Herzl’s Tradition

Prof. Shlomo Avineri, a well known staunch Zionist from the Israeli Labor Party, in an article in Haaretz (December 9, 2012), accuses the Netanyahu government of causing Israel to lose all its best friends and face international isolation. Avineri explains that this represents an abandonment of the Zionist tradition of Herzl and Weizmann, who, unlike today’s Right, always endeavoured to cultivate support for the Zionist venture, even among the worst anti-Semites. Herzl always sought points of convergence between the interests of Zionism and those of the Great Powers.

And that was indeed the case; but most unfortunately Avineri does not explain to us the nature of that "convergence", although he allows that it was not so much a matter of shared values as shared interests. It is left to Herzl himself to explain it to us, and he does so with precision and clarity in one passage in his seminal work, The Jewish State. And yet that very passage – and not coincidentally – has become a rather secretive text in Zionist discourse, referred to as little as possible. In that passage Herzl wrote:

We should there form a portion of a rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism. We should as a neutral State remain in contact with all Europe, which would have to guarantee our existence. [1]

Apart from the blatant racism, even someone who is not a Zionist cannot help being impressed by Herzl’s far-sighted and incisive analysis of the colonial reality which led to success far beyond the expectations of his time.

Herzl tied the fate of Zionism to the Great Powers (to which of course today we would add the USA). Unlike Avineri, he did not stop at generalizations when he spoke of shared interests: he went into detail that led straight to the heart of the matter – the basis and internal logic of those shared interests. He asked the Powers to support the Zionist venture in return for which he promised a base in the Middle East and help against their enemies there – that is, the nationalist movements (“barbarism,” as he put it). Herzl also understood very well even then that the Zionist venture in Palestine would provoke strong resistance from the surrounding peoples and so he requested that the Powers “guarantee our existence.” One hundred and fifteen years after those words were written, one can only wonder at the accuracy with which Herzl described today’s Israel.

These political principles of Herzl served all those who came after him, from Weizmann right down to the present. The collaboration for which Herzl blazed the trail can be perceived throughout the history of the State of Israel.

The Sinai War is a good example. Israel joined France and Britain in a shared interest – the Western Powers would regain the Canal Zone and Israel would take over Sinai. A splendid convergence of interests. The problem was that this coordination did not include the USA, and in ventures of this kind it is always the coordination with the biggest Power that takes precedence. Britain and France and Israel were requested by the USA to swallow their pride and pack up and leave, which they did.

In the Six Day War, the coordination was with the USA and it succeeded: Israel defeated Nasser’s regime and ensured American supremacy in the region as against the USSR. Israel occupied vast territories – the West Bank, Sinai and the Golan Heights – and was upgraded to the status of the USA's most important ally in the region. The coordination with the USA continues to this very day. There has been no war in which the USA did not support Israel, just as there was no war for which Israel did not request the agreement and understanding of the USA, from the Lebanon War to Cast Lead and Pillar of Cloud [a.k.a. “Pillar of Defence” in English – trans.]. And there will be no war with Iran if the USA does not consider it to be in its interest. Even the ground invasion in Pillar of Cloud was avoided because the USA did not give its OK. This coordination is manifested today in nearly total and comprehensive American support for the perpetuation of the Occupation in the West Bank and Golan Heights. On the other hand we must remember that the USA has always imposed its will on Israel. Twice it forced Israel to withdraw from Sinai and it prevented Shamir from deploying the Israeli air force during the Gulf War in 1991. But the USA has not forced Israel to end the Occupation or prevented Israel from colonizing the Occupied Territories.

Has the situation changed in the wake of the nearly universal international condemnation of Israel over its announcement of construction in the E1 area in revenge for the admission of Palestine as an observer state at the United Nations?

Actually, Israel’s announcement of the new construction looks like a “goat trick”: Israel announces construction, Europe gets very angry, Israel then takes the “goat” out – that is, clarifies that it was merely an announcement, more planning is needed, etc. Europe for its part then declares that it never really meant to recall ambassadors, impose sanctions and so on; that will be postponed until next time.[2]  Meanwhile Chancellor Merkel agrees to disagree with Netanyahu, and proceeds to deliver submarines capable of launching nuclear missiles. The American President announces that he will leave Europe alone to deal with Israel. For his part he will continue as before to issue bombastic declarations to the effect that the settlements have to stop, so as to soothe international public opinion a little, but the flow of arms will continue uninterrupted, as we have recently learned. And now it looks like Europe’s anger has been channelled more toward the construction in area E1 – as if that were the main issue, and not the ongoing and deepening Occupation itself.

It is also worth recalling that the West Bank was occupied when a left-wing government was in power in Israel, so it is rather odd to rebuke Netanyahu’s right-wing government for perpetuating the Occupation. It is possible of course to claim that a government of the Left would have returned the Territories, but without getting into that discussion, one can simply ask: so why didn’t the Left do that while it was in power?

Israel’s coordination with the USA continues to the present and it is that which also determines the nature of relations between Israel and its immediate surroundings and the outside world at large. As long as the USA and Europe support Israel, Israel can continue to implement its policies. Meanwhile Israeli governments, including the Netanyahu government (contrary to Avineri’s view) have acted in absolute conformity with Herzl’s doctrine. Israel supports the USA and the West as much as it can against the “barbarians” – that is, all the enemies of the West, and requests the help of the USA in all areas.

But for all that, the doctrine may need to undergo some changes. Palestinian-Arab pressure is likely to reach the boiling-point and get out of control. The USA has been weakened politically and lives in the shadow of a massive economic crisis. The USA is in a paradoxical situation: faced with storms in the region, it needs Israel more than in the past, its growing support for Israel is causing the storms to intensify. Will the USA ever be forced to pressure Israel into withdrawing from the Territories?


Translator’s notes

1. http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Zionism/herzl2b.html

2. The “goat trick” alludes to a Jewish story about a poor man who complains to his rabbi about the unbearably cramped conditions in his home. Upon learning that the man has a goat, the rabbi instructs the man henceforth to keep the goat inside the family living-quarters. After the goat has been wreaking havoc in the house for a few days, the rabbi gives the frantic man permission to take the goat back outside, whereupon conditions in the house don’t seem so bad after all.

Printed in Hagada Hasmalit,  December 19, 2012

Translated from Hebrew by George Malent


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