From World Jewish Digest, May 2008
By Barry Rubin
Let’s face it, after almost 2000 years in exile and only 60 years of Israel as a sovereign nation, it still feels funny for Jews, especially those outside Israel, to have a state.
That, along with other factors, makes it easy to underestimate Israel’s success and security. However, though at first glance it might seem counter-intuitive to say so, Israel today is stronger, more secure and in a better strategic position than at just about any time in its history.
Before dealing with this point directly by examining the very real threats the country continues to face,let’s talk about how these very real problems are magnified even further in the prism of Jewish thinking, especially outside Israel. There are a few factors to keep in mind when assessing Israel’s situation and future.
First, the long-term Jewish experience has been one of persecution, suffering, and often defeat. That is why a sense of pessimism linked with humor is so intertwined with Jewish culture. What does a Jewish telegram say? “Start worrying. Letter follows.” What is the oldest Jewish joke in history? “The recently freed slaves in Sinai said to Moses: What, there weren’t enough graves in Egypt that you have to bring us here?”
Strength, victory, well-being and success; all are viewed (on a collective though not individual level) with suspicion. That Israel has provided such things is a major reason for its popularity with Diaspora Jews. But there is also a sense that things will not last.
Second, no people are more obsessed with relentless self-criticism than are Jews. There are obvious biblical references here as well, in the prophetic tradition, and it has continued down to today. The great Israeli humorist Ephraim Kishon described his own arrival in the country shortly after independence in these terms: as the ship approached the coast it became very hot and we began criticizing the government over the weather.
Every day in Israel, every conceivable failing (real or imagined) is relentlessly dissected. The negative is usually highlighted, though afterward people feel optimistic at having been able to vent their pessimism. The best example of this I ever experienced was walking down the street in Tel Aviv one day and running into a friend.
“How’s everything?” he asked.
“Great,” I answered.
“How can you say that!” he exclaimed. “Don’t you read the newspapers?”
On the other hand, when annual quality of life polls are taken, the positive scores from Israelis are through the roof. In no small part, the culture of complaint and pessimism is a posture, an imposture that should never be mistaken for reality.
Third, there is an obsession (this applies more outside Israel) with non-material factors. Because Diaspora Jews have often been powerless, and even when they have power it is indirect rather than institutionalized, they have always depended on the kindness of strangers. Hence, the obsession with what the media says about Israel, for example. However, Israel does not stand or fall on whether The New York Times likes it or whether former presidents write nasty books about it.
Fourth, debates over political viewpoint and attitude toward Jewish identity play a role. Those who want to view Jewishness in the most narrowly traditional religious terms, who want to be totally assimilated, or who seek a leftist utopia have no place for Israel in the world they want. Wishing it would go away is an element of wishful thinking, an idea that it is unnatural influencing their perceptions of the actual situation.
In circles friendlier to Israel’s existence, those on the left may like to believe that Israel will collapse if it doesn’t make peace with the Palestinians. Unfortunately, the Palestinians, and Arab states in general, are not so inclined and any way a bad deal is far more of a risk for Israeli security than no deal at all. Similarly, on the right, concessions over Jewish settlements or other matters are seen as bringing the sky down, though these have relatively little impact on Israel’s interests and may have a positive effect regarding strategic needs.
Finally, how do we define “security?” People in North America have a very exalted, even perfectionist, view of security being total. Still, I can only say that I will walk anywhere in Israel at any time of night without fear and let my children wander around to an extent unthinkable when on a visit to the United States. A very tough guy, my number-one choice as foxhole companion, was robbed on a Washington D.C street. Another Israeli friend walked three blocks in the wrong direction in that city and landed in the hospital after a brutal mugging.
As for Europe, those societies face a more serious internal Islamist threat than does Israel, especially given their loss of purpose and self-confidence. Antisemitism is rising, both from new immigrants and in some case indigenous populations as well. In France, for example, Jewish life is becoming increasingly insecure.
Finally there’s the existential threat to security posed by assimilation, conversion, and intermarriage.
And now to the aforementioned very real threats that the country does face, including terrorism. What has changed, though¾despite Iran¾is that the existential threat to Israel has declined sharply over the decades.
From the 1950’s through the 1980’s, Israel could have faced an attack by the regular armies of all its neighbors on any given day. Egypt, Syria, and Iraq were fully backed by the Soviet Union, a superpower, capable of checking or matching any U.S. assistance.
