New world, same old Israel

November 21, 2012

Benjamin Netanyahu is trying to show that nothing has changed. Israel will defend its citizens just as it did before the Arab Spring. The language of Israel’s politicians, the brutal efficiency of its bombing campaign and the asymmetrical death count all echo Israel’s campaigns in the past. But the political dynamics surrounding this assault could not be more different.

The American president – rather than spending his time in the White House Situation Room – is flying around Asia planning his “pivot” from the Middle East. Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi, rather than sealing the border, sent his prime minister to Gaza for a display of solidarity. And regional leaders from Qatar to Tunisia and Turkey are putting themselves in the middle of the skirmish. But rather than responding to this changed environment with a creative diplomatic strategy, Israel’s government seems to be doubling down on tried and tested techniques.

On my last visit to Israel, I noted that officials speak about how their government in recent years has moved from making peace to “managing conflict.” They have built a wall to pen in potential terrorists, while launching periodic attacks to disrupt the military operations of Hamas and Hezbollah. (One official referred to these repeated attempts to defang Hamas as “cutting the grass.”) Every nation is entitled to defend itself. But unless violence is part of a political strategy, it rarely creates real security. The problem with these repeat military operations is that they create a growing pool of anti-Israel resentment in the neighborhood while eroding Israel’s international standing.

Israel under Netanyahu is indulging in a form of triple escapism – defensive, geopolitical and economic ‑ that takes the nation further and further away from engaging directly with the Palestinians.

The almost 30-foot-high concrete walls that dot Israel’s security barrier do not simply shield Israelis from terrorist attacks. They also shield them from the reality of their occupation, and have led the Israeli government to avoid the sorts of negotiations that are necessary for any lasting peace.

Many Israelis are now against substantive talks with the Palestinians until the latter recognize Israel’s right to be a “Jewish state.” A senior military intelligence officer said, “We used to think of this a territorial dispute, but now we realize it is actually a conceptual one about the legitimacy of Israel’s existence as a Jewish state.”

Yitzhak Rabin used to say he would pursue the peace process as if there were no terror and would fight terror as if there were no peace process, but Netanyahu has only ever been interested in the second half of that equation.

The second dimension of Israeli escapism is geopolitical. The elite are concerned about the effects of the Arab uprisings, but they tend to see the expressions of solidarity from new leaders for the Palestinians as empty gestures. However, Daniel Levy, a former adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak who is now a researcher at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said: “It is dangerous and misguided to assume that Arab states have taken economic sanctions and military responses off the table for all time.”

One reason Israelis do not take the risk of meaningful action by its neighbors seriously is that many can see that their dispute with the Palestinians is being overshadowed by more pressing conflicts such as those between Shia and Sunni Muslims or reforming regimes and counter-revolutionary ones.

Israelis talk about their fear of Iran’s nuclear program, but they also hope anti-Iranian sentiment may reshape the politics of the region. The artificial states constructed by the West after World War I might now collapse and be replaced by new entities drawn around tribal and sectarian lines. “It is not impossible to imagine that with chaos in the region,” according to one Knesset member, “Iraq, Syria and Jordan might disappear and Palestinians might re-affiliate with new entities.”

For some intelligence analysts who focus on the Middle East, it seems like an absurd idea to fixate on a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders at precisely the moment when the borders and governance of all states in the region are up for grabs. But this misses the point. Whatever borders are settled for other states, the Palestinians will demand their rights as citizens.

Israel’s political sphere today has economic escapism at its center. The country’s governing elite have created a new founding myth for a time of consumerism: that of a “startup nation” of entrepreneurs who came to the desert to create high-tech companies. This country of 7 million people ‑ in a state of war since its founding, with no natural resources ‑ has more new companies listed on the Nasdaq than Japan, China, India, Korea, Canada or the UK, according to Daniel Senor and Saul Singer. However, the parties of the left claim that the economic reforms that have driven this growth have seen this aggressively egalitarian country become very unequal, with rising prices and cuts in services increasingly hitting the middle class. This is why last year there was a protest ‑ dubbed the “Tentifada” ‑ about the cost of living. Where Israel’s first generation was involved in founding the state, and the second in heroically defending it from external aggression, today’s Israelis are focused on house prices and the cost of staple foods like cottage cheese.

