Israel finds prosperity but not peace

By Lee Hamilton
May 19 2008

 In the scheme of history, 60 years can be both a short and monumental period of time. Few countries know this better than the State of Israel, which is celebrating its diamond anniversary this month. Libraries full of books document Israel's declaration of independence on May 14, 1948, and all that's happened since. But it is still difficult to capture fully the tremendous achievements, oftentimes against great odds, of the Jewish state.

Despite lacking the oil, water and other natural resources of other countries, Israel has become one of the premier hubs of technological innovation. According to the 2007 Global Innovation Index, it is among the most innovative states. There's a good chance the text messages you send on your cell phones, the generic prescription drugs in your local pharmacy, and the silicon chips in your computer have origins in Israel.

The economy has grown at a rate of 5 percent or more since 2003, expanding by $142 billion alone in 2006.

Israel is culturally rich and diverse, a product of its integration of Jews from Europe, Arab countries, the former Soviet Union, Ethiopia, and elsewhere. Its novelists, artists, and, more recently, its filmmakers, are world–renowned.

Israel remains a successful, though also boisterous, democracy in a region where autocracy is the rule, not the exception.

Still, there are serious problems: Israel's political system is not managing effectively the myriad challenges it faces. Israeli democracy relies on coalition–building that sows the seeds of bureaucratic inertia and inter–party give–and–take. Public dissatisfaction with the system is high.

Americans complain of the gridlock two political parties foster, but think of the 12 parties that comprise Israel's 120–seat parliament. Holding diverse coalitions together impedes political progress on crucial issues that demand firm resolution, especially peace and security.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's approval rating hovers around 10 percent. His embroilment in multiple corruption scandals augments popular disenchantment with government institutions and the current crop of leaders.

The ultra–orthodox community, with the highest birth rate among Jewish Israelis, is often at odds with the secular majority that forms the cultural and political elite.

The 1.1 million Arab minority, 20 percent of Israel's population, is better off than the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, but it is not well integrated into society despite its engagement in the political process. Arab–Israelis face prejudice and discrimination.

Most challenging, peace remains elusive. Hostile states and groups neighbor Israel, though they do not threaten its existence. But the inability of Israel, the Arabs and the U.S. to bring an end to a conflict as old as Israel itself is the major cloud hovering over this anniversary.

While 70 percent of Israeli Jews support the two–state solution, the same proportion doubts that goal's realization.

The fast–growing Palestinian population could render Jews a minority between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, which has created a strategic, if not moral, imperative for a Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank living in peace, side–by–side with Israel. Olmert himself has linked Israel's survival as Jewish and democratic to Palestinian statehood.

The continued expansion of settlements and outposts in the West Bank are roadblocks on the path to peace.

For the United States, a resolution to the conflict would deprive al–Qaida and its ilk of one their best recruiting tools — the perceived American indifference to the Palestinians' travails.

Over the next 60 years, the U.S. and Israel will need each other to achieve lasting peace, security and prosperity to all those in the region who seek it. But Israel and its allies, among which the United States is proudly first and foremost have much to celebrate this month.


(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University and Director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)