Analysis & Opinions - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

For the First Time, Israel Faces an Adversary Too Powerful to Be Defeated

| Jan. 09, 2019

A Hebrew-language version of the op-ed appeared in Haaretz on January 6, 2019. The English-language version below adds two national objectives in domestic affairs to the foreign and defense objectives that appeared in the original Hebrew:

The translation was provided by the author.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei recently outlined a draft version of a vision for Iran for the next fifty years.

The vision calls for Iran to become one of the world's top five countries in science and technology, one of the top seven in "progress and justice," including eradication of poverty, corruption, and discrimination, and one of the ten largest global economies. It further calls for strengthening Iran's defensive and deterrent capabilities, promoting Muslim unity, jihadism, and Islamic liberation movements, and "vindicating" Palestinian rights.

Khamenei’s overall objective is for Iran to gain regional, and even global, supremacy through technological self-sufficiency and by resisting Western concepts of the international order, politics, and culture. Khamenei asked Iran's academic and clerical establishments for feedback on the draft vision and directed the various branches of the government to turn its broad recommendations into actionable plans. A final draft is due within two years.

One can legitimately ask whether a fifty-year plan is at all feasible, especially in a world that is changing so rapidly. China has been somewhat more modest, recently announcing a vision for 2050, whereas the Saudis sufficed with a humble 2030. Iran itself failed to achieve an earlier twenty-year vision, designed to turn it into a developed country by 2025. It may very well fail to do so again.

Nevertheless, Khamenei's attempt to craft such an actionable vision is bold and impressive. Under his leadership, Iran is at least trying to think systematically about its national objectives. He has set out bold, if heinous, plans before. In 2014, Khamenei announced a Nine Point Plan for Israel's destruction.

What if Israel were to adopt Khamenei's long-term approach and prepare fifty years out? What should those national objectives include? These are my suggestions.

Preserving the national movement of the Jewish people. Zionism achieved its primary objective, the establishment of the state, rapidly, but has lost its way. The paramount, and even existential decision we face today, is whether Israel's Jewish character is determined primarily by its borders, or population. In 2060, the furthest demographic projections available, Israel's population will be 15.6 million, of whom 12 million will be Jewish — just 76 percent. This figure does not include the West Bank, in which case the combined population will only be about 60 percent Jewish, as it already is today.

A state in which 40 percent of the population is not Jewish cannot be considered a Jewish state, even if we annex all of Judea and Samaria. The future of the Zionist enterprise depends on separation from the Palestinians. There is no need for a fifty-year vision.

Determining Israel's borders, peace with our neighbors, and regional acceptance. Israel's classic defense doctrine held that the conflict with the Arabs was unresolvable. In practice, during our first seventy years, we reached peace with Egypt and Jordan, conducted advanced negotiations with the Syrians and Palestinians, now have growing ties with the Saudis and others, and have become a regional fixture. Peace with the Palestinians will transform Israel's regional and international status. It is not all up to us, but it does require a decision regarding our borders. During the next fifty years, we must strive to complete the process of regional acceptance.

Maintaining Israel's deterrence and security. Iran is the most sophisticated and dangerous adversary Israel has ever faced. A theocracy with a long-term perspective, Iran recognizes that it cannot destroy Israel in the short term and has thus adopted a decades-long strategy of attrition until destruction.

Israel is a frenetic democracy, focused on the here and now. Although we can manage the conflict with Iran and defend ourselves successfully, Iran may simply be our first adversary that is too big and powerful to be defeated.

Israel must thus adopt a national security strategy best suited to this new kind of long-term confrontation, one of "strategic patience," based on maximal self-restraint, even in the face of significant provocations, and greater emphasis on defense (e.g. Iron Dome) and diplomacy. Offense would be resorted to when the other options have been exhausted, Israel can achieve significant periods of calm (5–10 years)—at a price it is willing to pay—and maintain societal resilience.

A number of regional actors are now acquiring nuclear power reactors for legitimate energy needs, but a similar project was the technological basis for Iran's military nuclear program. It is thus increasingly likely that Israel will face the nightmare scenario of a multi-nuclear Mideast in the coming decades. Should this happen, Israel may be forced to contemplate a change its policy of nuclear ambiguity, seek a defense treaty with the United States, or even consider regional disarmament, as fanciful as that sounds today.

