Hubris, Hillel and Israeli exceptionalism

A few days ago in a speech given at the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the Yom Kippur war,  Minister of Defence Yaalon warned us of two great dangers: Of hubris and of the reliance on others.  His speech was preceeded a day earlier by one given by Prime Minister Netanyahu, who not for the first time, quoting the ancient Jewish sage Hillel, insisted that “If I am not for myself, who will be ?” conveniently skipping the second part of the phrase “and when I am for myself, what am I ?”.

The warnings were given, presumably in context, as a direct lesson from the Yom Kippur war and, as widely suggested, as a likely warning to the US not to let us down on Iran or else we would take things into our own hands. This regardless of the fact that the 1973 Yom Kippur war may just be the perfect example of how we should have involved others in our security and listened to their dire warnings and advice, and of course how we were saved from further harm by massive US intervention, both political and material. But Netanyahu has always had a distinguished record of bending history to suit his rhetorical needs.

To warn both of hubris, or, as one could call it in our age and environment, the arrogance of power and at the same time advise to rely on ourselves for Israel’s security, strikes me as a massive contradiction in terms. Being expressed by the two individuals who more than anybody else bear direct responsibility for the security of the State of Israel is certainly worrisome.

Israel faces tremendous threats of military, political, legal, social and economic nature. Some of these threats, in thruth a very select few, could arguably by themselves, or in conjunction with others, under certain circumstances, threaten the physical or spiritual existence of the State of Israel as we know it. Some of these threats appear considerable in scope and complexity and they are difficult to evaluate accurately and even more so, to deal with. Accordingly, to suggest that we should rely on ourselves to deal with them, is in my view, the worst kind of hubris, a real arrogance of power.

What could be argued is that Israel should better not rely on any single other nation for its security and that is true even if that one nation is the US, if only for the simple reason that it gives that nation a lot of leverage  which may not always be excercised in the best interests of the State of Israel.

So the logical conclusion would then be that Israel should base its security not only on its own power which is limited, or on any single other friendly country no matter how strong, but rather on the cooperation with many nations. But there is a catch – cooperating with many nations has a price: It means having to compromise and at times, accept the viewpoint of others. Until now, our own arrogance of power and the close alliance with a United States that until recently were willing to put up with our political positions, untenable as they may be, has led us to postpone compromise and practice our own exceptionalism for 46 years running: The State of Israel stubbornly maintains that it is acceptable to keep up an occupation of territory it claims to have rights to, contrary to what the international community thinks without exception and what international law says, to boot.

Just like the long-standing US policy proclaiming exceptionalism is winding down, both because it has been extremely costly for the US with little to show for the effort and because the Obama administration is ideologically at odds with it, Israel’s exceptionalism, having been propped up for many years by US exceptionalism, will come to its deserved end. Israel may be a local superpower but it does not, in actual fact, have the breadth, depth and resources to practice what our leaders continue to preach – self reliance. The fact that continued US support for Israel’s policies cannot and should not be taken for granted anymore, has changed the rules.

The question remaining is not really if Israel will give up its exceptionalism in view of a reality which daily exposes its own inability to adequately address critical challenges, but when that will actually happen. Will it happen before we hit the proverbial iceberg or will it happen thereafter, letting us incur all the damage such a collision entails ?

The present line of thought promoted by our leadership does not bode well – our leaders are still fooling themselves and us that Israel can do it on its own. More important and a lot scarier, they think that we, more than anyone else, know what we are doing and what is best for us. That is hubris. And we have many sad memories of what happened last time our leadership felt just that way, 40 years ago.



About the Author
The author served in the Prime Minister’s Office as a member of the intelligence community, is a member of the Council for Peace and Security and was a candidate in Labor’s 2012 primary election for the Knesset list