For all the political, security and demographic challenges, the experts are optimistic
Israel is a heroic success in the 60 years of its existence, says Professor Yehezkel Dror. “But it’s a very thin slice of time compared to 2,000 years when the Jews were without a state, and it is certainly no assurance of success in the future.” The 80-year old Dror, Israel’s pre-eminent expert on strategic planning, is in a unique position to deliver this sobering statement. He is now retiring after five years as president of the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, where he dealt in depth with the questions of the future relationship between Israel and the Jewish world and was a member of the Winograd Commission that investigated the Second Lebanon War.
While the commission’s final report did not topple the Olmert government, as some expected or hoped, it did deliver a devastating assessment of the lack of a coherent long-range decision-making process in Israel. Dror is reluctant to talk about the commission’s work, but was widely reported to have been the most severe in his judgment. All he says now is that what emerged from the commission “strengthened my pessimistic sub-text”. Even so, he still says that his “main text is optimistic”.
Under “pessimism”, he files the danger of the dissolution of Israel due to a loss of its Jewish identity; an erosion of its democratic values; a brain drain; or the sapping of morale through a series of military defeats. But he also sees another scenario in which Israel undergoes a high-tech revolution; reaches a modus vivendi with the Palestinians; and has a better relationship with the Jews of the world. “The up-side is that, in a large part, our future is in our own hands.”
In Professor Dror’s opinion, the key to Israel’s future lies in drastically improving its quality of government, and the nation being lucky enough to find a leader of historic qualities. “A unique feature of Israel’s situation is that the quality of the governance will be crucial, while other factors are much less important. The main challenge is that society and public opinion is almost totally blocked on the main political and social matters, and to reach crucial decisions, we will need leaders of the stature of Lincoln and De Gaulle.”
Professor Sergio DellaPergola, widely regarded as Israel’s foremost demographer, is basically optimistic. “The Jewish community in Israel grew in the last 60 years from just over half-a-million when the state was founded to more than five million today. There are no other countries in the world that have had that rate of growth, and despite the fact that mass aliyah is most likely a thing of the past, the young make-up of the population promises a healthy growth rate in the next decades. Unlike in Europe, where some couples have on average only one child, the Jewish average in Israel is 2.7 children, which shows a natural affinity for children.
“In 2050, by current trends, there will still be a Jewish majority, but it will be significantly smaller, so we will have to face the question of what it means to be a Zionist and Jewish state. The debate over the nation’s identity will become a central issue in future decades.”
DellaPergola stresses that this is only taking into account the population within the Green Line, and dismisses the idea that somewhere there are reserves of Jews who will come to Israel to solve the demographical challenge. “Our focus has to be on improving the quality of Israeli society, not looking for lost tribes beneath every stone.”
But it is not just the Jewish-Arab divide. A disproportionate number of the Jews having babies are outsiders to the Zionist establishment, the strictly Orthodox. DellaPergola says that those who are worried about the Charedim and Arabs taking over the state are “nihilistic”, but acknowledges that the military will have to come up with new policies for a foreseeable future in which a majority of potential recruits will come from groups that traditionally do not serve in the army.
“Ultimately, this is a challenge for the education system. That will have to be the place where young Israelis are drawn into society.”
But where are all these Israelis going to live? DellaPergola believes that despite its minute proportions, Israel still has space. “We will have to find room for another five million over the next few decades and it’s all there in the Negev. The best example we can learn from is Arizona. It’s the same size as the Negev and similar desert conditions. Sixty years ago there were half-a-million people in Arizona — today there are five million. It will take major investments in infrastructure. Today there isn’t even a dual-carriageway leading from the north all the way down to Eilat, but that is where the future lies.”