On the one hand, Israel's economic achievements are startling. The country is second only to Silicon Valley in the number of hi-tech start ups, and is third in the number of IPOs on NASDAQ. The list of Israeli contributions in the field of scientific and technological innovation in recent years has been immense and outstanding. From the development of most of the Windows NT and XP operating systems by Microsoft Israel, to the creation of the first ingestible video camera by the Israeli company Given Imaging (an invention with potentially revolutionary consequences in the health field) Israel's economic growth has remained steady, despite conflict and instability in the region.[i] Indeed, the country experienced record economic growth in the last quarter of 2006, despite the war in Lebanon which took place in that year. Overall GDP growth remained steady at 5.1% in 2007.[ii] Economic success supports and is accompanied by a vibrant, open culture and a stable, democratic political system.
But alongside Israel's internal flourishing is the persistence and even intensification of conflict. In the 1990s, it appeared that the long contest between Jews and Arabs was undergoing a process of ‘winding down' - moving toward the hoped for conclusion of a final status accord between Israelis and Palestinians. The collapse of the Oslo process in 2000 marked the disappointment of these hopes. In more recent years, the emergence of a new regional coalition based on Iran has sought to revive hopes among the region's radicals for Israel's destruction. Iran, with its Holocaust denial, its nuclear ambitions, its sponsorship of terror organizations and its openly stated desire to wipe Israel off the face of the map, has revived a language and a strategy which seemed at one time to be almost defunct. Iran and its allies are engaged in an openly stated, long war of attrition designed to lead ultimately to Israel's demise. This war is being fought on a number of fronts, and is impacting on the lives of Israelis. The ongoing, implacable campaign of violence emanating from Hamas-controlled Gaza is one aspect of this. The ominous re-arming of the Iranian client Hezbollah organization in Lebanon is another. An ongoing international campaign of delegitimisation of Israel forms an additional aspect - with Iran's open calls for Israel's destruction forming the centerpiece of a notable return to mainstream debate in recent years of the question of Israel's long-term existence and viability.
The dichotomy as reflected in the attitudes of Israelis
This dichotomy of internal promise and external threat is reflected in the attitudes of Israelis on the 60th anniversary of the state's founding. A telephone survey conducted by the Anti-Defamation League on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day this year found that 38% of Israeli adults believe Israel to be under ‘serious threat of destruction.' A further 39% believe the country to be under a ‘certain' (certain as in ‘existing', rather than ‘sure') threat of destruction. The same survey found that when Israeli teenagers were asked the same question, the results were even more clear: 32% of teenagers felt that Israel is under a ‘serious' threat of destruction, and a further 52% consider the country to be under a ‘certain' threat of destruction. 9% of Israeli adults consider a second Holocaust a ‘real possibility, and 24% consider it a ‘certain' possibility. For teenagers, the figures were 9% and 30%, respectively.[iii]
Yet when Israelis are asked about their own lives, and the place of Israel within them, a far less gloomy picture emerges. A survey conducted in late 2007 by the Israel Democracy Institute found that 84% of Israeli adults were convinced that Israel will continue to exist despite the problems and crises. 64% said that they were convinced in their desire to remain in Israel over the long term.[iv] The latter figure represented a slight decline when compared to earlier years, but still shows a large majority of Israelis confident of their own futures within the country. The IDI poll was conducted among a ‘representative sample of Israel's adult population.'[v] It is very possible and even likely that there would be variation in the levels of optimism among specific population groups - for example, residents of the western Negev might be more likely to be less optimistic, and to find the general political situation impacting more directly on their own sense of their own lives.
At a more fundamental level, when asked about their attitudes toward their own lives, 83% of Israelis said they were satisfied or very satisfied with their lives.[vi]
Resolving the contradiction
Thus, there is a clear contradiction between an underlying optimism and confidence expressed by Israelis regarding their own and their country's situation, and a very real sense of looming threat. This contradiction is nevertheless a quite rational response to the dichotomous reality presented above. A coalition of countries and movements exists which has committed itself to Israel's destruction, and is working tirelessly toward that goal. But it is important to remember that this coalition does not represent the mainstream of the region. Rather, it is an alliance of radical movements, along with a single, small regional state (Syria), all grouped around a non-Arab country.
