What is Israel’s End-Game?
Seyla Benhabib 15 April 2009

Seyla Benhabib is the Eugene Meyer Professor of Political Science and Philosophy at Yale University and Director of its Program in Ethics, Politics and Economics.

Israel’s military attack on the Gaza Strip, home to a million and a half Palestinians, was launched on December 28, 2008, the last day of Hanukkah, the “Festival of Lights.” Hanukkah tells the story of the revolt of the ancient Hebrews, led by Judah Maccabee, in the second century BCE against Antiochus IV Epiphanus. Legend has it that when the Maccabees had succeeded in liberating the Temple from Antiochus, they found only enough oil to light the menorah for one night. Yet that oil burned for eight instead.

While the Israeli political echelon and military command had many reasons for timing their attack on Gaza as they did, they certainly knew the heroic resonances the Festival of Lights would have for the Israeli public: Once more, Jews were writing a story of resistance against their oppressors: The threat to collective survival was heroically defeated by Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the new Judah Maccabee.

These potent memories of Jewish survival and resistance, together with the post-Holocaust determination that ‘Never again’ will the Jewish people be subject to destruction, are the emotional wellsprings which Israel’s leaders tap whenever it is engaged in a war. Yet the strategic and Realpolitik considerations of the present Gaza military action are clear enough: no state, it is said, can accept continuous and unpredictable rocket attacks; it is obliged to defend its borders and inhabitants. Those who look a little deeper, however, point out that the Gaza operation is attempting to restore Israel’s seeming military invulnerability, lost in the wake of the 2006 Lebanon War. Furthermore, general elections will be held in Israel and in the Palestinian territories in the coming months and the current Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni from the Kadima Party, as well as the current Defense Minister, Ehud Barak, from the Labor Party, are candidates for the position of Prime Minister.

None of this, though, accounts for the ferocity of the Israeli action, its disproportionality not only to the attacks from the other side but even to any imaginable Israeli goal, and its violation of international humanitarian law, and possible engagement in war crimes. Why?

The true answer is that Israel has lost its political vision and military might and that no clear political sense guides its actions. Military power, freed from subordination to political goals, is blind and brutal. No one in the Israeli leadership has a political vision, and I don’t mean a strategy of long-term goals squeezed in between two election cycles and revisable according to circumstance, but a political vision, the way founders of republics are supposed to have. How will this commonwealth endure? What lasting institutions can it bequeath to its children and grand-children in which they will be free to flourish as individuals and citizens? Who today has this kind of vision of the political to offer in view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? The Israelis certainly have lost it. And the Palestinians, although they have the force of morality and the wind of history on their back, have been repeatedly defeated and degraded by Israel, and betrayed by Arab nations, always long on rhetoric but short on deeds.

Since the nineteen-sixties, the Palestinians’ political vision has been inspired by the “tiers-mondism” [the third-worldism] of the “wretched of the earth,” a discourse of nationalist and statist modernization, which showed its clear limits during the support by the Palestinian leadership for Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. I still remember the late Edward Said’s extremely moving piece in The New York Times of Fall 1992 which admitted this Palestinian foolishness and described clearly the end of Fatah ideology. Into the vacuum left by the collapse of westernizing and modernizing military bureaucratic ideologies everywhere in the Arab world, rushed Islamist ideologies represented by Hamas and Hizbollah: the new Islamism is a disciplinarian, purist and moralist outlook, inspired by Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolt against the west, and gaining its influence among the Palestinian population as much through its blistering rhetoric about the destruction of the Jewish state as through its programs of solidaristic and redistributionist neighborhood help and Islamic charity.

Hamas, like other early Islamist movements in Turkey and elsewhere in the Middle East, represents an egalitarian and redistributionist vision of Islamic solidarity that is also deeply authoritarian and anti-liberal. In the 1980’s, Hamas was supported by Israel as an alternative to the more secular and militant Fatah, much as the US supported Osama bin Laden and the Mujaheddin against the more secular and socialistically inclined Fedayyin in Afghanistan. In both cases, the genie flew out of the bottle, and now Israel, as well as the US, are stuck with the shifting of allegiances by Hamas, and the much more formidable Hizbollah, from Islamic social work to Islamist militarism, from Sunni patrons such as Saudi Arabia to Shi’ite ideologues in Iran. There is nothing in this constellation that should give comfort and hope to progressives and Leftists. Our commitment to the equality, self-determination and solidarity of peoples must, therefore, remain a critical principle and must not be sacrificed to blind partisanship for one group or another.

