Two religiously-identified new states emerged from the shards of the British empire in the aftermath of World War II. Israel, of course, was one; the other was Pakistan.
They make an interesting, if infrequently-compared pair. Pakistan's experience with widespread poverty, near-constant internal turmoil, and external tensions, culminating in its current status as near-rogue state, suggests the perils that Israel avoided, with its stable, liberal political culture, dynamic economy, cutting-edge high-tech sector, lively culture, and impressive social cohesion.
But for all its achievements, the Jewish state lives under a curse that Pakistan and most other polities never face: the threat of elimination. Its remarkable progress over the decades has not liberated it from a multi-pronged peril that includes nearly every means imaginable: weapons of mass destruction, conventional military attack, terrorism, internal subversion, economic blockade, demographic assault, and ideological undermining. No other contemporary state faces such an array of threats; indeed, probably none in history ever has.
The enemies of Israel divide into two main camps: the Left and the Muslims, with the far Right a minor third element. The Left includes a rabid edge (International ANSWER, Noam Chomsky) and a more polite centre (United Nations General Assembly, Canada's Liberal Party, the mainstream media, mainline churches, school textbooks). In the final analysis, however, the Left serves less as a force in its own right than as an auxiliary for the primary anti-Zionist actor, which is the Muslim population. This latter, in turn, can be divided into three distinct groupings.
First come the foreign states: Five armed forces that invaded Israel on its independence in May 1948, and then neighboring armies, air forces, and navies fought in the wars of 1956, 1967, 1970, and 1973. While the conventional threat has somewhat receded, Egypt's U.S.-financed arms build-up presents one danger and the threats from weapons of mass destruction (especially from Iran but also from Syria and potentially from many other states) present an even greater one.
Second come the external Palestinians, those living outside Israel. Sidelined by governments from 1948 until 1967, Yasir Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization got their opportunity with the defeat of three states' armed forces in the Six-Day War. Subsequent developments, such as the 1982 Lebanon war and the 1993 Oslo accords, confirmed the centrality of external Palestinians. Today, they drive the conflict, through violence (terrorism, missiles from Gaza) and even more importantly by driving world opinion against Israel via a public relations effort that resonates widely among Muslims and the Left.
Third come the Muslim citizens of Israel, the sleepers in the equation. In 1949, they numbered merely 111,000, or 9 percent of Israel's population but by 2005, they had multiplied ten-fold, to 1,141,000, and to 16 percent of the population. They benefited from Israel's open ways to evolve from a docile and ineffective community into a assertive one that increasingly rejects the Jewish nature of the Israeli state, with potentially profound consequences for that the future identity of that state.
If this long list of perils makes Israel different from all other Western countries, forcing it to protect itself on a daily basis from the ranks of its many foes, its predicament renders Israel oddly similar to other Middle Eastern countries, which likewise face a threat of elimination.
Kuwait, conquered by Iraq, actually disappeared from the face of the earth between August 1990 and February 1991; were it not for an American-led coalition, it would quite certainly never been resurrected. Lebanon has been effectively under Syrian control since 1976 and, should developments warrant formal annexation, Damascus could at will officially incorporate it. Bahrain is occasionally claimed by Tehran to be a part of Iran, most recently in July 2007, when an associate of Ayatollah Ali Khamene'i, Iran's supreme leader, claimed that "Bahrain is part of Iran's soil," and insisted that "The principal demand of the Bahraini people today is to return this province … to its mother, Islamic Iran." Jordan's existence as an independent state has always been precarious, in part because it is still seen as a colonial artifice of Winston Churchill, in part because several states (Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia) and the Palestinians see it as fair prey.
That Israel finds itself in this company has several implications. It puts Israel's existential dilemma into perspective: If no country risks elimination outside of the Middle East, this is a nearly routine problem within the region, suggesting that Israel's unsettled status will not be resolved any time soon. This pattern also highlights the Middle East's uniquely cruel, unstable, and fatal political life; the region ranks, clearly, as the world's worst neighborhood. Israel is the child with glasses trying to succeed at school while living in a gang-infested part of town.
The Middle East's deep and wide political sickness points to the error of seeing the Arab-Israeli conflict as the motor force behind its problems. More sensible is to see Israel's plight as the result of the region's toxic politics. Blaming the Middle East's autocracy, radicalism, and violence on Israel is like blaming the diligent school child for the gangs. Conversely, resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict means only solving that conflict, not fixing the region.
If all the members of this imperiled quintet worry about extinction, Israel's troubles are the most complex. Israel having survived countless threats to its existence over the past six decades, and it having done so with its honor intact, offers a reason for its population to celebrate. But the rejoicing cannot last long, for it's right back to the barricades to defend against the next threat.