Those days are gone. There’s no more U.S.S.R. The United States is, despite limitations, the world’s only superpower. America’s alliance with Israel and overwhelmingly pro-Israel public opinion remain strong, despite minor fluctuations. Arab regimes need U.S. help more than ever before and are less likely to cross Washington on substantial issues that go beyond rhetoric.
Whatever bloodthirsty talk comes from various Arab regimes and media, they’re not interested in direct conflict with Israel. For starters, because of Israel’s military and technological superiority, they know they will lose. They also worry more about such immediate threats as radical Islamism, massive poverty, economic breakdown, Iran and Sunni-Shia conflicts.
Egypt and Jordan have peace treaties with Israel that, though cool, inhibit confrontation. Most Lebanese see their main enemy as Hezbollah, Syria, and Iran. Syria’s government, the only Arab regime bent on actively pursuing the conflict, is militarily weak and knows a full conflict with Israel would spell the end of its rule. The Saudis and smaller Gulf states are chasing after high living standards. Iraq is preoccupied with internal conflicts. Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia are trying to succeed at economic development and fending off Islamist oppositions.
This isn’t to minimize the rhetoric of hate that flows like a tidal wave every day across the Arabic-speaking world, nor is it to ignore the financial contributions to terrorist groups. But this is a far cry from the kind of total, high-priority opposition that Israel faced for so many decades, at times when it was far weaker than today.
As for the Palestinians, in the best of all possible worlds, they would have a moderate leadership ready to make a compromise peace. The worst-case situation would be if they had a united leadership eager to make all-out war. The reality is somewhere in between. The Palestinians are badly divided, more so in fact than at any time in modern history. Gaza is ruled by Hamas; the West Bank by Fatah. And both of these groups, though especially Fatah, have serious internal splits. Peace is out of the question but so is an effective war effort backed by Arab regimes and a superpower.
However many terrorist attacks are attempted, and sometimes succeed with dreadful result and however many rockets are fired at Israeli towns near the Gaza border, this does not pose an existential threat to Israel. And even if the world wants to prettify Fatah and make it seem more peace loving than it is, Hamas is going to remain outside the pale.
Iran’s nuclear threat is a very real one. But Tehran does not yet have these weapons and it still might be blocked from getting them. At any rate, Israel will have to decide on appropriate action if necessary to ensure this continues to be true. While this issue is being fought out in the present, the risk still lies in the future.
Iran may never get a nuclear capability and even if it does so, it is unlikely to use such weapons on Israel. Of course, Israeli leaders must plan for the worst-case outcome but in terms of analysis Tehran has several major considerations to keep in mind, despite the inflammatory rhetoric of some of its rulers. Israel can defend itself and inflict huge damage on Iran, something which Iranian leaders are quite aware of despite their words. The regime, which has now been in power for 30 years, has been quite cautious about risking its own downfall.
There are also many softer targets, including the entire Arab world, which have no nuclear defense of their own, and more anti-missile defenses, too, when that day comes. The greatest value of nuclear weapons for Iran is not their actual firing but their use as strategic leverage, to intimidate the West and its neighbors. Iran with nuclear weapons is a very big potential threat but the idea that Tehran will get the bomb and use it against Israel the next day is not the most realistic assessment.
But I have left for last the factor that may be the most critical of all: Israel’s strength as society and state. Israel has maintained its critical edge on the military side. Casualties from terrorism are down 90 percent from four years ago. In political terms, Israel is more united on the basics than it has been in many years. The economy is booming; immigrants in large part are being successfully absorbed. Despite short-term fits of pessimism and often-justifiable self-criticism, the people are confident.
And that’s part of the key to understanding what’s going on here. In a conflict between a pragmatic, constructive, democratic society and ideologically fettered, violence-obsessed dictatorships, the former will ultimately win out. For one thing, the Israeli system permits progress, the correction of faults, and the far fuller use of human resources. For another, the country simultaneously defends itself and builds itself. What’s most important, to paraphrase Israel’s founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, is not what its enemies say and seek but what its people do.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley). To read and subscribe to MERIA and other GLORIA Center publications or to order books, visit http://www.gloriacenter.org.
Professor Barry Rubin,
Director, Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center
Editor, Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal
Editor, Turkish Studies