No Laughing in Jerusalem

Article excerpt

Byline: Niall Ferguson

What Israel knows, and doesn't know, will change the world.

Israel is the land of argument. Each June its president holds a conference in Jerusalem to which people flock from all over the world to argue. Every weekday the prime minister has meetings with his cabinet colleagues at which they argue. There is even a white board in his office on which the latest argument is recorded. He could not get up to greet my wife and me because his leg recently had an argument with a soccer ball.

The old joke still applies: as soon as you bring together two Israelis, you have three arguments. And that is the other thing I love about Israel. It is also the land of jokes. The fact that Benjamin Netanyahu injured his leg in a soccer match with Jewish and Arab youths strikes even him as pretty funny.

Yet the situation of Israel today is no laughing matter. The phrase "Arab Spring" is now considered something of a joke as people nervously await the latest developments in neighboring Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood is poised to take power. The Israeli government is convinced the Iranian government is merely playing for time in the negotiations over its nuclear-arms program and that the timeline to an Iranian nuke is measurable in months.

Meanwhile, the prospects of reaching some kind of agreement with the Palestinians look bleak. As veteran U.S. diplomat Dennis Ross reminded delegates to President Shimon Peres's conference, the maps used in schools in Gaza and the West Bank don't even show Israel. What basis is that for the long-discussed "two-state solution"?

Two days in Jerusalem forces you to put your worries in perspective. Here it helps to remember Donald Rumsfeld's classification. Start with the known knowns. First, the crisis of excessive debt in the West is very far from over and that means low growth in Israel's principal trading partners. Second, the "great reconvergence" as the East catches up to the West is likely to continue, creating in the process the biggest middle class in the world in China. Israel is between these two worlds. Growth is down below 3 percent this year, but is forecast to bounce back next year.

Now for the known unknowns. There will be conflict in this region, in addition to the civil war already raging in Syria. Unfortunately, that's all we really know. …