Hard Questions, Tough Answers- What Really Worries Me (September 30, 2022)


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Q. With the dawn of a Jewish New Year, what really worries you at the strategic level? Alongside the obvious external threats of Iranian, Hezbollah and Hamas missiles and Iran’s military nuclear potential, are the internal threats to Israel’s overall wellbeing as big a preoccupation?

A. The internal threats are at least as big a preoccupation. Indeed, more and more of Israel’s security chiefs are paying attention and linking external and domestic threats. Here, for example, is the extraordinary warning issued publicly by Shin Bet (General Security Service) Head Ronen Bar barely three weeks ago concerning the threat from within:

"We can state today that the absence of political stability and the growing divisiveness [in Israel] encourage the countries of the Axis of Evil, terrorist organizations and individual terrorists. Our relative historical advantage [of internal cohesiveness], which has served us for thousands of years, is dissipating. That insight should be of the greatest concern. The Shin Bet can sound the alarm--but not deal with the problem. That is in the hands of each and every one of us."

(By ‘Axis of Evil’, an unfortunate choice of terms, Bar presumably means Iran and its allies: Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and the Houthis in Yemen.)

Bar’s warning is extraordinary because political and ideological divisions within Israeli society and the Israeli body politic are beyond his professional security responsibility and he knows it. By the same token, those divisions are not the responsibility of the Mossad and IDF intelligence, which deal with external enemies. Bar is suggesting that, precisely because these internal divisions are becoming acute and encouraging Israel’s self-declared enemies, someone had better take responsibility.

Q. Can you translate this into everyday language?

A. If Israel’s Nov. 1 elections do not produce a stable government that survives in office for several years and ends the current political disarray and alienation, this will lead to further deterioration in Israel’s overall security.

Needless to say, the likelihood of this election generating stability is depressingly low. Societal divisiveness and disfunction are getting worse, not better. Witness the unprecedented acrimony among and between sectors of Israeli society, the growth of an entire Jewish sector--the ultra-Orthodox Haredim--who do not identify with national goals and institutions, and the unprecedented lawlessness within the Israeli Arab and Bedouin sectors.

Q. Where do these divisions express themselves most acutely and urgently in Israeli society?

A. In the education system, the army and politics. Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) youth, few of whom receive education in basic subjects like math and English, already constitute 25 percent of pupils in Israeli schools. By 2050 they are predicted to constitute 50 percent. At most, 2,000 young Haredi males (mostly dropouts from the rigid Haredi religious education system) enter military service every year--their sole vehicle to integration into broader Israeli society and the economy--out of an annual Haredi conscription cohort of around 11,000.

Currently only 67 percent of Israeli youth enter military service at all and only 50 percent complete their service. And those figures are dropping. Until now, the Israel Defense Forces have nevertheless managed to fill manpower needs--among other reasons, because the overall population is growing due in part to immigration. But is shared military service still the glue that binds disparate Israeli Jews into a single unified population? Hardly.

These figures mean that a growing proportion of Israeli Jewish youth are not available to society for security service or participation in the economy-at-large. And what about the 17 percent (!) who drop out of the military for economic and psychological reasons?

Turning to the Arab sector, it is not growing like the Haredi sector: Arab birthrates in Israel are now generally equivalent to Jewish birthrates. And Arab citizens of Israel play an increasingly influential role in the economy. What is worrisome are crime rates. In some areas of the Negev that are heavily populated by Bedouin, Jews now fear to travel at night. Roughly 100 Arab citizens of Israel have been murdered thus far this year by fellow Arabs, usually criminal gangs. The Israel Police, chronically understaffed, have proven powerless to curb the problem of criminality among the Arab population.

As for politics as a factor of divisiveness, it needs little elaboration. In the Knesset, the degree of alienation and acrimony between left, center and the increasingly dominant right is without precedent. In the outgoing Knesset, the Likud opposition boycotted committee activity in order to avoid even the appearance of collaboration with the left and center. Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu is on trial on multiple counts of corruption.

Israel now has a substantial fascist-racist far-right wing that is currently predicted to obtain around 10 percent of the overall vote. Its sole precursor is its hero Meir Kahane, who served a single term in the Knesset in the 1980s during which he was boycotted and shunned by his fellow Knesset members before being convicted of terrorism. Now Kahane’s successors, Betzalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, are candidates to fill ministerial posts if the right forms a government after the Nov. 1 elections.

