Friday, June 05, 2009

From Counterpunch

The Future of Israel and the Decline of the American Empire

The Wages of Hubris and Vengeance


is in the grip of a kind of collective schizophrenia. Not only its
governors but the majority of its Jewish population have delusions of
both grandeur and persecution, making for a distortion of reality and
inconsistent behavior. Israeli Jews see and represent themselves as a
chosen people and part of a superior Western civilization. They
consider themselves more cerebral, reasonable, moral, and dynamic than
Arabs and Muslims generally, and Palestinians in particular. At the
same time they feel themselves to be the ultimate incarnation of the
Jewish people’s unique suffering through the ages, still subject to
constant insecurity and defenselessness in the face of ever-threatening
extreme and unmerited punishment.

a psyche leads to hubris and vengefulness, the latter a response to the
perpetual Jewish torment said to have culminated, as if by a directive
purpose, in the Holocaust. Remembering the Shoah is Israel’s Eleventh
Commandment and central to the nation’s civil religion and
Weltanschauung. Family, school, synagogue, and official culture
propagate its prescriptive narrative, decontextualized and surfeited
with ethnocentrism. The re-memorizing of victimization is ritualized on
Yom Ha Shoah and institutionalized by Yad Vashem.

uses the Holocaust to conjure the specter of a timeless existential
peril, in turn used to justify its warfare state and unbending
diplomacy. Forever posing as the impossibly vulnerable Biblical David
braving the Islamic Goliath, Israel insists all its cross-border wars
and punitive operations are strictly defensive, preventive, or
preemptive. Yet its leaders, many of them retired senior officers of
the armed forces and intelligence services, attribute the exploits of
the military to the advanced weapons, exemplary strategists, and
uniquely principled citizen soldiers of the country’s formidable
“Defense Forces,” one of the world’s mightiest fighting machines.

self-congratulation passes over the powerlessness of the enemy “other”
while it vastly exaggerates Israel’s innate strength to the point of
impairing judgment and action. Without the enormous and practically
unconditional financial, military, and diplomatic support of the United
and European Union, Israel would be an unexceptional small Middle
Eastern nation-state, not an anomalous regional superpower. Even with
this truly uncommon foreign backing (not to mention that of the global
diaspora), the Jewish state scores only pyrrhic victories, judging by
its failure to significantly enhance its strategic and political
position in the Greater Middle East—except for the time gained to
further consolidate and expand its fiercely contested “facts on the
ground” in the West Bank, Jerusalem, and the Golan.

its leaders avoid saying so in public, Israel does not want peace, or a
permanent comprehensive settlement, except on its own terms. They do
not dare spell these out publicly, as they presume the enemy’s
unconditional surrender, even enduring submission. Instead the
Palestinians continue to be blamed for a chronic state of war that
entails Israel’s continuing self-endangerment and militarization. This
policy’s underlying strategic premise is the need to prevent any
significant change in the West Asian balance of power.

there is possibly another less delusional reason for their spurning
accommodation and negotiation: because of their history of exile and
want of political self-rule, Jews and their sages may well be
insufficiently mindful of the theory and practice of sovereign
statecraft. Admittedly, after 1945 the leaders of many of the new
states of the post-colonial worlds were equally benighted. Unlike most
of them, however, Israel’s political class and thinkers prize their
deep connection with the West, including its philosophic and
intellectual heritage, to the point of putting admission to the
European Union ahead of rapprochement with the Arab/Muslim world. Yet
they seem not to be conversant with the fundamental ideas of the likes
of Machiavelli and Clausewitz. Respectively theorists of politics and
war, both emphatically propound moderation over unrestraint.
Machiavelli puts virtù at the center of his formula for the use
of power and force. He does not, however, construe it as a moral
principle—as virtue—but as a prescript for prudence, flexibility, and a
sense of sober limits in power politics.

theorizes limited war for well-defined and negotiable objectives, the
disposition for compromise varying in inverse ratio to the victor’s
aims and demands. He cautions above all against “absolute” war in which
intellect, reason, and judgment are cast aside. Although he and
Machiavelli take account of the interpenetration of domestic and
international politics, both conceive them as two distinct spheres. In
Israel, domestic politics prevails, with little concern for the reason
of international politics.

