Middle East

Peace and Prosperity in Israel’s Future?

In Israel’s last major war, in 1973, 0.08 percent of Israel’s population was killed. During Israel’s last serious financial crisis, in the 1970s and early 1980s, its economy faced hyperinflation. In the four decades since, Israel’s casualty rates have declined while its real income, per capita, has risen. Israeli casualty rates as a result of the Arab-Israeli conflict were 0.03 percent in the 1980s, 0.004 percent in the ‘90s, 0.03 percent in the 2000s, and just 0.001 percent since 2010. Israel’s per capita income has grown from $3,500 in 1975 to $35,000 in 2015. Since the end of Operation Protective Edge in Gaza in 2014, Israel has had a casualty rate of 0.0004 percent. Its economy grew at 3-4 percent annually during this time, twice the average rate of the developed world. Since mid-2015, the Israeli economy has been outgrowing the developing world’s too.

It may be that Israel will continue this success in the years and decades ahead. But it may not. Israel might instead have to face new challenges to its economy and security, which are already becoming visible from afar.

One new challenge Israel may face comes from the development of software and devices that replace human labour. Thus far, labour and technology have been Israel’s twin competitive advantages. Part of the reason that Israel’s economy and tech sector have been growing is that Israel has a labour force that is far younger than those of Europe, Northeast Asia, or the United States. Soon, however, Israel may enter a phase in which, for the tech sector to continue succeeding, it will have to create technologies that will directly undercut Israel’s labour advantage. A glimmer of this future challenge can already be seen, for example in Intel’s 15.3 billion dollar acquisition of a driverless-car technology company, Mobileye, earlier this year. It was the largest windfall in Israeli hi-tech history—yet it could also put Israeli nahagim out of work.

A second threat to the Israeli economy may be climate change. Though it is very difficult to know when, what or even whether the impacts of climate change will be, it is obvious that the Middle East is not a part of the planet one would love to be living in if and when they do occur. As many in Israel must have been thinking during the recent spell of nearly 40 degree temperatures—especially inside Gaza, where electricity has been mostly unavailable—any future warming or drying in the Middle East is a frightening prospect.

Perhaps even more importantly, it is not certain to what extent Israel’s trading partners will decide to enact carbon tariffs in the coming years. Such tariffs could put Israel in a difficult position, as Israel relies on burning fossil fuels, particularly coal, to generate its electricity. Israel has actually benefited from this of late, since fuel prices have plummeted worldwide. But with the possibility of large countries deciding to enact tariffs on carbon (or methane) emissions, these energy sources represent a risk for the Israeli economy.

A third risk to the Israeli economy also comes from its commercial relationships with foreign countries. Israelis do a lot of business in the world; particularly in Europe, where Israelis live and work in countries like Germany while French and British Jews spend tourist and investment dollars in Israel. Israel imports more goods from German-speaking countries than from the United States. Israel also increasingly does business with Asia: Israel exports roughly half as much to Chinese-speaking economies as to the United States.

Today, however, Israel’s economic relationships with both Europe and Asia are at risk, at least in the short term, because of the slow economic growth in both those continents. Europe has barely grown in the past decade outside of Germany, and continues to suffer extreme unemployment in its Mediterranean countries. China, meanwhile, which was growing at over 10 percent just a few years ago, is now growing at just 6.5 percent. And that’s the official rate: most analysts guess China’s real rate is now only 3-6 percent.

Growth in European and Asian economies could bounce back, of course. But until it does, it bodes ill for Israel.

Most worrying for Israel should be Germany, which has thus far been the major exception to Europe’s economic and unemployment crises. Germany has lately shown signs that it may finally be on the verge of succumbing to Europe’s general sluggishness. Germany is an enormously export-driven country, but the economies it exports to are either struggling or, in the case of the United States, have been talking about raising tariffs on imports of German goods. Israel could be hurt if Germany falters, as it is Israel’s largest economic partner by far apart from the US. Lots of Israelis could flow back from Berlin, needing jobs.

