from From the Potomac to the Euphrates and Middle East Program

Ugly Israelis?

March 15, 2012

Blog Post
Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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I rarely write about Israel.  It’s important politically, but intellectually for me a bit of a bore. What more can be said about the country that has not already been said, especially the Arab-Israeli conflict of which the Palestinian problem is the core? You could pile the books, papers, and articles from floor to ceiling on the topic. Israel-Iran?  It’s covered. The ethnic and sectarian differences in the Holy Land? It’s been done.  Israel’s changing demographics?  Lots of smart folks have weighed in. The durability of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty after the Egyptian uprising?  I am sort of/halfway intrigued, but only because I once drank the water from the Nile and now I can’t quit Egypt.  Every now and again though, something comes across my desk on Israel that interests me.  In the last week or so, colleagues have suggested I read two short opinion pieces--one by Avi Shlaim Emeritus Professor of International Relations at Oxford University, and one by the New Yorker’s David Remnick. Both pieces were a revelation—who writes better than Remnick?—but not necessarily because they offered any new or interesting insights about Israeli politics or society, but rather because of the fascinating way Shlaim and Remnick treat their subject.

How analysts talk and write about Israel has always been a challenge.  There is, of course, the perennial problem of perception when it comes to a highly politically charged and emotionally freighted issue like Israel.  That’s why to some The New York Times’ former Jerusalem bureau chief, Ethan Bronner, is either an unrepentant sympathizer of Israel’s right wing or an unrepentant fellow traveler of the Palestinian cause.   Yet the kind of guff Bronner took and those that follow him will take is not exactly what I am getting at.  Too often Israel is rendered in caricature, where only ideology, lust for land, and hatred for Palestinians reign. In this world, politics, agency, and nuance simply do not exist. Remnick could be given a pass because his lamentation titled “Threatened” is beautifully written and he is, after all, an essayist whose forte is a kind of literary impressionism.  Not so of Shlaim who, as a scholar at one of the world’s most outstanding universities, should know better, but nevertheless lets loose with an angry missive identifying Israel’s prime minister as, “a bellicose right-wing Israeli nationalist,” “a reactionary who is deeply wedded to the status quo,” and “a jimcrack [or gimcrack, meaning cheap] politician.”

Let me state (once again), lest anyone misinterpret what I am saying, that Israel’s settlement project is a tragic mistake that has denied Palestinians justice, killed thousands of Israelis and Palestinians combined, and for all practical purposes has closed off the possibility of a two-state solution, jeopardizing not only Israeli security and democracy but the country’s existence I hold no particular brief for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or his Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.  I believe ideas matter. And, it’s perfectly legitimate for professors to have views about the world and express them, even angrily.

Yet Shlaim and Remnick obscure more about Israel and its politics than they reveal.  Yes, we know that Netanyahu and his government are right-wingers and we know that many settlers are racists and harbor little commitment to democracy.  It would have been more interesting and I might have learned something new if either author had unearthed the crosscutting political pressures that Netanyahu confronts in maintaining his coalition. Netanyahu is a politician and as a result, like all politicians everywhere, he wants to stay in power.  Knowing as the prime minister surely does that Israel’s right has toppled successive governments since the 1990s including Netanyahu’s own between 1996 and 1999, he is unlikely to pursue policies that will jeopardize his coalition.  Netanyahu is no statesman, but statesmen are rare in history.  A distillation of Israel’s electoral laws, which has done more than anything to create the unhappy situation in the Holy Land, would have been far more helpful to understanding how it came to be that “the settlers, the Ultra-Orthodox Shas, and the National Religious Party” are the backbone of the current Israeli government, rather than the wild-eyed ideologues that Remnick and Shlaim portray.  A nod to the fact that the settlement ethos is central to Zionism—of all varieties and shades—would have given some sense of the historical context in which Israeli democracy finds itself under threat.  There are, of course, a variety of additional interesting avenues to explore.

I am sure Remnick and Shlaim would say that examining these issues was not their goal, which is their right, but it is also too bad.  As powerfully as they have written, they haven’t told even the casual or left-of-center observer of Israel anything they don’t already know or fervently believe.  As a (detached) observer, it’s curious to me that even ostensibly sophisticated observers of Israel have come to essentialize—to reduce them to some alleged ascriptive or primordial characteristic—Israeli leaders.  And as a result, observers like Remnick and Shlaim, who are only two recent and prominent examples among many others, have done precisely what they so revile about their subjects whom they accuse of having a one-dimensional view of the Palestinians as hopelessly retrograde and violent.  I am not sure, but it strikes me that when it comes to Israel, Palestine, and peace, we need less polemics.

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