Why are Israel and the West unravelling in tandem?

by | May 21, 2024

Alon Pinkas, a former senior Israeli diplomat (well plugged in at the White House), says aloud the “reality” about Israel which he underlines cannot be hidden further:

[There are now] two [Jewish] states – with contrasting visions of what the nation should be. There is an elephant in the Israeli room – and ‘no’: it’s not occupation, though that is its main cause.

The elephant in the room is Israel gradually but inexorably being divided [into a high-tech, secular, liberal state] … and a Jewish-supremacist, ultranationalist theocracy with messianic, antidemocratic tendencies that encourage isolation.

Zionism … has morphed and mutated through the settler movement and extreme right-wing zealots into a Masada-like political culture, based on the concept of the redemption of the ancient kingdom in the ancestral land. (Masada was a Sicarii cult in CE 73).

Pinkas continues:

[I]n essence, there is a civil war raging in Israel. It has not reached Gettysburg levels, but the deep and wide schism is becoming glaringly evident. The two political value systems are just not reconcilable. ‘We are fighting the Arabs (or Iran) for our existence’ remains the only common thread, but it is weakening. That is a negative definition of national identity: a common enemy and threat, but very little of what unites us in terms of the type of society and country we want to be.

Even the most fundamental common narrative, the Declaration of Independence, is now being questioned with some of its basic tenets and guiding principles a source of political contention.

Of course, one can see from which side of the divide Pinkas views his world – yet “above and beyond pondering 7 October, there is a growing realization that ‘unity,’ ‘one destiny’ and ‘we have no choice and no other country’ have become meaningless and hollow clichés. Instead, more and more Israelis on both sides of the divide see their country as essentially split into two distinct (non-reconcilable) entities.”

Does this sound familiar, albeit in another context?

It should. For it is a metaphor for the inexorable divide in the West, too. The war in Gaza has precipitated and sharpened the latent schisms within in the West. It too can be hidden no longer. On the one hand, there is an (illiberal) social engineering project posing as liberalism. And on the other, a project to recover the “eternal” values (however imperfect) that once lay behind European civilisation.

The conflict in the Middle East has thrown the parallels between the two spheres in the West into clarity.

Again, the parallels and similarities are discomforting: As Pinkas says:

…the divide is real, widening and becoming unbridgeable. The political, cultural and economic gaps and rifts are growing, accompanied by toxic vitriol that masquerades as political discourse. Even the most fundamental common narrative, the Declaration of Independence, is now being questioned with some of its basic tenets and guiding principles a source of political contention.

He is referring to Israel, but the same is true in the US, where the basic tenets and guiding principles of the Constitution (i.e. free speech) are a source of political contention. He talks also of the Right’s claim that Tel Aviv “is a bubble,” but adds: “As for the bubble claim, they’re right – but New York is a bubble, Paris and London are bubbles” – geographical, as well as ideological bubbles. Yet Pinkas does not “get” the paradox he creates: Is not that the core of the problem? The “Techie-obsessed” Metro-Élites of America versus the Rest (i.e. “flyover America”)? The bubbles are the problem, not something to be brushed aside.

Today, tens of thousands of students in the West are protesting the on-going massacre of Palestinians, whilst the institutional place-holders fully support the annihilation of Hamas and any “complicit” civilians (which is extended by some to include all who live in Gaza).

The two worldviews share no common perception. They represent contrasting visions for the future – and of the essence of their nations. October 7 exploded the simulacra of the “status quo” in Israel – and at the same time, unravelled the political order in the West – as in Israel.

What is important to understand is that both polar visions – that of disputed national “history,” and secondly of a common future – are authentic to each community. The visions have their separate legitimacy. This means that simple political fixes won’t liquify calcified zeitgeists. Each party must first accept the legitimacy of “the other” (whilst remaining in disagreement) for politics to become possible.

Pinkas – as metaphor – has a wider application: Having said that “there is an elephant in the Israeli room – and no, it’s not occupation – though that is its main cause,” Pinkas adds later in his piece that “Israel is not only occupying territory but approximately 5 million Palestinians. In effect, for 57 years Israel has been living in a recurring loop of the seventh day of the Six-Day War. That reality, which in the 1970s was termed “protracted temporariness,” has become a permanent feature of Israel’s political and geopolitical ecosystem.”

It is a framework that has become Israel’s trap.

So why are Israel and the West unravelling in tandem? Well, it is firstly because they have become so inter-connected at the level of power structures (in both US and Europe) to a point that it is difficult to know who has more heft within these power and media structures: Tel Aviv or the White House.

This means interdependency in terms of each’s international standing, and by extension, vulnerability to any collapse in Global standing.

So, whilst the West today ostensibly eschews literal settler colonialism (other than that practiced by Israel), it nonetheless has pursued a form of rent-seeking, financialised colonialism since WW2. That process also has become a permanent framework to the western political and geopolitical ecosystem.

The consequence is that as settler colonialism in Gaza moves starkly and darkly into view, the global majority sees both Israel and the West as explicitly colonial. No distinction is made – the Rules-Based Order is seen as just another iteration of the colonial eco-system. Thus, events in Gaza, amongst other things, have sparked a new wave of anti-colonial sentiment across the globe.

It constitutes a dynamic which, in finding a strong resonance amongst western student protestors (and amongst many of their elders), is fracturing western leadership structures – threatening the carefully curated lead-in to the November US Presidential elections.

Finally, the close integration of the two linked “structures” has overflowed into the West’s foreign policy zeitgeist: Just as Israel’s answer to the October 7 has been to lash out at “Hamas” and Gaza, so the West, viewing its own “hegemony ecosystem” challenged by Russia and China, emulates Israel in seeing military force as the key to its own deterrence and global primacy.

President Putin – foreshadowing the present tensions with the West – criticised in Munich in 2007 in a pivotal speech what he called the United States’ monopolistic dominance in global relations, and its “almost uncontained hyper use of force in international relations.”

He could have said the same about Israel in the regional context.

Reprinted with permission from Strategic Culture Foundation.