Three Myths of Israel's Insecurity
And Why They Must Be Debunked
By Ira Chernus
Here are the Three Sacred Commandments for Americans who shape the public conversation on Israel:
1. For politicians, especially at the federal level: As soon as you say the word "Israel," you must also say the word "security" and promise that the United States will always, always, always be committed to Israel's security. If you occasionally label an action by the Israeli government "unhelpful," you must immediately reaffirm the eternal U.S. commitment to Israel's security.
2. For TV talking heads and op-ed pundits: If you criticize any policies or actions of the Israeli government, you must immediately add that Israel does, of course, have very real and serious security needs that have to be addressed.
3. For journalists covering the Israel-Palestine conflict for major American news outlets: You must live in Jewish Jerusalem or in Tel Aviv and take only occasional day trips into the Occupied Territories. So your reporting must inevitably be slanted toward the perspective of the Jews you live among. And you must indicate in every report that Jewish Israeli life is dominated by anxiety about security.
U.S. opinion-shapers have obeyed the Three Commandments scrupulously for decades. As a result, they've created an indelible image of Israel as a deeply insecure nation. That image is a major, if often overlooked, factor that has shaped and continues to shape Washington's policies in the Middle East and especially the longstanding American tilt toward Israel.
It's often said that the number one factor in that tilt is the power of the right-wing "pro-Israel" (more accurately, "pro-Israeli-government") lobby. That lobby certainly is a skillful, well-oiled machine. It uses every trick in the PR book to promote the myth of Israel as a brave little nation constantly forced to fight for its life against enemies all around who are eager to destroy it, a Jewish David withstanding the Arab Goliath. The lobby justifies everything Israel does to the Palestinians -- military occupation, economic strangulation, expanding settlements, confiscating land, demolishing homes, imprisoning children -- as perhaps unfortunate but absolutely necessary for Israel's self-defense.
No matter how slick any lobby is, however, it can't succeed without a substantial level of public support. (How powerful would the National Rifle Association be without the millions of Americans who truly love their guns?) Along with its other sources of power and influence, the right-wing Israel lobby needs a large majority of the U.S. public to believe in the myth of Israel's insecurity as the God's honest truth.
Ironically, that myth gets plenty of criticism and questioning in the Israeli press from writers like (to cite just some recent examples) Merav Michaeli and Doron Rosenblum in the liberal newspaper Haaretz, and even Alon Ben-Meir in the more conservative Jerusalem Post. In the United States, though, the myth of insecurity is the taken-for-granted lens through which the public views everything about the Israel-Palestine conflict. Like the air we breathe, it's a view so pervasive that we hardly notice it.
Nor do we notice how reflexively most Americans accept the claim of self-defense as justification for everything Israel does, no matter how outrageous. That reflex goes far to explain why, in the latest Gallup poll matchup ("Do you sympathize more with Israel or the Palestinians?"), Israel won by a nearly 4 to 1 margin. And the pro-Israeli sentiment just keeps growing.
Our politicians, pundits, and correspondents breathe the same air in the same unthinking fashion, and so they hesitate to put much pressure on Israel to change its ways. As it happens, without such pressure, no Israeli government is likely to make the compromises needed for a just and lasting peace in the region. Instead, Israel will keep up its attacks on Gaza. In addition, if the Palestinians declare themselves an independent state come September, as many reports indicate might happen, Israel will feel free to quash that state by any means necessary -- but only if Washington goes on giving it the old wink and nod.
If American attitudes and so policies are ever to change, one necessary (though not in itself sufficient) step is to confront and debunk the myth of Israel's insecurity.
Three Myths in One
Israel actually promotes three separate myths of insecurity, although its PR machine weaves them into a single tightly knit fabric. To grasp the reality behind it, the three strands have to be teased apart and examined separately.
Myth Number 1: Israel's existence is threatened by the ever-present possibility of military attack. In fact, there's no chance that any of Israel's neighbors will start a war to wipe out Israel. They know their history. Despite its size, ever since its war of independence in 1948, the Israeli military has been a better equipped, better trained, more effective, and in virtually every case a successful fighting force. It clearly remains the strongest military power in the Middle East.
According to the authoritative volume, The Military Balance 2011, Israel still maintains a decisive edge over any of its neighbors. While the Israeli government constantly sounds alarms about imagined Iranian nuclear weapons -- though its intelligence services now suggest Iran won't have even one before 2015 at the earliest -- Israel remains the region's only nuclear power for the foreseeable future. It possesses up to 200 nukes, in addition to "a significant number" of precision-guided 1,000 kg conventional bombs.
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