Dan Schueftan, director of the National Security Studies Center at the University of Haifa, Israel and author of several books on national security issues and contemporary Middle Eastern history, spoke to a December 12th Middle East Forum Webinar (video) hosted by Ashley Perry, senior advisor at the Middle East Forum's Israel Victory Project, about Israel's opportunities, national objectives and major challenges.
Schueftan said the Zionist movement has succeeded in revolutionizing the Jewish people by returning them to their "ancestral homeland" after two thousand years. He noted that "For 2,000 years, it was a potential of a people but not a functioning people." Israelis have established a "pluralistic society" in the Middle East, managing to flourish while successfully defending the country in a frequently hostile environment and to be, as Schueftan put it, both "Sparta" to enemies and "Athens" internally. The Israeli national character of "individualism – sometimes extreme individualism," combined with a keen sense of "solidarity and strong families and a lot of children" – has led to the "constructive attitude" he attributes to Israel's success.
Israel has weathered the pandemic, a world economic crisis, difficult security problems, and the most recent political crisis. Schueftan added that "Israeli democracy is functioning in the sense that the legitimacy of the government is not questioned."
Schueftan described the Abraham Accords as a "major success" that has "catapulted Israel to a new reality," continuing that "for the first time, Israel is a full-fledged regional power. We used to be very strong economically, financially, technologically, but we couldn't maneuver between the different forces in the Middle East."
The prior perception that the Middle East was in stasis because of the Arab-Israeli conflict has been replaced by an Arab-Israeli "coalition" that acknowledges Israel's role as an "asset" in fighting against regional radicals, in particular Iran, which constitutes "the number one danger of ... hegemonizing the region."
In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, Arab states realized their weakness, particularly when facing the reality of Iran's aggression. Schueftan said that since the Obama administration, which did its best to "lose influence everywhere," the Arabs no longer trust that the Americans will "beyond a certain point" come to their aid against Iran and see Israel as the more "dependable" bet. They also recognize their own weakness vis-à-vis Iran. Israel's strength therefore attracts Arab states as a potential partner.
The maneuverability the Accords have afforded Israel, regionally and internationally, is an asset that assists American policy in the region. Schueftan said that if Europe had a Middle East policy, it would also realize the danger that Iran poses to the world. "You have this very dangerous marriage between a strong and capable society and a barbaric regime." He maintains that any negotiation of the "civilized world" with Iran has already failed because it is a "zero-sum game." Iran wants control of the region's "oil, the gas, the money, the international waterways, the markets, and perhaps even [to] take charge of Mecca and Medina." The Iranian regime's hegemonic ambitions would be "existentially" dangerous, not only for Israel, but for Europe and beyond. Schueftan said the only way to deal with the "barbaric regime" is to "break it." Once the world is rid of the current regime and the threat it presents, he believes Iran can become a "constructive power."
While Israel's strengths have created a resilient society, there are two failings that Schueftan said inhibit the Jewish State's constructive efforts. The first is the economic resources allotted to strengthening the Ultra-Orthodox community, which he believes is "the most negative element in the Israeli society." The Ultra-Orthodox, for the most part, do not work or serve in the army, which makes them a "burden rather than an asset" that is "basically living off us and at the expense of our sweat and our blood."
Schueftan's criticism of the Ultra-Orthodox community is predicated on his view that they do not contribute to building Israel and are not educated to take part in it. "Their rabbis want them to be unemployable so that they can control them." He has no issue with their way of life, but their "parasitic existence" inside Israel, combined with their high birth rate, poses a threat to Israel's success. There is a consensus in Israel that the Ultra-Orthodox should be persuaded, or even pressured, to step up.
Schueftan is also concerned about Bezalel Smotrich, the leader of the Religious Zionist party, who has a significant role in the new government. Schueftan believes that Smotrich is inclined to advance Israel's integration more deeply into "the heartland" of Judea and Samaria, also known as "the West Bank." He is concerned that given Judea and Samaria's historical significance, as well as the area's importance to Israel's security, Israel needs to "find a way that will not allow the Palestinians to use it as a springboard against Israel. But on the other hand, not to be present there."
In response to a question regarding the new Israeli government currently being formed, Schueftan said that any efforts to "impose" religion on secular Israelis is bound to fail. He expressed the hope that regarding the grievances with the judicial system, the new government would show "moderation" and seek to reform the system without any attempt to destroy it. Even with his concerns, Schueftan said there is no danger to Israel's democratic system.
Schueftan contended that the Palestinians violently reject every offer for "historic compromise." He said their national movement is a failure, and he advises Israel to "disengage" from them, "even if they don't want to disengage from us," so as not to waste Israel's resources. Internally, Schueftan said that the Israeli Arabs who have been radicalized within Israel and commit violence at greater levels than in the past can be managed through effective law enforcement initiatives, whether it be through the use of force or by "smart policies." Concerning such perennial problems as poverty and crime, it is possible to "bring it down dramatically from an unacceptable level to an acceptable level."
Schueftan noted that Palestinian rejectionism has not prevented Israel from achieving its many successes and positive trajectory. In this regard, "The very existence and constant strengthening and constant improving of the quality of life and practically everything else in Israel, in spite of the Palestinians, is the victory."
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.