Analysis & Opinions - The American Interest

Flaming Kites, Hezbollah and Iranian Nukes

| Aug. 13, 2018

Bucking perceptions abroad of a country in crisis, life is good in Israel, even if existential threats loom just beyond the horizon.

To many foreign observers, Israel appears to be engaged in never-ending conflict, external and domestic. There is terrorism and diplomatic isolation. There are peripheral military clashes with Iran in and around Syria and Lebanon. Inside the country there are aggressive settlers, an increasingly powerful and arrogant ultra-Orthodox rabbinate, scandal, and convoluted politics. Taken together, external and the internal woes pose existential threats to Israel’s long-term future as a Jewish and democratic state.

From within Israel today, a somewhat different picture emerges.

Militarily, Israel has never been stronger and more secure. The Arab states are all in deep disarray and preoccupied with internal crises. Egypt and Jordan made peace long ago, and the other Arab states are either no longer capable of, or intent on, military conflict. Israel no longer faces serious conventional threats or, crucially, existential ones. Israel’s national security strategy has been a resounding success, achieving its primary goal of ensuring the state’s existence.

Israel still does, of course, face a threat from Hamas, a more severe one from Hezbollah, and a potentially existential threat should Iran succeed in going nuclear. But all this has to be viewed in perspective. Israel has contained Hamas: Israel’s anti-rocket system has essentially reduced the Hamas rocket threat to a nuisance for much of the country. The underground barrier currently being built has already prevented Hamas tunnel attacks and should do so fully upon completion next year. Hamas has been reduced to “flaming kites,” which can be lethal—one landed in a nursery school while the kids were out in the yard—but so far no one has been injured. The scorched brush and nature preserves are a painful sight, especially in this desert region, but the burned-out agricultural fields are plowed under.

Hezbollah is a different story. Its mammoth arsenal of approximately 130,000 rockets will cause unprecedented destruction to Israel’s home front in a future conflict, with up to 1,500 rockets raining down each day for weeks, including tens daily on Tel Aviv. Plans call for the evacuation of tens of thousands of people from border areas. The psychological impact, if this happens, will be severe, but in the end such experiences tend to tighten the “we” feeling within Israel, and, contrary to Arab hopes and predictions, such stresses have not undermined the resilience of Israeli society.

Besides, the Hezbollah threat lies in the future, and Israelis have long grown accustomed to living in the shadow of such threats. Moreover, experience has shown that, one way or another, Israel somehow always gets through the various threats, no matter how dire. “Yehiye tov” (“it’ll be good”) has long been the standard Israeli response to all external threats. It should probably be the national motto.

Iran is the big threat, but the current U.S. administration is now at least as hawkish on Iran as Israel. Through deft use of the media, Prime Minister Netanyahu succeeded in convincing an overwhelming majority of the Israeli public that the Iran nuclear deal was terrible for Israel and even posed an existential threat, this despite the fact that most of Israel’s defense establishment believed it to be the better of the bad options available. Indeed, Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the deal this past May affirmed everything Netanyahu has fought for in recent years. Israelis are now eagerly watching for signs of Iran’s economic collapse now that U.S. sanctions have been reimposed and most allies are knuckling under, hoping that this will lead either to regime change or to Iranian willingness to renegotiate a “better” deal. Moreover, there is now even some possibility, evidently absent during the Obama years, that the U.S. military will launch a strike and thereby resolve the problem in a different, perhaps more effective way.

As to the Palestinians, an overwhelming majority of Israelis—something very close to a national consensus—opposes a binational one-state solution to the conflict, even a clear majority of right-wing voters who fail to recognize that this is precisely what the current settlement policy will ultimately lead to. A large majority across party lines believes that there is simply no possibility of an agreement with the Palestinians for the foreseeable future, regardless of who is in office in Israel, because the Palestinians are either uninterested in peace or incapable of making the necessary concessions to reach it. A small majority continues to favor an active pursuit of a two-state solution, even today, despite their own manifest despair over decades of failed attempts to reach an agreement.

Most Israelis are not blind to the long-term threat to the nation’s character. This is not a case of hubris or willful shortsightedness. But if there is nothing Israel can do to change Palestinian rejectionism, why worry about it now? Israel will deal with the problem as it has with all others in the past, by crossing any bridge that looms down the road as and when it reaches it. Kvetchers abroad can get themselves exercised over the issue, but in the meantime, “yehiye tov.”

