The Legitimacy Deficit

The moral of this story is simple: Israel triumphed in conflicts when its politics were moderate and its military strong. Conversely, it failed when its politics were inflexible and its military limited.

For 10 years Israel has tried to push back the Iranian nuclear threat, doing everything it could to gain time. But now, with time running out, it is clear that Israel isn’t prepared for the moment of truth.

The 10 years it gained through stalling were spent in repression and denial, as the country buried its head in the sand. That time was not used on the political and social work necessary for the crucial moment. This is why the state lacks the internal and international legitimacy needed to attack Iran; it even lacks the legitimacy to face a nuclear Iran.

Though the story is not over yet, things do not look good. The state is in a serious legitimacy deficit, and this puts it in dire strategic straits.

The War of Independence was a terrible ordeal. It killed one out of 10 Israelis and forced Israel to commit brutalities. The reason Israel of 1948 met that enormous task was that both the world and Israel itself recognized the legitimacy of its actions. This international and internal legitimacy, which came after the Holocaust and the Jewish side’s acceptance of the UN Partition Plan, enabled the small, organized and determined Jewish community to triumph over the Arabs in Palestine as well as over invading Arab armies, and to establish a state.

The Six-Day War was also a dangerous conflict. The clash against Gamal Abdel Nasser’s modern Arab nationalism nearly posed an existential challenge to the 19-year-old state. The reason Israelis of 1967 passed that test was twofold: again, both they and the world recognized the legitimacy of their actions. The international and internal legitimacy that Israel enjoyed before the occupation enabled the small, strong and determined state to forge a decisive victory over its Arab neighbors in six days.

The second intifada was another difficult trial. The rampant terror attacks following the Camp David Summit paralyzed the economy and put society to a supreme test. The reason Israel passed was twofold: the world had seen the Israeli government’s generous peace offer and recognized Israel was right, as did the Israelis themselves. The international and internal legitimacy enabled Israel to bear its 1,000 casualties and launch a counter offensive to root out the suicide bombers.

The moral of this story is simple: Israel triumphed in conflicts ‏(in 1948, 1967, 2000 and 2003‏) when its politics were moderate and its military strong. Conversely, it failed ‏(in 1973 and 1982‏) when its politics were inflexible and its military limited.     

The right combination of willingness for peace and readiness for war is what guaranteed success. The reverse combination caused much failure and grief. Israel withstood the challenges it faced only when it had sufficient international and internal legitimacy to enable it both to use crushing force and to sustain heavy casualties. Only when the world and Israelis recognized the legitimacy of Israel’s actions could the state pull together all its resources, leap wholeheartedly into the fray, and win.

Over the last few years, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have tried to put together a credible military option against Iran, and they made clever diplomatic use of it to push the world to act. But they also failed badly: they did not present a diplomatic initiative; they did not engender national unity; and they neglected to provide Israeli society with a vision, a dream or a sense of meaning.

Thus, they failed to do what matters most: to give Israel the international and internal legitimacy it needs to face Iran. Now, Netanyahu and Barak need to face that historic failure as well as its grave consequences.