Politics

From Upstart to Start-Up Nation, Israel at 75 Faces New Challenges

Israel has triumphed over its foes in a rough neighborhood. Still, Palestinians present a new challenge, or rather an old challenge in a different guise. Also, internal strife over the future of democracy presents an unprecedented challenge to Israel.
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Map with flag of Israel © Victor Moussa / shutterstock.com

May 01, 2023 06:43 EDT
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Seventy-five years ago, the State of Israel announced its independence on former British Mandate territory that the UN Partition Plan of 1947 had delineated. Arab states never recognized that partition plan, which also marked territory for the Mandate’s Arab residents. Armies of five Arab nations struck the nascent Jewish state less than one day after its independence declaration. Despite having no formal army (or navy or air force) and being vastly outnumbered, the upstart state defied all predictions, defeating the combined Arab armies and shocking the world.

It wouldn’t be the first time. Again in 1956, 1967 and 1973, Israel would square off against Arab armies, emerging victorious every time, though battered in the last conflict. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, realizing the futility of constant war against his neighbor, called it quits after the 1973 war and, with the extraordinary help of US President Jimmy Carter, negotiated the Camp David Peace Accords with Israeli Prime Minister Menachim Begin, ending the era of Arab-Israeli wars.

To the former Mandate’s other inhabitants, the Palestinians, however, Israel’s “War of Independence” came to be known as the “nakba,” or catastrophe. This coming May 14, as Israelis celebrate their independence, Palestinians will commemorate “Nakba Day.” They haven’t forgotten the trauma of that time, and their conflict with Israel continues unabated.

The upstart nation, on the other hand, has prospered, defying all expectations. Accepting Jews from all over the world, Israel capitalized on its greatest resource, its people, to move from near poverty to first-world prosperity. By the late 1990s, Israeli engineers, scientists, doctors, and technicians were moving into the big leagues of the global economy. It became the “start-up” nation, birthing new tech and finance companies regularly, often to be quickly snapped up by big American, British, and European corporations hungry for new ideas, technology, and products.

Internal Strife Over the Future of Democracy

As it celebrates the many achievements of its 75 years, Israel today also must confront new and unprecedented challenges. The first may be the most difficult. In the weeks leading up to the recent celebration of Passover, Israel was convulsed by massive public demonstrations throughout the country, some exceeding 200,000 participants. Demonstrators, who straddled all elements of Israeli society – from active and reserve military personnel to academia, youth, and techies – took to the streets. They were protesting actions of the most right-wing government in Israel’s history to undermine the independence of the state’s judicial system.  

Critics of the government’s move argue that it would upset Israel’s balance of powers. Supporters assert the move is intended to right a heavily weighted elitist and liberal court system. Former PM Ehud Barak described Netanyahu and the conservatives’ efforts as “regime change” by attempting to manipulate Israel’s democratic system. Former Defense Minister Benny Gantz accused Netanyahu and his coalition of carrying out “a constitutional coup.”

With no formal constitution and no effective executive branch and its presidency largely a ceremonial and symbolic office, Israel is a two-branch government, the Knesset (its parliament) and its judiciary. As a parliamentary system, the prime minister is chosen by the Knesset. A coalition made up of Likud and five extreme Zionist conservative and ultra-orthodox parties voted to return Likud’s Benyamin Netanyahu to the prime ministry. It was Bibi’s deal with the devil. The right wingers seek to dilute the authority of the judiciary, i.e., the Israeli supreme court, maintain military service exemptions for Haredim Jews, expand settlements in the West Bank, and erase previous court rulings protecting LGBTQ+ rights. Israel’s large secular class, those who defend the nation in the IDF and comprise its highly productive labor force, was having none of it and took to the streets.

Pressured as he never has been in his 15 years as Israel’s prime minister, Bibi blinked. Facing rebelling military reservists, armies of university students, the all-powerful tech and financial sectors, his intelligence chiefs, and hundreds of thousands of defiant citizens, he agreed to suspend legislation pending in the Knesset that would have undermined the supreme court’s independence. For now, the matter has been referred to discussions and dialog led by Israeli President Isaac Herzog to search for compromise. Israelis remain wary, nonetheless. Smaller demonstrations continue and some Israelis say they will return to the streets if the government attempts to introduce changes that alter the independence of the courts and the judicial branch. That is to say, this internal struggle for the nation’s democratic future is not over.

