Israel thrives on what it calls “existential threats,” fabricated perils that are just plausible enough to be believed.
As social divisions mount, they help hold Israeli society together. They also keep “diaspora” Jews on board.
And they keep Western, especially American, diplomatic, military and economic support coming.
This is crucial now that Western publics are beginning to realize that untrammeled support for a European colonial project, an ethnocratic settler state, in the heart of the Middle East is problematic – not only for moral reasons, but for reasons of national interest as well.
Serviceable existential threats are hard to find. So far, however, Israel has made due.
But times change. Before long, it may actually face a real one, an existential threat worthy of the name. The irony is palpable.
If and when this happens, it will be an object lesson: be careful what you wish for.
* * *
It was easier when the entire Arab world was nominally – though never really – at war with Israel. This hasn’t been the case for decades.
After the 1973 Yom Kippur War, leaders throughout the region began to concoct a more secure modus vivendi than had previously existed. With American help, they made decisive progress.
After the 1978 Camp David Accords and the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty signed the following year, the most threatening of the Arab armies, Egypt’s, could no longer be construed as a threat. This was the good news.
The bad news – for Israel — was the same: an existential threat had gone missing.
Jordan and Israel didn’t actually sign a peace treaty until 1994, but the Hashemite Kingdom had been collaborating with Zionists since even before the state of Israel was established. Lebanon was never much of a problem for Israel either.
There was still Syria, of course; and far off Iraq. But, despite the sense of insecurity to which Israeli and diaspora Jews are prone, and despite the best efforts of the Zionist propaganda machine, it became increasingly difficult to maintain that Israel’s neighbors threatened Israel’s existence – except in their dreams.
Militarily, Palestinians were even less up to snuff; there has never been much they could do that the Israeli juggernaut could not easily withstand.
Nor is there much they can do diplomatically to challenge the Occupation regime under which they suffer; not with the United States backing Israel a thousand percent.
Palestinian resistance – in Israel, they call it “terrorism” — can be a nuisance. It can also be a pretext. But there is no way to sell it as a threat to the state itself.
Palestinian birthrates are another matter. Zionists worry that they are too high, and that Jewish birthrates are too low. Jewish Israelis, secular ones especially, also have high emigration rates.
Members of Israel’s several large and growing extreme Orthodox sects do heed the commandment to “be fruitful and multiply.” But for many – still, probably, most – Jewish Israelis, this is small consolation. Even those who welcome the addition of any and all Chosen people, no matter how benighted, still have cause for concern: the godly folk living in the Promised Land are not nearly fruitful enough.
And so, despite relentless ethnic cleansing and despite aggressive efforts to attract Jewish immigrants from countries where there are no Israel lobbies that could be helpful to the Israeli state, Palestinians “threaten” to outnumber Jewish Israelis throughout Mandate Palestine and, conceivably some day, even within Israel’s internationally recognized borders.
It is instructive to reflect on the kind of threat this is. I’ll return to this question presently.
Since neighboring Arab states no longer pass muster, and since the kind of existential threat Israelis say Palestinians pose doesn’t do much to keep external support flowing in, the next move was all but inevitable: turn Iran into “existential threat” Number One.
Under the Shah, Iran had been Israel’s best friend in the region. This changed after the 1979 Revolution, though not nearly as quickly as is widely assumed. Old habits die hard.
In time, though, thanks to Iran’s unwitting cooperation, the strategy worked. To the relief of Zionists everywhere, Israel had an existential threat adequate for its needs.
The Iranian nuclear program was icing on the cake. It was a godsend. So was Iran’s former President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He could even be cast – not quite correctly, but convincingly enough – as a Holocaust denier.
Too bad for Israel that what the Lord giveth, the Lord doth also take away. Unlike Ahmadinejad, Iran’s new President, Hassan Rouhani, is eminently reasonable in both senses of the term: his views, insofar as they bear on world politics, are well-grounded and evidence-based; and he is disposed to cooperate, even with the United States, for mutual advantage.
This is good news everywhere outside official Tel Aviv.
With the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement on the rise, and with the entire region in turmoil, Israel needs an existential threat now more than ever.
But it is losing the best one it has had since its salad days, when Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser and his confederates were always at the ready.
Poor Benjamin Netanyahu – first Eric Cantor, and now this.
* * *
I have not been able to track down when “existential threat” first entered the political lexicon. I am fairly sure, though, that it was not long ago, and I suspect that Israeli propagandists had a lot to do with it.
They may even have concocted the expression. They had been deploying the concept for decades; why not also name it? With a name, it would be more useful.
The downside, though, is that naming the concept also exposes its problematic nature – by calling attention to the gap between what the words say and the reality that Israeli propagandists use them to describe. Fortunately for the propagandists, hardly anyone notices.
When the words are taken literally, as is plainly the intention, then to say that there is an existential threat is to assert that the existence of something is in jeopardy. What might that something be?
In principle, it could be anything that could fail to exist. In practice, the expression is used more restrictively.
In view of how the expression is used, one might almost think that it applies only to Israel — or only to the kinds of things that concern Israel’s defenders.
Of course, one it was out there, it was inevitable that it would spill over into a broader universe of discourse. Remarkably, it has not spilled far.
For instance, no one says that people dealing with fatal diseases face existential threats, though they literally are. Similarly, species face extinction, not existential threats; and it would be odd, to say the least, to use the expression in reference to buildings or neighborhoods about to be demolished.
It is noteworthy too that people seldom use the expression even in reference to countries, especially countries far from the Near East. When they do, it is almost always “regimes,” not countries, that are said to confront existential threats. Israel is the one salient exception.
Thus the demonstrations in 2011 in Tahrir Square and elsewhere throughout Egypt were said to pose an existential threat to “the Mubarak regime,” not to Egypt itself. It was the same with the demonstrations that led to the coup against the elected government of Mohamed Morsi in 2013.
The expression is sometimes also applied to institutions and organizations. This usage is revealing.
It can be said, for example, that public sector unions in the United States face an existential threat from legislation proposed by right-wing financiers, pro-business foundations and opportunistic politicians. But this is only a colorful way of saying that these forces are leading a charge aimed at weakening or destroying public sector unions.
Merely adding dramatic flair, which is all the expression does, can be rhetorically – and therefore politically — useful. Nevertheless, the expression is seldom used in contexts where it might actually do good. It is still too linked to its origins for that.
This is why it sounds odd to say, for example, that the world faces an existential threat from nuclear war or from nuclear accidents, though this is literally true, and the danger is certainly grave enough to merit emphasis by any and all means.
In a similar vein, capitalist firms court ecological disasters that threaten a vast array of living things with annihilation. But, again, the expression is seldom used to refer to impending catastrophes of this kind.
More in line with current uses, one could honestly say that political projects that are genocidal in nature pose existential threats to targeted populations.
For example, it would have been appropriate to maintain that the rise of Nazism and cognate political movements in Europe before and during World War II posed an existential threat to European Jewry. Saying that then might have done some good.
Similarly, it would be fair to say – both factually and rhetorically — that European settlers in the Americas posed existential threats both to indigenous peoples and to their cultures.
The expression could also be used appropriately to describe aspects of the Atlantic slave trade, to cite just one more obvious example.
But “existential threat” is seldom used in salutary ways.
Instead, a smooth talker with an American accent, and a state sponsored hasbara (public diplomacy/propaganda) campaign led by deceivers skilled in the dark arts of public relations, popularized the concept and the term.
One result is that words that could be helpful, when used without meretricious intent, are now tainted, perhaps irreversibly so.
* * *
The idea that Israeli Jews today – or the Hebrew culture of modern Israel — face a threat that rises to a level that could properly be called “existential” is more than just far-fetched.
To be sure, were the state of Israel to put its own legitimacy in jeopardy domestically or internationally – say, by overreaching egregiously – the regime it superintends might find itself facing a bona fide existential threat.
Then, in that sense, so would Israel itself – but only insofar as “Israel” is understood to designate the ethnocratic regime in place there.
When Communism imploded and the Soviet Union became undone, Russia underwent a very radical transformation. But the country survived along with its people and its culture because, however closely connected they had been, the regime, Communism, and the country, its people, and its culture were not one and the same.
It would be the same for Israel if, like all states based on Enlightenment principles – and from traditions established during the French and American Revolutions — it became a state of its citizens, regardless of their religious or ethnic identities.
This is not likely to happen in the foreseeable future because, at this point, too few Jewish Israelis are willing to give up on the idea of a Jewish state – and they hold a strong enough hand to guarantee that they will get their way. A “two state solution” is more feasible. Though less satisfactory, it probably is the only way forward, at the present time, to advance justice and peace.
But even were the more radical solution on the agenda – in other words, even if the regime in place now in Israel really did face an existential threat – the Jewish citizens of Israel would be facing nothing of the sort.
Blowback from Israeli depredations in the Occupied Territories puts individual Israelis at risk; changing the regime responsible for blowback would not.
It is the same with the all but inexorable, “demographic bomb.” Palestinian majorities in mandate Palestine – or even behind the so-called Green Line – do not put the lives or fortunes of Jewish Israelis at risk, much less in mortal danger. And neither would they spell the end of the Hebrew culture Zionism brought to life.
All that is safe, as long as the world itself does not become unhinged.
This was a sure thing back when Israel and its existential threats were running true to course. But circumstances sometimes change – abruptly and without warning.
* * *
The problem is not that Israel’s luck in finding existential threats is running out. It is the opposite; instead of no luck at all, Israel now seems to have too much.
Events are now unfolding, so it is too soon to be sure; but it appears that Israel may soon find that it has a genuine existential threat on its hands.
It would be the first time. And it does not bode well – not for Israel, not for the region, and not for the world.
Indeed, the existential threat facing Israel is not even directed at it. The threat to Israel is just one of many possible by-products of a far broader peril that could indeed unhinge our world.
For this, as for so much else, Israel, and all the other affected parties, has America – or rather the ill-led national security state America has become — to thank.
When Barack Obama won in 2008, there was a chance that the worst excesses of the Bush-Cheney era would finally be ended. Instead, we have just gotten more of the same, and worse.
Even the old malefactors are still at it. Some six years into the Age of Obama, they are finally recovering their stride.
Witness, for example, the unreconstructed neoconservatives who are still around causing trouble. Our media give them a platform, and so they keep at it. Remarkably, members of the Bush and Cheney families – reprobates all – are still at it too, and still drawing media attention.
But, by now, everyone else who gives the matter a moment’s thought realizes that starting the Iraq War was a colossal mistake.
Almost every decision the United States made in waging it was wrong-headed too; and it only got worse when the Obama administration took up where its predecessor left off.
In time, Obama did wind down overt combat operations; after seven years, there was little point in keeping them going.
But, by outsourcing most of the killing, his administration only continued the war and occupation in a different, less conspicuous, guise.
The ploy worked for a while because the United States was able to buy off most (evidently, not all) opposition, and because Obama kept the Iraqi government afloat with American taxpayers’ dollars.
And, on the home front, Obama was able to fool most of the people most of the time because, as per usual, the media didn’t do its job. Having been notoriously gung-ho since even before the Iraq War began, the media lost interest as soon as the murder and mayhem began to subside.
Because they couldn’t just ignore what was going on, they therefore took the lazy way out: repeating what the State and Defense Departments told them.
But now, thanks mainly to American ineptitude, the situation on the ground is changing. Suddenly, the occupation structure America contrived over the past decade is crumbling – along with the Iraqi regime itself. Sunni jihadists are on the march, and Shia militias are reconstituting. Civil war is brewing. Arguably, it has already begun.
How ironic that what the Americans put in place is now being replaced by what George Bush and Dick Cheney told the world the U.S. invaded Iraq to prevent: the establishment of a terrorist safe haven in the heartland of the Middle East!
Iraq is not the only country in peril. The Syrian civil war has already spilled over to its neighbor, and vice versa – putting the regional state system established after World War I in jeopardy.
For all this and more, American bungling is largely at fault. Bush and Cheney hadn’t a clue what they were getting into and neither they nor their successor were any better prepared to deal with the situation their machinations had conjured into being.
The question now is how to keep the instability they created in bounds.
Will it spill over into the entire region – into Lebanon, for example? Will it destabilize Jordan? Egypt is already deeply in turmoil. What will be the effect on it?
The one sure thing is that Israel will finally be facing a genuine existential threat.
Even if the threat can be confined just to its Syrian border, that will be more than enough; an out of control regional war waged by bitterly opposed parties who agree only on their hostility to the Israeli state comes as close as one can imagine to putting the seemingly impregnable security Israel provides its Jewish citizens in peril.
Benjamin Netanyahu has been crying wolf for so long that it has become his nature. Now he is about to get what he has been bleating about; and neither he, nor those who think like him, are going to like it one bit.
The consequences of the Bush-Obama Iraq War are coming due. One of those consequences – not the most dire, but certainly the most ironic – is that Israeli panic mongering will soon be overcome by events, putting Israel itself at more risk than it has ever been.
Be careful what you wish for – indeed!
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).