Israel at 75
23 May 2023|

Religion and miracles often go hand in hand, so it should come as little surprise that Israel, which just marked its 75th birthday, is something of a miracle. In some ways, Israel’s very existence is miraculous, as the newborn state only narrowly avoided being strangled in the crib by the much larger armies of its Arab neighbours, which invaded in May 1948.

Since then, Israel has weathered many more wars, along with a host of lesser attacks. But the larger story is that Israel has not only survived but thrived.

Today, it is a country of nearly 10 million people. It is a democracy in a part of the world dominated by authoritarian regimes. Despite not having any natural resources to speak of, its economy, boasting a world-class technology sector, is booming. Annual GDP per capita is around US$55,000, putting it among the world’s top 20 countries, ahead of Canada, Japan and much of Europe.

Israel’s extraordinary accomplishments are one reason that many of the country’s Arab neighbours have come to accept its existence. Israel now enjoys formal peace with Egypt and Jordan as well as with Morocco, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. It has informal and growing ties with other Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, as the region’s focus adjusts to a reduced American presence and with Israel seen as an important partner in efforts to confront threats posed by Iran.

But Israel’s future remains uneasy and uncertain.

First, there are the continuing external threats. Among them are Syria, which has become a safe haven for Iranian proxies amid its civil war, and Lebanon, where Hezbollah has established what is effectively an Iranian-backed state within a state just across Israel’s northern border, with more than 100,000 rockets pointed south. And Iran itself now can produce in a matter of weeks enough enriched uranium for several nuclear bombs, meaning it is nearing the capability to threaten Israel with an attack.

A massive problem for Israel remains the unresolved Palestinian issue. This is largely the result of the June 1967 Six-Day War, a conflict that changed Israel’s trajectory.

There are now some five million Palestinians living in lands occupied by Israel. Negotiations to create a separate Palestinian state came close to succeeding on several occasions. I would argue that Palestinians’ refusal to accept what was offered (however imperfect) reflected a colossal failure of leadership; but regardless of how we reached this point, it’s clear that prospects for a two-state solution are increasingly remote given Israeli and Palestinian politics alike.

This is obviously bad for Palestinians, but it’s also bad for Israel’s democracy and security. Continued occupation will require a major, and perpetual, military presence and weaken Israel’s standing in the world.

A third challenge is internal. Israel was founded primarily by Jewish refugees from Europe. Subsequent large waves of immigrants came from the Middle East and the former Soviet Union. Today’s Israel is made up of these immigrants and their descendants, along with Christians and Muslim Arabs (often called Israeli Arabs or Israelis of Arab descent) and their descendants who were living within Israel’s modern borders before and after 1948.

The result is that Israel is approaching fundamental choices about its identity. If it wants to remain a democratic state, it cannot forever rule more than five million Palestinians and deny them citizenship and the rights that go with it. But if it wants to remain a Jewish state, it cannot rule over a country that adds five million Palestinians to its existing population of two million Israeli Arabs. Something has to give.

There is one additional dynamic: the rapid growth of the ultra-orthodox Jewish population, which now includes some 1.3 million, or 14%, of Israelis. Their religious views exert a major influence on their thinking about how Israel ought to be organised and run.

While military service is mandatory for Israelis, there’s an exception for the ultra-orthodox, most of whom choose not to serve. Many of them study and pray rather than work or otherwise contribute to the economy. Through the political process, they seek to bring about a society in which religious interests, as they perceive them, take precedence over the desires of secular Israelis. Demographic trends suggest that they could eventually succeed.

The result is that Israel at 75 faces challenges that are no less existential than those posed by the invading armies during its early history. Recent protests over proposed changes that would increase political control over what has been a highly independent judiciary highlight that Israel is a polarised democratic country. Alas, it’s far easier to describe the problems than to suggest how they might be resolved.

All this has created a new issue. Israel has accomplished most of what it has through its own efforts, but it has been aided for most of its history by the substantial economic, military and diplomatic support of the United States, and by the philanthropy of American Jews. It is increasingly unclear whether such support will be as forthcoming if Israel is viewed as undemocratic and embracing religious extremism.

All this will worry Israel’s many friends around the world who admire the country’s achievements and wish it well. Less certain is whether it will also worry Israelis enough for them to make some difficult but necessary choices.