Opinion |

What if Israel Becomes a Rich, Stable and Nasty Country?

No one imagined that Israel could have both security and prosperity without peace. Netanyahu has proved us wrong, rendering decades of left-wing warnings and international boycott campaigns obsolete. But one key strategy can still bring change

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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People gather next to a banner showing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a protest against the Israel Jewish nation bill, in Tel Aviv, Israel. July 30, 2018
People gather next to a banner showing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a protest against the Israel Jewish nation bill, in Tel Aviv, Israel. July 30, 2018Credit: Oded Balilty,AP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

I had a moment of bursting patriotic pride last weekend. Bizarrely, it came when I was driving down to Tel Aviv for the rally against the racist Nation-State Law.

The second item of news on the radio, after the preparations for the rally, was that credit-ratings agency Standard & Poor’s, had just announced that it was upgrading Israel’s rating from A+ to AA-. And I was proud because it’s partly thanks to me.

Last month, Finance Ministry officials asked to meet the team of analysts sent by S&P to prepare the report on Israel at a Jerusalem restaurant (full disclosure, the ministry paid for our meal). Since my biography of Benjamin Netanyahu came out in May, I’ve done a fair bit of public speaking, but this was like no other engagement. The analysts had very little interest in Netanyahu’s personality or what he really thinks about the Palestinians or Iran. They had one issue on their minds - stability.

Forgive me, but there was something very refreshing about having to assess Israel’s situation solely on the base of whether it would remain a good place to do business and a safe haven for capital in the foreseeable future.

And my answer to that was yes.

I can’t say that five years from now Israel will be a nicer or kinder or less racist place, actually I fear it may not have turned the corner by then, though it still might and I believe it can and eventually will. But I was pretty confident in my prediction that the basic institutions that ensure financial stability will remain intact and strong.

But as I arrived in Tel Aviv for the rally, and met so many Druze fellow citizens who feel, quite rightly, disenfranchised by the Nation-State Law, I asked myself what it would mean for Israel to turn in to a rich and nasty country.

For so many years, when life in this country was spartan and austere, Israelis would console themselves that these sacrifices were necessary to build a powerful military and survive in this inhospitable neighborhood. When peace will come, we’ll live like in America, they thought. No one imagined that Israel could have both security and prosperity without peace.

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister, speaks during an Economic Club of Washington conversation in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, March 7, 2018Credit: Bloomberg

On Sunday I went to see at the Jerusalem Film Festival Dan Shadur’s excellent King Bibi documentary essay. Please read my book first, but you really should watch King Bibi as well.

It’s 87 minutes of carefully selected and well-edited footage, some of it quite rare, spanning Netanyahu’s life and career, showing how he mastered the art of performing before a camera and built his political longevity on performance. It also presents, in its choice of material and narration by Alon Abutbul, to my mind, a very fair and honest account of Israel’s most controversial figure, with bits that will frustrate viewers from either end of the ideological spectrum.

If you’re not familiar with the politics of the great majority of those who frequent the Jerusalem Film Festival, the collective sharp intake of breath in the theater, towards the end of the film, when the narrator said, "Netanyahu has led Israel to its safest and most stable period ever," would have told all you need to know. This was a crowd of Israelis who do not like to be reminded that they have never had it better than under Netanyahu’s rule.

But Israelis, and anyone else who cares about Israel, need to continuously remind themselves that under this racist, divisive and corrupt government, Israel has had its best decade in terms of security, the fewest wars and casualties of violence, and by nearly every economic index its most prosperous.

Because fixing Israel’s major problems, the ongoing occupation of millions of Palestinians who are denied the most basic civil rights, the stranglehold of ultra-Orthodox rabbis over vital parts of our communal and personal lives, inequality and racist attitudes to minorities and migrants, means first of all understanding how Israel is also an undeniable success story at the same time.

Netanyahu doesn’t deserve all the credit for Israel’s economic success. The foundations for budgetary discipline and inflation control were laid by Shimon Peres’ government in the economic plan of 1985, while the civilian high-tech sector was kickstarted in the early 1990s by Yitzhak Rabin’s ministers. But he has proven adept at sustaining the growth nourished by previous administrations.

