Israeli Dangers From Syria and Egypt

What Israel knows, and doesn’t know, will change the world. 

Israel is the land of argument. Each June its president holds a conference in Jerusalem to which people flock from all over the world to argue. Every weekday the prime minister has meetings with his cabinet colleagues at which they argue. There is even a white board in his office on which the latest argument is recorded. He could not get up to greet my wife and me because his leg recently had an argument with a soccer ball.

The old joke still applies: as soon as you bring together two Israelis, you have three arguments. And that is the other thing I love about Israel. It is also the land of jokes. The fact that Benjamin Netanyahu injured his leg in a soccer match with Jewish and Arab youths strikes even him as pretty funny.

Yet the situation of Israel today is no laughing matter. The phrase “Arab Spring” is now considered something of a joke as people nervously await the latest developments in neighboring Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood is poised to take power. The Israeli government is convinced the Iranian government is merely playing for time in the negotiations over its nuclear-arms program and that the timeline to an Iranian nuke is measurable in months.

Meanwhile, the prospects of reaching some kind of agreement with the Palestinians look bleak. As veteran U.S. diplomat Dennis Ross reminded delegates to President Shimon Peres’s conference, the maps used in schools in Gaza and the West Bank don’t even show Israel. What basis is that for the long-discussed “two-state solution”?

Two days in Jerusalem forces you to put your worries in perspective. Here it helps to remember Donald Rumsfeld’s classification. Start with the known knowns. First, the crisis of excessive debt in the West is very far from over and that means low growth in Israel’s principal trading partners. Second, the “great reconvergence” as the East catches up to the West is likely to continue, creating in the process the biggest middle class in the world in China. Israel is between these two worlds. Growth is down below 3 percent this year, but is forecast to bounce back next year.

Now for the known unknowns. There will be conflict in this region, in addition to the civil war already raging in Syria. Unfortunately, that’s all we really know. Because wars are not predictably distributed, we don’t have any way of knowing when and where they will occur, or how large they will be. Let’s just say that if there is going to be a military showdown with Iran, September or October look like the most likely months.

What about the unknown unknowns—the black swans that almost nobody is currently predicting? My guess is that technology will once again surprise us. Maybe we are underestimating the impact of big data mining, ARM processor architecture, and fiber-optic cables. Maybe we’re about to drive smoothly, cleanly, and silently into the future in electric cars. Or maybe some mega-virus will abruptly shut down the Internet and the power grid. Either way, high-tech Israel will play a key role.

But there’s another category that Rumsfeld forgot to mention: the unknown knowns. These are the things that people who ignore history don’t know, but historians do know.

First, there’s the point that all our wonderful information technology has helped make the world more integrated than ever before. But highly integrated networks, though they enhance efficiency much of the time, are very prone to occasional, massive crashes. Globalization has collapsed before.

Second, the rising middle class in emerging markets means not just soaring demand for Western brands. It also means soaring demand for Western rights. A revolutionary bourgeoisie in Asia is about to start demanding the rule of law and no taxation without representation. That is what the bourgeoisie has been doing since 17th-century England.

Finally, the resurgence of China and the stagnation of the United States remind us that it’s precisely when great powers change places that you need to watch out.

Last week I suggested that China rather than the United States should lead any intervention in Syria on the grounds that China’s economic interest in the Middle East will soon exceed that of the U.S. I was being at least half ironic. Yet on the very day of publication, the semi-official Iranian news agency Fars announced a joint Chinese-Iranian-Russian exercise, involving 90,000 personnel, 400 airplanes, 900 tanks, and 12 Chinese ships, to take place in ... Syria.

Small wonder Israelis like arguments and jokes. The real challenge in the Middle East is telling those two things apart.

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