The Passover seder is upon us and again we’ll be asked those same four questions – twice if you live in the Diaspora and have a second seder. By now, most of us know why we eat matza or recline to the left like the ancient Romans. So here are four new questions – and some tentative answers – that seek to address the issues long after Pesach is over.
- What do Israel and Sweden have in common?
- Why a weakened China will break up with its friend Israel
- What could trigger a third intifada? The Palestinian economy, stupid
1) What does it mean that Israel is becoming more religious and right-wing?
This is an important question because it spells profound changes for the country. A more religious/right-wing Israel is already distancing us from the West and Diaspora Jewry.
But more deeply, it threatens to undermine the fundamentals of Israel’s survival and success. By its nature, religion is intolerant of diverse views, as is right-wing politics the further it moves from the center. (The same is true of the left, but that’s not an immediate threat in Israel.)
Socially, Israel has been able to keep a cacophony of religious, ethnic and political voices united by its high tolerance for free expression and a political system that represents almost everyone. Israel’s free-wheeling culture is also good for high-tech, which thrives in an atmosphere of disdain for authority and old verities.
The right finds this diversity insufferable and believes it weakens the state. Since the 1977 turnaround that brought Likud to power, the religious right has been the dominant force in Israeli politics, but it was content to leave the other pillars of the establishment – business, the media, culture, the universities – to the old center-left, mainly the Ashkenazi establishment. That has started to change and we’re witnessing the power struggle.
Will the religious-right succeed? The demographics support it. More and more Israelis define themselves as religious, and their views on the issues of the day come closer to Likud’s Miri Regev than Labor’s Shelly Yacimovich. The brutal realities of the Middle East and the sense that Israel is under siege favor conformity over diversity. A pity that we’ll be celebrating freedom while many of us pine for the false security of Egypt.
2) Is Startup Nation already past its prime?
The technology sector is for Israel what cars once were for Detroit, and we know what happened to Detroit. For all its faults, high-tech is the only industry where Israel has shown a comparative advantage.
It’s not only our bread and butter, it’s our packaging. Israel has a fair number of brands, but after “Holy Land,” “Startup Nation” is the most enviable. It’s a lot better than “Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” let alone “apartheid state.”
Of course, there are reasons to be worried. One is the fundamental change occurring in Israeli society that I’ll raise in question three. Another is that Israel is hitting a silicon ceiling in the number of engineers and other geeks it can draw on, which has made itself felt in rising salaries.
One solution is to tap the abilities of women, Israeli Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews, who have played little role in the Startup Nation phenomenon. But people fail to appreciate the role of mainstream Israeli culture in that phenomenon – its commando attitude to solving problems through teamwork and focusing on the mission no matter what.
All this is a product of Israeli history and the army’s role in Israeli society, something that can’t so easily be transferred to people who haven’t lived it. As we learn from the Exodus story, it took a generation to change the character of the Israelites.
3) Can Israel pivot from America/Europe to Asia?
Plenty of people think the solution to Israel’s troubled relations with the European Union and America, as long as a Democrat occupies the White House, is finding new friends. China, as a rising economic power with aspirations for political power, is a natural ally. Russia is, too, especially as it’s making a comeback in the Middle East and acting like a great power interfering in the region. India is less likely, but you can imagine it as a junior partner to China in an international Israel support network.
Pivoting to these new powers is especially tempting as Europe seems to be in permanent decline, buffeted by a tepid economy and terrorism. Israel can ignore the EU and its pesky preoccupation with the Palestinians and pay almost no economic or political cost. Israeli trade and investment is slowly tilting east, and political ties are developing just as rapidly.
But the answer isn’t so simple. Of these new powers, only China has anything close to the economic weightiness of the West, but it’s still a long way from achieving parity. Russia is a just a pretend superpower and India has only the faintest aspirations to getting involved in the Middle East.
In any case, none have the depth of relations Israel has with the United States and Europe. Western financial institutions, technology and arms makers are still the dominant players around the world; no one is going to trade Wall Street for the Shanghai Stock Exchange, Apple and Google for Alibaba and Baidu, or F-35s for MiGs.
Maybe in 40 years things will be different, but right now Israel shouldn’t be wasting its time fantasizing. It should devote more energy to ensuring good relations with our traditional friends.
4) Is there a Palestine in our future?
It doesn’t look like it. There’s not the slightest interest on the part of the Netanyahu government, which barely tries these days to pretend otherwise. The Palestinian plan to pressure Israel diplomatically through the United Nations and the International Criminal Court are going nowhere.
Barack Obama has given up and no Republican president will trouble himself. The Arab world has much bigger issues on its plate and the Palestinian issue has been cut down to its natural size – a tribal dispute over real estate, not a threat to regional stability as it was longed portrayed. Recognizing all this, even the Palestinians seem to be paying nothing more than lip service to the idea of negotiations.
It’s up to Israel to break the impasse, but it’s hard to see how this will happen. When Palestinians resort to violence, Israel isn’t interested in negotiating; when they stay passive, the threat is lifted, Israel sees no urgency and the settlers keep building.
The public seems astoundingly indifferent to the future this portends – not one state or two states, but one state with an appendage of angry, impoverished people. The only people who seem content with this are Israel’s political leaders, who prefer to put off hard choices, and the settlers, who get the land they crave without having to absorb its people as full citizens.
Living out Freud’s retelling of the Exodus, we murdered our Moses in 1995 and no Messiah seems to be on his way.