The same is true of the IDF, the lynchpin of Israel’s security, which certainly was not built up by the Likud. But risk-averse Bibi has known how to use its power judiciously and has masterfully leveraged it in keeping Israel largely isolated from the surrounding chaos.

Where Netanyahu is due credit, is that he identified years ago , that -- contrary to what the left-wing have always said and to prevailing wisdom among western diplomats - Israel can actually have a healthy economy without achieving peace with the Palestinians and most of the wider Arab world. You can see it already in his 1993 book, "A Place Among the Nations." This was achieved not only thanks to technology and military prowess, but also the opportunities that Netanyahu grasped.

Making common cause with Egypt and Saudi Arabia against the joint enemies of radical Islam and Iran, while they downgraded the Palestinian cause to worthy of no more than paltry lip service.

A campaign doomed to failure: A demonstrator attaches banners to a wall outside the Israeli Embassy in Mexico City, Mexico, Feb. 10, 2017Credit: Bloomberg

The United States forfeiting its role in the Middle East, first under Barack Obama and now under Donald Trump, along with the increasing influence of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, who never pretended to be interested in human rights anyway.

The growing insignificance of a dysfunctional European Union and rise of new eager trading partners like India.

Ariel Sharon warned of a "corrales" – the corridor leading to a bullfighting arena - in which Israel would be forced by the world powers to make concessions. Ehud Barak forecasted a "diplomatic tsunami." Neither have come to pass and look increasingly remote in the era of Trump.

People talk worriedly about a younger generation of Jews and non-Jewish Americans who are feeling increasingly disillusioned by Israel. Who knows, perhaps after the Trump years this will result in an administration which will apply real diplomatic pressure on Israel.

Here’s a more likely scenario. If current trends of isolationism and nationalism in western democracies continue, not just on the right, most western governments simply won’t care. They won’t be convinced or unconvinced by Israel’s case, they will simply see things from a narrow perspective of material benefit, and Israel will be a trading partner.

And what about the brain drain? All those bright young Israelis who don’t want to live in a religious ethnic-nationalist state? Yes, some are emigrating, but their relatively small numbers are more than being replenished by returning Israelis and new immigrants, not to mention high birth-rates. Because job opportunities and a growing economy are great antidotes to lousy politics. That is - if you even care about politics.

The Nation-State Law has made it harder to call Israel a liberal democracy. So what? Israel is already replacing its old hasbara narrative of being the only democracy in the Middle East, with being the best place to do business in the Middle East.

Standard & Poor’s doesn’t measure liberal democratic values. That’s not their job. Abu Dhabi, an absolute monarchy has a double-A rating. Singapore, a democracy only in name, where one party has ruled since it became an independent republic in 1965, has a triple-A.

If Israel loses the moral battle (some of course believe it lost it long ago), who will really care?

An Israeli tries to bring down a statue of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after it was placed as an act of guerilla art in Rabin square in Tel Aviv. Dec. 6, 2016Credit: AP Photo/Oded Balilty

I will and since you’re reading this, I assume you will as well. But outside the faithful readerships of Haaretz, The New York Times, The Guardian and a tiny handful of other western newspapers, it will pass almost unnoticed.

And for all the influence of major news organizations, will their criticism have any real effect on government policies, besides bland diplomatic statements at the most? Chances are they won’t.

Israel won’t be boycotted, isolated, shamed or pressured into changing. There are no serious efforts afoot outside of Israel to do any of this and what movements there are can easily be resisted. Entire decades of left-wing warnings are obsolete. Empty hopes of help coming from without should be abandoned.

Instead, Israelis and those who care and believe in a better Israel need to focus all their resources inwards. That is the only place where change is coming from.

Hopefully, that Saturday night in Rabin Square, when thousands of Druze Israelis, who have never been to a demonstration in their lives, joined with their Jewish fellow-citizens, we saw the first glimmers of what that change may look like.

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