Israel's self-made tsunami

The crippling fear of September's UNGA coupled with Israel's continued delegitimization sadly means that, with help from the PM, Barak's self-fulfilling "diplomatic tsunami" prophecy may actually come true.

Barak pressure Netanyahu (do not publish again) (photo credit: Flash 90)
Barak pressure Netanyahu (do not publish again)
(photo credit: Flash 90)
On Friday, March 11, the world recoiled as a devastating tsunami obliterated entire villages and towns along the eastern Japanese coast, sweeping over 10,000 people to their deaths and displacing hundreds of thousands.
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Two days later, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, speaking on the prospects of a unilaterally-declared Palestinian state in September, told an audience at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, “We stand to face a diplomatic tsunami…[There is] an international movement that may recognize a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders.” He continued, “It's a mistake not to notice this tsunami. Israel's delegitimization is in sight, even if citizens don't see it.”
Barak’s speech marked the first of several times in the days and weeks after the Tōhoku tsunami that Israeli leaders would evoke this charged word publicly. Barak would do it again, ten days later, while addressing a convention in New York held by the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces. Furthermore, in mid-April, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu took the linguistic baton from Barak while floating to the press a series of preemptive, tactical moves intended to head off what he called the impending “diplomatic tsunami” that might result from an internationally-recognized declaration of statehood for the Palestinians.
With Japan reeling from one of the most horrific natural disasters the world has ever witnessed, most high-level politicians around the world have understood that the word “tsunami” is not exactly ripe for use in political metaphors. And yet Barak and Netanyahu have set themselves apart by plucking this word flooded with mind-numbing images and transposing it onto the Israeli political landscape.
Why would Israel’s leadership metaphorically co-opt language evoking the current and intense human suffering – the victimhood – of another people to describe its own diplomatic predicament? What compelled Barak and Netanyahu to so callously lift the Japanese tragedy for political gain?
The answer gets to the root of Israel’s most dire problem: a frightened, paralyzed leadership. Israel’s current ruling class sees the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a zero-sum game in which only one side can win: the true victims, the ones truly deserving of the world’s sympathy. This competitive victimhood in which Israel constantly engages is at its core an existentially driven game, because Israel’s leaders, who are still living in the shadow of the Holocaust and the generation that came before, are continuously afraid for the country’s survival.
And this existential fear – that Israel could be wiped off the map – is what has paralyzed today’s leaders regarding how to approach the Palestinians, rendering them ineffectual at best and brutal at worst. They are unable to make the hard, diplomatic moves necessary to secure a final, brokered peace with the Palestinians, to finalize a two-state solution, because they view such a finalized status as a loss, as a step in the inevitable slippery slope toward its annihilation.
Barak and Netanyahu evoked the word “tsunami” not out of callousness, but out of desperation, both leaders convinced that if it can be looked upon by Western powers (namely the United States) as the conflict’s rightful victim, it can stave off a Palestinian state, and thus survive.
The sad irony is that this zero-sum approach, this competitive victimhood, has helped create the impending diplomatic “tsunami” that will approach in September, when the UN General Assembly stands poised to grant full statehood to the recently united Palestinians. Barak and Netanyahu know this, and yet they remain moored, unable to emotionally understand what most dispassionate observers see: that a brokered, diplomatic solution with the Palestinians is the only way for both sides to thrive.
The metaphorical tsunami about which Netanyahu is worried will arrive in September if Israel does not engage in final-status talks with Abbas, who on the face of it continues to indicate a willingness to engage with Israel despite the recent reconciliation between Hamas and the PA. However, once September comes and goes, Palestine will be a full UN member, with Israel suddenly occupying a fellow UN nation (unless it follows through with annexation threats, which will have consequences of its own). Such a situation would likely result in proposed sanctions and diplomatic isolation. This is the “tsunami” of which Netanyahu is terrified.
Unfortunately, this diplomatic storm appears to be on course, for rather than work on tenable solutions, Netanyahu, Barak and the rest of Israel’s mostly-conservative leadership are busy tuning tactical moves and dangling words like “tsunami,” doing nothing but distracting themselves as the waves slowly approach.
The writer is the author of Shrapnel: A Memoir.