Questioning Survival, Redux


Published in The Times of IsraelSeptember 3, 2013

A few days ago, my father-in-law gave me a copy of Newsweek, whose cover featured a section of the Israeli flag with the headline, “The Future of Israel: How Will It Survive?” Considering the events in neighboring states where regimes are crumbling and domestic violence flaring, I was surprised to see that banner, until I realized that it was dated April 1, 2002.

The fact that my father-in-law still had an 11 year-old magazine could be the source of other posts. However, I decided to scroll through the special report and see what threats the authors decided to highlight. As expected, there was a lengthy section on the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict, specifically the struggle with the Palestinian community over land rights, as well as thoughtful pieces on the religious-secular divide and the long-term vision for the Jewish state. The overall tone of the piece, as if the magazine cover didn’t give it away, can best be described as concern, despair or even desperation. What country, especially one as small as Israel, could survive so many internal and external threats?

Questioning Israel’s ability to survive was not unique to Newsweek, however. In 2005, Benjamin Schwarz published an article in The Atlantic questioning Israel’s ability to withstand another five decades filled with so many critical challenges. For Schwarz, the main issue for the Jewish state would be the demographic threat posed by Arab-Israelis and an enlarging Palestinian society eager for more land and resources.  And if those concerns didn’t appear daunting enough, neither one of these pieces touched on the Iranian nuclear program, which today stands as Israel’s top existential threat (and a source of inspiration for Prime Minister Netanyahu’s artwork).

It was a nice change of pace, then, to see Victor Davis Hanson publish a piece recently titled “The Israeli Spring,” which took a slightly different approach to the question of the Jewish state’s viability. For Hanson, the events of the Arab Spring, which two years ago enveloped the world with a great sense of optimism and hope, now have observers questioning the future of Israel’s neighbors, and not Israel.  Hanson notes:

In comparison with the ruined economies of the Arab Spring — tourism shattered, exports nonexistent, and billions of dollars in infrastructure lost through unending violence — Israel is an atoll of prosperity and stability. Factor in its recent huge gas and oil finds in the eastern Mediterranean, and it may soon become another Kuwait or Qatar, but with a real economy beyond its booming petroleum exports.

Israel had nothing to do with either the Arab Spring or its failure. The irony is that surviving embarrassed Arab regimes now share the same concerns with the Israelis. In short, the more violent and chaotic the Middle East becomes, the more secure and exceptional Israel appears.

In listening to professors and analysts for many years, I have often marveled at the hubris of those individuals who confidently predict the future of the Middle East. Perhaps, in a region where sectarian conflicts, ancient rivalries, and power politics all collide with new technologies and the global economy, there is no greater fools’ errand than to use a crystal ball on this chaotic region, which is one reason I now find those earlier articles slightly humorous, and less distressing.

The other reason I choose to adopt a more optimistic approach is that by focusing on Israel’s strengths – its democratic character, entrepreneurial mindset, and open immigration policy among others – so brilliantly noted in Start-Up Nation, it becomes easier to see a country with a strong foundation and sense of purpose. Of course Israel has many challenges, and the threats posed by Arab Spring spillover or a nuclear Iran should not be minimized. Israel has faced significant, existential threats in the past, however, and managed not just to survive, but also to prosper.

It may have been, or continue to be, fashionable to question Israel’s viability, and certainly easy with the obvious challenges and shortcomings on display. The better approach, though, when trying to predict the future of the region or its member states, is not to simply look at a state’s weaknesses, but whether the state has the strengths to overcome and triumph over them.