Many American Jews suffer culture shock when they first visit Tel Aviv. Having grown up watching reruns of the movie Exodus, they imagine Israelis as yarmulke-wearing cowboys valiantly defending their land against attacks from vicious tribes of Arab terrorists. Arriving in Tel Aviv, they find a bustling city full of secular, middle-class Israelis practicing their new religion of consumerism, planning their next trip to America or Europe as their Reebok-shod children dance to the latest rap tune. Instead of engaging in more heroic pursuits, they while away their evening hours in traditional Mediterranean pastimes: eating, drinking, gossiping, flirting, and engaging in passionate and noisy political debate.
Israel was supposed to be different—an original masterpiece, not a distant echo of ideas and trends produced in New York and London, which is what Tel Aviv, the first modern Hebrew city, turned out to be. It has become a symbol of a Western-oriented, “post-Zionist” Israel, to use a term coined by writers and artists who frequent the coffeehouses and bookstores in fashionable Shenkin Street. It describes an ascending ideological trend that is now affecting members of the intellectual class around the country, not unlike the way original Zionism itself—an ideology inspired by the notions of European “organic nationalism”—shaped the political debate among the Jewish intelligentsia in Vienna and Warsaw a century ago.
In Tel Aviv, the Oslo peace process gave rise to dreams of a new Arab-Israeli golden age. Young Israeli entrepreneurs were quick to devise schemes for potential business ventures with colleagues from Beirut and Amman. Tel Aviv’s elites imagined Israel integrated in an E.U.-like New Middle East. With her sophisticated high-tech industries located in the “Silicon Wadi,” her dynamic entrepreneurs, and her multilingual culture, Israel would become a global commercial center linking Europe to the Middle East. There were plans to draw up a constitution that would separate synagogue and state and provide full civil rights to the Arab citizens of Israel. The main focus at that time was on devising ways to bring about independence for the Palestinians that would involve the withdrawal of the Israeli military from the West Bank, the dismantlement of most Jewish settlements there, and the recognition of East Jerusalem as the capital of the new Palestinian state.
A decade later, despite the destruction and death brought about by the continuing Israeli-Palestinian violence during the Second Intifada, the spirit of Tel Aviv continues to be pragmatic and reformist. Most Westernized Israelis are not dreaming but searching for practical short-term arrangements that would lead to separation between over five million Jews who regard the land of Israel as their homeland and more than four million Arabs who desire independent Palestinian statehood. They seek a political-territorial divorce along the lines of the current division between Greeks and Turks on the neighboring island of Cyprus. This trend among Westernized Israelis is reflected in the growing support for the “wall of separation” straddling the West Bank.
That does not mean that the spirit of Tel Aviv has been crushed. It still wants Israel to become modern, to cut the messianic roots of Zionism and turn into a “normal” nation-state. That state would still have strong cultural and religious ties to Judaism and the Jewish world; it would be Jewish in the same way that Poland or Ireland are Catholic, but not in the same way that Pakistan or Iran are Muslim. In essence, post-Zionists want Israel to resolve some of the contradictions that Zionism and the term Jewish state have introduced, including in the relationship between synagogue and state, between statist economics and the free market, between national ethos and civil-rights principles, between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs.
The post-Zionist spirit of Tel Aviv is colliding with the messianic and extremist vision of Israel’s future emanating from Jerusalem. It is a vision that seeks Greater Israel, a Jewish mini-empire stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River. It is also to be an exclusivist Jewish state where the Arabs, who could become the majority in a few years, would have a place only as second-class citizens—or as noncitizens, for that matter. Jerusalem’s vision is that of a xenophobic and armed Jewish ghetto eternally fighting for its survival. Its symbol would not be the Americanized web designers and investment bankers of Tel Aviv but the Uzi-carrying and yarmulke-wearing religious zealots who lead the drive for new settlements. The militant Orthodox Jewish settlers in Hebron live in an atmosphere in which they are constantly prepared to encounter and administer violence. This situation culminated in the murder of 29 Muslim worshipers in the Cave of the Patriarchs by Baruch Goldstein, an American-born settler, in 1994. It was the spirit of Jerusalem that drove another Orthodox Jew, Yiga’al Amir, to murder Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, heralding the collapse of the 1990’s peace process.
