Israel is not what it was
Through 60 years of turmoil, only one thing remains constant: there can still be no external solution for the Middle East.
As the state of Israel reaches its sixtieth ‘birthday’, it seems that some observers are exhibiting the early signs of memory loss. These historical amnesiacs talk about the problem posed by Israel today as if things were much the same as they have been over the past six decades. But almost everything has changed, both in terms of Israeli relations with the world and the internal state of Israel itself. It seems an appropriate moment for those of us who have long been critics of Israel to ask some fresh questions.
Today, Israel may look to many like an historical anachronism, its needle stuck in the same groove as it was 60 years ago. In fact Israel’s standing in the world has undergone more than one remarkable transformation over that period.
During their struggle to found the state of Israel in the 1940s, the Zionists were a thorn in the side of the British colonialists. Yet after their tiny and isolated settler state was created in 1948, within a few years Israel had gained affirmation as the West’s favourite small country, widely hailed as a symbol of civilisation in a hostile world. This relationship was solidified and politicised through the Cold War era.
From the 1960s to the 1990s, Israel became the close ally of the USA and the West in the Middle East. Washington armed and funded the Israeli state to act as the Western gendarme in the region, as a counter to both Arab nationalism and Soviet influence – a role Israel fulfilled well in its victorious wars of 1967 and 1973. In the early years there was even a reservoir of left-wing sympathy for Israel in the West, a result both of the Nazi Holocaust – which provided the impetus and moral justification for the founding of a Jewish state – and of the collectivist, Kibbutz ethos of the Labour-Zionist government.
Yet over recent years, Israel has experienced an even more dramatic fall from grace in Western eyes. Now it is widely viewed as a pariah state, the scourge of civilised international politics, held responsible not only for the perpetual crisis in the Middle East but also for the wider problems of terrorism and war. Israel is now depicted as a receptacle for all that is rotten, as – in the words of a French ambassador a few years ago – a ‘shitty little country’ that is to blame for everything. What happened to bring about this remarkable turnaround?
With the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union at the start of the 1990s, the USA and the other Western powers no longer felt the same strategic need to give Israel carte blanche in the Middle East, and sought closer relations with some Arab governments. For example, Washington and Whitehall worked hard to get the likes of Syria onside for their invasion of Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War, keeping the Israelis on a short leash.
At the same time as this strategic change in the Middle East, important cultural shifts were affecting the West in the uncertain post-Cold War years. Without the Soviet threat to unite against, America and the Western allies became less sure of their own role in the world. The Israelis, once praised as staunch defenders of Western values in a hostile world, came to be seen as an outdated embarrassment at a time when few were sure what those values might be any longer. As the West lost faith in itself, many turned their backs on Israel. A small state that still upheld uncompromising notions of national sovereignty and fighting for its interests held an unwelcome mirror up to a West no longer sure of what it believed in, or for what it would fight.
At the same time, victim culture was taking hold in our disoriented Western societies. Suffering was now widely seen as a cardinal virtue. Where once the Jews had been the victims of international politics, now they were condemned as the oppressors, as the Palestinians became the most globally popular victim group. Sympathy for the Jewish victims of the Nazis transmogrified into empathy with the Arab victims of the ‘Zio-Nazis’. And where once many in the West had championed Israel as a symbol of their values, now the Western left embraced the Palestinians as a symbol of their own rejection of the same.
The European Union has been at the forefront of the new Western attitude to the Middle East over the past decade, frequently criticising Israel and extending aid to the Palestinians. Its recent difficulties in dealing with the Hamas administration have slowed but not stopped this trajectory. Opinion polls suggest that many in Europe now see Israel as a bigger threat to world peace than Iran.
Even the USA, while still Israel’s biggest backer, has seen fit to distance itself from the Jewish state. Palestinian sympathisers wrongly claim that George W Bush has been the most pro-Israeli president. Yet at the same time as fighting the war in Iraq, Bush became the first US president to give unequivocal support to the creation of a Palestinian state, and has pressed the Israelis to end Jewish settlements.
