If my title seems counterintuitive, let’s concede from the start: not everyone does love Israel now.
There’s still a Palestinian Authority that actively encourages Palestinians to murder Israelis; there’s still an Iran that periodically threatens to finish the Holocaust; there’s still a very active boycott-Israel movement in Europe and on American college campuses. And there is still and always the United Nations, with its unparalleled half-century record of hostility toward Israel and wildly disproportionate list of standing resolutions targeting the Jewish state.
As for the United States, the current president’s relations with Israel and its prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu have been anything but loving. Barack Obama has viewed the Jewish state almost exclusively as a regrettable holdover from the era of European colonialism and an occupier of land properly belonging to the embattled and oppressed Palestinian Arab population. Despite the president’s boasts to the effect that he “has Israel’s back,” and despite the recent renewal of military aid (albeit delivered with an air of chilly regret), he has hinted in the past at compelling Israel to return to its pre-1967 borders, and many Israelis worry that a lame-duck Obama may feel freer to take unilateral action against them.
Not just anti-Israelism but outright anti-Semitism is on the rise. For European Jews in general, the encircling atmosphere of hostility, often instigated by Muslims but tolerated or excused by elites, seems to worsen year by year. Jacques Canet, the president of La Victoire synagogue in Paris, reports that the France’s Jewish community—still the third largest in the world, though rapidly diminishing—feels threatened to the point where “Jews in Paris, Marseilles, Toulouse, Sarcelles feel they can’t safely wear a kippah outside their homes or send their children to public schools.” The number of French Jews emigrating annually to Israel has steadily risen from 1,900 in 2011 to nearly 8,000 in 2015, with no end in sight; additional thousands are making their way elsewhere. No less grim is the picture in the United Kingdom, where the Labor party, in Douglas Murray’s wordsy—“the party of Clement Atlee, Harold Wilson, and Tony Blair”—has been taken over by “forces aligned with naked anti-Semitism.”
The examples multiply. All in all, then, we may grant that in many quarters, an anti-Israel—and anti-Jewish—mindset remains a palpable presence on the political and social scene. But there is also good news: elsewhere, and not in obscure corners but in world capitals, a transformation of attitudes is under way. Far from being the pariah of the Middle East, Israel is fast becoming the region’s golden child, courted and caressed even by some of its most important and once-implacably hostile neighbors. The change has certainly registered in Israel itself, but so far has been largely ignored by Western media.
More than three years ago, in a column entitled “Why Israel Will Rule the New Middle East,” I wrote these sentences:
Israel . . . is set to dominate the region like never before. . . . Indeed, instead of plotting Israel’s destruction, its Arab neighbors could find themselves courting Tel Aviv’s favor the way the United States and Europe courted OPEC in the 1970s and 1980s.
At the time, I was thinking primarily about the game-changing implications of Israel’s recently discovered offshore energy resources (about which more below). And indeed those resources, one of the most massive discoveries of the past several decades, do play an important role in the new view of Israel, especially on the part of its neighbors in the eastern Mediterranean.
But that is hardly all. Perhaps most strikingly, the change in attitude has little or nothing to do with any shifts in Israeli policy regarding the one issue that’s assumed to be paramount in the world’s judgment of the Jewish state: namely, its relations with the Palestinians. Netanyahu’s positions on the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process,” Israeli settlements in the territories, Palestinian statehood, and Gaza, not to mention his outspoken criticisms of Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, might have seemed geared precisely to inflame rather than placate international opinion. Yet it is under his adroit tenure in office that the shift in his country’s favor has accelerated.
The fact is that this shift has little or nothing to do with particular Israeli policies. It is much more a function of how other states now calculate the utility, if not the positive value, of good relations with Israel, whether an Israel dominated by Likud or by any other party. Those other states include not only regional neighbors but also countries as distant as China, Japan, and the nations of Eastern Europe. In no small measure, their attitudes are based on a major re-evaluation of what Israel as a nation represents, and what its existence and survival signify for the future prospects of other nations and regions.
