Summary: Has Israel’s Strategic Position Improved or Worsened? Assessing Israel’s strategic position cannot be reduced to a current situational snapshot. It must relate to developments with roots in the past, and current trends that will shape Israel’s future.
From an historical perspective, Israel is almost a strategic miracle. This year it celebrated the 68th anniversary of its founding, after close to 2000 years of Jewish exile. The 650,000 Jews that lived in the state at its founding has grown 10 fold (6.377 million Jews today). Israel is ranked 11th on the World Happiness Index, its population growth rate is the highest in the developed world, its life expectancy is very high (5th in the world for men, and 9th for women). Israel’s GDP per capita (37,000 dollars) surpasses that of Italy and Spain. Israel’s hi-tech sector is world-class and global hi-tech giants maintain R&D centers in Israel. Gas fields discovered off Israel’s coast promise a domestic energy supply for years to come and are turning Israel into a natural gas exporter. Exports to Asia grew three fold over the past decade, reaching 17 billion dollars in 2014. Chinese investments in Israel grew from 70 million dollars in 2010 to 2.7 billion dollars in 2014. The growing trade with Asia is not dependent on a peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. Relations with India have been growing fast since Prime Minster Narendra Modi’s 2014 election victory. Israeli arms industries are the second most important supplier to India. In mid-October 2015, India’s president made his first visit to Israel.
The peace treaties with Jordan and Egypt remain stable despite regional instability (the agreement with Egypt even withstood the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule from 2012 to 2013). Given Iran’s subversion, jihadi terror, and the appearance of ISIS, the convergence of interests between Israel and the moderate Sunni states increases. A retired Saudi general even visited Israel to advance the Arab Peace Initiative, which caused Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, to warn (July 30, 2016) that “the move from secret to public relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel is the worst thing as far as the official Arab position is concerned.” 37 Security cooperation with Egypt is better than ever. The United Arab Emirates announced (November 27, 2015) that an Israeli representative office will open in Abu Dhabi to manage the relationship with the UN International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). Prime Minister Netanyahu’s visit in early July 2016 to four African countries (Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, and Ethiopia) and the summit meeting he convened with leaders of these countries and the heads of South Sudan, Zambia, and Tanzania, reflects the continent’s openness to strengthening economic, diplomatic, and security ties with Israel. The announcement of renewed diplomatic relations with Guinea (July 20, 2016) was an example of this.
Following the collapse of Syria and Iraq, there is no longer a conventional military threat posed to Israel. Syria’s chemical weapons were dismantled, and at least in the near term, Iran’s efforts to achieve a nuclear weapon have been pushed back. Foreign media attributes to Israel not just membership in the nuclear club but also a secondstrike capability. Israel’s military and economic power has translated into improved relations with Moscow. Prime Minister Netanyahu meets regularly with President Putin, and they conduct critical coordination in light of Russia’s military presence in Syria. Strategic relations are developing with Greece and Cyprus, and even Turkey’s President Erdogan admits that his country “needs a country like Israel.”
Even in the often hostile world of NGOs, Israel has had some achievements over the past year: the General Assembly of the IAEA rejected a proposal to force an international inspection regime on Israel’s nuclear facilities (September 17, 2015). And for the first time in history, an Israeli ambassador was chosen to head the UN’s Judiciary Committee (June 13, 2017).
While the positive data related to Israel’s strategic standing are encouraging, they do not provide the complete picture. If the Middle East stabilizes, there is no guarantee that the new reality will continue to be comfortable for Israel. Important regional powers like Iran and Turkey will likely play an increasingly influential role, and have already shown their potential to be hostile to Israel. Facing the threat of terror groups operating from the territory of failing states, and who take cover in civilian areas, continues to present a significant security challenge, especially if the central rule in additional countries around Israel collapses.
The support of the free world for Israel could decrease if it is seen as abandoning liberal democratic values and as increasing its grip on the West Bank. Relations with Russia, China, and India, as deep as they may become, are no replacement for the strategic ties to the United States. There is no base of common foundational values, and, more importantly, they lack the essential asset that is the American Jewish community.
This strategic reality along with the frictions that arose during the Obama administration, make it crystal clear that the most important task of the Israeli government is to “open a new chapter” with the incoming American administration and focus its efforts on revitalizing the special relationship.
However, the strategic standing of any state is not only a function of its relative strength in the regional or global arena. Internal data about the state of the economy, scientific advancements, educational levels, social solidarity, and more are critical in assessing strategic strength. There is another important factor that could, in the long term, become decisive: the danger of Israel becoming a bi-national state and losing its Jewish character. The security component of this threat was expressed by IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot: “There are 161 settlements in Judea and Samaria. Some 400,000 residents among 2 million Palestinians. The population is mixed, which creates a great operational challenge.”38 The need to vacate settlers as part of a final peace agreement acts as a significant deterrent for Israeli decision makers.
Despite that the religious and ideological connection to Judea and Samaria is significantly higher than toward the Gaza Strip, the disengagement, the evacuation 8,600 people, was terribly traumatic for Israeli society. As the years go by without a final agreement, or policies limiting the settlement vision to the established blocs, the number of Jews living in territory intended for a Palestinian state only grows. The number of Jews living outside the blocs stands at 80,000 (about 125,000 if you count those living in the Ariel-Kdumim bloc situated deep in Palestinian territory). In the past five years, the number of Jews in these areas grew by about 2500 a year. The significance is that the number of Jews who will need to vacate the settlements if a Palestinian state is formed is nine times that of Gaza. It’s clear, that as we move forward, the chances that an Israeli leader will make the decision to evacuate such a large and growing number of settlers diminishes.
Israel is moving toward a reality in which a Jewish critical mass is being created outside of the blocs, which will preclude any agreement that divides the land. The lost chance to attain an independent state could push the Palestinians to demand equal rights within a single bi-national state, and even the best of Israel’s friends would be sympathetic to this. Israel risks losing the Jewish identity of the state. The “Lone Wolf” Intifada that erupted in Jerusalem reflects the reality of a bi-national city, filled with hostility and violence. Today, 63 percent of Jerusalem’s 830,000 residents are Jewish. If Jerusalem’s Arab residents ever decide to exercise their voting rights and participate in municipal elections, there will be no guarantee that the administration of Israel’s capital city will remain in Jewish hands.
The current strategic period, in which Israel does not face existential threats as it has in the past, is a fitting time to craft an effective plan for dealing with the long-term strategic threat to the Jewish state’s very identity – that it will gradually become a bi-national state.