One on One: Will Israel survive?

No - says Middle East expert Mitchell Bard - it will thrive.

By RUTHIE BLUM LEIBOWITZ
October 24, 2007 21:47
One on One: Will Israel survive?

Mitchell Bard 224.88. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

 
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'The challenges Israel faces are real," acknowledges American foreign policy analyst and Middle East historian Mitchell Bard, explaining the purpose of his recently released book, Will Israel Survive?: to show why the Jewish state is not really in existential jeopardy. Bard - who heads the US-based organization, the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, and the on-line encyclopedia, the Jewish Virtual Library (www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org) - ought to know. The author of 18 books and hundreds of articles relating to the Jews, Israel and US policy in relation to both, the 48-year-old married father of two from Maryland laughs when asked how he "got into the Israel business." "When I was in college [in the late 1970s-early '80s], I was like the typical [Jewish] student today, who hears criticism of Israel and doesn't know how to respond to it," he says. "Then one day I received a copy of AIPAC's Myths and Facts, and it gave me the answers." Hungry to learn more, Bard - who several years later would become the editor of the AIPAC newsletter Near East Report - began to delve more deeply into the issues, which ultimately led to his doing a Ph.D. in political science. "If you had told me then that I would eventually be putting out my own editions of Myths and Facts, I would have thought it impossible." On a visit here earlier this month - in the framework of a project his organization created to combat what he deems a shocking lack of Israel-related scholarship in American academia - Bard gave The Jerusalem Post his take on what we Israelis call "the situation." The good news, he believes, is that, in spite of all the genuine external and internal threats, things are only getting better. To whom are you addressing the question of - and answer to - whether Israel will survive? Mostly to Americans, though it partially was a takeoff on polls conducted in Israel that showed surprisingly high percentages of Israelis questioning their future. Their literal survival as a state? Yes. When you say "Americans," are you referring to American Jews? No, to all Americans. Israel's survival has come more and more into question, because of a perception in the United States, driven largely by the media, that the threats to Israel, both external and internal, are existential. How do you explain the fact that the existence of other young countries in the world - say, in Africa, where progress has been minimal at best - isn't constantly called into question, while Israel is considered to be on the brink of extinction whenever a problem arises? Why is the Jewish state still viewed as some kind of experiment, whose results aren't conclusive? There are two schools: the negative - those who question Israel's legitimacy in general, and don't believe there's any purpose or reason for it to exist; and the alarmist - those who recognize the right of a Jewish state to exist, but who are very concerned both by the threats it faces and by the negative school that doesn't believe it has a legitimate right to exist. Still, Iraq has been invaded by the US and Iran is under threat of economic collapse or military strike, yet the only thing questioned about each is its ability to exact regime change, not whether it will cease to exist. Do you think, then, that anti-Semitism is at the root of questioning Israel's viability? Anti-Semitism probably plays some role, but the challenges Israel faces are real. These challenges are what the book is about - things like weapons of mass destruction. The fact is that, unlike the countries you've mentioned, a couple of nuclear weapons - maybe even one - is enough to destroy Israel. This is not the case in most of the other places. Water, too, could become a serious threat, if not to the survival, at least to the well-being of the country. Each chapter deals with a different challenge. And I tackle each, to try to show why Israel's survival really isn't at stake. Looking at external challenges, such as Iran, how is Israel's survival not at stake? Well, you've picked the toughest case. That's the one challenge that actually could threaten Israel's survival. However, at the same time, there's enough of a recognition, even on the international level, of the dangers of a nuclear Iran - even the French are saying it's intolerable! - that Israel can probably expect others to work hard enough to prevent it from having a nuclear weapon. But even if Iran does achieve it, it's still at least conceivable that Israel could live with a deterrent posture. The big question - one I feel I can't answer - is: Can any Israeli leader take that chance? Where Iran's posture toward Israel is concerned, will it make a difference whether there's a Republican or a Democrat in the White House when President George W. Bush's term is up? Though most Democratic candidates have said the right things about Iran, there is concern about their willingness - and that of some Republican candidates, as well - to take the measures necessary to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. The Democratic candidates in particular are reluctant to openly advocate military action, and I'd be concerned about their having the will to carry any out in the event that it becomes necessary. For that reason, there's a possibility that Bush might act before he leaves office. Do you believe he will? There are reasons to believe that he might not, because of his weak political position; because of American forces being stretched thin around the world and because of the situation in Iraq. On the other hand, I believe that Bush means what he says. And he says Iran cannot be allowed to have a nuclear weapon. My prediction is that if his calculations lead him to conclude that his most likely successor is someone