9/19/2017 End of the Year Reflections
Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, falls this week. As happens with every New Year, it is a period of some reflection on the year gone by. Israelis like to think they are the center of the world. But this year, no one doubts that the most important story was the election of Donald J. Trump as President of the United States. It has been 10 months now since the election, and while the shock of the outcome has worn off to some extent, Israelis — like people throughout the world — remain perplexed as to where Trump is taking the United States.
When Trump won, much of the Israeli right-wing reacted to the results as if someone just announced the Messiah had arrived. They quickly learned that while Trump sounded very different from President Barack Obama, his policies regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were, in fact, very similar. The Netanyahu-Trump meeting in New York on Monday underscored that fact. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wanted to talk about Iran, as Trump led with peace between Israel and Palestinians.
Israelis seem to be in love Nicki Halley, the Administration’s UN Ambassador, whose spirited defense of Israel is deeply appreciated. Nevertheless, there is growing fear the seemingly haphazard nature of US foreign policy under the Trump Administration is weakening the America’s influence in the world, and as a result, potentially hurting Israel. Some here initially welcomed a possible warming of relations between Washington and Moscow, hoping the shift would lead to benefits for Israel, such as, increased pressure on Iran. Unfortunately, Israelis have belatedly come to the conclusion that improved US-Russian relations (which have not happened, in any case) are unlikely to work out to their benefit.
Recent developments in Syria, where the increasing Iranian domination of the Bashar Assad regime — on the verge of victory — have shown that Israel’s interests are tertiary to interests of the other powers operating in Syria. On one hand, they are willing to allow Israel to take action when it feels its vital interests are at risk — e.g., the alleged Israeli attack on the weapons facility located particularly close to a Russian anti-aircraft site (though made no attempt to engage the attacking aircraft). On the other hand, the Russians, despite their continued friendly relations with Israel, have shown no willingness to limit Iranian influence in Syria.
The Syrian civil war is rapidly coming to an end and Assad seems to have done the impossible. By allowing ISIS to grow initially, he managed to depict his regime as the one fighting the terrorists. The concerted campaign by the West against ISIS has worked both to defeat ISIS and to strengthen the Assad regime. Israelis understand that while the defeat of ISIS was necessary, it did not defeat terrorism. The fundamental disagreement between ISIS and al-Qaeda was ISIS’s view the time had come to begin the “Caliphate” (a physical state), while al-Qaeda believes it has not. Al-Qaeda was clearly proven right and will no doubt double-down on its own strategy of international terrorism.
Domestically, the big story of the year has been, and continues to be, the ongoing investigations against Prime Minister Netanyahu. The wheels of Israeli justice turn exceedingly slowly. Furthermore, some believe the Israeli Attorney-General (once a close confidant of Netanyahu) will do his best to bury the cases. However, most people think the sheer number of cases and the number of state witnesses already enlisted to testify, will make it nearly impossible to stop the cases from going forward — and ultimately, for Netanyahu to escape indictment. Netanyahu will no doubt try to make the case that only he can stop the Iranian nuclear program, or defend Israel from some other yet to be publicized threat. Though it is not clear how well that defense will work against charges of corruption. To date, no sitting Israeli Prime Minister has been indicted (Ehud Olmert resigned beforehand). So, whatever happens, the Israeli political system will be navigating uncharted territory.
It would be impossible to summarize the year without talking about the Israeli economy. While the Israeli government seems obsessed with fighting the BDS movement (Boycott, Divestment, Sanction), taking extreme actions — such as, making support for the movement illegal, or barring entry of supporters into the country. The reality is that there has never been a less successful movement (at least to date). Investment in Israel by multinational corporations totaled $12 billion this year.
There is not a single major US high-tech company that does not have R&D facilities in Israel. Microsoft is building a new campus; Amazon is taking 12 floors in a new prestigious office tower that has just been completed; Intel has recently closed on a $15 billion purchase of Mobileye — and the list goes on and on. It is not only American companies working and investing in Israel. Philips has been expanding its 1,000 person R&D facilities and Hyundai has inked a joint venture agreement with Israel’s Technion. Chinese companies have increased their investments in Israel. So, while Israel has rightly received the title of “Start Up Nation” for the large number of start-ups created here, as the Jewish year 5777 comes to a close, Israel deserves an additional title: R&D Nation.
Looking toward the dawning new year, Israel faces many challenges. Peace with the Palestinians seems no closer, Iran continues to constitute a threat, income inequality is still increasing, and Israel’s transportation infrastructure is not keeping up with its growth. However, Israel is no longer dependent on the weather for water, and its economy continues to grow with its high-tech R&D sector powering that growth. A recent poll shows that an amazing 85% of Israelis were satisfied with life in Israel this past year. Despite the challenges, it has been a good year for Israel and Israelis, and they are hoping the next year will be at least as good.