AMU Middle East Original

Israel: A New Model for Small Countries Seeking Improvement

By Ilan Fuchs, Ph.D.
Faculty Member, Legal Studies

Politics is typically studied from many different lenses and viewpoints, but also through several academic disciplines. Be it law, history, international relations, and political science, there are similar ideas about the political and international arenas.

At the University, I teach about international law. Many of my students come from different academic disciplines, but mainly international relations.

When you look at the written material at the core of international relations, power in the international arena is mostly seen as the result of a country’s possession of natural resources, which translate to economic and military power. However, the second half of the 20th century showed that there are other types of power structures.

In some areas of Africa and South America, some countries that gained independence in the 1950s and 1960s still suffer from debilitating rates of poverty and have failed to establish functioning governments. Can their power structure be shifted?

New Book Suggests That Israel Could Serve as a Model for How Small, Resource-Poor Countries Can Change

This year, a new book by Dr. Yossi Ives suggests that third-world states and aid organizations should change their outlook on society building, and he offers Israel as a model. His book, “A Light From Zion: Why Israeli Innovation Matters to the World,” published by Post Hill Press,  presents an interesting question.

That question is: How did Israel, a small country established in 1948 with a socialist government, a closely regimented economy and no major natural resources become one of the top 28 economies in the world? Can other countries follow Israel’s model?

Dr. Ives approached these questions from his experience as the founder and chairman of Tag International Development. This book is a culmination of the work he has done with non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and Dr. Ives suggests that Israel is a test case for why we should look at international relations and state building differently in the 21st century.

Dr. Ives’ book argues that Israel was a third-world economy with unfavorable conditions at its beginning. Like many other third-world economies, Israel did not have natural resources or even good conditions for agriculture.

He credits this transformation to several issues which he describes in detail in his 310-page book. Four of these issues are higher education with a focus on STEM, a culture of innovation, infrastructure projects and social solidarity.

The book talks about paradigm shifts and shows how Israel is an example for a larger phenomenon. Now, more countries can play a role in the global political arena, and the playing field is not limited anymore to the biggest countries with the most natural resources, the largest economies, and the biggest military machines. Dr. Ives notes that the leaps and bounds of the technological revolution democratized global economy and changed the balance of power.

The book discusses how in the fields of agriculture, water desalination, tourism and technology Israel moved from a third-world economy in the 1950s to the status of an economic powerhouse. Israel’s economic power has subsequently raised its diplomatic stature in spite of Israel’s small size and lack of access to natural resources. 

Israel’s culture of innovation is described in detail, and the book suggests some intriguing explanations for this culture, which spans various industry fields. Israel’s government supports innovation and that same innovation is also celebrated in a robust higher education system heavily invested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

This higher education system predates the establishment of Israel and was essential for the creation of a thriving information technology (IT) sector not limited by the scarcity of natural resources or the difficulty of shipping products to Europe and North America. Israel’s long-term investment in infrastructure projects has also aided its growth.   

Dr. Ives’ book does not claim that the socialist character of Israel in its first decades brought about the culture of innovation. However, Dr. Ives says that socialism created a social network through institutions such as the kibbutz movement, the powerful central union of Israeli workers (Histadrut) or the vast array of organizations that assist Israelis with their disabilities. This social network created a buy-in for social solidarity from different sectors within Israel.

Scholars such as Seth Kaplan espouse this same theory, talking about the resilience of societies and the ability to tap into the social capital of a society. In other words, a social network that makes sure society buys into the need to take care of all its members – including those with disabilities or limited financial resources – creates a political atmosphere of resilience. That resilience leads to an effective political system and societal cohesiveness, as well as a strong economic ecosystem and a culture of innovation.

This book makes a compelling argument that this culture of resilience promotes social capital and advances Israel’s economic ecosystem. The transformation of Israel from a tiny agrarian economy with a strictly regulated market and union-controlled industries a union to one of the strongest economies in the world in a span of 70 years begs for an explanation. The ideas presented in Dr. Ives’ book should make everyone interested in international relations and development studies to pause and reflect on Israel’s transformation.

Infrastructure projects are definitely helpful to third-world economies. But the need to build a civil society is equally essential for the long-term development of societies and economies.

From Dr. Ives’ arguments, it seems we need to rethink what we mean by a civil society. A civil society doesn’t necessarily involve converting a country with no democratic culture to a full-fledged constitutional democracy within a few years.

Instead, a civil society involves the slow process of creating a social network to build national resilience and a buy-in to the national and civil ethics of a society. According to Dr. Ives, the Israeli example proves that we should rethink how we look on international development and how international aid resources are spent.

If the failure of political engineering in the Middle East and Africa has taught us anything, it’s that the wishful thinking that aid money can buy the westernization of non-Western societies is doomed to fail. Perhaps, a long-term view of a country’s history would be more beneficial to its development.

Ilan Fuchs

Dr. Ilan Fuchs is a scholar of international law and legal history. He holds a B.A. in Humanities and Social Science from The Open University of Israel and an M.A. in Jewish history from Bar-Ilan University. Ilan’s other degrees include an LL.B., an LL.M. and a Ph.D. in Law from Bar-Ilan University. He is the author of “Jewish Women’s Torah Study: Orthodox Education and Modernity,” and 18 articles in leading scholarly journals. At the University, Ilan teaches courses on international law while maintaining a law practice in several jurisdictions.

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