Event Recap: Chat & Chowder with Chuck Freilich

Author: Jaime Young, Community Planner at Volpe National Transportation Systems Center

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On Wednesday January 30th, WorldBoston held its first Chat & Chowder event of the year. This series features a prominent author in a topic related to world affairs who gives a talk while the audience enjoys food and drink. Three types of chowder were served along with a selection of beverages at the Offices of McDermott, Will, and Emery on State Street. The evening’s event featured Charles “Chuck” D. Freilich, former Deputy National Security Adviser in Israel and currently a Senior Fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. The focus for his talk was his recently published book, Israeli National Security: A New Strategy for an Era of Change (Oxford University Press, 2018). You can learn more about Chuck Freilich here.

The crux of Dr. Freilich’s position is that at the age of 70, “Israel’s security policy is a fundamental success.” He supported this statement by highlighting how Israel has military and diplomatic relations with more countries than ever before in its history, including Sunni states. Dr Freilich recalled how Ben Gurion, the first Prime Minister of the state of Israel, said if the state reached five million in Jewish population, that would ensure national existence. Israel now has a Jewish population of seven million. Existential threats to the state that characterized the past have largely evaporated. In the case of Arab militaries and interstate conflict, Egypt and Jordan have made peace with Israel, Saudi Arabia has officially recognized Israel’s right to exist, while Syria and Iraq have their own issues of greater concern to deal with. Hamas, though still a foe, is not a state actor. The one glaring exception to these dissipating threats is Iran.

Dr. Freilich cautioned that despite the great progress Israel has made in national security, there are very real threats still looming. Iran is Israel’s most sophisticated and dangerous enemy. If it becomes a nuclear state, this would pose a very real existential threat. Iran has contributed greatly to Hezbollah’s capabilities, which now include rockets that can reach the majority of the Israeli population. For the first time, an Arab actor has the ability to disrupt Israeli Defense Force operations, including mobile sensors, air bases, even civil infrastructure, the power grid, and more. In additional to the advanced missile technology and the sheer number of them from Hezbollah, a cyber-threat also has the potential for great destruction.

Military threats are not the only type Israel faces today. Demographics, international perception, and the conflict with Palestine are all challenges that cannot be addressed with military might, at least not that Israel is willing to use, Freilich noted. The Arab population within Israel and Palestine is now nearly equal to the Jewish population, while the rising birth rate among the Jewish population is mainly due to the ultra-Orthadox segment, who do not serve in the military nor produce economically. This presents a conundrum for a democratic state. Public opinion around the world is not supportive of Israel, including that of the United States, Israel’s indispensable ally. Likewise, Israel cannot quash Palestinian nationalism with force and a two-state solution is becoming increasingly necessary, especially given the demographics. Israel must address these issues in order to truly achieve the status of secure, democratic, Jewish state in the Middle East.

Dr. Freilich made several recommendations for Israeli security policy going forward:

  • Israel must reach a diplomatic resolution with the Palestinians. A two-state solution would confirm Israel as a Jewish democratic state. Israel cannot let when happened in Gaza happen in the West Bank. Unfortunately, we do not have the necessary leadership in Jerusalem or Washington on this matter.

  • Israel must play a long-term game just as its adversaries do. It must use restraint as a fundamental strategy, as it has but to an even higher degree.

  • Israel must work to change international perceptions to be more favorable. At the same time, the Jewish diaspora conservative movement is a huge asset for Israel and must not be alienated.

  • The price of the special relationship with the U.S. means that Israel gives up some independence and freedom of maneuver. Cutting off dependency on the U.S. would mean going back decades in many respects, including security and standard of living. This is not desirable to anyone, but Israel needs to consider where this relationship is headed. In the past, Israel had bipartisan support from the Americans, but this is no longer the case. Israel has become a partisan issue in the U.S. Related to this, fundamental changes in American demographics do not bode well for Israel. The dependency on the U.S. needs to be examined.

  • Israel simply cannot allow Iran to go nuclear. A nuclear Iran would mean this influence on neighboring Arab countries. It is hard to imagine that Iran would use nuclear weapons against Israel, but the probability of Arab nations in the region using them is infinitely greater.

  • Israel should maintain its own nuclear ambiguity policy, as it results in treatment as if it is a nuclear state.

  • More investment needs to be made in Israeli society. This is a strategic asset.

After Dr. Freilich concluded his talk, he opened up the floor for questions. The audience included members of WorldBoston, guests, a good representation of students, as well as the Israeli Consul General of Israel to New England. The audience was eager with questions for Dr. Freilich and he addressed topics including demographics, the U.S.’ role in peace negotiations with Palestine, settlements, the right of return, the need for change in the Israeli electoral system, and many others. At the conclusion of the interactive period, Dr. Freilich’s recent book was for sale and he was available to sign it. You may purchase your own copy of Israeli National Security: A New Strategy for an Era of Change from Oxford University Press here.