The Collapse of Israel’s Old Narrative
June 17, 2010
When the Chicken Came Home to Roost
One can only marvel at the Israeli blunders that have been parading lately before our eyes. Once masterly in her command over unruly events and dexterous in enlisting adversity in the service of opportunity, Israel today seems capable mostly of piling embarrassing faux pas upon serious foul ups.
It is very tempting to blame the current Israeli government, as many already have, for all the recent failures. The infantile arrogance of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the thuggery of his Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, the uncouthness of his deputy Daniel Ayalon and the obtuse stridency of the religious-settler-nationalist mindset that dominates the unabashedly rightist cabinet paint a jarring portrait of the ruling Israeli coalition. The rather comforting conclusion for the country’s more forgiving friends is: a different coalition, a different Israel. But it has become palpably clear that the realities of the Jewish state’s predicament are much starker.
The clumsy performance is quite disorienting for us Arabs, of course. Since her birth in 1948, Israel’s one-twos—so to speak—had become one of the region’s more bankable spectacles. With a mixture of deep awe and boundless frustration, we would collectively line up as exclamation marks at the end of every Israeli affront as they effortlessly morphed, in Israel’s own and the West’s eyes, into a defensive if necessarily rough response to yet another Arab aggression. Our open-mouthed, bug-eyed incomprehension, followed by the hair-tearing, hair-raising screams of our leaders only added to the force of Israel’s argument.
But skilled and nimble as Israel was, her talents were but one among an unusual convergence of factors that made the case for her in the international arena so much stronger than the case for Palestine. In fact, her rise in 1948 and the way she managed to soar for much of her 62-year existence were underwritten by perhaps the 20th century’s most compelling narrative. To be sure, Zionism’s sense of self-entitlement was of a piece with the larger "civilizational" colonial enterprise that set up shop in the region in those critical early years of the 20th century ("We made the desert bloom." Remember that one?). But the narrative derived its irresistible appeal just as much from the West’s long history of horrors committed against the Jewish people and its deep well of guilt about them as it did from Israel’s promise as a Western imprint on backward landscapes.
This extraordinarily potent moral imperative would make of Israel a nation apart from other nations--one for whom any demand for normalcy, or criticism of intent or deed, would be tantamount to a dangerous betrayal of sacred writ and an ominous expression of old, lurking hatreds. Heroism would thus be Israel’s eternal forward position and victimhood her last line of defense.
Never mind that, as Jacqueline Rose put it on the occasion of Israel’s 60-year birthday in 2008, "For any student of literary writing, the very tightness of this narrative would be a sure sign that it must be flawed." The story was epic enough in proportions, alluring enough in potential rewards, to make it pitch perfect.
For this, so many of Israel’s early egregious offenses--including her culpability in the flight and expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians in 1948 that made the Jewish state doable—stayed on the fringes of discourse on the conflict until well into the 1980s. Because of this, the serious injury to the Palestinians came hand in hand with the West’s predictable fecklessness about it. That Arab ineptitude and treachery worked beautifully in Israel’s favor is undeniable. That a better grasp and a keener sense of responsibility towards the situation by us could have measurably lessened the pain and loss of the Palestinian people is equally inarguable. But the truth is, the deck was stacked too high against us and we were simpletons, out of tune with the times, way behind the curve, small-minded, careless, thoughtless, dishonest, off message. Clueless.
We might be faintly better today in understanding the way of things, but, frankly, hardly anything else is different. Our regimes’ paralysis has never been more glaring, their authoritarianism never more entrenched, their attitude towards the Palestinians never more fiendish. What’s more, our reputation as a people is still inches above rock-bottom and Islam itself, never much of an Elvis in the West in the best of times, has been taking much more of a drubbing since September 11.
It’s therefore nothing short of fascinating to see Israel, at the dawn of this new century, joining our ranks, and watch a once unbeatable narrative unravel under the weight of a country that asked too much of it and a West that is beginning to have just about enough—all without us Arabs even so much as batting an eyelash.
If you were to put your finger on a date, it would have to be 1967. This is the year Israel began to write for itself a new storyline that ran like a line edit of the old one. By constructing on a moment of triumph, however glorious and "redemptive" it was, an insidious project of conquest and occupation, Israel essentially started to argue against her own presumably exulted self. True, it has taken 43 years for her breathtaking miscalculation to unfurl its many dire implications, but such is the nature of facts as they do their painstaking work on the ground.
And sure enough, the results are on full display everywhere Israel casts her eyes. After nearly half a century of occupation, the answer to Moshe Dayan’s famous 1977 insistence that "The Question is not 'what is the solution?’ but 'how do we live without a solution,’" as the country systematically ate its way into the West Bank and East Jerusalem, is miserably clear: pretty badly. Bad enough for Israel, as a matter of fact, that a flotilla of new sound bites and expressions has barged into the conflict’s once absurdly lean and impregnable vocabulary, all courtesy of the Israelis themselves.
Longtime favorites that still grease Israel’s spinning machine, such as Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East, now have to do battle with an army of subversive intruders, none more disturbing than Israel is fast becoming an Apartheid state.