This radical alliance has not managed to put in danger Israel's peace treaties with its two most important neighbours (Egypt and Jordan). It has not managed to interfere with Israel's developing relations with the countries of the Arab Gulf. It has not managed to dent Israel's ongoing economic and social progress. And even the efforts of its client Palestinian terror groups are largely - though not entirely - being contained. Unlike in the past - when the conventional armies of powerful Arab states were arrayed against Israel - the current radical coalition is technologically, economically and socially vastly inferior to the de facto pro-western coalition of which Israel forms a part. So while the concern is justified and in place, the underlying sense of confidence is equally so. The actual, real impact of the revival of conflict on the lives of Israelis as citizens of a prosperous and successful democracy has been relatively minor - far less than would be suggested in much western media coverage of Israel.
The radical coalition is aware of this discrepancy in real strength between its own capabilities and those of Israel. It places its confidence in what it regards, however, as its own greater inner cohesion and ability to suffer and endure. In the propaganda of its enemies, Israel is presented as a fragmented, confused, disunited place - perhaps strong in material terms, but lacking the inner resources and will of its enemies, which will prove decisive in the end.
This picture is familiar from anti-Israel propaganda. Indeed, something resembling it has formed a staple of attempts to portray Israel as an artificial, brittle society since its birth and even before it. But the facts do not support this view. A survey conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute, for example, found that 79% of Jewish Israelis expressed their readiness to fight for Israel if called. In an international ISSP survey which asked citizens of a number of democratic countries if they would fight for their countries when called, 78.6% of Israelis said they would. This response placed Israelis at the absolute head of the list in this regard, out of 26 countries polled. The countries polled included the USA, where just over 60% expressed their willingness to serve if called, and the UK, where the figure was just over 40%.[vii] This readiness has been expressed in moments of crisis in the last years. When summoned to service in the spring of 2002, and again in the summer of 2006, IDF reservists responded overwhelmingly - belying even the pessimistic predictions of some Israeli researchers. Society has shown no sign of cracking under the strain of the ongoing conflict.[viii]
Israel at 60 remains poised between ongoing internal achievement, and the persistence of external threat. The ‘bottom line', of course, is the issue of whether Israeli society continues to generate the internal strength sufficient to deal effectively with external threats. As suggested by the facts quoted above, the answer to this is clearly positive. Despite very significant social and economic changes over the past two decades, Israel at 60 is a free society in which a sense of common mission and identity remains (though this sense has undoubtedly declined to a degree in recent years.) It is this combination which has enabled Israel to be integrated as a successful member of the global economy, while retaining the ability to defend itself from local threats. This underlying reality forms a solid basis for the hope with which Israel enters its seventh decade.
[i] Ilan Friedman, ‘Tapping into Israeli innovation,' Adept Strategies, www.adeptstrategies.com
[ii] Tobias Buck, ‘Israel's Economic growth defies experts,' Financial Times, 4 November 2007. www.ft.com
[iii] "Research into Anti-Semitism awareness among Israeli teenagers and adults," April 2008, Anti-Defamation League.www.adl.org; Also see, ‘War and Peace Index: April 2008,' Tel Aviv University, www.tau.ac.il/peace/
[iv] Asher Arian, Nir Atmor, Yael Hadar, "Israel Democracy Index 2007," Israel Democracy Institute, www.idi.org.il
[v] IDI, p.16.
[vi] Motti Basok, "Survey: 83% of Israelis satisfied with their lives," Haaretz, 3 September 2003.
[vii] Op Cit. IDI.
[viii] Stuart Cohen, Israel and its army: from cohesion to confusion, Routledge, 2008: 54-81.