Here are the Three Sacred Commandments for Americans who shape the public conversation on Israel:
1. For politicians, especially at the federal level: As soon as you say the word “Israel,” you must also say the word “security” and promise that the United States will always, always, always be committed to Israel’s security. If you occasionally label an action by the Israeli government “unhelpful,” you must immediately reaffirm the eternal US commitment to Israel’s security.
2. For TV talking heads and op-ed pundits: If you criticize any policies or actions of the Israeli government, you must immediately add that Israel does, of course, have very real and serious security needs that have to be addressed.
3. For journalists covering the Israel-Palestine conflict for major American news outlets: You must live in Jewish Jerusalem or in Tel Aviv and take only occasional day trips into the Occupied Territories. So your reporting must inevitably be slanted toward the perspective of the Jews you live among. And you must indicate in every report that Jewish Israeli life is dominated by anxiety about security.
US opinion-shapers have obeyed the Three Commandments scrupulously for decades. As a result, they’ve created an indelible image of Israel as a deeply insecure nation. That image is a major, if often overlooked, factor that has shaped and continues to shape Washington’s policies in the Middle East and especially the longstanding American tilt toward Israel.
It’s often said that the number one factor in that tilt is the power of the right-wing “pro-Israel” (more accurately, “pro-Israeli-government”) lobby. That lobby certainly is a skillful, well-oiled machine. It uses every trick in the PR book to promote the myth of Israel as a brave little nation constantly forced to fight for its life against enemies all around who are eager to destroy it, a Jewish David withstanding the Arab Goliath. The lobby justifies everything Israel does to the Palestinians—military occupation, economic strangulation, expanding settlements, confiscating land, demolishing homes, imprisoning children—as perhaps unfortunate but absolutely necessary for Israel’s self-defense.
No matter how slick any lobby is, however, it can’t succeed without a substantial level of public support. (How powerful would the National Rifle Association be without the millions of Americans who truly love their guns?) Along with its other sources of power and influence, the right-wing Israel lobby needs a large majority of the US public to believe in the myth of Israel’s insecurity as the God’s honest truth.
Ironically, that myth gets plenty of criticism and questioning in the Israeli press from writers like (to cite just some recent examples) Merav Michaeli and Doron Rosenblum in the liberal newspaper Haaretz, and even Alon Ben-Meir in the more conservative Jerusalem Post. In the United States, though, the myth of insecurity is the taken-for-granted lens through which the public views everything about the Israel-Palestine conflict. Like the air we breathe, it’s a view so pervasive that we hardly notice it.
Nor do we notice how reflexively most Americans accept the claim of self-defense as justification for everything Israel does, no matter how outrageous. That reflex goes far to explain why, in the latest Gallup poll matchup (“Do you sympathize more with Israel or the Palestinians?”), Israel won by a nearly 4 to 1 margin. And the pro-Israeli sentiment just keeps growing.
Our politicians, pundits, and correspondents breathe the same air in the same unthinking fashion, and so they hesitate to put much pressure on Israel to change its ways. As it happens, without such pressure, no Israeli government is likely to make the compromises needed for a just and lasting peace in the region. Instead, Israel will keep up its attacks on Gaza. In addition, if the Palestinians declare themselves an independent state come September, as many reports indicate might happen, Israel will feel free to quash that state by any means necessary—but only if Washington goes on giving it the old wink and nod.
If American attitudes and so policies are ever to change, one necessary (though not in itself sufficient) step is to confront and debunk the myth of Israel’s insecurity.
Three Myths in One
Israel actually promotes three separate myths of insecurity, although its PR machine weaves them into a single tightly knit fabric. To grasp the reality behind it, the three strands have to be teased apart and examined separately.
Myth Number 1: Israel’s existence is threatened by the ever-present possibility of military attack. In fact, there’s no chance that any of Israel’s neighbors will start a war to wipe out Israel. They know their history. Despite its size, ever since its war of independence in 1948, the Israeli military has been a better equipped, better trained, more effective, and in virtually every case a successful fighting force. It clearly remains the strongest military power in the Middle East.