insights are particularly relevant for small states. But blinded by
their successful defiance of limits and laws, the leaders of Israel
take their country of seven million people (over 20 percent of them
non-Jewish, mostly Arabs) to be a great power by dint of its outsized
armed forces and arms industry. They deceive themselves by assuming the
Western world’s support for its military hypertrophy is irreversible.
Perverting virtù they launch nearly absolute military
expeditions against the radical Palestinian resistance. They also
envisage striking resurgent Iran with the most modern American-made and
-financed aircraft operated by American-certified Israeli pilots. Nor
does Tel Aviv hesitate to send military, technical, and covert
“intelligence” missions, as well as weapons, to scores of nations in
the Middle East, ex-Soviet sphere, Africa, Asia, and Latin America, not
infrequently in concert with Washington.

terror is all but integral to the latest weapons and tactics with which
Israel’s forces engage the Palestinian resistance fighters. Of course
the latter also resort to terror, the hallmark of asymmetrical warfare.
But it is Israel that sows the wind and reaps the whirlwind. A vicious,
endless cycle of vengeance, driven by the clashes of Israel’s
overconfident, sophisticated, and regular military forces with crude
and irregular paramilitary forces, further intensifies the distrust
between Israelis and Palestinians, including Israeli Arabs, most of
them Muslim. Though intended to break the will of the armed militias by
inflicting unbearable pain on the host society, as in Lebanon and Gaza,
the collateral damage of Israel’s campaigns of “shock and awe” only
serve to fire the avenging fury of the powerless.

Israel’s foundation, the failure to pursue Arab-Jewish understanding
and cooperation has been Zionism’s “great sin of omission” (Judah
Magnes). At every major turn since 1947-48 Israel has had the upper
hand in the conflict with the Palestinians, its ascendancy at once
military, diplomatic, and economic. This prepotency became especially
pronounced after the Six Day War of 1967. Consider the annexations and
settlements; occupation and martial law; settler pogroms and
expropriations; border crossings and checkpoints; walls and segregated
roads. No less mortifying for the Palestinians has been the
disproportionately large number of civilians killed and injured, and
the roughly 10,000 languishing in Israeli prisons.

the recent ingloriousness of Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, Israel’s
ruling and governing class continues to stand imperious. Yet evidence
that the country’s military is increasingly ill-adapted to fight
today’s decentralized irregular warfare mounts, while its foreign
policy is increasingly incoherent and hostage to the hidebound partisan
politics of competing intransigence. Geopolitically unsteady, its
relation to Washington is battered by the same heavy winds now
buffeting the center and periphery of the American empire.

so, emboldened by cutting-edge conventional and unconventional weapons,
the governors of Israel, contemptuous of the minuscule and comatose
left opposition in the Knesset and the country at large, vow to hold on
to most of the archipelago of settlements and all of Jerusalem. They
pay lip service to the two-state solution, but all they are prepared to
concede to the Palestinians is a cramped pseudo-state with minimal
sovereignty, with Gaza severed from the West Bank. If pressed they
might agree to a 30-mile tunnel under sovereign Israeli land to
establish an artificial contiguity between fragmented West Bank and
fenced-in Gaza Strip. Yet they mean to control all land and maritime
borders as well as the airspace and electromagnetic frequencies.

Israel continues to play on the internecine divisions of the
Palestinian nation and the discords in the Arab-Muslim world. Its
leaders dread nothing more than a reconciliation of the two principal
Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah; a Palestinian unity government;
and an entente cordiale of the Arab states whose peace
proposal, initiated by Saudi Arabia in 2002, they consider fraught with
doom. The latest spirit of darkness is non-Arab Shi’ite Iran. Should
Tehran’s political power and ideological sway strike fear into the
so-called moderate Arab states, most notably Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and
Syria, these might all rally around the treacherous Arab peace
overture. Such a turn would most likely drive Iran to step up its
support of radical political Islam throughout the Greater Middle East,
including Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas throughout Palestine, and the
Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan. If Israel responds
only with the usual truculence, it will continue to navigate
dangerously between the ever more insecure and disoriented anciens régimes of the Arab/Muslim world and an intensifying political unrest whose impulses are both secular and religious.