From the perspective of Tel Aviv, the Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria are a metaphor for the Israeli condition, while Jerusalem is the capital of “them”—the forces of reaction that Israeli liberals love to hate. It is in Jerusalem that the demons that threaten to suffocate the spirit of Tel Aviv are rearing their ugly heads: Zionist and Arab radicalism. As seen from Tel Aviv, militant settlers in the occupied Arab territories and Arab terrorists who place bombs in discos and coffee shops in Tel Aviv are rival twins. One vision mirrors the other, both based on a zero-sum game of a Greater Israel or a Greater Palestine: one state for only one people.
The end of the Cold War, the emergence of the Oslo peace process, and the rise of the age of globalization created the political conditions for the earlier ascendancy of Tel Aviv, of Labor, and of the “peace camp” led by Rabin and Ehud Barak. That strategy enjoyed support not only among the party’s traditional electoral base, the Ashkenazi (European Jews) upper and middle classes, but among the members of the Sephardic community (Middle Eastern Jews) and immigrants from the former Soviet Union. These traditional Likud voters switched to Labor in the 1990’s because Rabin and, later, Barak—two retired military generals and war heroes—were perceived as more effective in delivering security and prosperity. On the other hand, the Likud policies—including the building of new Jewish settlements—were seen as eroding Israel’s chances of establishing a secure peace, as a drain on economic resources, and as a disincentive for foreigners to invest in Israel. The alliance between the Likud and the religious-Orthodox parties resulted in subsidies for religious institutions and tax exemptions to yeshiva (religious school) students, who are also exempt from military service. All of this infuriated many Israelis, especially the immigrants from the former Soviet Union, most of whom are secular.
Most importantly, perhaps, Likud policies were also hurting the relationship with Israel’s leading global benefactor, the United States. The relationship with America is, for most Israelis, more than just the figure of three billion dollars in annual economic and military aid. The tie with Washington transcends family links, cultural influence, business relationships, and the strategic alliance. For most Israelis, isolated in a hostile region and an unfriendly world, America represents their lifeline to international society. Hence, an Israeli leader who fails to maintain the American connection or to “deliver” the United States—or, worse, who harms those ties—would eventually suffer in the polls. That is what happened to the Likud coalition under Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, when the administration of President George H.W. Bush threatened to cut aid to Israel unless it ceased its settlement policy in the West Bank.
Presidents George H.W. Bush and Clinton embraced Labor-led governments committed to a peace strategy that seemed to reflect the regional and global interests of Washington. The Oslo peace process made it possible for Rabin and Barak to get Israel out of her isolation and to establish diplomatic ties with Jordan and several other Arab countries. The approach adopted by Tel Aviv seemed to be a winning formula at home and abroad. Labor’s ability, and Likud’s failure, to deliver security and economic progress succeeded in winning over traditional Likud voters and brought both Rabin and Barak into power.
A decade later, the regional and global environments, including Israel’s relationship with the United States, are no longer conducive to the promotion of Tel Aviv’s agenda. The never-ending Israeli-Palestinian violence, the perception of a growing global clash of civilizations resulting from September 11, and the ensuing U.S.-led “War on Terror” have helped to produce a new political reality: the reemergence of the Likud as the key player in the nation’s politics and foreign policy. Domestic, regional, and international changes have not been conducive to the idea of “normalizing” Israel, but she has come under the spell of Jerusalem’s messianic Zionism. If anything, the Intifada only strengthened public support for separation from the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza and for the removal of Jewish settlements from those areas.
Contrary to the arguments raised by Likud leaders and their allies in the United States, the crisis of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations does not demonstrate the impossibility of resolving or even managing the conflict between the two peoples. In reality, the “Arab-Israeli conflict” has been transformed into a local civil war between Jews and Arabs over land. The war, with its national, ethnic, and religious dimensions, is clearly a human tragedy, but it is not very different from many national, ethnic, and religious conflicts around the world: in the Balkans (Serbs versus Croats; Albanians versus Serbs; Bosnian Croats versus Bosnian Muslims); in the Caucasus (Armenians versus Azeris); in the Levant (Maronites versus Arab Muslims); and in the Fertile Crescent (Kurds versus Arabs; Turkmens versus Kurds; Assyrians versus Turkmens). The list is long, from the Balkans to the borders of China.
