Israel at 75: A Miracle in a Perfect Storm

Israel at 75: A Miracle in a Perfect Storm

The very existence of Israel, a prosperous democracy in the Middle East, can be counted as a miracle. Yet as the country turns 75, internal divisions have opened a new chapter in the country’s history.

This week Israel is celebrating the seventy-fifth anniversary of its independence. On any travel website, a fair assessment of Israel’s achievements during its first seven and a half decades would earn it a rank between “outstanding” and “exceptional.” Indeed, if asked, I would give it a rank that does not exist on travel websites: a miracle. And yet, during the past four months, this miracle has experienced nothing short of a Perfect Storm.

What are the components of the miracle and what are the makings of this Perfect Storm?

The Miracle of Israel…

First and foremost, Israel is an economic miracle. By 2021 its GDP has already reached $488 billion—a 1,860 percent increase since 1980. The economies of France and Germany grew during the same forty-one years by 246 percent and by 361 percent, respectively. By 2021, Israel’s per capita GDP already reached $52,15—a 720 percent increase since 1980—and is now higher than that of both Germany and France.

Another dimension of the economic miracle is the appreciation Israel received as the “Start-up Nation.” In 2021, Israelis registered almost twice as many patents per one million people than France: 1,851 versus 1,011. Israeli companies also have an impressive presence in the U.S. stock exchanges: currently, some 107 Israeli companies with a market value of $165 billion are listed in the U.S. market.

Yet the Start-up Nation could not have come about without an infrastructure of research and education in science and technology, creating a society immersed in a culture of technology. Israel’s success in these realms accounts for the very high grade it received in the UN Human Development Index (HDI), which includes factors like university degrees per capita. In 2021, Israel was ranked 22nd in this index, with a score of 0.919. By contrast, France was given an HDI score of 0.903 that year, placing it at 28th, six notches below Israel.

Within this context, one of Israel’s most successful sectors is its highly advanced military-industrial complex. The latest on this front is a multi-billion deal to sell advanced anti-missile Arrow 3 systems to Germany and a deal being finalized to export the David Sling system to Finland. Currently, the largest customer of Israeli arms, importing multi-billion dollars’ worth of weapons and ammunition, is India.

Adding to these economic miracles is that, in recent years, Israel has been the finding of huge natural gas reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean. These reserves will allow the country to become for the first time energy independent and provides the context for an important dimension of Israel’s integration in the region: its membership in the new Eastern Mediterranean Energy Cooperation group that includes Egypt, Jordan, Greece, Cyprus, and the Palestinian Authority.

The recent widening of the network of Arab states that have signed and begun implementing peace and normalization agreements with Israel is yet another dimension of Israel’s success. By this writing, Israel’s peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan have survived many challenges over forty-four years and twenty-nine years, respectively. Then, in 2002, the same Arab League that in 1948 decided to prevent Israel’s creation by invading Palestine, and that expelled Egypt because of President Anwar Sadat’s peace offensive, now adopted the Arab Peace Initiative (API) that offered Israel to be integrated into the region under some conditions.

And in October 2020, four additional Arab countries dropped the conditions stipulated in the API and signed peace and normalization agreements with Israel, commonly known as the Abraham Accords: Bahrain, the UAE, Morocco, and Sudan.

Moreover, in October 2022, a U.S.-brokered Israel-Lebanon agreement on their economic boundaries was signed, allowing the reciprocal exploitation of natural gas fields in the Eastern Med. Most remarkable: the agreement was clearly green-lighted by Hezbollah, a movement that continues to be formally dedicated to Israel’s destruction and is heavily supported and armed by Iran.

An equally miraculous component of the new regional environment were the new forms of defense cooperation agreements reached between Israel and its neighbors: with Jordan, in the fight with ISIS, especially in southern Syria; with Egypt, in the fight against ISIS-related and Al-Qaida-related terrorists in the Sinai; and with Abu Dhabi, in the installation of a state-of-the-art anti-rocket and anti-cruise missile systems. Similarly, relations between the Israeli and the Bahraini armed forces and between the Israeli and Moroccan armed forces have become increasingly intimate.