who will not do what he believes is necessary to stop Iran, Bush will act beforehand - probably sometime after the election [November 2008]. I don't think he can do it before the election, because that would probably destroy Republican chances for electoral victory. I predict that, roughly a year from now, Bush will act, either if no great progress is made on the diplomatic/economic front, or if it appears his successor will not do what it takes. If he does act, will he do so together with Israel, or leave Israel out of it? I suspect he would leave Israel out of it. There's really no reason to bring Israel in if the United States is prepared to use its full military might. And bringing Israel in would add complications with the Arab world, which would say it's a Zionist-American conspiracy against the Muslims, or something like that - which was why the US wanted Israel to stay out of the first Gulf war [in 1991]. Don't conspiracy theorists say there's a Zionist-American plot, even when Israel is not involved - as in the case of the post-9/11 invasion of Iraq? Yes, to some degree. But, still, it would play better with the Sunni states if Israel were not involved. And anyway, the State Department Arabists would be apoplectic at the idea of Israeli involvement. Does the US not need Israeli intelligence on the ground in Iran? It's hard to say. If you look at the Iraqi experience, the assumption was that the Israelis had this fabulous intelligence there. And they were among the intelligence organizations - by no means the sole one - giving the Americans the idea that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, which apparently it didn't. Knowing the American intelligence agencies, as I do somewhat, they are not that keen to rely on anyone else, and they have a lot lower opinion of the Israelis than the Israelis have of themselves. So, I don't think they'd consider Israeli information necessary, though if they considered it helpful, I suspect they'd make use of it. So much for the "toughest case" of an external threat. What about that emanating from Gaza? Or do you consider Gaza an internal threat? Well, it's external, but it's part of the Palestinian issue. One of the main reasons I wrote this book was to focus not just on the political-military aspects of the conflict, but to show that history, geography and psychology are crucial to understanding it. And the failure to take those elements into account is one explanation why US policy has been repeatedly unsuccessful on it. The ultimate outcome of America's relationship with the Palestinians has been clear for years: There's going to be a Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank. We don't know exactly where the borders are drawn, but it's roughly where the [security] fence is, and it's just a matter of time before we get to that point. I don't think anyone's ever thought the Palestinians were an existential threat to Israel. But there will be an ongoing danger of terrorism, regardless of whether Israel withdraws unilaterally, or whether there's some negotiated solution, because there will always be radical Islamic elements who will never accept a Jewish state in the Middle East and will try to undermine peace. But Israel has lived and can live with terrorism. It's not a good thing, obviously, but it doesn't threaten the state's survival. You say no one's ever considered the Palestinians an existential threat to Israel. In fact, the demographic doomsayers all claim that the Palestinians do constitute an existential threat - by virtue of their wombs. I think it's accepted by a majority of Israelis - certainly by the leadership - that Israel cannot annex the territories. Even the "right-wing fanatical" prime ministers never did. There was an understanding all along that you can't be a Jewish and democratic state if you annex those territories. So it's become pretty clear that the demographic problem is going to be dealt with by giving up most of the territories and by creating a Palestinian state. This is ultimately why [former prime minister Ariel] Sharon disengaged from Gaza, and why [Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert wants to disengage from the West Bank. Do you actually envision the Palestinians creating a state? Not in the near future. For two years, Gaza has been a laboratory in which the Palestinians had an incredible opportunity to build a state, with nothing stopping them. Imagine what the world would have looked like today, if, instead of firing Kassam rockets, they had devoted all their energy to state-building - to taking the evacuated settlements and building the high-rise apartments they said they were going to build, and to taking the refugees out of the camps. Such a bright scenario that could have emerged would have convinced Israelis that a similar kind of withdrawal from the West Bank would lead to a peaceful outcome. But that didn't happen. Instead, there's a civil war, and very weak leadership within the Palestinian Authority, which means it's unlikely there'll be a state any time in the near future. Is there any indication whatsoever - other than UN-podium rhetoric - that any Palestinian leader or civilian is striving for statehood? Good question. The Palestinians have certainly talked about it a lot. Practically, they've done very little, despite the $6 billion in international aid they've received over the years. So there's certainly plenty of reason to doubt their ability and competence. But, I've always taken a fairly optimistic view of the average Palestinians, who want to lead normal lives. If Israel disappeared tomorrow, they'd be happy, but they could live with Israel next door if they could have jobs and send their kids to school. But because the PA is not a democracy, the average Palestinian has no say, and the leaders have more of an interest in keeping the conflict going, to keep themselves in power. By saying all the "average Palestinians" want is to lead normal lives, are you not ignoring the very "history, geography and psychology" you accuse the US of not sufficiently taking