David's Harp / Israel has been a lucky country, believe it or not
The big events of the last 25 years have all worked in our favor, but that can't go on forever. Are our leaders capable of coping? Probably not.
Israel, "The lucky country." The idea strains the imagination.
Australia enjoys that moniker, and deservedly -- a place literally distant from all the world's problems, rich in natural resources, peaceful and orderly, and at leisure to devote its mental energies to sports and whether the queen of England should be the its monarch.
Actually, when Donald Horne coined the phrase in his 1964 book "The Lucky Country," he didn't mean it as a compliment, even though that is how it came to be used.
"Australia is a lucky country, run by second-rate people who share its luck," he wrote at the time, by which he meant it was blessed with natural resources and the inheritance of Britain's parliamentary democracy. But Australians themselves exhibited neither enterprise nor initiative, he felt.
In any case, even Home's churlish description of lucky Australia seems to have little relevance to us. Quite to the contrary, calling Israel lucky strikes at the heart of our national self-image, which regards Jewish history as one episode of misfortunate and tragedy after another.
Our state was born in war and struggle and remains today an unwelcome denizen of one of the world's least desirable neighborhoods. It's poor in natural resources; riven by religious, cultural and national differences; and through most of its six decades has lived hand to mouth economically.
So what makes us so damn lucky? Strip away the conventional narrative of the last 25 years, the one that punctuates Israeli history with wars, terrorism, an assassination and failed peace processes, and a different kind of story emerges. It's not that two intifadas, the collapse of the Oslo peace process, multiple incursions into Lebanon and Gaza never happened. But if you examine where Israel is today, they have factored in far less in where Israel is today than the lucky events. Israel is more secure and more prosperous than it was in 1988.
In chronological order the lucks starts with the Russian aliya at the beginning of the 1990s, which brought more than one million people to the country. The lucky part was the collapse of communism that opened the gates of the former Soviet Union.
Miraculously, this massive immigration which increased Israel's population by 20% occurred without major employment or housing crises, or inter-ethnic violence. Also, the Russian immigrants have contributed enormously to economic growth and to Israel's second bit of luck - namely the high-tech revolution.
That revolution came hard on the heels of the Russian aliya. It was an upheaval created by the personal computer, the Internet and mobile telephony just as America was deregulating its telecommunications industry. The result was opportunity for small startups to compete in a massive, rapidly growing global market that had once been the cozy preserve of telecoms monopolies and big manufacturers.
Israelis had the technological prowess and entrepreneurial bent to seize the opportunity, and that's what made what has lately been called Startup Nation possible.
Next came the Oslo peace process in 1994.True , it never evolved from process into agreement, but it laid the foundations (one hopes) for an eventual settlement, brought a wave of foreign investment as fears of the Arab boycott receded and bought Israel goodwill from the world community at a time when it desperately needed it.
Our luck seemed to have run its course with the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000, but it resumed with the onset of the global financial crisis in 2008.
While the rest of the developed world was reeling in the face of the U.S. mortgage crisis, failing banks and sinking economies - all adding up the biggest recession in the history of the post-war world - Israel continued to enjoy strong economic growth, barring a minor dip at the end of 2008 and early in 2009. Also, the debt travails of Israeli business barons Nochi Dankner and Ilan Ben-Dov today pale in comparison with what the United States, Britain, Ireland, Spain, not to mention Greece, are enduring.
The lucky streak continued with the Arab Spring, which after more than two years has proven to be particularly unlucky for the Arabs: They have suffered tens of thousands of dead and deep economic distress with not a single democracy to show for it. For Israel, the Arab Spring could easily have led to a Third Intifada or the rise of hostile regimes on our borders.
The worst ramifications, however, have been anarchy in the Sinai and Syria, which are relatively small security headaches. The army admitted as much last week when it said it saw the risk of war over the next period is very low.
Favorable force majeure
Israel's luck isn't the kind you enjoy at a slots machine at Las Vegas, but it is the kind of luck where forces beyond your control move directions favorable to you.
The Russian aliya was the result of the collapse of communism. The high-tech revolution started in America because technology and a free market economic philosophy converged to create new business opportunities.
That Israel was spared the most of the global financial crisis had a lot do with conservative regulation and holding to a quixotic fiscal policy of actually doing what the International Monetary Fund recommended. But even so, the economic woes of our trade partners could have pushed us deep into a recession.
If Israel resembles the lucky country that Donald Horne had in mind it is when he talked about second-rate leaders. In the last 25 years, we had two who could be regarded as first rate -- Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon, prime ministers who combined a strategic vision with political horse sense -- but their lives were cut short by assassination and illness.
About the rest, it can be said they surfed on the wave of good luck they caught without falling off.
The problem is that luck is an unreliable and predictable partner in life. What is more predictable, although not perfectly so, is that our political system fails to produce many first rate leaders.
When our luck does run out, as it inevitably will, we will be in plenty of trouble. Where will that happen? Maybe if the brinkmanship with Iran goes awry. Maybe with our U.S. ally and/or with Europe, who finally grow tired of the obviously empty claim that Israel is seeking an agreement with the Palestinians. Economically, maybe with the irresponsible fiscal policies that have yet to be corrected or with the failure to address the serious problems of the schools and social inequality. The list, unfortunately, is uncomfortably long for a country so reliant on luck.