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A World Without Israel By: Josef Joffe
Foreign Policy | Friday, March 11, 2005


Since World War II, no state has suffered so cruel a reversal of fortunes as Israel. Admired all the way into the 1970s as the state of “those plucky Jews” who survived against all odds and made democracy and the desert bloom in a climate hostile to both liberty and greenery, Israel has become the target of creeping delegitimization. The denigration comes in two guises. The first, the soft version, blames Israel first and most for whatever ails the Middle East, and for having corrupted U.S. foreign policy. It is the standard fare of editorials around the world, not to mention the sheer venom oozing from the pages of the Arab-Islamic press. The more recent hard version zeroes in on Israel’s very existence. According to this dispensation, it is Israel as such, and not its behavior, that lies at the root of troubles in the Middle East. Hence the “statocidal” conclusion that Israel’s birth, midwifed by both the United States and the Soviet Union in 1948, was a grievous mistake, grandiose and worthy as it may have been at the time.

The soft version is familiar enough. One motif is the “wagging the dog” theory. Thus, in the United States, the “Jewish lobby” and a cabal of neoconservatives have bamboozled the Bush administration into a mindless pro-Israel policy inimical to the national interest. This view attributes, as has happened so often in history, too much clout to the Jews. And behind this charge lurks a more general one—that it is somehow antidemocratic for subnational groups to throw themselves into the hurly-burly of politics when it comes to foreign policy. But let us count the ways in which subnational entities battle over the national interest: unions and corporations clamor for tariffs and tax loopholes; nongovernmental organizations agitate for humanitarian intervention; and Cuban Americans keep us from smoking cheroots from the Vuelta Abajo. In previous years, Poles militated in favor of Solidarity, African Americans against Apartheid South Africa, and Latvians against the Soviet Union. In other words, the democratic melee has never stopped at the water’s edge.

Another soft version is the “root-cause” theory in its many variations. Because the “obstinate” and “recalcitrant” Israelis are the main culprits, they must be punished and pushed back for the sake of peace. “Put pressure on Israel”; “cut economic and military aid”; “serve them notice that we will not condone their brutalities”—these have been the boilerplate homilies, indeed the obsessions, of the chattering classes and the foreign-office establishment for decades. Yet, as Sigmund Freud reminded us, obsessions tend to spread. And so there are ever more creative addenda to the well-wrought root-cause theory. Anatol Lieven of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace argues that what is happening between Israelis and Palestinians is a “tremendous obstacle to democratization because it inflames all the worst, most regressive aspects of Arab nationalism and Arab culture.” In other words, the conflict drives the pathology, and not the other way around—which is like the streetfighter explaining to the police: “It all started when this guy hit back.”

The problem with this root-cause argument is threefold: It blurs, if not reverses, cause and effect. It ignores a myriad of conflicts unrelated to Israel. And it absolves the Arabs of culpability, shifting the blame to you know whom. If one believes former U.N. weapons inspector Scott Ritter, the Arab-Islamic quest for weapons of mass destruction, and by extension the war against Iraq, are also Made in Israel. “[A]s long as Israel has nuclear weapons,” Ritter opines, “it has chosen to take a path that is inherently confrontational.…Now the Arab countries, the Muslim world, is not about to sit back and let this happen, so they will seek their own deterrent. We saw this in Iraq, not only with a nuclear deterrent but also with a biological weapons deterrent…that the Iraqis were developing to offset the Israeli nuclear superiority.”

This theory would be engaging if it did not collide with some inconvenient facts. Iraqis didn’t use their weapons of mass destruction against the Israeli usurper but against fellow Muslims during the Iran-Iraq War, and against fellow Iraqis in the poison-gas attack against Kurds in Halabja in 1988—neither of whom were brandishing any nuclear weapons. As for the Iraqi nuclear program, we now have the “Duelfer Report,” based on the debriefing of Iraqi regime loyalists, which concluded: “Iran was the pre-eminent motivator of this policy. All senior-level Iraqi officials considered Iran to be Iraq’s principal enemy in the region. The wish to balance Israel and acquire status and influence in the Arab world were also considerations, but secondary.”

