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Israel's clenched fist

Post-Holocaust morality and the violence of today: Navid Kermani says Israel weakens itself if it builds on military might, and forgets its past as victim.

Is it possible in Germany today to discuss Israel and the war in Lebanon without reference to the Holocaust? This question was recently raised by Eva Menasse and Michael Kumpfmüller in our feature "This endless moral flutter". The following article addresses this problem, as do a number of others on our site: "The freedom of Bedlam" by Imre Kertesz (here) and "Israel has no choice" by Tjark Kunstreich (here).

Israel has two constants to thank for its survival: the support of the West, and its strength over its neighbours. The support from Western states is grounded in several geo- and domestic-political interests, in a sense of cultural affinity, in the work of educational institutions and lobbyists and in economic integration. It has a profoundly moral basis: awareness of the suffering imposed upon the Jews. The specific morality of the atonement, as expressed in post-Auschwitz international politics, seems historically unique.

But this morality is virtually non-existent among neighbours of the young state. The Arabs don't carry a guilt comparable to the Europeans with respect to the Jews, nor do they learn as much about the history of Jewish suffering and thus the antecedents of Israel in their education system. The hermetics of the Western legitimization of Israel remains its greatest drawback. Aside from a few who have been educated in the West, the people of the Middle East - including hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who are in their second or third generation in refugee camps - hardly have the opportunity to understand the morality behind Israel's existence. At most they can resign themselves to Israel's existence, not motivated by atonement but rather by a recognition of the opponent's oft-demonstrated superior power, apparently secured through Western sponsorship.

Particularly since Sharon became Prime Minister, Israel has relied less on its moral strength and more on its real power. Israel does not want to be the victim any more, because that entails being seen from a particular moral vantage point. The victim cannot simultaneously be the perpetrator, or the superior one, the powerful one. As soon as the victim becomes perpertrator, the victim role is lost (this is the source of the hastiness with which anti-Semites - trying to denounce the historical position of Jews as victims - suggest that Israel is imitating Nazi crimes). But Israel only wants normality, which means, in case of an existential conflict: the use of power and military resources with just as much decisiveness and as few scruples as any other state.

As long as the Israeli government is supported by the West, it can excercise military superiority and unilateralism. But if the support in its current form stops, all Israel's strengths will be useless. And because the neighbours would then recognize Israel's weaknesses, they would lose their recognition of Israel's irrevocable right to exist - a recognition that is more deeply seated than Israel likes to admit. The rage of recent years will reignite the rage of the last half century.

For now, the Western superpower - the United States - still grants Israel a free hand. But in the long run, doubts about such virtually unconditional loyalty must be heeded, as long as Israel continues its hard-line politics, showing no sign of its former moral stature as victim, a stature that forms an enduring basis for Western solidarity. The historical foundation will fade, and in the not-too-distant future, the questions that conservative American political scientists John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt raised, unleashing a fierce debate on both sides of the Atlantic, will also turn up in election campaigns and in the Congress: what is our interest in Israel? Accounts will be drawn up, with costs and benefits: Israel has no oil and is expensive. In its present form, Israel creates unstable relations in the Middle East and legitimises terrorism. It thus endangers the security of the West. And so on. A politics of pure self-interest, as is the case with other states, would change the basic relationship of the West to Israel. And the deficit can only be balanced out by the West's humanitarian approach to the State of Israel. But that in turn depends upon Israel's preserving its humane countenance.

This expectation bothers the Israelis: which is why Israeli intellectuals constantly point out that the Russians in Chechnya - and the Americans in Iraq - have accumulated far deeper debts of guilt, not to mention Hizbullah and Hamas, which randomly murder civilians: so why the fuss if the Israeli Army - unintentionally at that - kills civilians?

Why indeed? Why does the Western public have a different standard for Israel than it does for Hamas or Hizbullah, Russia, or itself? Because in these cases the Western states - as is the rule in politics - see their own interests first, and act accordingly. Most Western governments only criticize the USA as superpower when under duress (in general, they receive much harsher public criticism than Israel). Russia is too important a partner to be sacrificed on the basis of its treatment of the Chechnians.

And the terror acts of Hamas and Hizbullah? Naturally they must be condemned, but Hamas and Hizbullah are neither supported nor financed by the West. The possibilities for influence are reduced to appeals, condemnations, boycotts. But Israel is closely bound to the West, today as in the past, and thus in its own way a partner in conversation, debate and evaluation. Israeli intellectuals may complain about this. But it is exactly this special morally-based relationship that guarantees Israel's existence.

It still seems absurd for the West to re-evaluate its relationship with Israel - considering official announcements and news commentary on the subject. Talk privately with those politicians or commentators who couch their official criticism of Israel in careful phrases, and they will often express their anger with a shrug. Of course, such things cannot be said aloud. On the other hand, published opinion has noticeably changed, to Israel's disadvantage. Much of what is written about Israel today would have been unthinkable ten years ago.

In other European countries, criticism published in serious newspapers has adopted a tone that would draw criticism as anti-Semitic here. But even Israel's closest friends among European journalists have become less sure about whether Israel can achieve its legitimate goal of security through a violence that increasingly seems blind. If even these publications are no longer showing unqualified solidarity with Israeli policies, one can hardly wonder at the opinions expressed on the Internet, in pubs or at podium discussions: it is devastating for Israel, say all surveys and all subjective impressions.

As long as George W. Bush is in power in Washington, Israel does not have much to worry about. But all the possible successors from the ranks of the Democratic party would latch onto the politics of Bill Clinton and push for a peace plan that rejects the lop-sided border demarcation that reaches deep into occupied territory. If Israel should then react with a similar abrasiveness as in all recent attempts at exerting influence, the relationship to Washington could also cool considerably. Those who already consider American interests to be damaged in the Middle East would react even more vociferously. Israel depends on morality for its survival.

Israelis often say morality is demonstrated by not randomly bombing civilians, but one actually should be much tougher than that. Assume Israel abandoned its last scruples and left large areas of Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza in rubble and ash, to eliminate the threat once and for all - would it then be even one step closer to living in peace? Sharon won the majority of Israeli votes with a promise of security. His successor was elected because he promised to carry on with Sharon's policies. Today, Israelis are less secure than ever. They are shot at, from north to south. The anger that Israel stokes with its clenched-fist politics has created, in concert with the hopelessness of Palestinian youth, a host of potential attackers.

In contrast, the wave of terror attacks that Sharon triggered through his first appearance and then suppressed through massive use of violence could have been a harbinger. The war against Iraq, roundly supported by Israel, unleashed a chaos in which the international jihadists gladly set up house. In Palestine as in Iran, extremists have landed in the government ranks, for the first time in ages using an international political forum to question Israel's right to exist, seriously and in real terms. Hizbullah has won, in simply continuing to exist. And Israel's image is at a worldwide low.

Israeli representatives rightly note that Sharon and his successors can not be held responsible for everything, that the Arabs have also behaved terribly and that in questions of ethical justification for military violence, the other side has sabotaged every peace initiative from Oslo to Gaza. But the distribution of guilt and justice has long been relegated to the second rung. Results count, after the peace process first stumbled and then ground to a halt following the murder of Yitzhak Rabin. In all accounts, the results are devastating, for all people in the region, Israelis or Arabs, who long for normalcy, for a life without air raids and rocket attacks, without suicide bombings in buses and tanks at the door. And the fact that those who long for normalcy are still in the majority remains today's only reason for hope.


This article originally appeared in German in the Süddeutsche Zeitung on August 7, 2006.

Writer and orientalist Navid Kermani lives in Cologne.

Translation: Toby Axelrod.

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