Israel at 75 (Hard Questions, Tough Answers- April 24, 2023)


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. On Wednesday, Israel celebrates 75 years of independence at a time when it faces domestic crisis and growing external threats. How do you assess its achievements thus far? More important, what have we learned about its prospects for the years ahead?

A. Assessing achievements thus far is relatively easy because we can at least aspire to look at objective truths. No one can deny that Zionism has registered unique accomplishments: revitalizing an ancient language, ingathering millions of exiles, creating a people’s or citizens’ army that won wars and integrated a diverse population, gaining peace and normalization with a growing number of neighbors, and achieving acceptance in the global community of nations. Israel as ‘start-up nation’ and maritime energy hub has evolved into a prosperous country.

Paradoxically, if you are looking for affirmation of Israel’s vitality and resilience, developed over 75 years of sovereignty, look at the current crisis in governance. The mass pro-democracy demonstrations are a shining demonstration of popular spirit. The office of the President of Israel is a beacon of reason and determination.

By the same token, it is almost as uncontroversial to point to the downside of the past 75 years: the unresolved conflict with the Palestinians, failure to achieve universal recognition of the country’s capital Jerusalem, failure to achieve recognized borders, and failure to anchor the political system in a constitution and to resolve issues of core values and identity such as the Jewish and democratic nature of Israel.  

Some 80 years after the Holocaust, Iran and the Islamists threaten another genocide of Jews. Israel, established as a safe haven for the Jewish people, is still not entirely safe.

Perhaps most distressing of all is the increasingly painful failure to integrate Israelis into a single national fabric--what former president Rivlin noted when he lamented that Israelis were firmly divided into “four tribes”: secular and traditional Jews, Orthodox Jews, ultra-Orthodox or Haredim, and Arabs.

Q. Which brings us to prospects for the years ahead . . .

A. Here too, of course, there are positive and negative assessments. There are Israelis, well-represented in the current government, who foresee an Israel happily ruling over the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, whose Arab population has either fled or been ‘pacified’; a country that is prosperous and celebrated by its neighbors, who make common cause with it against shared enemies.

I am not one of those Israelis. I am extremely worried about the Israel that my generation will leave our children and grandchildren.

Q. At least you are talking about leaving them a country. Some Israelis, like Naftali Bennett, like to remind us that the Jewish people’s two previous experiments in independence in its historic homeland, during First and Second Temple days, ended after around 75-80 years.

A. If those biblical instances constitute a precedent, it is a very problematic one. Are there really geostrategic constants that still prevail 2000 years later and that we can focus on for a comparison with the days of the Babylonians and the Romans, who conquered and exiled us back then? Our neighbors/enemies have changed, as have our friends and allies. After two millennia of diaspora, we are not quite the same people. The very nature of concepts like nation, sovereignty and empire has evolved.

Or do we as a people possess a frightening self-destruct mechanism? It is striking to note that at age 75, Israel displays distressing signs of decay or deterioration as a democratic, Jewish nation in two principal respects. First, and for the first time, the country’s liberal democratic character is genuinely endangered by growing anti-democratic reaction and messianic and fundamentalist religiosity. The death in recent days of two celebrated Israelis who, in their 70s, represented ‘high’ secular Israeli culture--author Meir Shalev and poet/songwriter Yehonatan Geffen-- seems eerily symbolic of what is transpiring.

Second, Israel’s nature as a Jewish or Hebrew state is jeopardized by its prolonged occupation of, or domination over, a growing population of Palestinian Arabs inside Israel and in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza Strip--a process that threatens to turn the country into a binational entity.

Neither dynamic will necessarily put a ‘biblical’ end to Israel’s existence. An ‘Israel’ indeed may still exist 75 years from now. But if we extrapolate from current demographic and political trends, there is a genuine possibility that in even less than 50 years our grandchildren will live in an autocratic, ultra-religious and racist state called Israel in which Jews are a minority and, of the Jews, Haredim are a majority.

Moreover, Israel 50 years from now will be an extremely crowded country in view of demographic projections. And an extremely hot country, due to projected climate change. Not a pleasant place to live in, unless we act resolutely, and soon.

Q. In this dystopian reality, what remains of Israel’s liberal, secular and traditional Jewish population? Who still serves in the IDF, which prides itself as a ‘people’s army’?

A. These are very real issues that Israelis are dealing with right now against a backdrop of threatened anti-democratic legislation and mass popular protests. In reality, the IDF has already ceased to be a people’s army: more than one-third of Israeli youth, including Haredim and Arabs, do not serve.

True, the current confrontation between a right-religious-messianic majority government and the rest of the population appears, at least according to the opinion polls, to favor the ‘rest’--liberal, secular, traditional, moderate orthodox and Arab Israelis. But this snapshot of Israel does not reflect demographic trends. Israel is today a center-right country; the political left has been radically weakened. Haredim are the fastest growing demographic; already nearly 25 percent of Israeli four-year olds are Haredim; in 50 years they may reach half of Israel's Jewish population. The demographic writing, with its religious and political consequences, is on the wall.