Germany also shares a political trend with Israel: long-lasting leaders. Merkel is now in her 12th year as Chancellor and approaching her fourth election. Netanyahu is in his 11th year in office (when counting his previous three-year stint in the ‘90s), approaching his fifth election. As Ruchir Sharma, a top investor at Morgan Stanley, argues in his recent book, The Rise and Fall of Nations, countries with leaders who stay on too long past their “best before date”, like Bibi and Angela are doing, tend to watch their markets do relatively poorly over time.  Time will soon tell whether or not Israel will conform to this rule. It already has done so once before (though perhaps coincidentally), when it struggled in the ‘70s after Labor’s long reign.

Finally, there is Israel’s security challenge. This has declined in the past generation, first because of Israel’s peace with Egypt and then because Israel’s rivals in Arabia and Iran became distracted by their own wars; notably the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), the long Iraq war (1991-2017), and now of course the Syrian war (2011-2017). Israel’s smaller but nearer rivals, chiefly Hezbollah and Hamas, have also been distracted of late. Hamas’ supporters—in the Brotherhood, Damascus, and lately Qatar—have weakened. Hezbollah has become directly drawn into the civil war inside Syria. More recently still, in mid-2015, energy prices crashed, weakening Israel’s historic rivals in the Arab world, Iran, and Russia all at once.  Though it is not certain how much these events have caused Israel’s casualty rates to drop, they have possibly played a big part.

But Israel is not the only power in the Middle East that can withstand both cheap oil and crises in the Arab world. The largest economy in the region, Turkey, can also do so. Indeed, Turkey is now facing a power vacuum in every direction. To its east are the oil economies of the Gulf Arab states, Iran, and Central Asia. To its north is another oil economy, Russia, plus a divided nation in Ukraine. To its west, Greece is stuck in a Great Depression, the Balkans are divided, and the European Union has fractured politically. And to its south, Syria, Iraq, and Libya (and more distantly, Yemen) are all at war.  At some point, assuming that oil prices do not rebound, it might be presumed that Turkey will take measures to fill this vacuum.

Turkey’ government, led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has been consolidating its own power domestically in the past two years. Erdogan’s three recent victories—in the election of 2015, the coup of 2016, and the referendum of 2017— has put him ahead of rival factions like Turkey’s secularists, Gulenists, and Kurdish parties. While Turkey’s relationship with Israel today is not too bad (they have put the Mavi Marmara incident of 2010 somewhat behind them) there is no guarantee what they will look like in the future. Turkey’s economy is now estimated to be 2.9 times larger than Israel’s, twice as large as Iran’s, 1.3 times larger Saudi Arabia’s, and even two-thirds as large as Russia’s. If oil stays cheap, Israel might soon find itself sharing the Middle East with a significant regional power for the first time since….well, since the Turks, a century ago.

Of course, this is taking a rather negative view of things. There are reasons to be hopeful about Israel’s future as well. The fact, for example,  that fewer Israelis have been killed by Palestinians since 2002 than there were in just two years from 2001-2002, bodes relatively well for Israel and Palestine both. Between this reduction in casualties and the possibility of an eventual cease-fire in Syria (even if it is gained by way of a victorious Iranian-supported regime, or a Turkish invasion of Syria), the region might even find some peace.

More broadly, if the long, slow trend towards global peace, integration, and economic convergence, which began in 1945 and has (contrary to popular wisdom) continued since, is not derailed, Israel could be an  ideal place to live. It is at the crossroads of Africa and Eurasia and of the Atlantic and Indian basins; it can speak English, Arabic, and Russian; it can attract Christian and Muslim pilgrims; and it has Jewish and Israeli connections globally. Israel could do well in a peaceful and equitable world, should such a world come to be.

On the other hand, history may not be so nice. Israel’s past forty years have been pretty decent, all things considered. But new challenges are coming. It is still not clear whether Israel will finally secure the peace and prosperity it has been labouring towards; or instead merely catch a glimpse of them from its current peak.

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Europe, Middle East, North America, South Asia

Trump and the Turks

Evaluating American-Turkish relations in light of Trump’s recent trip to the Middle East and the diplomatic isolation of Qatar, a Turkish and American ally

As Donald Trump returns from his first international tour as US president, one thing that stands out is, as usual, the difference between his and Barack Obama’s approach to diplomacy. Whereas Obama’s first Mideast destinations were Turkey and Iraq, Trump’s were Saudi Arabia and Israel, a country Obama did not even visit until his second term in office.

