The establishment of the state of Israel was nothing short of a modern miracle. Surpassing all odds, Israel defeated five Arab armies and Palestinian Arab incursions to eke out its place in the Middle East. Since then, it has faced its fair share of challenges, in the forms of establishing a modern state, multiple existential wars and further conflicts, runaway inflation in the 1980s and political instability in the last few years. Undoubtedly Israel has faced its fair share of challenges with grit and determination, yet at times it appears as if it has not developed a coherent, comprehensive strategy to address some core issues which afflict it. Having lived in Israel for over a decade and experienced it intimately via military service, countless discussions, and endless discovery of the country I love, I am sometimes shocked by how little thought it appears Israelis (government and voters alike) give to some weighty issues with the potential to massively influence the future of our country. In brief I have listed (in no particular order) some of these issues here and expanded on my perceived lack of a strategic approach to each of them.
Israel has long neglected making strategic decisions with critical infrastructure in three areas – health, human capital (education) and physical infrastructure. According to the Shoresh Institute, which tracks these issues closely, Israel’s education system ranks dead last amongst OECD countries for core subjects. In healthcare, Israel has had the highest occupancy rate amongst OECD countries, leading to headlines of overcrowding in hospitals long before the pandemic. Furthermore, Israel has a below OECD average number of nurses and doctors, a trend which is likely to continue or even worsen in the coming years. Finally, any intracity drive will convince Israelis of what the data shows as well – that Israel is one of the most densely populated developed countries in the world, and due to its high birthrate – is on pace to become the most densely populated country in the OECD in the next few decades. Clearly these trends are unsustainable, and the pain of traffic jams may be forcing Israel to wake up, but short of throwing money at fancy new initiatives, when was the last time the Israeli government considered, let alone enacted, major reforms in a single one of these areas?
The Israeli Palestinian Conflict
Since immigrating to Israel eleven years ago I have had the privilege of voting in six Israeli elections (four of them in the last two years). One thing that surprised me is that in all these elections I have not heard a serious answer to the simple question – “what do we do with the Palestinians”? In fact, I haven’t even heard the question be asked in a single election cycle by any politician or newscaster. The Two-State Solution is on life support if not dead already, and a one state solution would gravely damage either Israel’s democratic or its Jewish character. Extreme (and in my view, immoral) solutions of mass relocation of Palestinians have been proposed but, morality aside, are practically unfeasible. So again, what do we do with the millions of Palestinians (estimates vary) living between the Jordan and the sea? For now, the approach seems to be to perpetuate the status quo. This may be appropriate if no grand “solution” is implementable under the current circumstances, but it is not a strategy. If the policy is to preserve the status quo – this should be made explicit, since the status quo carries with it grave consequences – namely the continuation of friction between Israelis and Palestinians (with the inevitable flare-ups), continued demonization in the international arena and the ever-looming (though controversial) demographic threat, potentially eroding Israel’s democratic character.
The U.S Israel Relationship
The latest escalation of violence in Gaza highlighted the strong yet precarious relationship that Israel has with the United States. The Biden administration has adopted a moderate and cautious approach, supporting Israel’s right to defend itself while engaging in intensive diplomacy behind the scenes. But Biden’s approach may soon become a minority approach within his own party. Israel has faced increase pressure and calls for conditioning aid, reflecting American public opinion polls. Misleading and horrifying takes on the conflict, by media figures and politicians alike, are increasingly common and liable to influence public opinion for years to come. The strong bipartisan support Israel enjoys may not last, especially if a more progressive democratic figure ascends to the presidency in the future. In an increasingly polarized American and Israeli political scene, how do we ensure that the decades-long relationship between the two countries outlasts the political whims of one particular administration? How do we ensure continued bipartisan support for Israel given a growing animosity towards it? And most importantly – when was the last time the Israeli government or cabinet held any serious discussion of the issue? Until now it seemed like the Israeli approach was to hold out against perceived hostile administrations until a more friendly one could give the backing that was needed. But this approach is not sustainable, nor is it a strategy.
The Social Fabric of Israeli Society
The recent upheaval in mixed Jewish and Arab towns has once again highlighted the widening schisms within Israeli society. Israeli/Palestinian Arabs face a difficult identity crisis given their tenuous relationship with state authorities and their (at least partial) identification with the struggles of Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza. There are some encouraging signs, with the approval of an NIS 5 billion plan for the Arab sector and with the recent (though partial) lifting of the taboo on involving Arab parties in Israeli coalition politics. But even these initiatives have faced difficulties in implementation, and they do not constitute a comprehensive strategy to answer the challenge of Arab integration.
Israel has also failed to adequately address its relationship with its Haredi populace. Ben-Gurion explicitly punted on this question by granting the Haredim in the nascent Israeli state religious autonomy, believing their small proportion of the population made the accompanying issues of religion and state negligible. Unfortunately, he was woefully mistaken, and the demographic explosion of the Haredi population has brought with it significant political and institutional power to the Haredi community, despite their holding isolationist values which often clash with broader democratic ones. This has manifested itself in clashes over draft laws, marriage and divorce, Covid-19 enforcement, and most recently in the tragedy on Mt. Meron. There are signs of internal shifts in Haredi society, but these may not occur fast enough to be relevant given the high Haredi birth rate. As a state Israel must carefully consider (or reconsider) the nature of the state’s relationship with Haredi society, since ongoing friction and demographic trends mean the current approach (or lack thereof) is unsustainable in the long term.
Strategy? What Strategy?
The Israeli government has failed to formulate a coherent long-term strategy to address any of these issues (Iran is also a relevant issue for this argument, which I discussed at length in a separate blog post). Despite the shock of a once-in-a-century global health pandemic and subsequent economic crisis, Israeli leaders and citizens alike seem determined to attempt to return to normal as soon as possible, sweeping these issues under the rug. This may be in large part due to the focus of the political leadership and the prime minister on political survival, and long-term strategic issues are often perceived as less pressing, reflecting the famous Hebrew adage of “prioritizing the urgent over the important”. But these issues will not go away, they will continue to rear their ugly heads until we either take action or are forced into a preventable and unnecessary crisis when they inevitably worsen. It is time for the whole of Israeli society to take a hard look in the mirror and to think about the kind of country we envision, how we get there, and how we address these systemic issues. Different people may come up with radically different answers to these questions, which is expected and desirable in a democracy, but we can no longer afford to choose expediency over strategy. We must demand our leaders address these issues for the good of the country, instead of the political bickering which has plagued our political system. The answer to the question – what is Israeli strategy? – is unfortunately nonexistent regarding all these critical issues. It is time we demand more from our leaders and do more ourselves, because we deserve better.