Now to the hard version. Ever so subtly, a more baleful tone slips into this narrative: Israel is not merely an unruly neighbor but an unwelcome intruder. Still timidly uttered outside the Arab world, this version’s proponents in the West bestride the stage as truth-sayers who dare to defy taboo. Thus, the British writer A.N. Wilson declares that he has reluctantly come to the conclusion that Israel, through its own actions, has proven it does not have the right to exist. And, following Sept. 11, 2001, Brazilian scholar Jose Arthur Giannotti said: “Let us agree that the history of the Middle East would be entirely different without the State of Israel, which opened a wound between Islam and the West. Can you get rid of Muslim terrorism without getting rid of this wound which is the source of the frustration of potential terrorists?”

The very idea of a Jewish state is an “anachronism,” argues Tony Judt, a professor and director of the Remarque Institute at New York University. It resembles a “late-nineteenth-century separatist project” that has “no place” in this wondrous new world moving toward the teleological perfection of multiethnic and multicultural togetherness bound together by international law. The time has come to “think the unthinkable,” hence, to ditch this Jewish state for a binational one, guaranteed, of course, by international force.

So let us assume that Israel is an anachronism and a historical mistake without which the Arab-Islamic world stretching from Algeria to Egypt, from Syria to Pakistan, would be a far happier place, above all because the original sin, the establishment of Israel, never would have been committed. Then let’s move from the past to the present, pretending that we could wave a mighty magic wand, and “poof,” Israel disappears from the map.

Civilization of Clashes

Let us start the what-if procession in 1948, when Israel was born in war. Would stillbirth have nipped the Palestinian problem in the bud? Not quite. Egypt, Transjordan (now Jordan), Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon marched on Haifa and Tel Aviv not to liberate Palestine, but to grab it. The invasion was a textbook competitive power play by neighboring states intent on acquiring territory for themselves. If they had been victorious, a Palestinian state would not have emerged, and there still would have been plenty of refugees. (Recall that half the population of Kuwait fled Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s “liberation” of that country in 1990.) Indeed, assuming that Palestinian nationalism had awakened when it did in the late 1960s and 1970s, the Palestinians might now be dispatching suicide bombers to Egypt, Syria, and elsewhere.

Let us imagine Israel had disappeared in 1967, instead of occupying the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which were held, respectively, by Jordan’s King Hussein and Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Would they have relinquished their possessions to Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat and thrown in Haifa and Tel Aviv for good measure? Not likely. The two potentates, enemies in all but name, were united only by their common hatred and fear of Arafat, the founder of Fatah (the Palestine National Liberation Movement) and rightly suspected of plotting against Arab regimes. In short, the “root cause” of Palestinian statelessness would have persisted, even in Israel’s absence.

Let us finally assume, through a thought experiment, that Israel goes “poof” today. How would this development affect the political pathologies of the Middle East? Only those who think the Palestinian issue is at the core of the Middle East conflict would lightly predict a happy career for this most dysfunctional region once Israel vanishes. For there is no such thing as “the” conflict. A quick count reveals five ways in which the region’s fortunes would remain stunted—or worse:

States vs. States: Israel’s elimination from the regional balance would hardly bolster intra-Arab amity. The retraction of the colonial powers, Britain and France, in the mid-20th century left behind a bunch of young Arab states seeking to redraw the map of the region. From the very beginning, Syria laid claim to Lebanon. In 1970, only the Israeli military deterred Damascus from invading Jordan under the pretext of supporting a Palestinian uprising. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Nasser’s Egypt proclaimed itself the avatar of pan-Arabism, intervening in Yemen during the 1960s. Nasser’s successor, President Anwar Sadat, was embroiled in on-and-off clashes with Libya throughout the late 1970s. Syria marched into Lebanon in 1976 and then effectively annexed the country 15 years later, and Iraq launched two wars against fellow Muslim states: Iran in 1980, Kuwait in 1990. The war against Iran was the longest conventional war of the 20th century. None of these conflicts is related to the Israeli-Palestinian one. Indeed, Israel’s disappearance would only liberate military assets for use in such internal rivalries.

