What now for Israel? by Elliott Abrams


So, again, what is to be done?

Netanyahu may actually have a strategy for the Palestinian conflict—or so the research analyst Jonathan Spyer argued recently in explaining why the prime minister resisted domestic voices urging him to conquer and overthrow Hamas and reoccupy Gaza. Netanyahu’s caution, Spyer wrote, derives from

his perception that what Israel calls “wars” or “operations” are really only episodes in a long war in which the country is engaged against those who seek its destruction. . . . In such a conflict, what matters is not a quick and crushing perception of victory. Indeed, the search for a knockout, a final decision in this or that operation, given the underlying realities, is likely to end in overstretch, error, and non-achievement. What matters is the ability to endure, conserve one’s forces—military and societal—and to work away on wearing down the enemy’s will.

“This view,” Spyer adds, is sensitive to “the essentially implacable nature of the core Arab and Muslim hostility to Israel. So it includes an inbuilt skepticism toward the possibility of historic reconciliation and final-status peace accords. At the same time, [it] does not rule out alliances of convenience with regional powers.” Because Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Israel—and, I would add, the Emirates—are status-quo powers, their national policies are dedicated to preventing the success of revolutionary regimes or movements like IS or Hamas or Iran: that is, the forces dedicated to destroying the regional status quo and replacing it with something far worse. In this, Israel and those Arab states find common ground, as well as a shared sense of shock and horror that their close ally in Washington seems not to understand the threat and the means they have adopted to fight it.

If Spyer is right about Netanyahu’s vision of the world, as I suspect he is, nothing the prime minister has seen this year—from war in Gaza, to IS gains in Syria and Iraq, to anti-Israel and anti-Semitic demonstrations in Europe—would have shaken it. But is this vision, for Israel, a counsel of doom and despair? That depends on your expectations of the world and the place of the Jews in it.

The only democratic nationalist movement of the 20th century that succeeded was Zionism; the state created by the Jews is thriving today as an economic, scientific, military, and technological juggernaut, as the center of a vibrant intellectual and religious culture, and as the homeland of an extraordinarily resilient and happy people. While America’s “pivot to Asia” is a joke among foreign-policy experts, Israeli trade with India and China is growing fast—and India’s traditional knee-jerk support for the Palestinian cause was notably absent in this past summer’s war. Israel’s economic strength is being vastly reinforced by the discovery of energy resources previously thought to be a dream, a discovery that will not only enrich it but bring energy independence and a role as a regional supplier.

On the political and diplomatic front, Israel’s peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan endure, and relations with the Gulf Arabs, however cold and pragmatic, are no less significant for that. In the new struggle between the Sunnis on one side and Shiite Iran with its allies and proxies on the other, Israel is not, for now, the main target. And every year, opinion polls confirm the remarkable support that Israel enjoys among the people of the United States. Decades pass, administrations come and go, but this popular American support remains quite steady, based as it is both in faith and in an appreciation that there’s one ally in the Middle East the United States can count on.

That’s the positive side, and it suggests that the Jewish state enjoys many resources and advantages. But, as Spyer observes, Israel’s “inbuilt skepticism toward the possibility of historic reconciliation” rests on a rather different set of facts: namely, that Israel has many strong enemies, and many military cemeteries. Even if some of those enemies are currently preoccupied, they aren’t going away. The Arab and Muslim street remains awash in vicious and violent attitudes toward Jews, and the bacillus of anti-Semitism festers equally beneath many a well-cut suit. No one has yet stopped Iran from closing in on a nuclear weapon. The alliances Israel has struck, some formally and some on the basis of currently shared interests, could disappear like smoke if the balance of forces were to change.

That, in sum, is why Israel’s national story still remains “a long war . . . against those who seek its destruction,” and what makes Israel as unique among nations today as it was in 1948. For what other country on the face of the earth confronts unceasing attempts to bring its national life to an end? And yet, where Israel is concerned, for hundreds of millions of people around the globe, the very existence of the Jewish state is the unsustainable status quo.

Of course, as Jewish history shows, it is difficult to know what is sustainable and what is not. Charles Krauthammer once reminded us that Israel “is the only nation on earth that inhabits the same land, bears the same name, speaks the same language, and worships the same God that it did 3,000 years ago.” Surely, had one been betting in 1948 on whether the Jewish state would outlast the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, one would have bet on the Soviets. And, as it turned out, one would have lost. As for the next 66 years, one can only hope they will prove to be more relaxing than the previous 66. At the moment, once again, the odds have darkened. Israel’s national existence is the product of the one dream that came gloriously true, but its history since 1948 has rightly taught its leaders to be realists rather than utopians.