into account when dealing with the conflict? After all, it was "average Palestinians" who overwhelmingly brought Hamas to power, knowing exactly what it stood for - and not just the anti-corruption part of its platform. This seems to be something that Israel also doesn't seem to take into account. Israel usually sees things in the political/military/strategic perspective. But psychology is crucial - the Palestinians' narrative, feelings and humiliation have to be taken into account when negotiations are being pursued. For example, in 1967, Israel won the Six Day War and the Arab world was humiliated. I argue in the book that the Arab attack against Israel in 1973 was largely to regain honor - that it was only after the Egyptians regained their honor that it was possible for [former president Anwar] Sadat to make peace. On the other side [of the psychological spectrum], you had the Israelis in '67 winning this tremendous victory and beating their chests as if to say: "We're the toughest guys on the block; nobody can defeat us," and just a few years later being nearly wiped out in the Yom Kippur War. The psychological effect was this reminder that no matter how strong Israel is, maybe it could be destroyed. This reminder, that remains in the back of Israelis' minds, shapes the way policies are made. What about other external threats Israel faces, such as rising anti-Semitism in Europe? I have a chapter dealing with Europe and the international mood, and the fact that there is a growing Muslim population in European countries, which causes politicians to have to take that into account. Without any nefarious reasons, a politician in France has to take into account that 10 percent-12 percent of the population is Muslim, which is significantly higher than the percentage of Jews. The same goes for Great Britain. London has an openly anti-Semitic mayor. That is nefarious, not merely a case of political considerations. Well, he's somewhat of an aberration. And, yes, there is that element in Europe. But I think there's going to be a backlash that has nothing to do with Israel - one that has to do with rising nationalism within the individual European countries. Still, there are also positive developments there. You have a German chancellor who's sympathetic to Israel; you have a French president, for the first time in who knows how long, expressing sympathetic views; you have a British prime minister, who, though maybe not as sympathetic as Tony Blair was, nevertheless seems to be reasonably so. What about the US? Is there a resurgence of anti-Semitism there - in academia, for example? As someone who has spent a lifetime working on campuses across the US, I can tell you that the American-Jewish community - and more so the Israelis - have a serious misperception. There has been a sense, particularly since the second intifada, of an explosion of anti-Semitic and anti-Israel activity on campuses, fuelled by a handful of very high-profile incidents. The reality is, however, that most American students are apathetic, at best. They don't pay attention to what's going on in the world, period, let alone in the Middle East. In fact, there's very little anti-Israel activity, and almost no anti-Semitism, among student bodies. The problem, which in many ways is more serious, but which has gone largely unnoticed, lies in the faculty. The Israel on Campus Coalition that I'm involved in did a study last year in which we found that 53% of the campuses the coalition works on had zero courses on Israel; 77% had zero or one. This includes all of the top 100 campuses in the US. So, on one level, we know that Israel is simply not being taught at all. Anecdotally we know that in many places where it is taught, it's taught badly - either in terms of the scholarship, which is terrible, or in terms of being outright anti-Israel. You mean, the "Edward Said" school of thought or lack thereof? Yes, but not just in Middle East studies. One of the unique features of anti-Israel faculty is that professors in departments that have nothing to do with the Middle East try to introduce their own political agenda in fields like sociology, anthropology and others. Isn't that true of the faculty on Israeli campuses, as well? From what I know of Israeli universities, in some cases it's worse. But I don't deal with Israel's universities; I have a hard enough time trying to resolve those issues on American campuses. To this end, through my non-profit organization, the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, I've created the Israel Scholar Development Fund, the purpose of which is to cultivate the field of Israel studies as an academic discipline, with the help of philanthropists. The point is not to have propaganda or to silence people with whom we disagree, but rather to put out the best possible scholarship - one that will expose Israel, warts and all, but in a way that is based on solid academic research. We provide scholarships to graduate students to pursue degrees in Israel-related fields, so that 10 years from now we will have a cadre of young scholars who can fill positions and teach about Israel. The reason for my current trip is connected to our program of bringing visiting Israeli professors to the US, to spend a year teaching and engaging the students outside the classroom, through public education and speeches in communities and churches, synagogues and writing in the media. We started out two years ago with two professors; last year we had eight; this year we have 26. Has this made a difference? A tremendous one. On a quantitative level, we can say that our eight professors last year taught over 500 students. We can also look at it qualitatively, pointing to the fact that there are Israeli scholars on campuses to whom students can address their questions about Israel, for example, if they hear in another class that Israel is an apartheid state. We have a very prominent [Hebrew University] historian, Shlomo Aronson, at the University of Arizona, and last fall, after [the second war in] Lebanon, the Middle East studies department