on this unhappiness and on Sephardic grievances to hand Labor its first-ever defeat at the polls. Taking power at the head of a new coalition called Likud (Unity), Begin forged an alliance with Israel’s religious parties, which felt more at home with a Sabbath-observing conservative. To sweeten the deal, his government accelerated the building of Jewish settlements in the West Bank (which appealed to religious Zionists) and offered numerous concessions to the ultra-Orthodox, such as generous educational subsidies … [but] … Begin was a conservative and nationalist. But the decades he’d spent in the opposition had taught him to respect dissent and debate. As prime minister, therefore, he always defended judicial independence, and he refrained from purging Labor loyalists from the top echelons of the civil service and the IDF. As a consequence, his revolution, important though it was, was only a partial one. Under Begin’s leadership, Israel’s old left-wing elite lost its cabinet seats. But it preserved much of its influence, holding on to top positions in powerful institutions such as the media and academia. And the Supreme Court remained stocked with justices who, while officially nonpartisan, nevertheless represented a liberal worldview of human and civil rights.“
Mr Benn spends several paragraphs describing the early rise and fall (1996~1999) and subsequent rise, again (2009 to the present) of Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu who he (Aluf Benn) clearly regards as the bête noire who is destroying Israeli liberalism. Netanyahu, he explains, “returned to office on March 31, 2009. Eager to prove that he was no longer the scandal-plagued firebrand who’d been voted out of office a decade before, however, and fearing pressure from the new U.S. president, Barack Obama, he once again was forced to shelve his long-term plans for elite replacement. Instead of undermining his enemies, he shifted to the center, recruiting several retired Likud liberals to vouch for the “new Bibi” and join his cabinet, and forging a coalition with Labor under Barak, who stayed on as defense minister (a job he’d held under Olmert). Together, Netanyahu and Barak spent much of the next four years working on an ultimately unrealized plan to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities … [then] … In June 2009, ten days after Obama’s Cairo address, Netanyahu sought to reinforce his new centrist credentials by endorsing the idea of Palestinian statehood in a speech. True to form, however, the prime minister imposed a condition: the Palestinians would first have to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, instantly rejected the idea. But the move enhanced Netanyahu’s moderate credentials anyway … And it helped get Obama off his back—but not before the U.S. president convinced Netanyahu to accept a ten-month freeze on new residential construction in the West Bank settlements. The freeze was meaningless, however, since it didn’t change the facts on the ground or facilitate serious peace talks. And soon after it expired, Republicans won control of the House of Representatives in the U.S. midterm election, creating a firewall against any further pressure from Washington. Obama soon lost interest in the thankless peace process. Although his rocky relationship with Netanyahu led to many juicy newspaper and magazine stories, it had little effect on Israel’s internal politics, since most Israelis also distrusted the U.S. president, and still do; a global poll released in December 2015 found that Obama had a lower favorability rating in Israel than almost anywhere else, with only Russians, Palestinians, and Pakistanis expressing greater disapproval …[but] … Any remaining pressure on Netanyahu to pursue peace with the Palestinians evaporated soon after the Arab Spring erupted. Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt collapsed, threatening a cornerstone of Israel’s security strategy; Syria sank into a bloody civil war; and a terrifying new nemesis, the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), appeared on the scene. These events unexpectedly bolstered Israel’s position in several ways: Russia and the United States ultimately joined forces to eliminate most of Syria’s chemical weapons, and the conservative governments of Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and (after the 2013 counterrevolution) Egypt strengthened their ties with Jerusalem (albeit unofficially in most cases). But the regional carnage and turmoil horrified Israeli voters, who told themselves: if this is what the Arabs are capable of doing to one another, imagine what they would do to us if we gave them the chance … Israel has already become far less tolerant and open to debate than it used to be.
All of that really says that Israel, like America, Britain and Canadian, for example, has a constantly changing political landscape that doesn’t suit a good percentage, often a majority, of its citizens but Israel, unlike Britain or Canada, has a proportional representation system of government which gives small, weak, fringe parties enormous power and allows prime ministers to shape their governments in ways that might cause dismay to some of their own supporters.
Mr Benn concludes, pessimistically, that “The country has already become far less tolerant and open to debate than it used to be. The peace camp has withered, and very few really challenge the status of the occupation anymore. Arab-Jewish relations are so bad that they would take outstanding leadership and enormous effort to fix. And the United States’ retrenchment has strengthened the sense among many Israelis that they can go it alone and no longer need to worry about pleasing Washington. It’s hard to see how a new Israeli prime minister—or a new U.S. president—will be able to reverse many of these shifts.” It will be understood that many Israelis (and many Canadians, too) do not share that view.
