Revisiting Israel's Fraying Image

Surely it is better to hope for progress than to progress steadily toward hopelessness.

Editor's Note: This piece concludes a symposium on on Jacob Heilbrunn’s “Israel’s Fraying Image” from the May/June issue of The National Interest. It was preceded by remarks from Chas Freeman and Peter Berkowitz.

When it comes to Israel—a small country the constant subject of big debates—there are really two main controversies. The first is about Israel’s approach to the Palestinians and its neighbors. The second one is about America’s relationship with Israel. Obviously they cannot be neatly separated. In “Israel’s Fraying Image,” I examined the first in the context of the latter. My principal points were that Israel’s image is fraying, that a newly vigorous debate about its actions, or inaction, is beginning to emerge in America, that it is not necessarily in Israel’s interest to transform an American president, initially eager to promote peace in the Middle East, into an indifferent bystander, and that demographic trends mean that time is not on Israel’s side when it comes to reaching an accommodation with the Palestinians.

I am grateful to Chas Freeman, who has extensive experience in the Middle East as a diplomat and government official, and Peter Berkowitz, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution who has a deep grasp of Israel’s politics and culture, for their extensive and cogent responses to my essay. Freeman generously suggests that I have raised important questions about the future of Israeli democracy and its future relationship with America. Berkowitz takes a more critical view, arguing that I have exaggerated the extent of disquiet among Americans, which is mostly confined to what he views as a progressive, academic cohort, along with some “angry realists.” He also indicates that the true obstacle to peace is not settlements in the West Bank but the mounting nuclear threat from Iran.

There are many points of agreement between us. The rise of Iran, aided and abetted by the Iraq War, which removed a big obstacle to its ambitions, is a big problem that is scarcely being ignored by either Israel or America. But to my ear Peter’s response carries the distinct strains of a defense attorney skillfully making the best case possible for his client while playing down some of the more unsavory aspects of his behavior. Yes, the Palestinians have perpetrated horrendous terror attacks on Israel. Yes, Hamas is a ruthless gangster organization intent on the destruction of Israel. Yes, Israel is increasingly menaced by other sanguinary foes such as Hezbollah. But if Peter wishes to accuse me of ignoring the Palestinian record, I feel obliged to note that this is what he himself tends to do when it comes to Israel’s. Can Israel be entirely exempted for the impasse that has developed between itself and the 4.4 million Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip since its spectacular victory in the 1967 war?

My emphasis, however, was not on Israel’s historical record or the nasty things that its adversaries have said about it. It was about America’s relationship with Israel, which I pointed out has not always been that close. The United States is hardly about to revise its relations radically with Israel. But the signs of slippage are there. The kinds of actions that Israel is endorsing, or acquiescing in when it comes to the more militant settlers on the West Bank, are deeply injurious to its reputation and standing. Berkowitz may dismiss it as merely representing another instance of elite opinion, but I do think it is telling that Leon Wieseltier recently commented in Israel, “Unless there is a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there will not be a Jewish state for very long.” Yet in America there is a pronounced tendency to elide this truth and instead engage in heated and spurious debates about whether public figures nominated for high office are sufficiently pro-Israel. My own foray into this subject was prompted by the virulent attacks on Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who was depicted as a not-so-closet anti-Semite during his confirmation hearings earlier this year, mostly by his former Republican colleagues who were still smarting from his scouring of the Bush administration’s conduct of the Iraq War.

In his concluding remarks, Freeman paints a dismal vision of an Israel sliding further and further into isolation as it succumbs to the imperial temptation that Geoffrey Wheatcroft limns in his accompanying essay in The National Interest about the history of Zionism. My own hope is that, against all the odds, Secretary of State John Kerry manages to jolt both the Israelis and the Palestinians from their current state of diplomatic hebetude. Surely it is better to hope for progress than to progress steadily toward hopelessness.

Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at The National Interest.