I just watched an interview of the new Israeli Ambassador to the UK, Tzipi Hotovely. She was interviewed by Colin Shindler, a historian and professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. Shindler, despite his qualifications as a specialist in the history of Israel, displayed the typical bias against that country of most British academics, but Hotovely did an excellent job, demonstrating that a former firebrand politician can become a diplomat.
I found one question in particular interesting. Do you think, Shindler asked, that Israel’s recent normalization of relations with several Arab states will make war with Iran more or less likely? Hotovely’s response was that this was a positive development, and that it showed that Israel wasn’t the only country in the Middle East that was worried about Iran. But she didn’t answer specifically whether it made war more or less likely.
I suspect Hotovely thought, as I did, that it was unnecessary to add that of course it reduced the chance of violent conflict. After all, Iran’s attempt to expand her sphere of influence in the region, especially by trying to encircle Israel with armed proxies, is the typical behavior of an aggressor that will lead to war unless the aggressor can be deterred. And certainly an alliance between the potential victims of aggression has a deterrent force. So what on earth was Shindler thinking?
Here is another example: a recent CNN “analysis” included this: “Even if Biden is willing to return to the terms of the Iran nuclear deal, the case for diplomacy has been weakened by the Trump-ordered US strike that killed [Iranian General Qassem] Soleimani.”
Weakened? By killing Soleimani, Trump took an action that reduced Iran’s ability to take extra-diplomatic actions (read: terrorism or war). That strengthened the American negotiating position, making it more likely that the Iranians would make concessions. But the writer seems to believe the opposite. It should be obvious that achieving agreement in negotiations is much more likely when one side sees no alternative but to agree. If Biden wants to negotiate over Iran’s nuclear program, Trump did him a big favor by killing Soleimani and by applying tough sanctions.
I suspect it is a particular kind of illogic that seems to be common among those with a certain kind of historical ignorance, and in the case of Jews like Shindler, a certain psychological syndrome.
What motivates regimes? For good regimes, it is primarily the national interests of their countries; for bad regimes, it is the personal and political interests of the leaders. Motivations almost never include moral considerations or ideas of fair play or justice. Regimes are sometimes slightly influenced by fellow-feeling for their linguistic and religious fellows, as in the “special relationship” between the US and the UK, the Russian connection to other Slavic peoples, or the support for the Palestinians by fellow Muslims. But interests still predominate, and presidents, dictators, and kings get up in the morning and think about how they can promote them, and what might stand in their way. When an enemy backs down or shows weakness, they push forward. It would be irrational to follow suit in backing down, and usually they don’t.
A national leader has to play both offense and defense, in American football terms. They need to move their interests forward, while frustrating the designs of their enemies. Direct conflict is expensive and risky, so their offensive actions are usually incremental, and in proportion to what they can get away with. Defensive actions take two forms: direct defense, like antimissile systems; and deterrence, which is calculated to make the enemy’s possible offensive actions so expensive that they will not be justified in terms of interests. Both kinds of defense are necessary.
The Trump Administration’s strategy against Iran is classically rational. The high-level goal is to prevent Iran from taking control of the Middle East and its natural resources, and in particular to prevent the regime from getting nuclear weapons which would facilitate that takeover. This is accomplished by wielding the massive economic power of the US. The powerful American military functions as a deterrent against Iran’s using its favored weapon, proxy terrorism, in response. I have little doubt that if the Trump policy were continued, Iran could be forced to back down without open conflict.
The Obama Administration acted differently, either because it did not understand Iranian goals, or because its own objectives were not to frustrate Iranian expansionism, or because it was incompetent (or perhaps a bit of all three). Despite America’s enormous economic and military advantages over Iran, it negotiated as if from a position of weakness.
Israel today does not act with complete rationality for various reasons. For one thing, there is widespread disagreement about national goals. For example, as a “right-winger” I believe that it should be a national goal to achieve Jewish sovereignty over all the land of Israel, and that Israel should be the nation-state of the Jewish people. There are also Israelis that believe that Judea and Samaria should be under Arab sovereignty, and that Israel should be a “state of all its citizens” like the US; and there are Israelis who would take intermediate positions.
As a result, the (very democratic) Israeli regime has difficulty in implementing policy consistently, because it is pulled back and forth by various constituencies. From a military point of view, it relies too much on direct defense, like Iron dome and sophisticated barriers, and not enough on deterrence, which must be exercised from time to time in order to maintain credibility. But for various reasons, in part the fear of interference from outside powers, it is loath to do so.
There is also another issue, more of a spiritual problem: because Israeli Jews have lived so long in an antisemitic world, they are unsure of the legitimacy of their very existence. As Kenneth Levin explained in his book, The Oslo Syndrome: Delusions of a People Under Siege, Jews have come to accept the antisemitic judgment that their persecution is their own fault, and believe that they can influence their enemies by becoming “better” people. The effect is to prevent them from taking strong action when needed. Oslo Syndrome sufferers often echo the complaints of antisemitic Europeans and the “human rights industry.”
Ben Gurion and Jabotinsky hoped for a “new Jew” to replace the ones that cowered in the ghettos of Europe. Although they created a generation of Jews that were capable of fighting for their lives and to establish a state, it has been hard to repair all of the damage from the millennia of diaspora existence. Ben Gurion’s New Jews believed that they didn’t need religion, which they saw as part of the weakness of the old Jews. But the danger was that without it, once they succeeded in establishing a state and securing the Jewish people against persecution, they would forget why the Jewish people needed a Jewish state. And this has to a certain extent happened.
But there is also a new generation that represents a synthesis, Jews that are both strong enough to fight and spiritual enough to know why they need to. Call them “Newer Jews.” And the interview that prompted this post, which pits a member of this new generation of Jewish leaders, Tzipi Hotovely, against a Jew fatally stricken with Oslo Syndrome, Colin Shindler, is a good way to see the difference.