The second essay is by Robert Dannin, a senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a senior fellow at the Belfer Center’s Middle East Initiative at Harvard University’s Kennedy School, it is entitled “Israel Among the Nations: How to Make the Most of Uncertain Times.” In this essay Dr Dannin starts with an altogether more optimistic point of view saying that Israel’s “standard of living has never been higher …
Their country’s economy is robust, and Israel’s entrepreneurial spirit remains the envy of the world. In 2015, Israel ranked as the planet’s fifth-happiest country on the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Better Life Index, topped only by Denmark, Finland, Iceland, and Switzerland. In its first half century of existence, Israeli soldiers fought a war virtually every decade against well-armed conventional Arab armies. Today, the threat of such a war has vastly diminished, and the Israeli military has never been stronger, both in absolute terms and relative to its neighbors.“
“Meanwhile,” he goes on to say, “chaos appears to loom across almost every border. A bloody and devastating civil war rages in Syria, where the regime of Bashar al-Assad and the jihadists of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) seem intent on outdoing each other in brutality. Neighboring Jordan has long served as a buffer of sorts to Israel’s east, but it is now struggling under the burden of hosting more than a million Syrian refugees. And ISIS and other jihadist organizations roam the virtual no man’s land of the Sinai Peninsula, which the somewhat wobbly Egyptian government has struggled to secure … [and] … Confronted with threats at home and disorder all around, many Israelis have come to feel that the idealistic aspirations of earlier eras—all those dreams of peaceful coexistence with the Palestinians and with the greater Arab world—were naive at best and profoundly misplaced at worst. A sense of bitterness, resignation, and hopelessness now prevails. Many Israeli politicians seem to see greater advantage in stoking, rather than countering, such sentiments. For example, rather than point to the benefits that peace agreements and negotiated territorial concessions have produced, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu emphasizes how other territorial withdrawals—ones that were unilateral and unaccompanied by peace agreements—have resulted in further attacks against Israel.“
Looking at the current strategic situation, Dr Dannis says that “Although the chaos and violence currently tearing apart the Middle East is deeply unsettling, the changes that have swept the region in recent years have actually led to a closer alignment and stronger relations between Israel and its only official partners in the Arab world, Egypt and Jordan. The peace treaty that Egypt and Israel signed in 1979 removed Israel’s single largest military threat and effectively ended the era of all-out war between the Arabs and the Israelis. It remains one of the most important contributors to Israel’s security, since it ensures that the country will not be attacked by multiple armies on multiple fronts simultaneously, as it was in 1948, 1967, and 1973. Despite the tumult of the 2010–11 Arab uprisings, including an Egyptian revolution that briefly brought the anti-Zionist Muslim Brotherhood to power, the peace treaty has proved durable and critical for both countries. Even the Islamist Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi acknowledged the treaty’s importance and never sought to challenge or abrogate it. When the military deposed Morsi in July 2013, Egyptian-Israeli ties grew stronger than ever, with both sides firmly aligning against Hamas in Gaza, which is sandwiched between them. Egyptian and Israeli national security interests have converged to such a degree that in 2014, when Hamas rocket attacks provoked an intense 50-day Israeli military campaign in Gaza, Egypt clearly sided with Israel and even waved off U.S. efforts to bring an early halt to the fighting … [but] … In the post–Arab Spring period, Israel has also drawn closer to Jordan, the country with which it shares its longest border. The open cooperation facilitated by the peace treaty that the two countries signed in 1994 has proved crucial to Israel’s domestic and regional security interests. Jordan has played an instrumental role in helping defuse tensions at the Jerusalem holy site known to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif, or the Noble Sanctuary, and to Jews as the Temple Mount. Jordan is also helping absorb some spillover from the unrest roiling Iraq and Syria. Security cooperation between Israel and Jordan is flourishing, particularly since both share a common interest in securing Jordan’s border with Syria and in countering Islamists across the region … [and] … Farther afield, Israel has also made some new friends and strengthened ties with old ones. In a sense, it has developed a new version of the “periphery doctrine” that the country pursued in the 1950s, when it established warm ties with important non-Arab states on the outer edges of the Middle East, such as Ethiopia, Iran, and Turkey. Since Israel’s strategic relationship with Turkey broke down in 2010, Israel has forged new partnerships with Cyprus and Greece, both bitter foes of the Turkish government. Israel has also developed closer ties with a number of African countries, which has allowed it to increase its influence on the continent and to interdict arms flows to militants in the Sinai and Gaza. And India—which, as a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement, once kept Israel at arm’s length—has developed extensive commercial, military, and diplomatic ties with the Jewish state in recent years.“
“Was the feud between U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, first over settlements and then over Iran, a watershed? Netanyahu, it is claimed, turned U.S. support ofIsrael into a partisan issue. Liberals, including many American Jews, are said to be fed up with Israel’s “occupation,” which will mark its 50th anniversary next year. The weakening of Israel’s democratic ethos is supposedly undercutting the “shared values” argument for the relationship. Some say Israel’s dogged adherence to an “unsustainable” status quo in the West Bank has made it a liability in a region in the throes of change. Israel, it is claimed, is slipping into pariah status, imposed by the global movement for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS).