One sign of the changing times came when German chancellor Angela Merkel recently staged an historic visit to Israel. Merkel declared that ‘a threat facing Israel is also a threat to us’, and told the Israeli Knesset (parliament) of Germany’s ‘historic responsibility’ towards Israel, assuring MPs that Israeli security was ‘non-negotiable’. Not long ago, this would have been standard stuff coming from a Western leader. This time, however, Chancellor Merkel’s defence of Israel met with howls of protest across Germany and Europe. The flipside is that, not long ago, Germany was still viewed with suspicion by Israelis because of its Nazi past. Isolated in the world today, however, Israel embraced Merkel’s Germany as their ‘new best friend’.
In these circumstances the internal politics of Israel, too, have changed drastically over the years. The united, zealous and ambitious Zionism of yesteryear has given way to a more inward-looking, defensive and divided national psyche. It might seem as if Israel has experienced a similar crisis of identity and mission to its erstwhile Western allies; for example, Israeli politics is now overshadowed by the sort of corruption scandal that has become familiar in our capitals. But the difference is that for Israel, which has survived only by being in a permanent state of war, the loss of mission is a matter of imminent life and death. Abandoning dreams of an expansionist ‘Greater Israel’, Israeli leaders have retreated behind the barrier of their new security fence, occasionally lashing out at the Palestinians or their neighbours to remind the world that they are still here – as in the disastrous 2006 invasion of Lebanon which, one Israeli general conceded, was a war with ‘no purpose’.
Much has changed, then, as the Israeli state’s sixtieth anniversary passes, and it is important that those of us who have been staunch critics of Israel keep abreast of developments. I have long supported the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination, and am not about to become ardently pro-Israel. But over the past few years some of us have found ourselves increasingly uncomfortable with anti-Israeli arguments in the UK and the West. These are motivated more by reactionary and self-loathing sentiments than genuine solidarity. When I see anti-Israeli demonstrators celebrating the parochial nihilism of Islamic movements with banners proclaiming ‘We are all Hezbollah now!’, I can only respond ‘no, we’re not’.
In particular, it seems high time to abandon the pro-Palestinian activists’ favoured slogan of ‘Smash the Israeli state!’ Not only does it now represent ahistorical wishful thinking – should we turn the clock back to 1948, or 1967? It is also no longer a political slogan at all, but an infantile scream expressing the wish that if only that ‘shitty little country’ would go away, all would be well. The creation of the Israeli state on Palestinian soil 60 years ago, and the bloody conflicts that ensued, is of course a big part of the historical problem. It has proved to be a heavy burden on the Palestinians and, as the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky predicted, a ‘bloody trap’ for the Jews. But the road to a lasting solution cannot lie through driving the Israeli people further into their bunker.
Indeed, for all that has changed one thing has remained constant in the Middle East: there can be no international solution imposed upon the crisis. From the age of empire, through the Cold War, to the international peace process, no region on Earth has suffered more from the interference and high-handedness of world powers. The iron law of history has been that the more closely Europe and America involve themselves in the affairs of the Middle East, whether it is on the side of the Israelis or the Palestinians, the less control the peoples of the region have over their own destiny. Their interventions serve only to perpetuate and internationalise the conflicts and tensions. And they take the power to shape their future out of the hands of the peoples of the Middle East. International intervention makes matters worse and further disempowers those on the receiving end. That is the lesson of not just the past 60 years of Israel, but of more than a century of Western political, economic and military interference in the Middle East.
The ‘solution’ apparently favoured by the international community today is a two-state arrangement where Israel survives alongside an independent Palestinian state. That seems another Western pipedream, impracticable and guaranteed only to set the bitter divisions in stone. A troubled region whose modern states were largely created by Western statesmen and generals drawing lines in the sand has already endured the bitter ‘fruits’ of partition.
No, however difficult it may seem, 60 years on the truth remains that the Israelis, Palestinians and their neighbours are the ones who will have to reach some sort of federal solution to their problems in the end. It is unlikely to be an easy or peaceful process. But the alternative is worse. Who would look forward to still discussing the Middle East crisis in another 60 years time?
Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.
Mick Hume pointed out that Western ‘culture wars’ have been exported to the Middle East. Frank Furedi dispelled the myth of a powerful Israel lobby and looked at what’s behind the ‘new anti-Semitism’. Brendan O’Neill said Gaza had been imprisoned by the peace process. Nathalie Rothschild asked who’s afraid of Israeli academics. Or read more at spiked issue Middle East.