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Democratic State

While protests rage across the Arab Middle East, Israel stands as a regional model of resiliency, relevance, and democratic adaptability. And the Arab states will have to be more like it to survive.

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Voting in Jerusalem, February 10, 2009. (David Silverman/Getty Images)
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Hosni Mubarak was a key U.S. ally who upheld the Arab world’s first peace treaty with Israel. By letting his regime fall, Barack Obama has threatened the survival of the Jewish state.

Last week I argued that Israel is finished, given the current state of the Middle East. The fall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt is only the latest setback in a decade of extraordinary strategic debacles for Israel, I contended, including the failure of peace negotiations with the Palestinians, the 2006 war in Lebanon, the 2009 war in Gaza, the rise of Iran as a regional hegemon, the radicalization of Turkey, the ebbing of American military power and influence, and the accompanying de-legitimization of the Jewish State. Together, they have left this tiny Westernized nation adrift in a sea of enmity that it is unlikely to survive.

This week I’ll argue the other side—not just that Israel will be fine but rather that it is the rest of the Middle East that is in big trouble. Recent history and statistics show that in order to survive Arab and Muslim societies are going to have to forget about the notion of an Islamic alternative to modernity and will instead have to adopt what they have typically described as Western values but are in reality the universal values of political modernity. Learning to live like the West is not going to come through buying more Western goods—from cell-phones to tanks—or even earning more Western diplomas but by embracing those values as embodied by the one country in the region that lives them. The Arab model for success is not Iran, or Turkey, but Israel.

In its essence, Israel is the West—a culmination of its successes and a symbol of its failures, a reminder of a millennia-old madness, anti-Semitism, and the failure of the Enlightenment. Criticism of Israel is very often a reflection of the bad faith of a Western intelligentsia and political class uncomfortable with its history and unsure of its moral bearings. That Europeans frequently hold negative attitudes toward Israel while the vast majority of Americans are favorable to it can be explained in part by how each society came out of World War II.

Europe’s war, and the mass slaughter of its Jews, revealed that the continent’s great cathedrals were built upon a bedrock of pagan barbarism celebrated in different ways by Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin. It was left to the United States to pick up the banner of Western civilization and lead the West to victory during the Cold War after the Europeans had trashed it.

Unlike their European cousins, contemporary Americans still read the Bible and understand that the Jewish nation is a historical reality connected to a living narrative that shapes the present in a constructive and desirable way. Americans abandoned replacement theology (or the notion that Jesus’ resurrection superseded God’s covenant with the Jews) after the Holocaust in order to embrace their elder brothers—as did Pope John Paul II, who lent his moral authority to President Ronald Reagan’s conviction that America’s victory in the Cold War was a historical necessity.

That is to say, pro-Israel Americans have also tended to misunderstand Israel’s place in the world. Yes, the point of Jewish self-determination is that the Jews can protect themselves. Yet the West needs Israel to succeed, because its success is a marker of our ability and determination to defend our values and our interests, in the Middle East and elsewhere.

And the truth is that Israel has been doing a remarkably good job of it, especially in the past 20 years. Israel is an IT powerhouse with more companies listed on the NASDAQ stock exchange than any other country except the United States, and its scientists have produced more tech patents than all of Asia. Last year Israel ranked 17th out of 58 of the world’s most economically developed nations, while the country’s economy was rated the most durable in the face of crises and rated first in investments in research and development centers. The Bank of Israel was ranked first among central banks for its efficient functioning.

Contrasting Israel’s performance with that of its neighbors, most of whom still abide by the half-century-long Arab boycott of the Jewish state, throws Israel’s achievements into even sharper relief. Consider Egypt, with a literacy rate anywhere between 50 to 70 percent, and considerably lower among women. The country’s unemployment rate is believed to be twice the official level of 10 percent, and 40 percent of the population lives on less than two dollars a day. While the Syrian regime proudly supports the resistance, thousands of its own people are suffering with a drought in the eastern part of the country that has ravaged crops and livestock. Iran’s nuclear program and full-throated opposition to the United States and the Zionist entity may make it the envy of some fans of resistance in the region, but the fact is that an Iranian bomb is the Hail Mary pass of a dying society where there’s been no economic development for 30 years.