We should not lose sight of the big picture. Saddam is gone. The armies of Israel and the main Arab nations, backed by their global patrons, are not about to get engaged in a destructive and costly war. The old Arab-Israeli conflict has been “de-internationalized” in the aftermath of the Cold War. It is no longer intertwined with the global confrontation of the last century. It has been transformed to a manageable local affair that does not threaten to expand. It has been localized and reduced to its true dimensions, to a “normal” national conflict involving fewer than ten million Israelis and Palestinians.
That is a depressing reality to many Zionists and Pan-Arabists. They need their respective historical narratives of grandeur: that of the Bible, of two Jewish commonwealths in the Holy Land, persecution by non-Jews, the holocaust; and, on the other hand, that of the Koran, the golden age of the Arab empires, the struggle against Western imperialism. It is a form of middle-age crisis for two national groups. They look in their mirrors and find that there is a major discrepancy between their early dreams and the sad facts of life. One way of explaining the intertwining of Zionism with Jewish messianic ideologies, and of Arab nationalism with Islamic fundamentalism, is to see them as rearguard ideological battles by groups that try to recycle the historical narratives of national movements. Those movements were established by secular figures—Christians, on the Arab side; assimilated Jews, on the Zionist side—and are being reshaped as religious fantasies.
Washington was forced during the Cold War to expand its commitments in the Middle East, as part of a three-pronged strategy to contain Soviet expansion in the region; to secure Western access to oil; and to ensure the survival of Israel. The end of the Cold War, the erosion in the influence of OPEC, and Israel’s emergence as an advanced economic power and nuclear-military player create an opportunity for Washington to start adopting a policy of “constructive disengagement” from the Middle East and to retire Israel as its “strategic asset.” The White House would not have to tolerate Israeli policies that run against American interests and values, and Israel, instead of trying to market herself as America’s “unsinkable aircraft carrier,” would be forced to adopt new strategic doctrines.
Since 1991, Washington has moved to perpetuate a costly “unilateral moment” instead. It prevented the formation of independent regional-security systems and deterred other global players, including the European Union, from exerting influence. That policy was driven by an interesting alliance of the Israeli and oil lobbies. Pro-interventionist and pro-Israeli neoconservative intellectuals provided it with an ideological rationalization—the Pax Americana. Such a policy was bound to induce anti-American sentiments in the Arab and Muslim worlds and lead to a political backlash against the United States, including terrorism.
It need not have been that way. When George H.W. Bush and his secretary of state took steps to reduce aid to Israel as a way of expressing the administration’s displeasure, they set in motion a process of dramatic change in Israeli policies, leading to direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in Oslo and peace accords with almost no U.S. involvement. The sense that the Americans were not willing to support the annexationist and messianic Israeli policies was instrumental in forcing Israel to move toward peace. At the same time, the localization of the Arab-Israeli conflict, with the inability of the Palestinians to get either a global player (the moribund Soviet Union) or Arab states (Egypt and Syria) to provide them with military support, drove the Palestinians to a policy of détente. In the end, Oslo failed because of the decision by the Israelis—supported by the Clinton administration—to “go all the way” and try to reach a final and comprehensive solution, instead of continuing with a set of interim agreements. An argument can be made that President Clinton’s decision to adopt a hyperactive U.S. diplomatic role in managing the negotiations, and what resembled a psychotherapy session at Camp David in 2001, helped trigger the Intifada by creating undue expectations on both sides.
There is no rationale for placing the Israel-Palestine conflict at the top of the U.S. foreign-policy agenda, and no explanation why a benign neglect of that conflict would have an adverse effect on core U.S. national interests. The United States has no “moral obligation” to act. As in many other conflicts around the world, if both sides are willing to pay the costs of what they regard as a fight for their survival, there is no reason why the Americans should save them from themselves. The bloodshed will end when both sides tire of it and conclude that their respective interests would be served more effectively by negotiating.
If Washington adopts a policy that is based on American national interests and values, it should state its unwillingness to maintain the status quo in its relationship with Israel, which only helps to sustain policies that run contrary to those interests and values. If economic aid helps to perpetuate the state-controlled structures in their economy, it should be reduced or eliminated. If the security alliance with Israel and the huge military aid to her do not advance American interests, those policies should be reassessed. The notion of U.S. “constructive disengagement” applies both to Israel and to the so-called “moderate” and “pro-American” authoritarian regimes in the region, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt (countries whose citizens led the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States). These are policies that should advance U.S. interests and elevate those players in Israel and the Middle East whose policies help preserve those interests.
