Constant threats, constant progress

That has been Israel’s story for 66 years now – and it is in our power to ensure the progress continues.

Independence Day festivities in Kikar Rabin, Tel Aviv (photo credit: EMILY TAUBENBLATT)
Independence Day festivities in Kikar Rabin, Tel Aviv
(photo credit: EMILY TAUBENBLATT)
Israel turned 66 this week, but some things never change: It still faces multiple threats, as it has since its inception; they currently range from Iran’s nuclear program to the global delegitimization campaign. But if that sounds like an invitation to despair, consider the following comment by a veteran Israeli diplomat:
“Back in the 70s and 80s, my predecessors were hearing exactly the same warnings from our supporters in America and Europe. That the anti-Israel atmosphere on the campuses is poisonous, that an entire generation is being turned against us by the hostile media, that we will wake up one morning and find that Israel is isolated. And all these years have passed and Israel has diplomatic relations with dozens more countries, and our economic and cultural ties around the world have never been better. In the meantime we’ve built up this massive imaginary enemy, we have devoted resources to fighting it and not done anything to actually fix our country.”
There are at least three major inaccuracies in that statement, but the bottom line is indisputable: Despite the multiple threats it has always faced, Israel’s track record over the last few decades – and indeed, the entirety of the last 66 years – has been one of astounding growth and progress. And there’s no reason why the future can’t be equally bright.
The caveat, of course, is that our future will be bright only if we do what’s necessary to make it so. And that brings us to the diplomat’s three major errors.
First is the assumption that delegitimization is an “imaginary enemy,” and the resources devoted to fighting it have therefore been wasted. The threat of becoming an international pariah is no joke; Israel’s modern, open economy couldn’t long survive the kind of treatment meted out to countries like North Korea or Zimbabwe. Granted, our flourishing economy also serves as a bulwark against pariah status; other countries have more to lose by boycotting Israel than they do by boycotting North Korea or Zimbabwe. Nevertheless, it’s foolish to underestimate the power of public opinion in the democratic West; if public opinion turns against Israel sharply enough, it can trump even the West’s own self-interest.
The fact that this hasn’t happened yet despite decades of anti-Israel poison in the media and on campuses shows not that it cannot happen, but the efforts Israel and its allies have devoted to combating this poison – incompetent though they often are – have so far been enough to prevent the worst from happening. Clearly, this isn’t grounds for resting on our laurels; both in the media and on campuses, the situation is worsening, and Israel will need to improve its public diplomacy if it is to keep the delegitimization movement in check.
Yet at the same time, this history does provide grounds for encouragement: Given how incompetent Israel’s public diplomacy efforts have been over the last several decades, the fact that they nevertheless sufficed to keep the delegitimization movement in check shows how fragile and easily undercut this movement is. And in truth, this isn’t surprising: A movement founded on blatant lies (like the apartheid canard) is fragile by nature. But it’s important to remember this at all those times when fighting delegitimization feels like trying to empty the sea with a spoon.
The second major error is the claim that during these decades, Israelis didn’t do “anything to actually fix our country.” In reality, Israel’s burgeoning economic and cultural ties stem directly from efforts to fix some of the country’s major problems, such as the Economic Stabilization Plan of 1985, which ended hyperinflation; the liberalization of imports in the early 1990s; and the economic reforms of 2003, which helped end the economic crisis caused by the second intifada. Initiatives such as these are what made it possible for Israel to integrate so fully into the global economy, and in many parts of the world, economic ties have been the driver behind improved diplomatic relations.
Nevertheless, the diplomat is right that we haven’t done nearly as much as we should to fix our country. Far too often, Israeli governments address problems only when they become crises too severe to ignore (the 1985 and 2003 reforms are cases in point). Consequently, many problems that haven’t yet hit crisis point have been left to fester – deteriorating schools, an ineffective police force, rising inequality, the soaring cost of living, and more. And failure to address these problems means that for all its impressive progress, Israel isn’t making nearly as much progress as it could.
That brings us to the third major error: the implication that the main issue distracting Israel from fixing its problems has been its preoccupation with the delegitimization campaign. In reality, for at least the past two decades, by far the biggest distraction has been not the delegitimization campaign, but the peace process. Several Israeli governments have wasted the bulk of their time and energy on fruitless peace talks with the Palestinians. Others were forced to devote much of their time and energy to combating the terrorism these successive rounds of negotiations sparked. And still others had to devote large quantities of time and energy to repelling international pressure for dangerous unilateral concessions – something that has so far been true of both the previous and current Netanyahu governments.
But with the latest round of peace talks having collapsed a month ago, and the US having declared a “pause” in its mediation efforts, a brief window of opportunity may have opened for the government to devote serious attention to other problems. Granted, there’s a risk that its “cures” will be worse than the disease: See, for instance, the new enlistment law it passed in March. But on other issues, such as curbing economic concentration and increasing competition, the government has already taken some important steps forward, and now has a real opportunity to build on these efforts.
So my wish for the coming year is that it be a year in which we finally address some of our major domestic problems. And if that happens, we’re guaranteed to have plenty to celebrate come next Independence Day.
Evelyn Gordon is a journalist and commentator. Follow her on twitter here.