Israel Faces Greater Dangers Than Hamas

Israel and Hamas have taken to open warfare yet again. The sense of déjà vu, as the militant group’s rocket attacks on Israeli territory are met by retaliatory airstrikes in Gaza, is compounded by Western politicians repeating an old formula: “Israel has the right to defend itself.”

That’s undoubtedly true. And yet it’s equally clear that Israeli actions are unlikely to deter Hamas. Nor will re-establishing military superiority over a technologically primitive enemy obscure Israel’s new and acute vulnerabilities.

The shocking images of lynch mobs and street fighting between Arabs and Jews within Israel underscore the fact that the most formidable threat to the country’s present and future stability is now internal. About one in 5 Israelis are Arabs, the descendants of Palestinians who stayed in the country after the creation of Israel in 1948, and they have long been disaffected.

Feeling marginalized even further by 2018 legislation that exalted Israel’s Jewish majority above all other groups, as well as the mainstreaming of explicitly racist, far-right Israeli parties, Arab Israelis have now erupted into open mutiny.

The mob violence between Jews and Arabs should not be underestimated: It represents a watershed in the history of Israel. For traditions of co-existence cannot be repaired once they have been so brutally violated. The bitter history of communal fratricide in India and Pakistan tells us that the legacy of hate and suspicion corrode a country from within, making it even more susceptible to far-right movements.

Israel’s external challenges have been multiplying, too. Reflexive pro-Israel statements from Western politicians have long obscured the unease they feel about the country’s direction. German Chancellor Angela Merkel summed up the tension in 2011 after a crucial United Nations resolution against Israel that both Germany and the United States unprecedentedly supported.

Chastised by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Merkel reportedly said, “How dare you? … You haven't made a single step to advance peace.”

Forging intimate relations with such figures as Narendra Modi, Jair Bolsonaro and Viktor Orban, Netanyahu openly scorned the Obama administration when the latter tried to check Israel’s settlement program in the West Bank. In another instance of myopic policy, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister allied his country closely to the Republican right as President Donald Trump facilitated a series of diplomatic victories for him.

Trump trashed the nuclear deal with Iran, moved the U.S embassy to the disputed city of Jerusalem, cut off U.S. aid to Palestinians and supervised Israel’s entente with Gulf Arab regimes.

But not even Trump-friendly Arab despots can afford to remain silent when Israeli police assault Islam’s third-holiest site. And the Biden administration, which adopted a standoffish approach to the Israel-Palestine issue, cannot do much as China, enthused by the success of its vaccine diplomacy, steps in.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s recent six-country tour of the Middle East proclaimed his country’s intention to involve itself in the region’s most complicated issue. China has even offered to host peace talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders. Beijing’s increased proximity to Iran should leave no one in doubt over which side it’s likely to favor.

More significantly, Israel has been steadily losing its moral stature as a nation-state built for and by victims of monstrous crimes against Jews. For many Europeans and Americans who came of age after 1945, the Holocaust was the main, if not the sole, touchstone for moral and historical awareness. This made for understandably deep emotional identification with and stalwart support for Israel, especially when the country faced existential threats.

Today, a younger generation of Westerners is learning about older and relatively under-explored crimes of white supremacy (genocide, slavery and colonialism) and their present-day manifestations in structural forms of cruelty and injustice. Statues have been toppled, educational syllabuses revised with a view to diversity, and reparations proposed for historical victims of racist and supremacist regimes.

Israel, recently indicted by Human Rights Watch in a 224-page report for “crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution,” seems to embody many of the things that politicized young people loathe about the past and present.

The historian Tony Judt, who was a fervent Zionist in his youth, warned in 2003 that “the very idea of a ‘Jewish state’ — a state in which Jews and the Jewish religion have exclusive privileges from which non-Jewish citizens are forever excluded — is rooted in another time and place.”

Judt’s belief that Israel is an “anachronism” feels truer today. At a time when institutions and individuals struggle to understand and overthrow “unconscious bias,” a majoritarian Israel appears to be a case study in conscious and unreconstructed bias.

Israel, of course, has the right to defend itself against Hamas’s rockets. As always, it will exercise that right robustly. However, against many other clear and present dangers in the wider world, Israel is growing increasingly defenseless.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Pankaj Mishra is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. His books include “Age of Anger: A History of the Present,” “From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia,” and “Temptations of the West: How to Be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet and Beyond.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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