Israel at 70 is a remarkable success story. If David Ben-Gurion were alive today, he would find it hard to imagine the country he sees. It is a dynamo economically, quite literally the start-up nation and with a per capita income of $37,000 a year. It is the strongest country in the region militarily, with not only the most sophisticated and capable of all the forces in the region but a capacity to fuse intelligence with operational plans in a way that few, if any, countries possess. Whether in science or medicine or agriculture or new wave industries or cyber, Israel is a cutting- edge country. And, it has accomplished all this in an environment that was hostile and rejectionist for much of its existence.
Ben-Gurion would be wowed by what Israel has accomplished but he would have concerns as well. Ben-Gurion, a genuine socialist, would be concerned by the income inequality that characterizes Israel today, with 20 percent living under the poverty level. He would want to tackle the social gaps and he would worry about whether Israel can still be a light unto the nations when it has not figured out a way to end its control over territories in which the Palestinians reside.
This year’s annual assessment offers a balanced overview of how Israel is doing geopolitically, demographically, in its relations with the Diaspora, and in fostering a Jewish identity in Israel while also preserving a home for all streams of Judaism. One would expect a mixed picture, some good, some not so good developments, and that is what this year’s annual assessment provides. Geopolitically, there are positives: the support of the U.S. administration politically is strong and symbolically very important; the tacit cooperation with leading Arab states reflects a strategic convergence of threats; the relationship with big powers like China, India and Russia is good—though with the exception of India, it does not express itself politically and diplomatically.
JPPI has been very helpful to the Israeli government in promoting stronger ties between Israel and the two great Asian powers, China and Israel. JPPI’s recommendations were presented to the Israeli government as well as to the heads of major Jewish organizations active in promoting the relationship with the two Asian giants. The strategic study on relations with China was translated into Chinese in Beijing and serves as a textbook in universities across China. Likewise, JPPI prepared a major study on the history and future path of Israel-India relations, and hosted an event shortly before India Prime Minister Modi’s historic visit to Israel—the first by a sitting Indian prime minister—with India’s Ambassador to Israel and Stu Eizenstat.
The shadows that are cast on Israel by other developments and threats are real and require Israel to be especially vigilant. Iran has developed a land-bridge from the Islamic Republic through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to the Mediterranean. It is now trying to create the equivalent in Syria of what it created in Lebanon with Hezbollah and its 120,000 rockets. Israel faces the real prospect of confronting a northern front now and cannot rule out the possibility that a war with rockets from the north could be matched with rockets from Hamas out of Gaza at the same time. Practically, Israel is largely facing all this on its own.
It is not an accident that Prime Minister Netanyahu has met with Russian President Putin eight times in the last two years. He has sought de-confliction with Russian forces in Syria but also to persuade Putin to contain the Iranians and prevent the spread of its proxy militias. He has succeeded on the former but not on the latter. For some time, Russia has said all foreign forces should leave Syria, but for the first time it is also saying that admonition applies to Iranian and Hezbollah forces as well. The new Russian public posture is hopeful but should not be taken at face-value. Given the Russian record of duplicity in Syria, it is far too soon to know whether Russia’s leaders will actually take steps to make this happen or continue to acquiesce in the expansion of Iran and its Shia proxy presence. Russia’s record in Syria leaves much room for skepticism, especially since the Russian use of air power has consistently abetted the spread of the Qods Forces and Hezbollah there.
What is beyond question is that until now, Russia has generally given Israel a free hand to deal with the Iranian presence in Syria, even as it also has given the Iranians a free hand to expand as well. Unless the Russians have a change of heart, their willingness to permit each to operate freely increases the prospect of a war between Israel and Iran; it is easy to predict how such a war starts, but not so easy to foretell how it ends.
Historically, the U.S. might have made its influence felt, making clear the eruption of a wider regional war between Israel and Iran was not in our interests and we would intervene to make it less likely. We would very likely have gone to the Russians and made it clear that if they did not stop Iran, we would. That is not happening. President Trump has made it clear, he wants to get out of Syria—and his focus there is ISIS and not Iran. It is ironic, perhaps, that the Trump administration is prepared to adopt a very tough rhetorical posture toward Iran, walking away from the JCPOA, but its policy toward Iranian expansion in the region is tough talk, but until now, not tough action.
Much like the Obama administration, the current administration seems to want out of Middle East conflicts and it has left Israel to deal with the Iranian threat. Words of support for Israel and its right to defend itself are strong, but that is it. Apart from not acting against Iranian threats in the region, the Trump administration at this point has done nothing to offer additional material help at a time when the Iranian nuclear threat could become more imminent. While the JCPOA had real flaws, it basically limited the threat of Iranian nuclear weapons development until after 2030—and Israeli force planning and the $38 billion ten-year assistance package provided to Israel by the Obama administration was also based on this premise. What happens now if the Iranians decide to walk away from the nuclear deal and no longer live up to it? Is there any prospect that the Trump administration will decide to take that into account and increase what it provides Israel in terms of military assistance? That is unknowable at this point, but President Trump is not an enthusiast for military and other forms of assistance.
