By the Economist – 6 March 2012
During his meeting with Barack Obama on Monday, Bibi Netanyahu said Israel “must have the ability always to defend itself, by itself, against any threat.”
“I believe that’s why you appreciate, Mr. President, that Israel must reserve the right to defend itself,” Netanyahu said. “After all, that’s the very purpose of the Jewish state, to restore to the Jewish people control over our destiny. That’s why my supreme responsibility as prime minister of Israel is to ensure that Israel remains master of its fate.”
News flash: Israel is not master of its fate. It’s not terribly surprising that a country with less than 8m inhabitants is not master of its fate. Switzerland, Sweden, Serbia and Portugal are not masters of their fates. These days, many countries with populations of 100m or more can hardly be said to be masters of their fates. Britain and China aren’t masters of their fates, and even the world’s overwhelmingly largest economy, the United States, isn’t really master of its fate.
But Israel has even less control over its own destiny than Portugal or Britain do. The main reason is that, unlike those countries, Israel refuses to give up its empire. Israel is unable to sustain its imperial ambitions in the West Bank, or even to articulate them coherently. Having allowed its founding ideology to carry it relentlessly and unthinkingly into what Gershom Gorenburg calls an “Accidental Empire” of radical religious-nationalist settlements that openly defy its own courts, Israel is politically incapable of extricating itself. The partisan battles engendered by its occupation of Palestinian territory render it less and less able to pull itself free. It is immobilised, pinned down, in a conflict that is gradually killing it. Countries facing imperial twilight, like Britain in the late 1940s, are often seized by a sense of desperate paralysis. For over a decade, the tone of Israeli politics has been a mix of panic, despair, hysteria and resignation.
No one bears greater responsibility for the trap Israel finds itself in today than Mr Netanyahu. As prime minister in the late 1990s, he did more than any other Israeli leader to destroy the peace process. Illegal land grabs by settlers were tolerated and quietly encouraged in the confused expectation that they would aid territorial negotiations. Violent clashes and provocations erupted whenever the peace process seemed on the verge of concrete steps forward; the most charitable spin would be that the Israelis failed to exercise the restraint they might have shown in retaliating against Palestinian terrorism, had they been truly interested in progress towards a two-state solution. Mr Netanyahu believed that the Oslo peace agreements were a mirage, and his government’s actions in the late 1990s helped make it true.
Having trapped themselves in a death struggle with Palestinians that they cannot acknowledge or untangle, Israelis have psychologically displaced the source of their anxiety onto a more distant target: Iran. An Iranian nuclear bomb would not be a happy development for Israel. Neither was Pakistan’s, nor indeed North Korea’s. The notion that it represents a new Holocaust is overstated, and the belief that the source of Israel’s existential woes can be eliminated with an airstrike is mistaken. But Iran makes an appealing enemy for Israelis because, unlike the Palestinians, it can be fitted into a familiar ideological trope from the Jewish national playbook: the eliminationist anti-Semite. With brain-cudgeling predictability, Mr Netanyahu marked his meeting with Mr Obama by presenting him with a copy of the Book of Esther. That book concerns a plot by Haman, vizier of King Ahasuerus of Persia, to massacre his country’s Jews, and the efforts of the beautiful Esther, Ahasuerus’s secretly Jewish wife, to persuade the king to stop them. It is a version of the same narrative of repression, threatened extermination and resistance that Jews commemorate at Passover in the prayer “Ve-hi she-amdah”: “Because in every generation they rise up to destroy us, but the Holy One, Blessed be He, delivers us from their hands.”
Mr Netanyahu is less attractive than Esther, but he seems to be wooing Mr Obama and the American public just as effectively. The American-Israeli relationship now resembles the sort of crazy co-dependency one sometimes finds in doomed marriages, where the more stubborn and unstable partner drags the other into increasingly delusional and dangerous projects whose disastrous results seem only to legitimate their paranoid outlook. If Mr Netanyahu manages to convince America to back an attack on Iran, it is to be hoped that the catastrophic consequences will not be used to justify the attack that led to them.
Mr Netanyahu thinks the Zionist mission was to give the Jewish people control over their destiny. No people has control over its destiny when it is at war with its neighbours. But in any case, that is only one way of thinking of the Zionist mission. Another mission frequently cited by early Zionists was to help Jews grow out of the “Ghetto mentality”. Mr Netanyahu’s gift to Mr Obama shows he’s still in it.