Israel’s security in a post-Westphalian world

What, then, is Israel’s political end-game? Israel is caught in striving for Westphalian security in a post-Westphalian world, in which borders have become porous, and when germs, news, commodities, money and everything it seems, but the human body, travels more and more quickly and in ever larger numbers. Tunnels have been dug between Egypt and Gaza to smuggle in weapons purchased with Iranian money. Oil money floats into the hands of itinerant preachers and false holy men from corrupt Sheiks and Kingdoms in the Gulf protecting their vulnerable dynasties, as well as from an irredentist and irresponsible regime in Iran. Defunct weapon systems from Russia and from former Soviet Republics such as Kazakhistan, Kirgizystan, and Azerbeijan find their ways into the hands of their Muslim brethren. And cynical Chinese weapon merchants and Russian tycoons who are only too happy to peddle their goods in the region.

And Israel pretends to be shocked! Shocked that missiles with the capacity to reach Tel-Aviv are now stored in the Gaza strip and in southern Lebanon. Shocked that small groups of Hamas militants launch rockets mounted on mobile carriers while hiding among the hapless civilian population. But this is hypocritical: Whether strategically or normatively, it hardly explains or justifies Israel’s massive retaliation. Even Saddam Hussein, during the first Gulf War, fired some lame scud missiles into Tel-Aviv, and children and adults alike went and collected their gas masks and sat in their apartments waiting for the missiles to fall. Israel knows and has known for quite some time that its supposed shield of military might has been pierced by ever new generation of weapons.

There is no perfect security and total invulnerability in this new world at least since September 11, 2001 – if there ever was such a thing as total invulnerability in the political realm. Yet it is Israel’s shock at its own vulnerability that is making it act more and more belligerently towards its neighbors. Even having the nuclear bomb provides no security, not because Iran may acquire one, too, but because the use of nuclear weapons against targets in Lebanon, Syria, the Gaza strip, the West Bank and Jordan would make Israel itself unlivable by spreading radioactive clouds throughout the area, contaminating water and vegetation.

Four political visions

Several political discourses in contemporary Israel try to face this situation without offering a new vision of politics:

1.The prospect of perpetual war. Although politically indefensible by any self-respecting politician, this is a psychology taking hold of the souls of many ordinary Israelis. Many believe that war will be a way of life and that there will never be peace in Israel-Palestine.

2. Liberals and progressives of all stripes, by contrast, advocate a two-state solution, because they believe in the principle of the equal self-determination of peoples. Yet others accept this because they are concerned with what is called ‘the ticking demographic bomb’ of high Palestinian birth rates and because they do no want to be minority in a majority Palestinian state, whether democratic or not.

3.Then there is the vision of a greater Israel based on religious belief, namely, the view that the ancient lands of Judaea and Samaria belong irrevocably to the Jewish people.

4. This is to be distinguished from the secular vision of a greater Israel, including the Palestinian territories, to be governed by some mutually acceptable economic agreements, combining together free-trade and economic growth zones.

At least since Yitzhak Rabin’s peace initiative and the Camp David accords, the idea of a “two-state solution” is the official policy of Israeli and American administrations. But the “two-state solution” has an ambivalent core and every so often, its hidden meanings erupt into public consciousness. The two-state solution became widely accepted not only because it guaranteed the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination but because it promised “demographic disengagement.” Suddenly, the demographers, those pseudo-politicians of hidden race thinking, argued that if Israel continued to occupy Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem that it would end up exercising military control over 5 million Palestinian Arabs, including those who are Israeli citizens and who live within the 1967 borders of Israel. Given the high Palestinian birth rate, it was felt that the Jewish nature of Israel would be at stake unless one disengaged from Gaza and returned some portion of the territories. Nightmares of being a minority in a state which one had founded to protect oneself from being second class citizens, despised, exploited, maligned and killed en masse were revived; suddenly all the ghosts of the Jewish unconscious from the pogroms of the Cossacks to the Nazi extermination camps came forth and a significant majority of the Israeli population signed on to Camp David and said “two states, side by side” to escape from this nightmare.

