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Securing Israel’s future

A signpost on Mount Bental in the Golan Heights, captured from Syria during the Six-Day War, showing cities and distances. Tehran is 1,000 miles from Tel Aviv, but only a few minutes by missile. (Brian Hendler)

A signpost on Mount Bental in the Golan Heights, captured from Syria during the Six-Day War, showing cities and distances. Tehran is 1,000 miles from Tel Aviv, but only a few minutes by missile. (Brian Hendler)

JERUSALEM (JTA) – When David Ben-Gurion declared Israel’s independence 60 years ago, the army had just 29,000 soldiers, no tanks and four Messerschmitt fighters.

As seven Arab armies prepared to invade, the renowned British general Bernard Montgomery predicted that the Jews would not be able to hold out for more than a few weeks. Ben-Gurion’s own generals put the country’s chances of survival at just 50-50.

Israel today has a standing army of 187,000 with an estimated 450,000 reserves, hundreds of front-line tanks and state-of-the-art aircraft. Its military is bigger than that of Great Britain and considered by most experts to be the strongest by far in the Middle East. And although Israel has never admitted it has a nuclear arsenal, it is said to be a nuclear power.

Clearly there is no comparison between Israel’s military power then and now.

But is the state that was supposed to be a haven for the Jews more secure today than it was on May 14, 1948, when Ben-Gurion read out Israel’s proclamation of independence at the Tel Aviv Museum?

Israel’s array of impressive military, diplomatic and economic achievements notwithstanding, the country still faces grave existential threats.

The most obvious comes from Iran. A radical Shi’ite regime in Tehran armed with nuclear weapons would constitute a greater threat than Israel has faced at any time in its history.

But there are also more subtle dangers. For example, should Israel fail to reach a two-state solution with the Palestinians, demands for one man, one vote in a single Israeli-Palestinian state could undermine the fundamental Zionist idea of Israel as a Jewish state.

Some Israelis see grave domestic dangers.

To a large extent, Israel’s stunning achievements were due to relatively high educational standards and strong manpower. But major crises in higher education and the school system could put these at risk.

In comparative tests over the past several years, Israeli schoolchildren have fared worse than most of their Western and Asian counterparts. For example, in the developed world’s 2006 PISA rankings, Israeli 15-year-olds finished 39th out of 57 countries.

Moreover, cash-strapped universities have been cutting professors’ jobs and research budgets, accelerating an already worrying brain drain. According to Professor Dan Ben David of Tel Aviv University, 25 percent of academic lecturers in Israel leave the country, compared to a figure of 1.5 percent to 4 percent in Europe.

“This is the real existential threat to Israel,” says Avishai Braverman, a Labor Knesset member and former Ben-Gurion University president.

So far, the Israeli economy appears to be holding firm. Israel has registered an annual growth of more than 4 percent for each of the last four years – more than any other developed Western nation – despite the intifada, the withdrawal from Gaza and the Second Lebanon War. But can it be sustained, given the brain drain and the cuts in research?

Some leading Israeli scientists, like the Technion Institute’s Zeev Tadmor, argue that Israel is not geared for the next generation of probable growth areas, such as biotech, nanotechnology and alternative energy, and is not investing enough in cutting-edge research. The government’s research allocation for all seven of Israel’s top universities is just $100 million a year, compared to a U.S. federal budget for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology alone of $950 million.

Other figures, however, tell a different story.

In 1950, annual exports from Israel totaled $18 million; today the figure is $48 billion. According to figures published in 2000, Israel was second only to California’s Silicon Valley in high-tech, third in the number of university graduates per capita behind the United States and Holland, and first in the number of scientists per capita, with 135 per 10,000 inhabitants, compared to 85 in the United States.

Moreover, reflecting the extent of its high-tech success, Israel is third in the world in Nasdaq-listed companies behind only the United States and Canada. And despite effects from the U.S. subprime mortgage crisis and other economic woes, the forecast for Israel’s economic growth this year is still more than 3 percent.

The security threat to Israel’s future is more tangible. Although it emerged victorious and strengthened from the second intifada, Israel has been unable to find a formula for peace with the Palestinians. The main achievement of the Oslo process was to give the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a soluble territorial dimension. But the takeover of the Gaza Strip last year by the radical Hamas could transform the conflict into an intractable cultural and religious clash.

The Israeli-Iranian standoff is of a similarly uncompromising character. However, the difference between this and Israel’s past confrontations with absolutist opponents is that the West now seems to be on Israel’s side, fighting a similar battle against fundamentalist Islamism.

Israel’s performance in the face of these weighty strategic challenges will depend to a large extent on the quality of its political leadership, but since its inception the state has been plagued by an increasingly dysfunctional system of government. Unwieldy coalitions forced to accommodate a plethora of parties and interest groups have made it difficult for embattled Israeli leaders to take the tough decisions the country needs on peace, security and the economy.

But Israel’s leaders are aware of the country’s problems and have been acting to deal with them.

Israel is helping to build an international coalition against the Iranian bomb, is accelerating efforts to cut a peace deal with moderate Palestinians and is in the process of instituting educational reforms.

Moreover, Israel is working on amendments to the system of governance that will make elected representatives more accountable and, at the same time, provide future governments with more power to govern. Detailed legislation already has been prepared in the Knesset’s Law, Constitution and Justice Committee.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert may well want to bring some of these initiatives to fruition soon as part of the 60th anniversary celebrations.

Although Israel at 60 has much to be proud of, the country cannot become complacent and concerns about its future cannot be dismissed. Then again, just as it did in 1948, Israel time and again has confounded the prophets of doom.

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