An Israeli year is usually tumultuous. It has to do with the hostile Middle Eastern environment, with Israel’s problematic parliamentary system that often produces rickety, short-lived coalitions, and with the dynamism of a young society undergoing dramatic economic and demographic growth.
This wasn’t one of Israel’s most tumultuous years but also definitely not one of its quietest. The Gaza war and a wave of terrorism broke five years of relative calm since the 2008-2009 Gaza war. The Obama administration kept lambasting Israel publicly, while in Israel a governing coalition collapsed after less than two years in office. Outside the media limelight, though, Israel kept making diplomatic and economic gains, and the immigrants kept coming.
1. Gaza erupts.
On June 12 two Hamas terrorists kidnapped and murdered three Israeli teenage boys. On July 2 three Israeli criminals kidnapped and murdered a Palestinian teenage boy. Although the standard line is that these events precipitated the summer’s seven-week Gaza war, that assumption is now challenged by Israeli intelligence reports saying Hamas had actually been planning the war, or something similar to it, going back months before those two incidents.
Israel won this Gaza war big. Four months after it ended, much of Gaza is still devastated and Hamas is still dazed. Blasted buildings and homeless civilians are nothing to celebrate. They are, though, the outcome of Hamas’s human-shields strategy coupled with firing 4500 rockets at Israeli territory.
The war took a high toll for Israel, too—66 soldiers and six civilians for the side that made every effort to avert the war even as the rockets were already falling. The revelation of Hamas’s tunnels from Gaza into Israel, and plans to use them to perpetrate mass-murder and kidnapping attacks on Israeli soil, chilled Israelis to the bone. On the plus side, the Iron Dome antimissile system turned in an amazing performance and kept the casualty toll from being much higher.
The Middle East is no picnic for a non-Arab, non-Muslim, Jewish state. The 2014 Gaza war showed a tough, resolved, realistic Israel.
2. Terror erupts.
On August 4, while the war was still raging, a Palestinian driving a construction excavator in Jerusalem perpetrated a ramming attack that killed one and injured five. It turned out to be the first of a wave of ramming, stabbing, and other attacks that killed a total of 13 and wounded 33. The last of the fatal attacks was a massacre in a Jerusalem synagogue on November 18.
This wave of terror was heavily incited by Hamas and the West Bank Palestinian Authority, including its chairman Mahmoud Abbas itself. It was also inspired by the exploits of ISIS, and proved wildly popular on Palestinian social-media networks. The central theme of the incitement was the tried-and-true libel that Israel was planning to destroy the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
After the November 18 synagogue attack Israel stepped up its security measures, including the use of surveillance balloons in Jerusalem. So far the measures appear to be working. Even while the attacks were going on, Israeli intelligence assessments said the Palestinian population—however sympathetic—was not really inclined to a “Third Intifada.”
The wave of attacks reflects the ongoing, severe, systematically incited Palestinian hostility toward Israel and Jews. At the same time, the fact that it subsided and never really “took” on a mass level reflects the fact that Palestinians in Jerusalem and the West Bank know that they live much better than Arabs in the surrounding countries, and that violently confronting Israel does not lead anywhere or achieve anything.
3. A government falls.
On December 2, Israel’s 33rd governing coalition in 66 years collapsed. This one, which lasted 20 months, had included two right-of-center parties (including Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud) and two leftist parties masquerading as centrist parties.
As I’ve discussed, by the autumn of 2014 the respective leaders of the two leftist parties, Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni, had no further raison d’être as members of the coalition. The latest “peace process,” this one concocted by Secretary of State John Kerry, had sputtered and died. Israel, even as it struggled with terror, was being hauled over the coals by Washington and Brussels for sins like building apartments in Jerusalem. Uniting with other Israelis against such pressures is not what the Israeli left is for; it joins the pressures. Lapid and Livni began slamming their ostensible boss, Netanyahu, so hard that he had no choice but to fire them and call for new elections.
Those elections, scheduled for March 17, are still most likely to yield a coalition of right-wing and religious parties headed by Netanyahu.
4. Pivoting to Asia.
Last May 26 the staunchly pro-Israeli Narendra Modi took office as the elected prime minister of India. Israeli-Indian relations—especially in the economic, agricultural, and military spheres—had already been blossoming since 1992. Under Modi they’ve become a full-fledged and very close alliance.
Both countries face hostile Muslim neighbors and are Western-aligned. In October, India opted to buy 8000 of Israel’s Spike antitank missiles, rejecting a rival offer from the U.S. In November, Israel and India successfully tested their jointly developed Barak-8 missile system. India is now considering ending its previously automatic support for the Palestinians in the UN.
Meanwhile Israel’s trade and, especially, hi-tech ties with the other Asian giant, China, also growing rapidly since 1992, continued making big strides in 2014. In May, the two countries signed major cooperative deals at a hi-tech conference in Tel Aviv. In late November, Israel announced its “water city” project that aims to apply Israel’s innovative water technologies to China’s serious water problems.
In a better world, Israel could be less eager for ties with a severe human rights abuser like China. But in the world that exists, Israel’s more “natural” European and American partners have a Palestinian obsession. Future ties with increasingly-Muslim Europe are hardly assured. And while the U.S.-Israeli alliance remains strong, future university-trained elites may be less friendly toward Israel.
The upshot is that Israel’s Asia pivot makes a lot of sense.
5. They keep coming.
Dozens of casualties, 4500 rockets, a wave of terror—yet 2014 was also a year in which 25,000 Jewish immigrants came to Israel. That amounts to a 35% rise over the previous year and the highest total in 10 years.
About 5000 each came from Russia and Ukraine, 6000 from France, and 4000 from the U.S. and Canada. Ukraine, in particular, is now a country in distress. French Jewry, too, is in distress—from antisemitism; but those who want to leave have options other than Israel. And North American Jews who come to Israel are usually leaving comfortable lives.
Israel, in other words, is increasingly not just a refuge for the distressed but an attractive place in its own right. It has almost the lowest unemployment rate in the West and one of the West’s few burgeoning economies. It has security challenges and a few—so far—intractable economic problems of its own; but in almost all ways it’s a society on the upswing.
And it’s also the Jewish homeland. Even more immigrants are expected in 2015.