According to the authoritative volume, The Military Balance 2011, Israel still maintains a decisive edge over any of its neighbors. While the Israeli government constantly sounds alarms about imagined Iranian nuclear weapons—though its intelligence services now suggest Iran won’t have even one before 2015 at the earliest—Israel remains the region’s only nuclear power for the foreseeable future. It possesses up to 200 nukes, in addition to “a significant number” of precision-guided 1,000 kg conventional bombs.
To deliver its most powerful weapons, Israel can rely on its 100 land-based missile launchers, 200 aircraft armed with cruise missiles, and (according to “repeated press reports”) cruise-missile-armed submarines. The subs are key, of course, since they ensure that no future blow delivered to Israel would ever lack payback.
Israel spends far more on its military than any of the neighbors it claims to fear, largely because it gets more military aid from the US than any other Mideast nation—$3 billion a year is the official figure, although no one is likely to know the full amount.
The Obama administration has continued a long tradition of guaranteeing Israel’s massive military superiority in the region. Israel will, for example, be the first foreign country to get the US’s most advanced fighter jet, the F-35 joint strike fighter. In fact, Defense Minister Ehud Barak recently complained that 20 of the promised planes aren’t enough, though he admitted that his country “faces no imminent threat” that would justify upping the numbers. Israel is also beginning to deploy its Iron Dome mobile air-defense system, with the US funding at least half its cost.
In sum, none of the nations that Israel casts as a threat to its very existence can pose an existential military danger. Of course, that doesn’t mean all Jewish Israelis are safe from harm, which brings us to…
Myth Number 2: The personal safety of every Jewish Israeli is threatened daily by the possibility of violent attack. In fact, according to Israeli government statistics, since the beginning of 2009 only one Israeli civilian (and two non-Israelis) have been killed by politically motivated attacks inside the green line (Israel’s pre-1967 border). Israelis who live inside that line go about their daily lives virtually free from such worry.
As a result, the insecurity myth has come to focus on rockets—the real ones launched from Gaza and the imaginary ones that supposedly could be launched from a future Palestinian state in the West Bank. Purveyors of the insecurity myth, including the American media, portray such rocket attacks as bolts from the blue, with no other motive than an irrational desire to kill and maim innocent Jews. As it happens, most of the rockets from Gaza have been fired in response to Israeli attacks that often broke ceasefires declared by the Palestinians.
Those rockets are part of an ongoing war in which each side uses the best weapons it has. The Palestinians, of course, have access to none of the high-tech Israeli guidance systems. Their weaponry tends to be crude and often homemade. They shoot their rockets, most of them unguided, and let them fall where they may (which means the vast majority harm no one).
Israel’s weapons actually do far more harm. Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli assault on Gaza that began at the end of 2008, killed far more civilians than all the rockets Palestinians have ever launched at Israel. Despite (or perhaps because of) its grievous losses, the Hamas government in Gaza has generally tried to minimize the rocket fire. When Hamas calls for all factions in Gaza to observe a ceasefire, however, the Israelis often ramp up their attacks.
Jewish civilians do run some risk when they live in the West Bank settlements. In the most recent horrific incident, a Jewish family of five was slaughtered at the Itamar settlement. In response, Israeli Vice Premier Moshe Yaalon showed clearly how the deaths of individual settlers are woven into the myth of Israel’s “existential insecurity.” “This murder,” he declared, “reminds everyone that the struggle and conflict is not about Israel’s borders or about independence of a repressed nation but a struggle for our existence.”
The logic of the myth goes back to the premise of the earliest Zionists: All gentiles are implacably and eternally anti-semitic. By this logic, any attack on one Jew, no matter how random, becomes evidence that all Jews are permanently threatened with extinction.
