Israel at 70: a hybrid and sturdy nation-state, with hard decisions ahead

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Israel is turning 70 and, despite all the doom-mongering and inauspicious predictions, the country has much to celebrate on its international birthday on May 14th. Israel’s demise has been forecast many times against the turbulent and shaky backdrop of the Middle East. It has endured four major rounds of military confrontation with the Arab states of the region (1948, 1956, 1967, 1973), two main violent Palestinian uprisings (1987 and 2000), three invasions of Lebanon (1978, 1982 and 2006), three rounds of ground invasions in the Gaza Strip (2008-2009, 2012 and again in 2014) and the lengthy and ongoing Syrian war and the looming nuclear confrontation with Iran. Israel has managed to weather the storm, while receiving international honors and awards for its civilian achievements in science and economics, including its accession to the OECD in 2010 and its fostering of 12 Nobel laureates in fields as diverse as literature and chemistry.

Today, Israel is rightly celebrated as one of the most successful nation states, having risen from the ashes of World War II and from de-colonization. Compared to the neighboring Arab states, torn apart by ethnic and religious internal strife (Iraq), plagued by civil war (Syria and Libya) or Islamist militia terrorism, or rather by skyrocketing percentages of poverty (Gaza), by crony capitalism (West Bank) or tremendous levels of political persecution and corruption (Egypt), Israel is an island in a sea of chaos.

Not only it has been accepted as a full partner by the international community despite its controversial history of successive breached UN Resolutions, but the US administration is about to officially recognize Jerusalem as its undivided capital, a long-cherished Jewish dream. According to the March 2018 Peace Index, 69% of the Jewish public expects the transfer of the US embassy to Jerusalem to reunite the country around its leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who despite being charged twice with bribery, still enjoys more than 44% of support from his fellow citizens.

In fact, Netanyahu will soon become the longest-serving minister in Israeli history, having been in government both as prime minister and defense minister since 1996, with a break only from 1999 to 2002. His main political legacy will be the freezing of the 1993 Oslo Accords, which he opposed since the very beginning, and by their subtle replacement with the de facto annexation of the West Bank. Unlike the former Labor Party politicians who thought of the West Bank a “security belt” isolating the Jewish state from its Eastern neighbors, the Likud politicians have always seen it as a potential territorial continuum of the Israeli state, awaiting favourable political conditions to be settled by Jewish Israelis.

The settlements have likely materialized over time due to the Netanyahu government coming to power, the progressive disengagement of both the Arab world and the international community from the Palestinian cause and the inability of the Palestinians to fend for themselves after having surrendered the military wing of the Palestinian Liberation Organization as a condition to return to the West Bank as local rulers. Since 1996, and despite two intifadas and a number of bloody suicide attacks on Israeli territory and continuous missile launches from the Gaza Strip, the strategy of the Jewish right-wing political arena that is embodied by the Likud and other parties has always remained that of securing more Palestinian land to gradually change the demographic balance on the ground.

Yet the West Bank continues to be an unsettled issue hanging over Israel’s ability to achieve stable peace, particularly as the watershed moment of President Abu Mazen’s end of tenure is quickly approaching. Should what was once called the Occupied Palestinian Territories be formally annexed? Or should they be partially released in a unilateral move, perhaps after consultations with Abu Mazen’s team, before it is too late to engage with them? The Israeli Institute of Strategic Studies lists the West Bank issue among the most pressing in Israel. In fact, this question centers on the core identity of the State of Israel: The possibility that Israel would establish itself as a sovereign body over another nation, indefinitely denying human rights to millions of Palestinians, but also officially renouncing its Jewish majority-only clause, its internal liberal democratic order and its pro-Western orientation (Pinfold, 2018).

