The New “Existential Threat”

Unless the Obama administration succeeds in making Mahmoud Abbas an offer he can’t refuse – or even if it does, but events spin out of control – the UN General Assembly will soon vote to accord UN membership to a soon-to-be-declared state of Palestine.  Because the US, and probably also Britain and France, will veto the measure in the Security Council, what happens in the General Assembly will be largely symbolic – a gesture through which the majority of the worlds’ people, including many in the West, express solidarity with the Palestinian national movement.  Wh the US backing Israel to the hilt, Palestine will still be far from becoming a full-fledged state.

Nevertheless, what happens in the UN could be a game changer.   In conjunction with the rise of democratic movements throughout the region, the collapse of Israel’s alliances with Turkey and Egypt, the growth of the boycott-divestment-sanctions movement in the West, and the emergence, in Israel itself, of its own version of the Arab spring, there is a sense abroad, and in Israel, that the times they are a changin’ – and not in ways likely to comfort friends of the status quo.

Therefore expect a fresh wave of hysteria and, along with it, a spate of declarations about how Israel confronts an “existential threat.”

That expression entered the political lexicon only recently, thanks mainly to Israeli “public diplomacy.”  It sounds portentous, but all it means literally is that someone’s or something’s existence is in jeopardy.  If so, the world is full of existential threats.  But the expression is seldom used except in reference to Israel, and its actual deployment has very little to do with whether the threat is serious or even real.

This is the sense in which Iran’s still aspirational nuclear weapons program or Iran itself are existential threats, along with Palestinian “terrorism.”   An existential threat makes an excellent casus belli, a justification for war.

It can at least be argued, however fatuously, that there is a need for Israel to defend itself against violence perpetrated by a “rogue state” or terrorists bent on its destruction.  But it is hard for anyone, especially apologists for Israel, to make a similar case for the existential threat that lies immediately ahead.  It is, after all, one of the United Nations’ long established roles under international law to confer legitimacy upon fledgling states, and it was upon just such a vote as the one that will welcome Palestine into the community of nations that the nascent state of Israel relied to secure its own legitimacy sixty-three years ago.

What is likely to happen in the General Assembly will trouble defenders of the status quo and embarrass Israeli government officials, persons not easily given to embarrassment.  It is also sure to ratchet up Palestinian resistance to the Israeli occupation.  A third Intifada could erupt.  Needless to say, the Israeli juggernaut is more than adequate to defend against any conceivable military challenge emanating from Palestinian quarters.  But it will take some doing, on Israel’s part (and on the part of Palestinian factions that function unintentionally, but objectively, as Israel’s partners in keeping the status quo in place) for the struggle ahead to take a military turn.  What the Israeli government and its friends fear is that, this time around, a new uprising will carry enough moral weight to influence public opinion to such an extent that Europe will be lost and that even America’s blank check will be at least partially withdrawn.

If so, defenders of the status quo are right to be concerned – for the status quo.  But does this constitute an existential threat?   It is hard to say because it has never been clear what is supposed to be threatened by the existential threats Israel purports to confront: is it its existence as a state not of its citizens, but of the Jewish people?  Is it the physical existence of the inhabitants of that state?  Those who promote the expression relish its ambiguity.  It serves their purpose well.

In reality, of course, there is nothing in the offing that rises to the level of an existential threat in any plausible sense of the term.  There never has been.

Up to this point, the conventional wisdom was that the main existential threat facing Israel comes from the Iranian nuclear program.  But this is plainly nonsense.   Even were Iran to succeed in building a nuclear device – an unlikely prospect in the short term, since, according to all available evidence, they are trying only to build the capacity, not the weapon itself – they would have to be suicidal to use nuclear weapons for any purpose other than deterrence.   Israel, after all, is among the most bellicose states in the world; and in addition to being otherwise armed to the teeth, it has more than two hundred of its own “deterrents” at the ready.  Does anyone think that, if threatened, Israel’s leaders would be sane enough not to use them?

It is well to keep this in mind as Israel seeks permission from its American protector to attack Iran.  Everyone who is not a neocon, and especially everyone in the military, knows full well that an Israel-Iran war would harm American interests; it would be so detrimental that it is hard to see how even a subservient Congress and administration would permit it.  This is why Israeli hawks are by now finding it pointless to depict Iran as an existential threat; why, for the most part, they have moved on.

The Palestine question is more complicated – and the fact that, in this case, the United States is sure to do all that it can to see that Israel’s government gets its way is part of the reason.   From a moral point of view, the American position is reprehensible.  It is also self-defeating because it makes a “two state solution,” indispensable if there is to be any enduring Jewish state at all, all but impossible to achieve.  What Israelis call “the demographic bomb” will see to that; given differential birthrates, there is no way that a Jewish majority can be maintained throughout all of mandate Palestine.  Many Israelis know this.  But they are nowadays as politically impotent in their own country as the Democratic “base” is in ours.

