Israel’s Nightmares

by Dominique Moisi

Dominique Moisi is a visiting professor at Harvard and the author of The Geopolitics of Emotion

Paris - "It is reasonable to believe in miracles," David Ben-Gurion, the first Prime Minister of Israel, once said. Today's Israelis do not seem to believe in miracles. Instead, more than ever before they are obsessed by nightmares, foremost among them, the prospect of a nuclear Iran.

To prevent a regime imbued with an absolute ideology from gaining possession of the "absolute weapon" is Israel's paramount priority. Everything must be done, even a unilateral military strike, to prevent or at least delay Iran's acquisition of such a weapon. This Israeli conviction on what it considers an existential issue stands in stark contrast with the fatalism that otherwise dominates Israelis' thinking about themselves and their relations with the Palestinians.

How is this fatalism manifesting itself, where does it come from, and what can be done to transcend it?

These questions are important, because "fatalism" has become a major obstacle that must be overcome by anyone seriously interested in bringing peace to the region. For this fatalism is a strong card in the hands of someone such as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is intent on preserving the status quo. A majority of Israelis would probably back a preventive attack on Iran and satisfy themselves with the preservation of the status quo in relations with the Palestinians.

In the aftermath of the Israeli election in February, which brought to power a government coalition that includes the extreme rightist Avigdor Lieberman, now Israel's foreign minister, an Israeli friend whose sympathies had always been with the left said to me in a resigned, cryptic way, "It's sad, but it does not change anything; we have no one to talk to anyway." He gave me approximately the same answer when I referred to the need to change Israel's electoral system based on proportional representation, which produces weak majorities at best and near-paralysis at worst. "So what if the system is blocked; to reform it would not make any difference!"

The same fatalism directly applies to the prospect of peace with Palestinians and the Arab/Muslim world in general. It is as if, paradoxically, Israelis had internalized the concept of "temporary truce" advocated by their Hamas adversary, and had given up the goal of peace through a two-state solution that they once pursued with the Palestinian Authority.

For a majority of Israelis today, the present and the foreseeable future are not about peacemaking, but about conflict management, through the preservation of credible deterrence - a hard-core realistic assessment darkened by the perception that, while time is not necessarily on Israel's side, that there is no alternative. Israelis don't want to delude themselves the way they did in the 1990's during the so-called Oslo peace process.

The same fatalism also applies to relations with the outside world. A majority of Israelis are even more convinced today than they were yesterday that they can count only on themselves and, at the margin, on the Jewish Diaspora. This vision not only tends to encourage a process of self-isolation, but it raises serious issues in the long run. At the end of the day, there are only 13.2 million Jews in the world and nearly 1.3 billion Muslims.

Israel needs allies, because its ultimate security depends on its legitimacy nearly as much as on its deterrence capability. If each relative military success is accompanied by an absolute political defeat, as was the case with the recent military operations in Gaza, what is the ratio between costs and benefits?

These deep Israeli emotions are the product of the encounter between the weight of the past and the "facility" of the present. It could be said without any exaggeration that the weight of the Holocaust is even more present today than it was decades ago. By calling for the destruction of the "Zionist entity," Iran's president rubs that raw nerve. A little more than 60 years after the Shoah, one does not play lightly with such an evocation of destruction. In a world where, for many Israelis and non-Israeli Jews, Israel is becoming to the community of nations what Jews once were in the community of peoples - a pariah state, if not an eternal scapegoat - the memory of the Shoah resounds with a vengeance.

On the other hand, there is great comfort in the status quo. After all, if you walk along Tel Aviv's beaches, the dramas of Hamas-controlled Gaza and Hezbollah-controlled southern Lebanon seem so far away.

If the United States wants to be seriously involved in a renewed peace initiative, it can neither ignore nor passively accept the hierarchy of Israeli emotions. But creating a new balance that contains a little less obsession with Iran and a little more concern for the Palestinians is a formidable challenge.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2009.

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