The Existential Threat as a Pillar of Israeli Policy

Who will save Israel when the chief of staff and the head of the Mossad are as weak and compliant as the current attorney general?

zeev sternhell
Zeev Sternhell
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Israel's Negev Nuclear Research Center, Dimona.
Israel's Negev Nuclear Research Center, Dimona.Credit: Reuters / Haaretz Archive
zeev sternhell
Zeev Sternhell

Israeli society has always admired power. Contempt for Jewish weakness was the primary embodiment of the old principle of the negation of the exile. The country was conquered by force, together with the sophisticated exploitation of Arab weakness, and the state was founded in a storm of war.

The Six Day War was seen not only as a continuation of the War of Independence, but also as proof our ability to turn power into a permanent political tool and a basis for the legitimacy of our status in the Middle East as a whole. Peace with Egypt, which made the management of the first Lebanon war possible in conditions of luxury, freed the government echelon to a large extent from the need for self-restraint, which had been born out of the Yom Kippur War.

The removal of the PLO from Lebanon in the 1980s entrenched Israel’s right to hold the territories that had been conquered in 1967 and take full advantage of the enemy’s weakness. That was, at first, the secret of the settlement enterprise’s charm in the eyes of many on the left as well.

Therefore, no matter what sort of government is formed after the elections, the chance that Israel will into enter serious negotiations with the Arabs is close to nil. If that were not the case, Israel would have long ago adopted the joint Arab initiative of 2002. Israel sees no reason to reward the Arabs for their helplessness: the settlement enterprise, the oppression of the Palestinians and keeping them under conditions of apartheid will continue as long the European Union and the United States do not jointly apply massive diplomatic and economic pressure on Israel.

But the cult of power is only one aspect of reality. The feeling of being the persecuted victim was always the second. Israeli whining, ugly and by now well-established, and the embarrassing use of the memory of the Holocaust by Israeli officials have transformed the cultivation of existential danger into one of the pillars of Israeli policy.

It was this way even before the Iranian nuclear program appeared on the scene. And it was in this context that Israel’s military might was built. True, Arab potential as a whole poses real danger, perhaps even existential danger, and thanks to this fact, the young State of Israel received the cooperation of France in the '50s — with tacit American approval — which produced, according to foreign sources, Israel’s non-conventional military capability.

The constant harping on the string of existential danger is one of the reasons for Israel’s behavior, but is not the complete explanation. Any rational person asks himself: How can Benjamin Netanyahu, that champion whiner, allow himself to provoke the main provider of Israel’s weaponry and our sole defensive anchor in the Security Council? Are the Sheldon Adelsons and the big Jewish money that supports him playing some role here?

That is why it is hard to assume that military might, in its various aspects, is only a defensive weapon in our hands. It is also a political tool that hints to the world that Israel must never be pushed to the wall because, under extreme conditions, it is liable to respond and ignite the entire region, from the Persian Gulf to the border of Pakistan.

Another question arises here: What exactly are those vital interests that Israel’s military might conceals and who defines them? Do they not also refer to “the liberated territories of the homeland” and Jewish settlement there? And what will happen here if the government should pass into the hands of the Bennetts, Elkins and Levins?

What will happen if the security agencies are no longer headed by people like those who, in the not-too-distant past, contributed to stopping the dangerous Iranian adventure that Netanyahu was willing to risk, but rather by a weak and submissive chief of staff and Mossad head, such as the incumbent attorney general and state comptroller? Who will come then to save us from them?

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