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The Logic of Regime Change

Delegitimating Israel

by ANDREW LEVINE

Now that American and European saber rattling has quieted down, Iran’s (aspirational) nuclear weapon no longer seems quite the “existential threat” it used to be.  For this, we have Russian and Iranian diplomacy to thank.

Of course, Israeli saber rattling continues unabated.  Existential threats keep Israel’s Jewish citizens more or less united and its international supporters on board.  The Iranian bomb is especially useful because, being spectral, it is safe as well as effective.

Existential threats to Israel work magic on public opinion throughout the global West.    This makes it easier for Western governments, the American government especially, to provide Israel with diplomatic, military and economic support.

They are inclined to do this anyway of course, for both domestic political and geostrategic reasons.  But the aid is indispensible, and the Israelis take no chances.

Existential threats also keep “charitable” donations flowing in from private Jewish and evangelical Christian sources.

Indeed, the great fear in Zionist quarters is that without the specter of an Iranian bomb or its functional equivalent, “diaspora” Jews will drift away and dispensationalist Protestants will be less eager than they now are to squander their time and money hastening the end days – when Jews who do not accept Christ will be cast into Hell for all eternity.

The diminution of the Iranian threat is not the only matter of concern to Israel’s leaders.  There is also the no longer deniable fact that the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement is gaining strength in the United States.  It still has a long way to go, but it has already gone far enough to cause concern.

All is not lost, however.  Congress is still in Israel’s pocket and the President is still spineless.  The tail still wags the dog.

Moreover, Iran’s nuclear program was frozen, not stopped.  It could always bounce back and be of service again.  Many of Israel’s most servile Congressional pawns are working diligently to make this happens.

But the prospect is chancy, and Tel Aviv is disinclined just to wait and hope.  Without letting up on Iran, they have therefore deployed Plan B.  Predictably, it has been taken up with gusto by all who follow Israel’s lead.

Plan B is a hybrid strategy; it joins existential threat fabrication with an even hoarier and more familiar ruse — vilifying Israel’s critics.

Calling them anti-Semites, when they plainly are not, has been effective in the past, and no doubt still is.  But the ploy suffers from overuse.

In his suburban Philadelphia high school, Binyamin Netanyahu must have heard from his history teacher that America’s greatest President thought that you can indeed fool some of the people all of the time.  But Honest Abe forgot to point out that if you keep going about it the same way over and over again, the supply of susceptible people eventually declines.

Netanyahu and his co-thinkers are now discovering that on their own.

It is the same with their blather about “self-hating Jews.”  What could be more tired than that; or, in nearly all cases, more obviously false?

This is especially relevant now that the BDS movement is gathering steam.   In the United States and elsewhere, progressive, self-loving Jews are leading the way.

And so the word has gone out that vilification is not enough; Israel’s critics must be made out to be existential threats too, functional equivalents of the imaginary Iranian bomb.

To drive the point home, it is important to say it effectively – in other words, to get the language right.

This is why the party line now has it that some of Israel’s critics, the ones in the BDS movement for example, are out to “delegitimate” Israel.

They may not realize it — some of them may even think of themselves as Israel’s friends – but “objectively,” as Stalinists used to say, they are mortal enemies of the Jewish state.

This is not an impossible sell – notwithstanding the fact that, taken at its word, the claim is conceptually confused and highly misleading.  That, indeed, is its point.

* * *

Zionists do have reason to fear an Iranian bomb, but not the reason they claim.  Were it real, what it would put in jeopardy is not the survival of the Israeli population, but the ability of the Israeli state to bully and oppress as it pleases.

Their reasons to fear BDS and other solidarity movements are more complex.

Before the November 24 interim agreement that brought Iran’s nuclear program to a temporary – or possibly permanent – standstill, Iran probably could have developed a nuclear weapons capability over the next several years.  Then, if the Iranian government chose, Iran really would be able to concoct a nuclear weapon.

Nuclear proliferation is always a worrisome development, but this case is less scary than most — except to hardcore Zionists.  For the rest of us, an Iranian bomb might not be such a bad thing.

If nothing else, it would deter Israel from having its way with its neighbors and with the Palestinians.  It would function in much the way that Soviet nuclear power helped restrain the United States from trying too overtly to take over Eastern Europe.

Since a nuclear war between Israel and Iran would result in the annihilation of both, an Iranian bomb would serve no other, more worrisome or nefarious, purpose.

It would certainly not threaten the physical existence of people now living in Israel.  Iran may be ruled by theocrats, but they are not suicidal; neither are the Iranian people.

