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Israel: Analysis from Washington -- 50 Years Of Nation-Building Teach A Few Lessons

Washington, 30 April 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The commemorations of Israel's 50th anniversary have focused on that country's many unique features. And while understandable, such an approach has distracted the attention of many from the lessons Israel can teach other new countries as they seek to carve out a permanent place in the world.

Among the most important of these are the role of democracy in producing social cohesion and stability, the importance of relying on oneself rather than others for the defense of the country, and the value of making peace with one's former enemies from a position of strength rather than weakness.

Because each of these lessons calls into question assertions often heard in the post-communist states, they deserve closer scrutiny than they have received so far.

First of all, Israel's democratic political system has brought that country far greater political stability than the authoritarian political arrangements of her neighbors have brought them. Despite its frequent fractiousness, democracy there has helped to renew the country's political elite at regular intervals.

It has allowed Israel to adapt to changing demographic and political realities without the violence that has often accompanied such shifts in non-democratic countries. Contrary to the predictions of some, Israel has been remarkably adept at including new social groups without pushing the founding community out of politics altogether.

And it has helped to bind a very diverse country together in the face of the greatest challenge any nation can face: repeated direct threats to its national existence. Indeed, the sense of community that Israelis almost automatically had by virtue of the history of their people has been strengthened by that country's democratic political arrangements.

These virtues of democracy are even more striking if one compares Israel with her neighbors, countries that have not chosen to be democracies and that have suffered instability and defeat as a result.

Second, Israel has always made it clear that its people rely first and foremost on themselves for their country's national security. While Israel has been remarkably successful in attracting aid from other democratic states who see it as their natural ally, Jerusalem and the Israeli people have never been willing to entrust their security to others.

Instead, and in the face of numerous threats from its neighbors, Israel has been willing to devote far more of its own energy and resources to national defense than virtually any other country on earth. Not only is Israel a democratic state, it is a country in arms, a people willing to stand up to anyone in order to make sure that Israel will celebrate many more anniversaries in the future.

This self-reliance is in sharp contrast not only to Israel's neighbors, many of whom routinely looked to other states and especially to the Soviet Union to take care of them, but also to many post-Soviet states who are unwilling or in some cases unable to devote even minimal amounts of money and time to national defense.

Like Israel, many of them live in dangerous neighborhoods and must be concerned about their national security. But unlike Israel, all too many of them seem to be waiting for the emergence of some new and this time "good" big brother to take responsibility for them.

The contrast between Israel and her neighbors provides a useful object lesson on why such an approach is unlikely to work.

And third, Israel's democratic system and its willingness to take responsibility for its own defense have created a situation in which Israel is now able to make peace with its former enemies, not out of weakness but from a position of strength. Indeed, precisely because it does not have to make concessions, Israel is now able to do so in order to gain the even greater rewards of peace.

In recent times, some have suggested that Israel's democratic system is an obstacle to peace because of the ability of some political parties to slow or even block parts of the peace process. But such assessments are almost certainly wrong on three counts. First, as in most democracies, the majority of Israelis want peace. Second, a political system that allows opponents to express their views is by definition stronger than one that does not.

And third, and ultimately most important, any peace concluded by a democratic country like Israel will ultimately have to have the support of the overwhelming majority of the population. It may take Israel longer to sign a peace than it would take some more authoritarian countries. But a peace signed by a democratic country is far more likely to last than an accord signed by countries with authoritarian governments that ignore the views of their own people.

Obviously, Israel's uniqueness is important. And equally obviously, not every country can follow Israel's lead on these three points. But it would be unfortunate if other countries looking at that country's remarkable first half-century did not learn from the lessons that Israel has to teach.