But the state of Israel, which has just turned 58, remains curiously immature. The country’s social transformations – and its many economic achievements – have not brought the political wisdom that usually accompanies age. Seen from outside, Israel still comports itself like an adolescent: confident of its uniqueness; certain that no one “understands”; quick to take offence, and to give it. Like many adolescents, Israel is convinced – and aggressively asserts – that it can do as it wishes; that its actions carry no consequences; that it is immortal.
I remember in the spring of 1967 how student opinion at Cambridge University was overwhelmingly pro-Israel before the Six-Day War – and how little attention was paid either to the Palestinians or to Israel’s collusion with France and Britain in the disastrous 1956 Suez adventure. For a while these sentiments persisted. The pro-Palestinian enthusiasms of post-1960s radical groups were offset by growing public acknowledgement of the Holocaust. Even the inauguration of illegal settlements and the invasion of Lebanon did not shift the international balance of opinion.
But today everything is different. We can see, in retrospect, that Israel’s victory in June 1967 and its occupation of the territories it conquered then have been the Jewish state’s very own nakba: a moral and political catastrophe. Israel’s actions in the West Bank and Gaza have magnified its shortcomings to a watching world. The routines of occupation and repression were once familiar only to an informed minority; today, computer terminals and satellite dishes put Israel’s behaviour under daily global scrutiny. The result has been a complete transformation in the international view of Israel.
The universal shorthand symbol for Israel, reproduced in political cartoons, is the Star of David emblazoned on a tank. Today the universal victims, the emblematic persecuted minority, are not Jews but Palestinians. This shift does little to advance the Palestinian case but it has redefined Israel forever. Israel’s long-cultivated persecution mania no longer elicits sympathy. The country’s national narrative of macho victimhood appears to many now as simply bizarre: a collective cognitive dysfunction. Israel, in the world’s eyes, is a normal state; but one behaving in abnormal ways. As for the charge that criticism of Israel is implicitly anti-Semitic, this is in danger of becoming a self-fulfilling assertion: Israel’s reckless behaviour, and its insistent identification of all criticism with anti-Semitism, is now the leading source of anti-Jewish sentiment in western Europe and much of Asia.
If Israel’s leaders have been able to ignore such developments it is because they have counted on the unquestioning support of the US – the one country where the claim that anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism is still echoed by mainstream politicians and the media. This confidence in unconditional US approval may prove to be Israel’s undoing. For something is changing in America. Israel and the US appear increasingly bound together in a symbiotic embrace, whereby the actions of each party exacerbate their common unpopularity abroad. But whereas Israel has no choice but to look to America, the US is a Great Power – and Great Powers have interests that eventually transcend the local obsessions of even the closest client states. It seems to me suggestive that the recent essay “The Israel Lobby” by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, published in March in the London Review of Books, provoked so much debate. It is true that, by their own account, the authors could not have published their indictment of the influence of the “Israel lobby” on US foreign policy in a major US-based journal. But the point is that 10 years ago they probably could not have published it at all. And while the ensuing debate generated more heat than light, it is of great significance.
The fact is that the disastrous Iraq invasion and its aftermath have set in train a sea-change in America’s foreign-policy debate. It is becoming clear to prominent thinkers across the political spectrum – from erstwhile neo- conservative interventionists such as Francis Fukuyama to hard-nosed realists such as Mr Mearsheimer – that in recent years the US has suffered a catastrophic loss of international influence and degradation of its image. There is much repair work ahead, above all in Washington’s dealings with economically and strategically vital regions of the world. But this cannot succeed while US foreign policy is tied by an umbilical cord to the needs and interests of one small Middle Eastern country of little relevance to America’s long-term concerns – a country that is, in the words of the Mearsheimer/Walt essay, a strategic burden. That essay is thus an indication of the direction of debate in the US about its peculiar ties to Israel. Of course, it generated fierce criticism – and, just as they anticipated, the authors have been charged with anti-Semitism. But it is striking how few people now take that accusation seriously, so predictable has it become. This is bad for Jews as it means that genuine anti-Semitism may also cease to be taken seriously. But it is worse for Israel.
From one perspective, Israel’s future is bleak. Not for the first time, a Jewish state is on the vulnerable periphery of someone else’s empire: wilfully blind to the danger that its indulgent excesses might ultimately push its imperial mentor beyond the point of irritation, and heedless of its own failure to make any other friends. Yet, modern Israel still has options. Precisely because the country is an object of such universal mistrust, a truly statesmanlike shift in its policies (dismantling of big settlements, opening unconditional negotiations with Palestinians and the like) could have disproportionately beneficial effects.
Such a radical realignment of strategy would entail a difficult reappraisal of every illusion under which the country and its political elite have nestled. Israel would have to acknowledge that it no longer has any special claim on international sympathy or indulgence; that the US will not always be there; that colonies are always doomed unless you are willing to expel or exterminate the indigenous population.
Other countries and their leaders have understood this: Charles de Gaulle saw that France’s settlement in Algeria was disastrous for his country and, with outstanding political courage, withdrew. But when de Gaulle came to that realisation he was a mature statesman, aged nearly 70. Israel cannot afford to wait that long. The time has come for it to grow up.
The writer is director of the Remarque Institute at New York University