It would be difficult to exaggerate Israel’s successes over the past three decades. But it would also be a colossal mistake to underestimate the challenges it is now facing.
The key successes are strategic. Israel has managed to live through the past two decades, during which its immediate neighbourhood of the Eastern Mediterranean has witnessed acute troubles, without experiencing any serious disruptions to its political or economic life. On the contrary, it has succeeded in using the situations around it to upgrade its cooperation with important world powers with influence in the region, most notably Russia.
Israel has become a major military power with a formidable reputation in the world of intelligence, and a large number of countries in the wider Middle East and beyond seek its expertise and buy its resources and products. This gives it prestige as well as, more importantly, access and knowledge.
Israel was one of the first countries to understand not just the implications of the rise of China, but also the fast pace of that rise and to act on that understanding. Israel actively sought to cultivate relationships with important nodes in the Chinese power structure, going way beyond the layers of the Chinese Communist Party to major players in the communications, technology, and industrial sectors.
The result is that Israel has highly developed technological and economic cooperation relationships with the rising global power. These will yield valuable dividends in the coming years.
These new relationships have also not lessened Israel’s special relationship with the US. Despite opposing turns in US policy in and towards the Middle East and major changes within US domestic politics, Israel has navigated its multi-faceted interactions with the US and has managed to remain its most trusted and closest ally in the region.
Israel is also benefitting from the gradual disengagement of the US from the Middle East. Its strategic successes, as well as its advances in the military and intelligence domains, have made it an attractive partner for regional powers in need of new security arrangements, especially in the Gulf. Israel’s successes in several technological and economic sectors have been registered by the sharp antennas of many merchant families in the Gulf that are deeply entrenched in the region’s political-economic fabric.
The new Israeli partnerships with the Gulf have encouraged others. Sudan knocked on the US door through an Israeli route, for example, and Morocco is enhancing and deepening its decades-long cooperation with Israel. The result is that in a vastly changing Middle East, Gulf, and North Africa, Israel has emerged as a political, security, and economic centre with strong connections to almost all the corners of this large region.
However, from within these successes challenges also emerge. Israel has secured a newly prominent place in the wider Middle East while also increasingly becoming a Middle Eastern country.
Politically, religion is now one of the strongest currents in the Israeli parliament and thus in government-formation in Israel. This flies in the face of the secularism that characterised the Zionist movement before and after the creation of the state of Israel and that the country’s founding fathers envisaged as a pillar of the state’s governing structure and one of its main social features.
Socially, Israel increasingly also looks divided into distinct constituencies. Around a fifth of Israelis are conservatives if not literalists in religion. They live, work, and socialise far from the fifth of Israelis who are highly secular and liberal. And the majority of both of these two-fifths live away from the roughly fifth of the population that are Arab Israelis. This separateness dilutes social cohesion and engenders opposing understandings of Israeli identity.
There is also notable social inequality in Israel, and while this is not different from the inequalities in almost all Western (and of course also Arab) societies, inequality in Israel is another acute diversion from the socialist vision upon which the country was founded and which inspired its growth from the late 1940s to the late 1980s.
Strategically, the most serious challenges confronting Israel also arise from its successes.
As the US gradually dilutes its presence in the Middle East, it will rely more on Israel to secure key Western interests in the Eastern Mediterranean. These include vital infrastructure, including in gas and renewable energy.
On the one hand, this reliance will be an asset on Israel’s strategic balance sheet. But on the other, it is a new situation because the founding of Israel coincided with the US entrance into the Middle East, inheriting Britain’s role in the region, and so the country has always operated in its neighbourhood with the US in the background. Now that the US is withdrawing from the region, Israel is undertaking a responsibility it has never experienced before.
This responsibility gives rise to economic challenges. Certain sectors in Israel such as technology, communications, and pharmaceuticals have achieved phenomenal success over the past two decades. This has been anchored on human capital, investment flows, and research and innovation circuits closely enmeshed in international networks.
But it was not a coincidence that these talents and capital coalesced in Tel Aviv, Herzliya, and other places that are the most detached from the turmoil of the Eastern Mediterranean. Now that Israel is taking on greater security responsibilities to compensate for the US absence, it will need to return to the mobilisation and militarisation of decades past, disrupting the milieu in which its greatest economic successes have been achieved.
Then there is Iran. As discussed in a previous article in this series, Iran’s successes have brought it to the Eastern Mediterranean armoured in a conviction that it has established a balance of deterrence with Israel through force of arms and particularly through the arsenal of the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah.
This Iranian presence presents Israel with an acute dilemma for three reasons. The first is that Israel’s security doctrine since its foundation has always been anchored on its superior military capabilities relative to any and all the powers it considers to be its enemies. The current situation negates this Israeli doctrine.
The second is that Iran has succeeded in turning its presence in the Eastern Mediterranean into a semi-circle around Israel, with Hizbullah in the north, Syria in the east, and the Palestinian group Hamas in the south. This means that in any serious military confrontation between Iran and Israel, the latter must take into consideration the possibility of engaging in three different theatres of war at the same time, something it has always striven to avoid.
The third is that the Islamic Republic in Iran has become an idea, as elaborated in a previous article in this series, and for many in Israel’s immediate neighbourhood also an ideal. As a result, unlike in Israel’s wars with almost all the Arab regimes over the past 70 years, a confrontation with Iran would entail fighting ideologically hardened and devoted groups. Such wars always result in heavy casualties, because the opponent is willing to fight to the death.
This points to another challenge facing Israel. Like all societies that have achieved high levels of economic success, wealth brings with it comfort, a high standard of living, and often self-indulgence. These things are assets in dealing with Silicon Valley billionaires, but self-indulgence could well be a liability in a serious fight.
The Iran-Israel confrontation will likely alternate between cold and hot wars. It has already brought about major changes in the Eastern Mediterranean, and it will certainly further impact the region from the Gulf to North Africa. This confrontation is also now entering a delicate phase as the Arab world emerges from almost four decades of lethargy and from a disorienting decade since the 2011 uprisings.
The choices of the Arab world in the turbulent period to come are the subject of the next article in this series.
* The writer is the author of Islamism: A History of Political Islam (2017) and Egypt on the Brink (2010).
*A version of this article appears in print in the 20 January, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.