It has often been said about the Palestinians since 1948 that they have never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Though this statement has merit especially when one evaluates the PLO’s lamentable strategy, its corrupt governance and the fact that currently Palestinians remain confined to humiliating servitude, it remains conventional wisdom amongst political commentators, that in any future settlement, it will be the Palestinians as the weaker negotiating partner who will have to make the necessary strategic concessions. However as a result of new political trends, counter intuitively it is the Israeli state that is now having to look over the edge of a strategic precipice. This is not to say that Israel faces immediate strategic existential danger, in many ways she is tactically much stronger as a result of recent events. The election of Mahmoud Abbas, an avowed moderate, the presence of US troops and bases in the region and the occupation of Iraq have significantly strengthened Israel’s security situation in the last few years. This coupled with a weak neighbouring regimes means that for the first time since 1948 Israel faces no viable military threat from either flank.
However despite this apparent benign security environment, in reality Israel faces significant strategic challenges over the near term, some which goes to the heart and underlying rationale of the Jewish state. If Israel is going to survive in its current form, then all these challenges will have to be confronted successfully, a scenario this author believes to be unlikely. The three key challenges Israel faces are as follows
1. Demography within Israel will dilute the concept of a Jewish State
2. Continued opposition on a significant scale from the Palestinian population
3. Three transformational changes within the wider Muslim world; firstly a demographic shift towards younger populations with greater access to modern telecommunications, secondly a likelihood of an Islamist Caliphate as predicted by the CIA and finally the growth in nuclear technology in major Muslim countries like Pakistan and Iran
1 – Demography- Israel’s identity crisis
About 10 million people live today in the Israeli-controlled area from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. At present most people agree that there is an overall small Jewish majority, but this is quickly evaporating. Sergio Della Pergola, a Hebrew University demographer, predicts that the moment of parity may arrive in only five years time i.e. 2010. For those of a western secular construct, the idea of analysing population statistics based on race or religion may seem baffling, however in the case of Israel it has always considered itself both Jewish and Democratic with the former being the underlying basis of the Israeli state. For Israel to continue to be both Jewish and democratic, it is imperative that Jews must remain a majority.
However according to official census figures there are now only 5.2m Jews and 1.5m non-Jews in the Israeli state with approximately another 3.6m Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza. Though Israeli Arabs form 20% of the total population 31% of first grade schoolchildren are now Arabs. Since 1948 Israel has in theory provided equal rights to all its citizens but not accepted their national rights as a group, as the population of Arabs grow this policy will not be sustainable in the long term. Many Israelis privately believe and fear that if the Palestinians were smart they would be in no rush to reach a settlement. As Asher Susser of the Moshe Dayan centre states ‘If they (the Palestinians) could hang in long enough they may be able to have it all, in one state.’
2 – Palestinian Opposition
It is clear that despite 57 years having passed, that Israelis and Palestinians are as far apart not just on the specifics of any future settlement but on the historical narrative. For Jews, Israel was a culmination of a promised nirvana created from the ashes of Auschwitz, from the grotesque anti-Semitism of not just Germany but the whole of Europe. For Jews, Israel was a war of liberation and a huge cathartic experience, for Palestinians and more broadly Muslims it is considered a nakba, a calamity, an affront to their deeply held religious convictions. The reluctance of the Palestinians to make peace is not as some believe to be rooted in rabid anti-Semitism, but because they believe occupation in principle has to be resisted, this is even accepted by Israelis as legitimate. As Ben-Gurion perceptively asserted
If I were an Arab leader I would never accept the existence of Israel. This is only natural. We took their land. True, God promised it to us, but what does it matter to them? There was anti-Semitism, the Nazis, Hitler, Auschwitz, but was it their fault? They only see one thing: we came and took their land.
Abandoned by the pro-western Arab tyrants, Palestinians have perceived that despite their military weakness, what is now on the table with the Roadmap is not just. The use of force by Palestinians has had mixed results, many have argued that it has actually been ineffective (as well as morally questionable), but few can deny that Israel has been materially impacted by the chronic violence incurred on it. The drain on Israel’s economy has been significant, the huge diversion of resources to defence spending and the material impact of each life lost is much more pronounced when the Jewish population of Israel is only around 5m. Indeed every time Israel loses 50 of its citizens, it loses the equivalent of what the United States lost on September 11 2001. In the last twenty years Israel has therefore suffered cataclysmic casualties and huge economic costs in its attempts to pacify the Palestinian population and cannot continue to do so indefinitely.
It was this war of attrition and the heavy loss of casualties that became the key driver of Israel’s precipitous withdrawal from Lebanon, the image of Israeli soldiers fleeing for their lives remains etched in the memory. Many have perceived that Israel is unable to sustain the long-term costs of her occupation having now unilaterally given up Sinai, Lebanon and Gaza, all without a final comprehensive peace agreement with the Palestinians. Some may view this as wishful thinking, but Israelis are even echoing this view. In a recent interview with Haaretz, former Prime Minister Barak predicted the Palestinians would view the Israeli withdrawal as proof they won and that Sharon capitulated.
3 – Transformation in the Muslim World
If the first two trends were not sufficiently challenging for Israel, there are also three major trends occurring in the Muslim world which will significantly influence the state of Israel. Firstly while Israel like most of western Europe has an ageing population, the Muslim world enjoys a healthy birth. According to most surveys, animosity is most concentrated within the younger sections of population, increasingly radicalised by what they have witnessed in Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan. It is a generation that has grown up seeing images of brutality on their satellite television sets and who squarely point the finger of blame at Israel and the US. For the large majority of Muslims, Palestine transcends race, suffering, or land; rather it should be viewed through the prism of their faith. Palestine is considered sacred land, the site of the third holiest mosque in Islam and where co-religionists are being brutaly oppressed.
Secondly it is increasingly likely that the Muslim world will eventually shift to a more Islamic model of governance, such as the Caliphate; this will have profound implications for Israel. Such a state will no longer be bound by the western consensus of the Roadmap which is overwhelmingly rejected by Muslims. Lastly it would consider itself duty bound to use all means within its disposal to alleviate the suffering of its co-religionists in Palestine and elsewhere.
In addition the growing access to nuclear weapons in the Muslim world, initially in Pakistan and probably in Iran within the next few years has the effect of neutralising Israel’s own nuclear advantage. Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal coupled with a radicalised population means that her being an actor in any future conflict cannot be ruled out especially if the current pro-western regime is ousted. Iran’s antipathy towards Israel needs no further elaboration and if we also factor in a cooling off in the relationship with Turkey (for example Prime Minister Erdogan has called Israeli actions in the occupied territories as ‘terrorist’), it is clear that Israel’s relationships with the three key non Arab Muslim countries has failed to provide her with any strategic depth.
In conclusion, Israel has significant challenges in the years ahead, a crisis of demography, increasing threat of unity in the Muslim world and a proliferation of nuclear weapons amongst its adversaries. Yet despite these Israel faces a crisis of confidence internally, these differences transcend the stereotypes of a hawk dove split. A society where Ariel Sharon can be equally labelled a war criminal, a hero and an appeaser by large sections of the public is symptomatic of an increasingly schizophrenic society. Israelis are not just bitterly divided about the Gaza withdrawal or the Roadmap, these are mere emblems of more fundamental issues. No the chasms are far deeper and surround the very nature of what the Jewish state should be and how it can survive going forward.