Nearly 120 years after Theodore Herzl convened the first Zionist Congress in Basel, Zionism has never been stronger and its strength is growing by the day.
“Once there was nostalgia,” the adage goes, but viewing the past through rose-colored glasses can lead to an inaccurate understanding of the present and to misguided planning for the path ahead. In recent years, a growing sense of defeatism has permeated Israel’s intelligentsia, as well as many leaders and members of Jewish communities around the world. Their views are wrong.
This disheartened sense was embodied in a 2014 Ha’aretz article, in which the former Director General of Mossad Shabtai Shavit argued that Israel, once wise and resilient in the face of challenges, is now facing a “critical mass of threats,” while being conducted by “government blindness… and paralysis.”
Zionism has always been faced with grave challenges, but are the threats it now faces greater than those we overcame for nearly a century? Not at all. In fact, Israel, by most accounts, is more secure and prosperous now than ever in its history. The calculus is simple: it wields the strongest military power in the extended Middle East, the economy is on a steady rise and rich with newly found gas reserves, our demography is the healthiest in the West, our people are among the happiest in the world, and our society, as exemplified in the summer 2014 skirmish with Hamas in Gaza, is close-knit and resilient in trying times. As further evidence, in 2013, 19,200 new “Olim” (immigrants) decided to relocate to Israel, demonstrating in the most pure of forms that Zionism is not at all on the decline.
Israel’s Place in the World
Adding to its security, Israel now enjoys a wide network of alliances, a great diplomatic achievement that far too often goes unrecognized. As recently as twenty years ago, a third of mankind—China and India—had little desire for any contact with us, but are now increasingly cooperative both in trade and diplomacy, in growing volumes every year.
While there are serious strains in Israel’s present relationship with the United States, those still don’t compare to those of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1990s, referencing the accidental targeting of the U.S.S. Liberty in 1967; the “reassessment” imposed on Israel by President Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger; the “guarantees freeze” under President H.W. Bush; or the unfortunate sequence of events that brought about the “Pollard Affair.” Those were all major crises that left deep marks on U.S.-Israel relations, affecting popular sentiments in both countries for many years.
As of this writing (March 2015), the animus between Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama is reaching an unprecedented apex. Their divergent views vis-à-vis the issue of the negotiations with Iran have become a very serious problem for both countries. But despite that, other positive trends are identifiable in Israeli and American bilateral relations that are also important to recognize. When considered in a historical perspective, security cooperation, military aid levels, and popular and Congressional support have never been better. Similarly when examining objective measures such as trade volumes and tourism, all are at an unprecedented peak.
Even in Europe, which at times seems to assume the role of the most vitriolic critic of Israeli policy, even there, despite high rhetoric, Israeli-EU trade volumes have risen steadily from 19 billion Euros in 2003 to a staggering 29 billion in 2013. Trade has also increased separately with each of the big three European states, Germany, France, and Great Britain. Here too, when compared to leadership attitudes in the 1970s and 1980s, Israel is met with a surprisingly supportive leadership in recent years. National leaders over the past decade and a half such as Francois Hollande or Nicolas Sarkozy in France, David Cameron or Gordon Brown in the UK, Angela Merkel in Germany or Silvio Berlusconi in Italy have all been constructive and vocal about their cooperation with Israel.
A peculiar and interesting phenomenon has been captured in recent polls in Britain that may also represent developments in other countries in Europe. In those studies, Israel ranked higher than in previous years both on the “Most Liked” and “Most Disliked” countries list. This result indicates a growing polarization in European public views of Israel that may very well be explained by a growing recognition of the shared interests and challenges Europe and Israel have on the one hand, alongside demographic developments in European countries that are negatively affecting public sentiments toward Israel. Either way, not all is lost in the old continent and many trends seem positive, contrary to what so many in Israel lately think, feel, and say.
Beyond Western Europe, other important ties worth noting are Israel’s warm relationships with Canada, Australia, Central European states such as Poland and Romania, key countries in Africa, the Muslim republics of Central Asia, and even its close ties with the once menacing Russian Federation. The stunning web of alliances seems almost imaginary when compared to the situation faced by early Zionists: a very impressive network of global partners for a small nation of barely 8 million citizens.
