Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.
--Daniel Patrick Moynihan

November 1, 2011

Can Israel Survive?

By David K. Shipler
(Published in the Nov./Dec. 2011 issue of Moment)

The Anatomy of Israel’s Survival
Hirsh Goodman
2011, $26.99, pp. 288

 “Can Israel survive? The question used to infuriate me,” Hirsh Goodman begins in The Anatomy of Israel’s Survival. “Does someone wake up in Britain, or America, or even Burundi, and ask themselves whether their country can survive?”

No, not yet. But nobody asked that question about the Soviet Union either, except for the dissident Andrei Amalrik, in his aptly titled Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984? It did, but only seven years past the date he chose as a sardonic nod to Orwell. Add Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and now Sudan, and throw in the non-state actors—al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, which have the leverage to ignite war and shape international politics—and the world order of nation states seems stricken by impermanence. It’s a wonder that the Palestinians want the United Nations to grant them a status so precarious.

Into this global uncertainty marches Goodman, a dedicated Israeli patriot and respected journalist-scholar, focusing on the threats of Israelis’ own making as well as those from outside. In The Anatomy of Israel’s Survival, he casts aside his old assumptions about the durability of the Jewish state. “It has taken me years to understand there is much merit to the question,” he writes. “Modern Israel faces challenges from Arab demography; the explosion of the ultraorthodox community; enemies to the north, east, and south, and as far away as Iran; and terrorism from closer to home.” Its democracy is “both entrenched and fragile,” its independent legal system under constant attack by “the right wing and Orthodox.” It lacks significant natural resources “other than brainpower,” which is easily lured away.

That is his quick catalogue. Many of its contents will be familiar to informed readers, but pulling them together into one volume creates synergy among the issues until the whole exceeds the sum of its parts. Included in the parts are also some less familiar assertions, notably on Iran, mostly unsourced but delivered with a thump of authority that suggests that Goodman has mined his longstanding contacts with military and intelligence officials.

In exchange for oil before the 1979 overthrow of the Shah, for example, Israel provided Tehran with Jericho missiles and “perhaps advice on how to develop Iran’s nuclear program.” Today, Hezbollah in Lebanon, trained and armed by Iranian Revolutionary Guards, takes its orders from Tehran. Since Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza, Iran’s secret service has turned the strip into “a mini-Iran” by establishing its own units on the ground through the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a group that rocketed southern Israel last March in order to undermine reconciliation moves between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. In effect, Goodman concludes, Israel faces Iranian military proxies on its northern and southern borders.

So he thinks the unthinkable and honors no sacred cows. Moshe Dayan, “dazzled by victory” in the 1967 war, advised keeping the Palestinian territories that remain at issue today. Golda Meir, “blinded by Israel’s power...became one of Israel’s most myopic leaders ever,” ignoring Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s overture for peace in the early 1970s. Had Menachem Begin realized his idea to annex the territories and grant Palestinians citizenship, “there technically would be no democratic Jewish state.” Benjamin Netanyahu’s choice of anti-democratic coalition partners “perpetuated the government anarchy that eventually could be Israel’s democratic downfall.”

And Ehud Barak, “a Netanyahu clone on the Labor side,” unintentionally, perhaps, “became the politician who killed the peace process” by cornering Yasser Arafat in 2000 at Camp David with a grand proposal designed mainly to rescue Barak’s failing political fortunes. He ignored his advisors’ warnings that Arafat could not reach an “end-of-conflict” agreement by abandoning his two key demands: every inch of Palestinian territory and the return of refugees. When the talks failed and the intifada erupted, Goodman notes, the Israeli left’s longstanding argument that land could be traded for peace disintegrated. The right was right in its most dire predictions, thanks to Palestinians who played their lamentable role in the pageant: Ariel Sharon’s unilateral Gaza withdrawal brought no accommodation, only rockets from Hamas.

A seasoned professor could assign this book to students—although it lacks an index and footnotes—because its mosaic of worries and prescriptions offers unusual clarity. That’s no surprise: Reporting from Israel in the 1980s, I knew Hirsh Goodman as a good man to call when I wanted to hear something sensible. He covered the military, then went on to help run The Jerusalem Post and to found The Jerusalem Report. He has now done something rare in the literature of Middle East analysis by being unpredictable and unvarnished in his comprehensive appraisal of his country’s life expectancy.

Yet for all its virtues, his book sounds one false note, badly mischaracterizing President Obama’s “new beginning” address in Cairo in June 2009. There, at a low point in America’s relations with the Muslim world, Obama sought to heal and reassure without minimizing his country’s “strong bonds with Israel,” which he portrayed with unyielding eloquence. “This bond is unbreakable,” Obama declared. “It is based upon cultural and historical ties, and the recognition that the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied.”

Along with many Israelis and American Jews, however, Goodman heard something different. When Obama followed a powerful paragraph on the Holocaust with a compassionate acknowledgment of Palestinians’ hardships, Goodman heard an allusion “to equivalency between the Holocaust and the plight of the Palestinian people.” You will search in vain through Obama’s words to find any such equivalency. When Obama pledged American support for Palestinian dignity and statehood, Goodman heard him placing all blame on Israel, as if “Israel’s actions were comparable to those of the Third Reich, in context if not in so many words.” No such absurdity exists in Obama’s speech.

Therefore, I would add this to Goodman’s litany of dangers for Israel: that the rapprochement between the United States and the Muslim world will fail. A successful policy based on Obama’s message in Cairo would enhance Washington’s influence on behalf of Israeli-Palestinian peace. Otherwise, if tense distrust prevails between the Arabs and Israel’s sole true ally and benefactor, Israel’s search for acceptance and durability will be a lonely quest.

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