Ben-David: The existential threat is gone

Israeli journalist Alon Ben-David.

SOON Israel will have existed for longer than the last Jewish sovereignty of the Kingdom of Hashmonai, which reigned for 77 years (140-63 BCE),” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently said.

“I want to make sure that it passes that milestone and continues for 100 years.”

Netanyahu’s short time horizon reflects the sentiment of transience and uncertainty that many Israelis feel. But a sober look at the emerging new Middle East shows that Israel has an unprecedented opportunity to secure its future way beyond the next 70 years.

Fuelled by hysterical media and cynical politicians, many Israelis live in constant anxiety and with a sense they live in the most dangerous place on earth. But looking at Israel’s strategic situation – it has never been better. All of Israel’s historical enemies have imploded, no foreign army is standing on Israel’s borders and the traditional ideologies that dominated the region, that placed Israel as the epicentre of all problems, were abandoned by most of the Arab world.

Israel remains surrounded by enemies and people who wish for its destruction, but none of them can achieve it. There is no force in the region capable of launching a campaign that will end in Israel’s annihilation. No one can eliminate this nation of 9 million people, who produced more than $40,000 per capita last year (more than France!). The existential threat, one of the forces that used to define Israel, is gone. At least for now.

Many Israelis are struggling to adjust to the void resulting from the loss of this existential threat, that has bound them together for so many years. Two thousand years of singing every Pesach that “in every generation they stand up to annihilate us” has rooted a mentality of persecuted victims.

For most generations that was the bitter truth, but the time has come for Israelis to move on from the prism of fear and start seeing the vast opportunities that are emerging around them.

The map of the Middle East has changed for good: Syria, as we knew it, has ceased to exist; Iraq is hardly a functioning state; there is no Libya; Yemen is gone; and no one knows who’s next. Many Israelis see these changes as threatening – but for Israel they opened new avenues for partnerships and cooperation.

Syria has become the ground zero for the region, and as an exporter of refugees and terrorism – for the whole world. The war in Syria has realigned the nations of the region on the rift between Shiites and Sunnis, placing Israel as a legitimate partner for the Sunni side. Suddenly, Israel has developed unprecedented intimate relations with Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Morocco and others.

On the other hand, the appeasing nuclear deal signed with Iran, and President Obama’s hesitant stance on Syria, have allowed the Shiite axis to thrive. Moreover, they have let Russia establish a permanent stronghold in the Middle East. Having Russia as a neighbour is uncomfortable for Israel, but we have learned to take advantage of the presence of a responsible power, which respects Israel and has no interest in seeing a conflict with us. With the remarkable relationship between Netanyahu and President Putin – Russia could serve as a restraining force in future conflicts.

Despite the Russian military presence in Syria, Israel is not shy of striking Syria to prevent deliveries of advanced weapons to Hezbollah. Using an effective deconfliction mechanism created with the Russian Air Force – Israel is constantly operating against reinforcement of Hezbollah and deployment of Iranian capabilities near its borders.

Moreover, in the new Middle East Israel allows itself to operate all across the region. According to recent reports, Israel is routinely striking ISIS operatives on Egyptian soil, with the blessing of the Egyptian government. Many enemies of Israel have died in mysterious circumstances from Tunisia all the way to Iran. In short: there is no force in the region capable of stopping Israel from exercising its interests.

In the new Middle East the word is “frenemies”: everybody is fighting everybody and everybody is cooperating with everybody and it works. Former arch-enemies are willing to cooperate on mutual interests, no alliance is beyond imagination. In this climate, Israel finds many new relationships – not true lovers or friends – but leaders who see Israel as a legitimate partner.

It is the same in the international arena: more and more world leaders are seeking dialogue and relations with Israel: in Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia. PM Netanyahu is probably the only leader who could jump between President Trump and President Putin on the same weekend.

But in spite of this strategic blooming, Israelis are still living in fear. Led by people who incite different groups in Israeli society against each other, they are constantly seeking external threats to unite them. At the age of 70, it is a good time for the Israeli society to define itself not through external enemies.

We might be forced once again to fight for our existence in the future. But this time and age provides us with a perfect opportunity to look in the mirror and decide for ourselves, regardless of potential partners, what are our agreed borders.

What are we willing to fight for and what are we willing to spare? Do we want to stay as a villa in the Middle Eastern jungle, surrounded with high fences, or do we want to grow roots and become part of this region? Now is the time.

ALON BEN-DAVID is a highly acclaimed Israeli journalist specialising in defence and military issues. He will be addressing the UIA Women’s Division Brunch on Wednesday, March 7 at 9.45am and the UIA community afternoon tea on Thursday, March 8 at 1.45pm. For more information visit www.uiaaustralia.org.au or call (03) 9272 5533.