Israel in the Middle East
From a regional perspective, Israel’s two longest borders, with Jordan and with Egypt, have long been pacified by treaties that endured periods as turbulent as the recent Arab upheavals, the overthrow of the Mubarak government, and the repeated collapse of peace negotiations with the Palestinians. The Iranian terrorist proxy, Hezbollah, has largely been deterred since the conclusion of its 2006 summer war with Israel and is more focused at present on maintaining its posture inside Lebanon and alongside its Syrian border than on combating Israel. In a similar vein, the threat of conventional armies from Syria and Iraq, once a top danger for Israeli military planners and strategists, are now largely gone from the map. Non-conventional weaponry that could threaten Israel has mostly been eliminated from the regional arena and the emergence of radical Sunni terrorist groups such as ISIS has not succeeded in taking a significant toll on Israel’s security.
Even Iran, Israel’s main regional adversary and a country far larger in space and in demography, holds conventional military power that is significantly inferior to that of the Israeli Defense Force. Complementing that conventional power, Israeli intelligence has deeply penetrated Iran, as exemplified by various incidents on Iranian soil and by the thwarting of countless offensive attempts by the Shi’ite state.
Israel’s Past Was Not its Heyday
While many like Shabtai Shavit continue to reminisce over what they believe was Israel’s heyday, we do not at all miss periods in which Moscow threatened Israel with nuclear bombardment (1956), European states like France laid arms embargos against the Jewish state (1967), all of Asia was closed off for Israel (1970s), or when Israel’s annual inflation raged well over 400% (1984).
While delegitimization attempts against Israel are a serious problem, they have so far proven no more effective than the Arab boycotts of the 1950s and 1960s, the attempts of the 1970s to equate Zionism with Racism, or Yasser Arafat’s campaigns in Europe in the 1980s. True, young Westerners are asking questions about Israel and are encouraged by various forces to see it as an aggressor, but Israel has good answers for many of these questions and is making significant efforts to engage on campuses and elsewhere. While we must stay vigilant, constantly reassess the situation, and organize ourselves to counter such delegitimization efforts, we also must not panic and demoralize the public. By strengthening a false narrative of doom, we not only weaken ourselves, but also incentivize our adversaries to stall rather than to compromise.
What authors like Shavit are basically saying is that Israel’s current situation is unsustainable and therefore Israel must take the initiative to shape its future. We disagree with the first part of that sentence, but strongly agree with the bottom line. Israel’s status quo is not unsustainable, but it is nonetheless undesirable. Shavit is right in issuing a call-to-action, but not out of despair, rather out of strength and determination.
Approaching the Future with Confidence
Shavit reiterates an old proposal to take a regional approach to the pursuit of peace; it is a good proposal. Leveraging the Arab Peace Initiative into a joint Israeli-Arab effort aimed at resolving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is a worthy effort, even if Israel has no assurance that the Arabs will actually deliver or that the effort will achieve peace. Regardless, many both in Israel and in Washington have come to realize after the collapse of the last round of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that a regional approach is now the best path forward, including a group of 106 Israeli security officials who formed an advocacy group late last year.
The Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) came up with a similar plan in 2014, entitled the “WAZE” approach, invoking the name of a GPS application that is ubiquitous in Israel. The basic idea is that once the destination is clearly set, all routes should be pursued in parallel in order to reach that goal. In Israel’s case, the goal is for Israel to remain a Jewish, democratic, secure, and just state. Of course, the ideal path goes through direct negotiations with the Palestinians. If that path is blocked, the regional approach should be tried instead. If that path is blocked, either return to the initial route or, alternatively, change track to an independent approach in which Israel should move, with the support of key allies, to shape its own borders—keeping control of Jerusalem, all the settlement blocs and a wide buffer along the Jordan river—while always leaving the door open for negotiations with the Palestinians. By doing so, Israel will annul the Palestinian “veto” power over the two-state solution and take away their ability to disrupt Israel’s future and the continuation of the Zionist vision. An independent move may not bring an end to the conflict, but it will preserve the diplomatic pathway toward peace that would otherwise close by the merger of the two populations.
In sum, we do not at all agree with those who tout their negative argument about Zionism’s demise and doom. But we do share some of the prescriptions that derive from their grim analysis: Israel must take initiative to shape its own future, and now is the time to act.
Amos Yadlin is the former Chief of Defense Intelligence. He is currently the Director of the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS). Uri Sadot is a Research Fellow at INSS.