Strenger Than Fiction Israel's Bunker Mentality

Israel is stuck in the belief that it is right, and everybody else is wrong and hence incapable of admitting that its policy vis-à-vis the Palestinians has been disastrous.

Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger
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Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger

There are two profound psychological blocks that do not allow Israel’s leadership to get off its disastrous course, once again proven by the Gaza flotilla disaster: one is sheer fear, the other is self-righteousness.

Israeli Navy personnel board one of the ships of the Gaza aid flotilla on Monday May 31, 2010. Credit: Getty Images

Israel has real enemies like Iran and Hezbollah. Human psychology is such that fear often leads to freezing and hanging on to the same course of action, even if it proves disastrous time and again. As a result Israel doesn’t listen to criticism - either from inside or from outside.

This inability to listen is reinforced by self-righteousness: Israel is stuck in the belief that it is right, and everybody else is wrong and hence incapable of admitting that Israeli policy vis-à-vis the Palestinians has been disastrous; that Israel should have engaged with the Arab League peace initiative years ago, and that a U turn needs to be made. Admitting that one has been wrong is always difficult; but Israel’s need for self-righteousness makes it even more difficult.

Israel fails to see the difference between its friends that care, but criticize Israel for its wrongheadedness and those who hate Israel and want its demise. Time and again Europeans who care for Israel tell me ‘we want to support you; we want Israel to be a thriving country. We are in favor of the Zionist dream. But please tell us: why is your government so intent to harm Israel? Why does it drive away its friends? Why can’t it listen to our advice? Is there anything we can do or say that will reach the hearts and minds of your leaders?’

This exasperation has been expressed publicly by French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy, one of Israel’s staunchest friends, who has been taking on Israel’s critics from the European extreme left with force and courage for years. He writes that the state of mind of Israel’s leadership that says ‘the world doesn’t understand us’ and ‘damn if we do and damn if we don’t, so we’ll just do what we want’ has reached the level of what he calls political autism.

When asked what could turn around Israel’s leadership I am at a loss for an answer, because Israel doesn’t even listen to critics from the inside. Some reacted to the Flotilla debacle emotionally. David Grossman wrote a moving piece in which he speaks of the shame he feels about Israel’s actions. He expresses his pain about how far Israel has declined.

Others wrote in a more analytical vein. Amos Oz in a judicious op-ed in the New York Times speaks of the importance of realizing the limits of force; that Israel must start understanding that there is no way to defeat Hamas by military means, and that Israel can stop the current deterioration only by moving quickly towards a peace agreement with Fatah about a Palestinians state with East Jerusalem as its capital.

But Israel’s leadership has gone into a bunker mentality. Like a city besieged in the times before telecommunications, nothing reaches its hearts and minds. To the extent they will even read Grossman, Oz, Levy and countless others, the reaction will be "all these pundits and intellectuals; what do they know about the world! We need to stick to our inner truth; we know what’s right for Israel. We don’t need the usual gibberish of intellectuals; soft-hearted, unrealistic people who don’t have a clue about how the real world works."

It may be more surprising that Israel’s leadership doesn’t even listen to its own professional intelligence echelon. During the media frenzy of the last days a crucial headline has received close to no attention: Mossad chief Meir Dagan told the Knesset’s Foreign Relations Committee that Israel is gradually turning from a strategic asset into a liability for the United States of America.

As it’s a bit difficult to brush aside Dagan as a softheaded idealist, our policy makers will find another way not to listen. They will say, "this would never have happened under George W. Bush; this is only because the Obama administration is not friendly towards Israel. We simply need to wait for Obama to end this term; he won’t get reelected."

Nothing could be further from the truth. I have heard warnings that Israel is becoming a strategic liability for the U.S. from Americans, including high ranking members of the George W. Bush administration, for years. The only difference is that during the Bush years, nobody in the administration would say this on record or for attribution.

I doubt the government will listen even to Dagan: Netanyahu is frozen; Moshe Ya'alon believes in Israel’s eternal right to the Greater Israel; Eli Yishai has no clue about international relations; and Barak seems to have lost the ability to think clearly a long time ago.

I wish I could end on a note of optimism; I wish I could point out a psychological mechanism that will unblock Israel’s leadership from fear and self-righteousness. But I share David Grossman’s despair. All that is left for those of us who want to save Israel from itself - whether Israelis, Jews in the Diaspora or gentiles - is to continue the call to reason, even if we don’t know if, when and how it will be heard.



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