Israel's future in a changing Middle East

In, Agenda: With George Friedman on Israel''s Future the CEO of Stratfor, an on-line intelligence report, analyzes Israel’s prospects in a Middle East sea of change. He failed to mention several important factors, both positive and negative that would impact significantly his conclusions.
I agree that in the eyes of most of her neighbors Israel is an alien intruder. I also agree that the special relationship with the United States is “special” only so long as it serves the perceived interests and policy aims of the senior partner. I don’t disagree that past, present and any near-term future Palestinian leadership is likely to accept a state for Jews on land they maintain is part of Palestine, without, at least, very significant “encouragement” from outside forces. These factors taken together, Friedman is correct to conclude that Israel’s future appears “grim,” but with “appears” the important limiter.  
Another factor Friedman might include promoting pessimism involves some internal dynamics of Israel society.  While there is disagreement regarding fertility among Israeli-Arab families, among Israel’s haredim there is none. Projections indicate that, at present fertility levels, in just twenty years the combined population of these two groups will outnumber secular Jewish Israelis. And since haredim generally prefer study over income-producing employment, that community tends to contribute little to state revenues in taxes, while representing a drain on state finances resulting from welfare disbursements.
Both communities also are greatly underrepresented in military service. While an argument may be made for Israeli-Arabs, Israel’s haredim can offer little excuse beyond preferring not to serve. The present situation already poses a burden to secular Israelis who view service as their civil responsibility. Allowed to continue, in twenty years Israel may find itself in a situation where the pool of Israelis available to defend the state may be insufficient to meet the number required to achieve that goal.
As I read in Friedman’s analysis he is over attentive to Israel as dependent beneficiary of the “special relationship.” But that relationship exists because both parties benefit. America has been losing prestige and influence at an accelerating pace since it overthrew Saddam and eliminated the only significant Arab military deterrent to Iranian ambitions. Since 2003 first Bush and today Obama have avoided confronting the Iranian challenge directly, even when Revolutionary Guards actively engaged in actions that cost the lives of American servicemen in Iraq. Substituting threat and sanctions for action, even in the face of humiliating dismissal, both administrations stayed the course and tried ever new rounds of threats and sanctions. And in the process America suffered loss of prestige and credibility at the cost to Iranian serial “victories.” President Obama’s recent abandonment of Egypt’s Mubarak to his fate did not cause the break with the Saudis; it was merely the final straw.
Today Israel and the Arabs are each considering their options in a post-America Middle East. The most likely contender to fill the vacuum of America’s withdrawal is Russia. This will place Russia not only dominant over global oil supplies and commercial shipping; Europe will find itself flanked by Russia north and south. How long before America will once again find itself alone, isolated by an ocean from her former European allies?
I suggested in an earlier article that America’s withdrawal and the attendant end of the “special relationship” might not represent the anticipated disaster for Israel. Whichever outside power dominates will have inherited a highly quarrelsome and unstable region. And unless that power is willing to pay the price in life and treasure necessary to itself contain that instability then Israel still has an important role to play as stabilizing counter-threat to potential aggressors. Recall that in the 1960’s Nasser and Assad, two allied radical nationalist regimes, posed a threat to the oil-rich Arabian Peninsula monarchies; Israel’s presence as threat contained their ambitions. And the same may also be in effect today in discouraging Iran from acting against those same oil-rich monarchies. The Obama Administration confused the symptom of Palestinian instability with the disease of Arab extremism, diagnosed Israel as cause rather than cure.
Israel’s role in the “special relationship” is as the superpower’s forward base, a modern and effective military deterrent protecting America’s strategic interests in the Middle East. It can serve the same function for the next outside superpower. For Israel this would represent a zero-sum game-change.
A more immediate possibility is that Israel will carry through its threat and attack Iran’s nuclear program. Whatever Iran’s actual ability to conduct a cross-Gulf war, dismissed by most military analysts, the Islamic Republic will certainly mobilize its Levantine proxies, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Hamas in Gaza. In the event of such a war it is not impossible that the Fateh al-Aqsa Brigades and Hamas would also use the West Bank as a staging area. It is also possible that Syria, traditionally cautious regarding Israel but torn by internal stresses, might also join the war. With an irresolute US administration and a Congress still strongly supportive of Israel (I am here referring to a near term war, with the US in decline but still a regional force to be reckoned with) Israel would likely prevail. And at the end of the conflict, depending on which forces did participate, Israel would be in control of large tracts of Lebanon and Syria, and would control again the West Bank and Gaza.
Fortress Israel? According to Mr. Friedman’s scenario these may represent Israel’s only “defensible borders.”
This is not to say that any of this will necessarily occur. My only purpose is to indicate that both Friedman’s and my own factors, and likely others unmentioned but equally important, make up the matrix of threat, and possible outcomes, facing Israel. And while I am discouraged at how Israeli politics has allowed anti-Zionist elements to creep into the government and influence Israeli decision-making, I do not consider even the “haredi” problem beyond solution. One of many possibilities would be to peg welfare benefits inversely according to family size, with payments to smaller families benefitting at a higher per capita level; to link government assistance to employment, with incentives to work and sustenance, rather than poverty used as the benefits benchmark.
The problem of military service, at least as applied to Jews, is even more easily remedied by the simple expedient of a return to universal conscription. Israel is too small a country to afford the luxury of choice to special interest groups regarding a public responsibility. Participation in the defense of the nation is and should be the responsibility of each of its citizens without exception. And requiring military service of the haredi “students” would also serve as an integrative vehicle into Israeli society, as it has done for new olim over the decades.
So while Israel’s future may appear cloudy in the year of the Arab Spring, I tend not to see it as bleakly as does Mr. Friedman. Will it be an easy transition, no. But with backbone on the part of the political establishment, at least the internal factors are controllable.
As Herzl wrote, “im tirtzu, ain zo agada; ve''im lo tirtzu, agada hi ve''agada tisha''er''!” The dream will remain just but a dream without the will (and the wisdom) to make it a reality.
Other articles in this series are:
  1. President Obama’s Middle East learning curve: Any progress?
  2. Playing ''What if:'' Jordan falls, Syria falls...
  3. Mr. President, it''s Iran or lose the region, period!