In that regard, there is more reason to worry about Israel exercising its so-called Samson option – where it rains down death and destruction on both itself and its enemies if it finds itself, like the Biblical Samson, with no alternative other than surrender.

BDS, on the other hand, actually could lead to changes that threaten the Israeli state – not by delegitimating it, but by changing its nature profoundly.

However, at this point, it would be premature to claim that anything like this is in the offing.  BDS proponents, like Israel’s critics generally, are a mixed bunch.  Their goals are far from settled.

Some only want Israel’s decades long occupation of the tiny portion of Mandate Palestine that is still officially Palestinian to end.  Others want Israel to be a state of its people, not a confessional or ethnic state.  Some support a two state solution; others favor a bi- or multi-national unitary state.

The common denominator is moral: everyone involved is moved by the realization that Palestinians suffer a grave injustice.  BDS is a solidarity movement, aligned with the Palestinian cause.

Does this – indeed, can this — imply “delegitimating” Israel?  The short answer is: No.  Delegitimation is not what solidarity movements are about.

What solidarity movements do is boost morale and influence world opinion; anything more falls beyond their ken.  BDS is no different.

Solidarity movements in themselves are not all that threatening anyway.  Even when their objectives are clear and their extent rivals or surpasses anything the world has yet to see, their efficacy is limited.

This is why in Palestine, if a new deal comes about, it will be mainly through the efforts of the Palestinians themselves.  It was this way for blacks and coloreds in South Africa; it is always this way.  Solidarity movements can help — but, in the end, what they offer is moral support.

To be sure, the U.S. role in maintaining Israeli dominance, and therefore Palestinian subordination, is historically unprecedented.  Moving American public opinion in a less one-sided direction can therefore be more than usually helpful.

But the fact remains: BDS and movements like it can only do so much.  Only Palestinians can make the situation for Palestinians more just.

Should they succeed, their efforts may indeed lead to regime change in Israel.  But nothing that they or anyone else will or can do will delegitimate the Israeli state.

This may seem like a distinction without a difference, but it is not.

Neoconservatives and liberal interventionists have made “regime change” a euphemism for imperialist maneuvering.  They, and the political leaders who follow their lead, have besmirched the concept.

But when justice requires that basic institutional arrangements be replaced, there is no better way to describe what must be done.  The time is past due to take “regime change” back.

Is regime change required for justice to prevail throughout what was formerly Mandate Palestine?  There is no consensus on this as yet — not even in solidarity movements like BDS.

But the possibility cannot be excluded  – the status quo is too awful for radical solutions to be proscribed out of hand.

Yet obfuscating that prospect, the better to derail it, is the point of talking about “delegitimation.”

That the idea does not strictly apply hardly matters.  Obfuscation can be as effective a way to stifle serious debate as outright suppression.

In this case, the sensitivities of the principals make frank and honest discussion of the moral and political issues involved especially difficult.  It hardly matters that these sensitivities are sometimes overwrought.

Indeed, obfuscation can be more than usually disabling in such circumstances.  As movements in solidarity with the Palestinian cause like BDS take shape in the United States and other Western countries, it is therefore urgent that the obfuscation be dispelled.

* * *

Political legitimacy used to be a philosophical matter only.   The issue is still a basic problem of philosophy.

Most of the others have been discussed from time immemorial– because they are inherently puzzling and because they elude solutions that everyone can accept.  They therefore seem to have a timeless aspect.  Free will is an example, or the existence of God or the nature of the good.

Authority relations too have existed in human societies since pre-historic times.  But their forms and limits have varied significantly and changed radically over time.

When authority relations are in transition or are otherwise in flux, there is considerable interest in justifying how some people can rightfully command others.  In less turbulent times, interest generally subsides.

However, fundamental institutional forms seldom change radically, even over long periods of time.  The puzzlements authority relations raise today are therefore much the same as those philosophers addressed at the dawn of the modern era.

They emerged in consequence of two epochal historical transformations underway in western Europe at that time: the dissolution of feudal societies based on relations of fealty and social solidarity, and the rise of the state form of political organization.

Thanks to the former, individuals and their interests, not God and His, became points of departure for thinking about how to justify basic institutional arrangements.  Thanks to the latter, the diffuse authority relations characteristic of traditional societies gave way to political forms that concentrate authority into a single institutional nexus, the state.

Nearly a century ago, Max Weber defined the state as an institutional form that holds and exercises a monopoly of the means of “legitimate” violence.

