PARIS: What is wrong with Israel? In the last few years, the Jewish state seems to have done more than all of its combined enemies to delegitimize itself in the eyes of the world. Its leaders’ apparent inability to think in strategic terms, and their indifference to the tribunal of global public opinion, is resulting in growing frustration among its citizens and, what may be more dangerous, deepening international isolation.
Where should one look for an explanation for this tragic evolution? Was it simply inevitable for a people who, deprived of a state for more than 2,000 years, may have lost the ability to act collectively in a “raison d’état” manner?
Or perhaps the weight of Holocaust remembrance has blinded Israel’s leaders and distorted their thinking – in ways that, at the time the State of Israel was created, the Holocaust itself almost miraculously did not.
Certainly, the failure of the peace process in the 1990’s, followed by the coming of the second Intifada, appears to have encouraged the radicalization of Israel’s extremes while discouraging moderates. And the revival of religious parties — in a country created by avowed secularists — opened the way for a more politically powerful but also more nationalistic and intolerant setting.
One could also ask whether the arrival of one million “Russians,” regardless of their actual ties to Judaism, had a negative effect on Israeli society, by encouraging ideological rigidity and a disdain for democracy that did not prevail before.
Or is the explanation for Israel’s current predicament to be found on the more prosaic terrain of the country’s dysfunctional democracy?
In reality, all these explanations are largely complementary; none is in contradiction with the others. But the most important cause, the one that should be addressed before all others because it is eroding Israel’s very viability, is the near paralysis of the political system.
Italy can survive being badly governed and with a high level of corruption because it is surrounded by the peaceful environment of the European Union. This is not true of Israel. Protected by a “security wall” on one side and the sea on the other, Israeli citizens may enjoy the feeling of living on an artificial island from which they can connect directly to the areas of modernity and prosperity in Asia and the West. Yet they are surrounded by a sea of angry and frustrated people, and cannot escape the logic of the region they inhabit.
Israel’s political system, through its complex mechanisms of rigged party selection and absolute proportionality, condemns the country to weak coalition governments and escalating corruption. It must be reformed urgently. Government leaders in Israel cannot afford to spend 90% of their time thinking about how to survive politically at a time when the state’s right to exist is being challenged.
To make of their country a pariah is a political, strategic, and moral failure for the leaders of Israel. Those leaders’ strategic decisions over the last few years, if not longer, have been rather consistently poor, or at least imprudent.
This systematic miscalculation can be explained as follows. From the 2006 war in Lebanon to the recent deadly raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla, Israeli leaders have badly appreciated the ratio between military gains and political risks, and the necessary proportionality between the two.
This is all the more dangerous for Israel in view of the apparent decline in its operational military capabilities. Even the operation in Gaza in 2008-2009, despite its apparent military success, was highly damaging for Israel in political terms.
As Israel’s political center of gravity has shifted to the right, if not the extreme right, one consequence whose long-term effects are not sufficiently appreciated is the growing alienation of Arab citizens, who represent 20% of the population. Yesterday, they felt discriminated against. Today, they feel “occupied” by a nation of which they can never be a part, and by a state that they perceive as “democratic” for its Jewish citizens only and “Jewish” for its Arab citizens.
The process of isolation of Israel starts in the heads of its citizens, and is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. History has taught the Jewish people that they can count only on themselves for protection and survival. Yesterday, intelligence without power led to immense suffering. But today, power without intelligence creates immense dangers not only for the Israel, but for the Jewish people at large.
Israel is too small to act foolishly. It desperately needs allies whose populations accept what it is and respect what it does. There will come a moment when Israel’s actions will incite people — not only the most fanatical of the country’s foes, but also the most generously inclined of its supporters – to question Israel’s essence.
Whether or not this moment has already come, Israel cannot continue to be misgoverned in the way that it is. Reform of the country’s political system has simply become a matter of life and death.
Dominique Moisi is a Visiting Professor at Harvard University and the author of The Geopolitics of Emotion. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org).