Sarah Stern: Good afternoon, and welcome to yet another extremely topical, timely, and compelling EMET Webinar. Before we begin you should be, and most probably are all aware of the fact that Israel is in the midst of an ongoing crisis. On Tuesday, a Palestinian Islamic Jihad member, member of a terrorist organization, Khader Adnan, after an 84-day hunger strike succumbed and died. Israel repeatedly tried to force medical care on Khader, both within and outside the prison system. Khader Adnan was a very popular figure within Palestinian society, and his death has sparked a response from Palestinian Islamic Jihad where the people in Southern Israel have been targeted by, at last count, approximately 103 rockets in their direction.
In the Southern town of Sderot, one has approximately 15 seconds, one-quarter of a minute to run into their sealed rooms or shelters. We’ve seen this movie before and we don’t know how the script is going to end. We do know that with Hezbollah in control of 150,000 missiles in the North, any spark can easily ignite a multi-front war, which is our greatest fear. Iran, as you know has surrounded Israel with its terrorist proxies, both in the North through Hezbollah and the South through Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Just last Friday, Iranian foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian was in Beirut and went to Lebanon’s Southern border with Israel saying “The Zionist collapse is near, the Zionist collapse is near.” The head of the Quds Force of the Iranian, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Ismail Qaani, recently met with the head of Hamas, Ismail Haniyeh and the head of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah saying, “Now is precisely the time to strike at Israel.”
It is not lost on these leaders that Israel has been in a very, very loud vociferous war among themselves aren’t more, but the confrontation between different visions of Israel on the streets and behind all of this is basically some very fundamental questions. What state is Israel? Is it fundamentally a normal state like all others or a Jewish state? Is it a democracy? Is that their regnant adjective or is it Jewish or both? Is it simply a haven for Jews to escape to, or is it informed particularly by Jewish values at its core, with the history of the Jewish people, Jewish texts, and traditions at the heart of the Jewish enterprise? Here to speak about all this is my wonderful dear friend who is the head of the director of the project on Global Anti-Semitism and the US-Israel relationship at the Center for Security Policy, as well as being a senior fellow at the Kohelet Policy Forum.
David Wurmser and I go back a very, very, very long way since the beginning of Oslo, and we have a very, very special close relationship. David from December 2018 until September 2019, served as senior advisor to US National Security Advisor, Ambassador John Bolton. Prior to that, David was the senior advisor from 2003 to 2007 to US Vice President Cheney on Middle East proliferation and Strategic Affairs. Immediately following the 9/11 attacks, David consulted until January 2002 for the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the US Department of Defense on war-related classified projects. In terms of understanding the nature and the strategic significance of terrorist group networks and their interactions with states. David has also been involved in military service for the United States in terms of intelligence, and he’s been in the US Navy Reserves reaching the rank of Lieutenant Commander.
David holds a BA in political science an MA in International Affairs and International Economics and a Ph.D. in Foreign Policy and Middle East Affairs from John Hopkins University. He’s written scores of articles that have impaired the Wall Street Journal Financial Times and Commentary and have published at least one book that I know of, and without further do is my honor and my privilege to hand the podium over to David Wurmser, who will talk a little bit about the deeply simmering cultural and sociological antecedent to what we have been seeing over the last several months on the streets of Israel, David.
David Wurmser: Thank you so much, Sarah. It is an honor to speak to EMET. I remember when you created it, and it was filling a great void at the time, and you have risen to that organizationally, Washington isn’t the same ever since EMETs were created, and it’s much better for it. For me, it’s a great honor to be here. I’ve always loved dealing with EMET both reading stuff and dealing with EMET programming and so forth, and I’m just looking back and thinking, what a great thing that you’ve done here. Now, to the topic, we originally thought about talking about judicial reform, but trying to look at it from a slightly different angle, namely, what are the underlying sociological things that are coming into play here? The truth is with the rockets that you’ve had over the last 24 hours and the overall climate, and then a whole bunch of other things you begin to realize what Israel’s going through right now is a bewildering moment of change.
Everything really originates in how bewildering it is. Let’s start domestically, every nation about 80 years in resets its foundations, and Israel’s no exception now, that the United States didn’t go over peacefully in Israel. I have faith it will go over ultimately peacefully, but it is gut-wrenching and you can’t get around it. The second thing is that Israel’s foundation was on a fairly narrow base, sociologically secular socialist. It really was a spirit of mid-century, mid-20th-century politics. I give a lot of credit to some of the founders, including Ben-Gurion, not falling into some of the traps that some of his comrades and the socialist camp did and Israel owes a lot to him for that. It was a democracy, and it actually was relatively successful in creating a national identity and structure. But then there are other things going on. The demography of Israel’s changing. The Haredi, which were a small little minority when Israel is created now are a fairly substantial minority. The socialist secular elites are now a minority national religious, the Ralph Cook’s followers are gaining popularity and are very prominent in many places.
