Israel’s Fraying Image and Its Implications

Remarks to a Seminar Convened by The National Interest to Discuss an Article by Jacob Heilbrunn

It is a privilege to have been asked to join this discussion of Jacob Heilbrunn’s account of Israel’s fraying image. His article seems to me implicitly to raise two grim questions.

The first question is how long Israel can survive as a democracy or at all. The Jewish state has left the humane vision of early Zionism and its own beginnings far behind it. Israel now rules over a disenfranchised Muslim and Christian majority whom it would like to expel and a significant minority of disrespected secular and progressive Jews who are stealing away to the safer and more tolerant environs of the United States and other Western countries. Israel has befriended none of its Arab neighbors. It has spurned or subverted all their offers to accept and make peace with it except when compelled to address these by American diplomacy. The Jewish state has now largely alienated its former friends and supporters in Europe. Its all-important American patron and protector suffers from budgetary bloat, political constipation, diplomatic enervation, and strategic myopia.

The second question is what difference Israel’s increasing international isolation or withering away might make to Americans, including but not limited to Jewish Americans.

Let me very briefly speak to some of the issues that create these questions.

For a large majority of those over whom the Israeli state rules directly or indirectly, Israel is already not a democracy. It consists of four categories of residents: Jewish Israelis who, as the ruling caste, are full participants in its political economy; Palestinian Arab Israelis, who are citizens with restricted rights and reduced benefits; Palestinian Arabs in the West Bank, who are treated as stateless prisoners in their own land; and Palestinian Arabs in the Gaza ghetto, who are an urban proletariat besieged and tormented at will by the Israeli armed forces. The operational demands of this multi-layered, militarily-enforced system of ethno-religious separation have resulted in the steady contraction of freedoms in Israel proper.

Judaism is a religion distinguished by its emphasis on justice and humanity. American Jews, in particular, have a well-deserved reputation as reliable champions of the oppressed, opponents of racial discrimination, and advocates of the rule of law. But far from exhibiting these traditional Jewish values which are also those of contemporary America Israel increasingly exemplifies their opposites. Israel is now known around the world for the Kafkaesque tyranny of its checkpoint army in the Occupied Territories, its periodic maiming and slaughter of Lebanese and Gazan civilians, its blatant racial and religious bigotry, the zealotry and scofflaw behavior of its settlers, its theology of ethnic cleansing, and its exclusionary religious dogmatism.

Despite an ever more extensive effort at hasbara the very sophisticated Israeli art of narrative control and propaganda it is hardly surprising that Israel’s formerly positive image is, as Mr. Heilbrunn reports, badly “fraying.” The gap between Israeli realities and the image projected by hasbara has grown beyond the capacity of hypocrisy to bridge it. Israel’s self-destructive approach to the existential issues it faces challenges the consciences of growing numbers of Americans both Jewish and non-Jewish and raises serious questions about the extent to which Israel supports, ignores, or undermines American interests in its region. Many have come to see the United States less as the protector of the Jewish state than as the enabler of its most self-injurious behavior and the endower of the many forms of moral hazard from which it has come to suffer.

The United States has assumed the role of protecting power for Israel, which depends heavily on the ability of American Jews to mobilize subsidies, diplomatic and legal protection, weapons transfers, and other forms of material support in Washington. This task is made easier by the sympathy for Zionism of a large but silent and mostly passive evangelical Christian minority as well as lingering American admiration for Israelis as the pioneers of a vibrant new society in the Holy Land. It is noteworthy, however, that those actually lobbying for Israel are almost without exception Jewish. Their efforts exploit the unscrupulous venality and appeasement of politically powerful donors that are essential to political survival in modern America to assure reflexive fealty to Israel’s rightwing and its policies. When it’s not denying its own existence, the Israel Lobby boasts that it is the most effective special-interest advocate in the country. Official America’s passionate attachment to Israel has become a very salient part of U.S. political pathology. It epitomizes the ability of a small but determined minority to extract tax resources for its cause while blocking efforts to question these exactions.

Americans tend to resent aggressively manipulative behavior and have little patience with sycophancy. The ostentatious obsequiousness in evidence during Prime Minister Netanyahu’s address to Congress two years ago and the pledges of fealty to Israel of last year’s presidential campaign were a major turn-off for many. Mr. Netanyahu has openly expressed his arrogant presumption that he can manipulate America at will. Still, thoughtful Israelis and Zionists of conscience in the United States are now justifiably concerned about declining empathy with Israel in the United States, including especially among American Jews. In most European countries, despite rising Islamophobia, sympathy for Israel has already fallen well below that for the Palestinians. Elsewhere outside North America, it has all but vanished. An international campaign of boycott, disinvestment, and sanctions along the lines of that mounted against apartheid South Africa is gathering force.

