The identity of a people or a land?

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A tense political climate, torn between war and defence, thinking of embracing the West or fleeing eastwards. A country fighting itself more than its enemies.

Since its creation, Israel has always been torn between its aspiration to be a normal country and the difficulty of achieving this. It is divided between the temptation of isolation, fuelled by the specific nature of its birth, and the yearning to merge with the concert of nations, driven by the universal tendency of Zionist humanism. This dialectic explains why the strategic debate in Israel always assumes existential overtones of anxiety, and why a festering wound reopensevery time external conditions change – as is the case right now, with the whole of the Middle East in upheaval.


The current intensity and harshness of this debate in Israel may surprise a casual observer. After all, Israel could appear impregnable to all armies and all criticism. But that’s not true. Even though it may not show on the surface and is incomprehensible to non-Jews, the simultaneous presence of great strength and extreme frailty is what produces this profound anxiety. So much so that Israeli prime minister in the 1960s, Levi Eshkoldescribed the country as a Sansone der neberkhediker, a colossus with feet of clay.


This existential angst increasedwith the failure of the Oslo Accords. Netanyahu’s four successive election victories, in 1996, 2009, 2013 and 2015,confirmed that angst and acted as a further catalyst. The whole Israeli political spectrum and even the diaspora share the same feeling: Israel is not safe. A cursory look at the map and the history books shows this anxiety is perfectly understandable.


But opinions differ on the possible cure. The Israeli(and Jewish) left and right clash over how to guarantee the safety of the state of Israel. The left insists that only peace and therefore a Palestinian state can save the two-fold Jewish and democratic nature of the country founded by Ben Gurion. Without peace, the overwhelming Palestinian demographics will force Israel to choose between being Jewish and being democratic, thus changing its nature. Ultimately, the left’s solution is to relinquishIsrael’s dangerous isolation to become a’normal’ western state,whatever the price in territorial terms. Because the left is interested in the people, rather than the land.


Whereas on the right, the terms are reversed. On this side of the political spectrum, led by Netanyahu, the only possibleoption to protect Israel is an isolationist “steel wall” of unbridled hostility against Arab and Islamic neighbours. A wall that can end up also championing disdain in relations with the West, sending a message that Israel is inviolably set up this way, take it or leave it.


The astonishing political continuity enjoyed by Netanyahu, the only Israeli prime minister to be re-elected four times, testifies to the popularity of his weltanschauung (worldview) among Israeli public opinion. This paradigm dominatedafter the September 11 attacks, only recently coming into question following Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran.


This duel does not really revolve around theusual, rather unrealistic temptation every US president harbours of reaching a deal with the Palestinians. Rather, it rests on the vision of a political relationship with Iran, seen by Obama as useful to US national interests but also as a cornerstone for a new regional order. This issue has grown increasingly urgent following the collapse of the previous one, which began in 2003 – if not as early as 1991 – and was completed in 2011. In any case, Obama and Netanyahu’s clash over the Iran agreement is entirely political and hingeson their different appraisals of the adversaryin question, Iran.Just like 20 years earlier, when the US disagreed with Rabin, that time over the nature of the Palestinian nationalist movement.

Netanyahu views the Ayatollahs’ regime (and the same could be said of the old enemy, the Palestinians) as intrinsically evil because it is totally one-sided and so it cannot change for the better or relinquish its final aim, namely the annihilation of Israel. Whereas Obama’s philosophy – actually the same as Rabin’s – is that one must negotiate with the enemy because its essence is political and complex (like everyone’s) and so can vary when conditions change. Enemies can be forced to keep to agreements thanks to the balance of power, and can move towards negotiations,even if only for the sake of convenience. The strength of Netanyahu’s position is that “even paranoids have real enemies”. The weakness is that it has no answer to the question “what are the alternatives?” – apart from an endless war and a strenuous defence of the status quo.

But no status quo is forever. The Palestinian one is not, as seen in theserecent tragic months of desperate, lone wolf terrorism. Nor is that of the region,following the so-called “Arab Springs” particularly now with the presence of Islamic State (IS), a jihadist terrorism that has mutated into a state. In the face of these new terrorist threats, Netanyahu does not have the only recipe, as was the case after 11 September, nor is it the most appropriate one – unlike 20 years ago. Instead, he substitutes analyses he is incapable of making with the perception of fear, taking refuge in what Leo Strauss coined reductio ad Hitlerum– or playing the Nazi card. This is reflected both in his relations with the Palestinians –hence Netanyahu’s claim that the Second World War Palestinian grand mufti of Jerusalem invented the “final solution” – and in his relations with Iran. However, while analogies maybe useful for psychologists,you cannot build policies around them.

This is why Israel is now once again debatingthe future of Zionism, with its current international isolation from the West at the heart of the discussions. This isolation is nothing new, maybe just more acute than the past. But it has a central place in today’s debate because the right views it as wonderful (and by no means temporary),while the left and Israeli’s intelligence networks consider it as a mortal danger. This isolation may have been born out of the idea of ‘exceptionality’, considered as a necessary condition for Israel’s existenceover the last two decades, but it is now increasingly viewed as not enough.

In order to avoid having to renounce Israel’s exceptionality in western eyes, particularly those of its European ‘stepmother’, Netanyahu is trying to plot an exit strategy towards Asia. “We are very deeply part of the West”, stated the Israeli prime minister recently, “but we look to the East. We appreciate Europe, but we admire Asia”. Strategic talks have been held with Indonesia, and Israeli exports to Asian countries tripled between 2004 and 2014, reaching 16.7 billion dollars[€14.9bn], a fifth of Israel’s total exports. In 2014,Asia overtook the US as Israel’s number two destination for exports, after Europe. And while relations with China only started in 1992, a free trade agreement is now in the works, with similar plans underway with India too.

Israel’sself-isolation has many detrimental effects on European public opinion, reinforcing a tendency towards an already a visceral form of anti-Semitism. Added to this are the external dynamics redefining the regional order, a process in which Israel is not involved because of its different nature and as it is the power behind the status quo. So, it is easily understandable how these factors alienate Israel even further from its regional context.As happened during the 1991 First Gulf War, Israel has wisely chosen to stay on the sidelinesof the conflict raging across the Levant, with the war in Syria, the rise of the IS metastasis and the disruption affecting almost all of Northern Africa, starting with Libya.

However, even though a possible alternative escape routevia Asia has been established, the question remains: is this isolation sustainable over time?There is great concern about this segregation inthe Israeli ‘deep state’, especially the security and intelligence services – the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), Mossad, Shin Bet and Aman.Why? Because the isolation has been worsened by an unprecedented, yet now evident clash of political vision with Barack Obama and the White House. And a series of correlated factors have increased the threats to Israel: rifts with strategic allies such as Turkeydeveloped over recent decades, and the virulent revival of anti-Israeli and at times anti-Semitic sentiment throughout Europe and among the younger generations in the West.

Moreover, this is all taking place in a regional context overwhelmed by constant crises that shift from being political to military. So where should Israel be headed? The country is at a crossroads. The Zionism of the early days has been consumed by its own success. In a constantly changing world, if a political organism stays still and isolated,the result is crisis – something we are seeing with the European Union. Israel, like the EU, can either rebuild or sink. But on what foundations should it build? These questions are relevant because Israel is the heart of the west. And defining its future means also defining our own.

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