Everything has been shifted. I would say first of all, there are inescapable internal dynamics in Israel that were almost inevitable given Israel’s creation and the various changes that have happened in the last 75 years since it was created. I would overlay on that through a series of larger changes in the West that Israel is part of. There’s no doubt that the West today is not the same West as 50 years ago. Lay aside all the issues of the Civil Rights Movement and the question of how we handled our minorities in the United States. The very foundations of the American sense of identity, which is really a part of a larger question of the Democratic world’s identity seem to be under siege, and Israel is very much part of that larger gut-wrenching debate over what is the West. That’s yet another layer that I think needs to be addressed. A third layer is a region. When Israel was created, you had Arab states, it was a brave new world. Arab nationalism was rising. There was a fundamental belief that Arab nationalism was a modernizing force. It may have been very radical, it attacked Israel.
It wanted to wipe Israel out, PLO, everything. But at the same time, there was this sense that it was moving beyond the 1000-year-old slumber of the Muslim world. It was a very invigorating political movement and moreover, it was anchored to states where the state was so powerful and tried to forge national identities through the sheer power of the state, whether it was Syria using essentially fascist ideologies of baptism and so forth, militaristic to anchor to the military and the state structures, these new national identities. What you see now is the death of Arab nationalism, and with it, the collapse of the Arab state, not only because Arab nationalism died, but because the Arab states didn’t succeed and creating national identities strongly surrounding these status structures. Once again, when Libya, for example, when Gaddafi fell, you saw old politics come out where tribes re-tried to renegotiate their relationships with the Senator, and if they didn’t get what they want, well, even if they did, they’d have to assert their power, and there was separatism or breakdown of the state, and then it had to be put back together again through a renegotiated arrangement.
This goes all the way back to Muhammad. When Muhammad died his successor was, everybody agreed who his successor was, and yet there was still a civil war in Islam right after because the power relationships among the parts of the Muslim community had to be renegotiated. Again, so the Middle East faces that, and I think in the Middle East, what we’re seeing, and additionally is if, if you take away the state, there have been some people like Martin Kramer and so forth who said, “The Sykes-Picot agreement is falling apart.” Essentially, the structure created the modern state system there and tribes and forces that had been buried for a hundred years are reemerging. But then you look at Iran, you look at Israel, you look at some other countries, and you realize that we’re not going back only 100 years. In some ways, we’re seeing thousand-year civilizations reemerge in the Iranians when they’re talking, they’re talking about Cyrus. They’re not talking about a hundred years ago.
The Israelis themselves are a manifestation of an ancient civilization resurrected and then Byzantium traces in Christianity in the region are there that Russia’s trying to collect and so forth. You’re seeing civilizations come into play. All these things are converging at once on top of Israel. The geopolitical, the internal, the Jewish, the sociological, and the natural political give and take are all converging at once in Israel, which is creating, obviously a tremendously difficult unstable, and gut-wrenching transition. Now, let me focus for a moment a little bit on the Israeli side. When you look at how communities in Israel define themselves, I really think this issue of Judaism finally being re-empowered is showing itself. It’s very interesting that Judaism is becoming re-empowered because, in the West as a whole, Christianity is no longer seen as a valid basis for defining politics. Whereas, the Jewish people for 2000 years retreated into a very limited analysis of their own history in the Bible and so forth. It’s waking up now and all of a sudden we’re reading the story in Samuel of the anointing of King David and what it means to have a king, and what gut-wrenching issues there are there. We read about Moses and we see exactly what Machiavelli saw.
The Christians have been dealing with this for 2000 years, and they mined the Bible for political analysis. They created political structures that, yes, are heavily anchored to Greece, are heavily anchored to Rome. You can’t understand the West without understanding Thucydides and Sophocles and so forth. You can’t understand the West without reading Seutonius and Tacitus and so forth about Rome. But similarly, you can’t understand the West without understanding its Judeo-Christian pillar as well. They mind the Bible and Machiavelli is a good example. He read Tacitus to understand the roughness of Roman politics. He lived in Florence, so obviously, it was a familiar world a thousand years removed, but still familiar.
