Israel's 70 Years

The Glass is Half Full

On its 70th birthday, Israel continues to struggle with immense domestic and foreign policy problems. Seventy years after Israel was founded to give hope to Jews around the world, pessimists are thriving. To find reasons for concern or croaks is not difficult. It starts with Israel’s geography. After 40 years of traveling, why did Moses have to lead his people on the Exodus precisely into this country? To a stretch of land where there is more sand than fresh water? A country that is surrounded by Islamists and collapsing states, which are primarily exporting oil, terror, refugees and radical ideologies? Not to mention enemy neighbors, like Iran, which invests billions of dollars every year to destroy the Jewish state, even though it has no conflicts of interest with Israel? Doomsayers do not need to look further. They only have to follow domestic political events. Benjamin Netanyahu could soon become the second Prime Minister in Israel‘s history to be forced to resign for corruption and move from his residence to a prison cell. This would not even be an isolated case: in recent years, a president, a chief rabbi, several ministers, and high-ranking officials and military officials were found guilty of criminally abusing their position of power – at the expense of their environment or the public. Most of them – including Netanyahu – are not even ashamed of that. Instead, they brazenly attack Israel’s justice, in line with their maxim „divide et impera!“: At the elections, the prime minister did not even shy away from blatant lies, by inciting his voters to rush to the polls, alleging that the „left“ bussed Arabs en masse to the polling stations to remove him from office. No longer Israeli Arab citizens alone are being vilified collectively. Human rights organizations are branded as „leftist extremists“ or even as „traitors“. Journalists are publicly attacked; even judges, civil servants, police and even the President are no longer immune to the self-righteous zeal of the ruling right-wing camp. This official behavior is accompanied by a series of legislative initiatives that raise legitimate doubts about the government‘s understanding of democracy. There are additional indications that Netanyahu is using illegal practices to restrict the media landscape and free reporting in his favor. All this weakens civil society. Not that Netanyahu strengthened it in other ways. After almost ten years in office, he is responsible for a sad record: Nowhere in the OECD is poverty proportionally as high as in Israel. A total of 1.8 million Israelis, including 842,300 children – 22 percent of the population and 31.2 percent of all children - lived below the poverty line in 2016. Most of them come from the ultra-Orthodox or Muslim Arab sectors. 50 Min.

It is the poorest sections of the population that are growing fastest. This could be an existential problem for Israel: if these two segments fail to integrate into society, Israel collectively will become impoverished. As if all that was not enough to think about, the old Palestinian problem not only remains unresolved, it festers like a putrid wound. The peace process is dead. The peace in the West Bank is superficial. An end to the era of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is clearly foreseeable. With marauding ruling structures in place, it is very likely that his non-violent strategy of close security cooperation with Israel will be replaced by chaos and terror. At the same time, the Gaza Strip is facing total, economic, political, social and, above all, ecological collapse. The only response that Israel‘s government has so far provided to these worrying trends were investments to reinforce settlement construction, severely damaging relations with its traditional allies in Europe. All of this may spoil the wine of those who want to toast on Israel‘s 70th birthday. Nonetheless, in Israel, optimist glasses are at least half full. In addition to these negative trends, there are many positive developments. Israel‘s economy is surprisingly stable. Unemployment has hit a record low as the government integrates previously excluded sectors of society into the labor market. More and more ultra-Orthodox men and Arab women are now working. The differences between the so-called Misrahim (Jews whose parents immigrated from Arab states and who hitherto belonged to the underclass) and the elite of Ashkenazim are diminishing. The poors’ standard of life is rising steadily, because Israeli household incomes have generally increased at least by ten percent since 2012. Benjamin Netanyahu can rightfully boast of a steadily declining budget deficit and a fast-growing economy. This even allowed him to increase social assistance and reduce the number of poor pensioners.

Instead of the army, which continues to serve mainly secular Jewish Israelis, the free market economy is now becoming the melting pot of Israeli society. 70 years later, after the state had to defend its survival in a bloody war, that‘s a refreshing touch of normalcy. In addition, Israel continues to expand its technological edge over the Arab world. Israel enjoys not only an internal but also a foreign policy expansion, despite all its problems. The Palestinian conflict may remain unresolved for years to come. This does not seem to harm the diplomatic reputation of the country though. Netanyahu has succeeded in reviving old alliances with African countries and closing new ones in Asia, especially the budding superpower India. In spite of their anti-Semitic past, some believe that the rise of right-wing populist, Islamophobic movements in Europe is a potential counterweight to the traditionally Israeli-hostile attitude of left-liberal circles on the old continent. And even in the Arab world, various developments converged to a critical point that led Arab regimes to treat Israel no longer as an enemy but as an important ally. Relations with Egypt and Jordan have never been closer than they are today, and the balance of interests with other Sunni leaders has never been greater. Notwithstanding all legitimate criticism, it should come as no surprise that Israelis are on average more content with their lives than citizens of other OECD countries. By the way, this is not only true for Jews: A whopping 62 percent of Arab citizens in Israel say that life there is good and that is why they do not want to leave the country under any circumstances. On its 70th birthday, the country shows no sign of staidness. It is as young, energetic, contentious, contradictory and perky as ever. For one thing is certain: Despite all the dangers and challenges, Israel has never been so safe, stable, prosperous and future – oriented as it is today.