Believers vs. Believers: Those who think that the Middle East conflict is a “Muslim-Jewish thing” had better take a closer look at the score card: 14 years of sectarian bloodshed in Lebanon; Saddam’s campaign of extinction against the Shia in the aftermath of the first Gulf War; Syria’s massacre of 20,000 people in the Muslim Brotherhood stronghold of Hama in 1982; and terrorist violence against Egyptian Christians in the 1990s. Add to this tally intraconfessional oppression, such as in Saudi Arabia, where the fundamentalist Wahhabi sect wields the truncheon of state power to inflict its dour lifestyle on the less devout.

Ideologies vs. Ideologies: Zionism is not the only “ism” in the region, which is rife with competing ideologies. Even though the Baathist parties in Syria and Iraq sprang from the same fascist European roots, both have vied for precedence in the Middle East. Nasser wielded pan-Arabism-cum-socialism against the Arab nation-state. And both Baathists and Nasserites have opposed the monarchies, such as in Jordan. Khomeinist Iran and Wahhabite Saudi Arabia remain mortal enemies. What is the connection to the Arab-Israeli conflict? Nil, with the exception of Hamas, a terror army of the faithful once supported by Israel as a rival to the Palestine Liberation Organization and now responsible for many suicide bombings in Israel. But will Hamas disband once Israel is gone? Hardly. Hamas has bigger ambitions than eliminating the “Zionist entity.” The organization seeks nothing less than a unified Arab state under a regime of God.

Reactionary Utopia vs. Modernity: A common enmity toward Israel is the only thing that prevents Arab modernizers and traditionalists from tearing their societies apart. Fundamentalists vie against secularists and reformist Muslims for the fusion of mosque and state under the green flag of the Prophet. And a barely concealed class struggle pits a minuscule bourgeoisie and millions of unemployed young men against the power structure, usually a form of statist cronyism that controls the means of production. Far from creating tensions, Israel actually contains the antagonisms in the world around it.

Regimes vs. Peoples: The existence of Israel cannot explain the breadth and depth of the Mukhabarat states (secret police states) throughout the Middle East. With the exceptions of Jordan, Morocco, and the Gulf sheikdoms, which gingerly practice an enlightened monarchism, all Arab countries (plus Iran and Pakistan) are but variations of despotism—from the dynastic dictatorship of Syria to the authoritarianism of Egypt. Intranational strife in Algeria has killed nearly 100,000, with no letup in sight. Saddam’s victims are said to number 300,000. After the Khomeinists took power in 1979, Iran was embroiled not only in the Iran-Iraq War but also in barely contained civil unrest into the 1980s. Pakistan is an explosion waiting to happen. Ruthless suppression is the price of stability in this region.

Again, it would take a florid imagination to surmise that factoring Israel out of the Middle East equation would produce liberal democracy in the region. It might be plausible to argue that the dialectic of enmity somehow favors dictatorship in “frontline states” such as Egypt and Syria—governments that invoke the proximity of the “Zionist threat” as a pretext to suppress dissent. But how then to explain the mayhem in faraway Algeria, the bizarre cult-of-personality regime in Libya, the pious kleptocracy of Saudi Arabia, the clerical despotism of Iran, or democracy’s enduring failure to take root in Pakistan? Did Israel somehow cause the various putsches that produced the republic of fear in Iraq? If Jordan, the state sharing the longest border with Israel, can experiment with constitutional monarchy, why not Syria?

It won’t do to lay the democracy and development deficits of the Arab world on the doorstep of the Jewish state. Israel is a pretext, not a cause, and therefore its dispatch will not heal the self-inflicted wounds of the Arab-Islamic world. Nor will the mild version of “statocide,” a binational state, do the trick—not in view of the “civilization of clashes” (to borrow a term from British historian Niall Ferguson) that is the hallmark of Arab political culture. The mortal struggle between Israelis and Palestinians would simply shift from the outside to the inside.

My Enemy, Myself

Can anybody proclaim in good conscience that these dysfunctionalities of the Arab world would vanish along with Israel? Two U.N. “Arab Human Development Reports,” written by Arab authors, say no. The calamities are homemade. Stagnation and hopelessness have three root causes. The first is lack of freedom. The United Nations cites the persistence of absolute autocracies, bogus elections, judiciaries beholden to executives, and constraints on civil society. Freedom of expression and association are also sharply limited. The second root cause is lack of knowledge: Sixty-five million adults are illiterate, and some 10 million children have no schooling at all. As such, the Arab world is dropping ever further behind in scientific research and the development of information technology. Third, female participation in political and economic life is the lowest in the world. Economic growth will continue to lag as long as the potential of half the population remains largely untapped.