Similarly, it is worth asking whether the administration is going to present its peace plan and whether it will restore the possibility of peace-making. The administration devoted considerable time to develop a plan with the hope that it would provide a new serious foundation for negotiations that lead to what President Trump calls “the ultimate deal”. The administration is aware that it must create the right context in order to allow the plan to have the best chance to succeed. The president’s announcement on Jerusalem and the decision regarding the embassy move contributed to changing the regional context and delaying the plan’s unveiling. Although the administration continues to emphasize that it will present the plan, its chances of success will depend heavily on producing Arab leader acknowledgement that the plan credibly addresses the national aspirations of the Palestinians. Any hope of building pressure on the Palestinians to respond with something other than a “no” will depend on that.
JPPI has been at the forefront of providing important analysis of the pernicious Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction (BDS) effort to delegitimize Israel as a Jewish state. JPPI’s comprehensive report includes the most complete analysis ever published on the BDS movement, in all its dimensions, with recommendations on how to combat it, for the Ministry of Strategic Affairs. This follows on a recommendation JPPI made several years ago to Prime Minister Netanyahu and his Cabinet to establish one ministry to combat BDS, with a budget allocated for this critical activity, leading directly to the selection of the Ministry of Strategic Affairs as the lead agency. This recommendation was accepted in the Cabinet meeting of 23 June 2013.
Absent any movement from the Palestinians, or some kind of Israeli initiative, we are likely to continue to see the growth of the BDS movement on U.S. campuses and an increasing part of the Jewish community in America distancing itself from Israel.
Despite Israel being such an economic, military and cultural success story, with visits by American Jews to Israel at an all-time high, through Birthright/Taglit and personal visits, and with Israel now the home of a plurality of world Jewry, and by 2030 a majority, there are, nonetheless, troubling clouds on the horizon in Diaspora-Israel relations, one of the main focuses of JPPI’s attention. JPPI has conducted a series of Dialogues over the last several years in over 40 locations with Jewish leaders throughout the Diaspora, on issues like Israel as a Jewish and Democratic state, Jewish values and armed conflict, the Jewish spectrum in a time of fluid identity, Jerusalem and the Jewish people, and 70 years of Israel-Diaspora relations.
Israel for the first time in its history is becoming a partisan political issue. This is not yet evident in the U.S. Congress, where Israel continues to enjoy bipartisan support, but it is clearly evident among the general American public. The Democrats in general have more concerns than Republicans about what they see as the occupation of the West Bank, expanded settlements there, and the treatment of the Palestinians and to a lesser degree of Israeli Arabs. A 2018 survey by the respected Pew Research Center found a growing gap between Democrats and Republicans in supporting Israel or the Palestinians: 79 percent of Republicans said they support Israel more than the Palestinians, compared to only 27 percent of Democrats.
Given the political polarization today in America—and the deep alienation of Democrats from the Trump administration— it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain bipartisan support for Israel. The close personal, political, and ideological affinity of the Israel prime minister and the American president, and with the Evangelical movement, add to the difficulty, especially in the American Jewish community.
Roughly 70 percent of American Jews voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. At the same time, as Israel, through demographic changes, is becoming increasingly Orthodox by religious affiliation and conservative and nationalist in their politics, there is a potential collision of values with Diaspora Jews who are largely Conservative, Reform or secular in their religious orientation and liberal in their politics. In 2017, the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) population in Israel is 12 percent of Israel’s Jewish population; by virtue of their high birthrates, by 2030 they will be constitute more than 20 percent, and by 2065, more than 40 percent all Jews in Israel, and over a third of Israel’s total population.
This demographic trend is mirrored in the U.S. with the Orthodox, now roughly 12 percent of American Jewry, and generally politically conservative, growing at a much faster rate than the non-Orthodox population, both because of lower birthrates and high levels of intermarriage (around 30 percent of Jewish children under the age of 18 in the US are being raised in Orthodox households. In the greater New York area, this rate is as high as 70 percent).
The concerns of the non-Orthodox members of the American Jewish community were exacerbated by the government of Israel’s decision to cancel the Kotel agreement and make the conversion process more stringent.
Added to these issues, is a series of legislative actions that many liberal American Jews see as a challenge to Israel’s democracy.
What compounds these trends is the tendency of the current Israeli government to ignore the concerns of the Reform and Conservative streams of Judaism.
Listening to the Diaspora has never been more important, and with these developments in mind, the annual assessment makes a number of recommendations:
- Promote mechanisms for consulting with Diaspora leaders before decisions are taken.
- Mobilize resources that reinforce projects that foster Israeli-Diaspora connections (Birthright and Masa).
- Encourage cultural exchanges between the Diaspora and Israel involving art, music, science, and literature.
- Engage more with the liberal, progressive parts of the Jewish community. Israel and the Jewish Diaspora’s efforts should focus on “expanding the tent” on the one hand, and reaching a consensus “red lines” beyond which entails harming mutual respect and responsibility between the communities.
- Encourage the growing Orthodox community in the U.S. to become more integrated into Jewish community-wide activities and public affairs more generally.
- Make clear that decisions made in the Diaspora on Jewish issues within Diaspora communities will be respected in Israel.
If Israel does not want to find itself losing support in the Jewish community—support that has historically driven close U.S.-Israeli relations—and among significant segments of the American public, non-Orthodox Jews and progressive Americans should not be written off, but rather should be engaged., Moreover, It is critical that the Israeli government avoid Israel becoming a polarizing political issue.
Dennis Ross and Stuart Eizenstat