The Logic of Illlogic: Narrow Self-Interest Keeps Israel’s “Existential Threats” Alive

Israel thrives on “existential threats;” one could say that it survives on them.

But for existential threats, Israeli Jews would be at each other’s throats and “diaspora” money would stop flowing in. Existential threats also keep the United States and other countries that back Israel to the hilt from easing up on economic, diplomatic and military support.

Iran has long been Israel’s most serviceable existential threat. To hear the Israelis tell it, Iranians live to kill Jews, and want nothing more than to cast “the nation state of the Jewish people” into the sea. They want “the bomb” – to help them finish off the job.

The Israeli propaganda machine is emphatic: only dupes or anti-Semites would doubt for a moment that the international community’s first order of business should be to keep nuclear weapons out of Iranian hands.

They should also inflict so much pain upon that country that the Iranian people will send their Ayatollahs packing, replacing them with a biddable, Israel-friendly government.

“International community” is, of course, a euphemism for the United States and countries that tow its line. The Shah was the international community’s man in Tehran. If the Israelis could, they would raise him from the dead.

Ever since the Iranian Revolution ended his rule, Iranian governments have been railing against Israel, “the little Satan” — not because they hate Jews or love Palestinians, but because they want to be the region’s hegemon.

Inveighing against a colonial state in a post-colonial era — a settler state that oppresses the Arabs that remain on the territories European Jewish settlers ethnically cleansed — serves this purpose. It helps get what Western media call “the Arab street” on Iran’s side.

Iranians are mostly Shia Muslims; Palestinians are mostly Sunni Muslims or Christians. Nowadays, communities that identify in these ways are usually at odds.

But before Jimmy Carter and Zbigniew Brzezinski’s plan to stir up Islamist fanaticism to counter Soviet regional influence took hold, sectarian differences hardly mattered. The Iranians could reasonably expect to gain influence across the entire Middle East by taking a more-anti-Zionist-than-thou line. Anti-colonialism trumps all.

But talk was all it was; the Iranians would rant — and then keep on much as before. The alliance with Israel had benefited the Shah’s regime as much as it benefited the Israelis, and the Shah’s successors were no more eager than the Israelis to let that go.

The Israelis understood. For a decade, they took the verbal abuse, while their relations with Iran hardly changed.

When they turned Iran into the existential threat it has been since the nineties, the transformation had nothing to do with what the Iranian government was saying. Indeed, by the time the change occurred, Teheran’s anti-Zionist rhetoric had, if anything, toned down.

When Iran became Israel’s premier existential threat, it was because the geopolitical context had changed.

A goal of Israeli foreign policy, since even before the establishment of the state, had been to secure good relations with non-Arab countries located close by, but outside, the borders of the Arab world.

It hardly mattered that the allies Israel courted were historically or, in Iran’s case after 1979 fanatically, Muslim. It was Arabs, not Muslims generally, that the Zionist project most directly enraged. Correspondingly, from Israel’s point of view, the Arab world, not the Muslim world, was Enemy Number One.

It is different now, thanks to a decade and a half of Bush-Obama wars.

But, long before those perpetual wars got underway, Iran’s strategic importance to Israel had changed.

This happened when Bush the Father effectively took Iraq out of the picture – by defeating its army in Kuwait, and then installing a sanctions regime that would render the Iraqi military a pushover.

Bill Clinton and Madeleine Albright, his Secretary of State, turned the screws – visiting misery and death upon the Iraqi people; Bush the Son took advantage, for a while, of the “cakewalk” their sanctions made possible.

But it was not long after he proclaimed the “mission accomplished,” and all hell broke loose. More than a decade on, the consequences are still unfolding – and becoming worse by the day.

But, for Israel, having Americans in Iraq, as the country disintegrated, was a blessing. They no longer had to worry about the Iraqi army.