How can states, so conceived, be justified?   This is what the philosophical problem of political legitimacy is about.

The usual way to address it has been to argue for or assume some standard that, when satisfied, justifies the lawful exercise of coercive force by agents of the state and by no one else.

The standard can be demanding.  For example, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s (1712-1778) account of political legitimacy held that states compel compliance rightfully only if individuals, when commanded, somehow still obey only themselves.

Or it can be easily satisfied.  Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) thought it was enough just to be able to assure civil order.

On the former view, no actually existing state satisfies the ideal; on the latter, all existing states do.

Liberal political philosophers, from John Locke (1632-1704) through John Rawls (1921-2002), defended less extreme positions.  On the whole, though, they tended to agree more with Hobbes than Rousseau.  By their lights, existing states fall short in many respects, but their fundamental legitimacy is never seriously in doubt.

The arguments of these and other philosophers concerning political legitimacy are complex, subtle, and, on many dimensions, incompatible.  But, from the purview of them all, it is plain that the claim that Israel’s critics seek to delegitimate the Israeli state cannot be sustained – not if political legitimacy is understood in the way it traditionally has been.

However it has been a while since philosophers monopolized discussions of political legitimacy.  For the past century or so, philosophical approaches have coexisted with understandings that focus on causes, not reasons, and that draw on social science and psychology, not moral philosophy.

The existence of God is another venerable philosophical problem that can also be approached this other way: one can ask whether there are rationally compelling reasons to believe in God, or one can investigate why (some) people actually do (or do not) believe.

Of course, reasons can also be causes; someone who thinks there are reasons to believe in God might believe for those reasons.  However this is seldom, if ever, the case, and not just because rationally compelling reasons are, to put it kindly, unavailable.

Non- or extra-rational causes for believing in the legitimacy of authority relations are evidently harder to overcome than causes that dispose persons to believe in God.

Regardless of what, if anything, people think about philosophical accounts of political legitimacy, some people all of the time, and probably all people some of the time, believe – or act as if they believe — that existing authority relations are justified.

True anarchists (if any) apart, we are all more likely to obey orders issued by police than by civilians, and not just because we fear the repressive power of the state.

Accounting for such phenomena  — and, more generally, for real world political behavior – is the business of social scientists, not philosophers.

Those today who speak of the legitimacy of nations in ways that bear on international or world politics straddle this divide.  However, their approach accords more with the spirit of social science than philosophy.

It could be otherwise.  When state institutions first came into being, politics was mainly about coordinating individuals’ behaviors within geographically defined territories.  This was what generated the puzzlements to which philosophical theories of political legitimacy responded.

Even with those puzzlements unresolved, the state form of political organization was effectively assumed by the time state formation got underway in the more developed regions of Europe, the Americas, Australia and New Zealand.

It was even more plainly taken for granted in the twentieth century: with new states being born out of the old land-based empires of Eurasia after World War I, and then carved out of the overseas colonial empires of imperial Europe after World War II.

The old questions continue to be philosophically fruitful but their bearing on real world politics today is minimal at best.

Meanwhile, new rounds of state formation have raised new problems and new puzzlements that more directly touch on matters of current political concern.

These puzzlements seem vexing enough to motivate philosophical reflections as original and far-reaching as those that accompanied the rise of the nation state centuries ago.  But either they are not as susceptible to philosophical treatment or else thinkers up to the task never quite materialized.

Whatever the reason, philosophical investigations of political legitimacy remain focused on the problems that engaged philosophers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, while problems pertaining to new states and to the inter-state issues they raise fall mainly under the remit of political scientists and international lawyers.

The consensus view, therefore, has it that states are legitimate, when the international community, or some significant portion of it, says they are.

This is like saying that God exists if people believe in God.  This is hardly satisfactory from a philosophical point of view, but it is how matters stand.

Israel therefore became as legitimate as any state can be when other countries, the United States and the Soviet Union first off, accorded it diplomatic recognition.  Other states followed suit in short order, and Israel was welcomed into the United Nations.

There are still states, mainly in the Muslim world, that, to this day, refuse to recognize Israel.  Diplomatically, though in no other way, they are in denial — much as the United States was when it refused to recognize the People’s Republic of China until almost three decades after the Chinese Revolution.

Because Britain ruled Palestine under a Mandate inherited from the League of Nations, the U.N. General Assembly had to agree to its partition.  The actual agreement was soon superseded by events as Israel and the surrounding Arab states went to war, but U.N. approval, and the U.N.’s subsequent acceptance of the borders formed when hostilities ended, accord Israel as much international legitimacy as any state in the world.