A good place to start charting the change is in Saudi Arabia.
I. The Middle East
O God, help our weak brothers in Palestine score victory over the usurper Jews. O God, destroy the Jews, who have gone too far in their tyranny, corruption, and aggression. O God, shake the ground under them, instill fear in their hearts, and make them a prey for Muslims.
This was the prayer offered by Shaykh Salah al Budayr and broadcast by Saudi TV from the holy mosque in Medina on June 28, 2002. At the time, such views of Israel were typical in Saudi media, as was, indeed, the ancient blood libel: the accusation that Jews murder non-Jews in order to make use of their blood in the baking of Passover matzot. “I would like to clarify that the Jews’ spilling human blood to prepare pastry for their holidays is a well-established fact, historically and legally,” wrote Dr. Umayma Ahmad al-Jalahma of King Faysal University in March 2002, referring in this case to Purim. “This was one of the main reasons for the persecution and exile that were their lot in Europe and Asia at various times.”
Such rhetoric, although it may still persist in some Saudi-financed madrassas, has now all but disappeared from the airwaves and print media in Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf states. The kingdom that was the chief orchestrator of the Arab boycott of Israel, and that set a standard for vehement Arab hatred of the “Zionist entity,” has been steadily building a warmer relationship with the Jewish state—to the point where journalists have begun describing the two countries as “the best of frenemies.”
A key reason for the change has been the menacing rise of Iran as a regional force and rival to Saudi Arabia. Indeed, Tehran’s policy is directed explicitly at a Shiite overthrow of the region’s dominant Sunni powers, chief among them the house of Saud. This bid for hegemony has steadily driven Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states closer to Israel, a process intensified by the Obama administration’s studied indulgence of Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons while disregarding or, some would say, abandoning America’s Sunni allies. These days, the importance of Israel’s role as both a strategic and intelligence partner is stressed in the kingdom’s state-owned media and has even filtered down to the average Saudi. (A recent poll found that only a minority now view Israel as a major threat.)
In some ways, it is true, the shift in Saudi and Gulf attitudes is not entirely new. In the 1990s, during the heyday of the Oslo “peace process,” Israel itself began successfully reaching out to the Arab Gulf states. Qatar quietly permitted the opening of an Israeli trade mission, while Abu Dhabi initiated a nascent intelligence relationship with the Mossad. Cooperation increased in the 2000s with the fall of Saddam Hussein, the disorder in Iraq during the al-Qaeda-led insurgency, and the rise of Iran.
In 2009, reports surfaced in the (London) Sunday Times that the Saudis might stand down their air defenses if Israel needed to use their air space to conduct a strike on Iranian nuclear sites. Both countries denied the story, but four years later the paper reiterated the kingdom’s readiness not only to let Israeli planes transit its air space en route to eliminating Iran’s growing nuclear capacity but also to lend further aid in the form of UAVs, rescue helicopters, and airborne refueling tankers. This time, neither Jerusalem nor Riyadh denied the rumors.
Soon enough, the warming relationship became more public. In March 2014, the IDF’s official website confirmed that the Mossad had been working closely with its Saudi counterpart on issues of security, intelligence, and defense exports—as well as on the Iran nuclear program. Dore Gold, Israel’s former ambassador to the UN and until recently director-general of the foreign ministry, held no fewer than five high-level meetings with Saudi counterparts in 2014-15 on a broad range of issues regarding regional security and defense trade as well as intelligence cooperation. Neither side has denied a report that Israel offered to provide Riyadh with its advanced Iron Dome anti-missile system as a defense against a potential Iranian attack (purportedly, the offer was declined).
