Opportunities and risks

Israeli leadership amid the great disruption

December 10, 2016 20:25
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Social media apps Twitter and Facebook [Illustrative]. (photo credit: REUTERS)

It’s been a month since the historic US election, and shell-shocked political establishments across the democratic world are still finding their footing amid the most disruptive populist political phenomenon in generations. Western societies are rejecting a generation of professional leaders for their failure to even identify the symptoms of their economic and physical insecurities, much less diagnose the causes and offer appropriate policy prescriptions.

But this is also a moment in world history that presents enormous opportunity for smaller nations such as Israel, whose leadership still enjoys relative domestic political legitimacy. Now is the time for the State of Israel advance its interests and global stature as a principled, authentic “Light unto the Nations,” with the assets, experience and positioning to help shape solutions to the economic and existential security threats that are driving political upheaval across the democratic world.

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First, Israel should draw the right conclusions from the populist winds. At the United Nations this past September, Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke with appropriate confidence about how “Israel’s ingenuity in agriculture, in health, in water, in cyber and the fusion of big data, connectivity and artificial intelligence... is changing our world in every way,” and noted how “more and more nations see Israel as a potent partner... in fighting the terrorism of today.”

All true, including the fact that Israel has now established diplomatic relations with 160 nations, and is more closely aligned with its Arab neighbors than ever before.

But this isn’t enough.

2016 will be remembered as the year when the influence of social media reached an intensity that altered the most basic rules of communication between citizens and their public servants: Until now, citizens received their information through a narrow, curated pipeline of media, and if they didn’t like it, they could write a letter to the editor or vote differently next time. Donald Trump (and others) figured out how to bypass traditional media channels, speaking to voters directly, and hearing from them, too. As we first witnessed in the triumphs of Brexit and Trump, with the Arab Spring movement and this year’s attempted Turkish coup, social media give everyone an equal voice as potential influencers in the marketplace of ideas. It’s the ultimate democracy.

The State of Israel is as vulnerable as any other to populist delegitimization; in its case, though, the source is external. There is a real danger of Israel’s leadership becoming too complacent in its progress in improving state-to-state diplomatic relations: It is the narrative of social media populist influencers (no small thanks to John Kerry’s “apartheid occupier” characterization) that is sustaining the BDS and other movements that are eroding Israel’s global legitimacy. Social media enfranchisement is the defining distributive power avenue and foundation for the delegitimization movement. And, whereas Israel has always succeeding by “doing what we need to do,” as Hillary Clinton and her party just learned, it’s a mistake to ignore social media-powered grassroots voices. Delegitimization needs to be strategically preempted. The recent social media efforts of the prime minister’s foreign press secretary, David Keyes, are an important step in this direction.

The next step might be to tailor the message to decapitating what a new Reut Institute-Anti-Defamation League study calls the “head” of the movement – the element that will never accept Israel’s right to exist – from a much larger “body and tail,” including many Diaspora Jews, who, in their anguish for a more perfect, idealized Israel, and their distance from the complexities of the Palestinian issues, may be drawn to sympathize with the BDS movement.

It seems unlikely that any Jew takes pleasure in seeing Israel as an “apartheid occupier.” Let us empathize with their anguish; we Jews are all on the same side, wanting to improve Israel’s standing in the global narrative by disempowering the truly “anti-Israel,” who are doing a great job for themselves (at the moment) by manipulating Diaspora Jews to turn on themselves.

Israeli leaders might, independently and in Israel’s own interest, take proactive steps on the Palestinian situation, to help de-thorn the delegitimization movement.

There are a range of relatively costless options for Israel, starting with steps to improve the economy, infrastructure, security and living conditions of the Palestinians, thereby advancing conditions for future negotiations (as former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon recently proposed), to transferring administrative responsibilities for Palestinian villages, and possibly offering a “signature ready” agreement on final status. If the Palestinians respond favorably to such initiatives, yalla! – this might jump-start negotiations; if not, the right social media strategy might help shine light on the Palestinians’ true conditions and shift the global narrative from the present disproportionate laying of responsibility on Israel.

Israel can offer a more global leadership contribution in the war on jihadist terrorism, leveraging its historically superior intelligence, military and ideological assets to help fight the multi-headed hydra of jihad, and encourage the development of culturally appropriate governance models (to exploitive authoritarianism and jihad) in the region. Israel’s interests are more aligned than ever with those of its Arab neighbors, opening the door for unprecedented integration and collaboration on issues of concern to both (for example, stabilizing the Sunni/Shi’ite balance, the Egyptian economy) and to Israel itself (support with the Palestinians).

Finally, Israel is as well positioned as any market democracy to help address the structural headwinds to employment, household income growth and consumption arising from aging populations and robotics/ software displacing human participation in the workforce.

This is the dominant economic pressure driving populist unrest in the market economies.

This is Israel’s moment; Prime Minister Netanyahu is correct. President-elect Trump has signaled a refreshing new chapter in Israel’s relations with the United States, and why not with the whole of the world community?

The writer is an investor and policy analyst, and founder of Xerion Investments and the $3 billion Xerion Hedge Funds, which he closed in 2014. He is a permanent member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

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