But he also studied Moses, Moses because one, Moses obviously dealt with a tyrant so you understand tyranny by seeing the behavior of Pharaoh, but he also understood that Moses had no authority to lead the Jewish people. He had to earn it. When he comes to the Jewish people in various slave camps, he’s rejected. He had to come back and learn how to lead. Then he had these episodes all the way through to Mountain Nebo when he couldn’t go into the land of Israel, where again, leadership and how politics is done. The Christian community has been mining the Bible for these insights for 2000 years, whereas the Jewish community has not, and now suddenly sovereignty’s thrust on the Jewish community, you look at the Haredi community, it is still essentially an outcrop of diaspora Judaism. Even when you look at somebody like Ben-Gvir and the hardcore right settler movement, you get a sense that they’re learning that they’re not comfortable. They’re almost not comprehending the power that has been invested in them now as a sovereign movement. These questions have to be worked out deeply. Second of all Israel is facing I think what the West as a whole faces, which is there is to some extent a crisis of secular liberalism, secular liberal nationalism.
The idea that we are completely removed and can forget some of these religious foundations and create a sustainable secular liberal nationalist structure is proving extremely difficult in the West. People are essentially manifesting the success of secular Arab nationalism. You’re seeing the rise of America as a great nation and so forth, but people aren’t happy. There’s something empty and people are looking and they go and they look for social justice politics, and they look for whatever they look for and you see the upheaval that comes from that. I think Israel’s not immune to that. In many ways, strategically I mentioned the Arab world. The other thing is Israel, ever since the war of attrition before the 73 War fundamentally shifted its strategy as part of the Western strategic alliance. It existed under the American strategic umbrella and the Cold War, and it calibrated its defense policy around those questions, and that whole structure is under great stress. First of all, inherently being dependent might not, you know one can one can really examine whether it was a wise strategic choice by Israel, but even if it was for 40 years,
Now, Israel is facing a circumstance where it may need to go with alone on Iran, and it may not have American support and this is a brave new world for Israel. I think all these things are converging and we can get into them in depth. But I figure I’d frame it that way because you can’t look at the reform question, which is really also about internal political power. It’s not just a theoretical question about how you balance various branches of government. It’s also about power, and it’s about the fundamental concept of who has authority, whether it’s a philosophical question in many ways. Maybe as specified, leave it at that, Sarah, and then we can get straight through questions so we can go into depth.
Sarah: Right. You touched on so many really critically important issues. A few things that we can’t ignore are the spirit of patriotism and nationalism that America had. And I’m using the past tense which seems to be rooting the fact that we don’t seem to be willing to follow up our beautiful rhetoric with actions in terms of our support for Israel, in terms of the fact that Iran will not get a nuclear bomb when we’re seeing that they are perilously close to developing a nuclear bomb. We see the whole geostrategic globe going through tectonic ships underneath our feed after Beijing brokered this treaty between Riyad and Tehran, and America was totally taken by surprise. We saw our precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan leaving many people absolutely bewildered, especially Afghani women. I don’t know if Israel is immune, first of all, from a mirror image of the United States, and if Israel is capable right now of standing on its own two feet without the support of the United States because the globe has changed within the last month or so. Do you want to address those?
David: Yeah, the American withdrawal from the world it’s a very difficult thing to watch because when you and I live both in Washington, both of us live in Washington and we’re dealing with an elite that grew up under really a unipolar moment. Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, American power was unquestioned American power. If we determined to do something the world would fall into line because we were so powerful, there really was no alternative to us. Now, I think what you’re seeing is we’ve had two generations or more of foreign policy leaders in Washington cashing in on that power without taking policies to cultivate that power. As a result, what you’re seeing is the United States is cashing in on an overdrawn check. Countries, we go to India, we go to Egypt, we go all over, and we say, we want you to decide with us on Ukraine and lay aside the Ukraine war as legitimate or not.
I believe in it, but lay it aside for a moment, we went to various countries around the world and said, this is really important to us and a lot of the countries in the world said, “Yeah, but…”, and they are trading now not in the dollar. They continued to have their relations with Russia. They didn’t really participate, and the sanctions we’re trying to impose on Russia. All of a sudden you began to see the long-term consequences of the erosion of American power. It’s not only the left and its policies under Obama, which had an inherent suspicion of American power, and in my view, deliberately in the progressive camp, deliberately unraveling American power because it saw American power as a function of American arrogance, which is a function of American political, the foundations of American political culture being flawed, and that therefore America needs to withdraw and be humble. That obviously took down American power greatly, but on the right, you also see a rising sense of why should we care. Why we need to sacrifice part of it might have been because of an overreach and the fact that we thought we could do everything.
