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Prestowitz: From Cairo to Tel Aviv

While the world’s media elite has been rushing to Cairo for a moment of ecstasy with the protestors in Tahrir Square, I’ve been on a different planet only a few hundred miles away in Herzliya, Israel. Herzliya is a close, seaside suburb of Tel Aviv and the site of the annual Herzliya Security Conference that ...

While the world’s media elite has been rushing to Cairo for a moment of ecstasy with the protestors in Tahrir Square, I’ve been on a different planet only a few hundred miles away in Herzliya, Israel.

Herzliya is a close, seaside suburb of Tel Aviv and the site of the annual Herzliya Security Conference that has become a sort of Israeli Davos that attracts top guns not only from Israel, but from the rest of the world as well. Larry Summers gave the opening keynote address and other speakers included former Obama National Security Adviser General James Jones, former CIA director James Woolsey, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, French Secretary General for Defense and National Security Francis Delon, and former IMF Deputy Director Stanley Fisher who now serves as head of the Bank of Israel.

The most striking aspect of the event was the revelation of the huge gap in understanding of and reaction to the Cairo protests between the Israeli establishment and the rest of the world’s political and media leaders. For example, while New York Times columnist Tom Friedman found Facebook-savvy Egyptian young people protesting their lack of jobs and a decent future, the bulk of Israelis saw the dark hand of the Muslim Brotherhood cleverly disguising a carefully orchestrated power grab in the garb of an apparent democratic movement.

When one retired Israeli General declaimed that democracy would be fine in Iran right now, but not in Cairo or Amman or Riyahd and that Israel preferred stable governments like that of Mubarak’s Egypt and Syria’s Assad, it was easy to understand that he was reflecting fear born of Israel’s bitter historical experience. And yet, for fear of the past, are he and Israel in danger of missing the future?

At breakfast on the Tel Aviv waterfront this morning, my friend Eitan showed me with exhilaration the pictures he had taken in Tahrir Square last week. By coincidence he had been on a normal tourist tour of Cairo when the protests broke out and he found himself surrounded by young people carrying posters calling for Mubarak’s ouster. With a twinkle in his eye, he said; "you know this is a little hard to say because I know that as an Israeli I should be worried about Mubarak being deposed. But you know, I really enjoyed the demonstration. It wasn’t the Muslim Brotherhood. Of course, that may be a danger down the road, but what I saw was young people asking to be given some hope of a better future."

Then he added something that may be more important for Israel’s future security than the fate of Mubarak. He said: "you know, it’s not too different for young people here than in Cairo. Of course, the GDP per capita is much higher here on average, but the gap between rich and poor is enormous and growing and the prospects for the peace process remain dim. So our young people are also losing hope for the future."

At Herzliya, the Bank of Israel’s Stan Fisher had presented figures demonstrating a sterling Israeli economic performance right through the storm of the global economic crisis of the past three years. Exports were up, growth was strong, debt was under control, unemployment was down, and high tech was booming. Fisher was rightly proud of this record in which his role had been very significant. Certainly, on the numbers, Israel’s economy looks rock solid. So what does my friend mean that the young people are losing hope?

Well, the average GDP per capita is indeed high in Israel, but the bulk of the GDP goes to a thin slice or the richest portion of society. The gap between rich and poor in Israel is among the world’s highest. Moreover, the low unemployment numbers mask the fact that a large portion of the population is simply not in the work force. For instance, of Israel’s 7 million citizens, about 1 million live abroad, many of them because they see the corrosive impact of the Israel/Palestinian conflict extending far into the future. Of the remaining 6 million about 1.5 million are Israeli Arabs and about 800,000 are the so called Haredim or Ultra Orthodox Jews. Among the Ultra-Orthodox , most of the men (80 percent) engage in study of the Torah and are not working. Only about 50 percent of the women work and they do mostly menial jobs. Among the Israeli Arabs about 60 percent of men are working but only about 20 percent of women.

Now if you look at the demographics, the birth rates of the Ultra-Orthodox and Israeli Arabs are far above those of the secular Jewish population. So, fast forwarding ten to twenty years into the future, we find the danger that relatively fewer and fewer Israelis are working, or serving in the military (Arabs and Ultra-Orthodox re exempted from service), or paying taxes to support the welfare payments that keep the Ultra-Orthodox alive.

As my friend noted, the real danger to Israel may not be democracy in Egypt, but demography in Israel.

He concluded on an interesting note: "You know, we might find the next demonstrations of young people taking place here inTel Aviv."

 Twitter: @clydeprestowitz

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