The paradox is that Israel has retreated from the world at a moment when the long-term prospects for the its survival have never been more insecure. The current operation is called “Pillar of Defense.” Ironically, it comes at a time when the four real pillars of the country’s security are eroding: the memory of the Holocaust; its status as the only democracy in the Middle East; nuclear and conventional military superiority; and American protection. The nightmare scenario for Israel would be to be out-victimed by the Palestinians, out-democratized by the Arabs, outgunned by the Iranians and outside America’s main focus of interest as it shifts its attention from the Middle East to the Pacific.

If Israel tries to protect itself by retreating into a world where it imagines that conflict can be “managed” and where demographics and settlements make a two-state solution impossible to negotiate, the pillars of Israel’s security are even more likely to crumble. Therefore, despite all the complexities on both sides of the conflict  that make a two-state solution so difficult to achieve, Israel cannot afford to wait until a more convenient partner or a more stable situation emerges. It needs a deal sooner rather than later. That is the only way to defend the security of its citizens.

PHOTO: Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) gestures during his meeting with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (R) in Jerusalem November 20, 2012. REUTERS/Lior Mizrahi/Pool


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What a well written article!

Posted by KyleDexter | Report as abusive

Finally, someone who understands Israel and its Prime Minister(who would do well to ponder Mr. Leonard’s words.

Posted by JRTerrance | Report as abusive

The article is well written, but it misses another crucial aspect to the new environment. In the USA, the generation of unquestioning support for Israel is dying off at an accelerating rate, and public opinion is swinging against Israel in spite of unwavering support from the corporate press corps.

As the American public sees its living standards in steep decline while its ability to influence its own Government falls even faster, there is more emphasis on foreign spending vs maintaining or even expanding social benefits. The gigantic amount of American Government financial spending on Israel will, without a doubt, be cut. And Israeli open interference in American domestic politics is bringing unwelcome attention on Israeli influence in American political life.

Posted by usagadfly | Report as abusive

“The nightmare scenario for Israel would be to be out-victimized by the Palestinians, out-democratized by the Arabs, out gunned by the Iranians and outside America’s main focus of interest as it shifts its attention from the Middle East to the Pacific.”

So very well put. Don’t be surprised if it shows up, Milton Beryl like, in other comments. How does one do footnotes in comment boxes?

The Chinese can look forward to paying heftier dues to the UN, I imagine. There is a big price associated with being one of the big powers but Jewish homelands may be a tough sell with the Chinese or with anyone in the Far East?

I am never optimistic about the future and the nightmare scenario for many besides Israel, is a world of such shifting structure it is close to chaos. Because, how many people or businesses of any scale, will invest or build on demographic or political ice flows?

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

This article is about as realistic as a cartoon –
While reading it, the intensity of the author’s vivid imagination combined with the blurred lines between facts and loose speculation made me dizzy…

The facts are that while Israel is a strong, democratic and prosperous country, none of the Arab countries are.
And if any Arab country becomes truly democratic and prosperous, it would be unlikely to stay the course of perpetual conflict with Israel, and would rather try to influence the Palestinians to get real, for a change.

Republican or Democrat – all US administrations have had excellent ties with Israel, and there are many reasons for that, which are unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.

Posted by reality-again | Report as abusive

It is the writer of this article who is not facing reality. American-Israeli ties are as strong as ever. During the recent US presidential election the two candidates were competing with each other to prove who was the most pro-Israeli. Israel’s enemies are in disarray. Syria is in a civil war that will last for years; Hezbollah is worried that the Syrian conflict will spill over into Lebanon; and the Arabs of the West Bank and Gaza have been divided for more than 5 years. The Israeli economy has been doing extremely well compared to most other developed countries. Mr. Leonard’s analysis is deeply flawed by his anti-Israel bias.

Posted by Dan85 | Report as abusive

the danger to Israel will become greater in time as frustration spreads in impoverished Arab states with uncontrolled birth rate and failing economies. writer is wrong in his conclusions Israel standing ground is its only chance of riding the wave of despair flooding the west as it sees Arab turmoil as progress

Posted by gilhal | Report as abusive

A well put article. I find from talking to many friends that the public opinion of Israel bears no resemblence to that put forward in the newspapers, TV or by US and UK politicians.
Palestine can only escape brutality and land theft when western politicians find their blind obeyance of the powerful Jewish lobbies are a vote loser. This day is fast approaching.