the country is fixated on national security—Iran being decried as the
latest, and imminent, existential threat—elsewhere Israel is widely
perceived to be rapidly eroding what remains of its singular moral
capital and international prestige. There are more and more calls for
boycotts, embargoes, divestments, sanctions, and prosecutions, while
the media are finally giving more space and time to analytic and
critical voices. To dismiss or denounce this growing censure of
Israel’s policies as an expression of resurgent age-old
anti-Semitism—allegedly encouraged and legitimated by the ravings of
self-hating Jews—is not to see the forest for the trees. The same holds
for Israel’s leaders’ disposition to stigmatize major foreign adversary
leaders—Nasser, Arafat, Saddam Hussein, Ahmadinejad—as Hitler

the old reflexes remain, and the prospect of a nuclear and Islamist
Iran said to be bent on regional hegemony keeps them quick. With a
population of 70 million and some 15 percent of the world’s proven oil
and natural gas reserves, Iran is, indeed, a state to reckon with: it
has a long history, a strong national consciousness, and a swelling
educated middle class. Its two-stage, solid-fueled missiles are capable
of carrying conventional and nonconventional warheads a distance of
between 930 and 1,200 miles.

of joining those who seek diplomatic ways to refigure the balance of
regional power, Israel advocates an all-out economic embargo of Iran
backed by the threat of air strikes. The hardliners’ aim: to trigger a
regime change by way of a color revolution covertly fomented by the
U.S. and Israel. They warn that Tel Aviv will make good on this threat
of aerial assaults on Iran’s nuclear sites to delay or prevent it from
developing the ultimate weapon. Even respected politicians and public
intellectuals swear that in extremis Israel will strike without
approval from Washington, confident the U.S. will have no alternative
but to provide military and diplomatic cover, all the more so now that
Israel can use America’s five military bases in the Holy Land as

March 2009, Barack Obama and Shimon Peres saluted the Iranian people
and government on the occasion of Noruz, the start of the Persian new
year. Obama stressed the “common humanity that binds us together” and
insisted it was in the interest of both countries that “Iran should
take its rightful place in the community of nations.” Peres struck a
radically different note. He urged Iranians to reclaim their “worthy
place among the nations of the enlightened world” as he laid out the
conditions in their country: “There is great unemployment, corruption,
a lot of drugs, and general discontent. You cannot feed your children
enriched uranium, they need a real breakfast. It cannot be that the
money is invested in enriched uranium and the children are told to
remain a little hungry, a little ignorant.” Iran’s children suffer only
because “a handful of religious fanatics take the worst possible path.”
Rather than heed President Ahmadinejad, who in 2006 questioned the
Holocaust, the citizenry should “topple these leaders…who do not serve
the people.” Besides, while “they are destroying their [own] people,
they won’t destroy us.”

accusations are rich. Even now the independence of the Israeli
judiciary is compromised, secularism is losing ground, xenophobia is
rampant, and, still and always, the Palestinian minority is reduced to
second-class citizenship. In brandishing the Iranian threat, Israel’s
faction-ridden but consensual political class merely perpetuates its
rule by fear, which, according to Montesquieu, sows the seeds of

must ask themselves whether there is a point beyond which the Zionist
quest becomes self-defeatingly perilous, corrupting, and degrading.
Although the Judeocide marks the nadir of the history of the Jewish
people, it is not its defining moment and experience. The mythologized
millennial exile of the Jewish people was anything but an unrelenting
dark age: there was a vital Jewish life before the Shoah, and it
resumed full force after 1945, in both Israel and the diaspora. It is
neither to profane the Holocaust nor to desecrate the memory of its 5
to 6 million victims to recall their membership in a vast confederation
of over 70 million killed during World War Two, some 45 million of them
civilians. It is simply to point up that the Jewish catastrophe was
inextricably tied into the most murderous and cruel war in the history
of humanity, a war uniquely ferocious because of its crusading furies,
and not because of a divine narrative about the Jews.

Greater Middle East is a seething cauldron of domestic and
international conflicts. All the nations of this perennially contested
geopolitical space will have to adjust to the emergence of a multipolar
world system and the attendant waning of the American empire. This
great and accelerating change in international politics coincides with
the breakneck globalization of economics, finance, and science, which
subverts national economies while simultaneously fostering a new
mercantilism whose terms are set by a new concert of Great Powers.

leaders are at a crossroads: either they stick to their guns and are
forced into a reconfigured geopolitical reality they cannot outwit or
overmaster, or they decide of their own accord to temper their hubris
and rein in their propensity to vengeance. What should they choose at a
moment when Israeli society is facing a decline in Jewish immigration,
a rise in Jewish and Israeli emigration, and an upturn in draft
dodging  (to say nothing of how this disenchantment may be affecting
the steep rate of assimilation and intermarriage in the diaspora)?

