On September 7, I addressed a group of visiting Chinese international relations and Middle East experts, who had come to Israel under the auspices of SIGNAL (Sino-Israel Global Network and Academic Leadership). The topic: Israel’s national interests in the Middle East. It’s a challenge to explain the dilemmas of a small state to an audience accustomed to thinking big. Here is the text of my remarks.
I don’t intend to give you my own personal view of Israel’s national interests. My view is not especially important. I do want to suggest what I think most Israelis believe about Israel’s core national interests. These are basic things—I would call them the lowest common denominators. But they define the political center in Israel. Over time, Israeli policy doesn’t drift too far away from them.
In the Israeli national anthem, there is a phrase that expresses the purpose of Zionism and the Jewish state: our hope is “to be a free people in our land, the Land of Zion and Jerusalem.” “Free people” here isn’t a reference to democracy. It refers to the collective freedom of sovereignty. The Jews, through their state, and on their ancestral land, will gain the freedom to determine their own destiny, and not have it determined by others; to act in history, and not only be acted upon; to defend their lives, and not rely on the mercy of others.
The core national interest of the state of Israel is to preserve and enhance this freedom to act independently. How much freedom is enough? If Israel were a vast country with a large population like China, this freedom could be in rough proportion to Israel’s size. But because Israel is small in size and population, because its borders are very narrow and its population is that of one Chinese city, this is not enough. To be free, Israel must have capabilities that are disproportionate to its size and population. Otherwise it would be vulnerable to large neighbors, some of which have ten times its population and even more times its size.
A key national interest, then, is building Israel’s disproportionate power, so that Israel can remain the dominant actor in its own neighborhood—not the only actor, of course, but the dominant actor. This power is military, political, economic, and social. And Israel does have such power—partly due to the weaknesses of its neighbors, but mostly by virtue of its own ingenuity.
Another key Israeli national interest is an alliance with the most effective power of the day. Again, this is a function of Israel’s smallness in size and population. In the period before the creation of the state, this power was Great Britain, which provided the shelter in which the Jews built up their strength prior to 1948. Eventually, with Britain’s decline, Israel’s key ally became the United States. This was facilitated greatly by the fact that the United States is home to the largest number of Jews outside Israel, and the fact that Jews in America have flourished.
The U.S.-Israel relationship is complex, because no two states have identical interests. Neither is it exclusive, on either side. But Israel seeks, and will always seek, a primary relationship with the greatest power in a unipolar world, or one of the great powers in a multi-polar world. Since power ebbs and flows, even at the top level, and because great powers rise and decline, a key interest of Israel, like Zionism before it, is to anticipate such changes in advance.
Another key Israeli national interest is to prevent Israel’s enemies from forming effective coalitions against it. Israel is located in a fragmented part of the world. Although it is surrounding by hundreds of millions of people who speak Arabic and even more who profess Islam, they are divided into numerous states, sects, and tribes, many of them in conflict with one another. Israel is not the cause of these divisions—many of them are quite ancient—but it benefits from them, since these conflicts drain the power of Israel’s enemies.
The most dangerous threats lie in those ideologies that have united Israel’s enemies despite their differences. The two prime examples are Arab nationalism in its golden era of the 1950s and 1960s, and Islamism since the 1980s. The coalitions based on these ideas work to make war with Israel thinkable, despite Israel’s preponderance of power. Israel’s interest is to undermine them and highlight their internal contradictions. Israel can bring these contradictions to the surface by military operations, peace processes and treaties, and many other strategies. But the objective is the same: never to face a large number of adversaries at one time.
The same objective applies to the Palestinians, who constitute Israel’s nearest adversary. History has divided the Palestinians into many fragments—West Bank, Gaza, Israel, Jordan, refugee camps, diaspora. Were they unified, they could impinge on Israel’s own freedom to act. However, each fragment has its own interests, which prevents the Palestinians from forming a unified front. Historical circumstances have worked against Palestinian unity, as have certain weaknesses in Palestinian identity formation. Israel’s interest is to accommodate these divisions, by engaging separately with each Palestinian formation on the basis of its own distinct interests. In some instances, this engagement might be military, in others diplomatic.
