Israel benefits from a strong military and even stronger allies, but analysts warn the state faces major challenges
Al Jazeera – 17 April 2018
It appears Israelis have every reason to be in festive mood this week as they celebrate the 70th anniversary of their state’s founding.
This “Independence Day”, which Israel marks according to the Hebrew calendar, on April 19, the regional, security and diplomatic environment looks to be the most favourable Israel has faced in its short history.
The Palestinians have been crushed, and Israel faces no international pressure to concede a two-state solution. The Arab states are in disarray, with growing signs that Saudi Arabia and some other Gulf states may be ready to normalise relations.
The Trump administration is little more than a cheerleader for Israel, and has pre-empted Palestinian ambitions for statehood by moving its embassy to Jerusalem next month.
And Israel has one of the few economies that is thriving despite the global recession sparked by the financial meltdown a decade ago.
Nonetheless, analysts warn, the picture over the coming decades may prove to be far less rosey than it appears now. The relatively free hand Israel currently enjoys comes with new costs and dangers, they argue.
“This is more like a pyrrhic victory,” Amal Jamal, a politics professor at Tel Aviv University, told Al Jazeera.
“Israel has won this round of the battle, but at a price it probably can’t afford in the coming rounds.”
‘The end of the Jewish state’
That sentiment is shared in unlikely places. Last month Israel’s popular Yedioth Aharonoth daily published the assessments of six former heads of Israel’s spy agency Mossad, headlined: “The country is in grave condition.”
One, Dani Yatom, went so far as to predict “the end of the Jewish state”. Another, Nahum Admoni, warned that the rift within the Israeli Jewish public was “greater than at any other time” in Israel’s history.
Michal Warschawski, an Israeli analyst and founder of the Alternative Information Centre, argued that Israel was suffering from “classic hubris”.
“Israel is strong, rich and has powerful allies. That explains its extreme arrogance at the moment,” he told Al Jazeera.
“We are now in a strange situation in which the security apparatus has more insight into Israel’s problems than the politicians.”
An indication of Israel’s troubles ahead are the popular, unarmed protests that have exploded on to the Palestinian political scene along Gaza’s perimeter fence.
For decades Israel’s internal security has been carefully built on an intricate system of containing, isolating and repressing Palestinians with walls, checkpoints and blockades.
But the Gaza protests suggest to some observers that Israel’s complex fortifications could quicky turn into a house of cards if unarmed resistance by Palestinians grows or spreads.
Israeli military commanders have repeatedly warned that they have no strategy for countering a mass popular revolt. The use of snipers to terrify away protesters was a sign of Israel’s desperation, say analysts.
Veteran Israeli peace activist Uri Avnery observed in a column at the weekend: “Like the British in India and the white racists in the US, the Israeli government does not know how to deal with unarmed protest.”
Assad Ghanem, a political scientist at Haifa University, told Al Jazeera: “What happens to Israel will depend in part on what Palestinians choose to do, and Palestinians aren’t going to accept third or fourth-class status forever.”
He noted that historically Palestinians had looked to the wider Arab world for support, including military assistance.
“For the first time, the Palestinians are on their own. They have slowly internalised the fact that Israel cannot be defeated with arms, and they must move towards a non-armed struggle.”
Israel would be in “serious difficulty” if the protests in Gaza spread, unifying Palestinians in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Israel and the refugee camps of Lebanon and Syria. “Israel cannot repress all these fronts at the same time,” he said.
Jamal, of Tel Aviv University, observed that the Palestinian struggle would be influenced by changing international circumstances.
“The Israeli right is behaving as if the shift to the right in the west will last forever. It won’t – there will be a backlash,” he argued.
‘No depth to international support’
But if Israel has reason to worry about where increasing hopelessness may drive the Palestinians, it has additional dark clouds looming on the horizon.
International support for Israel has no depth, according to Jeff Halper, an Israeli analyst.
“Israel may have the support of western governments, but it has lost the fight for international public opinion. Its defenders sound increasingly shrill and isolated,” he told Al Jazeera.
Ilan Pappe, an Israeli historian, noted that Israel’s position was severely weakened by its explicit abandonment of any peace process.
“While the two-state framework was formally on the table, it was much easier for people to accept the current reality,” he told Al Jazeera. “But without it, Israel is naked, it is exposed as an apartheid state.”
That, said Jamal, would make it much harder for Israel to maintain alliances with progressives movements in the US and Europe.