Yet many strategists of Israeli Realpolitik and many Israeli settlers have never accepted this vision. Since 1967 the settler movement has grown from a group of dreamy fanatics who believed in the sacred “land of Israel” (Eretz Israel) as opposed to the “state of Israel” (Medinat Israel) into a mixed mass of well-armed and well-funded militants and religious groups. They are the ones who shot Palestinians during Friday prayers in a mosque in Hebron, and the murderer of Yitzhak Rabin, Yigal Amir, came from their ranks. Like the murderers of Anwar Sadat in Egypt, who belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood, these are groups living in another age, hearing the voices of ancient gods and feel the tremors of ancient wars and obey ancient myths. They remain an irredentist and dangerous force for Israelis and Palestinians and will try to spoil any lasting peace in the region because their raison d’etre is a messianic vision of ancient and unending struggle. For them, the revolt of the Maccabees has a special resonance. Their violent potential is also manipulated by politicians on both sides to further their own short-sighted goals.

But just as the plight of the Palestinians has been used by corrupt Arab regimes to shore up their own tattered legitimacy, so too the settler movement has been used by cynical Israeli elites to advance their vision of a secular, greater Israel. Described in unforgettable terms by Amos Oz in his book In the Land of Israel, there are the tough Jews attached to the land, who are oddly progressive when it comes to matters of economic cooperation and development with the Palestinians. Reminiscent of the white Rhodesian farmers and the enterprising cattle growers of Australia and the ranchers of South Africa, these are men who want to control and develop the land of Israel/Palestine. By contrast with liberals who are worried about the ‘soul of the democratic Israel,’ they are more concerned with the ‘muscle’ of Israel’s economic and agricultural reach. The hero of the 1967 war, Moshe Dayan, belonged to this group, as does, the now half-living and half-dead Ariel Sharon. For them, as long as the Palestinians are quiescent and thrifty capitalist entrepreneurs, as long as they develop the land rather than ruining it, coexistence is possible. The dreams of this group were shattered in 2005 when angry Palestinian mobs destroyed all those beautiful greenhouses built by Israelis in Gaza to export roses, tomatoes, and avocadoes the world. The wrath of the Palestinians that manifested itself in the destruction of property was interpreted by this group as by many colonial masters before them as proof of the incompetence of the natives to work hard, guard property, and add value to capital.

The current military operation in Gaza contains elements of all four political discourses – perpetual war; a two-state solution; religious greater Israel and a secular greater Israel – and this is why it is incoherent in its final aims: Does Israel want to occupy Gaza again and build greenhouses which will be destroyed yet again? Does Israel want to destroy Hamas and its military and civilian institutions once and for all and then get out of Gaza in anticipation of a two-state solution which will then be hardly possible? Does Israel want to reoccupy Gaza and put its troops in harm’s way as well as commit potential war crimes against the Palestinian population? No one is quite sure.

Like Tibet and China?

Are there then any genuinely political alternatives in the current situation and not just military strategies that parade as if they were political visions? Within Israel, there is a movement for dissociating Israeli citizenship and Jewish ethno-religious identity to enable Israel to become the land of all its citizens. This would involve full or partial repudiation of the Law of Return, which grants the right to Israeli citizenship to every Jew who has been recognized by some rabbinic authority. Until very recently Israel’s law of citizenship had not been reformed and many migrant workers and their children as well as non-Jewish partners and spouses could not obtain Israeli citizenship at all. Ironically, in the last decade it has become easier for Russians who pretend to be Jews to obtain Israeli citizenship than for a Palestinian-Arab, born and raised in East Jerusalem because s/he will be considered a security risk and because the status of East Jerusalem is up in the air in terms of international agreements. As significant as this vision is, it runs the risk of becoming a kind of benevolent imperialism, particularly when the demand for citizenship is extended to include Palestinians in occupied territories whose status is unsettled in view of the absence of a comprehensive peace treaty.