Now, Americans got tired of it, and we didn’t resolve some of the wars we got into, we didn’t think about winning. We thought more about stabilizing and things like that so Americans got tired. Basically, because we’re a country our business is being free. We didn’t want to spend our lives worrying about the rest of the world all the time. We wanted to spend our lives worrying about ourselves and our lives so we wanted to come home. The right has also this tendency to withdraw. But the common denominator of both is that everything that America represents, including its way of living, its standard of living, and its power, which even the left and the right still want to use are based on the cultivation of American power that hasn’t been cultivated now for two decades.
Sarah: Right. Do you feel, I firmly believe that despite the vociferous debates on the streets in Israel, for Israel, the issue is existential?
Sarah: They don’t have the luxury of withdrawing. They’re right there in the midst of these tectonic shifts. We can’t rely on, or Israel rather can’t rely on what we were hoping would be an alliance between Arab nations and Israel to fight the Iranian threat. But Iran has basically been dominating the region since the Beijing agreement was negotiated with Riyad and people are all these old enemies are running together. I’d like to make a distinction, though. I think there are lots and lots of Israelis on the left, when push comes to shove, even though they might not see Israel as a Jewish state, and they don’t define themselves as Jews, as Israelis, they will defend the state. I believe when one calls to serve. But in the United States, because we have what I like to call our two liquid assets of the Atlantic and the Pacific, we have more of a luxury of retreating N-word. Do you agree or disagree?
David: I think no, I agree. I think you could, if the polls in Israel suggest exactly what you’re saying, if you look at the polls in Israel, obviously, the right in Israel and the polls have suffered, but equally, Lapid. Yair Lapid has suffered. The one who’s gained everything in the polls is guns and what guns represent, ideologically and so forth. He’s to the left, however, he represents that view in Israel of first of all, yeah, there are problems with the judicial system, they need to be fixed, but let’s do this carefully. There’s no urgency. Why are you so urgent? Et cetera. That’s tapping into the larger Israeli view of “Please just make this go away.” We’re worried about so many things right now. We see America withdrawn from the world. We know we’re on our own. We see Iran encircling us. We see the global economy facing threats that are not yet acute but are heading there. We see even in the high-tech sector, the Israelis see all these things, and they understand that internally also, they’re going through a great upheaval. For them, calm, calm is very important to take this calmly and carefully and guns have tapped into that.
That’s the explanation for his rise in the polls and it’s also the explanation of why not Dun’s prime minister not doing now is shifting senator word. He’s antagonizing some of his right-wing coalitional bases. You saw it this morning explode with Smotrich and not Smotrich [crosstalk]. Actually, Smotrich took a different line, who’s the other head of the [inaudible] the right party. He basically said, “Listen, we’ve got a right-wing government, we can’t have everything now. Patience, please, let’s just calm down, take a deep breath, let’s survive, et cetera.” You even see him moving toward the Senator.
David: As opposed to Ben-Gvir and so forth. I think what you’re seeing in Israel is the Senator is holding and the Senator is beginning to reassert itself and politically. Politicians who are heading to the Senator seem to be doing well and better, and those who are not are seeing seem to be in deeper and deeper trouble. I think this goes right to the core of what you’re saying, Sarah, which is I think most Israelis don’t see a contradiction between being Israeli and Jewish. They don’t like the question. They know the left is pushing it, and they know the right is pushing it. The right answer is, we’re Jewish, we’re democracy’s much less important. The left is saying, democracy’s the only thing important. We want to be another European country. Our Judaism is not important at all if we are even Jewish. The Senator is saying, “Come on, we’re Democratic and we’re Jewish, and we have to be both.” I think you’re seeing that reassert itself and they have one concern, survival, and their welfare.
When the reservists and the refusal to serve came up, the numbers actually were very small. We heard about hundreds. What I’m hearing was that the actual number that did act on their threats was in the dozens at most, in a nation of 9.2 million people. Those who responded to that and made a point of showing up when it wasn’t even required was also very high. The actual showing up of reservists was one of the strongest showings yet in the last few weeks. I think this really points to the fact that the Israelis do understand that they’re under threat. They’re in one boat. They may not like each other at times, but they are one people who have to navigate this as together at some point. I think it’s come out.