In the aftermath of September 11 and the ensuing War on Terror, the impression in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem is that the White House has decided to ally itself with the latter. George W. Bush and some of his advisors, especially those making policy in the Pentagon, seemed to have adopted the Likud Party’s spin. That September 11 took place a few months after the start of the second Intifada, while the Bush administration was trying to devise its own approach toward the Israel-Palestine problem, turned out to be a political opportunity for neoconservatives in the administration, such as Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, and their neoconservative allies in Congress, the media, and think tanks. The neocons successfully promoted their agenda of perpetuating America’s unipolar status worldwide by lavishing support on Israel.
Not surprisingly, the American strategy is seen in the Arab world and elsewhere as part of an effort to dominate the Middle East. George W. Bush has chosen to turn the approach of his father on its head. The policies advanced by the neocons, who had opposed the Oslo Accords and the concessions offered by Barak at Camp David, sent a signal to the Israeli public that voting for the Likud would not result in a political backlash by Washington. The neocons and some Bush-administration officials and Republicans in Congress are starting to make Sharon look like a dove, as several Israeli columnists have suggested.
The neocons’ grand strategy seeks a global American Empire that turns Europe and Russia into submissive satellites, establishes a hegemonic structure in the Middle East centered on a “democratic” Iraq, and turns most of the Middle Eastern states, including a mini-Palestinian entity, into U.S./NATO protectorates. This seems to be another attempt to square the circle for Greater Israel by lessening the costs of Israeli expansionist policies. It would create a regional environment in which American hegemony, fractured and weakened Arab states, and a pro-American Turkey would place no constraints on the ability of Israel to pursue ambitious goals. In short, the American Empire would make the Middle East safe for Greater Israel.
Almost 100 years after Great Britain and France advanced their own imperial plans in the Middle East, the United States is about to follow the same dangerous path. American military power and the lack of any global challenger to her current status allowed the United States to achieve her military goals in Iraq very quickly, but she now faces new challenges. A civil war in Iraq between the Kurds, Sunni Arabs, and Shiite Muslims may be averted, but the strengthening of radical Islamic groups and the rise of anti-American terrorism may not. Moreover, the rising costs of maintaining the American Empire, including U.S hegemony in the Middle East and military control of Iraq and her geographical neighborhood, could start testing the willingness of Congress and the American public to finance and support such huge commitments. Expansion of America’s military commitments in the Middle East and other regions could induce the same kind of inflationary pressures and erosion of the U.S. dollar that accompanied America’s war in Vietnam, at a time when the European Union and China, both of which would be dependent on oil resources in the Middle East, would be taking giant steps to enhance their global economic competitiveness vis-à-vis the United States.
All of this should also worry Israeli policymakers if Israel, in the new era of the American Empire, becomes a modern-day crusader state, an outlet of a global power whose political, economic, and military headquarters are on the other side of the world. American commitment to the security of the Israeli province would always remain uncertain and fragile, reflecting changes in the balance of power in Washington and the shifting dynamics of American politics and economics. In the eyes of the Arab and Muslim nations, as well as those of other powers (especially those challenging the international status quo), Israel would be perceived as the “weakest link” in the American Empire. A weaker and less-confident America may come under pressure at home and abroad to reduce her global commitments, leaving Israel vulnerable not only to Arab and Muslim nations but to other anti-status quo powers.
Ironically, the original mission of classical Zionism was to turn Europe’s Jews into a normal people, living in a normal state and able to protect themselves—not dependent on others for their survival. Most Israelis remain committed to that goal. There is an alternative to the Greater Israel approach: End the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza; establish security “red lines” that would make it clear to the Palestinians and other potential adversaries in the region that Israel would use all her military might if they cross those lines (it is called deterrence); and focus the energies and resources of Israel on developing a “normal,” economically and militarily strong nation-state.
It is not too late for the Israelis to figure out a path toward normalcy in the Middle East. It may not be “new,” as some of them had hoped, but it is the region where they have to survive and coexist with the Palestinians and their other neighbors in the next generations as an independent nation-state, not as a crusader state whose fate could be determined by the decisions of a foreign and distant power.