Trump’s trip also included stops in Brussels, Sicily, and the Vatican in Rome. Along with Saudi Arabia and Israel, these represent four of the five most significant allies of the US within the Middle East/Eastern Mediterranean region: Italy, Israel, the Saudis, and the EU.

The fifth ally, which appears to have been snubbed, is Turkey. The Turks were not honoured with a stop during Trump’s first trip to the region, as they were during Obama’s.

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Turkey failing to make it onto Trump’s travel itinerary might seem to be of little  significance, if it were not for the flurry of unpleasant events involving the Turks and Americans that have occured this same month.

First, there was the meeting of Erdogan and Trump at the White House on May 16, which lasted a mere 22 minutes and was complicated by the announcement, less than a week before the meeting, that Trump would be approving a Pentagon plan to arm the YPG, a Syrian Kurdish militia that the Turkish government views as a terrorist group.

That meeting was then marred also by a public brawl that occured in Washington on the  day it was held, which pitted Erdogan’s security detail against protestors who, according to the Turkish government, were supporters of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK).

Later in the week, Turkish military planes repeatedly violated Greek airspace—a point of friction between two NATO countries occurring directly ahead of the NATO summit that Erdogan and Trump attended in Brussels.

If this was not enough, the week also saw the Flynn/Trump/Comey affair dominate the news cycle — and the word “impeachment” bandied about in Congress for the first time —  which followed the admission by Michael Flynn a week earlier that he had previously been on a Turkish payroll.

Meanwhile, Trump has used his trip in the Arab world to endorse the idea of forming an “Arab NATO”; an alliance between Saudi Arabia and Egypt that, unlike the real NATO, would exclude the other, comparatively liberal and democratic Sunni power in the region: Turkey.

Now, just a week after Trump’s return home, Saudi Arabia and Egypt have led a move to politically isolate Qatar, the country which is Turkey’s primary ally within the Gulf region.

The Price of Oil

The root of all this unpleasantness is America’s growing concern that, if energy prices continue to stay low for a sustained period, and if Turkey’s oil-exporting neighbours like Russia, Iran, and the Gulf Arab states are weakened as a result, Turkey could become formidable enough within the region to risk cracking down on US allies — starting with the Kurds.

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Nominal GDP

Turkey has, thus far, been relatively happy to work in a cooperative fashion with the Iraqi Kurdish groups, who are America’s primary Kurdish allies in the region. Turkey imports Iraqi Kurdish oil, has fought on the same side as the Iraqi Kurds against ISIS, and uses its relationship with Iraqi Kurds to gain leverage over Iranian-allied Iraqi Shiite groups.

Regarding Kurds in Turkey and Syria, however, the US and Turkey are in disagreement. Though the US has already partially conceded the point on Kurds in Turkey — the US continues to list the PKK as a terror organization, just like Turkey does — it has nevertheless been alarmed by the Turkish government’s treatment of political parties in Turkey that are supported by many Kurds, notably the HDP.

In Syria the conflicting interests of America and Turkey are even more explicit: America is now working in conjunction with the YPG, a group Ankara views as terrorists.

At this point, because Erdogan seems to have consolidated his power domestically, with recent victories in the Turkish constitutional referendum in April, in the failed coup attempt in July 2016, and in the general election of November 2015, he may now increasingly turn his sights to areas beyond or adjacent to Turkish borders, in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey’s own Kurdish regions.

Thus, with Trump snubbing Turkey on his first foreign trip, and with the flurry of events involving Turkey and the US that have surrounded the trip, it appears that the US and Turkey may be in the process of aggressively haggling over the details of their alliance against shared rivals like ISIS, Al Qaeda, Assad, and Hezbollah. The twin issues they have to work out are how much of the burden against these Middle Eastern forces the Turks will bear, and how tough the Turks can be with Kurdish groups—notably those in Syria.

The Price of Loyalty 

Of course, we have no way of knowing how the details of these issues will be worked out, or even whether the US really will be willing to abandon the Kurdish militias to the Turks. But we can guess. Turkey seem more likely than not to accept the burden of fighting in Iraq and Syria, and the US more likely than not to abandon the Kurds in Syria and Turkey.