Sarah: Excellent. Okay. Speaking of survival, in terms of the new relationship between Tehran and Riyad, you or anyone knows there have been 14th centuries of enmity between the Sunnis and the Shiites. What kind of sticking power do you think this has? Will this relationship survive, or do you think the attacks from the Houthis and Yemen will actually cease forever, or do you think they’re going to go back into their old patterns?
David: Oh, the old patterns will survive. I think to understand what the Saudis are doing, one really has to look at it almost as tribal politics here, which is their tribe in a dangerous region that doesn’t have the power all on its own to survive. It’s facing another tribe, Iran, that is extremely dangerous and has it out for them. They had a strong horse, big, the biggest tribe in the world behind them, the tribe of America. We all of a sudden have written them off. Again, you go back to early Islamic history, Muhammad had the flee Mecca and Medina because his uncle said, “I can’t protect you anymore,” and that was a death sentence. When a tribe lifts its protection of one of its members, that is a death sentence. Because they become, you can seek revenge on them without fearing revenge and so forth. Muhammad had a fleet from Mecca to Medina. Similarly, take it to the current, the Saudis understood that when America distanced itself from Saudi Arabia, it was tantamount to a death sentence. They can’t flee so what do they do? First of all, they look at potentially where there’s another strong horse, and there’s Israel, which is regionally quite powerful and there’s China, which seems to be arising.
The good thing about China is they seem to have influence over the enemy tribe. The Saudis did what they had to do, which is they’re praying that the Israelis do what the Israelis have to do to be strong and survive, but not being able to count on that. They’re also turning to the Chinese to try to somehow mediate with their arch-enemy. It doesn’t change the underlying tribal dynamics of enmity that will eventually reemerge. The Saudis ultimately still see Israel as the strong horse that is the balance in the region to most of their enemies and that, by the way, it’s not only Iran in the long run, it’s Erdogan if he survives. Just generally, the unsteady Sunni question is unresolved. Where does Sunni Islam go in an age of modernity? They know this is a dangerous world, and they know they need ultimately help. I don’t see this really changing that much fundamentally underneath other than for the Israelis, because what it did is it freed up Iran to some extent because the Saudis have essentially withdrawn from their competition knowing that there’s going to be another round.
But for the moment, they’re putting their head in the sand, and they’re banking on the fact that the Israelis will take care of themselves, and that will help them in the long run. Ultimately now, this falls even more to Israel but ironically, that also puts the Israelis in the same place as the Iranian people who also feel that America has abandoned them. That America, which should have been its natural ally, does not believe in regime change. It believes in regime moderation, which the Iranian people seem to have completely given up on. Ironically, the Iranian people find themselves in the same places. The Israelis were abandoned by regional forces that should be their ally looking. They really have nobody else to count on but themselves. I think that to some extent explains the trip of Reza Pahlavi to Israel. They’re beginning to understand that their faiths are tied now. But that said, for Israel, I think there’s a healthy side to this, which is I believe that the Americanization of defense policy, which ultimately reduced to deterrence, deterrent of the Arab threat. Deterrence is not a strategy, it’s a tactic and strategy goes to those who use time and shape the environment over time. Deterrence was a passive static structure so that’s one thing.
The second thing is ultimately I think for Zionism itself, I think Judaism and the nation anchored to Judaism ultimately is going to be healthiest when it answers its own needs, and that it doesn’t need, it needs to break in some way from the diaspora mentality. The diaspora mentality is, if not for the non-Jews, we need their acquiescence. We need their indulgence to survive that the first generation of Israelis who were sobered by the Holocaust knew, they knew that was not something they could count on. They took matters into their own hands. Like the early Americans, they took on the greatest empire and the world in doing that. The British and then the world of the sea of Arabs, who at the time were economically at the same level, they weren’t advanced. The Israelis had no weapons. It was really impossible and yet they understood that [inaudible] the Jewish people ultimately rely now only on the Jewish people to survive that Zionist ethic ever since the war of attrition and the qualitative military edge, which is when the United States asked Israel not to resume the war of attrition and allow the Egyptian army to deploy up to the canal in exchange for which the United States said, “Listen, we will give you weaponry of such sophistication that doesn’t matter. Geography doesn’t matter anymore. An initial strike doesn’t matter anymore. These are impenetrable weapons. These are weapons the other side cannot overcome. We will guarantee that you will have those weapons, the qualitative military edge, but in exchange for which you have to engage in strategic passivity and war and go to a second strike option and deterrence.”