Where does the perennially vexed issue of the Palestinians stand in all this? That no love is lost between most Arab states and the Palestinians is well-known; more newsworthy is that even lip service to the Palestinian “cause” is becoming increasingly infrequent. An early (but deeply flawed) harbinger of the new attitude was the Saudi-sponsored Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, which dangled the prospect of Arab recognition of Israel’s right to exist on the take-it-or-leave-it condition of a complete Israeli withdrawal from all territories occupied in 1967, the establishment of a Palestinian state, and a guaranteed “right of return” for the Arab refugees of 1948 and their descendants. A dozen years later, Prince Turki bin Faisal, the former head of Saudi intelligence, published an op-ed in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz (July 7, 2014), reiterating the offer with the softened stipulation that it “could be adjusted to take account of whatever was freely agreed to by Israelis and Palestinians in their negotiations.” The next year, Riyadh banned the Lebanese TV channel al-Manar, an outlet for the terrorist organization Hizballah, from operating inside the kingdom. By contrast, the Jerusalem Post, whose website has long been blocked in Saudi Arabia, is now available online there—meaning that anyone in the kingdom with a computer or smartphone now has access to that paper’s extensive coverage of Israel and other Middle Eastern countries, including Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states themselves.
In a 2009 interview, an official of Israel’s foreign ministry said that when it comes to influencing American opinion and American policy, the Gulf countries “believe Israel can work magic.” The Obama years proved that perception wrong. Nevertheless, the relationship with Israel has continued to deepen and broaden, and the idea that, in the coming post-Obama era, Israel can help the U.S. re-engage in the Middle East has not faded.
Of course, caution is always advisable. For the Saudis and the others, the anti-Israel default position has a way of occasionally rearing its head. In 2014, during Israel’s defensive campaign in Gaza, the kingdom’s ambassador in Washington excoriated IDF actions as “crimes against humanity.” In addition, the seven-decade-old trade boycott of Israel still stands, and according to Riyadh officials it’s not going away any time soon. Nonetheless, anti-Israel rhetoric today seems a product more of reflex than of conviction, and there are signs that the regime is preparing the Saudi public for even greater cooperation with the Jewish state. Given Saudi Arabia’s leadership role both in the Gulf and as protector of the Islamic holy sites, there’s reason to think that, at least for now, where it goes, others will follow.
This takes us from the major Sunni state in the Arab world to Turkey, the major Sunni state in the non-Arab world— and, in 1949, the first Muslim country to recognize Israel. For both Israel and Turkey, strategic and military cooperation was long a key foreign-policy priority—until the advent of Recep Tayyip Erdogan as Turkey’s prime minister in 2003 and its president since 2014. An Israeli intervention in Gaza in 2008-9 and a 2010 encounter between Israeli forces and Turkish activists on a ship attempting to break the Gaza blockade provided pretexts for Erdogan to launch virulent verbal attacks on the Jewish state and, after the latter incident, to break off diplomatic relations. Dismissing charges that Hamas is a terrorist organization, Erdogan proceeded to give safe haven to its operatives as well as to some of the Muslim Brotherhood’s more extreme figures—moves that gained him fundamentalist accolades both at home and abroad, most conspicuously in Shiite Iran.
Then came the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, which eventually spilled over Turkey’s borders and threatened to envelop it. Gone now were Erdogan’s overtures toward Iran, which had thrown its support behind the Syrian strongman Bashar Assad. As the rise of Islamic State (IS) became another serious geopolitical threat—much more serious than the specter of Israelis allegedly beating up on “our Palestinian brothers”—gone, too, were Erdogan’s rabble-rousing Islamist fulminations. Similarly focusing the Turkish president on the need for new partners was the Obama administration’s retreat from engagement in Middle East power relations.
This past spring, talk began of once again normalizing relations with Israel—something almost inconceivable two or three years ago. So far, July’s failed coup against Erdogan has done nothing to break movement toward that goal; to the contrary, as a senior adviser assured Israeli television, “It will maybe speed up the normalization process. . . . We feel Israel has always helped us in intelligence gathering. We need that in our fight against [IS]. We need that in putting some order into Syria.”
