Israel's Risk

02/05/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

As Israeli ground forces continue to fight their way through Gaza, there's been no shortage of commentary on the causes and possible consequences of the current conflict.

For the most part, the consensus runs as follows: Hamas began the violence when it resumed launching rockets indiscriminately into southern Israel; Israel escalated the situation with a disproportionate response; and now, with Israeli soldiers in Gaza, whether the conflict destabilizes the region as a whole depends on the extent of Iranian interference.

In basic terms this consensus is accurate, but two further points ought to be noted.

The first is the deliberation with which Iran, Hamas, and Israel all began planning for this when the six month cease-fire was signed last summer.

The tell here isn't just the timing of rocket fire by Hamas or the precise maneuvers of the Israeli incursion, but the highly coordinated messaging by senior Israeli and Palestinian officials. Given such tight coordination, we probably won't see anything significantly off-script on either side for at least another week or ten days; only then will we get a sense of which side has gained greater leverage.

Meanwhile, the second point is much broader.

In short, the fighting in Gaza is not merely a struggle for Palestinian autonomy or regional power. Even more, the violence there is the latest episode in a longstanding drama over the legitimacy of the Israeli state -- and by extension, over the legitimacy of the international order that recognizes Israeli sovereignty.

That's a heady claim, so bear with me as I explain.

For starters, consider the view that Israel is legitimate only to the extent that it secures the territorial sovereignty, now and for succeeding generations, of a specifically Jewish population. In the aftermath of the second World War, when the Holocaust lingered in recent memory and nation-states could still appeal directly to ethnic pretensions, that view carried a good deal of weight. Not surprisingly, it was perhaps most succinctly articulated by Golda Meir, the former Israeli Prime Minister, who once claimed that, "For me the supreme morality is that the Jewish people have a right to exist. Without that there is no morality in the world."

Alongside this view lies the argument that the Israeli state is legitimate because it is democratic. According to this claim, the fight for Israel's security is not a fight for Jewish persons so much as a fight for human rights. Presumably this view is what Israel's current Foreign Minister, Tzipi Livni, had in mind when she recently hoped aloud "that at the end of this military operation, the outcome will be victory for those who believe in our values."

The trouble for Israel is that while these two understandings of Israeli sovereignty were once complimentary, over the last two decades they have increasingly diverged. With the end of the Cold War and the proliferation of democracy, nation-states can no longer defend their sovereignty in purely ethnic terms without compromising their support in the international community. As a result, Israel, which is uniquely dependent on international consensus, has had to go out of its way to defend its actions in terms of democratic values and human rights.

Yet from the First Intifada on, the asymmetric threats Israel has faced have made such a defense unsustainable. So long as the Israeli public calls upon its military to respond to indiscriminate attacks, the IDF will inflict collateral damage; so long as there is collateral damage, images of wounded Palestinian civilians will reverberate throughout the world; and so long as such images continue to spread, Israeli appeals to human rights will sound hollow at best and duplicitous at worst. Invariably, the end result will be the continued erosion of popular support for both Israeli sovereignty and the international order that guarantees it.

Unfortunately, Israel's incursion into Gaza has only accelerated this cycle. Despite the best efforts of Israel's next generation press team -- replete with YouTube Channel, Twitter account, and even embedded scholar-soldiers -- the live news feed from Ramattan is currently winning out.

As a result, what we're watching is not so much low-intensity warfare as the continued fracture of the post-Soviet international order. The democratic world may have won the Cold War, but its triumph ushered in a form of conflict that by definition the modern nation-state cannot legitimately engage.

By entering Gaza, Israel has opted to risk its sovereignty rather than admit that development. Yet its sovereignty is not all that is at stake.