Opinion

Israel as No. 8 World Power? Give Me a Break

Yet Israel definitely deserves a higher “Best Countries” rating than Russia or India. Could stereotypes be influencing the scores?

FILE PHOTO: An Israeli Air Force F-35 fighter jet
\ Amir Cohen/ REUTERS

Israel is the world’s eighth most powerful country? We have only 8 million people, a standing army of maybe 170,000, Israel comes in for regular bashings by the United Nations and it can’t count a single true friend among our neighbors.

But that is exactly where U.S. News & World Report ranked us for global power in its “Best Countries” survey released this week – right up there with the United States, China, Russia and Germany and happily five places ahead of Iran.  

On the other hand, Israel’s overall ranking for best countries was a pretty mediocre 30th among 80 countries.

Why? Israel scored particularly badly for “adventure” (meaning we're not considered particularly “fun” or “sexy,” our two lowest scores) and being “open for business” (unfavorable tax regime). We also did pretty miserably for “cultural influence” because we’re not deemed “happy” or “fashionable” and for “quality of life” (despite, according to the survey, our excellent schools).

The reality is that we shouldn’t be getting a swelled head over our impressive power ranking. Nor should we feel insulted by our low “best country” ranking.

Israel Air Force planes during the joint U.S.-Israel training operation Red Flag.
IDF Spokesperson's Unit

U.S. News & World Report didn’t measure countries on an objective basis, such as how many F-35s the air force has or how well students score on international exams. Rather, it asked 21,000 people around the world – all opinion leaders, educated people and movers and shakers – how they perceived different countries.

That’s an important standard, since these are the kind of people that run governments, big businesses and the media. They influence how lesser mortals see the world (at least did until the rise of Trump and other populists, who disparage experts and elites)

So what U.S. News is telling us, is that the power elite think Israel is a militarily and diplomatically important country. But they don't think we're such a great place to live, and they also don't feel we are an exemplar of liberal values.

If they think we're a power

Vis-à-vis the power ranking, that’s not necessarily a bad thing for Israel.  If Tehran, Beijing or Moscow regard Israel as a country to be reckoned with, that can only be a big help in finessing problems like Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The reality is that Israel’s veiled threat to bomb Tehran’s nuclear facilities was taken quite seriously by the world; and Saudi Arabia is willing to cold-shoulder the Palestinians to ensure Israel is a partner in its battle against Shiite Islam.

Back in Jerusalem, we shouldn’t be too impressed with ourselves.

The Israel Defense Forces have a long history of battlefield achievements, but to be frighteningly honest, they were up against some of the most incompetent armies of the modern world. In a scenario where we found ourselves, say, up against the Russians in Syria, we might not look so good. Needless to say, these days that is more than a theoretical threat.

Diplomatically, Israel has two powerful assets. One is its intelligence capabilities, which play a far bigger role in our perceived power than ordinary Israelis may realize, because so much of the activity goes on behind the scenes. The other is our close relationship with America. Much of the world thinks the road to Washington passes through Jerusalem. But Netanyahu seems to be trading in relations with the country as a whole for relations with the Republican Party.

But America is a diplomatic asset that Netanyahu is trading in far a much weaker one of close relations with the Republican Party and American conservatives. Imagine where Israel would stand in an Elizabeth Warren White House.

Israel’s perceived power is probably due mostly to media coverage of its military prowess and serial oppression of Palestinian rights, plus stereotypical perception of Jews as smart.

Thus, Israel gets relatively high rating as one of the world’s “Movers” (10) and for entrepreneurship (25). Of course, Jews must be good at business. Actually Israel doesn’t have a particularly high rate of new-business formation, except when it comes to high-tech startups.

Israel scores low on cultural influence (40) mainly because we’re not considered “happy” or “fashionable;” however, we do score well on “influential culture,” which again is influenced by the Jews' outsized role in media and entertainment in the U.S. rather than anything to do with Israel.

The fact is Israel is a pretty big exporter of culture, but it usually morphs into amorphous Western fare rather than remaining distinctly Israeli. Theatre-goers seeing the Tony Award-winning musical “The Band’s Visit” don’t see it as Israeli art, even if half the characters are Israelis. In “Homeland,” a knock-off of an Israeli television series, the heroes have all been turned into Americans.

Israel also scores low on rankings for “heritage” (“rich history” but lousy food)  and even worse on “citizenship” (bad on human rights and religious freedom) and “quality of life” (unsafe, too expensive, poor job market).  All these perceptions are wholly or partially wrong, but given the way Israel is portrayed in the media, it's not at all surprising.

All in all, I think our "power" ranking should be about four or five notches lower, which would still leave us in a comfortable position via a vis our enemies. Our "best country" ranking should be about 15 notches higher, which would put us in the area inhabited by Italy and Singapore, which is not bad company.