If you follow these two trend lines, it is easy to project what the fate of these two different civilizations is likely to be. Israel will enjoy the ups and navigate the downs of the global economy and, if the last two years are any indication, will weather those setbacks better than most. For the Arabs things are only going to get worse.

The college graduates who took to the streets in Cairo to protest their lack of opportunity are going to have to keep coming back because the problem was not simply the corruption of the Mubarak regime. Rather, the issue is that the Egyptian people themselves are deluded if they think bogus business degrees are going to earn them a place in a globalized economy. By and large, the Arabs are simply not prepared to compete with the rest of the world. When the oil runs out, it will crush not only the energy-exporting nations but all of the Arab countries whose economies, like Egypt’s, depend heavily on guest-worker receipts from the Arab Gulf states. As such, every weapon purchased by an Arab regime is effectively a down payment on a forthcoming Mad Max vision of the Middle East—including a series of civil wars like the one now under way in Libya.

The only way for the Arabs to avoid that scenario is for them to become more like Israel. Because Israel is the West, it is essential for Arab political, social, and economic development that the people of the region break with the past and embrace the Israelification of their societies. If not, the current popular demonstrations will end in yet another round of benighted dictatorships, as has repeatedly happened in the region, starting with the era of Arab independence in the 1940s.

The other choice—the typical choice—is to fight Israel, which is in the end little but a token of Arab despair. As the Arab uprisings have shown, the problems of Middle Eastern societies have little to do with Israel. So even if the dreams of Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the other guardians of the resistance were fully realized and they were able to destroy Israel tomorrow, corruption, repression, and obscurantism would still be rotting away Middle Eastern societies.

The West and its values—what Israel stands for—will survive, no matter how many suicide bombers the Islamic resistance throws at it. That tactic, even if tied to religious concepts like jihad, has a built-in limit to its effectiveness in the face of people who are determined to defend themselves. Hassan Nasrallah mocks those who love life and boasts that the resistance loves death. But in the end, it will make little difference if Egypt eventually joins its army to the forces of the resistance bloc, adding tanks and planes to Hezbollah and Hamas’ rockets, Syria’s missiles, and Iran’s forthcoming bomb. The reality is that the party of life will fight to preserve it, while the party that cherishes death will reap what it desires in abundance.

Nonetheless, I do believe that, as I argued last week, events over the last few years have presented serious threats to the Jewish state—not least of which is a delegitimization campaign waged not in the region itself but from the capitals of Europe. It is a peculiar moment in history, to see Europe tottering on the precipice of resentment and obscurantism while the uprisings in the Middle East over the last two months have shown that the Arabs are perhaps on the verge of something new. Maybe the protests reveal not a revolution as such but a recognition.

Up until now, one of the more bizarre and widespread beliefs in the region is that Israel wants to be the only democracy in the Middle East—as if democracy were a limited resource it needed to hoard, like oil. The uprisings suggest that the Arabs may have come to recognize that, to paraphrase the late Egyptian writer Taha Hussein, liberty is free to everyone, like air and water.

I certainly hope so, for Israel is doing fine and the conclusion of my brief dialectic is that it will continue to thrive. The real concern is for the fate of the Arabs. The longer they continue to make Israel the focus of rejectionism and hatred, the more impossible it will become for them to join the West and arrest the death-spiral of their societies and economies. The inability of Western observers who claim to care about the fate of these societies and their people to make this point clearly and repeatedly has only damaged the cause of Arab social and political development. Now, in the midst of all the excitement following the Arab uprisings, is a moment that calls for such clarity.

Since the beginning of the Zionist enterprise, supporters like Winston Churchill have argued that the Jews of Israel would have a positive influence on their neighbors—that their industry and their values would rub off on the Arabs. Outside of Israel’s own Arab community, that hasn’t yet been the case. Either that will change now or it won’t. But whether the Arabs embrace Israel and the West, or decline into total economic, cultural, and military irrelevance within the next generation, Israel will survive and prosper.