Bush and Cheney’s war of choice was also a blessing for Iran. This too worked to Israel’s advantage: as Iranian influence in Iraq expanded, the Israelis had an easier time making Iran seem menacing.

Egypt had been out of the equation since Camp David; and Jordan before that. Syria never posed more than a negligible military threat. The Syrians could, and periodically would, stir up trouble for Israel in Lebanon. But, for the most part, the Israelis and the Syrians had arrived at a modus vivendi that neither side wanted to upset.

And so, for many years, the IDF, the Israel Defense Forces, has had no Arab armies to contend with. All its attention could be focused on keeping Palestinians down.

As for Israel’s longstanding aim of surrounding the Arab world with Israel-friendly states, Israeli planners figured that they could make do with Turkey alone.

This worked out satisfactorily until Turkish politics changed, and until Benjamin Netanyahu got some Turkish citizens killed for trying to relieve Israel’s siege of Gaza.

Now, Turkey is a lost cause for Israeli strategists too.

But with Western, especially American, support, the Israelis don’t care. The state is secure against Arab armies, and all that Palestinians can do militarily is provide pretexts for periodic assaults on Gaza and for tightening the screws on the West Bank.

But the state of Israel is not home free – not while its occupation regime turns it into a pariah state in the eyes of the world.

This is why the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement has lately come almost to rival Iran in the existential threat department.

The BDS movement is a little more than a decade old. For most of the time since it was called into being by leading figures and organizations within Palestinian civil society, the Israelis ignored it. When that became impossible, it derided it as an inconsequential fantasy of deluded leftists.

However, to Israel’s dismay, the movement keeps growing.   It is becoming a force to be reckoned with – in Europe especially.

Since the EU is where most Israeli agricultural products end up, and since many Israeli firms do business there, this was one existential threat that might actually do Israel harm.

Worse still, from Israel’s point of view, the movement is beginning to make inroads in the United States and throughout the Anglophone world.

Mainstream media have been doing their best to help the Israeli propaganda system by keeping the issue out of public awareness, and, when necessary, by misinforming the public about it – depicting it as a concoction of anti-Semites and self-hating Jews. BDS is on the rise nevertheless.

Progressive university students are coming on board along with liberal Protestant churches; so are activists from the African American and Latino communities.   Black lives, brown lives, and Palestinian lives – they all matter, in much the same way. The similarities are so obvious that they could hardly fail to register.

Therefore Israel and its lobby set its sights on BDS. Iran is still Number One on Israel’s Enemies List, but BDS militants are close behind.

Iran, the Israelis say, wants to destroy Israel physically; BDS proponents want to do something nearly as bad from Israel’s point of view – they want to “delegitimize” it.

There is some truth to this — and much hokum.

There is no evidence that Iran has in any way violated the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty — to which it, unlike Israel, is a party. And neither are there sound reasons to think that Iran harbors murderous designs against the Israeli people, much less against Jews generally.

There is not even good reason to think that the BDS movement threatens the legitimacy of the Israeli state, though it could come to that if Israel continues to violate the demands of international law and elementary moral decency.

Within the BDS movement, there are divisions over whether to boycott and divest from only those firms that do business in the Occupied territories, or to take aim at Israel itself.

The European institutions and the multi-national corporations that have so far acceded, however feebly, to BDS pressures are only interested in targeting the Occupation. This does pose an existential threat to a certain vision of Israel, but not – at least not yet — to Israel itself.

* * *

It should not be necessary here to go back over the case for normalizing relations with Iran or for supporting BDS. The arguments have been made many times before.

The more interesting question is why legislators and politicians in North America, Europe and around the world remain unmoved by their logic, even as more and more of their constituents are catching on.

No doubt, corruption, stupidity and ideological blindness factor in. But there is also a logic behind their refusal to go where rationally and morally compelling arguments lead.

Indeed, there are multiple logics depending on institutional considerations, which differ from place to place, and on contingent and ever-changing circumstances.