I’d argue the 73 War belied the wisdom of that strategy. But nevertheless, it actually deepened it because, at the end of the war, Israel came out reliant on the United States even more. I think that strategic question has to be on the table and re-ask, is that really the way Israel was created? Is that really a wise, long-term strategic concept for Israel, or should they return to the earlier strategic concepts? Would that not in some ways make them more valuable as an ally to Saudi Arabia and to the UAE and frankly, ultimately also to a post-Ayatollah Iran?
Sarah: Right. Also to the United States.
David: Right. Yes.
Sarah: It looks as Israel’s becoming increasingly more isolated in that region of the world and Pax Americana with America at its helm is descending, like a descending star into the sunset. Israel has no one to rely upon, but itself, however, the $60 billion question with inflation now is, Israel relies only on itself when taking on such a mammoth, colossal problem as Iran with all of their 150,000 Hezbollah missiles staring down at them…
David: Ironically, I think the more Israel relies on itself, the more it doesn’t have to rely on itself. I think that there’s been an irony that the Israelis do not understand about America. What is American support? Now, obviously from the very beginning, you had the Puritans and the beacon, the city on the hill and the idea of the new Jerusalem, and you had George Washington with his letters to the Jewish community in Newport and so forth. There’s always been a Zionist pro-Jewish or Judeophilic quality to American politics. It’s deeply ingrained in our culture. But that is not the only source, that ultimately in my view, goes back to Mount Sinai and Mount Mariah, the two foundations of Western culture spiritually, and that meant a lot to early Americans. But here’s the second side of it, which is that Israel captured a projection of the American view of itself. We had this view of Cincinnati as always, young Americans have no clue about Cincinnati and what Cincinnati was that the Roman emperor who founded the Roman State, essentially, was a farmer. He was un reluctantly pushed into leadership, was a great leader because he was reluctantly pushed into leadership, and then was offered to become emperor for life and said, “No, I want to go back to my farm.
George Washington, a conscious member of the Cincinnati Society went back to this agrarian, redeeming the land is the true form of independence. Freedom is born of being a farmer, of being independent. Well, Israel captured that, what’s this pioneering spirit? Its independence. The kibbutz, which lo and behold, Americans never understood was just a Hebrew word for commune. This was projected onto Israel and it captured in America a spirit. Then Israel acted independently. It acted that way. It acted the way Americans looked at themselves, that we don’t look to other countries to defend us. We’re spunky. We’re prickly. But our principle and our commitment to the principle of who we are is what makes us great. Our greatness doesn’t make our principles. It’s the other way around. We were a great nation before we were a powerful nation. They looked at Israel and they thought, okay, that’s what the Israelis are. They’re standing on principle and that’s how power comes. That’s how greatness comes. We projected onto Israel that, so ever since the war of attrition, but especially since Oslo, there’s been this theme in Israeli policy that to win American approval, you have to give America what it wants.
You have to entangle the Americans in your defense. You have to make your problem their problem. Then the Americans will see, okay, yeah, Iran is our problem. Yeah. Remember that there was this idea of putting NATO forces and the West Bank and the NATO forces on the Golan Heights. If it’s an American problem, then if Israel has to go to war, the West’s going to go to war. What they were doing by doing that is eroding actually the American perception of Israel being worthwhile. I think Americans basically have this view that if you’re willing to fight for something, then it’s willing to fight for, then it’s worth fighting for. If you’re willing to die on your sort over a principle, then you’re committed and we better help you, because that’s probably worth something fighting over. But if you say, “This is absolutely critically important, I got to do it, but I need your permission, and I don’t know if I can do it without you.” But then the Americans say, “Listen, if it’s that important to you, why don’t you do it? If you’re not willing to do it yourself, then why should we? You’re saying it’s vital, it’s not vital for us. Why should we help?”
I think ironically, the more Israel asserts itself independently, the more it captures the American imagination and the more pro-Israel Americans feel culturally deep down. I think the Iran question, that’s a very serious question that even if a better operation can be conducted with the United States, laying aside the question of whether the United States would ever do it, which in my view the US won’t, but let’s say assume that they do, does Israel want America really to do that, or does it want to show America we are worth more than most of your other allies? First of all, we don’t just carry our water. We carry your water too. If Israel asserts that, it has a much greater impact on the American psyche.
