Africa, Middle East

The Giving Tree: Tu Bishvat and Israeli Economics

As in most religions, there is a tradition in Judaism to relate contemporary events to scriptural tales and holidays. In the story of Chanukkah, two miracles are celebrated: the Jewish Maccabbees winning over the Syrian Greeks in spite of the Jews being heavily outnumbered, and the Jews getting a lot of light out of a little bit of oil. Many therefore see the existence and economic success of modern-day Israel as a similar miracle. The Israelis are outmanned more than 40 to 1 by the inhabitants of the Arab world, and out-oiled more than 1000 to 1. Yet Israel has managed anyway not only to survive, but also to join the  small class of 25 countries in which per capita incomes have reached above 30,000 dollars per year. For many, this is thought to be not just a secular or national miracle, but also a true, God-given one.

Such Channukah analogies tend to be drawn mainly by conservative supporters of Israel. When it comes to Purim, however, it may be that liberal Jews will have more fun this year, when they realize that Trump’s public persona seems to  be similar to that of Achashverosh. Trump, after all, appears to be a superficial, misogynistic, ostentatious and retributive insomniac, who values loyalty in his servants, public nudity in his wives, and is an ally of Jews against Persian rivals more out of happenstance rather than as a result of any moral consideration. (Trump’s Orthodox son-in-law Jared Kushner would, I guess, have to be Mordechai in this comparison; Ivanka is clearly Esther, a beautiful young woman who conceals her Judaism and is the only person at court who is able to make the king see any sense. And certainly, many liberals already believe that Steve Bannon is a modern-day Hamman).

About a month before Purim however, and about a month after Channuka, is Tu Bishvat, a more earthly and apolitical holiday than either of the two which flank it. Whereas Channukah commemorates right-wing values such as conviction, traditionalism, and militarism, and Purim left-wing values like diplomacy, feminism, and secularism, Tu Bishvat celebrates only natural, as opposed to man-made, forces. Tu’Bishvat could be a fitting metaphor not only for the fact that political truths in Israel  may lie somewhere between left and right-wing perspectives, but also for the fact that Israeli success is due more to natural forces than many realize.

With Tu Bishvat approaching this weekend, let’s take a closer look at why this may be the case.


When I was in Hebrew school, we were frequently shown maps of the Arab world, meant to display to us just how tiny Israel’s territory is. This was meant to bolster our view of Israel as an underdog; a “start-up nation”, which had first helped to make the desert bloom and later helped to make the Nasdaq boom. Israel certainly is an underdog country in many ways, but still these maps were hugely misleading. They did not differentiate between relatively useful and relatively useless land. The Arab world owns a huge amount of beautiful but uninhabited desert or rugged mountains, but Israel enjoys the advantage in terms of the amount of arable coastal land it possesses, on a per capita basis.

The area of Israel outside of the Negev is roughly 8000 square kilometres in size, most of which is a part of the country’s Mediterranean coastal plain. 8000 square kilometres is very small, of course–only not when compared to most of Israel’s neighbours. The West Bank, which is 3.7 times smaller than Israel, is landlocked, mountainous, and most of its eastern half is desert. Gaza, which is 57 times smaller than Israel, is nearly a desert as well. Gaza receives about half the rain that most of Israel’s coastal plain does, per square foot of land, and only a third of the rainfall that many areas in the Galilee in northern Israel receive.

Lebanon, which is half as large as Israel, has a coastal plain that extends only a very short distance inland in most areas, before meeting the high mountain ranges and mountain valleys which make up most of the Lebanese terrain.

israel and lebanon topography.png

Topography of Israel (left) and Lebanon (right)

Israel-Palestine topography.jpg

Yet Lebanon also shows the importance of being a coastal country, even if only a very small one. Lebanon’s per capita income is around $10,000, which is substantially higher than most other Arab countries apart from oil-rich Gulf Arab monarchies. Israel’s is an estimated $36,000; Egypt’s is just $3600.

In Syria too, the coastal plain — where lives most of the minority Alawite population from which the Al-Assad family comes — does not extend very far inland before it reaches mountain ranges. Syria’s coastline is also only  around 90 km in length from north to south; Israel’s is around 110 km long.  Eastern Syria, meanwhile, is largely a desert, so that approximately half the country’s territory is unpopulated.


Jordan, in spite of having a remote, tiny coastline along the Red Sea’s Gulf of Aqaba, is effectively landlocked. Most of its population lives far from Aqaba, in the relatively small part of the country that is not a desert. Jordan is separated from Israel, the West Bank, and the Mediterranean by the Jordan Valley, a steep-walled, incredibly deep canyon containing a number of the points on earth that are the furthest below sea level, through which the Jordan River flows into the salty Dead Sea.

