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Andrew Levine

Andrew Levine

Posted: September 3, 2010 04:17 PM

The "Existential Threat"

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"Existential threat" recently entered the political lexicon, courtesy of Israeli paranoia. The expression sounds portentous, but all it seems to mean is that someone's or something's existence is in jeopardy. If so, the world is full of existential threats. But the expression is seldom used to refer to any of them except when the threatened party is Israel. Thus Iran's still "aspirational" nuclear weapons program or, sometimes Iran itself are existential threats and so is Palestinian "terrorism." An existential threat makes an excellent casus belli, a justification for war.

It is unclear, however what users of the expression think is threatened: is it the existence of the state of Israel as a state not of its citizens, but of the Jewish people? Or is it the physical existence of the inhabitants of that state? Those who promote the expression relish its ambiguity. It serves their purpose well.

In reality, of course, there is nothing in the offing emanating from Iran or occupied Palestine that rises to the level of an existential threat in either sense, notwithstanding some remarks of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. According to conventional wisdom, the Iranian threat is the more serious one; in reality, it is the more fanciful. Even were Iran to succeed in building a nuclear device -- an unlikely prospect in the short term, since, according to all available evidence, they are trying only to build the capacity, not the weapon itself -- they would have to be suicidal to use it against Israel for any purpose other than deterrence. Israel, after all, is the most bellicose state on the planet, judging by the number of wars it has started; and in addition to being otherwise armed to the teeth, it has more than two hundred of its own "deterrents" at the ready. Does anyone think that, if threatened, Israel's leaders would be sane enough not to use them? They're crazy, but not that crazy.

Ahmadinejad may not have all his marbles either but he isn't crazy enough to risk annihilation, and neither are the theocrats who hold ultimate power in the Islamic Republic. Nevertheless, Iran's nuclear program makes sense. The Iraq War demonstrated how urgent it is for Iran, and other countries in the way of imperialism's designs, to be able to deter American and Israeli arms.

It is well to keep this in mind as Israel agitates for permission to bomb Iran from its protector of last resort, us; and as face-to-face Israeli-Palestinian negotiations resume in Washington under American auspices. An Israel-Iran war would be so harmful to American interests that it is hard to see how even an abjectly servile Congress and administration would permit it. Israel may just have to learn to live with that existential threat. But, on the Palestine question, count on Israel to get its way -- again.

Getting its way means having the latest round of negotiations fail. That is almost certain to happen because there really is an existential threat that America will continue to let Israeli leaders deal with in their own way. The threat has nothing to do with those who resist the Israeli occupation -- "terrorists," according to conventional parlance. It comes from the fertility of Israeli Arabs and the Palestinians living under the Israeli occupation. What they wield is a "demographic bomb," as they call it in Israel, a birth rate that threatens the existence of a Jewish state in mandate Palestine. This is why Israel has not annexed the territories it occupies, and why a "two state" solution is acceptable to many Israelis. It is the only remotely acceptable way to assure that the Jewish state will remain predominantly Jewish.

Israel could tolerate Bantustans under its control, but a viable Palestinian state with which Israel lives in peace would be unacceptable; a point Israel's leaders, left and right, have always understood. It would undercut the state's rationale and therefore, ultimately, its legitimacy. This is why peace has remained elusive, despite the fact that the general contours of a negotiated settlement, acceptable to all who believe in a two state solution, have been clear for decades. The details were spelled out at Taba in January 2001 during the final days of the Clinton administration. In the ensuing years, Israel has created more "facts on the ground" and, thanks in part to Israeli and American connivance, the Palestinian Authority has been severely weakened. But it would not require Solomonic wisdom to bring Taba up to date. Even Hillary Clinton could do it.

However it isn't going to happen. Because Israel holds almost all the cards while the Palestinian Authority holds almost none, the only way forward is for the United States to force Israel to make peace; it could do it, but it won't. And Israel won't do it on its own -- not just because many Israelis harbor hopes for a Greater Israel or because the Israeli political class is in the thrall of a nefarious and religiously driven settler movement. The more important reason is that if there were peace, Israel's reason for being and therefore its hold over "diaspora" Jews and indeed its own population would diminish, not abruptly but gradually and inexorably.

Leaders of the Israeli political and military establishment understand this. It is why they have conjured up an existential threat from Iran, and why, regardless what they say, they repeatedly draw back from making peace with the Palestinians.

The animating principle of the Zionist movement from the 1890s on has been that Jews need a state to serve as a refuge in a world in which anti-Semitism is a force of nature. That thought never gained much traction before the Nazis took power in Germany, and even then it was resisted by secular Jews committed to universalist ideologies and also, for theological and philosophical reasons, by Orthodox and Reform Jews. In time, universalist ideologies faded and Zionism hijacked Judaism. Meanwhile, as Jewish assimilation has proceeded at full throttle in the United States and other Western countries and with anti-Semitism no longer much of a concern, Israeli nationalism has all but monopolized Jewish identity politics.

Because the Jewish religion, shorn of its Zionist shell, is a non-starter for most Jews today, and because inter-marriage is so prevalent, it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain a sense of Jewish identity on either religious or ethnic grounds. That leaves only Israel. But, as Israeli society sheds its historical ties to secularism and socialism, Israel has become hard to love or even to admire. No wonder that so few diaspora Jews would even think of living in the Promised Land or that so many Israelis live abroad.

There is, of course, still the memory of the Nazi Judeocide, and Zionists exploit it for all it's worth. But as time passes, that memory becomes less serviceable; and not all the Holocaust museums in the world can maintain its effectiveness. The Zionist movement succeeded in appropriating moral capital from the devastation Nazi Germany wreaked upon European Jewry, but it has spent that capital recklessly, and there is not much of it left.

Enter Iran's bomb. If that existential threat did not exist, it would have to be invented, as indeed it has been. The Palestinians' demographic bomb does not have to be invented. But its specter is hardly scary enough to do the job on its own.

In the end, it probably will become clear to almost everyone, in Israel and out, that the Zionist idea is unworkable. Then, despite itself, Israel will either become a normal state -- a state of its citizens, with a large Jewish population -- or, more likely, most of its Jews will depart for places many of them would rather live anyway. But these welcome changes won't happen without a fight, and without imperiling the world.

Therefore, as Israel again talks peace while blocking a peaceful settlement, count on it continuing, without dissimulation, to agitate for war with Iran. Within the higher echelons of the American government, only the military understands how unwise it would be to let Israel have its way. But we cannot count on them. It is therefore urgent to mobilize to the point where cowed and corrupt Democrats and Republicans cannot fail to take notice. Israel must be forced to make peace, whatever the implications for its ethnocratic character; and Israeli paranoia about Iran must be quashed. If not, it will be Israel itself that poses the ultimate existential threat - not just to itself, but to us all.