Why The Econ­o­mist writes down Is­rael

The weekly mag­a­zine runs a pes­simistic re­port on the Jewish state to mark its 60th an­niver­sary


THE ME­DIA likes an­niver­saries. They are fixed points in a fast mov­ing news agenda which al­low stock­tak­ing. As we move to­wards May and Is­rael’s 60th birth­day, Is­rael is cer­tain to come into fo­cus. The Econ­o­mist was fast off the mark in last week’s is­sue with a densely writ­ten 16-page re­port, The next gen­er­a­tion, which ex­am­ines dilem­mas fac­ing the Jewish state.

As one might ex­pect, the Econ­o­mist it is scrupu­lously neu­tral so even ac­counts of the coun­try’s eco­nomic suc­cess are ac­com­pa­nied by caveats. It seeks to take a look at the wider Is­rael from its high-tech, to so­ci­etal de­vel­op­ments and po­lit­i­cal re­form, rather than fo­cus­ing en­tirely on diplo­matic dilem­mas.

The tone of the re­port is set by the first re­port from Gideon Lichfield, the mag­a­zine’s Jerusalem correspondent. He sets out two sce­nar­ios for Is­rael in the year 2040 as seen by po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist Yechezel Dror. The first be­nign view sees an Is­rael which has 50 per cent more peo­ple and two-thirds of the world’s Jews, keep­ing the state four­fifths Jewish. The other one-fifth are Arabs who fully ac­cept the state’s Jewish iden­tity af­ter dis­crim­i­na­tion has ended and a vi­able Pales­tinian state has been cre­ated.

The sec­ond out­come is an Is­rael which is a fully demo­cratic, non-Zion­ist state, grant­ing some form of au­ton­omy to Arab Is­raelis in which the best and the bright­est Jews have left, leav­ing be­hind a frac­tious state in per­pet­ual con­flict with hos­tile Pales­tini­ans. Lichfield sug­gests that Is­rael in 2008 is closer to the lat­ter “dystopia” than the for­mer ideal.

This bi­fur­cated view of the Jewish state per­vades the spe­cial re­port. On se­cu­rity the Econ­o­mist be­lieves that the “fence” and as­so­ci­ated se­cu­rity mea­sures have made Is­rael a much safer place. But it comes at a cost of in­creas- ing the “travel times be­tween Pales­tinian cities”, turn­ing them into “vir­tual en­claves and sti­fling the econ­omy”.

Is­rael likes to think its own econ­omy is a show­piece for the re­gion with its 3 per cent growth rate, mem­ber­ship of the Paris-based OECD club (only for de­vel­oped na­tions) and its ex­cel­lence in start-ups and R&D. The coun­ter­point to this is that out­side a few niche in­dus­tries like generic drugs, weapons sys­tems and wa­ter treat­ment tech­nol­ogy, it is lack­lus­tre.

Tra­di­tional com­merce such as ma­chin­ery, chem­i­cals, cloth­ing and food lacks in­no­va­tion even though it ac­counts for 50 per cent of the jobs. Over the longer haul, the re­port sug­gests pros­per­ity could be threat­ened by a dys­func­tional ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem.

One of the few en­cour­ag­ing as­pects of the Econ­o­mist ac­count was its be­lief that de­spite the rau­cous na­ture of Is­raeli so­ci­ety, dif­fer­ent el­e­ments are be­com­ing more tol­er­ant of each other. One of the rea­sons for this is that birth rate among Charedi fam­i­lies is ac­tu­ally fall­ing whereas among sec­u­lar Jews it re­mains steady at 2.4 per fam­ily, against 1.5 in the Euro­pean na­tions. As a re­sult, by 2020 the Charedim will still only make up 8 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion. More­over, he ar­gues the Charedi com­mu­ni­ties are ac­com­mo­dat­ing modernism.

One thing most com­men­ta­tors, in­clud­ing the Econ­o­mist writer, agree on, is that Is­rael’s pure form of pro­por­tional rep­re­sen­ta­tion is un­pro­duc­tive.

An ef­fort is be­ing made, for the first time in Is­rael’s his­tory, to write a con­sti­tu­tion. The ob­jec­tors are many. The stricly Ortho­dox want more power for re­li­gious courts; Arabs chal­lenge the as­sump­tion that Is­rael is a Jewish state, and Rus­sian im­mi­grants want civil mar­riages. But it is thought a new con­sti­tu­tion with a re­formed elec­toral sys­tem could help unify a di­vided coun­try. The Econ­o­mist strug­gled to find the pos­i­tives, but they are there — if well dis­guised.


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