Naturally enough it takes two astute American academics, Steve Walt and John Mearsheimer, authors of The Israel Lobby, to explain in the Financial Times that Iran isn’t the real issue for Israel:
On Iran, Mr Netanyahu is convinced it wants nuclear weapons, and that this goal threatens Israel’s existence. He does not think diplomacy can stop Iran, and wants the US to destroy its nuclear facilities. If Mr Obama refuses to order an attack, the Israeli leader would like a green light to do so.
Mr Obama and his advisers – including the military – see things differently. They do not want Iran to obtain nuclear weapons, but they do not believe a nuclear-armed Iran would pose an existential threat to Israel. After all, Israel has its own nuclear arsenal, and could obliterate Iran if attacked. US intelligence is also confident Tehran has not yet decided to build nuclear weapons. Indeed, US leaders worry that, no matter who does it, an attack would convince Iran it needs its own nuclear deterrent. They are correct.
In fact, the Palestinian issue is the real existential threat to Israel. More than 500,000 Israeli Jews now live in the occupied territories, and continued settlement building will lead to a single state between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean sea. Given demographic trends, this “Greater Israel” could not be both a Jewish state and a full democracy. Instead, it would be an apartheid state, threatening Israel’s legitimacy and long-term survival. As Ehud Olmert, former prime minister, said in 2007, if the two-state solution fails, Israel “will face a South African-like struggle for equal voting rights”. And if that happens, he warned, “the state of Israel is finished”.
Mr Netanyahu and Mr Obama have clashed repeatedly on the Palestinian issue, and each time Mr Obama has backed down. He is unlikely to press the issue between now and November’s election. Instead, he will act as if the US and Israel remain the closest of allies.
If only this were true.
There is another state in the region [Israel] that is embroiled in a crisis of democratic becoming. This is the State of Israel. For decades, its citizens—its Jewish ones, at least—have justifiably described their country as the only democracy in the Middle East. Although Israel as imagined by Theodor Herzl and built by the generation of David Ben-Gurion was never intended to be a replica of the Anglo-American model—its political culture, even now, is closer to that of the European social democracies—its structures of governance are points of pride. And yet, as an experiment in Jewish power, unique after two millennia of persecution and exile, Israel has reached an impasse. An intensifying conflict of values has put its democratic nature under tremendous stress. When the government speaks daily about the existential threat from Iran, and urges an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, it ignores the existential threat that looms within. Reactionary elements lurk in many democracies. Ask the Dutch, the British, the Austrians, the French. The Republican Party has flirted with several in this election cycle. But in Israel the threat is especially acute. And the concern comes not only from its most persistent critics. The former Prime Ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert have both warned of a descent into apartheid, xenophobia, and isolation.
The political corrosion begins, of course, with the occupation of the Palestinian territories—the subjugation of Palestinian men, women, and children—that has lasted for forty-five years. Peter Beinart, in a forthcoming and passionately argued polemic, “The Crisis of Zionism,” is just the latest critic to point out that a profoundly anti-democratic, even racist, political culture has become endemic among much of the Jewish population in the West Bank, and jeopardizes Israel proper. The explosion of settlements, encouraged and subsidized by both Labor and Likud governments, has led to a large and established ethnocracy that thinks of itself as a permanent frontier. In 1980, twelve thousand Jews lived in the West Bank, “east of democracy,” Beinart writes; now they number more than three hundred thousand, and include Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s wildly xenophobic Foreign Minister. Lieberman has advocated the execution of Arab members of parliament who dare to meet with leaders of Hamas. His McCarthyite allies call for citizens to swear loyalty oaths to the Jewish state; for restrictions on human-rights organizations, like the New Israel Fund; and for laws constricting freedom of expression.
A visitor to Tel Aviv and other freethinking precincts might overlook the reactionary currents in the country, but poll after poll reveals that many younger Israelis are losing touch with the liberal, democratic principles of the state. Many of them did their military duty in the Occupied Territories; some learned to despise the Occupation they saw firsthand, but others learned to accept the official narratives justifying what they were made to do.
Last year, a poll conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute found that fifty-one per cent of Israelis believed that people “should be prohibited from harshly criticizing the State of Israel in public.” Netanyahu encourages the notion that any such criticism is the work of enemies. Even the country’s staunchest ally, the United States, is not above suspicion. The current Administration has coöperated with Israeli intelligence to an unprecedented extent and has led a crippling sanctions effort against Iran, yet Netanyahu, who visits Washington this week, has shown imperious disdain for Barack Obama. In fact, the President is a philo-Semite, whose earliest political supporters were Chicago Jews: Abner Mikva, Newton and Martha Minow, Bettylu Saltzman, David Axelrod. He was close to a rabbi on the South Side, the late Arnold Jacob Wolf. But to Netanyahu these men and women are the wrong kind of Jew. Wolf, for example, had worked for Abraham Joshua Heschel, the rabbi most closely associated with the civil-rights movement and other social-justice causes. Wolf brought Martin Luther King, Jr., to speak in his synagogue, marched in Selma, and, in 1973, helped found Breira (Alternative), one of the first American Jewish groups to endorse a Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Netanyahu has distaste for such associations; his gestures toward Palestinian statehood are less than halfhearted. (After he spoke of giving Palestinians their own state, his father, the right-wing historian Benzion Netanyahu, shrewdly observed, “He supports it under conditions that they will never accept.”) To Netanyahu, the proper kind of ally is exemplified by AIPAC and Sheldon Adelson—the longtime casino tycoon and recent bankroller of Newt Gingrich—who owns a newspaper in Israel devoted to supporting him. Netanyahu knows that young American Jews are split, with the growing Orthodox community solidly in his corner, and the less observant and secular majority—a majority that is increasingly assimilated and uninterested in Jewish learning—losing their attachment to Israel. The Prime Minister clearly feels that the fervor of the few offers him more than the disillusion and drift of the many.
“The dream of a Jewish and democratic state cannot be fulfilled with permanent occupation,” Obama has said. Netanyahu and many of his supporters believe otherwise; too often, they consider the tenets of liberal democracy to be negotiable in a game of coalition politics. Such short-term expedience cannot but exact a long-term price: this dream—and the process of democratic becoming—may be painfully, even fatally, deferred.