Sarah: Right. Let’s hope that this impact will resonate and persevere through the decades of real slander that Israel’s been receiving. I think since the 1979 Saidian Revolution, the Edward Said Revolution on college campuses, and also through Oslo what you’re saying really resonates with me. I remember before the Gaza withdrawal not only friends of mine from APAC, but friends of mine from the Israeli embassy had said to me, “This will finally prove to the world once and for all how far Israel is willing to go for peace.” Of course, we got Hamas-stan out of Gaza, and right now the people in Sderot are feeling the full wrath of the rockets.
Sarah: Whether or not people learn from that, they learn from our history, people don’t understand all the history going back to 1937 of the appeal commission, of all of the offers that have been made to the Palestinians and how they have summarily refused every offer and feel somehow it’s Israel’s fault because they haven’t given up land for peace and because of the occupation. How do we set people straight, David?
David: Well, actually, I’m glad you cropped it that way because this is such a brilliant point that you’ve made. Really what we’re dealing here with is on everything, judicial reform, everything is the wages of Oslo, and that I right off there are four baskets in which we’re paying the wages of Oslo. The first one is the write-out one that you have the PLO terrorism, you have Hamas and Gaza and missiles. Okay, the idea that you can give them land and you’ll get the peace that died. But that’s the easiest, most superficial one. The second one is the Arab side, which is the whole idea that the PLO represents the Palestinians and is being orphaned by the collapse of the Soviet Union. They’re so weak that they will understand that their survival depends on Israel and that therefore they become a malleable force. This was an extension of British policy in the 20s where the British thought that they could crown weak movements like Hajj Amin al-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem, and he would be beholden to them and therefore would be malleable.
Well, what you’re seeing here is with the violence and the violence that began last spring under the previous Israeli government is the vacuum being created by the final collapse of the Palestinian Authority. There’s a competition to fill that void and unfortunately, in Palestinian politics, you fill the void, you compete through Jewish blood, and that is what you’re seeing. The rise of terrorism has more to do with the battle of succession among Palestinian factions and the collapse of the Oslo concept than it does with anything Israel’s done. The third area was internal in Israel, the bulldozer-like quality of ramming down half of Israel’s throat, really almost a minority government. Things that touch deep in the soul of Judaism say that Hebron was liberated from the Jews. When Hebron is one of the two most important places in Judaism to talk about giving up the Temple Mount. These things touched so deep into the Jewish soul and they were done without even really a clear majority and bulldozed through I think the stuff of judicial reform and the rule of the courts and the lack of protection that the minority camp in Oslo, which wasn’t even really a minority camp, felt because of all the consequences of Oslo.
That is what’s reverberating and why the right is the one that is now so worried about the power of courts. because they saw them as failed, they didn’t protect them and moreover, now they’re used by the left to continue to ram down policies. That’s the third basket of wages in Oslo. But then there’s the fourth, which is the one you raised about Edward Said. When Israel brought in the PLO, it brought in the questions of 1948. Up until that moment in 1993 with Oslo, the question on everybody’s mind was, what do you do about the Palestinians living in Judea and Samaria in the West Bank? What do you do with coordination with Jordan? What do you do with them? Because Israel can’t demographically absorb them, yet it can’t withdraw safely from the territories. It is an area which by legal right, is indeterminate and Israel does have a strong claim to it. It was a practical question as to what you do about the residents of the West Bank. The moment you brought in the PLO, you brought in the question of 1948, is Israel a legitimate country?
What do you do about the Palestinians who have been displaced by Israel’s very existence? And you gave the Soviet Union and their allies, the Palestinian and Arab nationalist movements, a tremendous power to frame this in a colonial framework, and Israel’s become a post-colonial question rather than a question of indigenous rights that might be in conflict or anything like that, so to me, the very idea of Oslo destroyed the legitimacy of Israel and opened the door for the constant stream of delegitimization that we have seen ever since.
David: I don’t think that this can be properly put back in the bottle unless I know it’s very difficult. But one really has to go back to 1993 and say it was a mistake to bring in the PLO. They were expatriate Palestinians. They were not even Palestinians. Some of them, were agents of Arab politics externally brought into, and moreover what they stand for. Sarah, you know this better than me, the charter was never changed.
David: That what they stood for was set in 64 before 67 boundaries. It’s about Israel’s existence.
David: You can’t legitimize them and the nationalism that emerges from that and maintain Israel’s legitimacy. I think Oslo, we’re now facing the wages of Oslo on every single front strategic inter-Arab, inter Israeli and us world perception of Israel.