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Carl says:

Look at the Arab countries–There is not one that you would call a true democracy. Why is that? Islam itself is not the answer as there are non-Arab Islamic countries (although not many). There are 2 reasons–one is the form of Islam that is practiced in Arab countries which is toxic to the development of participatory democracy and the other is their total inability to identify, admit and solve their problems. Everything is the fault of the West and especially the Jews. It’s no coincidence that the only place left in the world where no one sees anything wrong with the most virulent form of antisemitism is thew Arab world. Unfortunately the West with its cult of the victim feeds these tendencies.
The Arabs and especially the Palestinians would only benefit by a real peace agreement with Israel.

Simon says:

The grand omission of the piece is the demographic timebomb of the Haredi community. This population is effectively a jewish analogue of the radical islamist movements that often hinder the ability of israel’s neighbors to implement sound policies. This constituency, which currently represents 9% of the population, will increasingly undermine both the democratic secular institutions and the economic prosperity of the Jewish state, as a result of their staggeringly high birth rates, contempt for work, and radical social views. Ignore that at your own peril.

Bennett Muraskin says:

Israel is a democratic state like the US was a democratic state before the civil rights revolution. Democracy for Jews, not for Arabs.

Arab citizens face rampant discrimination in nearly all walks of life and that fact that they vote does not mitigate the discrimination.

Anti-Arab racism is rampant in Israel.

Furthermore, there is no separation of religion and state in Israel, another undemocratic feature.

Only when Israel becomes a state of all its citizens rather than a state that privileges one ethno-religious group will it become truly democratic.

Being more democratic than Arab states (until now) is nothing to brag about.

Douglas Wilson says:

Israel certainly does have a vital and effective democracy. But there are still a lot of us who grieve over the passing of the Labor Party into an apparently permanent minority status, so that policies of restraint and compassion have given over to hardline policies of aggression and expansion. By all means let’s hope for honestly democratic governments in the changing Arab states, but I will hope that they will refrain from stealing land and otherwise oppressing their Palestinian neighbors as Israel is doing.

richard says:

If the Arabs don’t learn from Israel’s success they are doomed to live in near poverty for ever and to get further and further behind the West.They will just go from one civil war to the next. In barely sixty years the Israelis have created more than all the surrounding Arab countries combined. If they would permit peace to the Israelis the whole Middle East could bloom- but I don’t think they have the sense or the leadership to do that. Although the Haredi are an increasding presence in Israel – they do not suffer from the hatred and intolerance of the Muslim extremists.

Carl says:

Doug–I got news for you. The 1967 War and the fist settlements on the West Bank occurred when the Labor party was in power. The labor party died because the “oppressed Palestinians” killed it by showing that the Oslo peace accords (engineered by the Labor party) was a joke.

A.L. Bell says:

I guess Tablet has told columnists on the left and the right, “Go be as extreme as you can be, even if you don’t necessarily exactly believe what you’re writing, because that will drive up our unique visitor counts, and an increase in unique visitor counts and time on site will increase our ad revenue.”

That’s fine with, say, movie reviews, but I think the problem with applying the “hard left/hard right=$$$” approach to issues that matter is that fomenting anger about conflicts may actually make the underlying problems worse.

Anyone who loves Israel should be scared to death right now, and yes, the Arab countries around her have serious problems with figuring out how to do democracy, but I wish there was more of a focus on all of us who are reasonable trying to help all other reasonable people muddle through in a tough world, not so much on the ego thing.

Eric Weis says:

What is happening in the Mideast now is nothing new. Conflict has raged for centuries, if not millenia. And despite all her flaws (of which there are many), Israel is a democracy with a parliament and governments which change every once in a while. Find another state in this region, the Levant, which can make that claim. There isn’t one. Now, I think (or hope) that we can make an old distinction relevant, between the Near East and the Middle East. The countries of northern Africa belong to the Near East. They have always been more closely tied to Europe than the the Arabian peninsula, at least until oil was discovered beneath the dunes. Let’s hope that the young people of these countries will continue to desire a modern lifestyle and relations with the West. And in Egypt’s case, we can hope that they do not wish to discard the benefits of tourism. So, despite the uncertainty of these days, I remain hopeful that a new nexus of peaceful co-existence will emerge, not based on the will of a general or dictator, but rather based on the common interests of young people who wish to live with a modicum of peace and stability. There is one exception to this hope and that is Iran (fka Persia). It is unlike the Near East. It must be contained. Iran remains the only true existential threat, not only to Israel’s existence, but also to world peace. We must not lose our focus on the real enemy, the Ayatollahs who have successfully obliterated dissent and continue to do so, each and every day. Talk to Salman Rushdie about that. Qaddafi is a “despot in a teapot”, compared to the Iranian clerics and their puppet Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Ken Besig, Israel says:

Israel will continue to prosper and thrive while our Arab enemies will continue to wallow in self pity and violence.
This is because Jewish Israel has a religious culture and ethos which celebrates life, knowledge, and understanding while Arab Islam is immersed in ignorance, poverty, and hatred.

M. Brukhes says:

I actually agree with one, central argument that Lee Smith makes in this piece: Israel IS the West, with all of its contradictions and dubious historical legacies (freedom for some, occupation for others: England in Northern Ireland and France in Algeria couldn’t have done it better–so no wonder so many people in England and France hate Israel today?!); Israel is a contradictory place precisely the way almost all liberal democracies are–the U.S. included–because modern liberal democracies are all built upon contradictory premises, impulses, and institutions. As Smith’s hero Winston Churchill once put it, “democracy is the worst form of government in the world, except for all the others”….

That being said, given the choice between contradictory liberal democracy and repressive dictatorship, presumably anyone reading this website would agree with me that the former is infinitely preferable to the latter. It’s heartening to know that essentially the entire Arab world is now in the process of also affirming this point. The process is still evolving, and none of us know where it’s heading; it’s far, far too early to start popping champagne corks, and besides Muslims aren’t supposed to drink champagne. If this is the 1989 of the Arab world, we still don’t know who is going to wind up like Poland or Germany, and who like Bosnia or Byelorus. But right now the Arab world is uniting around the rejection of corrupt and repressive business as usual. That in itself is a good thing, and the fact that their uprising has nothing to do with Israel–and efforts on the parts of dictators to pin the blame there are meeting with unanimous contempt–is cause for celebration and even something approaching the audacity of hope.

To be continued….

Bennett Muraskin says:
“Being more democratic than Arab states (until now) is nothing to brag about.”
I reread the article several times and I fail to find any bragging about being “more democratic”.
If Mr. Muraskin is capable of sane, objective thinking, even he would agree that the way that Arabs in most Arab countries are treated is worse than Arabs are in Israel. None of that, of course, is the point. The article author’s point is that — as a model for advancement in the Middle East — Israel is the best model of all Middle Eastern countries.
One can have an honest, informed discussion about that (key word informed). Pointing out that Israel is not perfect does not change the economic, creative, educational facts and the contributions it makes to the world at large. Nor does it change the fact that it does not take riots and killings in order to change governments in Israel. It is true that many Israeli politicians are corrupt and use their positions to steal money for themselves and their friends, these politicians are removed by the judicial and political systems — not by massed crowds. And, the pols don’t get to shoot at protesters.
But, of course, Mr. Muraskin shows no interest in anything but in banging his “poor victims” drum.
While it may be true that “There are none so blind as those who cannot see”, it may be more true There are none so blind as those who MUST see.
Thank you, Mr. Muraskin for helping to make that point.

Joseph says:

The Arab problem is mainly Islam. A religion of submission is the opposite of what’s required in the modern world. As a “social operating system,” Islam is simply an inferior operating principle. Just as a Roman cohort was a better fighting system than the Greek phalanx. So until the Arabs modify Islam, just as Christians modified Christianity in the Renaissance, and Jews modified Judaism in the Enlightenment, the Arabs are destined to bumble around in their misery, while Israel prospers.
Indeed, I bet that in 50 years, Tel Aviv will extend from Beirut in the North to Gaza in the south, the latter then being a slum suburb of Tel Aviv, where young Israeli entrepreneurs are buying plots to build fancy hotels and resorts. Plus ca change.

Lawrence says:

Great piece…but Israel does not produce more patents than the whole of Asia.

Japan is the number 1 country and China is number 3. Israel is number 16.

M. Brukhes says:

Lawrence: so a country of, what, 6 million people ranks 12 places behind a country of a billion people, and 15 places behind a country of 100 million? It’s still kind of impressive…?

