Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

Predicting the Middle East’s Future: All Crystal Bull

Dictionary definitions of “Bull”:

1) An unpredictable animal when angry.

2) Worthless information.

3) Stock market on the rise.

* * * * * * * * *

In 1948 and 1967 Israel was in the fight of its life against the Jordanian and Egyptian armies. Within less than three decades, both these countries had signed peace treaties with the State of Israel, a peace that has lasted into the present. Meanwhile, back then Iran and Turkey were great friends of Israel. Today, one is Israel’s most implacable and dangerous enemy, and the other is a big thorn in its side – at least verbally and diplomatically, if not (yet?) commercially.

One can add to these some other Middle East countries. Take the Gulf States, for instance:  although not warring with Israel (a bit too far away for them), back then there was no political or commercial contact with Israel at all – a policy of malign neglect. Today? Well, no need to repeat the headlines of these past several weeks. Closer to home, Lebanon has been the base for incessant terror attacks and two wars against Israel. And yet, today the two countries are sitting together in negotiations to hammer out their maritime border so that both can independently start drilling and extracting their huge underwater gas reserves.

What to make of all this? The only thing that’s predictable in the Middle East is its unpredictability. This might sound glib, but is there any practical consequence in this part of the world for the crystal ball turning into a crystal bull? That is, if the prognostications that we all hear and read from politicians, political scientists (I’m one of those), Middle East scholars, media commentators and pundits, are mostly worthless, what are the ramifications of such an endeavor?

In fact, there are significant political effects. For instance, the Israeli Left has been “warning” for years that “time is not on Israel’s side” in its conflict with the Palestinians and therefore pressures the government to return to the peace process. This has two different variations. First, demographic: the Palestinians (West Bank and within the Green Line) are increasing in number faster than the Jewish-Israeli population – and extrapolating on out another few decades, Israel’s Jews will be a puddle in a sea of Palestinian Arabs. But no one has done any real census in the “territories” (emigration is probably much higher than they are willing to admit), and Jewish immigration to Israel has not decreased – not to mention that Israel’s birthrate has become the highest in the developed world. Who would have predicted that a few decades ago?

On the other hand, Israel’s Right-wing has been harping for decades on the theme of an irredentist “uprising” by “Fifth Column” Israeli Palestinians. The reality today? Most of them – especially the younger generation – have strived to become more assimilated into Israeli society. For example, they make up a huge proportion of Israel’s pharmacists, nurses, and even a significant number of its doctors. Indeed (here’s another one that no one could have predicted even a few months ago!), the head of the Southern Branch of the Islamic Movement and also head of the “United Arab List” party, Mansour Abbas, has recently called for negotiating with (and on some issues supporting) PM Netanyahu in return for Israeli Government resources being channeled to Arab towns and citizens.

Thus, the Israel-Palestinian conflict does not have the “characteristics” that many predicted (and continue to do so) regarding where we will end up. These days, time hardly seems to be on the side of the Palestinians. Not only are they losing many of their former supporters, but the internal Israel-Palestine dynamics are changing in Israel’s favor (in any case, demography is not destiny; economic and cultural power count for at least as much).

If one can’t predict the future, is it worthwhile – and if so, is there anything that we can do? I believe so: scenario planning and probabilistic forecasting. On the one hand, come up with as many future developments and outcomes as possible – and then try to assess the chances of such a future actually happening. This cannot be done by one person, as each person tends to be stuck in their own paradigm. Group brainstorming is a better approach – by strategic thinking “visionaries”; then bring in the technocrats (economists, sociologists, psychologists, political scientists, demographers, etc) for probability evaluation.

Merely for illustrative purposes, here are two quite different scenarios for the midterm future. 1) The son of Jordan’s King Abdullah – Hussein bin Abdullah – becomes king after Abdullah’s death sometime in the 2030s. A graduate of Georgetown University (in International History), his ascension is marked by large scale riots – a repeat of the Arab Spring that occurred some 25 years earlier. To quell the turmoil, Hussein makes a bold move restoring and expanding all of the Jordanian Parliament’s previous powers. The parliament then decides to appease the public – two-thirds of the citizenry being of Palestinian origin – by declaring that “Jordan is Palestine”, and sets out to revise its peace treaty with Israel that incorporates parts of the “West Bank” into the newly designated country called Palestine (Israel retains other strategically critical areas of Judea and Samaria). Thus, in one stroke the Palestinians gain their own country and Palestinian citizenship – and the Arab world donates billions of dollars to the new Palestine (formerly Jordan+) so that millions of Palestinian refugees can return to their old/new Palestine country…

2) It’s the 2040s. As a result of continued high birthrates and large-scale immigration from Western Europe and the U.S. (rising antisemitism etc), Israel is close to 20 million citizens with a GDP greater than any Middle East country (oil is almost finished as a valuable commodity). Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority – never having given up its dream of a Palestine in every part of Judea and Samaria with all Palestinian refugees allowed to return to their former homes in Israel – has sunk into geo-strategic irrelevance, half its population emigrating to seek a better life. With less than two million residents compared to Israel’s twenty million, the entire West Bank is annexed by Israel, offering Israeli citizenship to any Palestinian who so desires (a move that demographically no longer threatens the Jewish character of the state). Approximately one million take up the offer; the other million have three choices: remain stateless, take Palestinian (formerly Jordan) citizenship, or emigrate. The world makes some perfunctory noises, but otherwise there are no consequences as the “apartheid” accusation no longer holds.

Crazy scenarios? Not any more than living in 1949 (after Israel’s War of Independence) and predicting that in seven decades the country would be at peace with several Middle East countries, while others will be conducting commercial and secret diplomatic ties with their formerly reviled “colonial invader”, aka Israel.

In sum, one can be “bullish” about Israel’s future in the Middle East, or worry about raging Arab “bullheadedness” at the sight of Israel waving the “red cape” – but in the final analysis all crystal globe predictions about the future in this part of the world have to be viewed as half “bull” and (if one is lucky) half “ball”.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published three books and 60 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. For more information and other publications (academic and popular), see:
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