Geopolitics of the Jews

Over the winter, I gave a short address to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, at a meeting in Jerusalem. I took the assignment seriously, and offered these thoughts, more to highlight problems than offer solutions. In this week between Holocaust Memorial Day and Israel’s Independence Day, I share them for wider reflection.

The title of our panel is “Looking Back, Looking Ahead: The Geopolitical Situation of the Jewish People.” This is a moving target: the geopolitical situation of the Jews hasn’t ever been stable. As a people, our geopolitics are one part our preferences, and two parts historical forces. These forces never rest. Seventy years ago, the Jewish world was centered in Europe. Now we mostly just fly over it. The United States and Israel are today the poles of the Jewish world, because some Jews sensed tremors before the earthquake. When the earth opened up and Europe descended into the inferno, parts of the Jewish people already had a Plan B in place. We are living that Plan B.

Today the Jewish people is in an enviable geopolitical position. It has one foot planted in a Jewish sovereign state, and the other in the world’s most open and powerful society. One is tempted to say that never in their long history has the geopolitical situation of the Jews been better. Jews did have sovereignty before, in antiquity, but they did not have a strategic alliance with the greatest power on earth. And since it is difficult to imagine a better geopolitical position, the Jewish people has become a status quo people. Once we were revolutionaries; now we don’t need the world to change. Of course we would like an improvement in Israel’s standing with some of its neighbors—what dreamers call “peace.” But we are generally confident or complacent enough to prefer the status quo to the risks of changing it.

Yet as we all should know, history stops for no man, and for no people. I was trained as a historian, and while this gives me no powers of prophecy, I can assure you of one thing. What is, will not be. Balances of power will change. Identities will be recast. Eventually, too, the map of the Middle East will be redrawn.

When we worry, we tend to focus on apocalyptic scenarios. But I invite you to think for a moment about five long-term trends that could erode the status quo, but that fall short of a mushroom cloud. I will proceed from the far to the near, and I will focus on the Israeli side of the equation.

First, U.S. influence in the Middle East could wane. Perhaps you have read the article by Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, entitled “The New Middle East.” He wrote: “Less than twenty years after the end of the Cold War, the American era in the Middle East… has ended….  The second Iraq war… has precipitated its end.” I think this is premature—America’s era in the Middle East will end one day, but it hasn’t ended yet, and it will take more than Iraq to end it. But Haass’s statement is indicative of a spreading mood. Add this to technological change that could reduce American dependence on Middle Eastern oil, and it is possible that in twenty years’ time, America will be less interested and engaged in the Middle East. What is our Plan B then?

Second, Europe could be subtracted from the sum power of the West. The trends there, of low birth rates, Muslim immigration, multiculturalism—if they are not stopped or reversed, they could have the effect of de-Westernizing Europe. Europe, even without Jews, is part of a cultural and strategic continuum, linking Israel to America. Without that link, Israel would become still more encircled by Islam-inflected hostility. So what is our Plan B then?

Third, Iran could gain regional power status. In fact, the imperial ambition of Iran may be a long-term trend independent of the nature of its regime. Iran could become Israel’s regional rival, even if it postpones its nuclear plans and drops Ahmadinejad. Iran is already using every ounce of its leverage to establish its dominance in Iraq and its influence elsewhere in the Persian Gulf. If Iran emerges as a power on par with Israel—a power intent on drawing Israel into a long cold war of attrition—what is our Plan B?

Fourth, the Arab states around us could succumb to the same sort of disease that is causing Iraq to hemorrhage internally. That disease is the lack of legitimacy. When you look at a map of the Middle East, you are looking at a gerrymandered hodgepodge, drawn a century ago to serve the interests of the long-defunct empires of Britain and France. If Iraq breaks up—and I believe it will—other states could begin to crumble. In some places, it might be Shiites against Sunnis; elsewhere, Islamists against nationalists. This could engulf states on Israel’s borders, and Israel could find itself opposite not one Hezbollah but many. So what is our Plan B?

Fifth, and closest to home, there is the possibility that the two-state solution will become passé, because the Palestinians will fail as a nation. By failure I mean they will not have the cohesion necessary to translate their identity into nation-statehood. Many in Israel presently speak as if the creation of a Palestinian state is essential to Israel’s own legitimacy and even survival. But what if such a state proves to be impossible? A binational state, Israeli-Palestinian, is anathema, so what is our Plan B?

Now one would have to be a grim pessimist to believe that all five of these trends could merge into a perfect storm. But one would have to be an incurable optimist to believe that that we won’t be lashed by any of these storms. And what I am arguing is that we should anticipate conditions that will make storms more frequent than they have been in the last few decades.

We have had a remarkable run these last thirty years. Israel has flourished under the pax Americana. There has been no general Arab-Israeli war since 1973, and peace prevails on most of Israel’s borders. The country’s population has grown, foreign investment has poured in. Israel has expanding relations with the up-and-coming powers in the world. And American Jewry has gained stature and influence, in part by mediating for Israel. This has been a long and productive peace.

But when Herzl wrote The Jewish State, Europe was also thirty years into its long peace. He knew it would not last, that its foundations were weak. He planned accordingly. We should recognize that the status quo in the Middle East won’t last indefinitely, and we have to plan accordingly. I haven’t said what I think has to be done—what alliances to make, what targets to strike, what borders to redraw. But I do say that Israel will have to make alliances, strike targets, and redraw borders—and they won’t necessarily be the familiar ones.

This is going to create stress in the world, and even within the Jewish people. So your tasks will multiply, and they will become more urgent. If you got into this business ten years ago, thinking it would be all gala dinners on the way to a new Middle East, I apologize on behalf of history. The man was on the mark who said that the trouble with our times is that the future just isn’t what it used to be.

See the response of Saul Singer to this post.

Spanish translation here.