[Editor’s Note: This blog entry originally appeared on Michael Neiberg‘s personal blog and has not been edited in any way.]
In August, I had the great privilege of spending eight days studying Israeli and Middle Eastern security issues as a guest of Academic Exchange and the Yitzhak Rabin Center. The trip involved high-level discussions with Israeli and Palestinian government officials, journalists, business leaders, peace negotiators, and security specialists. What follows are a few of my impressions of the trip. I have not used the names of specific individuals with whom we spoke in order to preserve the honesty and frankness with which they spoke to us off the record.
Although the Middle East is habitually unstable, we may be living through the most revolutionary period in its history since 1967, maybe even 1948 or 1918. Across the Middle East, state authority is collapsing; the Shia-Sunni rivalry is replacing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the main driver of instability; non-state actors like ISIL, Hizbollah, and Hamas are becoming dominant players; Turkey is in turmoil; Syria is in civil war; the rise of Iran has triggered responses by most of its Sunni neighbors; and the loss of faith in a two-state solution for Palestine has sapped whatever optimism remains from the Oslo process.
These changes have had some ironic and unintended consequences for Israeli security. First, they have left Israel with few serious state challengers in the region. Egypt and Jordan are allies with shared interests in deterring and preventing both terrorism and a spillover from the Syrian civil war. Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq are failed states that cannot threaten Israel’s existence, although the possibility exists of terrorist groups taking advantage of that failure, especially given Hizbollah’s exploitation of Lebanese territory.
The rise of Iran has created strange bedfellows for Israel. Traditional rivals like Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States now have a shared interest with Israel in preventing an Iranian bid for regional hegemony. Israeli foreign policy therefore now looks more and more like what one might expect from a moderate Sunni state. As for the Sunni states themselves, one speaker mentioned that they treat Israel like a mistress. They enjoy the pleasures of the relationship, but prefer to do so in the dark or when they are out of town. Israel is also enjoying better relations with India, Brazil, Singapore, China, and even Russia, partly as a result of Israel’s booming tech sector and partly because warmer relations with Israel no longer compromise these nations’ dealings with Arab states.
Israel’s greatest threats come from non-state actors closer to home. Hizbollah (based in Lebanon) and Hamas (which runs the Gaza Strip) both have the means and the will to cause Israel great harm. Both have used rockets and terrorism to kill Israelis in recent years. Gaza presents a special problem. Hamas’s endemic corruption and Islamist ideology have led Egypt to close its border crossing with Gaza. International humanitarian support for Hamas has dried up, leaving 1.2 million people in Gaza with so few resources that the UN estimates that Gaza will not be able to support human life by 2020. Already hundred of thousands of people there lack regular access to electricity, sewage, and clean water.
We visited Kerem Shalom, the main entry point for all supplies into Gaza and the self-styled ugliest place in Israel. It handles 900 to 1,200 trucks per day in a complicated ballet wherein Israeli and Palestinian drivers never see one another. All trucks are inspected and analyzed, then brought into one of eleven “neutral” areas where goods are offloaded. Then the Israeli drivers leave the neutral zone, allowing Palestinian drivers to enter and load the goods into their own trucks. As the director of the crossing told us, it is the first place of its kind built not with the hope of peace but the expectation of perpetual war. He knows most of the Palestinian drivers and workers by name, but, as he told us repeatedly, he operates from a position of zero trust. He was himself one of the families whose homes in Gaza the Israelis destroyed as part of Israel’s complete and unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005. The memory obviously still caused him great pain, though his sense of duty to ease the suffering of Gaza (as long as it did not threaten Israeli security in the least) was quite evident.
The situation in the West Bank is a bit better than Gaza, but it is also tense. The various pieces of the jigsaw puzzle bequeathed by the Oslo process have createdthree non-contiguous areas. Area A is controlled by the Palestinian Authority (PA); Area B is controlled for civil purposes by the PA, but security is Israeli; and Area C is fully under Israeli control. In a region where my enemy’s enemy is not necessarily my friend, the PA and Israel both fear and despise Hamas, but that shared interest has not brought them much closer together. Each side deeply mistrusts the other and the issues of Israeli settlements, borders, and the future of Jerusalem are just a few of the problems with no foreseeable compromise or agreement in sight. Each side can trace its history back centuries, can find defenses in international law for their positions, and can mobilize a great deal of emotion. As one veteran of years of negotiations between the two said, it is like being the parent of a child who says “It all started when he hit me back.”
The PA is deeply corrupt, terribly inefficient in its governance, and unwilling to divorce itself from the violence often done in the name of the Palestinian people it represents. The unequal sharing of resources and security with Israel surely handicaps the PA, but the modernization and professionalization of the state that the Oslo process was supposed to usher in has clearly not happened. Municipal elections in October and the impending withdrawal of Mahmoud Abbas from the political scene could portend even greater instability. Should Hamas do well in those elections, the situation is likely to get significantly more tense.
Still, we saw some positive signs in the West Bank which, compared to Gaza, shows some promise. The parts of Ramallah that we saw showed a few signs of new construction and economic growth, including the modern hotel and lovely restaurant that hosted us. We also visited Rawabi, a truly inspiring planned community under construction about 25km north of Jerusalem. Once completed it will have 5,000 apartments, a central commercial area with high-tech employers, schools based on the Cambridge model, green spaces, water parks, mosques, a church for Christian residents, a 15,000 seat amphitheater, and even a winery. Everything about it looks to the future. The project developer has gone out of his way to hire women as engineers and architects. We all left Rawabi wishing we had money to invest or perhaps to buy ourselves an apartment. The sense of promise in Rawabi was contagious. The town’s motto reads “The Best Is Yet to Come.”
