Today's Leaders of Zion: Thinking You're Right Isn't Enough

The government's latest moves are in stark contrast to the entire history of Zionist and Israeli policy, which recognized the imperative of globalsupport.

Shlomo Avineri
Shlomo Avineri
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Shlomo Avineri
Shlomo Avineri

In responding to the UN vote on Palestinian statehood, the government's decision to build in E-1 and in East Jerusalem is the exact opposite of the underlying principles of how Zionist and Israeli international policies have evolved over the years. When Israel wins broader and deeper international support, it can achieve its aims, and when it is isolated it fails to achieve them.

What the government is doing now is not successfully challenging the Palestinian leadership. Rather it is engaging in unnecessary quarreling with Israel's supporters in the democratic world - the United States and the European countries. It is not enough to think you are right and to convince your supporters of that: In the cruel world of international politics, a small nation can achieve its aims only if it is able to forge alliances with the powers-that-be and to ensure their support - not out of love, but because they are convinced there is congruence between their countries' interests, or their leaders' considerations, and the aims of, in this case, Zionism and the State of Israel.

Theodor Herzl imprinted this harsh truth into the DNA of political Zionism despite considerable objections from other Zionist leaders, who thought it was enough to be convinced yourself that you are right. Therefore, Herzl courted, without success, the German Emperor William II and - with relative success - the reactionary and anti-Semitic Russian interior minister Vyacheslav Plehve. What Herzl hadn't managed to accomplish, Chaim Weizmann managed to do when, in 1917, together with other British Zionists, he succeeded in interweaving the aims of Zionism and Britain's interests in a move that resulted in the Balfour Declaration and later in incorporating it into the league of nation mandate for Britain over Palestine.

In the critical years 1947-1948, Zionist policy succeeded not only in obtaining the support of a majority in the United Nations General Assembly for the establishment of a Jewish state, but also - though for opposite reasons - the support of both the United States, headed by President Harry Truman, and the Soviet Union, headed by Joseph Stalin. That was an astonishing achievement, the importance of which is impossible to exaggerate in light of the fact that it occurred at a time when the two superpowers were in the throes of nascent Cold War, and there was near-violent conflict between them on the question of Berlin.

That was the significance of Herzl's political Zionism: As a political journalist who was very familiar with the history of Europe and the national movements of the 19th century, the father of modern Zionism understood that small nations like the Greeks or Serbs had won independence not only thanks to the liberal voices in the European Christian world that raised an outcry against the Ottoman- Muslim oppression of those nations, but rather because Britain and Russia had an interest in weakening the Ottoman Empire and getting a foothold for themselves in the Balkans.

Realpolitik of this sort is also what was behind the willingness of the Zionist leadership, headed by Weizmann and David Ben- Gurion, to accept the idea of partition. In the bitter debates in the Zionist movement during the 10 years between the Peel commission's proposal to partition the land in 1937 and the resolution to do so at the United Nations on November 29, 1947, the proponents of partition voiced complex arguments. Chiefly, they argued that above and beyond our right to the land, it was clear that the Zionist movement would never win international support if it insisted upon the demand to establish a Jewish state in all of Palestine, with the Yishuv (pre-state Jewish population ) numbering nearly half-a-million souls and the Arab population nearly 1 million: No democratic country would support giving sovereignty over the territory to a Jewish minority over an Arab majority.

However, the outcome of the Arab refusal to discuss any compromise proposal whatsoever won sweeping international support for Israel in the War of Independence - despite Britain's hostility - while the Palestinian Arabs and the Arab states that invaded the nascent Jewish state were perceived as aggressors and as unwilling to strike any fair compromise.

This harsh reality of international politics was not grasped by the Revisionist movement, the major precursor of the Likud party: Vladimir Jabotinsky's impressive rhetoric in his dramatic appearance before the Peel Commission convinced no one, and the Revisionists' maximalism ("There are two banks of the Jordan River, this one is ours and that one too" ) was perceived as unacceptable. Jabotinsky also failed in his attempts to persuade British policy makers that the Yishuv was Britain's best ally in its fight against the Arab world, and would constitute its imperial vanguard in the region. Jabotinsky and his followers convinced themselves of this, but the British felt they knew better what their own interests were.

Ben-Gurion, however, understood very well - and this was during the darkest hours of World War II - the complex combination of cooperation and conflict of interests between the Yishuv and Britain, and had the degree of sophistication needed in order to navigate the narrow space between overlapping and conflicting interests. At a later period he also re-formulated this approach regarding the United States when, in a speech in the Knesset, in 1951, he praised the cooperation that was developing between America and Israel, but warned: "Let us not presume that America identifies or will identify in the future with the State of Israel, because there is no identity between a world super-power and a small, impoverished nation in a distant corner of the Middle East ... [However,] although an identity does not exist between our interests, there is a broad and expanding partnership."

Menachem Begin, though he came from a different background, also understood this basic truth of international reality during his tenure as prime minister. There is no doubt that his willingness to make far-reaching concessions in Sinai derived not only from his desire to reach peace with Egypt, but also from his realization that in the new reality created following Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's dramatic gesture toward the Jewish state, Israel would win American and international support only if it took a significant step toward the Egyptian position, thereby helping the United States strengthen its foothold in the Middle East and reduce the Soviet Union's influence in the region. Begin did this with impressive courage, counter to his previous positions and those of his movement, and with a willingness to risk a painful rift with many of his own supporters.

These are exactly the characteristics that are so lacking in the current moves undertaken by the Netanyahu government. Without going into the issue now of whether it would have been possible to have avoided the diplomatic defeat in the UN General Assembly, what the government has been doing in the period since then is not damage control but rather exacerbating it. Just weeks after the United States and the European countries showed understanding for Israel's actions vis-a-vis Hamas in the Gaza Strip, the government is taking decisions that are deepening not only the rift with the Palestinians (and there may be those in the government who are interested in that ), but also creating a rift with the countries that are most friendly to Israel, headed by the United States and European countries like Britain, France and Germany.

Quite possibly the hard-line positions of the government, which explains that it is only "insisting on our rights," will help it in the election, and presumably Netanyahu is concerned about the rise of the extremists within his own party and is trying to conciliate them. However, anyone who has heard the ministers justifying the government's firebrand decisions must recognize that most of them are living in a bubble of their party branch offices; they do not see the world around them or the Jewish state's profound need to win international support and not to leave the arena to the Palestinians.

What is known in the government's jargon as "the suitable Zionist answer" is therefore contrary to all the moves of political Zionism and is devoid of the sophistication and political intelligence that characterized it from Herzl through Weizmann and Ben-Gurion, and ultimately Begin. Sacrificing these achievements on the altar of support from one Likud or Yisrael Beiteinu party branch or another demonstrates an appalling lack of responsibility: There have never been leaders who have steered the Zionist wheel of state entrusted to their hands so irresponsibly.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.Credit: AP

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