And in many ways things really are good. Despite media coverage seemingly to the contrary, for most Israelis the Palestinian issue has no bearing on the reality of their daily lives but only appears far away, on the borders or in “settler-land” in the West Bank, an areamost Israelis have never visited. Israel’s economy is booming and has become an established global high-tech center, including in the currently hot area of cyber-security, with plans underway to ensure its future leadership in areas such as artificial intelligence. Foreign investors, in search of cutting-edge tech innovation, visit Israel in droves. Israelis have always been avid tourists, but a combination of a new “open skies” policy, which has drastically reduced the price of air tickets for Israelis, and rising disposable income for large parts of the population, has yielded a huge increase in foreign travel.

For Prime Minister Netanyahu, the political arithmetic is simple: A sense of military and economic security plus frequent travel equals happy voters. Surprisingly, perhaps, international surveys of comparative national happiness have repeatedly shown Israelis to be among the happiest people in the world.
What about diplomatic isolation because of the impasse with the Palestinians? Israel has relations today with more nations than ever before, often including close military ties. Several African and Latin American nations have restored relations, and security ties with Egypt and Jordan are closer than ever. Most importantly, a number of Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia, are now engaged in extensive contacts with Israel, a result of a shared fear of Iran, Arab weariness with the Palestinian issue, and their recognition of the potential benefits of having ties to the region’s economic dynamo. Israel’s growing delegitimization around the world, the fact that its standing in international polls is near rock bottom, and that young people, including young Jews, are increasingly alienated from it, are medium-to-long term threats, are uncertain, and are anyway far less tangible.

As for Israel’s convoluted politics, it just is what it is. The disconnect between voters’ interests and actual voting patterns, electoral outcomes skewed by the vagaries of political systems, fake news, public discourse in which facts are no longer facts and expertise discounted, and ongoing attacks on fundamental pillars of democracy such as the judiciary and free press didn’t begin with the United States with Trump, but long before in Israel. No one has better mastered the art of political theater and pageantry, of playing to voters’ fears and insecurities, and of using this to rally the base, than Benyamin Netanyahu. Even Israelis who don’t like him acknowledge his bare-knuckles political skills.

Barring truly glaring indictments for corruption, which are not expected before the spring if at all, Netanyahu will be re-elected handily next year. Indeed, the charges against him are a further catalyst for rallying the base. It is not his allegedly criminal actions that are the problem, of course, as far as his base is concerned, but the “stinking leftists”—leftist and stinking are synonymous in Israel today, and the term is meant to include the judiciary and media. They are, his base believes, out to get Netanyahu personally and to deny the Right its electoral victory. All of this should sound familiar.

Repeated legislation in recent years, most recently the “Nation Law,” appears to many abroad, and to Israel’s Left, like an ongoing attack on Israeli democracy. In reality, most of this legislation dies in the Knesset and the little that is actually approved, including the Nation Law, has been so watered down as to have little practical consequence, other than its offensive symbolic nature. This, however, is intentional and is part of Netanyahu’s political playbook. He creates a sense among his voters, especially now in an election year, that it is “them,” the leftists, against “us,” the patriotic right, and that he is the only leader in Israel today capable of addressing the nation’s challenges.

To his supporters, only “stinking leftists” could possibly oppose the Nation Law, which enshrines in statute what everyone has long known, that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people. To oppose it, as Netanyahu knew the Left would have to do, is to be placed in the position of appearing to deny Israel’s raison d’être, the very essence of Zionism, and is, as he obliquely indicates, semi-traitorous. The law may rile some abroad, including the Jewish community, and this is unfortunate from his perspective, but sinceit does not change anything in practice, and diaspora Jews do not vote anyway, he believes that the price is acceptable. Conversely, the law rallies his base, which is why he knowingly pressed for its passage now, as a winning issue for the upcoming elections. Nothing is to stand in the way of Netanyahu’s re-election for a fifth term, which will make him Israel’s longest-serving premier ever.

Israel’s national culture has always been geared to the short-term, the immediate future, and so far it has worked for the most part. So though it may seem almost unimaginable to most foreign observers, the reality is that life in Israel today is good. As to the future, “yehiye tov.” Hey, why not?

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Freilich, Chuck.“Flaming Kites, Hezbollah and Iranian Nukes.” The American Interest, August 13, 2018.