Israel’s Uncertain Future
President Barack Obama's Middle Eastern tour, scheduled for the end of March, has triggered a wave of intense speculation about its objectives in recent days. It centers on reports from Israeli sources that Obama will tell Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that a “window of opportunity” for a military strike on Iran will open in June.
The President will allegedly bring the message that Israel should “sit tight” and let the U.S. take the stage—even if that means remaining on the sidelines during an American military operation. It seems improbable, however, that an American president needs to make a 12,000-mile round-trip to provide such reassurance to a difficult partner whom he dislikes, and whose sentiments are fully reciprocated. Last year Obama had no qualms about turning down Netanyahu's request for a meeting following the latter's public criticism of the Administration for its reluctance to act against Iran. It is also unlikely that Obama would let Netanyahu know of his strategy so far in advance, even if the 'window of opportunity' claim was true.
As for the perennial issue of the Arab-Israeli conflict, it is an even bet that Mr. Obama will not be able to kick-start the stalled 'peace process.' At most, notes The Economist, Israel may accept a partial freeze on settlement construction in exchange for a Palestinian pledge not to take Israel's settlement activity to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. Both sides are primarily interested in making the opponent take the blame for the continuing deadlock. Amos Yadlin—former military intelligence chief who now heads the Institute for National Security Studies in Jerusalem—aptly summarized the Israeli position when he said, “We have to submit a proposal to the Palestinians, a decent proposal, a fair proposal. If the Palestinians will accept it, it’s a win of peace. If they refuse—as we think they will—then at least we win the blame game and we can continue to shape our borders by ourselves without the need to wait for the Palestinians to agree.”
It is obvious that the new Israeli government does not envisage a two-state solution as the foundation of a “decent and fair” proposal. Netanyahu’s plans for settlement construction in annexed east Jerusalem would effectively cut the West Bank in two and force a fait accompli on the status of the Holy City that no Palestinian leader would ever accept. Further settlement construction is “the biggest single threat to the two-state solution,” and Netanyahu knows it. His move reflects his strategic vision: a lasting peace with the Arabs is not obtainable; the conflict is structurally irresoluble; and Israel’s security therefore demands open-ended maintenance of military superiority and physical control over as much territory as possible. Meaningless concessions may be made for PR purposes—a few Palestinian prisoners can be released here, further expansion of a few settlements may be suspended there—but Israel needs to manage the conflict by maintain the status quo for many years to come.
An important element of this strategy is the assumption that the United States will continue to support it politically, militarily, and financially. Quite apart from various moral and legal issues involved, the U.S. Government appears increasingly reluctant to condone Netanyahu’s vision—which is just as well, primarily because doing so would not be in the American interest, but also because the strategy of permanent conflict management is not in the interest of Israel’s long-term survival. Israel may seem strong and secure at the moment, but its position vis-à-vis its hostile Arab neighbors is steadily deteriorating.
The wave of political changes in the Arab world over the past two years has changed the security architecture of the Middle East to Israel's detriment. One of its consequences is that in relation to Israel the new leaders are more representative of the wishes of their people. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood's manipulation of the political process has enabled it to concentrate all power in its hands. President Mohamed Morsi's skill and cunning ensured the Brotherhood's victory at the forthcoming sham parliamentary election. For the time being, Morsi is paying lip service to the maintenance of the peace treaty with Israel. He knows that this is the precondition for continuing American aid to his country's depleted coffers, but his long-term intentions are better reflected in his speech made nearly three years ago, in which he urged Egyptians to “nurse our children and our grandchildren on hatred” for Jews. In a television interview months later, he blasted “these bloodsuckers who attack the Palestinians, these warmongers, the descendants of apes and pigs.” Denying Israel’s right to exist is a key pillar of the Brotherhood’s ideology and its activists murdered President Anwar al-Sadat in 1981 for signing that same peace treaty two years earlier. Nothing has changed in its position. Israel’s southwestern frontier is no longer secure; and if Bashar al-Assad falls in Syria, the same will apply to the northeastern frontier in the Golan.
