The Wages of Hubris and Vengeance
The Future of Israel and the Decline of the American Empire
by ARNO J. MAYER
Editors’ Note: This article by esteemed historian Arno Mayer originally ran on CounterPunch on June 9, 2009. Arno called CounterPunch this week and said that perhaps the essay should be reprinted since the situation hasn’t changed much over the last five years. CounterPunch agreed
Israel 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.
Such 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.
Israel 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.
This 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 States 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.
Although 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.
But 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.
Clausewitz 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.
These 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.
State 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.
Since 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.
Despite 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.
Even 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.
Meanwhile 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.
While 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 redivivus.
But 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.
Instead 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 blackmail.
In 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.”
The 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 despotism.
Israelis 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.
The 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.
Israel’s 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)?
To 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.
Next, 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.
Rather 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).
In 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.
Overtures 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.
The 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.