Not less miraculous has been the rapid development of Israel’s now exploding cultural scene. The wave of Russian Jewish immigration to Israel in the early 1990s added at least three more symphony orchestras to the Jewish state, and in the last two decades, the country experienced an explosion in the Israeli film and video world. Culture, as an important dimension of the quality of life, may also affect life expectancy. By 2021, Israel’s has reached 83.3 years, compared to 76.4 years in the United States.

The final dimension of the miracle is that, at least until this writing, Israel continues to be a thriving democracy. Indeed, this is possibly the biggest miracle of all, since none of Israel’s founding fathers, with the sole exception of Israel’s first president, Chaim Weizmann, came from any country that had previously experienced democratic government.

…Challenged by the Perfect Storm

Yet now, this truly amazing miracle finds itself at the epicenter of a Perfect Storm. For some 16 weeks, Israel has been experiencing mass protests the likes of which it has never seen. On each of the past Saturday nights, a quarter of a million Israeli—the equivalent of 8.5 million Americans—have taken to the streets. These protestors include many members of the Israeli elite: physicians, lawyers, retired judges, and leaders of Israel’s financial community and of its industrial sector. Many among them are either the leaders or the soldiers of the Start-up Nation.

Many thousands among the Israelis protesting are also IDF reservists—veterans of its various arms and special forces as well as of the Mossad and Shabak. What brings so many of them to leave the comfort of their homes and head to the nearest town square? This time the challenge against which they are mobilized appears not to be threats to their country’s physical existence but rather to the organizing principles of its creation: the core of a Jewish-democratic state.

What comprises the six dimensions of the challenge, together making it a Perfect Storm?

The first and arguably the most important of these is the attempt of Israel’s new government to redistribute power between the country’s executive and legislative branches and its judiciary. How was this to be achieved? Largely in three ways.

First, by changing the process of appointing Israel’s judges primarily by changing the composition of the committee that nominates Israel’s supreme court judges, providing politicians a far greater day in this critically important process.

Second, by significantly weakening the Supreme Court’s power to veto a law passed by the Knesset in the event that it views such a law as contradicting one or more of Israel’s Basic Laws. How was this weakening to be achieved? By amending a basic law to include an “over-ride” clause that would allow the Knesset to overcome Supreme Court vetoes of legislation that was adopted by the Knesset.

Third and finally is the suggested legislation to significantly limit the judges’ liberty to rule what government officials’ conduct could be regarded as “reasonable.” One recent example was whether the court could rule that an individual’s appointment as Minister in the government should be rejected as unreasonable in the event that this individual was twice indicted and convicted on corruption charges.

In addition to these three key components, the legal dimension of the Perfect Storm includes a tsunami of legislative proposals that would legalize corruption. One example is a bill that would allow elected officials to receive gifts from individuals or firms to fund their personal legal and medical expenses.

The second dimension of the Perfect Storm is an attempt to violate one of the basic principles stipulated as early as 1948 by Israel’s founding father, David Ben Gurion; namely, “the unity of command.” This principle stipulated that the state must possess a monopoly of force—that is, one civilian government that commands one army and one police force. So critically important was this principle to Ben Gurion and so truly was he convinced that the alternative was complete anarchy and chaos, that in the embryonic state’s very early days, when it had very few weapons with which to defend itself, he gave the order to sink the Altalena—a ship carrying arms and ammunition to “the Irgun” that, in his view, comprised a militia that still resisted merging into the defense forces of the newly created state.

Now, seventy-five years later, the new Israeli government coalition agreement gives two right-wing extremist leaders, the dual finance and defense minister, Bezalel Smotrich, and minister of national security, Itamar Ben Gvir, roles and responsibilities over powerful administrative bodies and law enforcement agencies—primarily the border patrol and the Coordinator of Government Operations in the [occupied] Territories. These bodies, which for decades have been under the sole command of the minister of defense and the Israel Defense Force chief of staff, were now to be placed under the partial control of these extremist leaders. The proposed change could prove catastrophic by allowing these individuals to inflame Palestinian-Israeli relations and by implementing policies that encourage violence.