The Elephant in the Room

27 May 2011


What we don’t talk about

when we talk about Israel

I was surprised by a couple of blunt stories in the media about Netanyahu’s enthusiastically received speech to Congress. The BBC‘s Jeremy Bown wrote Netanyahu chooses to make things worse with Capitol Hill speech, while Foreign Policy had Blinded by the Right by Michael A. Cohen. However, probably in quest of “balance,” Foreign Policy has also published the much longer (7 page as compared to Cohen’s 2 page) piece The Ultimate Ally, by Michael Oren, who unsurprisingly happens to be Israel’s ambassador to the US. As I write this, the Cohen article has 1,060 “likes” and the Oren article has 3,802 “likes,” so almost a four-to-one spread between internet users who cared enough to register their view on the matter.

Both Cohen and Bowen suggest that regional changes — by which they mean the “Arab Spring” — require a fresh perspective, and that uncritical US support of Israel is doing harm to US interests in the region. Oren predictably takes a different view, and although Oren too invokes the recent “upheaval’ in the region (a strategically neutral term), Oren is clearly as mired in a past paradigm as is Netanyahu. Oren writes:

“That kind of popular foundation for the Israeli-American alliance is all the more important at a time of great upheaval in the Middle East. As Iran’s malign influence spreads and Turkey turns away from the West, Israel’s strategic value in the region, both to the United States and to pro-Western Arab governments, will surely increase. Following Hezbollah’s recent takeover of Lebanon and the political turmoil in Egypt, Jordan, and the Persian Gulf, Israel is the only Middle Eastern country that is certain to remain stable and unequivocally pro-American. In Israel alone, the United States will not have to choose between upholding its democratic principles and pursuing its vital interests.”

It is important to understand here that “pro-Western Arab governments” is code for the kind of regimes that have collapsed in Tunisia and Egypt, and which are under threat throughout the region. It used to be said of the Palestinians that they never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity, and it certainly is clear that the Palestinians have engaged in some spectacular self-sabotage over the years, but now the shoe seems to be on the other foot and the Israelis are positioning themselves so as to never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

Cohen’s piece in Foreign Policy comes close to discussing delicate matters that, partly from embarrassment and partly from incredulity, are rarely discussed in an explicit way in public:

Although one cannot ignore the fact that strongly held empathy for Israel is, in part, motivating this position, there is of course a healthy dose of domestic politicking at work. Democrats have long relied on Jewish support — both electorally and financially. Republicans, though less reliant on Jewish voters, have successfully made support for Israel a litmus test for Democrats to prove their national security mettle. Moreover, with strong backing for Israel among the party’s conservative base, defending Israeli behavior has become a surefire way for Republicans to politically cater to social conservatives and evangelical voters. In fact, Israel probably enjoys more clear-cut support for its policies among social conservatives than it does among American Jews! (And Netanyahu, in particular, didn’t just fall into this love fest: He has long supported and helped spearhead the alliance between the Israeli right wing and American religious conservatives.)

The “strongly held empathy” and the “healthy dose of domestic politicking” are not separate, but are intimately linked, and that link is a particular eschatological view held by a large and influential minority of Americans. Why would support for Israel be popular domestically were it not for the “strongly held empathy”? Cohen, as it turns out, is using code words too, because his “strongly held empathy” really refers to the aforementioned eschatological views, which I will here be rude enough to state explicitly and bluntly.

A great many Americans that hold fundamentalist Christian views on the world believe that the Jews are canaries in an apocalyptic coal mine: their mass conversion to Christianity will signal the beginning of the end times, hence the return of Christ and the coming of the Millennium. These “supporters” of Israel do not love Israel and they don’t love Jews, but they want the Jews to be maintained in situ, as it were, to herald the arrival of fundamentalist Christianity’s “New World Order.” It would not have been lost on his congressional audience that Netanyahu referred to the geography of the West Bank by the Biblical names of Judea and Samaria. It is a particular interpretation of Biblical prophecy that is at stake.

The recently failed apocalyptic predictions of Harold Camping, who has since re-scheduled the end of the world for 21 October 2011, since it failed to arrive as scheduled on 21 May 2011, demonstrate the currency of apocalyptic eschatological thinking in the US. My readers may well answer me back that many people scoffed at Camping and ridiculed this followers. This is undeniably true, but this is only one sector of the vast apocalypse market in the US. There are all flavors of apocalypse available in the US for all tastes and preferences: near-term, mid-term, and long-term.

