Middle East

Israel at 65: What does the future hold?

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Media captionReporter John Ware visits an ultra-Orthodox community in Israel and is given a rare glimpse inside a yeshiva (religious) school

Israelis are celebrating the 65th birthday of their state this week. But what does the future hold for the country as the Arab Spring changes the political landscape around it?

The anniversary will be an occasion for Jews around the world to reflect on what a remarkable country Israel is: how it has survived attempts to destroy it, winning three wars against the armies of its Arab neighbours; how it has developed a successful hi-tech industry propelling it to the forefront of the global economy; how it has launched satellites and won prizes for medicine; and how, despite some recent blots on its democratic copybook, Israel remains by some distance the most vibrant democracy in the Middle East with a free and fearless press.

And yet all is not well with the world's only Jewish state.

The Arab Spring has seen the rise of radical Islamist ideology amongst its neighbours.

Egypt is now run by the Muslim Brotherhood, progenitor of Hamas which is in charge of Gaza and committed to Israel's destruction; Syria is in flames, and in Jordan Islamism is also on the rise.

Inside Israel divisions are growing: between rich and poor and between secular Jews and the rapidly expanding population of Israel's most religious Jews.

Smouldering resentment is also growing among Israel's Arab citizens, who make up 20% of the population.

And Israel is getting a very bad press.

For 45 years Israel has had overall control of most of the West Bank - where stateless Palestinians live - land which both Israel and the Palestinians began negotiating on 20 years ago towards a separate Palestinian state, together with Gaza, living in peace alongside Israel.

Since militarily Israel is the most powerful country in the Middle East, the question on its 65th birthday is not whether Israel will survive, but in what form?

Israel was founded in 1948 by mainly secular Zionists as both a Jewish and democratic state.

They hoped to confine theocracy to the temples. But just as Islamism is reshaping the Arab world, so too is theocracy reshaping Israel.

Religious nationalism has driven the expansion of settlements well into the West Bank, territory won from the Jordanians in 1967 during the Six Day War.

Today 2.6 million Palestinians live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Unless Israel one day withdraws, demographics suggest Israel may not survive as both a Jewish and a democratic state.

Many members of the main ruling party, Likud, support annexing some or all of the West Bank thereby creating a Greater Israel.

Likud MP Tzipi Hotovely told me: "If you go for this idea, you need to go all the way. You give Palestinians Israeli citizenship and they can be Israeli equal citizens."

But if Israel did this, the combined Arab population of both the West Bank and Israel could become larger than the Jewish population.

Image caption Likud MP Tzipi Hotovely supports annexing the West Bank but says it would mean offering Palestinians Israeli citizenship

Israel's dominant institutions and culture could then cease to be Jewish.

If, however, Israel retains overall control of the West Bank without giving Palestinians the vote, no longer could Israel claim to be a democracy which has been its big calling card in a region still struggling to become democratic, despite the Arab Spring.

It is because the Israeli government under Benjamin Netanyahu shows no sign of withdrawing from the West Bank that it is getting a bad press.

The outline of a plan to build a separate state for Palestinians was brokered during secret negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis 20 years ago in the Norwegian capital, Oslo.

But Israel and the Palestinians still cannot agree the terms and so deep has become the mistrust between them, that it has begun to look as if they never will.

The two-state solution is at death's door - despite attempts by President Obama to revive it during his visit to Israel last month.

Criticism of Israel often contains an underlying assumption that but for their settlements, the Palestinians would agree terms. It is easy to see why. It is as if both sides are arguing over how to share a pizza when one side keeps eating it.

Yet that assumption has never been fully tested.

Image caption Mr Obama's recent visit suggests the US remains staunchly behind Israel but he has tasked John Kerry with moving the peace process forward

In 2008 the then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert offered the Palestinians 94% of the West Bank, with most of the missing 6% made up of chunks of Israel; a deal over dividing Jerusalem along ethnic lines; and a token return of Palestinian refugees.

According to the then US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the chairman of the Palestinian Authority (PA) Mahmoud Abbas told her he could not accept this. Mr Abbas denies he said this. One thing is for sure - there was no deal.

The PA is often spoken of as the secular and moderate alternative to their more militant and religious rivals Hamas, who run Gaza.

But even in the PA-run West Bank the general population is becoming more religious.

The PA says they are committed to a two-state solution and under President Abbas attacks from there are much reduced.

But many Israelis remain unconvinced about the PA's long-term intentions.

Image caption Ephraim Halevy, former head of Mossad, says "ideologically" there can never be an end to the conflict

Seared into their consciousness are the suicide bombers of the second intifada a decade ago.

Suicide bombings created such a pervasive sense of impotence among Israelis against the perpetrators' jihadist culture which craved death, that it has embedded a deep and lasting scepticism.

Even today the TV run by the PA sometimes broadcasts eulogies to long-dead Palestinian militants who have deliberately targeted Israeli civilians for mass murder.

Unguarded comments by some PA officials have also suggested they still see Israel's existence as temporary - that a two-state solution is merely a stepping stone to its ultimate demise.

Ephraim Halevy, former head of the Mossad, told me: "Ideologically there cannot be an end to the conflict - ever. Both sides claim to have rights to this land and they claim they are the only ones who have rights on this land. No side can in any way forego its rights of every single inch of territory because it's holy land."

If this continues, Mr Halevy foresees "permanent conflict" which neither side could sustain.

Israel would become "fortress Israel", sinking ever deeper into global isolation while having to win every round decisively, reducing the quality of life to an intolerable level.

Yet it is the very bleakness of this prospect that also gives him hope.

Faced with such a stark choice between the Israeli people and the Biblical land, Israel, he says, would choose the people and withdraw from the West Bank, uprooting dozens of settlements, though not those in the main blocs protecting Israel's border.

Image caption A barrier now protects Israel from suicide bombers but most of it has been built on West Bank land

"Constructive unilateralism" means withdrawal without terms agreed with the Palestinians.

Its advocates, who include several former IDF top brass and intelligence chiefs like Mr Halevy, claim support from nearly half of Israelis.

The idea recognises what seems to have become reality: that since no negotiated peace is possible, each side should take unilateral steps to try to advance the principle of two states for two people.

Mr Halevy feels confident the "right sentiments" will prevail, though he warns "it will not happen before one minute to midnight."

Israel might then expect to get a better press around the world, with pressure switching to the Palestinians to reciprocate.

What of Hamas in Gaza?

The Israeli hope is that Hamas would look on enviously as the reality of two states emerged, their decree that the whole of the Holy Land has been a sacred Islamic endowment since Muslim conquerors consecrated it in the 7th Century, fading into irrelevance.



And yet ideological burn-out for both sides could just be the last best hope of some kind of resolution to one of history's most visceral and intractable conflicts.

Watch Israel: Facing the Future on BBC 2 on Wednesday at 2100 BST or catch it for seven days afterwards on the BBC iPlayer.