Posted by GMB | Report as abusive

The author’s ‘new world’ reminds me of the ‘new middle east’ of Peres, some 15 years ago.
This wishful thinking caused the Israelis some 1000 civilian deaths while giving up territory for ‘peace’.
The Arab world will not accept Israel and see its existence as a colonial humiliation even if it remained on just 1 square kilometer on the shore of Tel-Aviv.
Not nice to hear but that’s the reality, and the Israeli public, far from being stupid or short-sighted as the author implies, finally understands it well.

Posted by BestFriend | Report as abusive

@dan85 Er, the dems at their convention effectively shouted down God and voted against (originally) having Jerusalem in their platform. If it had not been undemocratically override by democratic ‘leaders’ it would no longer be part of the party platform at all. You are insane to think that ‘american-israeli ties are as strong as ever’. No they are not. Not even close.

The west bank and gaza have been divided because the people there, under internationally supervised conditions, democratically elected a Hamas government which the western governments simply refused to recognize. In short the west refused to acknowledge democracy when it stands against their interests. Whatever, like anyone expects anything more in this day and age of rot and decay.

We need wars. We need a final war between the Israelis and the Palestinians. We need a final war between Christians and Muslims. We need a final war between India and Pakistan. We need a final war between Socialists and Capitalists. We need a final war between homosexuals and straights. We need a final war between western commercialism and basic human rights. What we need is one huge final war that will leave only a people of a single mind and purpose left. Bring it on, the sooner the better.

Posted by stambo2001 | Report as abusive

You state “The paradox is that Israel has retreated from the world at a moment when the long-term prospects for the its survival have never been more insecure. The current operation is called “Pillar of Defense.” Ironically, it comes at a time when the four real pillars of the country’s security are eroding: the memory of the Holocaust; its status as the only democracy in the Middle East; nuclear and conventional military superiority; and American protection. The nightmare scenario for Israel would be to be out-victimed by the Palestinians, out-democratized by the Arabs, outgunned by the Iranians and outside America’s main focus of interest as it shifts its attention from the Middle East to the Pacific.”


Taking each of those “pillars” in turn:

(1) The Holocaust, while certainly a human tragedy of monumental proportions is unfortunately not the only example of attempts at genocide in human history.

The “value” of the Holocaust exists, as you put it, as a pillar of defense solely because of its “victim value” for Israel. Thus you are concerned Israel could be “out-victimed by the Palestinians”.

I would argue that using the Holocaust as a pillar of defense has lost much of its value when Israel “occupied” Palestinian territory and declared itself a state — and was recognized as such by the rest of the world.

Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians since then has done much to diminish their victim status in the eyes of the world.

(2) Democracy is a weak pillar of defense because it relies on bringing together a diverse group of people, each of whom has different ideas about what to do about any perceived threat to a nation. A dictatorship or a religious leader is far more effective in marshalling forces to meet a threat.

Reality check! The Arabs do not want democracy. They want the form of govenment they have chosen for themselves (e.g. Egypt). Anyone who thinks the whole world wants “democracy” is clearly delusion. It is far from the best form of government, even when it “works” which it almost never does.

(3) “Nuclear and conventional military superiority”:

Israel does not and cannot have “conventional military superiority” against a concerted drive by the Arab nations to get rid of what they see as a problem of Israelis illegally occupying Palestinian land. And a nation that is creating problems in an area of the world that does not need more problems than it has now. That conventional superiority existed only briefly shortly after Israel was formed as a nation. Since then, the rest of the “neighboorhood” has developed in every way possible far more conventional superiority than Israel could possibly muster.

Then we come to the “nuclear” capability of Israel — which, of course, Israel as a matter of state policy neither admits nor denies.

Without US assistance, Israel would be forced to use its nuclear capability to survive in the next war — and there will be a next war, because of “irreconcilable differences” between Israel and the Arab nations.