Perhaps so. But Turkey has another, more material interest in cozying up to Israel—as do Israel’s other eastern Mediterranean neighbors. The size and scope of Israel’s offshore natural-gas resources—especially the Tamar field (10 trillion cubic feet) discovered in 2009 and the Leviathan field (22 trillion cubic feet, to this date one of the largest offshore gas finds ever) discovered in 2010—have staggered imaginations across the eastern Mediterranean and beyond.
Unfortunately, the discoveries also seem to have paralyzed Israel itself—at least until now. For nearly six years, the country found itself in a perpetual wrangle between domestic interest groups and the two companies committed to exploration and development of the fields, especially Leviathan. The issues ranged from environmental concerns, to fights over the distribution of royalties, even to whether the companies, Delek in Israel and Noble Energy in the U.S., formed an illegal monopoly. Things became so heated that by 2015 a permanent stalemate seemed in the offing.
Now, however, the legal and political logjam has largely broken. Following a ruling by the Israeli supreme court, the government and the Knesset were able to hammer out a compromise contract with Noble Energy, and additional foreign companies have been enticed to bid for developing Leviathan.
Indeed, Israel is not the only country with an imperative interest in opening up its energy resources. In the immediate vicinity the list includes gas-poor Jordan and the Palestinian Authority—and also Egypt, a significantly bigger player. For a time, the discovery in 2015 of Egypt’s massive Zohr offshore field, which at 30 trillion cubic feet dwarfs even Leviathan, seemed to present Israel with a serious rival, not least because the Zohr reserves are easier to get to. But with Egypt’s population ten times the size of Israel’s, the Zohr reserves alone, gargantuan though they are, will never be able to meet domestic demand or preclude the need for imports.
Then there’s Cyprus, which hopes that its own offshore reserves can win it a foothold in the European market; that will necessarily depend on adding gas from Leviathan to the stream. And there’s Turkey, the sponsor of a projected pipeline into Europe, which wants to include Israeli gas as a way of diversifying sources from Russia and Central Asia.
In other words, economic cooperation with Israel is now very much on all of its neighbors’ minds. It’s also on the minds of European and American energy companies that are becoming involved across the eastern Mediterranean. The implications of this are fascinating. There’s little doubt, for example, that Exxon Mobil will have to factor Israeli gas in its plans for developing Cyprus’s reserves. That would be a major violation of the de-facto embargo imposed by oil-exporting countries like Saudi Arabia on any energy company doing business with Israel—which is one reason why it took so long to find an entity ready to open up the offshore reserves. (Noble Energy is a midsize firm with no connections to Middle East gas or oil.)
It will indeed be supremely ironic if the long-standing Arab boycott of Israel ends up crumbling away because Israel is about to become an energy superpower itself, a hub of natural-gas production in the eastern Mediterranean and a vital energy exporter to its closest Arab neighbors.
II. Russia and East Asia
The warming interest in working with Israel isn’t limited to the world’s thirst for natural gas or the need to fight Islamic State or Iran. Nor is it limited to the Middle East.
Take the case of Russia, which in the Soviet era served as the principal patron and armorer of the Arab nations bent on Israel’s destruction. The immediate post-cold-war years saw a gradual thaw. Today, regrettably, the Russian Federation is the principal patron and armorer of both Iran and Syria (on whose ambitions, admittedly, it may also serve as a restraining force). Nevertheless, and complications notwithstanding, the relationship between Vladimir Putin and Benjamin Netanyahu—the two met four times in the last year alone—has grown into what the Washington Post has breathlessly described as a “bromance.” A bit more soberly, the journalist Barak Ravid wrote in Haaretz: “It wouldn’t be exaggerated to say that the ties between Israel and Russia have never been better.” In terms of trade as well as security and diplomatic cooperation, that is undoubtedly so.
