Tel Aviv, Israel It’s a measure of the relatively quiet time for Israel these days that the sharpest argument at a big national security conference here was between an ultra-Orthodox rabbi who wanted “autonomy” for his fellow believers and secular Israelis in the audience who shouted out denunciations of what one called his “apartheid” plan.
To be sure, the Iranian threat looms on the horizon. And Amos Yadlin, a retired major general who heads the Institute for National Security Studies, warns of an approaching choice between “bombing or the bomb” — that is, attacking Iran or accepting it as a nuclear-weapons state. But in terms of imminent dangers, this is a surprisingly tranquil period for the Jewish state.
The Israeli political star of the moment is Yair Lapid, a newcomer who scored a surprising success in January’s elections and is now finance minister and a key partner in the ruling coalition. Benjamin Netanyahu remains prime minister but has lost some of his clout. Lapid, who looks like a bulked-up Israeli version of George Clooney and whose driving passion is saving Israel from the ultra-Orthodox, didn’t even talk about security matters in his movie-star speech at this security conference.
What accounts for this upbeat and introspective mood at a time when the region is in turmoil? Israelis are realizing that, however much the upheaval threatens the established Arab order, it doesn’t necessarily hurt them. Israelis have been predicting for decades that the arbitrary borders set by the 1916 Sykes-Picot accord would ultimately dissolve and the Ottoman ethnic “vilayets” would return. Now, to some Israeli analysts, this Arab crackup seems to be happening, and what’s not to like?
The paradox of the Arab revolutions is that though they have created instability on Israel’s borders, they have also reduced the conventional military threat. Israel’s enemies are tearing each other apart: Egyptians are squabbling internally as the economy sinks; Syrians are battling each other in a bloody civil war; Sunni and Shiite extremists are waging a war of attrition across the region.
Even as Israeli leaders warily watch Iran’s continuing push toward nuclear-weapons capability, they talk about a peace dividend. The Israeli defense budget has been declining, and Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, the Israeli chief of staff, talked here of seizing the “window of opportunity when there is a small chance of all-out war.”
This theme of reduced external threats was explained by Brig Gen. Itai Brun, the head of research and analysis for Israeli military intelligence. He told the conference that the balance had shifted toward Israel in several ways: a “decreased conventional threat” because the Syrian army is preoccupied by civil war; a “weakening of the radical axis” as Hamas loses its base in Syria and Sunnis and Shiites fight against each other; and the stability of Israel’s peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan.
The Muslim Brotherhood takeover in Egypt worries Israelis somewhat, but as Brun observed, “the regime [in Egypt] has decided to be pragmatic.” Syrian chemical weapons are a concern, too, but Israel has plans to contain them if the regime is toppled.
Tensions in the U.S.-Israeli relationship have eased, too, after Barack Obama’s very successful visit here last month. Israelis wanted Obama to show the love, and when he finally did, it dispelled much of their anxiety. Indeed, in many ways, Israel’s current passivity in the region is arguably a local version of “leading from behind.”
In this period of relative external peace, Israel has an unusual opportunity to secure its foundations as a Jewish, democratic state. That means dealing with three existential problems. The first is the role of the ultra-Orthodox, who usually don’t serve in the military and often aren’t part of the workforce. Rabbi Shmuel Jakobovits’ call for formal autonomy for his community drew catcalls here, but somehow a bargain must be struck that allows a united Jewish identity for the state.
The second challenge flows from the first: If Israel is to be a Jewish state, it must separate from the Palestinians it now rules in the occupied West Bank. As Yadlin and his institute argued in a bold proposal, Israel should create a Palestinian state either through negotiation or unilateral separation — not as a gift to the Arabs but as a way of serving Israel’s national interests.
Iran is the third threat, and it shadowed these discussions. Obama has pledged to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. But in this period of external calm, Israeli leaders may decide they have an opening to take action if necessary.