Those who have lost the support of more than a passionate minority are often driven to defame and vilify those who disagree with them. Intimidation is necessary only when one cannot make a persuasive case for one’s position. As the case for the coincidence of American interests and values with those of Israel has lost credibility, the lengths to which Israel’s partisans go to denounce those who raise questions about Israel’s behavior have reached levels that invite ridicule, parody, melancholy, and disgust. The Hagel hearings evoked all four among many, plus widespread foreign derision and contempt. Mr. Hagel’s “rope-a-dope” defense may not have been elegant but it was as effective against bullying assault as nonviolent resistance usually is in the presence of observers with a commitment to decency. The American people have such a commitment and reacted as might be expected to their Senators’ overwrought busking for political payoffs.

Outside the United States, where narratives made in Israel do not rule the airwaves, the Jewish state has lost favor and is now widely denigrated. Israel’s bellicosity and contempt for international law evoke particular apprehension. Every war that Israel has engaged in since its creation has been initiated by it with the single exception of the Yom Kippur / Ramadan War of 1973, which was begun by Egypt. Israel is currently threatening to launch an unprovoked attack on Iran that it admits cannot succeed unless it can manipulate America into yet another Middle Eastern war. Many, if not most outside the United States see Israel as a major source of regional instability and through the terrorism this generates a threat to the domestic tranquility of any country that aligns with it.

To survive over the long term, Israel needs internationally recognized borders and peace with its neighbors, including the Palestinians. Achieving this has for decades been the major objective of U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East. But no effort to convince Israel to do what it must to make peace goes unpunished. Jimmy Carter’s tough brokering of normal relations between Israel, Egypt, and, ultimately, Jordan led to his disavowal by his own party. Barack Obama’s attempt to secure Israel’s acceptance in the Middle East led to his humiliation by Israel’s Prime Minister and his U.S. yahoos and flacks. The Jewish state loses no opportunity to demonstrate that it wants land more than it wants peace. As a result, there has been no American-led “peace process” worthy of the name in this century. Israel continues to ignore the oft-reiterated Arab and Islamic offer to normalize relations with it if it just does what it promised in the Camp David accords it would do: withdraw from the occupied territories and facilitate Palestinian self-determination.

Israel has clearly chosen to stake its future on its ability, with the support of the United States, to maintain perpetual military supremacy in its region. Yet, this is a formula with a convincing record of prior failure in the Middle East. It is preposterous to imagine that American military power can indefinitely offset Israel’s lack of diplomatic survival strategy or willingness to accommodate the Arabs who permeate and surround it. Successive externally-supported crusader kingdoms, having failed to achieve the acceptance of their Muslim neighbors, were eventually overrun by these neighbors. The power and influence of the United States, while still great, are declining at least as rapidly as American enthusiasm for following Israel into the endless warfare it sees as necessary to sustain a Jewish state in the Middle East.

The United States has made and continues to make an enormous commitment to the defense and welfare of the Jewish state. Yet it has no strategy to cope with the tragic existential challenges Zionist hubris and overweening territorial ambition have now forged for Israel. It is the nature of tragedy for the chorus to look on helplessly as a heroic figure with many admirable qualities is overwhelmed by faulty self-perception and judgment. The hammerlock that the Israeli right has on American discourse about the Middle East assures that America will remain an onlooker rather than an effective actor on matters affecting Israel, unable to protect Israel’s long-term interests or its own.

The outlook is therefore for continuing deterioration in Israel’s image and moral standing. This promises to catalyze discord in the United States as well as the progressive enfeeblement of American influence in the region and around the globe. Image problems are often symptoms of deeper existential challenges. By the time that Israel recognizes the need to make compromises for peace in the interest of its own survival, it may well be too late to bring this off. It would not be the first time in history that Jewish zealotry and suspicion of the bona fides of non-Jews resulted in the disappearance of a Jewish state in the Middle East. The collateral damage to the United States and to world Jewry from such a failure is hard to overstate. That is why the question of American enablement of shortsightedly self-destructive Israeli behavior needs public debate, not suppression by self-proclaimed defenders of Israel operating as thought police. And it is why Mr. Heilbrunn’s essay needs to be taken seriously not just as an investigation of an unpalatable reality but as a harbinger of very serious problems before both Israel and the United States.


These remarks were given during a luncheon seminar on Jacob Heilbrunn’s recent article in the May/June 2013 issue of The National Interest. Ambassador Freeman and Peter Berkowitz, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, joined Heilbrunn for this discussion. A summary of the event is available here.

Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.)

Washington, DC

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