By Fareed Zakaria
9 May 2015
Israel’s new coalition government, formed with the slimmest possible majority in its parliament, likely means that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will act even more cautiously than he has in the past. This is a tragedy because Israel faces an extraordinary strategic opportunity.
At first glance, it might seem absurd to speak hopefully about opportunities for Israel. The Middle East is in turmoil, radicalism is invading once-stable lands, Hezbollah and Hamas are active, and the Iranian nuclear danger persists. Add to this the repulsive anti-Semitism that is on the rise around the world — and it looks like a very dangerous time for the country. That is what Netanyahu implied when explaining to NBC’s Andrea Mitchell why he had backtracked on his support for a Palestinian state. “What has changed,” he said, “is the reality.”
Reality has changed, but look beyond the headlines. On closer examination one can see that it has changed dramatically in Israel’s favour.
First there is the disappearance of the Arab threat. From its first day in existence, Israel has faced the danger of extinction by Arab armies. This is the threat against which the Jewish state has planned, armed and trained for most of its national life. Today, it’s gone.
The armies from Israel’s main strategic adversaries — Iraq, Syria, Egypt — are now in disarray while the Israeli armed forces have become the region’s superpower, in a league ahead of all the rest. More importantly, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf States now find themselves in a tacit alliance with Israel against Iran. In General Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, Israel is dealing with perhaps the most anti-Hamas (and tacitly pro-Israeli) president in Egypt’s history.
To understand the depth of this strategic shift, consider this: It has been reported that the Arabs are thinking about creating a combined armed force. When that last happened, in 1948 and 1967, its purpose was to wipe Israel off the map. Today, its aim is to fight Israel’s main foe, Iran, which is why, one Haaretz commentator notes, “Not only is Israel not alarmed, it is actually ecstatic.”
Second, Israel’s major enemies are under greater pressure than ever before. Iran and Hezbollah have committed themselves to defend the Bashar Al Assad regime in Syria, a daunting challenge in the long run given that Assad represents the Alawites, who comprise under 15 per cent of the country. Reports vary on how costly this support has been for Tehran.
The Economist has cited a $15 billion figure, which would be the equivalent of about one year’s total defence budget for Iran. Hezbollah has become bogged down in Syria, with hundreds of its fighters having died there. The Syrian conflict will likely continue to occupy and drain Iran and Hezbollah for years, a crippling problem with the price of oil having fallen, and with it, Iran’s revenues. Watching the conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya, one cannot but think that Israel’s main enemies are busy killing each other.
Of course, there is Iran’s nuclear programme, though it has significantly slowed for now. Whatever the outcome of the negotiations, it is worth remembering that Israel has a powerful nuclear deterrent, by some accounts as many as 200 nuclear warheads, many of them on submarines. Similarly, it has built a wall that reduced terror attacks against Israel to virtually zero and its “iron dome” defence system has blunted the threat from Hamas’ and Hezbollah’s rockets.
And then there is Israel’s economy, which continues to surge forward, outstripping the others in the region. As its waves of technological innovation and productivity continue, Israel finds itself courted by countries from China to India, which were once reluctant to even publicly acknowledge relations with Jerusalem.
So while it faces real dangers, Israel today has policies in place to thwart, deter, and defend against them with force and effectiveness. The danger for which it has no defence is the fact that it continues to have control over Gaza and the West Bank, lands with 4.5 million people who have neither a country nor a vote. The feeling on the Israeli right, which now rules the country, seems to be that if the Palestinian problem is ignored, it will somehow solve itself. But it won’t, and the tragedy is that this is the moment, with so many stars aligned in Israel’s favour, when enlightened leadership could secure Israel permanently as a Jewish, democratic state and make peace with its neighbours. It is a golden opportunity, and it is staring Prime Minister Netanyahu in the face.
Fareed Zakaria is a writer and hosts Fareed Zakaria GPS on CNN