With the Muslim Brotherhood’s takeover of the geographic, demographic and cultural center of the Arab world well-nigh irreversible, the entire Middle East is in turmoil. Libya is a failed state in which rival tribal militias and terrorist groups run the show outside central Tripoli and use its territory to launch attacks in Algeria. In Syria, the rebel movement is dominated by the Islamic People’s Brigade, the Islamic Dawn Movement, the Battalions of Islam, and many similar groups which share an ideology that includes a relentless hatred of Israel. If victorious, these seasoned foreign and home-grown jihadists will cause Israel to nostalgically remember three decades of peace in the Golan Heights under Bashar al-Assad and his father before him.
If the momentum of the past two years provides pointers for the future, by the end of this decade the Greater Middle East will be more firmly Islamic than at any time since the heyday of the Ottoman Empire under Suleyman, and thus more implacably anti-Israeli than ever. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan heralded the shift four years ago, and Turkey has rapidly morphed from Israel’s key strategic partner in the region into a hostile Islamic power. To take but one example, speaking the the United Nations on February 27 Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu called on the international community to "put an end to the Palestinians' suffering in the occupied territories" and urged the world "to put pressure on Israel to respect human dignity."
Closer to Israel’s borders, it is only a matter of time before Morsi’s protégé, Hamas, prevails over the more moderate Fatah in the Palestinian power struggle. The precarious stability of Jordan—which has long acted as if it had not merely a nonbelligerency agreement, but a fully-fledged peace treaty with Israel —will be tested by sectarian tensions between East Bank Jordanians and Jordanians of Palestinian origin. King Abdullah’s reluctant reforms may create a revolution of rising expectations, and lead to yet another regime change detrimental to Israel’s interests. There will be no “peace process,” of course. With the storm clouds gathering around them, many Israelis will have reason to regret the support that Netanyahu’s friends in Washington had given to the Arab Islamic Winter.
Diplomatically, Israel is more isolated than ever since 1967. The settlement enterprise is not only a security liability, rather than an asset, but also a diplomatic millstone which materially contributed to the overwhelming UN vote in favor of Palestinian de facto statehood last fall. Since then, settlement policies have elicited a chorus of condemnation, including a call for sanctions against Israel by the European union. The unelected elite running the EU is inherently hostile to a state based on the principle of blood and religion, but its antagonism to Israel is further exacerbated by rising influence of the Muslim diaspora in several key EU countries, notably France, Germany and Britain. More significantly still, Chuck Hagel’s swift confirmation has exposed the growing weakness of pro-Israeli lobbying groups in Washington. Two years ago, former Mossad chief Meir Dagan warned the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that “Israel is gradually turning from an asset to the United States to a burden.” Following the botched anti-Hagel campaign, increasing numbers of Washingtonian insiders are prone to agree with his assessment.
Demographic trends are another alarming aspect of Israel’s long-term geopolitical position, which has always been shaped by the implacable determinants of land and population. The Palestinians are adamantly insistent on the “right of return” of the descendants of some 700,000 refugees of 1948, and estimates indicate that there are more than four million of them in the PA and elsewhere in the Arab world. Over 90% of them reject the possibility of monetary compensation in lieu of that right. This is anathema to Israelis, as it would signal the end of the Jewish state, and the elusive two-state solution seems to offer the only viable defense from the demographic bomb. Between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, the Jews are already in a minority. Since birth rates in the West Bank and Gaza remain much higher than in Israel, the Arab population of the Palestinian Authority will exceed the number of Israeli Jews by 2040. On current form, Arabs will account for a quarter of Israel’s population by that time, up from just over a fifth today.
