This February marked the 10-year anniversary of the annual educational seminar to Israel and the Middle East that I organize with my friend Yitzhak Sokoloff. Every year, we bring people from across the political spectrum who are truly interested in Israel’s future, and want a first-person view of the complex and fascinating world in which Israel lives.
The seminars have focused on Israel’s security and strategic paradigms, with topics including the future status of Jerusalem, defensible borders in the age of missiles, the ethics of the IDF, Syrian refugees, the growing Islamist threat, the existential threat of Iran, the Arab Winter, the Turkish move toward Islamism, Iraq, Israeli religious diversity, Israel’s socioeconomic problems and the fragility of the Jordanian monarchy.
Israel lives in a tough neighborhood, and the seminars are serious, as we analyze Israel’s daunting challenges.
After studying these topics, you would expect Israelis to be pessimistic about their future. But this year’s seminar was different. Whether we interviewed national security advisors, leading academics, generals, soldiers in the field, journalists, ordinary citizens or government leaders, the pervasive sentiment was optimism. There is a disconnect between the perpetual naysayers in America and what the people of Israel expressed to us. It seems that many Americans seem to want to support only an Israel that is a reflection of their America, which sits safely between Canada and Mexico, with two great oceans on either side. They happily parade though the US the disgruntled and angry small minority of Israelis who want to delegitimize their own country, e.g., Breaking the Silence, and then claim that this is representative of the average Israeli soldier. Are you listening, New Israel Fund and J Street? Overall, the people we spoke with, from the Golan to the Gaza border, said, “Yes, we have problems, big problems, but we’re going to be fine, because your imposed solutions are more of a danger than waiting for a more opportune time to act.” It wasn’t that they ignored a single significant domestic or security problem, but, in the end, there was an unspoken confidence that one way or another, the naysayers won’t also be prophetic.
Israelis know what American detractors of Israel don’t – in this part of the world, imposing solutions and predicting the future are what should be feared.
We saw an overall optimism for Israel’s future despite clear-headed assessment of the current dangers and problems. Beyond that, there was a vitality of life in Israel that is truly inspiring. Of course, everyone had a litany of complaints, from the unnecessary upcoming March election to the price of cottage cheese, but it did not dampen their Zionist enthusiasm.
In trying to understand this paradox between living in a nation with more than its share of problems, and an overall fatalistic optimism for the future, I came to realize the answer might lie in the fact that Israelis live lives of meaning. This assessment has objective support. When scientists survey Israelis’ level of happiness compared to other people in the world, they score particularly high in overall happiness. According to The Times of Israel: “The World Happiness Report... An annual survey ranked Israel the 11th-happiest country in the world, ahead of the United States, and far ahead of its neighbors in the region.” The Daily Beast in April 2013 had a headline that read: “Why are the Israelis so Damn Happy?” How can one explain this? If it is not living more fully, meaningfully and intensively, how can one explain why they are so happy? Despite all the predictions, Israelis by and large aren’t heading for the exits. When a war strikes, the army is oversubscribed with reserve soldiers trying to return from the four corners of the earth to help their “band of brothers” defend their homeland. Yes, there is concern about “brain drain” – bright Israelis going abroad – and taxes are eaten up disproportionately by the country’s defense budget. Nevertheless, Israelis of all stripes are innovating politically, religiously, academically and economically, to remain a light unto the nations in the repressive Middle East.
I am sure some people will think this is a new attempt to polish Zionism’s image and minimize its problems.
But you only have to go back and read my recent articles, where I usually write about the existential threat of Iran to Israel’s existence, the currently unresolvable Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Israel’s dysfunctional political system, to know this type of article is unusual for even me. Even my own mother tells me that my articles depress her! I am fully aware of Israel’s problems and how many Israelis struggle to make ends meet.
Despite this, wherever I had a meeting or an encounter with an Israeli on this visit, I saw optimism. Israelis live in a world where there are no immediate solutions.
They know what American administrations refuse to acknowledge – that the two-state solution is currently illusory, with an irreconcilable and corrupt Palestinian Authority, and a brainwashed Palestinian populace that has been trained for generations to hate Jews and the existence of the Jewish state. Israelis respond by stating the obvious – there is no solution at the present time, not because of the Israeli leadership, but because Palestinian promises at this time are as valuable as an agreement with North Korea.
Americans live in a world of immediate gratification, where there must be an immediate solution to every problem, and this administration thinks it knows the solutions. In the Middle East, today’s imposed solutions will vanish with tomorrow’s new realities. Israelis know that their world will more likely survive if they choose the sane course of ignoring the pressure from the Obama administration, which says this is your last chance for peace with the most moderate Palestinian leader you will ever have to negotiate with. Natan Sharansky and David Keyes writing in The Washington Post highlighted how wrong our analysis can be: “On Jan. 25, 2011, just two weeks before the fall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, then-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave her assessment ‘that the Egyptian government is stable.’ That March, Clinton’s successor, John F. Kerry, praised ‘good-faith’ measures taken by Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and predicted that his regime would change for the better ‘as it embraces a legitimate relationship with the United States and the West.’” But even if this weren’t true, are Israelis willing to bet their future on an octogenarian Palestinian leader whose signed agreements will be ignored by the next corrupt PA leader? As a leading general and thinker of Israel told me this week, Israelis are living with great hope. They are developing their minds and are a leading innovative light to improve the world through high-tech, computers, medical advancements, agriculture, energy, culture, and business to name a few.
Claiming to know Israel’s or the Middle East’s future is a fool’s errand. Aaron David Miller once told me that on the one hand American must get over its hubris that it can impose solutions in the Middle East, on the other, American abandonment of the region is even a more dangerous choice.
Recently, I spoke to a State Department analyst in Israel who told me that we all know what the parameters of a resolution between Israel and the Palestinians will be. But the only thing that really is certain is that applying our antiquated analysis to the ever-changing world of the Middle East will be a prescription for disaster for both America and its vital ally, Israel. Are you listening, Mr. Kerry? Israel’s future is unknown. There are no prophets in the world. Secretary of State Kerry and the Labor Party’s candidate for defense minister Amos Yadlin in the past recommended that Israel give up the Golan Heights. Can you imagine Iran, Hezbollah or IS in the Golan today? With the vitality and ethos of the Israeli people, if I were a betting man, I would bet that Israel will be in a better place in 10 years’ time. As an American, I know that Israel’s future is tied to my own. American leadership in the Middle East needs more pragmatism, and less hubris and naiveté. We need to trust the Israeli people to know what is in their own best interests. If the Israeli people choose Labor leader Isaac Herzog, then we should support him, as it will be Israelis who decide their own fate and put their own children in harm’s way. If Netanyahu is re-elected, the same holds true.
We should hope for Israel’s success and try not to be tempted to impose solutions where none exist.
Am Israel Chai.The author is the director of MEPIN (Middle East Political and Information Network), a Middle East research analysis read by members of Congress, their foreign policy advisors, members of the Knesset, journalists and organizational leaders.