2016 has posed new dilemmas for Israel and the Jewish people. Developments in the Middle East along with trends in the international arena are dividing analysts into two camps: the optimists, who at the moment see great opportunities and positive progress in the situation of Israel and the Jewish people; and the other camp which is greatly concerned by what may unfold once the regional explosions have settled down.
The Annual Assessment continues to be the flagship publication of the Jewish People Policy Institute. This 2016 edition examines trends across five dimensions of Jewish well-being, using a dashboard of indicators to show whether the dynamics in the last year have improved, deteriorated or remain unchanged in each area. In addition to the five gauges for Geopolitics, Bonds between Communities, Identity and Identification, Demography, and Material Resources, this year we initiate a sixth, which refers to knowledge and innovation, based on the common perception that the Jewish people are the “People of the Book.”
The findings of the Annual Assessment are presented to the Israeli Cabinet each year, and have become essential to the budgeting and planning processes for Jewish leaders around the globe.
Like every year, the Assessment begins with the geopolitical situation. Rarely has the picture been so mixed. There are deeply troubling developments all around Israel, with threats to the state system from non-state actors like ISIS and other radical Islamists. These groups threaten stability in the region and Jewish and non-Jewish communities worldwide. In its immediate neighborhood, Israel is threatened today by the danger of renewed warfare with Gaza, more than 100,000 Hezbollah rockets that now include capabilities of far greater range and accuracy, and Palestinian terror in Israeli cities. And yet at the same time, some of the threats Israel faces have become less immediate. The war in Syria that has produced a humanitarian catastrophe also involves a war between radical Sunni and Shias. Iran and its Hezbollah proxy have suffered serious losses as they seek to preserve the Assad regime and their position in Syria and the conduit it provides to Lebanon. As such, Hezbollah has little interest in a conflict with Israel at this point.
But it is not just that those who are Israel’s most determined enemies are preoccupied elsewhere. It is that the landscape of the region itself seems to have shifted more favorably. The leading Sunni Arab states and leaders see Israel as a bulwark against their main threats: Iran and radical Islamists. Presently, Israel’s cooperation with the leading Sunni states—both Egypt and Jordan and the Gulf Arabs—is unprecedented. Ironically, that cooperation is driven not only by common threat perceptions but also by shared concerns about America’s perceived retrenchment in the region. Fairly or not, both Israel and its Arab neighbors believe that the nuclear deal that the U.S., and the other members of the so-called 5+1 concluded with Iran is facilitating Iran’s pursuit of hegemony in the region—and that America is effectively acquising to in Iran’s growing reach. Still, the absence of any agreement or prospect of progress on the Palestinian question ensures that the cooperation between Israel and its Arab neighbors remains discreet and largely invisible.
While the conflict with the Palestinians may not be impeding Israel’s growing, if private, cooperation with its Arab neighbors, it is increasingly isolating Israel outside the region. As the Palestinians seek to internationalize the conflict with Israel—and as Israel fails to make its case to the Europeans and others—the threat of delegitimizing the Jewish state is growing on the international stage. Movements like BDS exploit the international rejection of Israeli occupation of Palestinians to disguise their real purpose: the de-legitimization of Israel. BDS is about ending Israel’s existence not its occupation of Palestinians. But because BDS focuses on occupation and Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank, it disguises its real objective. So long as Israel’s settlement activity does not appear consistent with a two-state outcome, Israel will find it difficult to blunt the delegitimization movement—and this is a factor in the new geopolitical reality.
It is also affecting at least part of the triangular relationship of Washington-Jerusalem-American Jewry. Younger and more progressive Jews, especially in the Democratic Party, are being influenced by what they define as objectionable Israeli policies. Palestinians are more successfully presenting themselves as victims. And absent Israeli initiatives that demonstrate tangibly that Israel is seeking a “two states for two peoples” outcome—and it is Palestinians that are resisting any movement toward two states, the trends may continue to worsen.
