PARIS – It is difficult not to be struck by the contrast between the “Asian”-like energy of Israel’s economy and civil society and the purely defensive nature of its approach to political change, both within and outside the country. A recent law bars Israeli citizens from supporting Western boycotts aimed at reversing the country’s settlement policies and at backing an independent Palestinian state. While Israel has never been so affluent, dynamic, and confident, it also has never been so isolated internationally.
Israel could have embraced the Arab Spring as an opportunity, rather than as a profound risk. If Arab citizens could transform their culture of humiliation into a culture of hope, perhaps they would be able to reconcile themselves with Israel’s existence. But Israeli leaders reacted purely negatively to the Arab upheavals. In their estimation, a complex regional environment has now become even more dangerous, making prudence even more urgent.
For Israel, yesterday’s despots, like Egypt’s former president, Hosni Mubarak, were much more predictable than the “Arab masses.” While some of the demonstrators might be inspired by democratic ideals, let’s have no illusions, the Israelis seem to be saying: Islamist forces will emerge as the only winners, and they are much more hostile to Israel and the West than their predecessors were.
Of course, with the Syrian regime’s massacres of its own citizens, some in Israel say that the suffering of Gaza’s inhabitants pales in comparison, and thus fails to attract the same sympathy as it did last year. But this should not obscure the overall diplomatic picture for Israel, which remains essentially negative.
One of the more ironic results of the region’s changing political configuration is that Israel now perceives a strategic convergence with Saudi Arabia. Despite their political systems’ deep differences, they both favor the regional status quo, and they share an obsessive suspicion of Iran.
But why not dream of a new strategic triangle comprising Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, just as Israelis once dreamed of a non-Arab triangle between Israel, Turkey, and the Shah’s Iran? The Turks’ appalled reaction to the Syrian regime’s brutal behavior creates an opportunity that Israel should use to try to restore the privileged relationship with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government that existed before the Gaza blockade. But that would presuppose a small gesture towards the Palestinians, whom Israelis regard as being so deeply divided among themselves that no progress toward a peace settlement seems possible.
Israel’s leaders seem intent on gaining time both tactically, by resisting the soft pressure of US President Barack Obama’s administration, and strategically, by preparing the country for a new world in which emerging powers such as China play an increasingly important role.
That world, however, will be one in which Israel can no longer count on feelings of Holocaust guilt to influence major powers. It is a world in which monotheistic rivalries will be diluted in an ocean of polytheist faiths, and in which Israel will be able to depend only on its comparative merits in the eyes of cynical, realistic actors who will judge it solely on the basis of their own national interests.
Israel may be “of Europe,” and its main ally may well remain the United States for many years to come, but Israeli leaders must start thinking of how their country can thrive in a post-Western world. The most recent “President’s Conference,” held in June in Jerusalem under the patronage of Israeli President Shimon Peres, was highly symbolic of this evolution. In the opening session, Obama’s special envoy, Denis Ross, was greeted with resounding silence when he conveyed to the participants his boss’s warm wishes. By contrast, China’s culture minister was welcomed very warmly when he spoke, in typical fashion, of the growing need for global “harmony.”
In the minds of a few Israeli strategic thinkers, Israel must resist firmly for two or three more generations in order to become an irreversible reality in the region and a legitimate “accomplished fact” of the international system. At that point, who would want to boycott a country whose technological prowess is needed all over the world?
In this context, the idea of a peace settlement with the Palestinians seems more abstract than ever. Indeed, it makes the current status quo seem comfortable. The gap between Israel’s rich and poor nowadays may recall Brazil, but who remembers the original Zionists’ social-democratic ideals?
The country’s prosperity is simply overwhelming. From Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, luxurious penthouses are multiplying. Are we in Singapore, Hong Kong, or São Paulo? Why challenge the certainties of the present with the uncertainties of the future?
Moreover, Israel has not only become much more prosperous; it has also moved decisively to the right. The second Intifada may very well have proven fatal to the Israeli left. Triumphant capitalism, idolatry of the land, and the comforts of the status quo produce a heady cocktail. But, high on the benefits of globalization, and waiting with a mixture of excitement and apprehension for the coming of a new post-Western world order, Israelis are dancing on the rim of a volcano.