Start-Up Nation authors Dan Senor and Saul Singer have done it again. In their new book The Genius of Israel, they showcase some of the remarkable advantages of Israeli society. Equipped with abundant charts and statistics, they demonstrate that Israel enjoys an extraordinary quality of life, ranking close to the top of global lists of “happiness” and life expectancy. Israel does not contend with “deaths of despair” from alcoholism, drug abuse or suicide at anywhere near the levels of other developed Western nations. Israelis enjoy rich social networks and connections, especially with family and friends, which give them an enviable feeling of belonging, fulfillment, purpose and meaning.
When confronted with such findings, however, Israelis are often surprised. Life in Israel is supposed to be hard. Israeli public discourse is one of constant criticism. Israelis don’t think of themselves as living in an Edenic country. On the contrary, they lament the lack of the calm, peaceful and abundant life that countries like Holland, Scandinavia or Canada enjoy.
I suggest that we take this Israeli discontent seriously, not despite but because of Senor and Singer’s findings.
I believe this discontent is related to the elephant in the room: the unresolved conflict with the Palestinians. It affects everyone and everything. As a result of it, both the right and the left are beset with a nagging sense of incompleteness. The right is vexed because full annexation of the Land of Israel has not been realized. The left is displeased because there is no peace agreement with the Palestinians or a Palestinian state.
To Israelis, a resolution of this issue is an important part of state-building. To the right, it would establish the state in the full territory of the national homeland. To the left, it would mean stable and internationally recognized borders and legitimacy.
This dilemma is apparent even during the current war. Discussions about “the day after” gravitate towards the two poles: Jewish settlement in Gaza and ultimate annexation vs. the seeding of a Palestinian state under a “revitalized Palestinian Authority” or some other form of Palestinian self-governance.
Senor and Singer seem to view the Palestinian issue as unrelated to their narrative of Israeli happiness. When asked about it in a recent interview, Singer replied, “You can’t write about everything.”
I believe they are related, however. For example, the Palestinian challenge helps create a sense of meaning and belonging. As in the national mobilization that immediately followed the Oct. 7 massacre, Palestinian terror focuses the collective Israel mind: If we don’t hang together, we will “surely hang separately.” Thus, the conflict encourages the cooperative behavior at which Israelis excel.
More importantly, with the failure of the peace process, Israelis shifted their efforts to the high-tech sector and the startup project ecosystem. They began to invest their energies inwardly. It is not a coincidence that the Israeli high-tech industry began to take off in the early 2000s after the Palestinians destroyed the Oslo process by launching a protracted terror campaign.
The apostle of the high-tech revolution was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Indeed, he came to see it as essentially a replacement for efforts to resolve the Palestinian issue. What Shimon Peres wanted to achieve with the Oslo process—the integration of Israel into the global economy and peace with neighboring Arab states—Netanyahu sought to achieve through Israeli high-tech and innovation. He was not far wrong. Netanyahu eventually realized the Abraham Accords and, just before the Israel-Hamas war, was preparing to sign a similar agreement with Saudi Arabia.
The problem with Netanyahu’s approach, however, was that it required constant minimalization of the Palestinians and their demands. The message from Israeli leaders and specifically from the prime minister was that—contrary to the assumptions of the Europeans, the Americans and the Israeli left—the Palestinians were not the key to regional stability and prosperity in the Middle East. The Palestinians were too deterred, too cowed and too weak to really cause trouble. They were considered a local nuisance that could be dealt with by sending a few combat units into Jenin or engaging in short and limited clashes with Hamas in Gaza.
In other words, the fact that Israeli forces were caught flat-footed on Oct. 7 was not a “bug.” It was a feature of Israel’s strategic paradigm. The intelligence that Israel received before the attack was ignored because to admit that the Palestinians posed a serious threat would have meant upending the strategy of the entire defense and foreign policy establishment, which had been cultivated by the prime minister for over a decade. The senior and mid-level commanders who let the troops sleep, ignored the warnings of the “look-out girls,” did not investigate breakdowns in the electronic warning system and did not eavesdrop on Hamas cell phones were not “negligent,” “forgetful” or “remiss.” They were implementing national strategy.
We must understand and internalize this fact if we hope to learn the lessons of Oct. 7.