The recurring pattern of violence obscures a seismic shift that has taken place over the past few decades. Israel is now the superpower of the Middle East. A strategic studies institute at Bar-Ilan University recently laid out the disparities. Israel’s per capita GDP dwarfs that of its neighbors: it is 14 times that of Egypt, eight times that of Iran, nearly six times that of Lebanon, and nearly double that of Saudi Arabia. Israel has built an industrial and information-age economy that excels in highly sophisticated arenas such as artificial intelligence, computer-aided design, aviation and biotechnology. It spends 5 percent of its GDP on research and development, more than any country. It has built up foreign exchange reserves of more than $180 billion, placing it at No. 13 in the world, just ahead of Britain. For a nation of 9 million people, these are stunning numbers.
A military comparison between Israel and its neighbors is even more lopsided. Israel beat a combined Arab force in 1967 in six days. Today, the contest would be over in hours. Israel has a larger defense budget than Iran and enjoys both a quantitative and qualitative edge in crucial areas such as air power — even though Iran has almost 10 times the population. And, of course, Israel has the only nuclear arsenal in the region, estimated at almost 100 warheads.
Israel is powerful compared to its neighbors, but it is close to invulnerable compared to the Palestinians. The economic gap is a chasm; the military gap is too large to describe. You can see this in the comparative casualty numbers from the latest conflict or any recent conflict with the Palestinians: for every Israeli killed, there are 20 to 30 Palestinian deaths. Moreover, the Palestinians are politically weak and divided. They are led in Gaza by Hamas, a group despised even by Arab states such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. In the West Bank, the 85-year-old Mahmoud Abbas runs an administration widely considered corrupt and dysfunctional, and he has postponed elections for 11 years.
In short, Israel doesn’t have any practical reasons to make a deal with the Palestinians. It doesn’t fear for its security. While the rocket attacks are unnerving and terrifying to civilians, they do not inflict much damage on the country. Israel’s ferocious and effective security services, aided by the construction of a wall along the West Bank and the creation of the Iron Dome air-defense system, have virtually eliminated fatalities from terrorism. Economic boycotts of any significance will not happen. Israel’s economy is too strong, diversified and advanced. Its trade and technology ties to countries have grown by leaps and bounds in the past two decades; countries such as Russia and India, once wary of Israel, now eagerly court the country and its tech industry. The reason that Arab countries such as the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain normalized relations with Israel has much to do with economic opportunities.
What is left is morality. Israel — a powerful, rich and secure nation — is ruling over nearly 5 million people without giving them political rights. This is an almost unique situation in a post-colonial world. Israeli leaders can marshal valid excuses: The Palestinian leadership has rejected serious offers in the past; they are divided and vacillating. But, ultimately, that does not change the reality that the Palestinians live in conditions that are demeaning and degrading. They are denied self-determination, which is now a universal right.
But the country remains a liberal democracy. It was founded by people who believed deeply that their new country should embody not just nationalism but also justice and morality. There are many in Israel who argue passionately that it can find a way for Israel to have security and Palestinians to have dignity. The only hope — and right now it looks remote — is that those forces will gain strength and one day lead the country to give the Palestinians a state of their own. That would finally fulfill Israel’s historical mission to be, in the words of Isaiah, “a light unto the nations.”