The past year highlighted the dualities that characterize Israel’s predicament, and to a large extent the reality of world Jewry. Unprecedented achievements on one hand and deep-rooted problems with the potential to precipitate major crises on the other. The year in which the United States recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was also the year in which Israel entered – in Syria – for the first time into a direct military confrontation with Iran, a development that could have bloody repercussions. The year in which the U.S. president displayed great sympathy for Israel and a deep understanding of Israeli positions was also the year when tensions came to the fore between the Israeli government and a significant segment of American Jewry, which is troubled by the current president’s approach.
The strategic challenges Israel faces in its stormy Mideast environment are numerous and complex. After years of violent upheaval that destroyed the old order, no new regional order that could conceivably ensure stability has yet to emerge. The international system, which is relevant to the Middle East and to Israel’s strategic resilience, is also in a state of turbulence and far from projecting stability. This frenzied geopolitical scene was recently joined by yet another influential player – U.S. President Donald Trump. The new president’s personality, and the difficulty of predicting his actions, add a unique dimension of uncertainty to the international stage in general, and particularly to the arenas relevant to Israeli resilience.
A striking manifestation of Israel’s strategic uncertainty is the extreme polarization displayed by commentators regarding current developments and their likely impact on Israeli resilience. Well-reasoned theses underscoring Israel’s problematic and worrisome strategic status are countered by equally convincing arguments that the country’s strategic situation has never been better. Prominently featured on the positive side of the strategic balance sheet is Israel’s position as the Middle East’s leading military power, with effective deterrence and a qualitative military edge over its adversaries. The conventional military threat to Israel posed by regular national armies has dramatically declined, along with (for the time being at least) non-conventional military threats: most (though not all) of Syria’s chemical arsenal has been dismantled, and the Iranian nuclear program has been temporarily halted by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Iran nuclear deal, (whose future is, however, unclear now that the U.S. has withdrawn from it).
Israel wields considerable economic and technological might; it possesses highly advanced tech and cyber industries, as well as gas reserves in the Mediterranean Sea. According to the International Monetary Fund (April 2018),1 Israel’s GDP per capita – $42,120 – is higher than that of Spain, Italy, or Japan. Israel’s strategic alliance with the United States is strong and stable. The peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan remain stable anchors, the vicissitudes of time notwithstanding. A convergence of interests has emerged between Israel and key Sunni nations, creating a platform for unprecedented security cooperation. Israel’s working relationship with Russia has become stronger, Chinese interest in the Israeli economy is on the rise, and relations with India have grown closer (Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Israel in July 2017, the first ever visit by a sitting Indian prime minister; this was followed in January 2018 by a reciprocal visit to India by Prime Minister Netanyahu).
Alongside these strategic points of light, there are also dark shadows: this year found Israel entering into direct confrontation with Iran, which is trying to extend its sphere of influence to the Mediterranean Sea, with both Syria and Lebanon turning into military fronts vis-à-vis Israel. The JCPOA did not curb Teheran’s nuclear ambitions and left the country’s relevant infrastructure undisturbed, meaning that, depending on circumstances, Israel could once again face the Iranian nuclear threat.
Hezbollah is growing stronger militarily and politically, and Gaza could pose a simultaneous challenge in any scenario of violent escalation. Russia has become a permanent actor in the region, with a military presence in neighboring Syria. Shared interests between Russia and Israel’s sworn enemies is a worrisome reality. In contrast, the United States is currently reducing its military involvement in the Middle East, a development inconsistent with Israel’s interests.
The failure to resolve the Palestinian problem fuels hostility to Israel and, in the long term, threatens the state’s Jewish character. The humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip increases the danger that war will erupt. Delegitimization and BDS still pose a long-term strategic threat. In addition to all this, Israel is having trouble preserving bipartisan U.S. support, and existing tensions between the Israeli government and broad swathes of American Jewry hold a potential to harm the strategic triangle: Jerusalem-Washington-American Jewry.
Israel’s strategic balance sheet includes challenges in several different and interacting spheres:
A. The international system (with an emphasis on U.S. status and performance). B. The threats and opportunities that the entire regional situation poses for Israel. C. The Palestinian situation as a whole. D. The strategic triangle: Jerusalem-Washington-American Jewry. These spheres are known to have a direct impact on the resilience of Israel and of the Jewish people, and they will be the focus of this overview.