Israel: When You Circle the Wagons, Shoot Outward!

Were it not for the ongoing humanitarian tragedies, it would be amusing to watch Israel self-destruct. For a regime that once seemed the embodiment of competence and self assurance, it now appears to be suffering some sort of terminal grand mal, thrashing around and blindly smashing the crockery and furniture.

An Israeli holds a national flag on the beach near the Ashdod port in southern IsraelIsrael seems clearly bent on demonstrating what its opponents have long claimed — that it is a dangerous and illegitimate regime operating beyond the confines of international law and moral principle. The attack on the Gaza flotilla — with lethal force, in international waters — is the latest demonstration of its apparently infinite counterintuitive capacity. The offered defense of these indefensible actions — “They made me do it!” — would embarrass even a petulant five-year-old.

Complexity science heads don’t do prediction. In a non-linear system, where slight changes in initial conditions, agent interactions and perturbations across systems boundaries combine to generate unpredictable outcomes, the future is always uncertain. But we can learn over time to see patterns and probabilistic vectors, and therefore better anticipate surprises.

So, taking all that into account, let me suggest that Israel as we know it, will cease to exist in the foreseeable future. Its own internal inconsistencies — multiplied by demographics, and the continuing evolution of sociopolitical and humanitarian norms — will administer the coup de grâce.

Here’s why.

Social systems — which include communities, companies, marching bands and nation states — succeed or fail because of their relative coherence, which is what underpins their adaptive capacities. Adaptiveness is key, because as anthropologist L.S.B. Leakey put it so beautifully, “The lesson of evolution is, change . . . or perish!”

System coherence is determined in large part by:

  • The strength of shared “identity.” (Who are we? Why are we here? What are our values?)
  • The relative facility or friction of interactions. (How easy or hard is it to take concerted action?)
  • The strength and clarity of networks and information flows. (Does the intelligence necessary to make informed decisions get to those who need it in a timely fashion?)
  • The strength of relationships within and across system boundaries. (Because structures and actions are relationships made visible.)

These are all “nested” within a complex stew of interconnected and often fluid boundaries, continually evolving “initial conditions” and the (often contradictory) rules of the overlapping systems.

In a nutshell, Israel lacks coherence. The narrative that has held it together for the past 60 years — and blinded the outside world to the uglier realities — is eroding rapidly. The political divisions within the country make concerted action almost impossible. The social networks lack “requisite variety,” so objective realities are ignored. And relationships are dissolving as even traditional supporters back away from a regime increasingly seen as rabid and isolated.

Bottom line, Israel has become “condensed” and non-adaptive. And if a system can’t adapt — if it can’t “co-evolve” with its environment — it dissolves.

Time frames are always uncertain. Sometimes they are longer than one would imagine, because the system has more resilience than expected. More often, however, they tend to be shorter, because of another characteristic of complex systems, which is “iteration.” What that means is that small changes can have significant effects after they have passed through the emergence-feedback loop a few times. This is sometimes called the “snowball” effect. (A snowball gathers more snow on each roll and quickly goes from a ball the size you throw, to one that throws you.)

Israel cannot survive as a pariah/apartheid state. Like any modern state, it is entirely reliant on trans-boundary relationships and flows, from diplomatic recognition to raw materials and export markets. Its vaunted high-tech industry is worthless without willing foreign buyers. Because those markets can be served by a number of competitors, client loyalty is vital to success. As Israel slips further beyond the pale of civilized behavior, that loyalty will prove both highly transient and nearly impossible to recover once it’s gone.

So what will emerge in Israel’s place? After all the pushing and pulling, a bi-national, and perhaps even a bioregional state seems most viable. (See “The Only Path to a Middle East Picnic?“) After all, Palestine (like all the nations surrounding it) is a made-up entity. A vestigial remnant of European colonial days with arbitrary, and often irrational, boundaries. Redrawing those lines with goals of equity, diversity and social justice would have profound benefits for residents of the region and beyond.

One way or another, Israel appears to be on the way out. The big question is whether it will be with a bang or a whimper.