Since World War II, no state has suffered so cruel a reversal of fortunes as Israel. Admired all the way into the 1970s as the state of "those plucky Jews" who survived against all odds and made democracy and the desert bloom in a climate hostile to both liberty and greenery, Israel has become the target of creeping delegitimization. The denigration comes in two guises. The first, the soft version, blames Israel first and most for whatever ails the Middle East, and for having corrupted U.S. foreign policy. It is the standard fare of editorials around the world, not to mention the sheer venom oozing from the pages of the Arab-Islamic press. The more recent hard version zeroes in on Israel's very existence. According to this dispensation, it is Israel as such, and not its behavior, that lies at the root of troubles in the Middle East. Hence the "statocidal" conclusion that Israel's birth, midwifed by both the United States and the Soviet Union in 1948, was a grievous mistake, grandiose and worthy as it may have been at the time.
The soft version is familiar enough. One motif is the "wagging the dog" theory. Thus, in the United States, the "Jewish lobby" and a cabal of neoconservatives have bamboozled the Bush administration into a mindless pro-Israel policy inimical to the national interest. This view attributes, as has happened so often in history, too much clout to the Jews. And behind this charge lurks a more general one -- that it is somehow antidemocratic for subnational groups to throw themselves into the hurly-burly of politics when it comes to foreign policy. But let us count the ways in which subnational entities battle over the national interest: unions and corporations clamor for tariffs and tax loopholes; nongovernmental organizations agitate for humanitarian intervention; and Cuban Americans keep us from smoking cheroots from the Vuelta Abajo. In previous years, Poles militated in favor of Solidarity, African Americans against Apartheid South Africa, and Latvians against the Soviet Union. In other words, the democratic melee has never stopped at the water's edge.
Another soft version is the "root-cause" theory in its many variations. Because the "obstinate" and "recalcitrant" Israelis are the main culprits, they must be punished and pushed back for the sake of peace. "Put pressure on Israel"; "cut economic and military aid"; "serve them notice that we will not condone their brutalities" -- these have been the boilerplate homilies, indeed the obsessions, of the chattering classes and the foreign-office establishment for decades. Yet, as Sigmund Freud reminded us, obsessions tend to spread. And so there are ever more creative addenda to the well-wrought root-cause theory. Anatol Lieven of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace argues that what is happening between Israelis and Palestinians is a "tremendous obstacle to democratization because it inflames all the worst, most regressive aspects of Arab nationalism and Arab culture." In other words, the conflict drives the pathology, and not the other way around -- which is like the streetfighter explaining to the police: "It all started when this guy hit back."
The problem with this root-cause argument is threefold: It blurs, if not reverses, cause and effect. It ignores a myriad of conflicts unrelated to Israel. And it absolves the Arabs of culpability, shifting the blame to you know whom. If one believes former U.N. weapons inspector Scott Ritter, the Arab-Islamic quest for weapons of mass destruction, and by extension the war against Iraq, are also Made in Israel. "[A]s long as Israel has nuclear weapons," Ritter opines, "it has chosen to take a path that is inherently confrontational.… Now the Arab countries, the Muslim world, is not about to sit back and let this happen, so they will seek their own deterrent. We saw this in Iraq, not only with a nuclear deterrent but also with a biological weapons deterrent… that the Iraqis were developing to offset the Israeli nuclear superiority."
This theory would be engaging if it did not collide with some inconvenient facts. Iraqis didn't use their weapons of mass destruction against the Israeli usurper but against fellow Muslims during the Iran-Iraq War, and against fellow Iraqis in the poison-gas attack against Kurds in Halabja in 1988 -- neither of whom were brandishing any nuclear weapons. As for the Iraqi nuclear program, we now have the "Duelfer Report," based on the debriefing of Iraqi regime loyalists, which concluded: "Iran was the pre-eminent motivator of this policy. All senior-level Iraqi officials considered Iran to be Iraq's principal enemy in the region. The wish to balance Israel and acquire status and influence in the Arab world were also considerations, but secondary."
Now to the hard version. Ever so subtly, a more baleful tone slips into this narrative: Israel is not merely an unruly neighbor but an unwelcome intruder. Still timidly uttered outside the Arab world, this version's proponents in the West bestride the stage as truth-sayers who dare to defy taboo. Thus, the British writer A.N. Wilson declares that he has reluctantly come to the conclusion that Israel, through its own actions, has proven it does not have the right to exist. And, following Sept. 11, 2001, Brazilian scholar Jose Arthur Giannotti said: "Let us agree that the history of the Middle East would be entirely different without the State of Israel, which opened a wound between Islam and the West. Can you get rid of Muslim terrorism without getting rid of this wound which is the source of the frustration of potential terrorists?"
The very idea of a Jewish state is an "anachronism," argues Tony Judt, a professor and director of the Remarque Institute at New York University. It resembles a "late-nineteenth-century separatist project" that has "no place" in this wondrous new world moving toward the teleological perfection of multiethnic and multicultural togetherness bound together by international law. The time has come to "think the unthinkable," hence, to ditch this Jewish state for a binational one, guaranteed, of course, by international force.
So let us assume that Israel is an anachronism and a historical mistake without which the Arab-Islamic world stretching from Algeria to Egypt, from Syria to Pakistan, would be a far happier place, above all because the original sin, the establishment of Israel, never would have been committed. Then let's move from the past to the present, pretending that we could wave a mighty magic wand, and "poof," Israel disappears from the map.