begin, Israel’s governors and public intellectuals should rethink the
fundamental premises, objectives, and strategies of the policies
followed since 1948. They might do well to recall one of Theodor
Herzl’s earliest ideas: in exchange for a Jewish commonwealth serving
as “an outpost of civilization against barbarism” in Palestine, which
was considered a link in Europe’s “rampart against Asia,” the Great
Powers would guarantee its existence “as a neutral state.” To be sure,
even for most Israeli Jews the crass orientalism of this vision is out
of season. But the notion of a neutral state ought not to be dismissed
lightly. The present garrison state is not about to become, as Herzl
envisioned, “a light unto the nations”—let alone the diaspora.

they might admit to themselves that small nations do not have the
prerogative to speak loudly and carry a big stick, and that they keep
tempting fate by stubbornly staying Israel’s nuclear course. This
defiance cannot help but increase the perils of nuclear proliferation
in the Middle East and Central Asia from which Israel will not be
immune. Betting a tiny country’s security and survival on a momentary
regional head start in state-of-the-art warheads, aircraft, missiles,
unmanned drones, cluster bombs, and cyber weapons is, again,
delusional. Inevitably Iran and other states will challenge its
imperiousness, in the process exposing the entire region to the
unthinkable doctrine of mutually assured destruction premised on both
attacker and defender having a fail-safe deterrent in the form of a
second-strike nuclear or chemical-biological capability. Although
Tehran may still lack an effective missile air defense system, it has
test-fired high-speed missiles whose range puts it within striking
distance of Israel. But Iran has two additional trumps: a foothold near
the northern entrance to the narrow Strait of Hormuz, the world’s
single most vital energy chokepoint; and a critical geopolitical
proximity to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

than lead the regional nuclear and biological charge, Israel should
issue a call for a nuclear-free Middle East along with the announcement
of a significant reduction of its own outsized atomic arsenal and
armaments industry, which are both counterproductive and provocative.
Tangible and symbolic, such a military cutback could be paired with a
signal that Israel is prepared to seriously discuss the Palestinian
refugee issue. This might take the form of expressing remorse and
assuming partial moral responsibility for the exodus of over 700,000
Palestinian Arabs in 1947-49 and of mounting an international effort to
make amends in the form of reparations in line with U.N. General
Assembly Resolution 194 (Article 11).

the aftermath of the bloody and destructive invasion a donors’
conference raised some $4.5 billion for the relief and reconstruction
of Gaza. While the bulk of the aid was pledged by the Arab states, led
by Saudi Arabia, the U. S. committed $900 million for the Palestinian
Authority and $300 million for relief in Gaza. What if these monies had
been raised earlier? Had they gone to reparations, deployed as a
confidence-building measure, the region might have been spared the
politically toxic and humanly lethal Lebanon and Gaza incursions.

of this nature, seconded by other nations, might be preliminary steps
to Israel’s at long last specifying base lines for a negotiated
agreement on security, borders, settlements, Jerusalem, holy places,
and water resources. Such a turnaround and agenda would spell the
renunciation of the secular and religious diehards’ inveterate reach
for the Jordan River and reliance on the strategy of the Iron Wall. To
seek a conciliation and accommodation with the restive Palestinian
political class, edgy Arab regimes, and turbulent Islamic world is to
forsake the Joshua-like martial and closed Zionism of Weizmann,
Jabotinsky, Ben-Gurion, Begin, Netanyahu, and Barak. It would call for
and make possible a recovery of the repressed Isaiah-like humanist and
open Zionism of Ahad Haam, Martin Buber, Judah Magnes, Ernst Simon, and
Yeshayahu Leibowitz for either two demilitarized states or a single
bi-national state for two peoples with open borders, the separation of
state and religion, universal civil and social rights, and ecumenically
informed cultural reciprocity.

owl of Minerva spreads its wings only at dusk for political actors as
well as philosophers. Israel’s leaders, reflecting more critically on
Herzl’s belief in the need for an imperial patron, must grasp the
implications of the incipient decline of the American empire for
Israel’s future. Paradoxically the waning of Washington’s hegemony in
the Greater Middle East is likely to chasten Israel’s pride and give
enlightened and cosmopolitan Zionism a new if difficult lease on life.
But insofar as the U.S. fights its decline tooth and nail, Israel’s
power elite is also more likely to remain implacable, at all risks and
hazards for their own country and the diaspora.

Arno J Mayer is emeritus professor of history at Princeton University. He is the author of The Furies: Violence and Terror in the French and Russian Revolutions.and Plowshares Into Swords: From Zionism to Israel (Verso).

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