Let My People Go! Why U.S.-Israeli Relations Are Strained
Israel has suffered throughout its history from a long list of disasters and misfortunes. From its inception, it’s had to confront the darkest depths of human depravity, colonialist corruption and religious extremism, and, remarkably, it has beaten the odds and survived many years in the face of tremendous opposition and social chaos. That is, until now.
The unraveling of Israeli society has been years in the making but has risen to the forefront of Israel’s consciousness over the last few election cycles, culminating in the unprecedented protest movement that has engulfed the country over the past few months, throwing the entire system, including parts of the IDF, into disarray. In my opinion, nothing has really dramatically changed within Israeli society. The issues at hand were quite relevant even fifty years ago. However, the external geopolitical dynamics affecting the region have, in fact, shifted over the past few years–in a big way. These added stressors have increasingly made the maintenance of the current political structure much more difficult, or, as I see it, increasingly untenable.
To put it simply, Israel’s original sin, that of the racial oppression of the Jews of Arab origins, among the general repression of Arab culture and society, has continued to surreptitiously erode the ideological foundation of the nationalistic form of political Zionism promoted by Israel’s political establishment. The divergent economic and social opportunities afforded to “peripheral” vs. “bourgeois” Jews have cemented themselves as the main dividing force in Israeli society. Arbitrary designations of “Right” and “Left” have, in many ways, come to substitute the blatantly racial categorizations that had once defined Israeli political discourse (think of Begin’s 1977 surprising rout of the Left). Theoretically, Israel’s politicians may have superficially cleared their rhetoric of the strong racial undertones, but they have really only succeeded in diverting the underlying racial tensions, projecting them onto opposing political institutions, effectively cleaving the state in two and thereby disrupting the checks-and-balances that a healthy democracy requires. The idea of a functional, Western, “Jewish” Democracy is dying, and, in my opinion, should not be resuscitated.
Thirty years ago, as the Israeli society began to destabilize as a result of the drastic bifurcation brought on by the ill-fated Oslo Accords, leading, in part, to Rabin’s assassination in 1995, many began to question the continued viability of Israel’s democratic system. Increasing Western pressure, on the heels of the incredible dissolution of the U.S.S.R., prompted Israel’s political elite to reach out to Western-backed Arab leaders and come to far-reaching territorial compromises regarding the conflict. Israel’s leaders knew that the continued occupation of Arab civilians would risk harming its international standing and decided to play it safe. In exchange for the official recognition of Palestinian interests in the West Bank and Gaza, the Israelis were reassured that their standing, and their disputed status as a Western democracy, would be protected by the U.S. and its allies in all relevant international institutions. This “unconditional” support, accompanied by the Arab terrorism that helped to re-galvanize Jewish collectivism among Israelis and bridge the gap between “Left” and “Right”, came at the great cost of many lives lost on both sides of the fighting, along with widespread economic disruptions, and it demanded political and ideological loyalty to the Western hegemony. In the long run, it did indeed bolster the overall viability of the Jewish state, both diplomatically and economically.
However, things have since changed and the West has begun to withdraw from the region. The U.S. has vacated its forces from Iraq and Afghanistan and diverted its attention to the looming cold war in the East-Asia and to the current proxy-conflict in the Ukraine. Israel’s comprehensive protection that was previously guaranteed by the unipolar globalist structure that directly succeeded the Cold War has long been superseded by increasing regional turmoil, the breakdown of diplomatic relations with parts of the European establishment, and the growing confluence of Iranian, Chinese and Russian interests in the area. Saudi Arabia’s recent capitulation to Iranian pressures, intermediated by the Chinese, alongside the deepening of relations between Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, has increased the volatility of Israel’s precarious position as a lone Western ally in a historically unstable region. Israel’s current diplomatic policy regarding the West, of seeing U.S. protection as deus ex machina for all of our problems, both domestic and foreign, must end if Israel should wish to successfully outmaneuver the multilateral pressures that she now faces without losing internal social cohesion.
Israel’s ideological association and deeply-rooted identification with Western interests severely impede her ability to develop a nuanced diplomatic strategy. Nowadays, states cannot maintain their interests only through formal diplomatic channels. In order to establish normal relations with any nation, let alone a world power, Israel needs to develop the civil infrastructure necessary to forge responsible, informal ties with foreign governments and institutions. To facilitate such civilian channels, a new, regional, ethno-diverse ideology must be cultivated that would, in due time, come to replace Zionism as the dominant civil religion. Such a departure from the established ideology would need to be coordinated, in turn, with responsible parties in the West in order to moderate the transition. At once, Israel would need to distance herself from the Western hegemony in order to allow for the forging of robust relations with non-Western powers while still maintaining healthy contact with influential Western institutions that could intermediate on her behalf, limiting the potential for damaging political fallout in the West. Israel would not be so much turning her back on the West as adjusting to the dynamic geopolitical landscape within which she currently finds herself. She must wean herself from the unnecessary cultural and economic baggage associated with the excesses of the West and start to get used to a minimalist approach that once again prioritizes physical security over economic extravagance.
Israel’s commercialized, liberal society, including the hi-tech sector that has replaced the Qibuzim of old as the vanguard of Israeli excellence, must reset its priorities and redirect its efforts to expanding our diplomatic and cultural footprint in Europe and the Middle East, else we shall be sacrificing our global security interests vis-à-vis Iran and its proxies in Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank. If we insist on continuing rosh-baqir [head against the wall], we will have left Israel weak and isolated, unable to deal with the real threats that face us. Of course, such concessions, both ideological and economic, demand much from the collective, however, if Israel does resort to isolating herself from potential allies on account of marginal economic and ideological interests, she risks falling into the abyss of civil strife and armed warfare, a result not unlike what has befallen our once-formidable enemies in Syria, Iraq and Egypt.
In a way, I had hoped that the current crisis would spur Israeli civilians, worried about our relationship with the West (especially Europe) to start questioning the strategic implications of our mostly internal dispute. I hoped that the heavy-handedness of American interference in our domestic politics would bring about a realization, not only from supporters of the reform, but also from those on the Left, that Israel needs to deepen her relations with other, competing powers. I do believe that many on both sides have come to see the U.S. as a meddling, old grandpa unsuccessfully trying to reassert his former glory while denying his own, natural decline. For most Israelis, the U.S. may mean a land of opportunity, but it also symbolizes for us a land of anarchy, rampant and unchecked gun violence, systemic racism, extreme economic inequality, mental illness and social alienation, and many of us fear becoming infected with the same problems that plague what was once a great society. Ironically, just as anti-American sentiment in Israel grows, our corrupt political establishment has paved the way for a historic milestone in U.S.-Israel relations with the impending approval of visa-free travel to the U.S. The elites seem to think that opening the borders to the goldene medina [the “golden country”] will help appease the masses. I, on the other hand, think that such a diplomatic stunt may actually backfire. When the masses begin to see America for what it really is, they may eventually come to understand why Israel must, indeed, protest.