Most Zionists have been unable to see that once they founded a state committed to regional military superiority, they were bound to be on the receiving as well as the giving end of acts of war. It is the absence of peace far more than the presence of anti-semitism that renders Israelis who live near Gaza or in the West Bank insecure.
However, according to the myth, it’s not only physical violence that threatens Israel’s existence. In the last two years, right-wing Israelis and their supporters in the US have learned to lie awake at night worrying about another threat…
Myth Number 3: Israel’s existence is threatened by worldwide efforts to delegitimize the Jewish state. Early in 2010, Military Intelligence Chief Amos Yadlin told the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, that the country was not “suffering from terror or from an immediate military threat”—only to warn of a new peril: “The Palestinian Authority is encouraging the international arena to challenge Israel’s legitimacy.”
The “delegitimization” alarm was first sounded by an influential Israeli think tank and then spread like wildfire through the nation’s political and media ranks.
There are shreds of truth in it. There have always been people who saw the Jewish state, imposed on indigenous Palestinians, as illegitimate. Until recently, however, Israelis seemed to pay them little heed. Now, they are deemed an “existential threat,” as Yadlin explained, only because the old claims of “existential threat” via violence have grown unbelievable even to the Israeli military (though not to the government’s American supporters).
It’s also true that challenges to Israel’s legitimacy are growing rapidly around the world and that the specter of becoming a “pariah state” does pose a danger. The head of that think tank got it half-right when he warned that Israel’s “survival and prosperity” depend on its relations with the world, “all of which rely on its legitimacy.” Survival? No. After all, being a pariah state doesn’t have to be existence threatening, as North Korea and Burma have proved.
But prosperity? That’s at least possible. When the Israelis complain about “delegitimization,” they focus most on the boycott/divestment/sanctions (BDS) movement, which aims not to eliminate the state of Israel, but to use economic pressure to end Israel’s occupation and economic strangulation of Palestinian lands. (Nor is there any real evidence to back up the charge that this is some vast conspiracy coordinated by the Palestinian Authority.)
Were Israel to start behaving by accepted international moral norms, the BDS movement would fade from the scene quickly enough, ending the crisis of “delegitimization”—just as the rockets from Gaza might well cease. But here’s the reality of this moment: The only genuine threat to Israel’s security comes from its own oppressive policies, which are the fuel propelling the BDS movement.
So far, however, “effects on the Israeli economy are marginal,” according to a popular Israeli newspaper. The BDS campaign, it reports, “has been far more damaging when it comes to the negative image that it spreads.” A growing number of foreign governments are criticizing Israel, and some already recognize an actual Palestinian state. In diplomatic terms, Israel’s legitimacy rests on the good will of its sole dependable ally, the United States.
More than any military need, that political need offers the US powerful leverage in moving toward a settlement of the Israeli/Palestinian crisis. The triple-stranded myth of Israel’s insecurity, however, makes the use of such leverage virtually impossible for Washington. Israel’s president put his country’s needs plainly in March 2010: “[Israel] must forge good relations with other countries, primarily the United States, so as to guarantee political support in a time of need.” So far, the US has continued to offer its strong support, even though President Obama knows, as he recently told American Jewish leaders, that “Israel is the stronger party here, militarily, culturally, and politically. And Israel needs to create the context for [peace] to happen.”
But what if the American public knew the facts that Obama acknowledged? What if every solemn reference to Israel’s “security needs” were greeted not with nodding heads, but with the eye-rolling skepticism it deserves? What if Israel’s endless excesses and excuses—its claims that the occupation of the West Bank and the economic strangulation of Gaza are necessary “for the sake of security”—were regularly scoffed at by most Americans?
It’s hard to imagine the Obama administration, or any American administration, keeping up a pro-Israel tilt in the face of such public scorn.
Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Read more of his writings on Israel, Palestine, and the US on his blog. To catch Timothy MacBain’s latest TomCast audio interview in which Chernus discusses what to make of American attitudes toward Israel and the Palestinians, click here, or download it to your iPod here.