(4) Which brings us to the real “pillar of defense” for Israel — the US military presence in the Middle East.

Another “reality check”! The US Empire is in serious decline — much as any empire has in the past — for many reasons, and exists mainly in the minds of the militant morons in Washington.

The truth is the US will not be able to “pivot” to Asia, because China will not permit that to happen.

The truth is the US will not willingly support Israel in any war in the Middle East.

The truth is the US its military “fangs” have terminal decay.


Thus, in reality, there are NO “pillars of defense” of any kind for Israel that will ensure the survival of Israel as a nation.

The “handwriting is on the wall” for all to see, if you care to read the message.

Posted by Gordon2352 | Report as abusive

@stambo- talk about optical illusions. What ever gives anyone the idea that wars, whether final or miserably intractable leave only those with “one mind” standing. Do you think humanity is a forest that needs undergrowth burned out or a field of mushrooms?

Think again. It can just as easily leave survivors bent and mindless and scraping about in ruins as they continue to slaughter their last surviving remains and not at all gloriously sink into a not so common grave.

A final war will have no survivors intact to effectively rebuild the ruins except the very hard way that may never regain it’s former stature.

Talk about homicidal romanticism to no effect.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

Israel has killed far more Palestinian children than the Palestinians have killed Israeli children.

Israel was formed by immigrating Europeans who then began a brutal terrorist campaign against the British and the Palestinian natives.

Israel continuously steals land. Then when the Palestinians resist their land stealing, the Israel propaganda machine, the most adroit in the world — staffed by wealthy Hollywood and Madison Avenue executives holding dual American-Israeli citizenships — calls the Palestinians terrorists.

In fact, it is the Israelis that are the terrorists, and brutally so. The Israelis bulldoze the home of any Palestinian who speaks out against their land-stealing. Any Palestians that try to prevent the bulldozing are shot, and labeled as terrorists.

Israel is an apartheid nation, but far more brutal and murderous than the long gone apartheid government of South Africa. Israel is the most racist nation on Earth. Now there are quarrels even among the Israelis themselves about who has the most pure Jewish bloodlines.

Yet, if anybody criticizes Israel, he is quickly called anti-semitic.

Iran criticizes Israel, but invades nobody, kills nobody.

Israel kills, bulldozes, assasinates at will across the world. Israel builds many nuclear bombs, and Americans dare not criticize them or their land-stealing.

Posted by AdamSmith | Report as abusive

The cliche is “Israel has a right to defend itself”. More appropriate would be “Israel must defend itself against itself”.

If the far right extremists remain in charge, Israel will end up defeating itself and wiping itself off the map. There simply is no long term future for regimes that deny human rights and ignore international law.

Posted by rgbviews | Report as abusive

If one only considers that since the inception of Israel there has been nothing but war, then it becomes obvious that the founding fathers of such a State had grossly miscalculated its legitimacy, future and fate.

You cannot just exterminate a people in order to create room for another, not in today’s world. After more than sixty years the world is getting impatient with Israel’s failure in resolving the issues that it in itself has created.

The repeated civilian killings are just too horrendous, inhumane and totally unacceptable.

Does Israel have the right to exist & protect its survival ? That has become very questionable, after all.

Posted by EthicsIntl | Report as abusive

Its frightening to see how far the evil Wahhabi and Salafist axis has spread its influence, taking advantage of the . Israel is surrounded by a motley of hot-blooded thuggish “states” baying for its blood. If it retreats an inch from its positions it will face a horrendous onslaught from all sides and will have to fight a massive war to defend itself. If Palestine has a right to exist, so does Israel.
However I do agree that the author is very pessimistic, possibly due to an anti-Israeli bias. Israel has had to fight for its survival ever since it eked out some land for itself. It knows how to fight the surrounding axis of evil. It has an extremely advanced military and possibly the top espionage organization in the world. However it does face the danger of the rogue theocracy of Iran developing a nuclear weapon with which it can threaten Israel substantially. If the Iranian threat is contained, Israel has nothing to fear.
As regards the changed power profile in the Middle East after the Arab Spring, Israel can count on two conflicts which will take precedence over any Arab/Islamic effort to eradicate it – 1.The Shiite-Sunni quarrel and 2.The conflict between the Islamists and the those advocating democratic secular governments. Israel can exploit these two conflicts to thwart the unified opposition to itself in the Middle East (another conflict is between the Persian Iranians and the Arab states. The Iranians aren’t strictly Arabs.) However I agree that it will take a lot of maneuvering on Israel’s part for it to come out on top.