Netanyahu’s immediate reasons for closer relations with Putin aren’t difficult to discern. He and other Israeli officials are clearly worried that in the waning months of his presidency, Barack Obama will do something dramatic to secure his legacy like pointedly refusing to veto yet another anti-Israel resolution in the Security Council. The hope is that, if necessary, such a veto would instead be cast by Russia. That aside, however, what with Russia resurgent on the Middle East scene even as the United States is withdrawing, and what with more than 1.5 million former Russian and Soviet citizens now living in Israel, good relations make intrinsically sound sense. As the veteran commentator Shmuel Rosner explained in a recent New York Times op-ed, “To put it bluntly, Israel trusts Russia’s intention to become a key player in the region more than it trusts the United States’ intention to stop that from happening.”
As for Putin, his motives are likely multiple. One is to substitute Russian diplomacy for the eroding U.S. role as “honest broker” in Israeli-Arab matters. Another is to have a greater say in what happens with Israel’s natural-gas resources. (Even as Gazprom, Russia’s energy mega-company, needs to be protected from competition, Rosneft, Russia’s other giant energy company, has more than once expressed interest in working with Israel on offshore development.) Still another could be to position Israel as a (deputy) honest broker of its own, in this case to help contain and then wind down the Syrian conflict by leaving Assad in power in Damascus while, with Putin’s guarantee, ending Iranian support for Hizballah and Hamas. On several occasions, Putin has spoken grandly of convening a conference in Moscow for reaching a comprehensive Middle East settlement.
Certainly Putin’s public gestures have been warm and conciliatory. Israel was the first foreign country he visited after his re-accession to the Russian presidency in 2012, going so far as to don a kippah on his visit to the Western Wall in the company of Berel Lazar, Russia’s chief rabbi. Prior to his most recent visit this past June, he dramatically announced that he was restoring to Israel an old tank, a Magaḥ-3, captured by Syrian forces in the 1973 Yom Kippur war and subsequently donated by Syria to Moscow’s military museum. At home, Putin makes a point of attending Jewish functions, including the opening of a Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow, to which he contributed $50 million in state funds and personally donated a month’s salary.
There is a fringe theory that Putin’s positive attitude toward Jews results from the influence of his German Jewish mentor Mina Yuditskaya, who now lives in Israel. Even more egregious is the speculation of at least one Arab newspaper, the pro-Hizballah Lebanese daily as-Safir , that Putin’s warm feelings for Israel prove he himself is a Jew. Such absurdities aside, there is no denying the efforts of this hard-headed, ex-KGB dictator to build strong relations with the Jewish state. One benefit accruing to him from these efforts has been that Israel, for its part, pointedly avoided condemning Russia’s incursion into Ukraine in 2014 and also refrained from joining the chorus denouncing Russia’s intervention in the Syrian civil war. Despite sticky moments—the two parties clashed over Russia’s selling advanced anti-aircraft systems to Iran and then to Syria—Putin has studiously avoided actions that would involve Israel in the fighting in Syria.
All in all, growing Russian-Israeli ties are clearly going to play a part in the geopolitical scene, and not only in the Middle East.
In comparison with Russia, Israel’s ties with South and East Asian powers are more recent but even more intriguing.
For most of its history, India—to begin there—has been hostile toward Israel, consistently voting against it at the UN and establishing full diplomatic relations only in 1992. Since Narendra Modi became prime minister in 2014, what had been a gradual thaw began to accelerate, leading to the country’s milestone decision to abstain from a resolution condemning Israel’s actions in the Gaza war and to an official visit by India’s president last year. There is significant intelligence and military cooperation between the two countries, not to mention burgeoning economic ties—non-military bilateral trade in 2014 amounted to over $4 billion. Just as importantly, there seems to be much mutual sympathy between the two states, likely because both are democracies surrounded by hostile illiberal neighbors and facing a threat of Islamic terrorism.
In East Asia, the story is more dramatic still. “This is a historic moment,” Prime Minister Netanyahu announced last October as he and executives from China laid the cornerstone of a new seaport at Ashdod being built by a Beijing-based firm. At $1 billion, this is one of the biggest overseas investment projects in Israel ever—as well as one of the biggest ever undertaken by the government-owned firm of China Harbor Engineering.
Ashdod is the destination of fully 90 percent of Israel’s international maritime traffic. Officials claim the new harbor will expand facilities to meet growing demand—including, it seems, more Chinese vessels stopping in Israel. From that point of view, the project forms an element in the ambitious overseas plan, dubbed the Silk Road Economic Belt and Maritime Silk Road, unveiled by Premier Xi Jinping at the Boao Forum for Asia in March.
In the words of the Chinese news agency Xinhua, “The [Silk Road] plan is expected to change the world political and economic landscape through development of countries along the route, most of which are eager for fresh growth.” One of those presumably eager countries is Israel, intended to serve as an important link in a China-dominated maritime trading chain extending from the Indian Ocean and central Asia across the Middle East. Xi Jinping hopes that it will generate $2.5 trillion in the next decade, with Ashdod as a port of destination for seaborne Chinese trade with Europe.
Above all, nothing attracts China’s attention to Israel like the country’s high-tech sector. It started in early 2010 when Yifang Digital bought up Pegasus Technologies, which develops and sells a digital pen for computers. Other companies snapped up since 2014 include TravelFusion and Alma Lasers. Meanwhile, Chinese Internet leviathans like Alibaba, Baidu Ltd., and Tencent Holdings are trolling for Israeli start-ups that can help them build advanced technologies to compete with U.S. counterparts like Google and Apple. In turn, this interest has spilled over into cooperation between Israel and Chinese universities, an enterprise in which (as reported in the Israeli business paper Globes) $100 million is expected to be invested over the next several years.
As a business partner, China brings big advantages: large pools of available capital—the Chinese government encourages overseas investment to the tune of $25 billion a year—shorter set-up time, and faster construction of plant and infrastructure projects. And Israel brings advantages of its own: the allure of the “start-up nation” par excellence and the promise of partnerships with innovative companies and individuals whose entrepreneurial habits will, it is hoped, rub off on their Chinese counterparts.
No less keenly interested in good relations with Israel is Japan. In fact, start-up fever has virtually seized the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has recently been touting Israel as a role model for Japanese companies trying to learn how to be major innovators.
One important stop in the Japanese premier’s January 2015 visit to Israel was the Israel Innovation Forum, a showcase for Israeli technology firms that Abe toured with a number of Japanese businessmen. “Israel is a country,” Abe said afterward,
where hundreds of new corporations start up their business every year in areas such as ICT [information and communications technology], medical services, and agriculture, and also produce innovative technologies. And for Japan, innovation is the engine of our economy. Taking both into account, there is every reason for Japan to cooperate with this great nation.
Great nation, and also start-up nation. Behind the scenes, Abe has expressed deep interest in getting Japanese companies to be more entrepreneurial, more self-motivated and self-directed, by studying and working with Israelis. As these qualities come to be seen as key to reviving stalled or stagnant economies, including in the West, we can expect more interest in the Israeli model—and more admiration for what Israel has done as well as what it stands for.
Perhaps surprisingly, Eastern Europe, and especially the Baltic states of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania, is another place where Israel is admired. Two decades after securing their independence from the Soviet Union, the Baltics see themselves as small democratic countries—their combined population is roughly equal to Israel’s—that, like Israel, are part of the West while remaining culturally and linguistically distinct.
They, too, are surrounded by enemies—or, in their case, one very large enemy: everyone knows that Vladimir Putin’s imperial designs include re-annexing these former dependencies of the Soviet empire. Like Israel, again, all three countries have a large ethnic minority—in their case, Russians—who enjoy the privileges of citizenship and membership in a thriving society but who could become a dangerous fifth column in the event of conflict, much as Ukraine’s Russian minority did during the annexation of Crimea. For many Latvians, Estonians, and Lithuanians, Israel is a shining example of how a people under siege can learn to rely on its own inner as well as material resources in order to survive and prosper and preserve its citizens’ freedom.
