There is a familiar refrain that has been coming out of Israel for some time, and it was on display during Prime Minister Netanyahu’s visit to the U.S. last week. The refrain is that Israel must maintain the status quo – sometimes referred to in shorthand as “conflict management” – despite its desire to have peace because outside events beyond its control are hemming it in. The Palestinian refusal to negotiate without preconditions, the risk of the West Bank turning into a terrorist enclave akin to Gaza, threats to regional stability from a variety of state and non-state actors, European sympathy for the Palestinians, and the resurgence of jihadi terrorism all combine for an antediluvian environment in which Israel cannot afford to take any risks lest the flood waters come rushing in. It is a picture that portrays Israel as an ark in a stormy sea, an island of stability whose actions are constrained because of its environment.
In many ways, this picture is an accurate one. All of the above factors exist to one degree or another, and they all impact Israel’s security and economy. This notion that to act in the face of such a threat matrix would be to assume unmanageable risks was nicely explicated by Natan Sachs in Foreign Affairs recently, where he described Netanyahu’s strategy as anti-solutionism emanating from a belief that there are no current fixes for Israel’s myriad challenges. The Zionist project becomes an inward looking one that tries to passively fend off threats, rather than an outward looking one that attempts to actively solve problems. I have many quarrels with Netanyahu’s leadership of Israel, but perhaps the largest one is that I find this general philosophy to be fundamentally at odds with the Zionist ideal. The strategy of sitting back and waiting for the universe to present a more propitious moment would be unrecognizable to Israel’s founders and iconic leaders, and it reveals a Zionism of excuses rather than actions.
Like many American Jews of my generation, I was raised on a diet of stories about the Panglossian wonder of Israel. The narrative went from Israeli pioneers braving malaria and draining the swamps of Palestine, to building the institutions of a future state despite hostility from the British and the Arabs, to the unimaginable diplomatic accomplishment of having the two opposing Cold War superpowers both vote in favor of partition, to the successive military miracles of beating back the invading armies of 1948 and then achieving an unthinkable victory in a mere six days in June 1967, to the modern successes of Israel in a variety of economic and technological spheres. This was a wholly sanitized narrative that avoided many contradictions and unpleasant truths, but the running thread throughout was that Zionism meant taking action and working to better your circumstances, no matter how insurmountable the challenges may appear. Zionism did not wait for the world it inhabited to change; it changed the world it inhabited.
While the above story is an incomplete one, the point about Zionism was correct. The yishuv in Mandatory Palestine did in fact face huge challenges and nearly impossible odds, and those odds did not terribly improve with the establishment of Israel. Zionism was the personification of a can-do attitude and creating your own positive reality, and it is no accident that Israel was widely admired as a plucky underdog. The Zionist project was something to be admired because it represented the ultimate victory of hard work and persistence, and above all it was a philosophy of doing.
What Netanyahu now peddles is the polar opposite. After listening to Netanyahu last week in the U.S. and spending this week in Israel meeting with various Israeli officials and politicians, I can’t help but sink under the weight of the ingrained pessimism and various pretexts for inaction. To listen to the Israeli government is to hear about an Israel at the mercy of its military and diplomatic adversaries, an Israel that cannot act because the barely functioning Palestinian government is outmaneuvering it, an Israel that has a litany of excuses for why it is dependent on the good will of others in order to improve its own situation. If only Mahmoud Abbas would drop his preconditions for negotiating, if only Palestinians would stop incitement, if only the Palestinian Authority would acknowledge that Israel is a Jewish state…if, if, if. I am not suggesting that these are not legitimate complaints, only that to allow them to bog you down and be held hostage by their very existence conveys a complete lack of imagination and confidence. It is a betrayal of Zionist ideals, pure and simple, and one that makes Israel look weak rather than strong.
It is accepted conventional wisdom that the solutions to the various elements of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are known to everyone, and it is just a matter of getting both sides to say yes. I think a better way of formulating this is that the solutions are simple, but they are not easy. They will involve painful concessions and even more painful actions, and neither side is going to come out of this with everything they want. The difference between the Zionism of the 20th century and Netanyahu’s 21st century Zionism is that the former understood that hardship is not the same thing as impossibility, whereas the latter conflates the two at the drop of a hat. I know which version of Zionism I favor.