Finally, a key national interest is the maintenance of a high degree of internal cohesion. Israel’s Jews constitute a very diverse population, with a large immigrant component, drawn from Europe, Asia, Africa, and America. There are other divisions as well, in approaches to modernity and religion.
It is remarkable how effective Jewish identity has been, in binding very different people to the new Israeli nation. Of course, there are many subcultures in Israel, from secular modernists to religious traditionalists, from Arabs to settlers, from the European-descended to the Ethiopian-born. It is one of the miracles of Israel—and a prime proof for the existence of the Jews as a people—that these subcultures not only coexist in peace, but cooperate at moments of war. The army itself is one of the chief mechanisms for building this solidarity, as is the democratic system.
So how has Israel performed of late in upholding its core national interests? As far as its dominance, Israel’s military and economic power has continued to grow relative to its neighbors, especially in the aftermath of the so-called Arab Spring. Arab peoples are largely turned inward, as struggles for power and resources unfold within each country. Since these revolutions are incomplete, these internal struggles will continue, with all their economic and political costs.
Iran seems to have suffered a setback in its nuclear program, which may be at least partly Israel-induced. Turkey has become more assertive, but it isn’t clear that there is an overriding Turkish national interest in playing that role. Israel, by building its strength, by its self-reliance, probably has as much freedom to act as ever.
As for Israel’s relationship with the United States, while there is no chemistry between Israel’s prime minister and America’s president, and there is some friction on strategy, the relationship remains solid, and has an expanding base in large sectors of American society. The question for Israel is whether the United States will remain the greatest power, both in absolute and relative terms. No one knows whether the present difficulties of the United States, exemplified by the debt crisis, are transitory or the beginning of a gradual decline. In any event, Israel continues to diversify its ties with rising powers (of which China is one).
The neighbors around Israel remain divided. The Arab Spring has particular potential for aggravating the Shiite-Sunni schism along an arc reaching from Lebanon through Syria and into the Persian and Arab Gulf. This would be to Israel’s advantage. But in the past, revolution has set the stage for the rise of charismatic leaders and unifying ideologies. Nasser in his day, and Khomeini in his, created ideological coalitions poised against Israel. The possibility of a populist leader emerging from the present turmoil to forge a coalition against Israel is not unthinkable. There are rising elements in each of the Arab Spring countries, including Egypt and Syria, which are hostile to Israel and linked to one another by transnational Islamism. (The Turkish leadership also has some links to them.) Israel will have to work especially hard to find the fissures in these still-weak formations and expand them.
As for the Palestinians, they remain thoroughly divided. The Palestinians have not joined the Arab Spring, and Israel has succeeded in preserving the status quo vis-à-vis each Palestinian formation Israel faces. So far, challenges to that status quo—most recently, the cross-border attacks from Egypt—have not undermined it. The statehood maneuver by the Palestinians at the UN will be another test. How that will end, one cannot predict, but so far Israel has been very agile in preventing Palestinians from coalescing in a way that would produce, for example, another intifada.
The internal cohesion of Israel has come under some stress, as a result of distortions that have accompanied Israel’s rapid economic growth. The protest movement under the slogan of “social justice” has had much momentum. But this hasn’t been as polarizing as past protest movements, because of its diffuse character. There have been much more polarized moments, from the Lebanon invasion to the Oslo Accords to the Gaza disengagement. Absent a serious peace process, it is unlikely that Israel’s internal cohesion will be tested anytime soon.
During your visit, you will hear many different views. You should understand that it is our habit to express strong opinions and debate loudly. But beneath this, there is a broad consensus on what Israel needs to survive and flourish, and a long-term record of success in creating the conditions that have made Israel the strong state you see today. I hope I have given you some understanding of those deeper considerations at play.