Israel’s real existential threat

Despite its fears over the Iran nuclear deal, geopolitical analyst Jacob L Shapiro believes the greatest challenges facing the state of Israel lie within rather than outside its borders.

To listen to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the US-Iran nuclear accord is a catastrophic development for the Jewish state. From Netanyahu’s perspective, it is a ‘bad deal’-one that paves the way for Iran to develop its own nuclear weapons and take a step toward fulfilling the wish of erstwhile Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini that Israel should vanish from the arena of time.
It’s not just Netanyahu. Across the spectrum, Israeli politicians express fear. Isaac Herzog, leader of the Labor Party, told journalist Jeffrey Goldberg that the Iran deal would ‘unleash a lion from its cage’. Another of Netanyahu’s main political rivals, centrist Yair Lapid of the centrist Yesh Atid party, has said there is no difference between the opposition and the coalition when it comes to the Iran deal; the Israeli political establishment uniformly opposes the agreement.

There can be no doubt that the Iran deal is a challenge for Israel. But the fact is that even if Iran developed a nuclear weapon—and some believe Iran has more of an interest in appearing to develop a weapon than in actually obtaining one—such a development would not represent an existential threat to Israel. For one thing, Israel’s own nuclear weapons are the region’s worst kept secret, and for all its bluster, Iran is not immune from the military doctrine of mutually assured destruction. Furthermore, strained as US-Israeli relations are right now, the United States would not tolerate an Iranian attack on so close an American ally, and Tehran has no interest in inviting American retaliation.

Israel’s greatest existential threats are internal, not external. The breakdown of the rule of law, the weakening of political institutions and the loss of a nationally shared purpose are challenges Israel faces now, and they are more threatening than Tehran’s rhetoric. Iran cannot destroy Israel in the current geopolitical environment. Only Israel can destroy itself.

Setting the scene

On July 31, at around 4am, terrorists set fire to two homes in the West Bank village of Douma, near Nablus, and spray-painted Hebrew slogans on the sides of the houses, including ‘revenge’ and ‘Long live the Messiah’. One of the houses was empty, but a Palestinian family was sleeping in the other. When the smoke cleared, an 18-month-old child had been burned alive. About a week later, on August 8, the child’s father succumbed to wounds sustained in the fire.

Israeli politicians said all the right things the day after the arson attack. Netanyahu called it a ‘reprehensible and horrific act of terrorism’, but a member of Netanyahu’s own Likud party, Gilad Erdan, said it most poignantly: ‘A nation whose children were burned in the Holocaust needs to do a lot of soul-searching if it bred people who burn other human beings.’

Despite the numerous strong condemnations, no arrests have yet been made in direct connection to the arson attack. Some known members of extremist groups, the ‘likely suspects’, were arrested but were released shortly thereafter. Israel, home to some of the most feared and respected intelligence agencies in the entire world, seems unable to find the perpetrators. It betrays a lack of political will to prevent this sort of behaviour.

Violence between Israelis and Palestinians is nothing new. For more than a century, since before nationalist feelings congealed into the now-familiar categories of ‘Israelis’ and ‘Palestinians’, Jews and Arabs have fought and killed each other, often in horrible ways.

NATION STATES: Israel, Egypt, Turkey & Iran
NATION STATES: Israel, Egypt, Turkey & Iran

But while geopolitics may be indifferent to the fates of individuals or statements made by politicians, geopolitics is concerned with the failure of a country’s institutions, or with the fraying of the threads that bind nation-states together. Ever since the early days of Israel’s existence, the Israeli government has not tolerated violence that is not sanctioned by the state. One of the most important moments in Israeli history was when Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion gave the order to sink the Altalena, a ship that was carrying arms to the Irgun, a paramilitary force that had not yet been integrated into the newly consolidated Israel Defence Force. Control over violence is a key sign of a state’s strength, and the lack of political will to rein in those non-state actors responsible for the attack in Douma suggests that Israel’s cohesion—a source of its geopolitical power—is showing cracks.

The pros and cons of nationalism

Israel is one of the few true nation-states that exist in the Middle East. The others are Egypt, Turkey and Iran, all of which enjoy the kinds of geographic advantages that historically have led to the development of political institutions and coherent national identities. The Nile Delta has been a home to civilisations for millennia, and modern Egypt rules the delta, despite an insufficient amount of resources to support its 80-plus million people. Turkish nationalism rose from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire not just because Kemal Ataturk was able to convince his countrymen of a shared purpose but also because, despite the empire’s losses, a new Turkey was able to reassert control over the Bosporus and the Dardanelles by 1936. Iran, the geographic heir of ancient Persia, is a proud country that has survived years of harsh international sanctions in no small part due to its strong national identity forged in and protected by the mountainous regions surrounding Iran’s population centres.

And yet while nationalism can bind nations together, it often makes them more aggressive. Turkey has something of a dismemberment complex from the surgery imperial France and England conducted upon the Ottoman Empire. Ankara therefore reacts harshly when it feels threatened by Syrian Kurds across the border securing a region of autonomous political governance, much less Kurds within its own borders with similar aspirations. Iran is not content to isolate itself behind the Zagros Mountains; it must push out and project its influence into Iraq. Egypt’s military rules the country, whoever the president might be, and yet Cairo’s generals could not wait for former President Mohammed Morsi’s political Islam and political inexperience to lose in elections; it engineered a coup d’etat which has done considerable harm to Egypt’s reputation in the region and abroad.