Numerous steps have already been taken in this direction by Netanyahu and the coalition parties, such as the backing of successive bills aimed at relaxing some of the liberal constitutional provisions that have guided Israel so far. Among these are the “NGO Transparency Law” (2015), which effectively prevents opposition NGOs from accessing funds from foreign governments. The Knesset voted in 2017 to pass the "Settlements Regularization Law for Judea and Samaria” allowing Israel to expropriate private Palestinian land in the West Bank and to “legalize” the Israeli settlements built on that land. Such bills are meant to tip the balance in favor of annexation of the West Bank by gradually stopping the flow of resources to, and thereby silencing, the liberal opposition within the country (particularly the organizations belonging to the Jewish National Fund, an umbrella liberal advocacy group).

The bills are also, of course, aimed at further alienating the 1,771,000 Arab-Israelis living inside the “Green Line”, a population that the current administration believes should be kept at bay and discouraged from claiming equal rights, lest they contribute to the decline of a Jewish majority within the state of Israel. In fact, Netanyahu and his constituency have to walk a thin line between securing the settlement policy in the West Bank and averting the possibility of a bi-national state. To that end, it is essential for the government to simultaneously maintain the conflict with the Palestinians (periodically spicing it up), but also to constantly remind Jewish Israelis of the even more dire threats at the country’s external borders by traditional enemies such as Hezbollah, and by new menaces such as the recent Iranian deployment across the Syrian border. The government is thus active and alert on all fronts, as evidenced for instance by“The Muezzin Law” (2017), restricting the use of mosque loudspeakers making the call to prayer.

For Netanyahu, what is clearly at stake is the battle for Jewish hearts and minds. His narrative has been that the Arab-Israelis are still the old fifth column, conspiring against the survival of the Jewish State from within, potentially in allegiance with their brothers across the Green Line. Feeding people’s fears about the internal enemy is an essential move towards ensuring a consensus among Jewish citizens that the Jewish-majority-only model must prevail despite the increased closeness and intermingling between select groups of Arabs and Jews both inside and beyond the Green Line.

Netanyahu seems to be winning this battle. According to a 2016 Pew Survey, 50% of Israeli Jews indicate that they would support the deportation of their Arab-Israeli brethren either to the West Bank or over the borders. The same percentage state that they have little or no tolerance for living close to Arab neighbors in residential areas. Riding popular fears and pioneering a religiously-divisive discourse has proven to be a cunning move, effective in encouraging Israeli Jews to feel alienated, not only from the Arabs within, but also from enemies in the surrounding region.

In a recent broadcast from an Israeli Defense Force base in Tel Aviv, Netanyahu tried hard to convince his people and the rest of the world that Iran poses a major threat for the international community. So far, the international community has turned a deaf ear to similar alerts coming from Israel. But the feeling this time is that Netanyahu and Trump will further pressure the world to take action on Iran, deflecting as they do, attention from domestic issues and making room for manoeuvring in those spaces.

So, what kind of state has Israel become at 70? A successful but hybrid nation-state, blending Western-based legal foundations with a majority-led, ethnic-centerd form of policy-making that considers the will of Jewish Israelis as the supreme democratic linchpin. As Aaron Kalman of The Jewish Home party notes, “At age 70, the Book of Proverbs teaches us, a person reaches the age of wisdom; at age 80 he reaches the age of courage”. And courage will be badly needed later on in May, when Trump’s declaration on the nuclear agreement, as well as the transfer of the US embassy to Jerusalem, will take place. Both will potentially trigger new waves of violence, but also spur a fierce debate inside the country.

Some moderate voices are still making their case for a different future for Israel, one based on good relations with the Sunni states (UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan), movements toward peace with the Palestinians through the resettlement of some 120,000 Jewish settlers from the West Bank, and further integration of Israeli-Arabs in the Israeli society, through national civil service and other employment avenues. There is always the possibility that Israel, turning older and wiser with time, would rather opt for a moderate leadership, embodied by Orly Levy-Abekasis, an emerging politician of Arab-Jewish descent who some predict will be the winner of the forthcoming 2019 elections.

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