Many of the political ties between the Baltic states and Israel grew out of the Christian Allies Caucus set up in 2004 by the late Yuri Shtern, a member of the Knesset. The caucus has grown into a network reaching across 30 countries, including Poland, Hungary, and other East European states. Parliamentary friendship groups have also sprung up between members of the Knesset and representative bodies of the Baltic states, fostering a sense of common interest and cooperation.
Such cooperation takes many forms. Some of it is frankly political, as manifested in an October 2012 visit by Latvia’s foreign minister, Edgars Rinkevics, with Shimon Peres, featuring praise for Latvia’s strong economy and calls for greater Latvian-Israeli cooperation. Some of it is economic: the Israel-Lithuania Technology Hub actively promotes innovation in start-up sectors like biotech, computers, and nanotechnology.
The Balts haven’t neglected defense, either. The Lithuanians, for example, are buying 88 Boxer armored vehicles from the Dutch-German consortium ARTEC, to be equipped by Israel’s Rafael Defense Systems with its Samson MK II weapons system. Cooperation with the IDF on cyberwarfare, in which the Israelis are proven experts, is part of the defense program of all three Baltic states.
The three states also look to the Israeli military model as a guide in another significant area, namely, conscription. Lithuania reintroduced the draft in May 2015; Estonia has done the same; and Latvia, very much on the Israeli model, has begun setting up military-style camps for training university students. Conscription is also the practice among several of their neighbors, including Norway, Finland, and Ukraine. While Hungary and Poland abolished their drafts after the fall of the Soviet Union, the national debate in those countries now also centers on the desirability of re-establishing compulsory military service.
Reasons for introducing the draft are many. One is to reduce costs. NATO members face pressure to spend 2 percent or more of GDP on defense; for an all-volunteer force, this expense poses formidable challenges to the budget. Another is to develop a rapid-mobilization mechanism in the case of Russian attack; a nation of citizen-soldiers can provide immediate in-depth defense while waiting for the rest of NATO to come to their assistance.
Of course, none of the Baltic states has achieved the level of Israel’s sophistication or its commitment to national military service. The IDF is able to field nine active brigades with 2,000 tanks and 400 warplanes during peacetime. In the event of war, it puts on the ground no fewer than 41 combat brigades. The three Baltic countries, among them, could barely field ten brigades if a conflict with Russia should break out.
But there’s more to national conscription than boots on the ground. As Dan Senor and Saul Singer point out in Start-Up Nation, the IDF has also served as an incubator of talent for future high-tech enterprises. Moreover, an IDF-style defense force serves as a powerful promoter of social cohesion, patriotism, and national solidarity.
In brief, economic as well as strategic benefits can flow from a strong and sustained national draft—a model that other European countries could also learn from. To be sure, conscription fever is hardly going to sweep Western Europe anytime soon. But a new appreciation of Israel may be starting to hit those countries as well. Holland has always been Israel’s closest ally in Europe, and that tie could grow stronger now that the Dutch government has announced plans to help build a gas pipeline into the Palestinian Authority.
More broadly, as the cause of democratic nationalism moves back into favor in post-Brexit Europe, others may find in Israel a model of the virtues they wish to cultivate in their own societies. Yoram Hazony has written eloquently about the essential conflict between nationalism and globalism that will determine the future of the international order. At its heart is the question of where human beings ultimately find their freedom. In that battle, Hazony postulates, Israel’s strength springs from its ancient heritage. “The Bible,” he writes, put a new political conception on the table: “a state of a single people that is united, self-governing, and uninterested in bringing its neighbors under its own rule.”
