Is Israel prepared for the consequences of Status Quo?
As an outsider who has had the privilege to work and study for brief periods in Israel and also count amongst my friends some truly loving and kind Israeli citizens, it is a country that makes for a fascinating read. Formed in 1948 following the conflict that engulfed the British withdrawal from British Mandate Palestine, there is scarcely a more controversial state that exists in the world today. It has one of the most educated populations in the developed world, a young and entrepreneurial people, whose technological designs have extended from creating the world’s first online firewall to supplying drone technology to Turkey and Azerbaijan amongst others.
Yet like so many places in the world today, a country with so many wonderful resources is at risk of destroying itself from the inside by its refusal to make the tough and necessary decisions in respect of the Palestinian people. Few conflicts have been so protracted in the world today, and even fewer look still so far from resolution, yet looking at the history it’s not hard to see why it is so protracted.
Without covering ground that so many others have been over before though, and avoiding the always present danger to cite history in Israel/Palestine discussions, I want to suggest where the current trajectory of Israel/ Palestine will go next, (assuming there is no major breakthrough in peace talks in the short/medium term (5-10 years) ).
The Status Quo:
Contrary to the opinion which was once so prevalent amongst Israel/Palestine watchers, the demographic balance has swung away from a Palestinian majority in recent years and this key fact lies at the heart of why Israel cannot afford the status Quo. The explosion in birth rates of the settler population of Israel and the Haredi Jewish community will now ensure that Israel will, for the current term, retain a Jewish majority. This change in demographic fortunes comes at a political price however.
The Haredi population and that of the settler community represent two existential challenges to Jewish policy makers which will only exacerbate in the longer term. The first is the settler’s unwillingness to exchange any land for peace and the second is the Haredi’s unwillingness to work or serve in the army, whilst living off the state. Simply put. The growth of the Settler and Haredi groups will lead to a more Conservative Israeli State that will be unwilling to negotiate on most of the Palestinian’s key terms and yet in tandem the state will have less pecuniary and human resources to utilise in the maintenance of the necessary state apparatus to maintain the status quo.
This change therefore represents challenges and opportunities therefore to various actors within the peace process. For the immediate to short term, it strengthens the hand of more nationalistic, to some extremist, parties. For Hamas and Likud, the current population growth dynamics give Likud a larger electoral base to enable the party to adopt more radical measures, which in turn plays into the Hamas’ narrative that the Israeli’s cannot be negotiated with. In contrast it is the left and centrist Israeli parties like the Labour Party and Fatah in the Palestinian Authority who are left seemingly out of touch with their electorate and the desires of the people.
The question then is what happens next? And in tandem, what moves are there still available?
For the short term it seems unlikely that the Israeli right, led most likely by Likud, will be politically outmanoeuvred by any moderate or peace advocacy movement. The Arab spring and the instability among Israel’s borders, perhaps now more unstable than at any time since arguably post 1973, will ensure that a highly militarised populace will continue to desire a strong military, fortress-esque mentality.
The medium to long term however is where I would predict the most interesting changes to occur, and by that I mean at least 5 and perhaps closer to 10 years. The Israeli protest movements over affordable housing in 2012 showed the clear frustrations amongst young Israelis over the social status quo, whilst the number of young Israelis who choose to emigrate is continuing to rise. The next generation of Israelis are increasingly deciding that whilst Israel may provide them with a great education, it is increasingly unattractive to raise a family in a country where rockets can reach every city and few people can afford a home, even with a mortgage, before 30.
The Medium term, (which in turn will affect what room to manoeuvre is left long term), has two apparent paths for Israel:
- A grass-roots campaign to restore the peace process but along different parameters.
- A continuing fortress mentality and growing conservative culture in society that will lead to a greater emigration of liberal, atheistic and/or agnostic Israelis.
The peace process parameters as set in the 1990’s cannot work today because quite simply Israel is not able to remove 500,000 people from the West Bank with a population of 6 million itself. The question therefore is whether those within Israel today will push for a change in the status quo or not. If the country cannot negotiate a resolution to the conflict then gradually you will see a migration of the best and brightest from the state. As this drain of talent continues the Israelis state will face two major long term issues that will further inhibit peace: a smaller electoral populace in favour of peace and a significant decline in the human and materiel resources of the Israeli state to keep its Security apparatus intact.
It is often said that there is very little that the Palestinian people are able to do to move the conflict away from the status quo. Militarily they are unable to seriously threaten the IDF and economically they are totally dependent on Israeli government cooperation and foreign aid, whilst politically the US veto has guarded Israel at the UN.
Yet Palestinians themselves do still have two big splits to consider in their medium to long term future:
- Continue to support violence and acts of terrorism as forms of resistance.
- Utilise the changing global status quo, their new UN position and the gradual change in US politics to reverse their relative power position with Israel internationally.
What do I mean by the last point? If Israel continues to become more radical and uncompromising, more and more of its major backers, certainly in Europe where pro-Palestinian sentiment is high, will refuse to support Israel’s actions. In addition the US is not the firm ally it once was to Israel and with the US pivot to Asia underway, the importance of Israel will surely diminish in US grand strategy.
There are other reasons for the US change though, particularly due to the growth of the US Hispanic population. Those in the US who were once described as “WhiteAngloSaxonProtestant’s” are now on the decline and as the Israelis’ continue to pursue an agenda which receives greater international ire, the PA could easily manoeuvre the US into a situation where Israel is facing war crimes charges in the ICJ without EU support. This scenario has been further developed by the US explosion in Shale Gas which has dramatically reduced the US demand for Middle Eastern Oil and Gas.
This final point, the development of Shale gas, is perhaps most significant and its repercussions will continue to reverberate throughout the global energy market and re-adjust the international geopolitical-economic balance. With the US less responsive to the troubles in the Middle East whilst Chinese, Indian and other developing economies move into the area to secure energy sources for the future needs, the regional-political balance will be re-calibrated, most likely to the expense of Israel.
Concluding remarks and Concerns:
To quote Selina Kyle from Batman (if I may!), “There’s a storm coming” for Israel, sadly it seems that its leaders are either unable to see it or more worryingly, unable to address it. For a people who endured such suffering and hardship in their history, it is simply madness that the Israeli’s are unable to see that their actions do not buy them security, they weaken it.
On the construction of Israel’s Security Fence in the West Bank an Israeli High court judge was quoted as saying that “High Fences makes good neighbors”. As anyone from Northern Ireland can vouch, separating people may reduce violence but it certainly does not foster respect or trust. Perhaps the two most important, missing, aspects in resolving this conflict.
Israel faces one of the most significant choices in its existence in the next 5-10 years. It cannot assume US support unconditionally as it once could, its allies in Europe and elsewhere are fading. The arab spring has emboldened the nations surrounding Israel to reject the status quo arrangements they despised, both domestically and externally, whilst the increasing military sophistication of Hamas and Hezbollah arsenal now threatens every Israeli town and city.
With a population that increasingly will not negotiate on the core, substantive issues, that will not work or serve in the army, Israel has a unique window to negotiate a final settlement to this conflict. For all that people have criticized the Israeli leadership of the political right for being radical fundamentalists, unwilling to compromise, it was Ariel Sharon that withdrew settlers from Gaza and Ehud Barack, one of Israel’s most decorated soldiers, that took Israel to camp david.
Israel has often shown its ability to innovate and surprise its watchers. It must do so again and soon. The future of Israel and its relationship with the wider world is on the line, its Israel’s move or Israel’s fall.