Any serious political thinking about Israel and Palestine must be based on the premise that military force is a deterrent only, and an increasingly questionable one, at that, and that it is not arms but humans who conclude peace. Peace is a collective good. Israel is caught in a defunct Westphalian model of sovereignty which assumes that the state is in control of all that is alive and dead within and at the margins of its boundaries. Most advanced democracies know that neither normatively nor empirically is this the case anymore. Sovereignty is a bundle of state privileges and prerogatives which can be shared, delegated and co-exercised with other groups and powers. Many in the Israeli leadership know that they will never permit full and Palestinian sovereignty over air space, be it in Gaza or the West Bank; over the free passage of goods in and out of ports in Gaza which would be the only form of access to the sea for a future Palestinian state; nor will Israel give up control of the underground water reserves extending on both sides of the 1967 territories. So why does one pretend that a sovereign Palestinian state will be sovereign in the sense in which Israel would like to consider itself sovereign? The sad and simple truth is that such a Palestinian state will be perpetually bullied, controlled, monitored, and occasionally smashed by Israel. Precisely because many who advocate a two-state solution also know that their future relations with the Palestinian state will be less like those between Italy and Austria and than like those between Tibet and China and India and Kashmir that many Israeli politicians pay lip service to this ideal while making sure on the ground that it becomes less and less likely.

Suppose a confederation

But dream with me for a moment. Suppose there were a confederation in Israel-Palestine. Suppose that the neutralization of groups like Hamas and Hizbollah which do not recognize the existence of the state of Israel was a goal common to Palestinians as well as other Arab nations but that if Hamas would recognize Israel’s right to exist it would have a seat at the table; suppose that there were common air, maritime and water controls jointly exercised by an Israeli-Palestinian authority; suppose that there were a common currency and regulated settlement rights for each ethnic group in certain parts of the common territory. Israel would not have to face civil war against the fanatic settlers in Hebron and the West Bank who would then either have to live under a regional municipal Palestinian authority or would have to return to Israel. But Israel would not have to defend their land grabs through incursions into Palestinian territory; the Palestinians would not have to pretend that the Bantustan of Gaza could in any sense be part of a Palestinian state; instead Gaza would be an autonomous region in a joint Israeli-Palestinian confederation. Gaza and the West Bank would hold elections for municipal and regional administration and governments, under some clearly defined power-sharing agreement with each other and with Israel.

A confederation would not mean the disappearance of the national collective polity and identity of each people. Within some version of the pre-1967 territories, that is the Green line, Israel would remain a Jewish state, with its language, and holidays and elections; but it would share power in military, security, intelligence, currency and trade matters with the Palestinian state. Likewise the Palestinians would have their own language, holidays and elections, but the two peoples would develop some form of joint school curricula particularly in the teaching of history which did justice to historical truths and to the suffering of both peoples. Children of a new generation would learn to have empathy rather than hatred for each other. There would be some equalization of socio-economic and welfare rights in this confederation so that everyone would not want move into the wealthier Israeli provinces; religious pluralism and liberal civil rights would be respected equally for all Jews, Muslims, Christians and all people of other faiths. For the religiously observant who would want to have their personal affairs to be administered by religious authorities there would be optional religious courts but there would also be a shared Bill of Rights for all peoples which would guarantee equal civil and political rights.

If I permit myself to dream further, I imagine that this confederation could become the kernel of a Middle Eastern Union of Peoples, in which Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and many other states would conjoin together much along the model of the European Union.

To those who would accuse me of wanting to get rid of the state of Israel, much as they argued against Tony Judt, when he dared raise some of these proposals in the New York Review of Books some years ago, I ask: what alternatives do you really have to offer the Israeli and Palestinian peoples besides perpetual war or the imperial project of a secular or religious greater Israel? If you want Israel to retain its soul as a liberal-democratic state and preserve its Jewish identity without racism, discrimination and war against another people, dare to look beyond defunct visions of the Westphalian state. France, Italy, Germany etc., have not disappeared within the European Union; quite to the contrary: their capacities for governance and their ability to provide their own peoples with peace and prosperity have been enhanced. A republican confederation of Israeli and Palestinian polities corresponds both to the realities of increased interdependence developing on the ground between Israel and the Palestinians as well as offering stability and prosperity in the future. The tragedy of Gaza should bring with it new visions of the political.



Please consider giving a tax-free donation to Reset this year

Any amount will help show your support for our activities

In Europe and elsewhere
(Reset DOC)

In the US
(Reset Dialogues)