May/June 2011, Pages 16-17

Special Report

The Myth of Israel's Insecurity

By Ira Chernus

altPalestinians look at the destroyed Gaza City office of Prime Minister Ismail Haniya on March 25, after it was targeted by Israeli warplanes, along with three other sites in the Gaza Strip, in response to Palestinian rocket attacks on Israel. (Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images)

Pressure is growing inside the U.S. foreign policy establishment for Barack Obama to set out his own plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace. Among the establishment pillars calling publicly for that dramatic step are Zbigniew Brzezinski, Brent Scowcroft and Thomas Friedman. Indeed, it's hard to imagine peace coming any other way. Considering the intransigence of the Israeli government and the disarray in Palestinian governance, the two sides can hardly do it alone. Given the dependence of both sides on U.S. support, the two sides will have trouble refusing a clear, firm demand from Washington.

However it's equally hard to imagine Obama actually making that demand. Though he may yearn to have a peace agreement to his credit when he runs for re-election, he yearns even more to make sure he wins in 2012. And putting pressure on Israel has political costs that are as sizeable as they are unpredictable. Obama has been learning that the hard way ever since he first demanded an end to West Bank settlement expansion and then backed down in the face of political pressures from the right-wing pro-Israel lobby. The lobby seems to be the greatest obstacle to the U.S.-led peace process that Obama wants—and both Israelis and Palestinians need—so much.

The power of the lobby has been analyzed endlessly. As with any complex system, no simple explanation will suffice. But there's one part of the puzzle that the explainers typically underrate and often ignore altogether: the political power of Israel's favorite story, the underdog Jewish "David" constantly fighting for its life against the Arab "Goliath." The image of Israel as an innocent victim, constantly on guard against "existential threats," is the lifeblood of the lobby.

Though few Americans know the Hebrew mantras—"ein breira" (There is no choice) and "hacol bishvil bitachon" (It's all for the sake of security)—most Americans take the underlying message for granted. Israel's illegal occupation of the West Bank, its economic stranglehold on Gaza, its foot-dragging on peace-making, and the suffering inflicted on Palestinians all get a pass—not only in Washington but in public opinion throughout the land—because of the basic premise of public discourse on the issue: Israel must do whatever it takes to protect its security.

When we're threatened we fight back, by any means necessary, most Americans think to themselves. Isn't that the American way? Why should we expect Israel to do any different? That's a key reason 63 percent of Americans told a recent Gallup poll they sympathize with Israel, while only 17 percent sympathize with the Palestinians.

The lobby has been pumping its story into every nook and cranny of the American body politic ever since the State of Israel was born in 1948. No matter how much the lobby spends on PR, though, and no matter how effective its PR machine, it cannot do the job alone. The politicians, pundits and journalists who propagate the story day after day have to cooperate. And they do, in many cases much more than they realize. Even those who are openly critical of Israel constantly reinforce the message that Israel is threatened and vulnerable to being destroyed.

Look, for example, at the New York Times' two foreign policy columnists (both Jewish) as they analyzed the Egyptian uprising of early 2011. Tom Friedman confirmed that it "was not inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood. Most of all, it is not about some populist upsurge that craves restarting the war with Israel." Yet he prefaced his analysis by reaffirming the common wisdom: "This is a perilous time for Israel, and its anxiety is understandable.…Everyone can or should understand Israel's strategic concerns. They are totally valid."

Roger Cohen echoed Friedman's views on Egyptian motives and lamented "the siege mentality that blinds [Israel] to the opportunities multiplying around it.…Israeli policy is not just a tragedy, it's almost criminal." Yet he undermined his own message by repeating the old story: "The Arab awakening is not yet about Israel.…But that could change if another skirmish erupts.…Elections are unpredictable—just look at Gaza—and now they may be held across the Arab world! There's the Muslim Brotherhood talking a good line but nursing menace. And what if Jordan goes, too?" Israel's demand for security, Cohen concluded, is "non-negotiable."

I don't know whether these writers, and dozens like them, reinforce the familiar narrative intentionally. It may be just a well-trained mental reflex, a product of years of conditioning. Ditto for our politicians. Whatever the reason, the narrative seems as immovable as the Rocky Mountains.

Perhaps, though, it looks that way only because U.S. pro-peace groups have made so little effort to challenge the narrative. They flood the public arena with irrefutable facts about Israel's nefarious deeds and irrefutable arguments that in the long run Israel would be better off making a meaningful peace. But it all makes little impact on most politicians and the public because the myth of Israel's insecurity is the ultimate trump card.

In Israel and Palestine, it's taken for granted that competing narratives play a central role in keeping the political conflict going. But in the U.S., we are somehow blind to the role of narrative. If peace groups hope to have a real impact on U.S. policy, they will have to focus a lot more on the hard work of changing the dominant narrative and making Israel's fundamental security the center of the story.

They will have one big advantage: The facts are on their side. Israel is by far the Middle East's strongest military power. No nation in the region has even the slightest chance of defeating Israel, as it has shown in every war since 1948. While we're bombarded with fears about a fantasy of a single Iranian nuclear weapon, Israel's 100 to 200 nukes are ignored. Obama himself recently told American Jewish leaders that Israel is the strongest power in the region and therefore should create the context for peace.

He might have added that Palestinian violence against Israel has virtually ceased, since both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas are enforcing a nonviolent approach to the conflict, as even the conservative Wall Street Journal acknowledged nearly a year ago.

Israelis need to worry only about two kinds of violence. The surprisingly rare attacks against West Bank settlers are often in response to the settlers' own violence and always in response to the injustice of the settlements themselves. The sporadic rockets launched from Gaza, which usually come from anti-Hamas splinter groups, are always provoked by previous Israeli attacks. In both cases, it's Israel's own actions that trigger the attacks. So the small minority of Israelis who do have reason to worry owe their insecurity to their own government's self-defeating policies.

That's not a complicated story. Nevertheless, if pro-peace groups in the U.S. set out to make it the new dominant narrative, they will face an uphill struggle. Old myths die hard. But at least they could plant powerful seeds of doubt about the old story—enough doubt, perhaps, to open up space for an American president to make a serious move toward Mideast peace. Without that effort to change the narrative, it's hard to see how anything else can change.

Ira Chernus is professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Read more of his writing on Israel, Palestine, and the U.S. on his blog,