Israel is understandably proud of its Tel Aviv University, which has, in recent years, emerged as a foremost non-American centre of technological innovation. A combination of Jewish creativity and financial acumen has allowed it to be at the centre of Tel Aviv's aggressive bid to project itself as another start-up hub where improvisation and entrepreneurship go hand in hand.
For Israel, a country whose image has, in recent years, been marred by political controversy centred on its perceived rough and ready handling of the Palestinian question, particularly in the Gaza strip on its southern frontier, this alternative projection of the country is important. The sight of purposeful twenty-somethings working on a hi-tech improvisation that could earn them either millions of dollars or years of wasted effort is truly energizing and helps shift focus from Israel's other image - as a doughty defender of its national interests against overwhelming odds.
Tragically, however, it is impossible for a first-time visitor to Israel to be insulated from the pitfalls of a very troubled and dangerous neighbourhood, not even in the care-free cosmopolitanism of Tel Aviv. While attending a presentation on life sciences and geopolitics organized by the TAU in one of its ultra-modern conference rooms, I came across a bold sign on the wall opposite the lift. In bold red letters it simply read 'Shelter', with arrows pointing in two different directions. It was a sad reminder of the unending dangers that this small nation - born in controversy and nurtured by war - faces on a day-to-day basis. The 'shelter', I was informed, was now a statutory requirement in homes, offices and public buildings - an elementary safeguard against the deadly rockets that now have at least the potential of hitting targets in Tel Aviv. For Israelis, the battle to extend the frontiers of knowledge has to coexist with a more basic war to survive as both a people and a nation.
This past week, however, the ongoing troubles of the Israeli state with Hamas and its resourceful international backers has abruptly taken a back-seat and been overshadowed - in the world media, at least - by an unfolding refugee crisis that has manifested itself in Europe but whose epicentre is neighbouring Syria - or rather, the land mass that came to be known as Syria since the post-Ottoman settlement of the region in the 1920s.
As Syria tears itself apart in a civil war involving the remnants of the Assad-controlled Baathist regime, the Islamic State, which now exercises barbaric control over the oilfields and the Sunni Muslim areas, and a local chapter of the Global Jihad that controls some 80 per cent of the area around the Golan Heights adjoining Israel, the world community may have arrived at two inescapable conclusions.
The first conclusion is a realization that, having endured for nearly 100 years, the settlement worked out by the European powers after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 is now on its last legs. Whether in Iraq, Syria, Libya or Yemen, the national boundaries that defined the 20th century are now becoming history. Regardless of whether Russia or, for that matter, Iran succeeds in salvaging the pride of the Assad regime, it seems pretty clear that a united Syria controlled from Damascus will no longer be possible. There may be disagreements over whether or not the Kurds, divided between Turkey, Iraq and Syria, manage to carve out a new, viable state. There is also some mismatch of views over the ability of Islamic State to endure the international retribution that may well become unavoidable. But, like Iraq and Yemen in the Arabian peninsula, Syria is witnessing a return to primordial identities based on a blend of ethnicity and faith. The map of West Asia is being dramatically redrawn in the 21st century with an accompanying toll of human suffering whose effects are being felt far beyond the region. At least half the population of Syria, for example, have voted with their feet and are either temporarily or permanently resident in places that they didn't earlier count as home.
The second conclusion, which may be equally troublesome for analysts and activists, is the emergence of Israel as an area of stability and, indeed, civilization in a region that is witnessing a return to medievalist human behaviour. This may sound offensive to those who see Israel itself as an affront to common decencies based on its refusal to succumb to what some regard as 'international pressure' on the Palestinian question. However, viewed in the larger context, Israel's unwillingness to succumb to the Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions mounted by non-governmental bodies and campuses in the United States of America and Europe, seems an entirely justified response considering the turbulence in the Sunni Islamic world. The manner in which the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority in Gaza was eased out of reckoning by Hamas, an organization that bases its claim to a Palestinian state on the complete destruction of Israel, was an early indicator of the upheavals that have crippled other countries of the region. Had Israel, for example, succumbed to earlier pressures to abandon its gains in the 1967 Six-Day War by abandoning the Golan Heights and sharing control over Jerusalem, the situation in the region would have become even more complicated. It would certainly have made Egypt and Jordan, the two neighbouring states Israel can loosely describe as non-hostile, far more vulnerable to radical pressures.
However, it is not Israel alone that will be decisive in coping with the new challenges posed by the redrawing of national boundaries. One of the factors that propelled the US into negotiating the agreement on nuclear capabilities with Iran was the belief that Tehran could be persuaded to play a more responsible future role. The US believes, maybe with a measure of naiveté, that 15 years of exposure to the world market forces will blunt the rough edges of the Shia theocracy. Such an assertion is contested by Israel that holds the view that the US has no conception of larger civilizational issues and particularly the irrelevance of a 15-year wait for an old country that, like India and China, is accustomed to longer historical cycles.
Whether the Israeli scepticism of Iran's intentions are valid or mischievously alarmist, there can be no denying the larger feeling in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv that the coming decade will see both Iran and Turkey play larger roles in the troubled region. Maybe this, in turn, could lead to fratricidal, intra-Islamic conflicts and even a united front against the Jewish state. But even if Islamic State is decimated and Hamas and Hezbollah co-opted by the bigger Islamists, the constellation of forces will not be in the larger interests of India, unless of course it chooses to reduce itself into a non-Islamic supplicant or subordinate ally of Islamic hegemonism.
What should concern India is the larger trend of a pusillanimous Europe retreating into effete moralism. Germany's U-turn on the refugee question may have been guided by purely tactical considerations: accepting domestic discomfiture for the sake of retaining a leadership role in the European Union. But unless Germany moves quickly to fill the void created by the US's wariness of assuming a larger global role, the developments in West Asia may cast a menacing shadow on a larger region.
The turbulence in West Asia has left the region in a state of flux. Apart from Israel, there are, it would seem, few certitudes left. India will have to negotiate its way in this darkness and find partners that share some of its basic civilizational ground rules.
The Telegraph, September 11, 2015