sponsored a forum on the war. It consisted of four Middle East studies professors representing Hizbullah and Aronson. So, though it was four to one, at least there was someone who could offer a different perspective. How do you recruit Israeli professors for this program? We put out a public announcement, and scholars apply. We are trying to find the best ones in a variety of areas. We're trying to show that Israel is a normal country, not just one in conflict. So, rather than only seeking professors who teach about history and politics, we are looking for more professors who teach about literature, culture, film and so on. This is going to take a long time, because the Jewish community really has been asleep at the wheel. We have done a tremendous job over the years building up Jewish studies and Holocaust studies, but we ignored Israel. Meanwhile, Arabs were investing in Middle East centers and in chairs in Arab studies. People who have essentially been bought and paid for by the Saudis and other Arab investors are the ones whose views are commonly heard in the media. So, it's going to take 10-20 years for us to create this momentum of scholars across the country, whose research will then become the norm, and who will produce young scholars to fill positions. My slogan for philanthropists is: "Instead of investing in buildings, we need to invest in people." And they're beginning to understand and invest in this. How do you explain the phenomenon of more Jewish awareness on the one hand, and less Israel awareness on the other? Partly, it's because there was an assumption that Israel was being taught. People didn't notice that there weren't professors teaching Israel studies, and they didn't really recognize, until fairly recently, that Middle East studies departments had been completely taken over by the Edward Said school of thought. But the problem begins earlier, in Jewish day schools. When you send your kids to them, you assume they're learning about Israel. What we found is that they're not. I send my two kids to one of best day schools in the country [the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Maryland]. We've had an ongoing discussion with the school about providing more education about Israel. In our case it's particularly frustrating, because a large number of the parents do Israel-related activities for a living. The school is beginning to respond to that. Now to Israel's internal challenges. What room for optimism is there on this front? Over time, many of Israel's internal divisions have healed or gotten better: The Ashkenazi-Sephardi divide has disappeared; the secular-religious is not a critical problem, certainly not to the state's existence. The economy is booming. Poverty is a problem, and increasing inequality between the upper and lower classes, but this has to do with a growing market economy; most Western countries - certainly the US - are worse in that regard. One of the things most people don't realize is that there are more than 10,000 American companies doing business in Israel, and it's not because they're Zionists. They're there to make a profit and they do. In other words, the Israel/US relationship isn't about what a president says about the peace process. It's 50 states doing business with Israel; it's 22 states that have their own memorandum of understanding with Israel; it's the scientists collaborating on research projects, all sorts of things. Then there's the media. American Jews are apoplectic about what they view as anti-Israel bias. Well, the slant does exist, but it's inevitable because Israel is a democracy with a free press. Which is not the case in the Arab world, so that basic disadvantage is there, whatever we do. Are you saying there's no point in combating it? I'm saying we have to understand that there's a limit to what we can do about media coverage. If there's an inaccuracy, we correct it. We try to educate, refute, inform journalists. But, what interests me as a political scientist is what the real impact of such bias is. And I argue that there's very little. Where policy and public opinion are concerned, there's no evidence that media bias hurts Israel over the long run. I mean, why do we care about media bias? We care because the assumption is that the American public, and hence the US government, will turn on Israel as a result. But look at the facts. In 1967, when Israel was seen as David who defeated the Arab Goliath, a Gallop poll found that, when asked the question: "With whom do you sympathize more - Israel or the Arabs?," about 55% said Israel. Now, let's fast-forward past intifada I and II; Reagan vs. Begin; Shamir vs. Bush. After presumably having had anti-Israel media bias for 40 years, Gallop asked the same question, and the results were that 58% expressed sympathy for Israel. Now look at government policy. I don't think anybody would say that American policy toward Israel is worse today than it was in 1967. In fact, it's only gotten stronger. If we were to reconvene in 2010, how different or similar would our conversation be? Very similar. I think Israel's going to be stronger economically; hopeful that it will be stronger in terms of its relationship with the Palestinians, and maybe other Arab countries; and have every reason to believe that whoever the next president turns out to be is going to continue to strengthen the American relationship with Israel. So, putting aside the Iranian threat, you do not see war on the horizon, or another intifada following Annapolis? I have very little expectation of that meeting. Everyone who analyzes the situation sees [Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud] Abbas as someone who's too weak to deliver, no matter how good his intentions may be. I'm not saying that because things are going to be looking up in 2010 that there'll be no violence. There's a reasonable possibility of a war with Syria; there's a reasonable possibility of intifada III. But these aren't going to destroy Israel; they're part of the ongoing situation.

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