To be sure, Israel’s four and a half decades long occupation of the portion of Mandate Palestine that it did not control after 1948 raises serious legal and political problems.  Its settlements and annexations in the Palestinian territories are especially problematic.

But while there is worldwide opposition to the continuing Occupation, no one proposes revoking Israel’s legitimacy on its account.  It is not even clear how, as a matter of law or practical politics, this could be done.

Of course, were Israel literally “wiped off the map” – by a nuclear weapon or in a war fought by conventional means – it would thereafter cease to exist.  Then it would not, indeed could not, exist legitimately because it would not exist at all.  But it would still not have been “delegitimated” — except indirectly or in a manner of speaking.

Such things never happen in the real world however, and it is inconceivable that Israel, a nuclear state armed to the teeth, will be the exception to the rule.

Legitimation happens; delegitimation does not.

Thus new states are typically created by secession from already existing states.  South Sudan is a recent example; it had been a part of Sudan.

When it broke away, the Sudanese state was not delegitimated according to any of the accepted meanings of the term.  Rather, it was made smaller because part of it had seceded, and because the breakaway part was accorded international recognition.

Something similar happened with the states that had been Soviet republics before the Soviet Union expired.  When it splintered into its component parts, the Soviet Union ceased to exist.   But it was not delegitimated – except again as a trivial consequence of ceasing to exist at all.  It met its end by dissolving itself.

There are worse ways for states to perish.  In theory at least, they can degenerate internally to such an extent that they are no longer able to establish order in the territories they nominally superintend.  Then they become failed states.

Genuinely failed states do not meet even Hobbes’s criterion for political legitimacy.  They are states that have, so to speak, delegitimated themselves.  This is the only way that is even remotely imaginable that anything that could count as delegitimation could cause an existing state to cease to exist.

But in the real world this has never happened completely or irremediably – not in Somalia, not in the so-called tribal areas of Afghanistan, not anywhere.  The chance that Israel, a well-functioning Herrenvolk democracy, will become the first example is nil.

The usual, and perhaps the only, way for states truly to disappear “off the map” is for their component parts to declare independence and reconstitute themselves as legitimate, independent states in their own right.  This, again, is what happened to the Soviet Union and to Yugoslavia.

The legitimacy of these expired states was never revoked.  What happened instead is just that new states won the international recognition that legitimacy implies.

Similarly, the American Revolution led to the legitimation of the United States of America, but not to the delegitimation of the colonial regimes that preceded it.  They underwent a profound transformation, a structural reorganization; but at no point was anything like delegitimation, in any plausible sense of the term, involved.

Likewise, the French Revolution and the revolutions that followed it did not delegitimate the nations in which they occurred; they replaced old regimes with new ones, which is something else altogether.

Denying or overlooking this distinction only serves to obscure the difference between changing things fundamentally for the better, and spiteful, irrational nihilism.

That is what Israel wants the world to think Iran is up with its non-existent bomb and what solidarity campaigns like BDS are about.

Solidarity movements often do side with forces promoting regime change.  This was certainly the case with the movements that lent support to anti-colonial struggles after World War II and to popular efforts to overthrow fascist or authoritarian (quasi-fascist) dictatorships in Spain, Greece, Chile, Portugal, Argentina and elsewhere.

In a different register, this was also the goal of émigré groups in Western countries that sided with ethnic or nationalist independence movements in Eastern Europe and in the former Soviet Union.

The South African anti-Apartheid struggle was about regime change too.

Because the forces fighting Apartheid had clearly defined objectives, the solidarity movements that supported it followed suit.

As remarked, this is not presently the case within the broad BDS movement.  Many of its supporters are more interested in changing policies than changing regimes.

There are some, however, who do envision a future state within Israel’s present borders or throughout all of Mandate Palestine that is very different from the Israel we know.

It might still be Hebrew-speaking and it would surely continue the distinctive cultural traditions that have become established under the present political arrangements.  But it would be a state of its citizens, not a confessional or ethnic state.

This would indeed amount to a change of regime; a Herrenvolk democracy would be transformed into a democracy tout court.

The change would be less far-reaching than the change in South Africa.  For Israeli Jews, very little need change at all.

But their state would then no longer be a Jewish state

Does this amount to an existential threat?  If so, the threat is benign.

What regime change threatens existentially is the Zionist idea or rather the predominant understanding of it – not the positive cultural achievements that have grown up under its aegis, and certainly not the physical existence of the peoples living in Israel today.

ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).