External Enemies Coalescing

Israel’s trials don’t stop at its borders. It faces an array of external threats as well. It’s distant nemesis, Iran, now appears to be working with closer enemies of the state. According to recent statements of Defense Minister Yoav Galant, Iran is supporting these foes through funding, weapons, advice and other means. They include Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the West Bank and Gaza. Meanwhile, Iran is continuing its ongoing support for Hezbollah, Syria, and anti-Israeli militias in Syria. Iran’s backing for this multi-front assault, per Galant, likely exceeds one billion dollars. It may also be funneling assistance to the many small militia gangs that have cropped up in the West Bank (see below).

The combined destructive might of these disparate enemy forces likely tops well over one-hundred thousand rockets and missiles, not including Iran’s own formidable arsenal. For Iran, that means that even without its long-sought nuclear weapons, it presents a genuine and serious threat to Israel – perhaps not an existential threat, but one nevertheless capable of inflicting massive destruction and casualties on Israel.

In Israel’s storied history of conflict, multi-front wars are nothing new. It has often had to contend with enemies on all sides of the postage-stamp sized nation. It has proved that betting against Israel was never a winning bet. But multiple barrages of rockets and missiles coming from all directions are a different scale of challenge than Arab tank battalions and feeble Soviet-era aircraft attacks. The nation’s advanced defensive systems like Iron Dome, Iron Beam (scheduled for a 2025 introduction) and soon-to-be-introduced David’s Sling, unquestionably are a mitigating factor, not to mention the continued support from its most vital ally, the US. Nevertheless, Israel may require more than ingenuity and innovative weapons to counter this threat.

The Enduring Challenge Persists

Finally, there is the region’s most enduring conflict. Israel’s co-inhabitants in the region between the sea and the Jordan, the Palestinians, present a new challenge, or rather an old challenge in a different guise. The West Bank has been wracked by violence for more than a year. In 2023 alone, 80 Palestinians and more than 20 Israelis have been killed as a result of violence. Should this continue, it would be the worst year of violence since the Second Intifada of 2000-2005, now widely acknowledged as a disaster for the Palestinians. Palestinian attacks against settlers and other Israelis have become too familiar, as have IDF reprisal raids into the West Bank, including Area A where the Palestinian Authority nominally maintains administrative as well as security authority.

What makes the current situation different is that the Palestinian attacks appear to be not only indiscriminate but also aimless, i.e., without an apparent overarching purpose other than to inflict harm. In fact, they are carried out mostly by boys and young men exasperated with the current situation. The attackers are members of small, localized, militia-like gangs, principally from the areas of Nablus and Jenin in the territory’s north. They are groups like the Lion’s Den, Balata Brigade, and the Hornets’ Nest and enjoy surprising popular support among Palestinians, who share their many frustrations. They likely have loose connections to the more established Palestinian organizations and parties like Fatah, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

Unlike previous Palestinian groups, however, these new groups lack an overarching political ideology. They are a new generation of young Palestinians simply at war with the status quo. That means not only Israel’s occupation but also the incompetent, ineffective, self-serving, and corrupt Palestinian Authority, whose aging President, Mahmoud Abbas, is in the 18th year of a four-year term and has canceled multiple elections. A toxic cocktail of PA fecklessness, little prospect for change, and despair for a better future only aggravates frustrations and the rage of these youth. They act out of desperation, perhaps the most insidious of motivations.

The attacks present little significant threat to Israel, though Israelis must exert greater caution to avoid these episodic occurrences of violence. More than anything, however, they point out the 75 years of continuing frustration and anger of Palestinians. The nakba continues to simmer.

Israel has demonstrated remarkable ability to overcome hardship, danger, and challenges throughout its brief history. How will it meet the new challenges of today? Might it be best served by returning to address the unresolved problem of 1948. That won’t resolve its internal political problems nor the external challenges entirely. Those might be the lesser of the challenges. It’s addressing the challenges of the Palestinians that may be most critical.

For the Palestinians, commemorating 75 years of the nakba, there are perhaps even graver challenges. The current system, if one can use that term, is not working. If it isn’t the PA, which desperately needs fresh and innovative leadership, then they will have to find another way to prove to themselves and to Israelis that they are capable of self-government and of becoming a true negotiating partner of their neighbor.

One hopes, the Palestinians won’t have to wait 75 years.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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