Nevertheless, some general observations do at least partly explain the phenomenon.

Thanks to the EU’s negligible level of political integration and the supremacy of regional and global financial institutions, sovereignty is challenged, in varying degrees, in every EU member state. Limited sovereignty makes for limited democracy.

We Americans have a different problem.   Our national sovereignty is intact, but our political institutions, at the national level especially, are exceptionally undemocratic.

With an Electoral College choosing the President; with two and only two Senators for each state, regardless of its size; and with increasingly many Congressional districts rendered uncompetitive thanks to politically engineered gerrymandering, our “free and fair” competitive elections make a mockery of core democratic values.

In our democracy, the people, the demos, hardly rule; and equality of political influence is a sham ideal.

Add on our semi-established duopoly party system, and our preposterous campaign finance laws – governed by legal doctrines that effectively identify all but the most egregious forms of political corruption as Constitutionally protected free speech — and it is a wonder that we Americans still claim to have a democracy at all.

For all their problems, most EU countries stray less far from democratic ideals than we do.

It is odd, therefore, that, while public support for normalizing relations with Iran and for BDS is broader and deeper in Europe than in the United States, there is more official opposition there than here, especially to BDS.

“Socialist” France is the worst; BDS activism there is punishable by law. With its center-left Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, just back from Jerusalem where he declared the BDS movement “stupid and futile,” Italy is not much better. Most shocking of all is the decision of Greece’s Syriza government to conduct joint military exercises with the IDF.

In each case, the reasons are different. For obvious historical reasons, Germany is wary of faulting a state that claim to represent world Jewry. In France, guilt over French collaboration with Germany during World War II is probably still a factor; so is a particular kind of Islamophobia that underwrites support for Israel — not exactly on philo-Semitic grounds, though the French are not beyond praising themselves for that, but on the principle that my enemy’s enemy is my friend.

For Italy and Greece, rising numbers of refugees and asylum seekers, along with other eastern Mediterranean security issues, are involved. Now that Turkey’s role in the region is changing – not for the better, in the eyes of those who identify with “the West” — security issues have taken on a new importance.

But in all cases, at least to some degree, there is a desire to stay on the good side of the American Congress, which they all believe is full of Republicans and Democrats who, when push comes to shove, will do whatever the government of Israel wants. To Congress’ shame, this belief is justified and true.

Everybody also knows that “the institutions” that promote austerity politics throughout Europe, not only in Greece and other southern European countries but everywhere, are susceptible to American influence – through the International Monetary Fund most directly, but also through the ostensibly independent European Commission and European Central Bank.

In these circumstances, prudence requires bending over backwards to stay on Israel’s and therefore America’s good side.

The crux of the problem therefore lies on Capitol Hill.

The White House is subservient to the Israel lobby too, though, from time to time, it does put America’s interests first. The best Presidents for that, since Eisenhower put the kibosh on the Suez War six decades ago, were the first Bush and now, surprisingly, Barack Obama.

The Israel lobby’s stranglehold over Congress is partly a consequence of the money it deploys and its organizational and political skills. Even so, at this point, Congress’s servility is itself difficult to fathom. Senators and Representatives who dare not defy the lobby’s demands are living in the past.

In the end, though, they have to be elected; therefore, they cannot defy their constituents’ wishes too blatantly or for very long. Why, then, do they remain so thoroughly in Israel’s pocket when their constituents are already far ahead of them, and when it is all but certain that, in the near future, they will be farther ahead of them still?

It is an odd situation, but, in fact, it is not as anomalous as it seems. Except in rare instances, when, urged on by media attention, some issue suddenly captures the public imagination, representatives routinely ignore their constituents’ wishes.

They almost always get away with it too – so often and so conspicuously that it is fair to complain about a “democracy deficit” afflicting all the world’s so-called democracies.

Voters’ instincts are usually sound, but instincts can only work on the information at hand. The United States is an extreme case, but, in other self-described democracies too, most of the people most of the time are radically ill informed.

