The Closet Moderate: Israel's "Israel Lobby" Problem

Monday, December 08, 2008

Israel's "Israel Lobby" Problem

Let's be clear, the central reason for the existence of Israel (as a state, not a nation) is as a form of reparation for the inhuman atrocities inflicted on European Jewry during the 20th century: pogroms, the Sho'ah, and anti-semitism. Given that, it seems rather idiotic for extremist settlers to embrace gut-churning acts of violence in defense of their illegal outposts in Palestinian territory. Daniel Levy has some intelligent thoughts on this issue. I'm going to skip the usual "a plague on both your houses" assessment of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and explain, instead, why I think that extremist settlers could be a serious threat to the state of Israel:

To keep this sort of short, I'm going to write at the highest level of abstraction. Israel is a state with some hierarchy of interests, presumably centered around territorial defense, economic prosperity and peace. These interests are probably shared by a fair number of Israelis as well. Most people would, ceteris paribus, prefer to be richer and not actively being shot at. The extremist elements within the Israeli settler movement do not share that hierarchy of interests. Their primary interest is in preserving their own existence and the rest of the world can go hang. Let me be a little more nuanced about that claim: settlers place a high enough value on the continued existence of their illegal settlements that they are willing to pursue actions in service of that goal the outcomes of which are likely to damage the Israeli political process and/or the Israeli citizenry (provoking Palestinian reprisals, polarizing the Israeli body politic, and so forth).

That's only a problem because as Israeli citizens they are entitled to the protection of the state in a way that the Palestinians, for example, are not. Thus, Israel finds itself in the unenviable position of protecting a group of people who not only don't share the interests of the Israeli people at large, but in fact are actively endangering those interests through their actions.

There are two other layers of complication here. First of all, the settlers are not just a bunch of nuts bivouacked on a hilltop somewhere. They are an active organized political constituency within Israel proper, with a number of influential allies in the Israeli right wing. On the level of optics, the image of a community of Jews surrounded by enemies and fighting to survive and keep what they have is a poignant one for a people who have such a profound history of oppression. Sure, it doesn't apprehend the truth of the situation, but it's truthy enough to be persistent and powerful.

Obviously, it's not a foregone conclusion. It may be that the settler groups overplay their hand and alienate their political benefactors (who find it too politically costly to support their agenda) and the Israeli public. It could also play out like the French confrontation with Algeria, in which Pied Noir intransigence and French paralysis eventually led to a series of brutal confrontations that both radicalized the Muslims of Algeria and felled several French governments.

I'm nowhere near enough of an expert on the I/P conflict or the Israeli political process to assess these probabilities, but the combination of Netanyahu's rise and last week's violence don't augur well.

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