If free and regular elections are a hallmark of democracy, not many nations pass the test like Israel. In fact, the world’s only Jewish state probably wishes it had fewer elections: After Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to cobble together a ruling coalition last week, the country could be headed toward its fifth election in two years unless opposition leader Yair Lapid can stitch together a governing alliance. But are a country’s democratic values intact if its security forces attack religious worshippers, as happened in the recent assaults on the Al-Aqsa Mosque, which injured hundreds of Palestinians? Since yesterday, Israel and Islamist militant groups in Gaza have traded rockets and bombs, leaving 24 Palestinians and two Israelis dead. Take a trip to a nation that could be a model for post-COVID normalcy but is often criticized globally for how it treats its minorities. Meet the leaders lining up to shape Israel’s future, take a gander at the innovations that make the country the world’s envy, soak in its unique culture and learn about the festering wounds that taint its journey forward.
Pallabi Munsi, Reporter, and Charu Sudan Kasturi, Senior Editor
tomorrow’s top guns
These are the Israeli names to watch in the political, business, sports and entertainment realms.
1. Ayelet Shaked
She was Netanyahu’s justice minister from 2015 to 2019. Now, she’s threatening to bring him down. Israel’s most influential female politician, Shaked is No. 2 in Yamina, the right-wing political alliance whose leader Naftali Bennett is in talks with Lapid to form an anti-Netanyahu unity government. A former software engineer, the 45-year-old Shaked recently called Netanyahu and his wife Sara “tyrants” with a “lust for power.” But Shaked has her own ambitions and she isn’t shy about them. She has said that she sees herself becoming prime minister after Netanyahu’s exit. It’s been nearly half a century since the country’s only female leader, Golda Meir, was in charge. Could Shaked be next?
2. Itamar Ben-Gvir
He’s been compared to leaders of the Ku Klux Klan and the Proud Boys. The Israeli lawyer-politician until recently had the portrait of an assassin who killed 29 Muslims displayed in his living room, and has called for the expulsion of Arabs who aren’t “loyal.” Ben-Gvir won a seat in Israel’s parliament after merging his Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) Party with the Religious Zionist Party in recent elections. After a court controversially ordered the eviction of Palestinian families from a neighborhood in East Jerusalem — internationally regarded as occupied by Israel — Ben-Gvir reportedly marched through downtown Jerusalem last week with other far-right activists, who chanted “Death to Arabs.” He will be an influential voice in Israeli politics for years to come.
3. Pnina Tamano-Shata
She was just 3 years old when her family walked from Ethiopia to Sudan to escape the persecution of Jews before secretly flying to Israel. Now, Tamano-Shata is the most prominent voice for the 140,000-strong Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel, where they’re victims of systemic racism and deep-seated poverty. Last year, she was appointed immigration minister, making her the first Ethiopian-born cabinet member in Israel’s history. And even amid the political crisis and the coronavirus pandemic, she has continued to welcome Jews from around the world who want to relocate to Israel.
4. Shari Arison
Cruise ships don’t seem environmentally friendly. But Arison, Israel’s richest woman, has long insisted that her bottom line doesn’t need to come at the cost of society’s well-being. That’s why the luxury cruise magnate, whose net worth is in the billions, is also a leading green energy investor, with money in a solar thermal power plant, biofuels, water preservation and more. But she has faced scrutiny for alleged bribery in Africa.
5. Timna Nelson-Levy
After winning a gold medal at the Judo Grand Slam Tel Aviv in February, the 26-year-old judoka spent days replying to messages from thrilled fans who she had missed having in the stadium due to coronavirus restrictions. At the Tokyo Olympics this summer, she’ll have the whole nation cheering for her, as she is Israel’s best hope for winning what would be the country’s second Olympic gold. Israel has previously been successful at judo, medaling five times in the summer games.
6. Nasreen Qadri
Born to Arab parents in the port city of Haifa, the singer is present-day Israel’s most powerful cultural bridge between Muslims and Jews. She sings in both Hebrew and Arabic, has opposed the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement and has performed alongside Radiohead. She has also faced criticism for performing in Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories. But she insists she’s received nothing but love from Israeli citizens of all backgrounds, something the country’s political leaders can’t begin to match.
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Israel is the real-world clinical trial the planet is watching. A rapid immunization program ensured that by April 3, more than 72 percent of the country’s population over the age of 16 had received two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. This makes it among the first countries to approach herd immunity. It is also the first country to release data on recipients of the Pfizer vaccine outside clinical trials, showing that two doses ensures 95 percent protection against the virus.
2. Skeptics, Stay at Home
The question of whether and when to open public spaces has tortured every country. Israel has largely reopened — albeit with restrictions — in a deliberately calibrated way that incentivizes people to get vaccinated. As early as February, the country allowed gyms, synagogues and hotels to start inviting visitors with so-called green passports — digital documents issued to those who had received jabs. That, coupled with strong outreach to vaccine-skeptical ultra-Orthodox communities, has helped the country overcome hesitancy toward immunization. Will policymakers in the U.S. and other nations grappling with vaccine skepticism follow Israel’s lead?
