By Bev Goldman
Business Manager South Africa Israel Chamber of Commerce.
Although a tiny country geographically, Israel’s challenges are enormous, hence it is hardly surprising that the number of think tanks in the country increases steadily. Today, there are dozens of such institutions providing decision makers with high-quality and objective policy research on a range of critical issues.
We have seen how events can confound “even the experts” – most notably 2016. How did the plethora of experts, analysts and predictors get the Brexit vote or the Trump election to the USA Presidency so wrong?
Clearly, predictions on human behaviour are difficult to call, hence the importance of ‘think tanks’ to research and advise. “Policymakers need understandable, reliable, accessible, and useful information about the societies they govern,” according to a 2016 Go To Think Tank Index Report. “They also need to know how current policies are working, as well as to set out possible alternatives and their likely costs and consequences.”
Think tanks may vary by ideological perspectives, sources of funding, topical emphasis and prospective consumers.
In October 2017, a new think was launched in Jerusalem, billing itself as Israel’s “new conservative security think tank” that “seeks to counter debilitating currents in Israeli defence and diplomatic discourse and recapture the mainstream in Zionist security thinking.”
The Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies (JISS) has already made a name for itself as a result of its activities in a number of areas, including “the Jewish people’s historic connection to the land of Israel as a central component of strategic worldview; the salience of security in diplomatic agreements; rejection of unilateral Israeli moves that strengthen adversaries; the importance of strategic cooperation with like-minded allies; the imperative of Israel being able to defend itself by itself; and, critically, the importance of a united Jerusalem to Israel’s security and destiny.”
All these policies and stratagems fall under the main umbrella of reclaiming Zionism. Its worldview is conservative and strategic and, according to its vice-president Eran Lerman, a former deputy head at the National Security Council, it will deal with the basic issues of national security, with an emphasis “on the struggle for the future of Jerusalem.”
Hereunder are a few of the major think-tanks playing a vital role in the Israeli government’s policy-making decisions.
– the Taub Centre for Social Policy Studies does impartial research on socioeconomic conditions in Israel, and develops innovative, equitable and practical options for macro public policies that advance the well-being of Israelis. The Center strives to influence public policy through direct communications with policy-makers and by enriching the public debate that accompanies the decision-making process.
– the BESA Centre (the Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies) is named in memory of Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President, Anwar Sadat, whose ground-breaking Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty laid the cornerstone for conflict resolution in the Middle East. On June 14, 2009, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu chose the BESA Centre podium as the venue for announcing his historic acceptance of the “Two-State Solution”.
-the Israeli Democracy Institute, based in Jerusalem, is an independent centre of research and action dedicated to strengthening the foundations of Israeli democracy and bolstering the values and institutions of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. In the University of Pennsylvania‘s 2014 Global Go To Think Tanks Report, IDI was ranked the twenty-third best think tank in the Middle East and North Africa.
-the Aaron Institute for Economic Policy seeks to sustain economic growth and social strength in the country by developing modern and innovative strategies and policy tools for the Israeli economy. Based at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya (IDC) which today has over 60 students from South Africa, the institute’s main aim is to develop policy strategies that eliminate weaknesses and empower the strengths of the Israeli economy. Its research focuses on multiple industries while examining the various reform tools and cross-referencing data with modern technologically developed countries while seeking ways of increasing cross sectorial growth by changes to industrial sectors.
–the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs (JCPA) specialises in public diplomacy and foreign policy. Founded in 1976, it primarily researches defensible borders; Jerusalem in International diplomacy; Iran and the new threats to the West; and combating delegitimization.
This think-tank focuses on Iran, radical Islam, the Middle East, Israel, the peace process, Jerusalem, antisemitism and world Jewry. Its Director of the Political Warfare Project, Dan Diker, in January co-penned an article with David Kaplan and Rolene Marks in South Africa’s Daily Maverick “Why Oscar van Heerden insults South Africa’s intelligence’. It exposed the lack of academic research and prejudice against Israel of the South African “academic”, Dr. Oscar van Heerden.
– Established in 2000, the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS) – also based at the IDC Herzliya – is the convener of Israel’s most prestigious annual conference, the ‘Herzliya Conference’, which aspires to contribute to Israel’s national security and resilience. The Institute conducts integrative and comprehensive policy analysis on the challenges facing Israel, identifying opportunities and threats, producing strategic insights and policy recommendations for decision-makers, and informs the public and policy discourse. Often referred to as “Israel’s Davos”, the Conference is annually attended by participants from South Africa.