Q. You mentioned demographic issues among Israeli citizens, including Haredim and Arabs. But what about the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza? PM Lapid may just have called at the UN for a two-state solution, but meanwhile the direction is toward a single political entity of all Jews and Palestinians between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean.

A. Jews are now in the minority and Arabs in the majority between the river and the sea. Even if this determination by both the Palestinian and the Israeli bureaus of statistics is exaggerated, the writing is clearly on the wall and the trend is clear. Indeed, even if we remove Gaza’s two million Palestinians from the equation, Israel and the rest of Palestine in no way constitute a ‘Jewish and democratic’ entity.

Now juxtapose these daunting facts and developments with the increasingly blatant mindset of right-wing-majority Israel. The term West Bank has ceased to exist: on maps, in weather reports, in schools. Even the leftist Haaretz carries a weather map of the Greater Land of Israel without internal boundaries and with Ariel, which is deep inside the West Bank, listed. Judea and Samaria as geopolitical components of Israel are tossed about in the same breath with Galilee and Negev.

With each new generation of settlers, the 1967 occupation is internalized in Israeli culture. Government ministers, generals and Supreme Court justices are settlers. Ten percent of Israeli Jews now live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

As the settlements, under a variety of illegal and semi-legal titles like ‘outposts’, ‘hilltop youth’, ‘ranches’ and ‘young settlements’, continue to spread and swallow up West Bank land, the Palestinians look on and draw their own conclusions. A majority of Palestinians no longer wants a two-state solution. If they are, or are going to be, an Arab majority in a binational entity, why continue to advocate two states? Better to revert to Yasser Arafat’s pre-Oslo days, when the Palestine Liberation Organization advocated one binational state to be achieved over generations by Palestinian sumud, or steadfastness.

Q. You began by dealing with internal threats. Why do you define this Palestinian-Israeli conflict issue as internal? Aren’t the Palestinians an external threat?

A. By holding on to most of the West Bank and avoiding even a semblance of negotiating a two-state solution; by changing its maps, its school curricula and its weather forecasts--Israel has made this an internal issue.

And this is so, even though mainstream politicians generally do not want to discuss the evolving nature of the state beyond vague warnings of the need to maintain a “Jewish majority”. The only honest ones are on the left and far right: Meretz has no problem warning of apartheid; the fascist Smotrich and the Kahanist Ben Gvir are open and honest about wanting all the land, either without Arabs or with thoroughly subservient Arabs.

This has also been made an internal Israeli issue by virtue of a growing readiness on the part of the Arab world to ignore Israeli-Palestinian demographic and conflict issues and live at peace with Israel regardless. Egypt and Jordan--direct neighbors with an immediate interest in, respectively, Gaza and the West Bank--remain at least involved. Morocco, the UAE and Bahrain keep their distance while doing a thriving military and high-tech business with Israel. By elimination, then, if Rabat and Dubai are not interested, this must be because they are prudently avoiding meddling in Israeli ‘domestic’ politics.

Q. But Palestinian birthrates are dropping dramatically and the number of Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem is only, according to the Israeli right, four million and not six million as some panicky Israelis claim. Israel can hold onto all the territories and remain a Jewish state.

A. The ‘panicky’ Israeli (and Palestinian) statisticians are right about six million. But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that despite what the statisticians say, between the river and the sea Jews still constitute 60 percent, and Arabs 40 percent. This is still by any definition a binational entity, not a Jewish state and certainly (under current circumstances) not a democratic state.

Add to this the trends noted earlier regarding the citizens of this state: a growing Haredi population detached from Israeli society and economy; raging crime and anarchy among portions of those Palestinians who are citizens of Israel; an army that increasingly neither represents the country’s population nor serves as a melting pot among highly disparate demographic components; a dysfunctional and increasingly acrimonious political system.

Shin Bet Head Ronen Bar got it right. Israel’s internal dynamics are increasingly tempting prey for Israel’s enemies. Not to mention the disaster these dynamics are visiting upon Israelis themselves, and Israel’s supporters.