3. Spies to the Rescue
The Mossad is famous for hunting down Nazi war criminals, rescuing hostages and fighting terrorism. In 2020, it took on a new role: sourcing ventilators and COVID-19 testing kits when they were in short supply worldwide, and bringing vaccine samples from other countries to test in Israeli labs. At one point, Mossad chief Yossi Cohen had to isolate because he had been in close contact with the country’s health minister, who had tested positive. But the Mossad’s role in Israel’s COVID-19 response will have only boosted Cohen’s stature at a time he is charting his retirement — and possibly a political future. Some see him as a possible future prime minister.
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Israel is a dry, desert land … and an exporter of water and water technology. In fact, it earns $2 billion a year from water tech exports produced by its dizzying lineup of startups. These companies have produced everything from cutting-edge drip irrigation strategies that conserve water to industrial-scale desalination and ways to suck water out of thin air. Neighboring Jordan also relies on water supplied by Israel. All of these factors make Israel the world’s biggest agriculture success story. From Africa to India, the world is picking up tips and tech on how to increase its farm efficiency while using less water. And as the global water crisis intensifies, Israel could hold the answers to our collective survival.
2. Artificial Intelligence Powerhouse
The U.S. might be the global leader in artificial intelligence, but Israel — a country with the population of New Jersey — is rapidly rising as a challenger. Again, agri-tech is a key focus, such as solar-powered bee colonies that can be controlled remotely. But Israel’s mounting expertise extends to other areas too, such as the startup Percepto, which uses AI and robotics to inspect construction sites. The pandemic hasn’t hurt the demand for Israeli AI innovations, as investments in the sector have continued apace.
University of Pennsylvania brain researcher Martha Farah describes neurotech interventions as akin to “improving our car’s performance by making adjustments under the hood.” If Farah’s right, Israel is among the world’s top brain mechanics, hosting more than 100 neurotech startups that are developing treatments for conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, designing tools to help doctors and researchers and helping professionals in different fields maximize their performance. For instance, Konstantin Sonkin, is a neuroscientist who has developed a platform that helps athletes train their “mind muscles” to overcome physical limitations.
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The quickest way to the heart, it is said, is through the stomach. So as Israel’s relations with neighbors like the United Arab Emirates improve, it makes sense that culinary diplomacy is one step ahead. Ellie Kriel, an Abu Dhabi-based chef, is introducing Israeli kosher delicacies to the UAE by marrying them with Emirati flavors. She calls it Kosherati cuisine. We call it delicious.
Israel might be small, but with 62 miles of sandy coastline, it hosts some of the most stunning — yet lesser-known — beaches on the Mediterranean. None stands out more than Caesarea Aqueduct Beach. About 31 miles north of Tel Aviv and next to the Herodian port of Caesarea, the beach is shadowed by the ruins of an ancient Roman aqueduct. With no promenade or restaurant to attract crowds, this beach is mostly ignored by tourists, making it perfect for a socially distant, watery getaway in the lap of history once you’re able to travel again.
3. Musical Mediator
You might remember Liraz Charhi from the Apple TV+ drama Tehran. But while that show is about Israel-Iran tensions, the musician-cum-actor is on a mission to bridge the divide between the two Middle Eastern nations. The Israeli artist of Persian heritage told The Guardian last year: “I don’t agree with anything that comes with seeing Iran as our enemy.” Perhaps that’s why she released an album by secretly collaborating with Iranian musicians using encrypted instant-messaging apps and transferring their payments through third countries. Groove to her music — and to the prospects of the peace she hopes it’ll nurture.
For decades, Israel was the mistress every nation wanted to be with in private but didn’t necessarily want to acknowledge in public because of its treatment of Palestinians. Now, those clandestine relationships are being openly displayed. It’s a rare nation that can count China, Russia and the U.S. as close friends. Last year, Arab nations including the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan launched formal diplomatic relations with Israel. Netanyahu has also forged strong ties with African nations such as Kenya and Rwanda, and in 2017 he became the first non-African leader to address ECOWAS, a union of West African nations. In Latin America, Paraguay, Guatemala and Honduras have backed moves to shift their embassies in Israel to Jerusalem, even though the city remains contested.
But for all those distant friendships, Israel’s relations with Iran remain tense, perpetually just a trigger away from a military conflict. The countries target each other’s infrastructure, and Israel is believed to be behind audacious assassinations of Iranian atomic scientists and the remote sabotage of Tehran’s nuclear facilities as it tries to block a new deal between its archenemy and President Joe Biden’s administration in Washington. With Iran-wary Arab nations warming up to the Jewish state, Israel may be gaining a new advantage, while Iran is being backed into a potentially explosive corner.
3. Healing at Home
Yet as every emerging nation has discovered throughout history, global ambitions aren’t sustainable if you’re divided domestically. The rightward shift of Israel’s politics under Netanyahu has alienated its Arab citizens, who constitute 20 percent of its population. In 2018, the country passed a controversial law that established special rights for Jews and downgraded the status of the Arabic language. The siege last week of Al-Aqsa — one of Islam’s holiest sites — once again underscores the deep gashes that Israel must heal in order to answer lingering questions about its commitment to modern democracy and justice.