-the nonpartisan policy think tank Reut Institute in Tel Aviv provides real-time, long-term strategic decision-support to Israeli policymakers, aiming to “identify the gaps in current policy and strategy in Israel and the Jewish world, and work to build and implement new visions.” Reut is not akin to the traditional ‘think-tank’ model in that its methodology is very different: it focuses on unique cutting-edge theory, software tools, and impact strategy. It aims to provide early warning of strategic surprises and opportunities and to design strategies to avoid or seize them respectively.
“We don’t provide the answers, we frame the questions: we help people in positions of leadership, authority and influence identify and abandon old paradigms and refocus their thinking.”
These, and other think tanks that proliferate across the land, are suppliers of vital information to Knesset members and the public. They are peopled by some of the finest Israeli minds, often drawn from the ranks of academia. They focus on ensuring that policies and strategies adopted for the security, development and future growth of the Israeli state and its citizens are aligned with the needs of the latter – their continued prosperity, the resilience and cohesion of the Jewish people both inside and outside of the country, and the country’s standing in the international community.
Reading through some of the documents that come from these various think tanks is fascinating but simultaneously puzzling.
Are they official government policy? And if not, why not?
In many cases, their proposals and tactics seem to make more sense than the myriad of bureaucratic decisions which are often made reactively rather than proactively, and which appear to fly in the face of public consensus. They are reflective and profound and have clearly been analysed at length.
The Good, The Bad and The Great
It all makes fascinating reading.
One research paper that particularly resonated for me was JISS’s Professor Ephraim Inbar’s recently published “The Future of Israel Looks Good”.
“Time,” wrote the professor, “is on Israel’s side.” His review of the balance of power between Israel and its foes; of the domestic features moulding Israel’s national power; and of Israel’s standing in the international community, “validates the assessment that Israel has the dominant hand for the foreseeable future.”
Inbar argues that Israel’s powerful military machine in overcoming numerous military challenges has enhanced its deterrence; and the decline in the intensity of the Arab-Israeli conflict is a direct result of its military superiority. The welcome beginnings of a peace process with several Arab states translates into a diminished likelihood of another large-scale conventional Arab-Israeli conflict.
Countering the endless threat of missiles on its civilian population, Israel deploys impressive anti-missile systems, which include the Iron Dome that in its encounters with Gazan terrorists, intercepted 88% of incoming projectiles. Inbar however warns that “these systems cannot provide a full defence in view of the numbers of missiles arrayed against Israel.”
The bad news – and there is always bad news – is a nuclear Iran which presents a grave national security challenge not only to Israel but to the region and beyond. This threat could start a nuclear arms race transforming a regional balance of power. While the emergence of a nuclear Iran is potentially catastrophic, Israel is believed capable of neutralising this existential threat.
But hey – what about the good, the better news? In 2010, recognition of Israel’s economic achievements opened the door to its becoming a member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a brotherhood of the world’s 33 most developed countries that are committed to democracy and a market economy. Sound economic policies, an emphasis on market values, and a seamless adaptation to globalisation have resulted in Israel emerging as one of the most developed market economies, driven in large part by its science and technology sectors as well as its sophisticated manufacturing and agriculture areas.
While Israel has achieved so much in seven decades, I have taken a more sombre posture noting Israel’s position within the orbit of its international placing on the world stage.
What of Israel’s other stumbling blocks? What of the country’s social rifts? The Ashkenazi-Sephardic cleavage? The Palestinian citizens in the West Bank territories? Their accusations of apartheid and ethnic cleansing? The grim lives and the overcrowding in Gaza? And what future plans are there for that populace, many of whom want only an ordinary life, transport, freedom, movement, safety, education, health care?
Worth Thinking About
Think tanks work so long as those who people them, and those to whom their findings are conveyed, work simultaneously to secure their verification and their implementation. This demands leadership of the highest calibre with a commitment to pursue improved living standards rather than only planning for military crises.
And so, despite the odds and obstacles, Israel at almost 71 is a great success story. Its future will remain bright as long as it continues implementing prudent domestic and foreign policies and remains successful in transmitting a Zionist ethos to future generations. While peace with all its neighbours “is desirable,” says Prof. Inbar, “that eventuality is not a necessary condition for Israel’s survival or prosperity in the medium-to-long-term.”
Words of wisdom, words of comfort, words of reassurance.