Once there was nostalgia, the adage goes, but viewing the past through rosy glasses can lead to inaccurate understandings of the present. In his recent Haaretz op-ed, “For the first time, I fear for the future of Zionism," the former director general of the Mossad, Shabtai Shavit, argues that Israel, once wise and resilient in the face of challenges, is now facing a "critical mass of threats," while being conducted by "government blindness... and paralysis."
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Zionism has always been faced with grave challenges, but are the threats it now faces greater than those we overcame for nearly a century? Not at all. In fact, Israel, by most accounts, is more secure and prosperous now than ever in its history. The calculus is simple: It wields the strongest military power in the extended Middle East; the economy is on a steady rise and rich with gas reserves; our demography is healthy; our people are some of the happiest in the world and our society, as exemplified this summer, is close-knit and resilient in times of trial. As further evidence, in 2013, 19,200 new immigrants, or olim, decided to relocate their homes to Israel, demonstrating that Zionism is not at all on the decline.
Also adding to its security, Israel now enjoys a wide network of alliances - a great diplomatic achievement that far too often goes unrecognized. Consider that a third of mankind that until the 1990s had little desire for contact with us - the nation-states of China and India - who are now increasingly cooperative both in trade and diplomatically, in volumes that grow every year. While there are strains in Israel's relationship with the United States, they pale in comparison to those of the ‘50s, ‘70s and ‘90s. The animus between leaderships exists, no doubt, and is a very serious problem, but it is also important to recognize that in other aspects of the relationship there is significant progress: Security cooperation, military aid levels, support in Congress, as well as trade volumes and tourism have never been better than they are now.
Similarly, in terms of Israel’s relationship to Europe, despite the high rhetoric, trade volumes have risen steadily from 19 billion Euros in 2003 to 29 billion in 2013. Trade has also increased separately with each of the big three European states - Germany, France and the U.K.
Our two longest borders, with Jordan and with Egypt, have long been pacified by treaties that endured periods as turbulent as the recent Arab upheavals. The grave threat of conventional armies against us disintegrated together with the Syrian and the Iraqi states. Deterrence is strong against both state and non-state actors. Also worth noting are Israel's improving ties with Canada, Central European states, many countries in Africa, the republics of central Asia, and the once-menacing Russian Federation.
While Shavit reminisces about Israel’s heydays, we do not miss periods in which Moscow threatened Israel with nuclear bombardment (1956), European states like France laid arms embargos against the Jewish state (1967), all of Asia was closed off for Israel (1970s), and inflation ran rampant at 400% (1984).
While delegitimization attempts against Israel are a serious problem, they have so far proven no more effective than the Arab boycotts of the '50s and '60s, the attempts of the '70s to equate Zionism with racism, Yasser Arafat's campaigns in Europe in the 80's, etc. True, young Westerners are asking questions about Israel, and are encouraged to see it as an aggressor, but Israel has good answers for many of these questions and is making significant efforts to engage on campuses and elsewhere. While we must stay vigilant, constantly re-assess the situation, and organize ourselves to counter such delegitimization efforts, we also mustn't panic and demoralize the public. By strengthening a false narrative of doom, we not only weaken ourselves, but also incentivize our adversaries to stall rather than compromise.
What Shavit is basically saying is that Israel's current situation is unsustainable, and therefore Israel must take the initiative and shape its future by itself. We disagree with the preface, but agree with the bottom line. The status quo is not unsustainable, but it is nonetheless undesirable. Shavit is right in calling for Israeli action, but not out of despair, and rather out of strength and determination.
Shavit's proposal of taking a regional approach is a good one, leveraging the Arab Peace Initiative into a joint Israeli-Arab effort aimed to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Ever since the failure of the last round of U.S.-brokered peace talks, many both in Israel and in Washington have come to realize that this is now the best path forward, including a group of 106 Israeli security officials earlier this month. The glaring gap here is what to do if the Palestinians (again) back out in the home stretch of the deal. Even in this last round of talks, Shavit fails to point out, Palestinian rejectionism had a significant role in the collapse of the talks.
The Institute for National Security Studies came up with a similar plan earlier this year, calling for a regional effort based on the Arab Peace Initiative to resolve the dispute. An additional element in our proposal was a "Plan B" for a scenario in which negotiations fail. In that contingency, Israel should move independently to shape its own borders, in concert with its key allies, keeping control of Jerusalem, all the blocs and a wide buffer along the Jordan river, while always leaving the door open for Palestinians to negotiate the rest. By doing so Israel will annul the Palestinians' "veto" power over the two state solution, and take away their ability to disrupt Israel's future as a democratic, Jewish state. An independent move may not bring an end to the conflict, but it will preserve the diplomatic pathway towards peace that will otherwise be closed by the merger of the populations.
Those who believe Israel is at a low point divide into two. Those who see in the many threats facing Israel a reason for inaction, and those, like Shavit, who call for urgent moves. Although we don't agree with Shavit in his diagnosis, his prognosis is nonetheless correct. Israel must take the initiative, not out of weakness, but out of its current position of strength.
Amos Yadlin is Israel’s former Chief of Defense Intelligence. He is currently the Director of the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS). Uri Sadot is a Research Fellow at INSS.