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White water diplomacy

Steering the ship of state through the currents of history is not unlike white water canoeing. Rivers may vary in parts of their course from wide and calm to category “catastrophic “, as may a state in the course of its historical journey. Israel, throughout its brief existence has experienced white water in its most extreme form, and the prospects ahead are more of the same. Let’s look at this metaphor and see whether it can yield some useful insights – always bearing in mind that a metaphor is not reality. 

For successful passage down a turbulent and dangerous river one would need a skipper adept at negotiating the innumerable eddies and localised turbulences which could prematurely capsize the boat. He or she should also be able to read the hidden deep currents, determine where they lead and what they may portend further down the stream. The skipper must have the willingness and skill to utilise all available information in making both immediate and longer-term choices and equally have the mental flexibility and moral courage to re-assess earlier decisions in the light of new facts or emerging information. Thus short-term policies are embedded in a view of the bigger picture of the river all of which is subject to constant revision in the light of new insights or emerging new realities.

For such an endeavour, whether steering a canoe or the ship of state, the qualities required can be enormous: vast experience, deep knowledge, courage, creativity and commonsense. In the political world, such a multitude of skills, information and judgement are rarely embedded in a single individual, but rather in the culture, institutions and people constituting the crew of the ship of state. The stronger that foundation the better able is the skipper, always a temporary position in a democracy, to make the optimum choices under the constraints of place and time.

Using this as the prism through which to view Israel specifically at this point in her historical trajectory, let’s list some of the salient features of her strategic landscape:

  1. White water turbulence: innumerable violent eddies and currents thrown up by the terror groups on her borders ranging from tunnels to rockets to armed insurgents to the Iranian nuclear threat. Threats in the international field include the diplomatic maneuvers  of  Israel’s local and distant enemies (and sometimes allies) including the Palestinians themselves, BDS-type activist groups within both developed and developing countries and the perceived national self-interest of Western states seeking to placate Islamic and oil-rich territories rife with apocalyptic ideologies of martyrdom, power and redemption.

  2. The deeper strategic landscape in which such threats arise. This is an enormous topic in its own right, but perceptions of these longer-term, hidden dynamics profoundly influence policy and day-to-day choices. It is worth mentioning the most obvious:

    • Extremist and violent ideologies sweeping through large portions of the Islamic region in the Middle East-North Africa (MENA) region spilling over into Asia and even the West.

    • Backward, corrupt and authoritarian governments based upon a clan-culture afflicting the area, allied to a fundamentalist and politicised religious revival which feeds into extremist ideologies and terror tactics

    • A Western elite culture which sees colonialism, imperialism and nationalism as the great challenges of the 21st century which, combined with short-term self-interest, leads to policies inimical to Israel’s interests.

    • A Western backlash, at the present confined mainly to the USA and to rightwing parties in Europe and Scandanavia, against Islamic totalitarianism, seen as a major threat to national and Western civilisation.

    • Increasing technological sophistication and rate of innovation which privileges those countries with the skills and culture to benefit thereby, amongst which Israel is a significant player.

    • Small, currently voiceless but potentially significant, groups within the wider Islamic world which recognise the dead-end of current Islamic political culture and wish to join the West in exploiting what technology, embedded in a modern, democratic, individualistic culture, can yield in terms of human well-being and personal fulfillment.

    • Modern communication culture and technology in spreading both good and bad ideas globally.

    • Climatic and related ecological changes which may well devastate backward, overpopulated regions of the globe, leading to greater misery and instability.

    • Reluctant but increasing recognition within the West, especially America, of the potential strategic importance of a strong, democratic and technologically sophisticated Israel embedded in one of the most unstable and backward regions of the world.

  3. The resilient, democratic, technologically sophisticated and innovative (but not impervious) culture of Israel itself.

The currents of the modern world run dark and deep. Some lead to catastrophe, others to hope and others to either outcome depending on externalities. It is impossible for Israel or any other country to opt out or to run counter to the currents of history. Even the very incomplete and simplistic list above reflects the enormously complex contours of the strategic landscape within which Israel (and other states) operate. Those claiming to be able to interpret these multi-dimensional, interactive currents below the surface layer of modern life and to predict outcomes with any degree of long-term certitude are either self-deluded or outright frauds.

Thus despite big data and the attention of the best informed analysts, the inherent uncertainty of the modern world militates strongly against gambles based on gut hunches or elaborate speculation. Most decisions by  rational cultures will of necessity be short-term, prudent responses to immediate turbulence or opportunity while the bigger historical drama continues to unfold in the background revealing new threats and opportunities.

But is it possible to detect some mega-currents or broad principles which help in formulating policy. If we remain tentative and alert to sudden developments both positive and negative, I believe there are. For what it is worth these are some thoughts on this issue:

  1. In general, open, technologically advanced, democratic cultures will easily outperform others. The problem will be for such cultures to maintain the necessary moral and ideological cohesion and tenacity to counter extremist groups driven by the power of an all-consuming ideology.

  2. It such confrontations, the democratic cultures will need to use the power at their disposal in a manner that does not undermine the moral consensus in their own societies while serving as an adequate deterrent against extremist philosophies and movements.

  3. It will be important to offer hope to the most violent of societies and cultures – not hope of victory but the prospect of joining the modern world of human rights, cultural diversity, technological innovation, and the possibility of personal happiness and fulfillment these offer.

  4. Thus the struggle in the world today is not simply physical but ideological. It is vital that the values the enlightened West project are as enticing as the apocalyptic visions driving extremist groups. This is not a new idea: many countries are engaged in such endeavors but it is far from adequate. Ideas like the Peace Corps and Alliance Francais, and others along similar lines, need to be re-conceptualised and implemented far more vigorously than in the past. This project must not be denigrated as ideological colonisation. If the West does not believe in its own animating principles then why should it expect to prevail over the next violent movement arising from the ferment of failed societies? This project will also catalyse in the West itself, important debates on its own future and value systems.

  5. Perhaps most importantly, we need to educate our own society to wean ourselves and others off obsolete, inaccurate and counter-productive myths which serve to consolidate elites in power. The reach and accessibility of the Internet offers almost limitless potential to the spread of good or bad ideas equally. By entering this arena and opening up debate both on local and global issues, Solar Plexus is attempting to promote the best values of modern Western culture as a bulwark against the tides of ignorance, banality and malevolence which are also part of the human condition.

You as readers and contributors are a vital part of this project. I wish you all the best for 2015 and promise, with your help, to do my best to keep this blog both pertinent and provocative.

Mike Berger



2 responses to “White water diplomacy

  1. Mike Berger January 2, 2015 at 7:22 am

    Hear hear. I suspect they will go for the those they trust towards the centre right – especially if fresh troubles break out between now and March. The left will only get stronger when Palestinian and Arab societies change. Very complicated because the Europeans believe (or pretend to believe) in the Palestinian myth of “deliberate Israeli occupation and theft of the lands of innocent victims”.


  2. Geoff Boner December 31, 2014 at 5:04 pm

    Thanks for your thought-provoking blog. We are facing uncertain times, especially here in Israel, where it is far from clear, which parties will be taking part in the elections in March and which parties will form the coalition government. I believe that the many Jewish parties would like to see an independent and successful state of Israel. I can only hope that the results of the elections will result in the formation of a stable government that will be able to find its way through the troubled waters of the Middle East.

    Hope that your have got over your medical problems.

    Wishing you and your family everything of the best for 2015.



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