Will all of this right itself when that Judeo-Western insult to Arab pride finally vanishes? Will the millions of unemployed and bored young men, cannon fodder for the terrorists, vanish as well—along with one-party rule, corruption, and closed economies? This notion makes sense only if one cherishes single-cause explanations or, worse, harbors a particular animus against the Jewish state and its refusal to behave like Sweden. (Come to think of it, Sweden would not be Sweden either if it lived in the Hobbesian world of the Middle East.)

Finally, the most popular what-if issue of them all: Would the Islamic world hate the United States less if Israel vanished? Like all what-if queries, this one, too, admits only suggestive evidence. To begin, the notion that 5 million Jews are solely responsible for the rage of 1 billion or so Muslims cannot carry the weight assigned to it. Second, Arab-Islamic hatreds of the United States preceded the conquest of the West Bank and Gaza. Recall the loathing left behind by the U.S.-managed coup that restored the shah’s rule in Tehran in 1953, or the U.S. intervention in Lebanon in 1958. As soon as Britain and France left the Middle East, the United States became the dominant power and the No. 1 target. Another bit of suggestive evidence is that the fiercest (unofficial) anti-Americanism emanates from Washington’s self-styled allies in the Arab Middle East, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Is this situation because of Israel—or because it is so convenient for these regimes to “busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels” (as Shakespeare’s Henry IV put it) to distract their populations from their dependence on the “Great Satan”?

Take the Cairo Declaration against “U.S. hegemony,” endorsed by 400 delegates from across the Middle East and the West in December 2002. The lengthy indictment mentions Palestine only peripherally. The central condemnation, uttered in profuse variation, targets the United States for monopolizing power “within the framework of capitalist globalization,” for reinstating “colonialism,” and for blocking the “emergence of forces that would shift the balance of power toward multi-polarity.” In short, Global America is responsible for all the afflictions of the Arab world, with Israel coming in a distant second.

This familiar tale has an ironic twist: One of the key signers is Nader Fergany, lead author of the 2002 U.N. Arab Human Development Report. So even those who confess to the internal failures of the Arab world end up blaming “the Other.” Given the enormity of the indictment, ditching Israel will not absolve the United States. Iran’s Khomeinists have it right, so to speak, when they denounce America as the “Great Satan” and Israel only as the “Little Satan,” a handmaiden of U.S. power. What really riles America-haters in the Middle East is Washington’s intrusion into their affairs, be it for reasons of oil, terrorism, or weapons of mass destruction. This fact is why Osama bin Laden, having attached himself to the Palestinian cause only as an afterthought, calls the Americans the new crusaders, and the Jews their imperialist stand-ins.

None of this is to argue in favor of Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, nor to excuse the cruel hardship it imposes on the Palestinians, which is pernicious, even for Israel’s own soul. But as this analysis suggests, the real source of Arab angst is the West as a palpable symbol of misery and an irresistible target of what noted Middle East scholar Fouad Ajami has called “Arab rage.” The puzzle is why so many Westerners, like those who signed the Cairo Declaration, believe otherwise.

Is this anti-Semitism, as so many Jews are quick to suspect? No, but denying Israel’s legitimacy bears an uncanny resemblance to some central features of this darkest of creeds. Accordingly, the Jews are omnipotent, ubiquitous, and thus responsible for the evils of the world. Today, Israel finds itself in an analogous position, either as handmaiden or manipulator of U.S. might. The soft version sighs: “If only Israel were more reasonable…” The semihard version demands that “the United States pull the rug out from under Israel” to impose the pliancy that comes from impotence. And the hard-hard version dreams about salvation springing from Israel’s disappearance.

Why, sure—if it weren’t for that old joke from Israel’s War of Independence: While the bullets were whistling overhead and the two Jews in their foxhole were running out of rounds, one griped, “If the Brits had to give us a country not their own, why couldn’t they have given us Switzerland?” Alas, Israel is just a strip of land in the world’s most noxious neighborhood, and the cleanup hasn’t even begun.


Josef Joffe is the publisher of Die Zeit, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, and distinguished fellow at the Institute for International Studies, both at Stanford University.


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