For this, Israel’s existential threat mongers have more than just mind-numbing, rightwing news outlets like Fox to thank. In the United States, the entire corporate media establishment has been vilifying Iran and sugarcoating Israeli violations of legal and moral norms for decades. They are at it right now; full steam ahead.

* * *

Nevertheless, polling data shows that support for the Iran deal is broad. Unfortunately, though, it is also shallow. It is the same with opposition to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and to ethnocratic rule within Israel itself.

Even racists have a hard time these days supporting Apartheid-like institutions. Flagrant violations of democratic ideals of political equality fare no better. Israel’s ostensibly democratic institutions relegate its Palestinian citizens, some two-fifths of the country’s population, to second-class status. If more people knew about this and reflected on its implications, they would surely find it abhorrent.

But most people don’t know; our media are too effective at manufacturing ignorance.

In view of all the forces at work promoting idea that Israel is “the only democracy in the Middle East,” and, more astonishing still, that the IDF is “the most moral army in the world,” it is amazing that there is any opposition at all.

But when even sizeable majorities who don’t care all that much about some issue go up against smaller but well-organized, well-funded interest groups that care a great deal, the smaller groups usually win. Holders of contrary opinions cannot compete until they too become organized, focused and militant — and overwhelmingly numerous.

Times are changing, however; at least where Israel is concerned. Before long, if present trends continue, even Congress will be free from the Israel lobby’s grip. But not yet; at this point, even the boldest and most courageous members of the House or Senate risk a lot by doing the right thing.

However, when one or more do, others, seeing that the lobby can be defied, that the Emperor has no clothes, will follow.

But, until that day comes, Senators and Representatives quite reasonably figure that, so far as their own interests go, there is no percentage in doing what reason and morality require.

The reasoning behind the positions they uphold is indefensible; and it is likely that at least a few of them realize this. Still, even for those who do, it makes sense to stay on course.

It is, as it were, the logical thing to do.

It doesn’t help that Obama and John Kerry and others who speak for the Obama administration seem basically to agree with opponents of the deal they struck with Iran.

On BDS, of course, there is no debate in official circles at all; Obama and those who would fight him tooth and nail on practically everything else are in perfect accord on that. If the Israel lobby deemed it expedient, Obama would probably be just as adamant – and ridiculous – as his French and Italian counterparts have lately been.

But even on the nuclear deal that they negotiated, Obama and Kerry and the rest agree with the objectives of the other side; or at least they say they do. They insist that Iran must never, under any circumstances, have a bomb of its own.

The disagreement in official Washington is only about the best way to assure that they do not; to see that that which must never happen never does happen.

Thus, from the White House side, there has been silence about the abundance of evidence that belies the idea that Iran has, or ever had, nuclear ambitions. And the very idea that it might not be such a bad thing, after, all, if Iran had a bomb – to deter nuclear Israel from doing whatever it wants to its neighbors and to Palestinians — is never even broached.

Proponents of the Iran deal, and of BDS, have by far the better arguments. But this hardly matters; rational self-interest trumps better arguments every time. This will not change until circumstances change — in ways that put self-interest more in line with what reason and morality require.

This is where Obama’s tendency to retreat from the fray once he has announced a policy or made a speech can have especially dire effects.

At a time when AIPAC is deluging the airwaves with propaganda pitched at a level that must embarrass even minimally thoughtful Israel-firsters, he needs to use that bully pulpit that is a perquisite of the office he holds for all that it is worth.

On the Iran deal, he has the better arguments on his side, and unorganized public opinion too; if he has the backbone to lead, he can prevail — yes, he can.

And, even with the entire political class and corporate media mobilized against BDS, BDS proponents can prevail too. The Israelis themselves will see to it. Acting as egregiously as they do, the days when they can keep “the arc of the moral universe” at bay are coming to an end.

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).