Preserving Israel’s uncertain status quo
Israel seems book-ended by two major worries that have all but subordinated the Palestinian issue to the back burner.
Arab Spring protests topple regimes Photo: Reuters/Amr Dalsh
If someone asked me to sum up in a sentence where Israel will be a decade from
now, I’d paraphrase Dickens: It will be neither the best nor worst of
times. The Israelis will prosper and keep their state, but the Arabs and
Iranians will never let them completely enjoy it.
What drives many
Israelis and the government that represents them is not a Scrooge-like Christmas
Eve glimpse of a terrifying future, but a strange mix of accomplishment, comfort
and anxiety that reinforces the desire to maintain the status quo, particularly
on the Palestinian issue. And that attitude is not going to change
Mitt Romney’s stumble on the Palestinian question
highlighted just how comfortable many Israelis are, and the sheer magnitude of
what they have accomplished. Romney mistakenly lowballed Israel’s per
capita GDP (about $31,000 in 2011, according to the World Bank, rather than his
Yes, Israel has serious worries: The gaps between
rich and poor are growing; the military conscription issue highlights the
resentment toward the ultra- Orthodox, their unemployment rate (60 percent for
men) and the drain they place on state resources. The country’s demographics
look bad – too many ultra-Orthodox Jews, Palestinians and Israeli Arabs and not
enough secular Jews. Moreover, the mass demonstrations last year by Israelis
young and old protesting the extremes in wealth and poverty and the squeeze on
the middle class were stunning reminders of the extent of general
Still the demonstrations weren’t sustainable. Most likely,
it’s because – all in all – times are just not that bad. Indeed, along with all
the forecasting of gloom and doom there’s this: Per capita, Israel gives rise to
more start-ups than any other country. On the UN’s 2011 Human Development Index,
Israel – a country of sevenand- a-half million people – stands 17th out of 187
nations. The discoveries of natural gas in the Mediterranean will not
only take care of Israel’s needs but by 2017 make it a significant
As for the Palestinian issue that threatens to undermine
Israel’s future as a Jewish, democratic state, there too the dangers seem
mitigated by the current situation. The Palestinian Authority’s
state-building enterprise and the security cooperation between Israeli and
Palestinian services have generated more than a manageable status quo and all
but eliminated terrorism.
The Arab Spring has left the Hamas leadership
with few options and no real desire to wrangle with the Israelis
militarily. And the approaching demise of the Assad regime in Syria will
If economic prosperity and a tolerable Palestinian
problem seem to reinforce the status quo, the disquiet caused by instability
elsewhere in the region validates Israel’s caution in not wanting to change it.
Israel seems book-ended by two major worries that have all but subordinated the
Palestinian issue to the back burner: Egypt’s future and Iran’s
The Israelis may have gotten over the shock of Hosni
Mubarak’s ouster and the immediate fear that a Muslim Brotherhood president was
going to abrogate the peace treaty. The Egyptian military and Cairo’s need for
Western support will prevent that.
Yet the range of problems, from
security in Sinai to support for Hamas in Gaza, will introduce new uncertainty
into Israel’s most important relationship with any Arab state and the only one
based on the exchange of significant territory for the promise of normalized
relations. Should that relationship deteriorate, the chances of a deal with the
Palestinians on the same basis will recede.
The Iranian nuclear issue
presents an even greater challenge and strategic priority. Israel is seeing its
worst fears realized. Sanctions hurt but won’t retard Iran’s enrichment of
uranium, and negotiations aren’t capable now of producing a deal to stop that
process at bomb-grade levels.
The fall of Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria
will help weaken Iran. But it could also serve to accelerate the Iranian nuclear
program, due to Tehran’s fear of Sunni encirclement.
One of the biggest
losers from the Iranian nuclear program may well be the Palestinians. The
Israelis never bought the argument that solving the Palestinian issue would
weaken Iranian influence in the region.
For this Israeli government, Iran
is a much bigger priority. And if there is an Iranian-Israeli conflict or one
involving the United States, the resulting turmoil would make
Israeli-Palestinian negotiations almost impossible.
uncertainties in the region, the odds of resolving its most complex problems –
Palestine, the Iranian nuclear issue, the Arab quest for representative
government – seem very long indeed. Even under more enlightened governments than
the current one, the issue has never been about comprehensive
solutions. Instead, Israel traditionally looks to buy time, preempt and
prevent on the military side when necessary, and take calculated risks in
pursuit of peace when possible.
It’s not an ideal strategy – and one not
always well-suited to the Silicon Valley of the Middle East and to a country
that wants a more peaceful and prosperous future. But it’s kept a small country
living on knife’s edge alive and in remarkably good shape. And that’s got to
count for something.
The writer is a public policy scholar at the Woodrow
Wilson International Center for Scholars and the author of The Much Too Promised
Land: America’s Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace.