Daniel W. Drezner

The trouble with Tel Aviv….

Tel Aviv is a charming, modern, cosmopolitan city with a thriving high-tech sector, powder-sand beaches and the most temperate of seas.  Apparently, it is also the most insidious threat to the state of Israel. You might think that Hamas or Hezbollah want to take out Tel Aviv.  Well, maybe, but right now it’s the Israelis ...

Tel Aviv is a charming, modern, cosmopolitan city with a thriving high-tech sector, powder-sand beaches and the most temperate of seas.  Apparently, it is also the most insidious threat to the state of Israel.

You might think that Hamas or Hezbollah want to take out Tel Aviv.  Well, maybe, but right now it’s the Israelis who have a beef with the lovely city on the Mediterranean Sea.  Simply put, the problem with Tel Aviv is that it’s sucking up all of the young, secular Israelis from across the country.  As well it should – it offers good jobs and an easygoing lifestyle, like the Bay Area in the U.S. 

This migration within Israel creates a number of long-term policy headaches.  First, residents of Tel Aviv simply don’t care that much about making peace with the Palestinian Authority, Syria, or the rest of the Arab world.  Tel Aviv is almost exclusively Jewish, it’s too far south for Hezbollah to hit and too far north for Hamas to hit.  You can live in Tel Aviv and not think about long-term security concerns – which is exactly what most Israelis do.  This is the majority of the population, and they’re politically apathetic. 

This leaves other parts of the country – most obviously Jerusalem and the West Bank settlements – to the rapidly growing ultra-Orthodox and those Israeli nationalists who believe in Greater Israel.  These are the people driving the Israeli government to expand settlement construction in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem.  The short-term political logic is to appease the settler and ultra-Orthodox movements.  Both IDF officials and Israeli politicians know that at some point Israel will have to let go of most of this territory.  The demographics are already getting ugly.  One negotiator quoted Thomas Jefferson on this:  "We have the wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other."

Finally, because of the rush to Tel Aviv, Israel isn’t populating more strategic parts of its country, like the Negev or the Galilee.  Instead, they’re expanding into the West Bank, which is pretty stupid because most (though not all) of that territory will be ceded to Palestine at some point.  Officials kept talking about creating a high-speed rail network to encourage more population spread away from Tel Aviv, but that’s a ways off.  As the Palestinian population outpaces the growth of the Jewish population, there’s going to be incentives to move to those areas.  One demographer worries about an expanding, J-shaped mass of Palestinians that shrinks Israel down to Tel Aviv and its environs.  That fear might be exaggerated, but it’s similar to the Russian fear of Chinese expansion into Siberia.   

The longer this trend continues, the more the cosmopolitans of Tel Aviv will cede power to the ultra-orthodox and the ultra-nationalists.  That augurs badly for Israel’s strategic situation. 

So what do the Palestinians think about all of this?  That will be the subject of my next post.

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