Navigate to Israel & The Middle East section

Democratic State

While protests rage across the Arab Middle East, Israel stands as a regional model of resiliency, relevance, and democratic adaptability. And the Arab states will have to be more like it to survive.

Lee Smith
March 02, 2011
Voting in Jerusalem, February 10, 2009.(David Silverman/Getty Images)
Voting in Jerusalem, February 10, 2009.(David Silverman/Getty Images)

Last week I argued that Israel is finished, given the current state of the Middle East. The fall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt is only the latest setback in a decade of extraordinary strategic debacles for Israel, I contended, including the failure of peace negotiations with the Palestinians, the 2006 war in Lebanon, the 2009 war in Gaza, the rise of Iran as a regional hegemon, the radicalization of Turkey, the ebbing of American military power and influence, and the accompanying de-legitimization of the Jewish State. Together, they have left this tiny Westernized nation adrift in a sea of enmity that it is unlikely to survive.

This week I’ll argue the other side—not just that Israel will be fine but rather that it is the rest of the Middle East that is in big trouble. Recent history and statistics show that in order to survive Arab and Muslim societies are going to have to forget about the notion of an Islamic alternative to modernity and will instead have to adopt what they have typically described as Western values but are in reality the universal values of political modernity. Learning to live like the West is not going to come through buying more Western goods—from cell-phones to tanks—or even earning more Western diplomas but by embracing those values as embodied by the one country in the region that lives them. The Arab model for success is not Iran, or Turkey, but Israel.

In its essence, Israel is the West—a culmination of its successes and a symbol of its failures, a reminder of a millennia-old madness, anti-Semitism, and the failure of the Enlightenment. Criticism of Israel is very often a reflection of the bad faith of a Western intelligentsia and political class uncomfortable with its history and unsure of its moral bearings. That Europeans frequently hold negative attitudes toward Israel while the vast majority of Americans are favorable to it can be explained in part by how each society came out of World War II.

Europe’s war, and the mass slaughter of its Jews, revealed that the continent’s great cathedrals were built upon a bedrock of pagan barbarism celebrated in different ways by Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin. It was left to the United States to pick up the banner of Western civilization and lead the West to victory during the Cold War after the Europeans had trashed it.

Unlike their European cousins, contemporary Americans still read the Bible and understand that the Jewish nation is a historical reality connected to a living narrative that shapes the present in a constructive and desirable way. Americans abandoned replacement theology (or the notion that Jesus’ resurrection superseded God’s covenant with the Jews) after the Holocaust in order to embrace their elder brothers—as did Pope John Paul II, who lent his moral authority to President Ronald Reagan’s conviction that America’s victory in the Cold War was a historical necessity.

That is to say, pro-Israel Americans have also tended to misunderstand Israel’s place in the world. Yes, the point of Jewish self-determination is that the Jews can protect themselves. Yet the West needs Israel to succeed, because its success is a marker of our ability and determination to defend our values and our interests, in the Middle East and elsewhere.

And the truth is that Israel has been doing a remarkably good job of it, especially in the past 20 years. Israel is an IT powerhouse with more companies listed on the NASDAQ stock exchange than any other country except the United States, and its scientists have produced more tech patents than all of Asia. Last year Israel ranked 17th out of 58 of the world’s most economically developed nations, while the country’s economy was rated the most durable in the face of crises and rated first in investments in research and development centers. The Bank of Israel was ranked first among central banks for its efficient functioning.

Contrasting Israel’s performance with that of its neighbors, most of whom still abide by the half-century-long Arab boycott of the Jewish state, throws Israel’s achievements into even sharper relief. Consider Egypt, with a literacy rate anywhere between 50 to 70 percent, and considerably lower among women. The country’s unemployment rate is believed to be twice the official level of 10 percent, and 40 percent of the population lives on less than two dollars a day. While the Syrian regime proudly supports the resistance, thousands of its own people are suffering with a drought in the eastern part of the country that has ravaged crops and livestock. Iran’s nuclear program and full-throated opposition to the United States and the Zionist entity may make it the envy of some fans of resistance in the region, but the fact is that an Iranian bomb is the Hail Mary pass of a dying society where there’s been no economic development for 30 years.

