Israel is looking fantastic.
True, the headlines are dominated by one crisis after another, internal and external. The riots by Ethiopians angry at police brutality. The mounting threat of a nuclear Iran. The Palestinians’ refusal to discuss peace. The near-collapse of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new coalition.
And yet from a broader perspective, the country is thriving as never before, and maintaining a relentless day-to-day optimism in the face of its many challenges.
This past week, I returned from a whirlwind five-day trip to Israel, where I covered a conference on law and terrorism organized by Shurat HaDin, a legal advocacy group that sues terrorists on behalf of victims and their families. It was, somewhat inexcusably, my first trip back to Israel in nearly eight years. And the changes were remarkable—the result of a rapidly growing economy, an increasing birthrate, and vastly improved national security, which enables everything else.
The changes were most noticeable in Jerusalem. Eight years ago, security guards and fences were still ubiquitous around every restaurant and café. If you wanted to go out to eat, you had to be prepared to subject yourself and your belongings to a thorough search, because terrorists had made a habit of blowing themselves up in places of public accommodation.
Now the only place that still has the same level of security is the bus station—and even that is more relaxed.
The reason public life has become safer and more convenient is that the much-reviled security barrier—the so-called “wall,” which is actually a fence for most of its length—actually worked.
The far-left, and the international community, argued that the wall was illegal and immoral and called for its immediate removal. Though the Israeli Supreme Court did order the barrier moved in several places, it remained up, saving thousands of innocent lives, both Jew and Arab.
One of the more interesting effects of the barrier is that there are more Arabs in predominantly Jewish parts of West Jerusalem than before. That was already visible eight years ago, but seems more evident today. One reason is that more Arabs have moved to West Jerusalem in order to avoid being on the wrong side of the barrier. But another reason is simply that in an atmosphere of improved public safety, there is less everyday tension between Jews and Arabs.
Perhaps the most exciting part of my trip was my visit to OurCrowd, the high-tech investors who are bringing Israeli high-tech companies to market and helping American startups as well, in Silicon Valley and beyond. The rapid growth of that company, which is housed inside an old stone spice warehouse on what used to be a shooting border between Israel and Jordan, is a symbol of how Israel’s ongoing prosperity is opening new opportunities for the world in general.
A few steps away from OurCrowd is the First Station, a restored train station that now serves as a public square, with restaurants, pubs, shops, and a stage. It was buzzing at lunchtime, where I enjoyed freshly-ground hummus, and it was alive at night, with salsa dancing late into the spring evening. Extending south from the station is the new Train Track Park, which turned a weedy, fenced-off eyesore into a bicycle and running path that preserves the romance of the railroad.
The sounds and sights of building are everywhere. On the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem road, where Arab snipers once took out Israeli medical convoys, the government is building a new “high-speed” rail line, a project of dubious economic value but spectacular ambition.
Jerusalem itself enjoys a light rail line that runs along what were once some of the most congested streets in the city. The downtown is essentially a pedestrian mall filled with happy people on their way somewhere. Jerusalem has achieved all of the above without sacrificing its religious serenity, or its subtle romance.
And Tel Aviv, a gleaming contradiction of glass skyscrapers and ramshackle Bauhaus concrete, is as addictive as ever, a beach town with a Manhattan pulse.
I had little time to see the rest of the country, but simply took in the multicultural crush of Thursday evening rush hour on the northbound train to Pardes Hannah, and the golden peace of a Shabbat in the West Bank town of Efrat.
What is the secret to Israel’s success? It has some unique assets: some, arguably, are directly related to the threats it faces.
But on the most basic level, Israel seems to have the formula of statecraft right, prioritizing national security and economic growth above all else.
There are costs to that approach—rising inequality, for one—but what a contrast to moribund Europe, and to the grim stagnation into which Barack Obama has sunk the United States.