In rallying the support of their own citizens or allies, leaders often invoke the specter of an external existential threat to their nation. We need only to look back at the first half of the 20th Century to see that such threats can be real. Consider the countries of Europe overrun and subjugated by Hitler’s Germany, those in Asia taken over by Imperial Japan and finally those forced into the Soviet orbit. That said, for the most part even the most horrendous of these existential threats turned out to be relatively short-lived. Ask today’s citizens of those countries.
So, making a credible case for external existential threats is increasingly difficult, if not impossible. Despite all the hysteria surrounding 9/11, George W. Bush couldn’t convince us that Al Qaeda’s challenge was existential. That made him and his neocon retainers so desperate that they fashioned an existential threat of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction out of whole cloth. Still they couldn’t make the case, because of course there was none to be made. This is not to suggest that existential threats can’t or won’t exist in the future, especially for smaller states. Even so, my guess is that we and other nations may have more to fear from within than without. This is especially true when something comes along that threatens a country’s national character or moral center. To be threatened from outside is challenging, falling victim to a self-inflicted wound is truly tragic.
I couldn’t help but think of this in considering Israel’s upcoming March 17 election. Immediately upon its 1948 founding, the fledgling state found itself under attack from all of its Arab neighbors. Without question it faced an immediate and existential threat, a potential delayed stillbirth. Despite all odds, including the vastly superior numbers of their adversaries, tiny Israel prevailed. Since its war for independence, the country has been threatened on numerous occasions and each time triumphed, preserving its sovereignty, its existence. Israel was born out of the Holocaust, midwifed by guilt-ridden nations, including the United States, who too long averted their eyes from what was happening to European Jewry. It was not the first time Jews had been persecuted or faced possible extinction. Indeed, looking at the arc of history, it is little wonder that Israel, along with Jews around the world, sometimes seem to be suffering paranoia. Recognizing real not imagined threats has forced Israel to be both vigilant and prepared. No nation can be expected to do less, but being on continuous high alert comes with considerable cost.
When it comes to Israel, as suggested in my December 2014 post commenting on Ari Shavit’s book, My Promised Land, things are complicated. Despite its military successes, the country remains surrounded by hostile neighbors, some still vowing its destruction. It took control of the West Bank in a war it didn’t start — quite the contrary — but finds itself the occupier of territory that the United Nations designated as Arab (Palestinian) in its 1947 Partition Plan. Since its inception, Israel has taken in countless Jewish refugees, fully integrating them as citizens into its society. In contrast, its Arab neighbors — many of them rich — refused to take in displaced Arab Palestinians in 1948, in effect manufacturing a “refugee problem” that remains unresolved. Israel may occupy, but the Arab world has used these “homeless” people as pawns for its own purposes, unwilling players in a chess game that never needed to be played.
Israel’s founders had their differences but they were idealists who saw the new state in almost utopian terms. Most of them were secular, not religious. Yet they were deeply committed to Am Yisrael — Jewish peoplehood. Most were exiles from, and profoundly touched by, a war-torn and hostile Europe. For them, persecution was an immediate and personal experience, loss of home and family etched in their psyche. The idea of a Jewish State, a permanent and secure homeland, was not an option but a necessity born directly out of that experience. The nation they were building would be egalitarian, not sectarian — the opposite of the totalitarian countries from which they escaped.
It was an idea and a reality rejected by the new country’s small ultra-orthodox (Haredi) population, many of whom lived in Jerusalem. That rejection didn’t sustain. Over time, with continued immigration and an outsized birth rate the Haredis would opportunistically and pragmatically change their stance becoming a significant political force in the body politic. Together with the West Bank settler community (to which many of them belong) and rightist parties, they have stood in opposition to the two-state solution envisioned and embodied in UN’s 1947 partition resolution. To them all the land that was pre-1948 Palestine is the Promised Land; all belongs solely to the Jewish people.
Bibi Netanyahu, the aggressively vocal Israeli prime minister, likes to evoke external existential threats, most notably a nuclear Iran. Without discounting that there are those who regularly vow the country’s destruction, I think its greatest existential challenge may come from within. That brings us back to the upcoming election. While not on the ballot, the issue of one state or two is certainly at stake. Remember, I defined an existential threat from within as one that threatens a country’s national character or moral center. For many years now, Israel has been moving steadily away from its left/liberal roots (the founders Mapai Party) toward the political right (Likud and others). As my most recent post would demonstrate, they are not alone. Conservatives have been ascendant in the US and rule in Germany, the UK, and may again in France at the next vote. Turkey, a once moderate Moslem state in the region, has taken its own sharp turn to the right.
Netanyahu, whose firing of two key moderate coalition partners precipitated the impending vote, is a man of the right. In recent years he has paid lip service to two states — one Jewish and one Palestinian. But his sanctioning of further expansion on the West Bank makes one wonder about his commitment and to the peace process in general. Without question, more building in the “territories” has complicated negotiations with the Abbas PLO government. This is not to suggest that Israel is the only party responsible for the failure of John Kerry’s peace initiative. In a recent NY Times Op-Ed, Dennis Ross Bill Clinton’s principal negotiator in the 1990s contends that the PLO shares equal, even greater, blame. Nonetheless, with the increasing rise of the right, most notably but not exclusively the Haredi, talk of a single Jewish state encompassing the West Bank and, one would assume Gaza, has entered the conversation in a more serious way.
I have Israeli relatives who feel that the election is unlikely to change anything — the government or the status quo. I’m not sure they will bother to vote and that itself says something, including why the left is so weakened. Not being an Israeli, I’m in no position to know that their assessment is wrong. What does seem clear, even from this vantage point, is that a big win for the right could indeed have considerable consequence. Among others, it might close the door on the two-state solution and transform Israel into something very different than what the founders had envisioned. It could move the country from being an occupier into a “Jewish Homeland” where Jews hold only a small and shrinking majority. If the West Bank and Gaza were incorporated into a single State of Israel, Arabs would immediately number 5.5 Million up from the current 1.7 Million. That means that the Jewish population (6.1 Million) now 75% of the whole would shrink to a tenuous majority. Demographics alone, even allowing for the high Haredi growth rate (5%), could tip that balance in relatively short order.
The real question then is how would that single state be managed? Would there be universal suffrage, which might one day lead to Arab rule or more likely would the non-Jewish population be relegated to some kind of second-class citizenship. Think companies that have two classes of stock, voting and not. Either way, over time the character of the country would be totally altered — an existential threat if there ever was one. For any one who cares about Israel, not to mention the future of the Jewish people, the implications of this outcome are almost too painful to contemplate. Imagine, for example, if Apartheid would reemerge, only this time in the Holy Land. Again, an existential threat to the state and an end to the Biblical promise, “out of Zion will come the authentic teaching, the divine word out of Jerusalem.”
A radical outcome from the upcoming vote would further alienate the world community, perhaps even triggering some international action that could undermine all for which the country’s people have worked. But that is really a very poor reason upon which Israeli citizens should decide on how to vote. They shouldn’t allow this existential threat for themselves and for their own future not because American Jews like myself or others want that outcome. That’s true as well for any future peace initiative. Nobody can or should dictate Israel or the Palestinians fate. They have to do it for themselves and for those who will come after them.