Jordan Valley .png

While the Jordan Valley is not an impenetrable barrier, its usefulness as a defensive line does help to make Israel more insulated from its neighbours than the country may seem to be. The border of Israel and the West Bank with Jordan is significantly longer than Israel’s combined borders with Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria.

egypt and levant satellite map.png

Finally there is Egypt, a country with a population twice as large as those of Israel, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan put together. Egypt’s territory is 48 times larger than Israel’s. However, when you strip away the deserts of both countries, then Egypt’s territory is only a little more than four times larger than Israel’s. Moreover, Egypt is capital-poor in the extreme. Because it receives virtually no rainfall (see map below), its population has to live immediately next to the Nile. More than 20 percent of the Egyptian population lives five metres or less above sea level. In Israel, by contrast, only around 1 percent of the population lives five metres or less above sea level. This presents several significant challenges for Egypt, including flooding and the need to build expensive bridges and irrigation networks. Egypt remains potentially more powerful than does Israel, but not by as much as one might assume.

middle east rainfall map.png

There is, also, a tendency among some analysts to overestimate Israel’s economic achievements. Although Israel’s dynamic mix of intellectual ability and entrepreneurial chutzpa is rightly admired, Israel’s success in technology sectors and in launching start-up companies is sometimes wrongly confused with general economic success. For instance, Israel and Italy have basically equivalent per capita incomes, yet Israel is often considered an economic miracle whereas Italy today is seen as something of a basket-case. Israel’s per capita GDP level is pretty much boilerplate Mediterranean: Spain, southern France, and Italy are all at relatively similar levels, and even coastal cities in Turkey and Lebanon are closer to Israel in terms of their wealth levels than they are to many other areas in the Middle East.

When talking about Israel, economics, of course, is political. The Left often claims that Israel is at an unfair advantage in its relationship with Arab states, as Israel has access to capital in Europe and especially America that has empowered it. The Right, on the other hand, usually claims that if Israel’s Arab neighbours would stop being so obsessed with Israel and instead concentrate on bettering their own societies, they would not be lagging so far behind the Israelis in terms of economic development.

There may or may not be a decent amount of truth in both these claims, yet both are predictable in that they highlight the personal values each side prizes most highly in general — for the Left, equality (or, at least, equity), for the Right, competence (or, at least, conscientiousness). This tendency of each side to bring their own ethics to the debate often leads both to overlook one of the most significant and obvious, but least ethically relevant, foundations of Israel’s economic development when compared with that of its neighbours: that Israel has much more useful land than they do. With Tu’Bishvat being celebrated this week, now is the time to appreciate how the land itself has contributed to Israeli success.

Middle East

Why Israel Won’t Let the West Bank Go

let my people go

Most of Israel’s critics argue that any Israeli claim to the moral high ground is compromised by the fact that the Israeli military has been dominating the West Bank since 1967, thereby denying the Palestinians the ability to ever form their own state. While of course there is some truth to this argument, it nevertheless ignores a critical point: Israel believes it must control the West Bank, at least for now, in order to ensure its own continued safety over the long-term.

Even though religion is the key motivator for most of the Jews and Christians who have settled or support Jewish settlement within the West Bank, Israel’s desire to control the West Bank is not ultimately rooted in religion, but rather in physical geography and presumed strategic necessity.

By dominating the West Bank, Israel gains control over the Jordan Rift Valley, a steep-walled, incredibly deep canyon containing a number of the points on earth that are the furthest below sea level, through which the Jordan River (which is really more like a stream) flows into the Dead Sea. The rift valley has historically served as an excellent defensive barrier against invasion or incursion. Israel uses it both as a defensive border with Jordan and as a barrier separating the estimated three million Palestinians living in Jordan from the three million Palestinians living in the West Bank. Israel is hardly alone in wanting control over this valley: about seven different African states also use the Jordan Rift Valley (in Africa it is called the Great East African Rift Valley) as an international border.

Even more important, the West Bank allows Israel to control the hills and highlands that surround Jerusalem on three sides and directly overlook nearly every other major Israeli city. The average elevation of a West Bank hill is about 700-1000 metres above sea level.  Tel Aviv, in contrast, sits roughly at sea level, with its downtown core just 20 km away from the West Bank and with a number of its suburban areas, like Modi’in or Rosh Ha’ayin, within 2 – 10 km of the West Bank. The Jordan Rift Valley, meanwhile, sits around 200-400 metres below sea level. And the centre of Jerusalem is within 2-4 km of the West Bank in every direction except due west.



(Source: The Economist)

Managing the West Bank also lets Israel have control over any movement between West Bank Palestinians and Palestinians living within the pre-1967 borders of Israel, the latter of whom account for an estimated 20 percent of all Israeli citizens. Most Israeli Arabs outside of Jerusalem live in a region of hills and low mountains that is just around 20-60 km north of the West Bank, within which they make up about 50-75 percent of the regional population. This region also happens to be strategically crucial for Israel, as it borders Lebanon and overlooks Haifa (Israel’s largest port and third largest city) and the Jezreel Valley, the latter being Israel’s route to the the Sea of Galilee and Golan Heights, which is where the majority of Israeli freshwater is located and which serves as a relatively defensible Israeli border with Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan.

Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank, then, is most likely the result of Israel’s intense desire for security, rather than the result of the Israeli government being a uniquely radical one. Indeed, it is possible that the Israeli government’s support for religious Jewish civilians settling the West Bank is based for the most part on the notion that these settlers are likely to help cement Israel’s strategic control over the region, rather than being a result of, as most critics of Israel believe, the Israeli government’s having been cowed or infiltrated by religious Jewish extremists. Of course, this does not mean that extremist views have not also become much too influential within Israeli politics.

The idea that Israel faces meaningful threats is not some outdated relic from the earlier days of Zionism when the country’s power was not yet fully-formed. To the contrary, it was only a decade or so ago, between 2001 and 2005, that a thousand Israelis were killed by Palestinian militants, most of them in suicide attacks. Relative to the size of Israel’s population, that would be the equivalent of about 45,000 Americans being killed, roughly nine times more than have died in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. In addition, Israeli attacks during this conflict claimed the lives of an even larger number of Palestinians.

Perhaps more worrying than the prospect of another intifadah, however, is the possibility – however unlikely – that Israel could suffer thousands or even millions of casualties by militant groups or individuals armed with weapons of mass destruction. This threat too may inform Israel’s continuing presence in the West Bank. If, for example, a country that has nuclear weapons, such as Pakistan, were ever to collapse into extreme chaos, one of Israel’s main defences would probably be to seal its own borders, and perhaps also to establish buffer zones in areas like the eastern Sinai Desert or southern Lebanon, until it could ascertain whether or not any such weapons were likely to have gone missing.  The goal would be to protect its core territories between Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa, and Be’ersheva.

This strategy might be an effective one, not only because Israeli borders are fairly short and carefully guarded, but also since it is extremely challenging to properly adapt a nuclear weapon for a missile – particularly a long-range missile – and because Israel has a relatively sophisticated missile defence system that it hopes to continue to improve over time. The weak link in the defence, however, could be the Palestinian territories, in which there are long-established smuggling, militant, and short-range missile networks as well as borders which are adjacent to major Israeli cities.

The West Bank poses a danger in this sense, because it directly borders and surrounds Jerusalem, overlooks the suburbs of Tel Aviv and Be’ersheva, and has a long external border with both Israel and Palestinian-inhabited Jordan. Indeed, the West Bank’s border with Jordan is more than 10 times longer than Gaza’s border with Egypt; the West Bank’s border with Israel is more than 6 times longer than Gaza’s. As such, Israel’s ability to respond to a nuclear threat arguably appears to depend on its ability to control the border of, or movement within, the West Bank. If you think this sounds paranoid, you may or may not be right – but still it is not surprising that security officials who live in dangerous places like Israel often think this way. The memory of the Holocaust also looms large in these considerations.

This does not mean that there is not a strong religious current running through the Israeli government and helping to drive its policy of expanded settler activity, or that the Israeli government’s alliance with portions of the religious right-wing is not a cynical one. Indeed, by issuing a claim on the West Bank that appears to be irrational – namely, that Israel has a right to it because Jews controlled it during parts of the Biblical era, or that God Himself granted it to the Jewish people – the religious right often dilutes and, in effect, undermines the true security-based explanation for Israel’s ongoing occupation of the West Bank.

Given that Israeli politicians understand Israel’s security situation extremely well, as many are themselves former military commanders or security officials, this also suggests that the Israeli government has been at least somewhat disingenuous with regard to the offers it has extended for a two-state solution in recent years or decades. Unless real trust is formed between Jews and Palestinians, or unless Israeli technology reaches such an advanced state that geographically-rooted security considerations are finally rendered meaningless, it seems unlikely that the Israeli leadership would ever remove its military from the West Bank in its entirety. Israel might not even be willing to remove much of its civilian settler population within the West Bank, as that can double as a security and intelligence force or political bargaining chip in times of crisis. The government’s offers to do so during peace talks, therefore, were perhaps never wholly intended to succeed, but may instead have been extended mainly in order to placate outside observers like the United States and Israeli peacenicks.

Clearly, the Israeli government has made, and continues to make, important mistakes. Many of its actions may even be cruel or counterproductive. Still, it is worth remembering that the primary motivation for the Israeli occupation of the West Bank is its very real and plausibly even existential security concerns, rather than its religious land-claims or nationalistic expansionism. The geopolitics of Israelis and Palestinians are simply intertwined now, and both must somehow find a way to make the best of a very dangerous – and, especially for the Palestinians, very tragic – situation. Getting God out of politics might be a good place to start.