Some might ascribe credit for that same cluster of ideas to the ancient Greeks as well. Be that as it may, however, many today are finding in the “small is beautiful” nation-state a superior model for human governance, certainly as compared with rule by globalizing elites and the bloated institutions they form and inhabit—including, not coincidentally, the United Nations, the multilateral body that has been the most consistently hostile to the small nation-state of Israel.
As European societies continue to face the internal threat posed by floods of Middle East migrants, they will likely have greater cause to appreciate what Israel has long faced in a neighborhood of people wanting to destroy it—and to appreciate as well the hard choices needed in order to survive, choices that lie beyond the simplistic paradigm of oppressors and victims. Experience may also impel Europe to understand why Israel has been adamant about maintaining its borders, and to re-evaluate the function of national borders altogether. Indeed, the British government has begun talking about a wall at Calais to stem the unwanted flow of refugees; in 2012, Greece began building a similar wall along its border with Turkey, a cement-and-barbed-wire barrier with an electronic surveillance system and 2,000 border guards.
IV. And America
As we’ve seen, the new positive regard for Israel springs from a variety of motives and interests. Some of those motives and interests are economic in nature, others political or strategic; some have to do with a perceived similarity in geopolitical position, a few with a perceived similarity in values.
In a number of cases we’ve discussed, the governments in question are dictatorships of one stripe of another. It therefore needs to be acknowledged that relying on the favor of Xi’s China, Putin’s Russia, Erdogan’s Turkey, or the House of Saud is a tricky business. These regimes are led by figures of inbred autocratic instincts, with state-owned media at their disposal, earned reputations for ruthlessness, and the ability to turn on a dime. Warmth can turn frigid overnight; a single phone call can switch official rhetoric from pro to virulently anti. All of this confirms the wisdom of the hoary advice to bring a long spoon when supping with the devil.
No such caveat, however, applies to democratic India, to present-day Japan, or to the East European countries that today see Israel as representing certain fundamental political values on which the freedom of humanity ultimately depends. Nor, finally, does it or should it ever apply to the United States, whose affinity with Israel is a thing unto itself, at once embodying and transcending any normal understanding of national interest.
Israel has been, almost from the start, America’s most valuable, steadfast, and militarily capable ally in the Middle East; its most important partner in regional politics; an island of calm, stability, and economic progress in a volatile and corrupt neighborhood now on the edge of chaos; and a country that shares with us a common cultural and religious bond that, while not much spoken of these days, is never to be underestimated.
Today, with the imminent departure of President Obama from office, there may be an opportunity for a fresh reappraisal of U.S.-Israeli relations, one that looks beyond the moribund Israeli-Palestinian “peace process” and the stale rhetoric of “solutions,” and that’s not infected by the poisonous stereotypes dominating elite discourse here and in Europe.
Unfortunately, eight precious years have been squandered, and precious ground has been lost—to the benefit of the Russians and the Chinese. Nonetheless, given the new perceptions about Israel breaking out among some of America’s allies, a new administration may be freer to develop and to solidify our essential partnership with the Jewish state. This would include increased trade as well as strategic and defense collaboration; new avenues of cooperation on the energy and maritime fronts; and an unapologetic assertion of the congruity of U.S. and Israeli interests in promoting peace, stability, and democratic values.
In the post-Brexit era, Israel may also inspire a new appreciation of political freedom on the “small is beautiful” scale, and of the marriage of nationalism and democracy that inspired political reformers, including Israel’s Zionist founders, at the turn of the 20th century but that lamentably soured by the turn of the 21st. Israel has managed to sustain a pluralist democratic order while also preserving its cultural and religious identity. That’s a political model that, as pertinent as it is to an emerging Middle East, can be equally salutary for an America slowly making its way toward a post-multiculturalist future.
The changing view of Israel, in short, is a remarkable landmark moment, not just for Israel but also for a new American administration ready to see the strong alliance with Israel not as something to apologize for, or as a necessary but regrettable loss-leader in U.S. foreign policy, but as the central pillar in a more realistic policy toward our friends—and toward our enemies—in the Middle East and beyond.