Jewish immigration does not make much difference to the trend. It has oscillated between 15 and 20,000 over the past decade, the massive influx from the former USSR having dried up. It is noteworthy that considerably higher numbers of Jews are leaving—many of them highly skilled professionals. In 2011, the government estimated the number of Israeli citizens living abroad at between 800,000 and one million, representing up to 13% of the population. Consistent with the latter figure is the estimated one million Israelis in the Diaspora reported at the first global conference of Israelis living abroad, held in January 2011. According to the Foundation for the Middle East Peace, about 45 percent of the adult Israeli expatriates have completed at least a university degree, in contrast to 22 percent of the Israeli population. The Israeli emigrants are generally younger than the immigrants to Israel. Significantly, up to 60 percent of Israelis had approached or were intending to approach a foreign embassy to ask for citizenship and a passport. Analysts warn that it will be a challenge for Jewish Israelis to maintain their current dominant majority of approximately 75 percent, primarily due to higher fertility among non-Jewish Israelis -- nearly one child per woman greater -- the depletion of the large pool of likely potential Jewish immigrants, and large-scale Jewish Israeli emigration: “Consequently, demographic projections expect the Jewish proportion of the country—which peaked at 89 percent in 1957—to continue declining over the coming decades, approaching a figure closer to two-thirds of the population by mid-century.” As a commentator noted in the London Independent noted two years ago (“Will Israel Still Exist in 2048?”), with the early pioneering spirit fading, and even the Holocaust—dare one hazard—less of a unifying force, Israel is not the same country it was 60, 30, even 10 years ago:
And demography means that it will continue to change, with the Arab, Orthodox Jewish and second-generation Russian populations increasing much faster than other groups. The Israel of the next 30 years is likely to be more divided, less productive, more inward-looking and more hawkish than it is today—but without the financial means and unquestioning sense of duty that inspired young people to defend their homeland by force of arms.
The Palestinians believe that time is on their side. The young—one-half of the population—are angry, disillusioned and more radical than their parents. As Professor Menachem Klein of Bar Ilan University wrote last November, they see the ailing Palestinian Authority pegged down at bare subsistence levels, without state authority or geographical contiguity, an undeveloped economy totally dependent on Israel and foreign donors, and a Palestinian elite accorded VIP status in reward for its collaboration in maintaining the status quo:
Today there is no longer a sole Palestinian representative—Hamas is in the game too. Moreover, the talks singularly failed to produce a permanent settlement or end the occupation. On the contrary, the reality on the ground has changed for the worse, to the extent that among the New Palestinians belief in the in the two-state solution is rapidly dwindling. The young generation sees Abbas and his people at a loose end, with no practical program or longer term vision… The young people also hear him talking about non-violent resistance to the occupation, while doing virtually nothing to promote it. But the New Palestinians are already on a different wavelength.
These “New Palestinians,” increasingly drawn to Hamas in preference to the corrupt old Fatah elite, will present a greater threat to Israel’s future than their stone-throwing predecessors. They will never accept Israel’s West Bank barrier as a permanent fact of life. They will also be even more inclined than their elders to view the conflict in ontological terms—as a struggle not only for Palestinian rights and viable statehood, but also for the divinely ordained claims of the Ummah against the usurping unbelievers. It is only a matter of time before the “New Palestinians” start perceiving Israel’s rejection of the two-state model and the expansion of settlements as a welcome lapse of judgment, a single-state trap from which the Jewish state will find it hard to extricate itself. They hope that the expansion of the fortress state will eventually morph into one-state solution by other means.
They are no longer deterred or intimidated by Israel’s military superiority. The IDF performed poorly in southern Lebanon in 2006, showing itself poorly prepared for the “fourth generation warfare” against an elusive non-state opponent like Hezbollah. According to a Brookings Institution 2011 report, “The IDF’s poor performance on multiple levels—leadership, coordination, logistics, and fighting capabilities—undermined Israel’s much-prized deterrent factor, and led to the perception of defeat.” The same problem occurred in Gaza in late 2008, where Hamas could be beaten but not defeated, and with the Gaza flotilla raid in 2009, the political costs of which far exceeded the utility of keeping the city under tight naval blockade. The fact that Israel possesses nuclear weapons changes but little in the equation. Of eight other countries possessing the bomb, not one has ever been able to change the status quo in its favor by threatening to use it, let alone by using it. Worryingly for Israel, South Africa had developed its own nuclear arsenal in the 1980s—it has been dismantled since—but this did not enhance its government’s ability to resist the winds of change in the early 1990’s.
Netanyahu’s vision of a Greater Israel and his open-ended strategy of military containment do not take into account the shifting environment and changes within Israel, which make his approach unsustainable in the long term. From its inception Israel has faced numerous threats, but its ability to cope with them in the past does not mean that it will be able to do so indefinitely. The issue is not whether Israel should survive, but whether it has the wherewithal to survive on the basis of the flawed grand strategy to which its ruling political elite subscribes.