In this context, we are concerned about the trends that suggest that Israel is becoming a partisan issue. Recent polls in the United States indicate that while over 80 percent of self-identified Republicans are supportive of Israel compared to the Palestinians, among a similar group of Democrats, the figure is only about 50 percent.
At one level, American Jewish engagement with Israel is at an all-time high, in terms of visits, Birthright/Taglit programs, support for pro- Israel groups, and there is healthy growth in the American Orthodox community. But we also detect an opposing trend: the more liberal, Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, and secular parts of the American Jewish community may become more distant as Israel demographically becomes more Orthodox and nationalistic.
While JPPI has not changed its Community Bonds gauge from last year, whether the ties between the two great Jewish communities have strengthened or weakened is an issue to be closely watched.
There is another phenomenon that bears close attention. A generational transition of philanthropists in the United States is leading to a new approach to donations to Jewish causes, as the younger philanthropists tend more to support secular, rather than Jewish and Israeli causes. Many of America’s major Jewish federations report that their giving has been flat for several years.
We are also concerned with the impact of the BDS movement on more than a dozen American college campuses. Jewish students and others who would be favorably inclined toward Israel are largely uninformed about the basic facts on the history of Israel’s creation as a Jewish state by the United Nations; the Palestinian rejection of substantial peace offers by Prime Ministers Barak and Olmert; the unilateral pull out from Gaza by Prime Minister Sharon, for which Israel received Hamas rockets rather than roses.
There is no justification for the BDS campaign, which includes EU requirements to label products made in the West Bank, to hold up Israel to special opprobrium in the UN Human Rights Council, in contrast to the serial human rights violators from Zimbabwe to Iran. But it is incumbent on Israeli policy-makers to recognize that it is much harder for Israel’s friends to fight BDS when policies on the ground are contributing to growing perceptions that a two-state solution may become unreachable. This would consign Israel to either lose its Jewish majority status, if it adopted a one-state solution with equal Palestinian voting rights, or permanent subjugation of the Palestinians in a way that is inconsistent with what many Jews in the Diaspora believe are time-honored Jewish values.
While economically Israel is a remarkable success story increasingly integrated into the world economy, the location for increased amounts of foreign direct investment from U.S. firms to Chinese companies, diplomatically Israel remains challenged.
It’s understood that Israel cannot negotiate with itself, and that current Palestinian leadership is neither willing nor able to come to the table, much less make the necessary compromises for any peace agreement. Nonetheless, it is in Israel’s interest to take steps on the ground to provide more living space and more economic development for Palestinians. Israel should take actions that place the onus for inaction on the shoulders of the Palestinians.
Israel has a unique, historic opportunity to more closely align itself with the major moderate Sunni states of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. Taking steps toward reconciliation, or at least mutual co-existence with the Palestinians can facilitate this re-alignment. In this regard, recent statements by the Prime Minister and Defense Minister regarding the Arab Peace Initiative are perceived in the Diaspora as positive, tangible steps.
Particularly concerning is growing anti-Semitism and Anti-Zionism in Europe, which has included acts of terror. Much of the violence is caused by unassimilated Muslim youth. There are only one million Jews in Europe, but 15 million Muslims, a figure likely to double in 30 years. Polls by the EU’s own agency of European Jewish attitudes, indicate that some 50 percent say they or people they know have been subject to anti-Semitic harassment; similar percentages say anti-Semitism has grown in the last five years; and some one third are considering leaving.
The new dimension dealing with the condition of the Jewish people as the “People of the Book” will be examining what needs to be done in the fields of education and research to maintain its qualitative edge in an era of Information and Knowledge. There are concerns that Israel’s support for its universities and for research and development is declining. This novel addition to our basic five gauges is yet another example of JPPI’s effort to think creatively to ensure a stronger Jewish State of Israel; a stronger Diaspora; and stronger ties between Israel and the United States.
As every year, JPPI’s Annual Assessment, captures better than any other document the challenges and opportunities facing the Jewish people, and we believe it plays a unique role in strategic thinking and action-oriented planning for the future.
Dennis Ross and Stuart Eizenstat