He pointed to Jeremy Corbyn, leader of Britain’s opposition Labour party, as an example of the new breed of politician prepared to be outspoken in support of the Palestinians. Polls have also revealed for the first time widespread antipathy towards Israel from within the ranks of the Democratic Party in the US.
“Palestinian strategies of resistance can accelerate this trend,” Jamal added.
Shift to the right
The dramatic shift in Israel towards the far right in recent years, with a series of ever more ultra-nationalist governments under Benjamin Netanyahu, has provoked growing polarisation among Israeli Jews and mounting alienation from liberal Jews overseas.
Traditionally, the latter have been vocal advocates for Israel abroad, especially in the United States.
In the run-up to the 70th anniversary celebrations, there has been an outpouring of fears from liberal commentators about the future.
Bradley Burston observed that Israel was now led by “a government of the racist, by the racist, for the racist”, while Chemi Shalev warned that it was time for liberal Jews in Israel and the US to “circle their wagons” against the Israeli leadership.
Emilie Moatti argued that the “thuggery” of the current government would soon seem moderate in comparison to the “nightmarish circus up the road”.
Meanwhile, analyst Yossi Klein argued: “A clerical fascist state will rise here much faster than you think.” He added that Israel was rapidly becoming a country that “you have to get out of, and fast”.
Such fears have been exacerbated by a raft of discriminatory and racist legislation and relentless efforts to delegitimise the Israeli supreme court and human rights groups.
“It is not just the illusion of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state that is crumbling, Israel is actively abandoning any pretence of being democratic. It is more interested in its Jewishness,” Warschawski said.
Jamal said Israel was becoming “a theocratic, nationalist state” dominated by religious extremists and the settlers. “That is not a direction those Israelis who want peace can go in. The secular population will have to fight for what’s left of Israel’s democracy,” he said.
Pappe said growing economic gaps between a rich elite and the country’s middle classes were also straining traditional internal solidarity.
In 2015 the finance ministry warned that over the coming years Israel was on track for a Greek-style fiscal meltdown.
“Israel has the largest gap between rich and poor in the OECD [an organisation promoting economic cooperation between the world’s 35 most developed countries],” said Pappe.
“The middle classes can hardly survive, and mostly are living off overdrafts. They are on the verge of protests.”
Young looking to leave
All agreed that Israel risked a brain drain – and a loss of legitimacy – as younger liberal Israelis looked for options to leave.
Jamal said: “Israel has traded on the claim that the occupation is temporary. But clearly that is no longer tenable. So Israelis will have to choose. There can one sovereign state for everyone living here, or there can be apartheid.”
Halper struck a similar note. “What has saved Israel has been the fact that there is no countervailing push for a resolution of the conflict,” he said. “Israel has won the argument by default.
“One state is in the air, and it could quickly build a dynamic of its own, both locally and outside. The churches, trade unions, solidarity groups, civil society organisations are all looking for someone to articulate a new way ahead.”
And Israel could soon find itself deprived of its traditional supporters abroad to help it counter the intensified international solidarity with Palestinians, such as the boycott (BDS) movement.
Warschawski said: “In a generation the unconditional support Israel has enjoyed from Jewish organisations overseas will become a thing of the past. Young Jews either don’t care about Israel or are openly critical of it.”
A survey in February found only 40 per cent of American Jews under the age of 35 in the San Francisco area were “comfortable with the idea of a Jewish state”, compared to nearly three-quarters of those over 65.
In a sign of the Israeli right’s growing fears, settler leader Naftali Bennett, the Jewish diaspora minister, announced last month plans for Israel to forge ties with tens of millions of people it has classified as “potential Jews” or those with an “affinity” to the Jewish people.
Anshel Pfeffer, an analyst with the Haaretz daily, argued that Israel realised it could no longer rely on overseas Jews, in an article headlined: “Disappointed with the Diaspora, Israel is now looking to replace it”.
Pappe said in practice, as liberal Jews abandoned Israel, it would have to climb into bed with US Christian Zionists, religious fundamentalists who backed Trump in large numbers in the last presidential election.
“Jews have needed to believe that Israel embodies moral and universal values. Christian Zionists don’t care. They will support it whatever it does,” he said.
Rising global powers could also make a difference to Israel’s fortunes long term, acting as a counterweight to current US dominance.
Jamal noted that, in preparation, Israel was already trying to develop closer economic and military ties to India and China.
Halper said: “Israel has depended on the US being the main player in the Middle East. But Russia is already getting more involved, and there are signs that China will eventually do so too.
“That will require Israel to navigate a more difficult military and diplomatic environment.”