Matthew Fishbane says:

Please note that Lee Smith discusses tech patents, which are a subset of the cumulative patents Lawrence has linked to. For more on Israel’s hi-tech leadership please see Eurostat’s 2010 “Science, technology and innovation in Europe” report, available here:

Gene says:

Democracy is one of the main reasons why Israel is still at war with many Arab states and Palestinians. Every dictator (say: every Arab leader, “president”, king or sheik) hates democracy exactly because democracy is what the end of his power looks like. Therefore these Arab leaders see danger in Israel’s existence; that is why they are trying (with the help from “progressive liberals”) to destroy it.

Pat Silver says:

How do Jews fare when living in Arab countries, Mr Muraskin?

The Edge of Delusion says:

I am not going to try to change your heart about the injustness of the occupation, but lets try to tap into some logic. This concept that Israel has a rosy future is pure delusions,; I would be very surprised if it survives more than 5-10 years. It has already lost a sizable portion of its strategic positioning; liberal Jews in the US are abandoning it in droves with J-street chipping at AIPAC, which is mired in controversy, European allies can no longer support Israel openly, South American countries are signing up for a Palestinain states, Russia and China are weighing in on that option. Israel’s caretaker the US is on the way down, while resource hungry China and India are on the way up (and sadly for you the Jewish lobby has zero influence). Add to the foray that Egypt and Tunisia are rolling out democracies and democratic waves across the region, enter peak oil which will push prices to the roof and increase the strategic influence of Arab countries and Iran, and the fact that every Arab country is working hard to up its educational standards. It can only improve, believe me. Isalmism in the region is retreating and a wave of entrepreneurship is rolling throughout the region, and while we are 10 -20 years behind Israel in that respect, how much qualitative advantage do we have in terms of population and raw resources.
Now lets look at Israel; with its growing Haredi population of religious loonies, with its incerasing draconian and racist laws that are even disgusting its once iron-clad allies (think Thomas Friedman who was once its biggest supporter), and you have to be taking some serious drugs to think that the Jewish state will survive, especially after it has treated its neighbors with such disrespect. You see Israel has no place to go except down; it was already functioning at maxiumum efficiency and influence.

reuven says:

that’s not the point, Pat. Mr. Muraskin believes that it is fine and moral for Arabs (and probably Palestinians) to have a state, but immoral for Jews to aspire to one. He makes broad, sweeping unsupported statements like “arabs face discrimination in all walks of life” for their demagogic effect – see the series of Israel “apartheid” posters at the Elder of Zion website for a a different taste. Mr. Muraskin believes that it is fine that Arabs live in a Jewish state with full and equal rights, but that Jews have no right to live in their ancestral homeland – Yehuda and Shomron. He is not interested in an informed discussion – he is interested in delegitimization and polemic, It does no good to try to mollify and engage those of his ilk by admitting mistakes that Israel has made and still makes – he’s not interested in solutions, unless it is the dissolution of the Jewish State. It does no good to address him at all, but if one can use him as a foil to speak good of the Jewish State, then one perhaps can build a bit of good from his evil.

Bernadette says:

Bennett Muraskin

Does affirmative action count as discrimination or as a democratic (minority promotion) feature?

Dayna Hansen says:

Israel has always been and will always be a blessed nation. Even in the midst of turmoil!

In the midst says:

To say that Israel will not last five years is just absurd and ignorant. Or perhaps wishful thinking.

Raymond in DC says:

Edge of Delusion makes so many false claims it’s hard to know where to start. Yes it’s true, Israel is more isolated today than in the past, but that results more from a willful blindness and confusion on the part of those erstwhile allies who should be standing with her. There’s no evidence the Arab states are “rolling out democracies and democratic waves – not so far at least. The claim that “every Arab country is working hard to up its educational standards” is easily disproved by examining the latest UN Development Reports. In Egypt, for example, some 35% of men are functionally illiterate, and the number is higher for women – symptomatic of the lower status of women in that culture. And Islamism is hardly retreating in that region – note the return of prominent Islamists from exile to Tunisia and Egypt. The biggest crowd seen in Tahrir Square was in support of Qaradawi.