International documents like The Goldstone Report mingle with Israeli ones titled "Food Consumption in the Gaza Strip – Red Lines." Transfer, population exchanges and a loyalty oath to Israel as a Jewish state have moved up the Israeli ladder, enjoying top billing on officialdom’s list of favorite exits. And when public opinion polls are cited, what they consistently have to say only adds wind to the drift in Israel’s old storybook narrative:
75% of Israeli Jews "oppose living with Arabs in the same building, 55% of Israeli Jews do not believe "Arabs can reach the same level of cultural development as Jews, "57% of Israelis think "that human rights organizations that expose immoral conduct by Israel should not be allowed to operate freely," 55% of Israeli Jews think Arab Israelis should be encouraged to emigrate.
Israel is feeling under siege, they say in attempting to downplay these sentiments. Palestinian Israelis have grown more restive, Palestinians under occupation have grown more violent, and the world simply must allow us right of way. Would that it were still this uncomplicated for them. For when have fear and racism not been the closest of companions, and when has Israel been less fearful of non-violent Palestinians? Recently, after her first trip to Israel, Margaret Atwood, a self-confessed innocent in Israeli-Palestinian traumas, put her pen to this question and worked it beautifully the way she works her fiction:
Every morning I wake up in fear," someone told me. "That’s just self-pity, to excuse what’s happening," said someone else. Of course, fear and self-pity can both be real. But by "what’s happening," they meant the Shadow…
The Shadow is not the Palestinians. The shadow is Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, linked with Israel’s own fears. The worst the Palestinians are treated in the name of those fears, the bigger the shadow grows, and then the fears grow with them; and the justifications for the treatment multiply.
And yet, it is more than fear that gnaws at Israel. In the old days, Ashkenazi-secular was more than enough to describe her face. Now the new mélange of labels for her people, her body politic and armed forces is Mezrahi, religious Zionists, Ultra-orthodox, Haredi, settler, descriptors that act as illuminating guideposts to her unnerving religious and ideological trajectory. Significantly, the repercussions for her are not only internal, as witnessed in her increasingly intimate alliance with the US’s own religious right and neo-conservatives. Peter Beinart summarized it well in his fluent June piece on the Failure of the American Jewish Establishment: "Fewer and fewer American Jewish liberals are Zionists; fewer and fewer American Jewish Zionists are liberal."
In theory, there is a way out: a viable, self-respecting Palestinian state. Alas, it sleeps dead in formaldehyde, as Israel’s masters had intended since 1967 and Dov Weissglass, Ariel Sharon’s adviser, helpfully confirmed in 2004.
At present, and counting, a full 8% (462,000) of Israeli Jews are settlers in the Occupied Territories, for whose protection, comfort and sustenance over 40% of the area has been confiscated by Israel.
Meanwhile, a conservative 5 million Palestinians versus 5.6 million purebred Israeli Jews live in Historical Palestine. Do the math!
All in all a rather untenable situation to which one can easily trace Israel’s current tensions with veteran enthusiasts and the West, a club of which she protests she is a privileged member. Europe has become noticeably less indulgent, and even the longstanding calculations of Israel’s staunchest supporter, the US, are beginning to exhibit heretofore forbidden nuance. It’s one thing for Tony Judt to state that Israel is a strategic liability to the US, it's quite another for Anthony Cordesman, the holder of the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center of International and Strategic Studies, to remark on it.
Critically, the attitude of many in the Jewish Diaspora is playing catch up. Organizations such as J Street and J Call are not the work of kooky, American and European Jews Against Israel, they are nascent creations of handwringing, bona fide Zionists who are alarmed about Israel’s indefensible policies.
To boot, the geopolitical map has turned more fluid, as Turkey calibrates the distance between Israel and Iran and positions herself as the trapezist in the region’s ruling triumvirate. Moreover, the emergence of non-state actors like Hezbollah as more than pesky nemeses, largely due to guile and developments in missile technology, is forcing the reassessment of Israel’s near-obsolete formulae for victory.
All those reasons that came together to make Israel so special back when are, in no small part due to her own behavior, falling afoul of each other. Hence it is not sheer happenstance that the Jewish state’s allies are beginning to demand serious retrenchments by her when she herself has become so deeply invested and inextricably enmeshed in her grander self. And it is the widening dissonance between these two trends that shows the real ruptures in that mythical narrative which made everything so dangerously possible for her.
Last April, in an open letter to Prime Minister Netanyahu, Ari Shavit, no knee-Jerk Israeli liberal, gave voice to Israel’s quandary:
Mr. Prime Minister, here are the basic facts: The grace period granted the Jewish state by Auschwitz and Treblinka is ending. The generation that knew the Holocaust has left the stage. The generation that remembers the Holocaust is disappearing. What shapes the world's perception of Israel today is not the crematoria, but the checkpoints. Not the trains, but the settlements. As a result, even when we are right, they do not listen to us. Even when we are persecuted, they pay us no heed. The wind is blowing against us.
Indeed it is!