Israel is the product of Zionism, a particular strain of Jewish nationalism that emerged in the second half of the 19th century. Zionism, and many of the various other nationalist movements of the same time period, developed during the golden age of national self-determination. The idea that nations and peoples have an inalienable right to self-government and independence in their own lands became one of the expressed goals of the Allies as laid out in the Atlantic Charter of 1941, and it is enshrined in the very first article of the charter of the United Nations. The prevailing moral principle of the day was national self-determination, and as is often the case, the moral principle du jour did not reflect the geopolitical reality, instead shrouding it in faux legitimacy.


When Jews immigrated to Palestine in waves starting in the late 19th century, they were under no illusions that the land was simply empty and there for the taking. Many of Zionism’s most notable thinkers, such as the cultural Zionist Ahad Haam (Asher Ginsberg) and the militant leader of Revisionist Zionism and a founder of the previously mentioned Irgun, Zeev Jabotinsky, recognised that the native Arab population of Palestine would be hostile to the idea of a Jewish state.

Jabotinsky understood that Jews were the authors of a colonialist enterprise and believed that the justice of the Zionist cause was validated by the Western world’s recognition that Jews had a right to return to their ancestral homeland. Today, Israel is protected by its Iron Dome technology, the name given to the missile defence system protecting Israelis from rocket attacks. In 1923, Jabotinsky declared that the British soldiers protecting Jewish colonisation of Mandate Palestine were an ‘Iron Wall’, one that would eventually be manned by Jewish soldiers. Jabotinsky did not believe that what he described as a ‘voluntary agreement’ could ever be achieved with ‘Palestine Arabs’. Jewish strength had to be proven; only when the neighbouring Arabs understood that they could make no breach in the ‘Iron Wall’ would it be possible to make peace on equal terms.

And yet even Jabotinsky, among the most militant of early Zionist thinkers, did not believe that the state of affairs as they existed for him would reign forever. Jabotinsky believed there would come a day when the rights of Arab citizens and Arab national integrity would be recognised by a strong Jewish state; once Jews were strong enough to stand as their own iron wall, to rule and govern what was theirs, Jabotinsky thought Jews and Arabs, ‘like good neighbours’, could one day live side by side in peace.

Israel today

One part of Jabotinsky’s vision has come to fruition. Israel is a strong state, armed to the teeth by its great power patron, the United States. It has a modern economy that is thriving compared to its neighbours’. Peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan have eliminated some of Israel’s greatest historical existential threats. Attacks from Hezbollah or Syrian militants are an issue that Israel has to deal with, but they do not threaten the country’s existence.

However, Jabotinsky also thought that once Israel achieved a sufficient level of strength and power, it would be able to reconcile the inherent contradiction in Zionism’s project, which was that national self-determination for the Jews on some level meant denying that same thing to another people. Current sensibilities dictate that colonialism was an inherently sinister enterprise, but in the first half of the 20th century, the global consensus was that colonialism and national self-determination were the internationally recognised building blocks of a fair and peaceful global system. Even Jabotinsky did not think that such a strategy was eternal.

Which brings us to the Palestinians. The Palestinian problem has been described as ‘an irritant that Israel can manage so long as it does not undermine Israeli unity’. This is still fundamentally the case. Not even a wide-scale third intifada could affect Israel at the existential level. Since the arson attack that helped frame this narrative, there have been protests, unrest, multiple stabbings at border checkpoints-all things that most Israelis will have no contact with in their daily lives.

The Palestinians know this. Each of the last three American presidents has made a realisation of the two-state model a primary foreign policy goal-and each has failed. It has become clear to the Palestinian National Authority that negotiations with Israel will not lead to the creation of an independent Palestinian State. Meanwhile, Hamas is contemplating turning in its resistance credentials. Various reports indicate that Israel is considering allowing Gaza to construct some kind of port and is willing to let Gazan day labourers work in Israel in return for eight to ten years of quiet. Netanyahu’s office has forcefully denied these rumours, but that is for the sake of optics. Sources say the talks are occurring, and both sides are taking them seriously.

Hamas is attempting to capitalise on what it sees as a weakness. Israel is actively engaging in behaviour that makes a two-state solution untenable, and yet it is not applying Israeli laws and justice to Palestinian residents that are for all intents and purposes under its rule. Palestinians are now betting on the idea that the breakdown of Israeli political institutions, as evidenced by the inability of Israeli police to make arrests in the Douma case, is a far graver threat to Israel than the rockets Hamas could fire from Gaza, or popular unrest in the West Bank.

It is often said that Khomeini claimed Israel should be wiped off the face of the map. That is a mistranslation. Academics Juan Cole and Arash Norouzi, among others, have pointed out that what the Supreme Leader was really saying was that Israel would collapse. And if we pay careful attention, we can begin to see cracks in the Iron Wall of Israel’s founding principles. From all appearances, Israel has reached a point where the Shin Bet either cannot or will not arrest terrorists accused of horrible crimes. Israel would rather make a short-term deal for peace with a mortal enemy like Hamas than face the fact that many people live as second-class citizens or worse under its supervision. Both Israelis and Palestinians have trouble imagining what a sustainable two-state solution even looks like any more. Israel was founded out of a potent combination of geographic advantage and shared purpose. It is the degradation of that purpose-and not possible developments in centrifuges more than 1,400 kilometres away-that is a far more potent challenge for Israel to face.

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