Carl for his part says Islam itself is not the reason there are no true Arab democracies “as there are non-Arab Islamic countries (although not many)”. In point of fact, there are 22 members of the Arab League (including the PA), and 57 members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (including the PA). And one struggles to find a true democracy among any of them.

Finally, Lee Smith’s claim that Israelis “have produced more tech patents than all of Asia” is a bit of hyperbole. But it’s certainly accurate if limited to all Arab states and probably to all Muslim states. Going by 2007 OECD figures for Triadic patent families (which are not limited to tech), China is #12 (587), Israel is #13 (494). That puts both far behind South Korea (2264) but ahead of Spain (236), India (192) and Turkey (24).

Lila says:

I’m not sure you have it right. I think actually it’s not that Israel “is the West,” but that the West is what the European Jews made it. European Jews developed the major banking industries and so many “modern” financial instruments, as well as certain types of business law, and so many other key elements of what one imagines are “Western” –to get a sense of what is actually Western just think of the Middle Ages and what they show about the West–where were the banks, etc.? The actual people who invented these financial institutions were Jews. That’s the reality and the history. I think Israel itself is interesting in that although the majority is Middle Eastern Jews, it has adopted the financial practices of European Jews. I think if Muslims don’t want to learn good ideas because it makes them so angry that their own ideas about what should work don’t work, what can I say? Not everyone can come up with interesting financial ideas. I can’t personally.

ahad ha'amoratsm says:

Raymond in DC — “Edge of Delusion makes so many false claims it’s hard to know where to start.”

Including the laughable claim that Thomas Friedman was ever a supporter of Israel, let alone its biggest supporter. Meanwhile the supposedly ascendant J Street has exposed itself once again at its recent meeting as merely a conduit for Soros, lobbyists for various anti-Israel Arab states, and a handful of dupes who bought the hype about pro-Israel pro-peace.

patrick john says:

I do beleive israel will hit iran if they insist on making a bomb to destroy the holy land, before ajamidad has a chance. What a moron, threatening to destroy israel is the dumbest statement anyone has made in my lifetime.

Abou Arabi says:

the author had definitely a clearer head in what he argued last week.
he was scared. and he should be. many of his most basic assumptions about arabs were shaken by recent events.

this week’s he is trying to regain composure , reassure himself by resorting to racist arguments that makes him feel better about himself and his ilk.

Most Arabs don’t hate Israel . they are also capable of other more complex emotions than simple love or hate as the author seem to imply, which is racist. Most Arabs despise Israel. can you see the difference ?

This article is stupid, racist, and whole passages make absolutely no sense. I don’t have time to go through it point-by-point, but I’ll just very briefly correct your understanding of history and reality:

Opposition to Israel doesn’t come from the “Islamic resistance.” Remember, Israel became a close ally of the United States only after it proved its worth in 1967 by defeating the great threat of the time. It wasn’t “radical Islamic extremism,” if you recall, but Nasserism and his brand of nationalism (the crazy idea that Arabs should be in control of their own resources) that had to be stamped out.

In fact, it is no secret that the United States strongly supported fanatical Islamic elements in the Middle East to counter leftist, more progressive movements, and continues to do so to this day (e.g., our continuing support for the Wahhabi regime in Saudi Arabia). And they do it for the oil. Arabs have known this for quite some time; which is why they all laugh when the U.S. talks about human rights and democracy.

And by the way, Arab states should not be like Israel, which is an Apartheid state teetering on the edge of all out fascism. It’s not even debatable anymore, so I won’t waste space. I will, however, remind you of the diplomatic record, because you seem to have this notion that Israel is a thriving democracy surrounded by hostile despots (well, the despots part might be accurate).

The record clearly shows Israel, time and time again, choosing expansion over peace with its neighbors. How many times must the Arab League offer full normalization with Israel if only the latter would abide by international law? How many times must the UN General Assembly vote on the matter? How many Security Council resolutions must be vetoed by the United States for you to understand that the only rejectionists are the U.S. and Israel?

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For Israel, Samaria means Security.

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Democratic State

While protests rage across the Arab Middle East, Israel stands as a regional model of resiliency, relevance, and democratic adaptability. And the Arab states will have to be more like it to survive.

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