Posted by Aritra | Report as abusive

@Aritra – Israel has it’s share of those who bay for blood too.

Most people in the world are used to peaceful coexistence, especially if they are civilians. Unless they are making a career of military life (the only people in this country involved anymore) or they hope to make a living supplying the needs of the military, they don’t tend to stand to gain much. None of the losses or gains in the ME have much to do with their daily lives.

You should not be suggesting that the Israeli’s can “game” the situation. A lot of people in the ME will have no interest in the miserable game and are really only concerned in improving their living standards and preserving some of their traditional ways of life and, most importantly, their language. Religion is a lot easier to accommodate in pluralistic societies. It is criminal if anyone on either side seeds violent unrest within the polity of either. It becomes an almost invisible act of war.

We may be sheep by temperament and practicality but the human kind tend to have much larger brains and spend a lot of time judging the caliber of the shepherds. Human sheep tend to be a lot more critical and expect the herders to be as honest as they are forced to be.

We live wrapped in a very thorough web of legal constraints and tend to expect states to mind their superiors as much as we have to. Israel does not have a unilateral right to decide itself immune to international law or to claim that it’s courts are superior to any other court comprised of the rest of the nations of the earth. Sects like the Dravidian cult are not very different than “Zionists” or even the Vatican old timers in the home office and the bank, for that matter. The Palestinians have attempted to seek opinions from higher courts and the Israelis tend to ignore unfavorable opinion (the wall, the occupation, the settlements and the relief boat incident come to mind.

Zionism will loose simply because it is too sectarian and cannot exist without the pretension that its “God” has an opinion that somehow trumps all other interpretations of God or legal authority. Zionism has a problem as a philosophy in that it crosses the line between “Church and State” and tries to pretend it doesn’t. I tend to see the hard line Zionists as merely better dressed and somewhat more polite Taliban. The more acceptable the Zionist adherents claim they are – the more Sharia becomes a viable option for the Arab side. If both sides claimed they adhered to international standards of civil rights – neither side would be able to resuscitate antique and somewhat clumsy religious practices or ideologies.

BTW – people tend not to care what someone believes about religious matters if that belief doesn’t interfere in their won lives too baldly. Zionism can’t claim that it hasn’t interfered with the neighbors or ignored their objections.

Warfare and violent conflicts tend to create the need for authority higher than the combatants. That’s why the Romans made their “emperors” and the world has invested in the UN.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

paintcan – International standards? Most of the Islamic countries go by the Islamic declaration of Human Rights, NOT by the Universal Declaration. The moment they did that they created the right for the Israelis to choose to ignore international standards. Mind you, I’m not saying that the Israelis do ignore/contravene international standards, I’m saying they have every right to do so. It doesn’t matter even if the Islamic document is a verbatim copy of the International document, what matters is that its not the same document.
Hard line Zionists are present in Israel no doubt, just the same as hard line Mormons are present in the USA. However they have the same influence in Israel, maybe even weaker influence, than the hawkish Mormons have in the USA outside their own little realms, totally unlike the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt for example (where it has captured most of the institutions recently and is pitted in a pitched battle with secularists, Arab socialists, Nasserites, moderate Muslims and those who see Egypt as more than a simple Islamic country). In Israel Muslims and Christians have their own courts, are reasonably free to propagate their religion and generally go about their lives, subject to the law. Unlike in Iran (Palestine’s big brother) where Christians are harassed routinely, or in Palestine itself where Christians are killed, intimidated, forcibly converted, their women raped and converted, their churches burnt and defiled, and are forced to flee abroad. Never mind that the PFLP was founded by a Christian named George Habash, they have slowly abandoned their original aim of a secular democracy for Jew and Arabs for an Islamic state under Shariah Law and that Jews need to be wiped off the face of the Earth.
And why shouldn’t the Israelis “game” the situation when its surrounded by enemies? And the Israeli-Palestinian problem is a bilateral problem, why should Israel listen to objections from other states? And the occupation…as I said, if Israel retreats one step it will face a gigantic attack from Palestine…waves of suicide bombers and so-called “soldiers of God”, cut off from natural resources and rockets raining down courtesy Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran, probably Egypt as well and a lot of other “organizations”.