The general contours of a negotiated settlement, acceptable to all who believe in a two state solution, have been clear for decades.  The details were spelled out at Taba in January 2001 during the final days of the Clinton administration.   In the ensuing years, Israel has created more “facts on the ground” and, thanks in part to Israeli and American connivance, the Palestinian Authority has been severely weakened.  But it would not require Solomonic wisdom to bring Taba up to date.  Even Hillary Clinton could do it.

However, it will take a real game changer for anything like that to happen.  Because Israel holds almost all the cards while the Palestinian Authority holds almost none, the way forward – so long as the United States remains useless – is to change the legal parameters under which the Palestinian movement operates.   As matters now stand, it is clear that Israel won’t agree to live alongside a viable Palestinian state; officially autonomous Bantustans are as far as it will go.  This is so not just because many Israelis harbor hopes for a Greater Israel or because the Israeli political class is effectively owned by a religiously driven settler movement.  The more important reason is that if there were a just peace, Israel’s reason for being a state of the Jewish people, and therefore its hold over “diaspora” Jews and even over its own population, would diminish, not abruptly but inexorably.

Leaders of the Israeli political and military establishment understand this.   It is why they conjure up existential threats and why, regardless what they say, they have repeatedly drawn back from making peace with the Palestinians.  And it is why they fear what the General Assembly of the United Nations is about to do.

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The animating principle of the Zionist movement from the 1890s on has been that Jews need a state to serve as a refuge in a world in which anti-Semitism is a force of nature.  That thought never gained traction before the Nazis took power in Germany, and even then it was resisted by secular Jews committed to universalist ideologies and also, for theological and philosophical reasons, by Orthodox and Reform Jews.  In time, universalist ideologies faded and Zionism hijacked Judaism.  Meanwhile, as Jewish assimilation has proceeded at full throttle in the United States and other Western countries, and with anti-Semitism no longer much of a concern, Israeli nationalism has all but monopolized Jewish identity politics in the West.

Because Judaism, shorn of the Zionist shell that has been imposed upon it, is a non-starter for most Jews today, and because inter-marriage is so prevalent, it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain a sense of Jewish identity on religious or ethnic grounds.  That leaves only Israel.  And as Israeli society sheds its historical ties to secularism and socialism, Israel has become hard to love or even to admire.  No wonder that so few diaspora Jews would even think of living there or that so many Israelis live abroad.

There is, of course, still the memory of the Nazi Judeocide, and Zionists exploit it for all it is worth.  But as time passes, that memory becomes less serviceable; and not all the Holocaust museums in the world can maintain its efficacy.  The Zionist movement succeeded in appropriating moral capital from the devastation Nazi Germany wreaked upon European Jewry, but it has spent that capital recklessly, and there is not much of it left.

Enter existential threats.  When they do not exist, as is the case with the ones Israel’s leaders invoke, they need to be invented or at least blown up out of all proportion.  This is what we are about to witness again.

No doubt, Obama would like to engineer a “two state solution.”   But the plain fact is that he can’t deliver – because he can’t or won’t take on the government of Israel and the Israel lobby in the United States.  Along with so many of the worlds’ peoples, Palestinians – and Israelis too – are now paying the price, just as we Americans are, for our president’s inability to govern, much less to lead.

With uncanny foresight, Benjamin Netanyahu took Obama’s measure early on, when even the Republican leadership was still groping its way.  And he evidently takes pleasure in demonstrating, time and again, that, on matters pertaining to Israel and Palestine, the Commander-in-Chief of the world’s only super-power is as resolute as a jellyfish.   With very different implications, the world has finally come to see what Netanyahu long ago realized, and it looks like, before long, it will make itself heard.

Assuming Obama can’t stop the General Assembly vote, what will happen next is unclear.  Always a genuine existential threat to the Palestinian people, Israel could exact  severe costs if it perceives itself threatened, and Palestinians can be sure that if a “humanitarian intervention” is then launched, it will be directed, as always, against those who challenge American rule.

But now is as good a time as any to seek to alter the rules that govern an increasingly intolerable status quo in Israel-Palestine relations; and, as they say, “nothing ventured, nothing gained.”  Israeli intransigence will surely prevail for a while longer but, in the face of an outraged world, it cannot prevail indefinitely, even with American support.  Meanwhile, it is up to Americans, American Jews especially, to do all we can to mitigate that support – not just in solidarity with the victims of our country’s nefarious influence and meddling, but also, in Thomas Jefferson’s words, out of “decent respect…[for] the opinions of mankind.”

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. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.

ANDREW LEVINE is 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).