Israels Post-traumatic Isolation

Israel suffered truly existential threats until 1973, and then severe blows when it gave peace a chance; now many Israelis are deeply angry at anybody who tries to talk them into doing it again.

There is a growing sense around the world, including in Europe, that Israel is ever less a partner for dialogue with the international community, and that it needs to be managed through pressure. The voices that Israel must be forced into accepting a Palestinian state through a UN and through sanctions if Israel doesnt comply, are gaining ground dangerously.

This unfortunate and dangerous dynamics is reinforced almost daily through Israels action and legislation. Expropriation of Palestinian land continues, and the Knesset has now passed a bill that requires a referendum about any agreement that would return land that Israel has annexed after 1967.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Archive / Tess Scheflan

As todays Haaretz editorial has pointed out, this law is a further indication that Israels lawmakers simply do not see international law as binding, because the international community has never accepted Israels annexation of either East Jerusalem or the Golan Heights.

The relationship between Israel and the world can be elucidated by a psychiatric analogy: there are patients who can be addressed by dialogue in the hope that they can change through insight. And there are patients who no longer seem amenable to rational dialogue, and must be restrained in order to prevent violence. This is what happens under certain conditions of post-traumatic stress disorder: many American soldiers who returned from Iraq are highly susceptible to violence. They are simply not capable of understanding that they are no longer under threat, and behave as if they are still in the war. And of course, they feel isolated and misunderstood by all except those who have been there.

Israels situation is similar: it has suffered truly existential threats until 1973, and since then it has suffered severe blows when it gave peace a chance. The second intifada and the shelling of southern Israel are the analogue to a re-traumatization: Israel tried normalization, but was injured considerably.

As a result many Israelis are now deeply angry at anybody who tries to talk them into taking risks for peace again: "How can you ask us to rely on Palestinians for our security? We have tried, and the result was horrifying: our children blew up on buses; the south was shelled by rockets. We would have to be crazy to try again."

Here, then, is the problem: as in many post-traumatic conditions, Israels behavior tends to recreate the trauma, and thus reinforces its deepest fears. The more violently Israel reacts to further attacks, as it did in Operation Cast Lead, the more it is delegitimized. The more it is delegitimized, the it more it rejects the political norms of the Free World and adopts a tone of aggressive nationalism in its legislation and rhetoric, which leads to further isolation.

Israel, quite unfortunately, is now being perceived as belonging to the category of states that need to be coerced rather than those that can be engaged in dialogue. It is gradually seen as a non-rational actor that needs to be restrained by force and pressured into submission, because it listens neither to reason nor to morals. Hence the calls for sanctions against Israel, and the notion that the UN needs to recognize the Palestinian state along the 1967 borders are growing.

Is there a way out of this vicious circle? Is Israel doomed to becoming a pariah state? Is there no way around the scenario in which Israel will become the outcast of the international order, and slide into even more isolation?

My experience in talking to European interlocutors is that it is possible to evoke empathy for Israels justified fears, if this is disconnected from the aggressive self-righteousness of Israels right, and if it is not used to justify construction in the settlements and expropriation of Palestinian properties, as it is practiced in Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan.

But Israels right is doing the exact opposite: by conflating real security concerns like Iran and Hezbollah with settlement construction and land expropriation, it indeed makes Israel look like a dysfunctional state that must be beaten into submission either by sanctions or by the UN simply recognizing the Palestinian state.

The right is utterly convinced of its own confusion between Israels security needs and the need to move towards an ethnocracy. It has also succeeded in convincing much of the Israeli electorate of its paranoid worldview. It is profoundly unsettling to talk to mainstream Israelis who, are in favor of the two-state solution in principle, but keep repeating the rights mantras that there is no partner, and that we just have to hold on to the status quo, i.e. the occupation, for the foreseeable future.

Israel is not devoid of voices of sanity; its civil society is functioning and dissent from the rights disastrous policies is expressed. Pundits, writers and the occasional politician raise the option of engaging with the peace initiative of the Arab League and cooperating with Salaam Fayyad; they keep warning of the dire consequences of Israels path into international isolation; they keep pointing out that the ridiculous stalling of any substantial peace process will lead to a new spiral of violence. But these voices no longer seem to be able to penetrate the political mainstreams wall of fear, distrust and virulent nationalism.