But (I will continue to guess) the US and its allies will extract two more conditions in return for their abandonment of the Kurds: Turkish cooperation within both Cyprus and Gaza.

In Gaza, although Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu publicly apologized for the Mavi Marmara flotilla incident, Turkey has become a key ally of the Gazans almost by default. This has been the result of the Syrian Civil War (which alienated Hamas from Assad, leading Hamas’ formal leadership to move from Damascus to Qatar in 2012), the Egyptian coup in 2013 (in which Sisi overthrew and then outlawed Hamas’ Muslim Brotherhood allies), and finally the crash in oil and gas prices in 2015 (which has hurt the economy of Hamas’ newest host and benefactor, the royal family of the tiny state of  Qatar).

The US and Israel want not only that Turkey prevent another incident like the Mavi Marmara, but also that they tie Turkish and regional investment in Gaza to the condition that Hamas work to prevent a resumption of violence in the Strip. An increase in fighting between Israelis and Gazans would, among other things, imperil the tacit Israeli-Arab alliance directed against Iran and ISIS; an alliance Trump’s current visit has intended to solidify.

Israeli-Palestinian violence would also draw a gigantic amount of the world’s media attention, and would inevitably be blamed on Trump, showing his portrayal of himself as an unparalleled dealmaker to be yet another con. Indeed, at the risk of being too cynical or conspiracy-minded, I would like to point out the possibly politicized pattern of the four main Israeli-Gaza battles that have occured since Hamas began to gain control of Gaza in 2006:

The first, Israel’s Operation Autumn Cloud, ended the day before mid-term elections in the US in 2006. The second, Operation Cast Lead, ended two days before Barack Obama’s inauguration. The third, Operation Pillar of Defence, began a week after the US general election in 2012. And the fourth, Operation Protective Edge, ended two months before the 2014 mid-terms.

Whether or not this pattern was a coincidence, Trump and the Republicans obviously do not want to see a new outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian violence before the 2018 or 2020 elections.

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Source: The Economist

While Turkey can perhaps help to keep Gaza peaceful, it can certainly help to do so in Cyprus, where it wields decisive influence over the island’s North. Turkey is the only country to recognize Northern Cyprus, a Turkish-speaking political entity Turkey established almost single-handedly in the 1970s. Moreover, the island as a whole needs Turkish aid in facilitating both gas and water pipelines across the 80 km sea-channel that separates Cyprus from the Turkish mainland.

The Turks may feel that they can now afford to throw their historic Greek and Greek-Cypriot rivals a bone, given that the economic decimation both Greece and Cyprus have suffered in the past decade have rendered them less of a potential threat to Turkish interests. Thus they may not stop peace talks on the island from moving forward.

The US and its allies will also be happy to see reconciliation or even reunification in Cyprus, as it may help prevent another Mediterranean financial crisis or, even, help show off Trump’s deal-making.

Indeed, while a reconciliation or reunification deal in Cyprus would not directly benefit Trump very much, it could perhaps help to provide him with momentum and bona fides he will want in order to make a more exciting and significant “deal of the century”: a deal which — taking a cue from his Celebrity Apprentice co-star Dennis Rodman — will likely be in Korea.

And of course, as Trump said while in Jerusalem, about peace between Israel and Palestine: “I’ve heard it’s one of the toughest deals of all but I have a feeling we’re going to get there eventually…I hope”.

Winners and Losers 

In the end, in this scenario, the losers would be the Kurds in Syria, and perhaps also the Kurds in Turkey. The winners would be the Cypriots, and perhaps also the Israelis and Palestinians.

As for the US-Turkish relationship, more complicated years lie ahead. It may be that the relationship will ebb and flow along with expectations of the future price of oil, which will determine the perceived strength of Turkey relative to both Russia and Middle Eastern states. The US will want to deputize Turkey to contain forces like Russia, Iran, and Sunni jihadism, yet will also worry about Turkish intentions regarding smaller groups like the Kurds.

If oil prices stay low for long enough, it is likely that we will see the United States opt not just for the Trumpian move of bolstering relations between the Saudis and Israelis, but also for the more Obama-esque one of reaching out to Iran in order to win a new powerful ally for America in the region.

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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.

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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.

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Topography of Israel (left) and Lebanon (right)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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(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.

 

 

 

 

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