On Wednesday, Israel marks seventy years of statehood. When David Ben Gurion declared independence on May 14th, 1948—the anniversary floats about according to the Hebrew calendar—the new state’s population was 872,000. Just over 7000,000, or 80% of the new Israelis were Jewish, and they constituted about a tenth of the global Jewish population. Today, Israel’s population of nearly nine million is 75% Jewish, and contains about half of the world’s Jews.
The numbers alone reflect an improbable fulfilment of the ‘Ingathering of the Exiles’, a possibility first voiced by Moses in the Book of Deuteronomy, and subsequently given modern political form by Theodor Herzl. Nothing like this has happened in recorded history. But the quality of Israel is no less astounding than its quantity.
No other post-colonial state has remained a democracy while granting its people a developed-world standard of living. In the IMF’s 2018 forecasts for GDP per capita, Israel ($40,762) is twenty-third out of 193 states—just behind France and New Zealand, and just ahead of Japan and the United Kingdom. Compare Israel to its neighbours, and you get an idea of the scale of its economic achievement. Lebanon is in 63rd place, and Jordan is in 96th place. Egypt is a basket case in 128th place, with a GDP per capita of $3,760. Syria has no GDP per capita at all, according to the IMF. Such are the wages of state socialism and state-sponsored anti-Semitism.
Israel, in 1948 an exporter of avocados and oranges, now has a tech sector second only to Silicon Valley. In a good year, there are more start-ups in Herzliya, the beach town just north of Tel Aviv, than in the entire European Union. Two factors caused this technological leap forward. Each says a lot about why Israel has succeeded where most states have failed.
The first was the Arab boycott of Israel, most of which is still in place. Unable to integrate their economy into the region, and deprived of the fatal inheritance of oil, the Israelis had to invent an economy, and orient it, as it were, to the occident. The result is a knowledge-based society, run on an anarchic variation on Western norms. The second factor was the way in which Israel capitalised on a windfall of highly trained engineers from the post-Soviet states, and created a fertile environment for private initiative. Since the aliyah (immigration) of ex-Soviet Jews, Israel has the world’s highest quotient of engineers, as well as some great violinists and some terrifying gangsters too. Those engineers invent useful technology during their compulsory army service. Israeli law allows them to retain the copyrights for civilian application. Thus the necessity of defence, and the absence of oil, is the mother of invention.
Israel has got so good at its defence that it has the most powerful military between the Atlantic and the Himalayas. Not bad for a tiny country with no fixed western border. It is also the West’s only reliable ally in the Middle East. The whole country is an advanced listening post, and a constant source of intelligence to Western states. Like the T-shirt sold in the tourist shops of Jerusalem says, Don’t worry, America: Israel’s got your back.
Israel proves that capitalism is better than socialism, that the failures of postcolonial states cannot be laid at the door of the European empires, that the nation state remains the best guarantor of our freedoms, and that any people can refashion their fate if they are brave and desperate enough. No wonder so many people hate Israel, and would love for it to fail; or deny the Holocaust while planning another one; or fantasise that ‘the Jews’ control Washington and the weather.
And what, the hand-wringers and hypocrites of the Western left say, about the Palestinians, the people who did not know they were a nation until losing to the Israelis made them one? Well, they had their chances, and they threw them away, every time. And now, with a pro-Iranian caliphate in Gaza and Hamas the people’s choice should Mahmoud Abbas notice that he is in the thirteenth year of a four-year presidency, the moment is long gone. Someone really should tell the State Department.
No one, including the Netanyahu government, is in a hurry to acknowledge that reality. It would be in the interests of all parties if they did. Don’t believe that demography will force Israel’s hand, and spare both locals and outsiders from a reckoning. The Palestinian Authority has falsified its population numbers for the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and while the Arab birthrate in the West Bank is falling, the Jewish birthrate is rising, along with the population of the settlements. And numbers aside, Israeli Jews have learnt the lesson of the Oslo Process. They will not accept Arab sovereignty over the hills of the West Bank, from which anyone can lob a rocket at the towers of Tel Aviv and the runways of Ben Gurion airport.
I’ll bet you a Chai necklace that there will never be a real Arab state on the West Bank, or Judea and Samaria as the Jews had called it for more than two thousand years. I’ll double down and bet a pair of Star of David cufflinks or earrings that, sooner or later, the majority of Jordanians, whose families fled or were pushed from Israel, will turf out the Hashemites and turn Jordan into Palestine.
That, and not the pandering to the crooks and terrorists in Ramallah by Western donors, might open the way to a negotiated peace that preserves the rights and homes of both Jews and Arabs in the West Bank. But that, like any peace negotiation, would require the removal of the Iranian and Sunni Islamist vetoes, as well as the appearance of a mature Palestinian leadership subscribing to Western conventions about the dignity of political compromise.
The Israelis have learnt to live with the exploding waistcoats and kitchen knives of the Palestinians. They may yet learn to live in a stand-off with a nuclear Iranian. Israel and Iran where friends before the Iranian Revolution of 1979, and may yet become friends again, and quite possibly after an interlude of violence. This is the Middle East, after all. The Israelis will work it out, by wit or by war, and despite their apparent lack of small talk. Damn clever people, those Jews.