How would you like to be an Israeli strategist today? Now even Turkey is in turmoil as its people push back on their increasingly autocratic leader. I mean, there goes the neighborhood. The good news for Israel is that in the near term its near neighbors are too internally consumed to think about threatening it. In the long run, though, Israel faces two serious challenges that I’d dub the Stephen Hawking Story and the Joseph Story.
In case you missed it, Hawking, the British physicist, cosmologist and author of “A Brief History of Time,” canceled a planned trip to Israel this month to attend the fifth annual Israeli Presidential Conference. Cambridge University, where Hawking is a professor, said Hawking had told Israelis that he would not be attending “based on advice from Palestinian academics that he should respect the boycott” of Israel because of the West Bank occupation.
“Never has a scientist of this stature boycotted Israel,” Yigal Palmor, of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, declared.
I strongly disagree with what Hawking did. Israelis should be engaged, not boycotted. Nevertheless, his action found wide resonance. The Boston Globe said Hawking’s decision was “a reasonable way to express one’s political views. Observers need not agree with Hawking’s position in order to understand and even respect his choice. The movement that Hawking has signed on to aims to place pressure on Israel through peaceful means.”
That was not Al-Ahram. That was The Boston Globe — a reminder that in this age of social networks, populist revolts and superempowered individuals, “international public opinion matters more not less,” notes the Israeli political theorist Yaron Ezrahi, the author of “Imagined Democracies.” And, in Israel’s case, it is creating a powerful surge of international opinion, particularly in Europe and on college campuses, that Israel is a pariah state because of its West Bank occupation. It is not a good trend for Israel. It makes it that much more dependent on America alone for support.
This global trend, though, is coinciding with a complete breakdown in Israel’s regional environment. Israel today is living a version of the biblical “Joseph Story,” where Joseph endeared himself to the Pharaoh by interpreting his dreams as a warning that seven fat years would be followed by seven lean years and, therefore, Egypt needed to stock up on grain. In Israel’s case, it has enjoyed, relatively speaking, 40 fat years of stable governments around it. Over the last 40 years, a class of Arab leaders took power and managed to combine direct or indirect oil money, with multiple intelligence services, with support from either America or Russia, to ensconce themselves in office for multiple decades. All of these leaders used their iron fists to keep their sectarian conflicts — Sunnis versus Shiites, Christians versus Muslims, and Kurds and Palestinian refugees versus everyone else — in check. They also kept their Islamists underground.
With these iron-fisted leaders being toppled — and true, multisectarian democracies with effective governments yet to emerge in their place — Israel is potentially facing decades of unstable or no governments surrounding it. Only Jordan offers Israel a normal border. In the hinterlands beyond, Israel is looking at dysfunctional states that are either imploding (like Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain and Libya) or exploding (like Syria).
But here’s what’s worse: These iron-fisted leaders not only suppressed various political forces in their societies but also badly ignored their schools, environments, women’s empowerment and population explosions. Today, all these bills are coming due just when their governments are least able to handle them.
Therefore, the overarching theme for Israeli strategy in the coming years must be “resiliency” — how to maintain a relatively secure environment and thriving economy in a collapsing region.
In my view, that makes resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict more important than ever for three reasons: 1) to reverse the trend of international delegitimization closing in on Israel; 2) to disconnect Israel as much as possible from the regional conflicts around it; and 3) to offer a model.
There is no successful model of democratic governance in the Arab world at present — the Islamists are all failing. But Israel, if it partnered with the current moderate Palestinian leadership in the West Bank, has a chance to create a modern, economically thriving, democratic, secular state where Christians and Muslims would live side by side — next to Jews. That would be a hugely valuable example, especially at a time when the Arab world lacks anything like it. And the world for the most part would not begrudge Israel keeping its forces on the Jordan River — as will be necessary given the instability beyond — if it ceded most of the West Bank and Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem.
Together, Israelis and Palestinians actually have the power to model what a decent, postauthoritarian, multireligious Arab state could look like. Nothing would address both people’s long-term strategic needs better. Too bad their leaders today are not as farsighted as Joseph.