You might also object that the number of Americans who hold strongly apocalyptic views are few and limited in number. This, too, is true, but a truth not seen in context is only a half truth. The context for the strongly apocalyptic views of a minority of fundamentalist Christians is that they live in a society that overwhelmingly self-identifies as Christian (of one sort or another) which means that there is a certain tolerance of, a certain indulgence toward, and not a little sympathy for all kinds of marginal Christian views. Many Americans who do not themselves hold strong or explicit apocalyptic views will at least listen to apocalyptic predictions, and will perhaps even entertain them hypothetically. Europeans have a difficult time understanding this, because European society became remarkably secularized during the twentieth century, but I suspect that Twelver Shia Muslims would have little difficulty understanding the poignant immediacy of apocalyptic expectation, since they await the return of the hidden Mahdi.

With that out of the way, we can turn from eschatological fantasy to political reality. And the political reality is that the so-called “peace process” has accomplished nothing in past decades, is accomplishing nothing at present, and is not likely to accomplish anything in coming decades. The Israelis will continue to be supported by the US, while the Palestinians will be intermittently supported by any regime that wants to poke a stick in the eye of Israel, or, more likely, wants to poke a stick in the eye of the US, and chooses to do so by proxy. The Jews can’t “win” nor can the Palestinians “win” because there is one piece of real estate and two peoples occupying it like squares on a chessboard. I put “win” in scare quotes here because any long term advantage attained by either side would necessarily be a Pyrrhic victory.

Since neither side can “win” and the “peace process” is accomplishing nothing, what is to be expected from this miniature Cold War? The status quo cannot be perpetuated indefinitely into the future because the Palestinian population is increasing at a faster rate than the Jewish population, and this includes Palestinians resident within Israel itself. Israel cannot remain a “democracy” and remain a Jewish state without making some changes. That means that Israel in the longer term faces a demographic crisis (unless the end of the world comes first, but I’m not holding my breath). That means that all the Palestinians have to do is to survive and wait for Israel’s demographic crisis to manifest itself and to leverage that to their advantage (if they can).

“At the end of 2001, the Arab population of Israel numbered 1.2 million people (graph A-1) - 8 times its size in 1948 (156,000 people); according to the forecast of the CBS, it is expected to number some 2 million.” (from The Arab Population of Israel, Central Bureau of Statistics, Center for Statistical Information)

There is another crisis that also faces Israel, more political and therefore likely to materialize sooner than the coming demographic crisis. Cohen mentioned, “the alliance between the Israeli right wing and American religious conservatives” that Netanyahu has fostered. This is not likely to blow up in Netanyahu’s face, but it is very likely to blow up in the face of his successors.

Israel is not the first political entity to tie its fortune (in part) to American religious conservatives. While among Republicans Ronald Reagan remains a name to conjure with, Reagan’s success, and his long coattails in both space and time, was the beginning of a deal that had great short term benefits for the Republicans and devastating long term consequences. Reagan could have been elected without getting the explicit and ideological support of US religious conservatives, but it was Reagan who brought them into the government, and who especially brought them into the Republican Party.

What was optional with Reagan ceased to be optional for his less popular successors, who were subsequently forced to dance to the tune of the religious conservatives or lose their support and lose the election. The Republicans become dependent upon the religious conservatives. Karl Rove’s whole strategy for George W. Bush’s re-election was to “get out the base” and not even to make a pretense of winning votes from the other side (the antithesis of Clintonian triangulation). This strategy would not work again. Demographically we know that the Republican Party is becoming a rural white male party, and this is a ticket to electoral oblivion.

Israel could do OK for itself in regard to the US without explicitly courting the religious conservatives. In this respect, it is now in the position of Reagan. But in subsequent administrations, both in the US and in Israel, the successors will have to live with the consequences of this alliance, and the price required for the continued loyalty of the US religious conservatives could become too high for some future Likud leader.

No demographic trend is set in stone. Circumstances intervene. Things happen. Plans are overtaken by events. And peoples and their governments can occasionally, if rarely, take decisive action, forcing change on a recalcitrant world. But it is equally true that demographic trends cannot be ignored with impunity.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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