Promoting regional stability. All of the forces that gave rise to the "Arab Spring" are still very much at work, even more so, including a population explosion, severe poverty and absence of economic opportunity, and political suppression. The Arab states are almost all in crisis, are at risk of becoming failed states, and have already caused a refugee crisis in Europe.

In 2007, an approximately 4 million Arab population lived near Israel's borders; by 2027, 20 million will live within 50 kilometers. Israel's thriving economy may prove a socioeconomic magnet that no border obstacle can withstand. Imagine fifty years from now.

Unlike Iran, Israel does not seek regional supremacy, certainly not global, but it does wish to influence critical regional processes such as these. It has two primary means of doing so: a settlement with the Palestinians, or even a reduction in the level of conflict, which would contribute to regional stability, as would a diplomatic campaign to promote a "Mideast Marshall Plan" designed to channel regional events in more positive directions.

It will cost the international community billions, but the alternative is for the Mideast to continue exporting its ills to Europe, a change in its fundamental character, and even a conflict between the West and Islam.

Preserving the "special relationship" with the United States, a fundamental pillar of Israel's national security, despite alarming demographic and political trends. New population groups are on the rise in the U.S. with little affinity towards Israel, especially Hispanics and the religiously non-affiliated, while the Jewish community, the second-largest in the world, is decreasing in size and influence.

By 2050, the Orthodox will constitute 25 percent of the U.S. Jewish community, up from 10 percent today, whereas Reform and Conservative Jews, the vast majority of American Jews and heretofore the pillar of support for Israel, are intermarrying and assimilating themselves out of existence. We are already witnessing a significant decline in support for Israel on the American left, and even among the Jewish community.

Israel should seek a formal alliance with the United States, but also reduce its dependence on it, inter alia, by weaning itself off U.S. military aid, beginning in 2027, when the current ten-year military aid program ends. In fifty years, when we are 120, we must have long become fully independent. Nothing will contribute more to ensuring the long-term vibrancy of the "special relationship" than a settlement with the Palestinians.

Achieving a just and progressive society. Israel's projected population of 15.6 million in 2060 will include 4.15 million Haredim (ultra-Orthodox) and 3.6 million Israeli Arabs. Non-Haredim will comprise just 65 percent of the Jewish population, or 50 percent of the national total, income disparities and poverty will grow far worse, and the Haredi and Arab populations will become an untenable economic burden.

Much of the nation will look to various spiritual leaders, rather than the state, as their primary locus of authority and will have little identification with its values. Maintaining a progressive democratic society, with equality before the law and respect for minority rights, will become very difficult.

If, like Khamenei, we wish to eradicate poverty and discrimination, we should be formulating a comprehensive long-term national strategy for a "war on poverty." The resources needed are great, and poverty and discrimination can never be completely eradicated, but Israel has successfully pursued similarly ambitious national objectives in the past. A national strategy such as this would begin with a change in the absurd current policy which encourages population growth primarily among the non-productive sectors of society.

Maintaining Israel's stature as a world leader in science and technology. Just a few years ago, Prime Minister Netanyahu announced a limited national vision that Israel become one of the world's top five cyber powers, an objective already met with great success, and he may now set a similar vision regarding artificial intelligence and big data.

One cannot, however, base a society solely on the high-tech sector. Our universities, and education generally, are at a low. Israel's qualitative edge generated its military, economic, and spiritual strength in the past. We must invest in it again.

The public is focused today on other issues, possibly because the opioid of almost unlimited low-cost flights abroad has clouded our collective senses. If, however, we wish to chart our national course, not just be buffeted by the winds of change, we must prepare today. Iran's Supreme Leader has already begun doing so.

Statements and views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author and do not imply endorsement by Harvard University, the Harvard Kennedy School, or the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

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For Academic Citation:

Freilich, Chuck."For the First Time, Israel Faces an Adversary Too Powerful to Be Defeated." Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, January 9, 2019.