Posted by Aritra | Report as abusive

paintcan – Your prescription might have worked, say 40-50 years, when the Arabs still espoused Arabism in place of Islamism, when Arab Socialism was the philosophy to which Arabs subscribed. Arab Socialism is different from Islamism since it sought to unify Arabs irrespective of religion or sect etc into one nation which would be ruled on the principles of egalitarianism.
But now the trend in the Middle East is towards Islamism which wants an Islamic state governed by Shariah Law. The leaders of the Islamist movement will not rest till they see these objectives accomplished and generally these leaders command an influence not tempered by the writ of the state (that is when they don’t form the state themselves like in Egypt). See the situation in Pakistan for example. Or the one in Palestine itself sometimes when Hamas miscreants attack and defile churches of Palestinian Christians but the so-called P.A. does nothing more than issue a condemnation. This is why your assertion that the Palestinians will simply live their lives should Israel relent doesn’t hold. They will not stop till they have established an Islamic state governed by Shariah Law. And that would be synonymous with a death sentence for the Jews. A just (as we know “just” to be) pluralist society will never be the outcome should the Palestinians be allowed to establish a state on their own terms.
For example, look at Turkey where the Freedom and Justice Party has been insidiously pushing the agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood into Turkish society sometimes in total defiance of the principles of Kemal Atakurk. Or at Libya where the progressive and moderate group led by Abdul Jalil did the hard work till Gaddafi was toppled but just when elections were called, the Muslim Brotherhood formed its own party and tried tooth and nail to seize power. Or in Tunisia where the Muslim Brotherhood is involved in a political battle against secularists, moderates and progressives.

Posted by Aritra | Report as abusive

Well Aritra – Then I guess it will end in disaster? The ME isn’t likely to convert to Judaism now, is it? The Israeli’s can’t quite opt out of Zionism, because, there goes the dream of a “Jewish” state”. In this contest, the trumping card is, evidently, the religious one. Both sides know how to play it now.

You might want to read this I found a few nights ago. a11026.doc.htm

Settlers are harassing religious sites too and all the Israelis tend to do is issue condemnations, if they are in the mood to do it. Sometimes they will arrest them.

You can’t quite explain away why two, more or less, equal sized geographical areas reserved for “Jewish” and Arab inhabitants have, over 60 years, become so much more Jewish and so much less Arab and the maps now bear no resemblance to the early plan. In order to take in more self-described Jews (people never answer the question – what makes Jews “Jewish” enough to claim Israel as a homeland – and it seems like an obvious question to ask and should have obvious answers) more Arabs have been squeezed out. No one can claim that didn’t happen. We are usually only presented with the Israeli self-justification for it happening. The question of whether settled areas with majority Arab and Muslim populations should decide the law of their own countries is another question. The Israelis are not role models of adherence to UN decisions, so they won’t be able to serve as a good demonstration of that to other countries in the ME. The “sins of the fathers visited on the sons” so to speak. The Arab world was not exactly up and running, or truly in control of it’s own territories when the decisions re: a Jewish state, were forced on them.

The Israeli line always was, the Palestinians only did that to themselves. That’s not a believable argument anymore. It worked best when most people were ignorant of most of the details and they could fall back on their own religious traditions and biases.

The former imperial powers seem to be paying the price for their heavy-handed actions in the past. The saying is: “power corrupts etc.”. Decisions made without much reference to the local population’s desires are usually corrupt too. And I think that is a matter of the definition of what makes corrupt decisions corrupt, in the first place. At least in democracies that’s how it seems to work.

BTW – how can the Palestinians be accused of being a mature people when the partition plans were first sprung on them and not be mature enough to have their own state now?

The Israeli’s are very afraid that they put their foot so far over a variety of lines that they are liable to have it cut off by any solution to the problem.

A rotten decision isn’t going to improve with age.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive