Shifting Tides on Israel
Israel today is less unpopular in the world but far more hated by Western progressives.
An early scene in Michel Houellebecq’s prize-winning novel Submission illustrates the place Israel now holds for some in the Christian West. The protagonist François, a Parisian professor, is with his occasional lover Myriam, a Jewish graduate student. France may be on the verge of electing an Islamist president; the alternatives are civil war or a victory by the National Front. Myriam tells François that her parents, petrified, have in haste decided to leave France and move to Israel and that she will accompany them. He absorbs the news and says, when time comes to kiss her goodbye, “There is no Israel for me.”
One can hear these words as a sort of laconic acknowledgment of political homelessness, dispossession even. Those in the privileged West who once felt an almost unconscious sense of belonging to their countries as their countries belonged to them no longer take such sentiments for granted. What Myriam and her parents seek, a homeland and place of refuge that is theirs, François is losing, before he has begun to realize it. It’s an ethereal loss and not without some compensation: at the novel’s close François has converted to Islam and contemplates the prospect of the multiple brides available to a man of his station.
But his words to Myriam are a kind of Israel envy, born of high rates of Muslim immigration, brutal episodes of Islamic terrorism on French soil, and the now constant unpleasant frictions of multiculturalism. Battles over hiring, policing, the school curriculum, what can or cannot be worn at the beach have become the new context for almost any political decision. The envy is felt by some Frenchmen whose parents admired Charles de Gaulle and had no difficulty with de Gaulle’s chilliness towards Israel after the Six Day War, and even by those whose parents were avowed anti-Semites. Its presence in French right-wing circles was brought home to me six years ago when Marine Le Pen, in a private conversation, made it clear she had little interest in my criticisms of Benjamin Netanyahu, still maneuvering to get the United States immersed in a war with Iran.
Israel has now fought its third significant war with Hamas-ruled Gaza in the past 13 years, with results that have been similar every time: massive destruction of infrastructure in Gaza, considerable Palestinian civilian casualties, a relative handful of Israeli casualties. The recent conflagration was less destructive than 2014, as it involved no Israeli ground invasion. But the use of air power against targets in civilian population centers inevitably produces a sense of unfairness. Palestinian civilians in Gaza are more or less defenseless, and the death of children is always viscerally shocking.
Israel’s move to evict a handful of Palestinian families from their homes in Sheik Jarrah, a neighborhood in East Jerusalem, was a major spark to the war, an action seen by many Palestinians as symbolic of the entire Zionist enterprise. Hamas, vying for political influence among Palestinians outside of Gaza, barraged Israel with rockets. Because there was also significant internal civil unrest inside Israel, including communal riots in the mixed city of Lod, this Gaza war shined a spotlight on the plight of the Palestinians living in Israel’s directly occupied territories as well.
Fifteen years ago, it was seen as highly provocative to depict Israeli rule as form of apartheid. The word has since become commonplace not only on the left but increasingly in well-funded parts of the liberal establishment. Before the recent war, Human Rights Watch published a major report which made the apartheid charge; in recent weeks one heard it from David Rothkopf, a major liberal publisher, from several left-wing members of Congress, and from John Oliver and Joy-Ann Reid among other luminaries in the liberal entertainment complex. The question is less whether the charge is true (I would submit that it is accurate for many Palestinians in the West Bank) but its import: For liberals, an apartheid regime is one which, like South Africa’s, must be destroyed. Liberal Zionists recognize the potency of the charge and have devoted considerable efforts to contain it in American discourse. They seem to have failed.
But while the war sparked a surge in anti-Israel rhetoric and sentiment (as well as considerable anti-Semitic violence in the streets) in the United States, London, and Paris, in the broader world it did not. Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Shiite faction in Lebanon, whose rocket arsenal has far more capacity to harm Israel than Hamas, remained notably quiet during the bombardment of Gaza. Egypt, the most significant Arab state, helped broker a ceasefire; its attitude towards Hamas hardly differs from Israel’s. Its citizens might or might not feel differently (Arab governments are not democracies, so it is difficult to know), but the country is no less eager to pursue a modus vivendi with Israel than it was several months ago. Ditto Saudi Arabia. Syria, of course, with its own problems with Islamic radicalism, was not heard from. This diplomatic environment is a far cry from what Israel faced in the 1970s, when it was confronted by a nearly seamless wall of state and popular hostility from Morocco to Pakistan. America’s support for Israel sparked an oil embargo, which hurt the U.S. economically and could have resulted in a major war.
So the summary is that Israel is less unpopular in the world, but far more hated by Western progressives. It’s not surprising that few Israelis believe their last generation of mostly right-wing leadership has been an unmitigated disaster. As for the Palestinians living within what is now Greater Israel, there is no question that they face unjust conditions—anyone who has visited Israel with an open mind recognizes this. Yet the question is how much does or should this fact define Western opinion or policies; few Palestinians residing in the West Bank, Jerusalem, or inside the green line, or even Gaza, would trade their situation with, for instance, China’s Uighurs, whose plight hardly troubles Western political and business elites.
In the United States, the most notable new development is the degree to which a left animated by Black Lives Matter and anti-police protests has been mobilized against Israel. During the Gaza bombardment, Missouri congresswoman Cori Bush rose in the House of Representatives to express her solidarity with Palestinians, eulogizing a Palestinian activist who “stood with us” in our “uprising” against the “state sanctioned murder” of Michael Brown. Nothing in her speech, in which she claimed that Palestinians face the same kind of “militarized occupation” experienced by blacks in the United States, would sound out of place in the contemporary American left. For non-progressives such rhetoric poses the question of how much solidarity they can actually feel with a movement trafficking in such obvious falsehoods. Indeed, it is likely that conflation of the Palestinian cause with BLM themes in the United States has a comparable political effect as Palestinian advocacy by militant Muslim immigrants does in Europe.
In the U.S., there is also a longstanding, establishment-centered, realist critique of American policy towards Israel whose goal has been based around the formula of land for peace and the establishment of a Palestinian state. Its central argument was that if Israel continued to occupy the West Bank, it would be faced with three possibilities: becoming, in a more or less formal sense, an apartheid state; trying to expel the Palestinians and committing an moral atrocity that wouldn’t be forgiven; or granting Palestinian full citizenship rights in a manner that would so dilute Israel’s Jewish character there would be no Israel. There is no real escape from this tripartite choice.
But if, under the influence of the kind of anti-Zionism now ascendant among progressive Democrats, Washington moved towards the kind of full court anti-Israel pressure once exerted on apartheid South Africa, it’s hardly obvious it would succeed. Israel would likely seek a diplomatic reshuffle rather than submit. It is more a technological and military power in its own right than an American client state and is respected by other major states, including some which are America’s rivals or adversaries. Israel is, in other words, a potentially useful ally to many, and any reversal of alliances in the Mideast would probably not favor the United States.
If one hopes for a sort of middle ground, a dramatic amelioration of the Palestinian condition in the context of a secure Israel, it is more likely to come from within Israel itself. Before he became prime minister, few thought of Yitzhak Rabin, victim of a right-wing Zionist assassin in 1995, as a peacemaker, but there is no shortage of Palestinians who speak warmly of his time in office. Those convinced that American diplomatic and financial pressures can change the situation for the better do not have the historical record on their side.