If you follow these two trend lines, it is easy to project what the fate of these two different civilizations is likely to be. Israel will enjoy the ups and navigate the downs of the global economy and, if the last two years are any indication, will weather those setbacks better than most. For the Arabs things are only going to get worse.

The college graduates who took to the streets in Cairo to protest their lack of opportunity are going to have to keep coming back because the problem was not simply the corruption of the Mubarak regime. Rather, the issue is that the Egyptian people themselves are deluded if they think bogus business degrees are going to earn them a place in a globalized economy. By and large, the Arabs are simply not prepared to compete with the rest of the world. When the oil runs out, it will crush not only the energy-exporting nations but all of the Arab countries whose economies, like Egypt’s, depend heavily on guest-worker receipts from the Arab Gulf states. As such, every weapon purchased by an Arab regime is effectively a down payment on a forthcoming Mad Max vision of the Middle East—including a series of civil wars like the one now under way in Libya.

The only way for the Arabs to avoid that scenario is for them to become more like Israel. Because Israel is the West, it is essential for Arab political, social, and economic development that the people of the region break with the past and embrace the Israelification of their societies. If not, the current popular demonstrations will end in yet another round of benighted dictatorships, as has repeatedly happened in the region, starting with the era of Arab independence in the 1940s.

The other choice—the typical choice—is to fight Israel, which is in the end little but a token of Arab despair. As the Arab uprisings have shown, the problems of Middle Eastern societies have little to do with Israel. So even if the dreams of Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the other guardians of the resistance were fully realized and they were able to destroy Israel tomorrow, corruption, repression, and obscurantism would still be rotting away Middle Eastern societies.

The West and its values—what Israel stands for—will survive, no matter how many suicide bombers the Islamic resistance throws at it. That tactic, even if tied to religious concepts like jihad, has a built-in limit to its effectiveness in the face of people who are determined to defend themselves. Hassan Nasrallah mocks those who love life and boasts that the resistance loves death. But in the end, it will make little difference if Egypt eventually joins its army to the forces of the resistance bloc, adding tanks and planes to Hezbollah and Hamas’ rockets, Syria’s missiles, and Iran’s forthcoming bomb. The reality is that the party of life will fight to preserve it, while the party that cherishes death will reap what it desires in abundance.

Nonetheless, I do believe that, as I argued last week, events over the last few years have presented serious threats to the Jewish state—not least of which is a delegitimization campaign waged not in the region itself but from the capitals of Europe. It is a peculiar moment in history, to see Europe tottering on the precipice of resentment and obscurantism while the uprisings in the Middle East over the last two months have shown that the Arabs are perhaps on the verge of something new. Maybe the protests reveal not a revolution as such but a recognition.

Up until now, one of the more bizarre and widespread beliefs in the region is that Israel wants to be the only democracy in the Middle East—as if democracy were a limited resource it needed to hoard, like oil. The uprisings suggest that the Arabs may have come to recognize that, to paraphrase the late Egyptian writer Taha Hussein, liberty is free to everyone, like air and water.

I certainly hope so, for Israel is doing fine and the conclusion of my brief dialectic is that it will continue to thrive. The real concern is for the fate of the Arabs. The longer they continue to make Israel the focus of rejectionism and hatred, the more impossible it will become for them to join the West and arrest the death-spiral of their societies and economies. The inability of Western observers who claim to care about the fate of these societies and their people to make this point clearly and repeatedly has only damaged the cause of Arab social and political development. Now, in the midst of all the excitement following the Arab uprisings, is a moment that calls for such clarity.

Since the beginning of the Zionist enterprise, supporters like Winston Churchill have argued that the Jews of Israel would have a positive influence on their neighbors—that their industry and their values would rub off on the Arabs. Outside of Israel’s own Arab community, that hasn’t yet been the case. Either that will change now or it won’t. But whether the Arabs embrace Israel and the West, or decline into total economic, cultural, and military irrelevance within the next generation, Israel will survive and prosper.

Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.