Biblical-style lamentations over Israel’s final corruption have been a staple of the state’s critics and die-hard anti-Zionists for 70 years. Never have they been so detached from reality. Of course, Israel has changed—decidedly for the better. By every measure, Israel is more globalized, prosperous, and democratic than at any time in its history. As nearby parts of the Middle East slip under waves of ruthless sectarian strife, Israel’s minorities rest secure. As Europe staggers under the weight of unwanted Muslim migrants, Israel welcomes thousands of Jewish immigrants from Europe. As other Mediterranean countries struggle with debt and unemployment, Israel boasts a growing economy, supported by waves of foreign investment.
Politically, Netanyahu’s tenure has been Israel’s least tumultuous. Netanyahu has served longer than any other Israeli prime minister except David Ben-Gurion, yet he has led Israel in only one ground war: the limited Operation Protective Edge in Gaza in 2014. “I’d feel better if our partner was not the trigger-happy Netanyahu,”wrote the New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd four years ago. But Netanyahu hasn’t pulled triggers, even against Iran. The Israeli electorate keeps returning him to office precisely because he is risk averse: no needless wars, but no ambitious peace plans either. Although this may produce “overwhelming frustration” in Obama’s White House, in Vice President Joe Biden’s scolding phrase, it suits the majority of Israeli Jews just fine.
Netanyahu’s endurance fuels the frustration of Israel’s diminished left, too: thwarted at the ballot box, they comfort themselves with a false notion that Israel’s democracy is endangered. The right made similar claims 20 years ago, culminating in the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Anti-democratic forces exist in all democracies, but in Israel, they are either outside the system or confined in smaller parties, Jewish and Arab alike. There is no mechanism by which an outlier could capture one of the main political parties in a populist upsurge, as now seems likely in the United States. Under comparable pressures of terrorism and war, even old democracies have wavered, but Israel’s record of fair, free elections testifies to the depth of its homegrown democratic ethos, reinforced by a vigorous press and a vigilant judiciary.
Israel is also more secure than ever. In 1948, only 700,000 Jews faced the daunting challenge of winning independence against the arrayed armies of the Arab world. Ben-Gurion’s top commanders warned him that Israel had only a 50-50 chance of victory. Today, there are over six million Israeli Jews, and Israel is among the world’s most formidable military powers. It has a qualitative edge over any imaginable combination of enemies, and the ongoing digitalization of warfare has played precisely to Israel’s strengths. The Arab states have dropped out of the competition, leaving the field to die-hard Islamists on Israel’s borders. They champion “resistance,” but their primitive rocketry and tunnel digging are ineffective. The only credible threat to a viable Israel would be a nuclear Iran. No one doubts that if Iran ever breaks out, Israel could deploy its own nuclear deterrent, independent of any constraining alliance.“
But, Dr Kramer says, “Still, there is a looming cloud on Israel’s horizon. It isn’t Iran’s delayed nukes, academe’s threats of boycott, or Palestinian maneuvers at the UN. It is a huge power vacuum. The United States, after a wildly erratic spree of misadventures, is backing out of the region. It is cutting its exposure to a Middle East that has consistently defied American expectations and denied successive American presidents the “mission accomplished” moments they crave. The disengagement began before Obama entered the White House, but he has accelerated it, coming to see the Middle East as a region to be avoided because it “could not be fixed—not on his watch, and not for a generation to come.” (This was the bottom-line impression of the journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, to whom Obama granted his legacy interview on foreign policy.) … If history is precedent, this is more than a pivot. Over the last century, the Turks, the British, the French, and the Russians each had their moment in the Middle East, but prolonging it proved costly as their power ebbed. They gave up the pursuit of dominance and settled for influence. A decade ago, in the pages of this magazine, Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, predicted that the United States had reached just this point: “The American era in the Middle East,” he announced, “. . . has ended.” He went on: “The United States will continue to enjoy more influence in the region than any other outside power, but its influence will be reduced from what it once was.” That was a debatable proposition in 2006; now in 2016, Obama has made it indisputable.”