But Rawabi faces enormous challenges. It cannot possibly make money for many years to come, so it depends on international aid, mostly from Qatar. Construction crews store six months of everything they need to keep building because Israel occasionally closes the one small road leading out of Area C to Rawabi. The PA hates Rawabi because it challenges the narrative of Palestinian victimhood and is independent of PA funding; the Israeli settler community nearby fears its growth; and traditional Muslims dislike its modern orientation. One can’t help but cheer for it and hope for its success, but the more we learned about the problems ahead, the less we academics were sure about the wisdom of investing our (admittedly hypothetical) capital, however much we were charmed by what we saw.
Rawabi also highlights the question of whether Palestine more urgently needs economic development or political stability. In an ideal world, of course, it would get both, but resources are limited. Rawabi’s supporters hope that by improving the economy and living conditions, Palestinians will be less likely to turn to groups like Hamas. Critics of this approach argue that political stability must precede economic development because without functioning schools, police, and civil administration, Rawabi and ideas like it are doomed to failure.
A further problem comes from the nature of Israeli society. Repeatedly we heard the essential dilemma expressed as the difference between Israel as a Jewish modern state or a modern Jewish state. The two need not be in conflict, but in reality they often are. Maintaining Israel as a Jewish state means restricting the rights of Arab citizens and resisting any incorporation of West Bank Palestinians (to say nothing of Gazans) into the polity. To make Israel a democracy means to many people risking changes to its essential identity. Recent court cases challenging the menorah as a state symbol and the Hatikvah as the national anthem highlight this tension as does the growth of political influence among the ultra-Orthodox.
The following are seven general points of consensus among most of the speakers we heard:
The Sunni-Shia rivalry across the region has largely replaced the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the main schism of the Middle East. It is being played out both as a state vs. state conflict and a proxy war through various militias and terror groups. Iran’s support for Hizbollah gives it a cheaper and easier way to deter Israel than a nuclear weapon, which may explain why Iran was willing to agree to the nuclear treaty.
We may well be seeing the end of the Westphalian state in most of the region, though what will replace it is anyone’s guess. Arab states failed to give people either economic security or a sense of belonging that could supersede ethnic and religious identity. Even in Israel, the tensions of pluralism and the classic problem of balancing security and democracy is putting pressure on the state. The imposition of western models of governance in the region may at long last be ready to implode. To complicate matters further, “God is back in town” after a long period of essentially secular governance in the region, and the sacred cannot be compromised.
Until or unless the state system does implode, improved Israeli relations with moderate Sunni states hold out the potential to reshape the region. Those states can offer to recognize an Israel that recognizes a Palestinian state. They may also be able to serve as a productive third party, as the Saudis have recently tried to do; they can also provide money and encouragement to fellow moderates. Still, there is a perception that states like Saudi Arabia and Qatar are playing the role of both the arsonist (in promoting extremist ideologies) and firefighter (in allying with Israel against Iran).
The international community has very little legitimacy in the region. No one trusts the UN, the EU has proven ineffective, and the USA gets decidedly mixed reviews. Some see the USA as a powerful and indispensable broker, while others are convinced that the USA has little real idea of what is happening in the region. Most thought the Iran nuclear deal a positive development, but thought the USA could and should have gotten more from it. The USA also inadvertently helped to create the Iranian problem by eliminating two of Iran’s biggest foes, Saddam Hussein and the Taliban.
The situation in Gaza is a true tinderbox awaiting a spark that could come at any moment. The crisis is not far away there as conditions continue to deteriorate and no one comes to help. But a focus on Gaza may distract from the West Bank, where Israeli settlements and the lack of help from Arab states has made Palestinians ever more desperate and pessimistic.
A majority of people on both sides still say that they want a two-state solution, but a majority among both majorities believes that the other side is not a reliable partner. Thus even though a two-state solution is still probably the best way forward, the chances of it succeeding continue to fade. Each successive setback only exacerbates the problem, further undermining the faith of people on both sides.
US policy makes two false presumptions. First, it assumes that the people of the region want what Americans want, namely democracy, equality, and integration. But in the Middle East, where identities are still tribal, this assumption is flawed. The United States cannot expect to export Jeffersonian democracy to the Middle East, and it should stop trying. Second, Americans continue to talk about solving the problem when few people in the region have any hope that it can be solved. The goal now is to try to improve the quality of life for as many people as possible. Solutions are a bridge too far.
Despite the ubiquitous joy and energy in the country, it would be easy to leave Israel depressed about its future and the future of the region more generally. The improved relations with many of the states on Israel’s borders will likely last only as long as the states themselves do, and some of them may have short futures indeed. Most importantly, the essential problem of the Palestinians looms menacingly over Israel, even if (or perhaps specifically because) for many Israelis the status quo seems perfectly acceptable. Israel may be reduced to taking what unilateral action it can in the absence of reliable partners for peace, but even that will require political leadership that may be lacking.
Still, there are reasons for optimism. Israel is dynamic, democratic, and full of resources. The most important of those resources is its people, many of whom have a deep appreciation of the problems they face and a commitment to finding ways to improve the situation. There was also a sincere appreciation of the pain and suffering of the Palestinian people and an awareness that the two communities must find a way to live together or die side by side. Whether that determination will be enough is for the future to decide.