Sarah: Right. I think it’s really important that people understand exactly what is being taught in the UNRWA schools in terms of the Palestinian map, whose borders are identical borders as the state of Israel, and that these poor little Palestinian children who are born innocent are indoctrinated daily to become Shaheed, that is the most virtuous thing one can possibly do with their life. I do want to plug a book The War of Return by Adi Schwartz and in that book which talks about this. It’s wonderful, I should have them both on also. But the fact is that it is not about 1967 and how much land and how much contours of the shape, of the map of Israel and Palestine will have. It is about 1948 and the very existence of the state of Israel. We just have a few minutes to turn this over to my wonderful colleague, Hussein [inaudible], who will ask some of his own questions and fill in some of the questions that have come in.
Hussein: Thank you very much Sarah, and thank you very much, David for a great presentation. Thank you to all our audience who tuned in to our webinar. We received a lot of questions and we don’t have a lot of time, so I’m going to go ahead and try to combine as many of them as possible. One question that we received multiple times, maybe from five different people is actually asking about the level of American involvement in the current controversies in Israel and protests over the judicial overhaul. We’ve seen reports, I personally have seen them talking about, some level of American involvement, specifically on the Protestor side. We received multiple questions asking you what is the real level of American involvement and how does that affect the relationship between the US and Israel? Hello, David.
David: … you for a second. Oh yeah, I’m back. Yeah, I’m back. Sorry.
Hussein: No worries.
David: I don’t know what happened there.
Hussein: Did you hear the question?
David: Basically, it was about American involvement.
Sarah: In judicial reform.
Hussein: Oh, I think he’s having problems with his…
Sarah: Right. Technical problems. All right.
David: Do you guys hear me?
David: Yeah, you hear me? Okay. Yeah. Look, the Americans had some involvement. They’ve been obviously helping parties and movements on the left in Israel. We know that all the way back to Martin Indyk being ambassador under in the period of Clinton when they tried to galvanize Arab voting to try to balance off the right in Israel. They did it again in 2015 with the V15 movement. They were instrumental in unifying the Arab parties to try to not lose votes and so forth. Then we see funding for various organizations on really the radical left in Israel, like the movement for quality and government and so forth. But I don’t think that’s the real big American involvement. The big American involvement was the atmosphere that right when this started, the United States put the Israeli government on warning that democracy is what unifies us, and you are treading dangerously close to not being a democracy. This was literally the first week of the judicial reform upheaval.
Then you see Netanyahu go to Paris and he gets dressed down by Macron using the same terms, and then he goes to Berlin and he gets dressed down using the same terms and you see Lapid coming to Washington and all of a sudden a series of democratic leaders say the same thing about Israel’s democracy and so forth.
David: Really, none of these know the finer points of judicial reform in Israel. None of them know that while I have reservations over some of the reform, the system is broken, and none of them were showing any nuance in saying, “We want to work with you and help you reach a great new structure.” No, it was interference and it was interference that ultimately was to weaken “Bibi” Netanyahu and his government. Because at the end of the day, like in 2015, like under President Obama, there is a feeling on the left in the United States that these governments under the left, under the right are intolerable. That they are the obstruction to everything we want to do whatever it is we want to do, which is not even clear to me anymore.
But there’s just almost a pathological dislike of Netanyahu who has now become the Trump of Israel in their mind, and they want to get rid of him. I think that American involvement, to some extent, is a larger American attitude right now. I think it goes to something very dangerous, and it’s a legitimate question in the West, which is that the left to some extent has become illiberal. The feeling that there is such an insanity that has set in on the right, that standard democracy, intolerance of democracy has to be curtailed. You’re hearing that debate in Israel and you’re hearing it here, and I think it converged in the American policy toward Israel.
Sarah: Right. I want to say there’s this concept in Judaism of Shema Lashon, be careful of your language, be careful of your words. When Israelis are on the street saying, “Israel is no longer a democracy,” that kind of thing, Hussein and I and Joseph, who’s also on, have heard this, resonated into the Carter’s of power and Washington, where democratic offices that we’ve met with have said to us, “We don’t like the trajectory that Israel is on, that Israel is no longer sharing our values and we always thought Israel and America share democratic values.” I think it’s very, very important that people understand that as Natan Sharansky wrote in his book, the Case for Democracy, “If you could stand in the town square and criticize the government in power without fear of your very life, that’s a democracy.” Israel is not a quiet democracy. It’s a very vociferous democracy, but it is a healthy democracy with a healthy debate. We have to make that distinction because these words are traveling across the Atlantic Ocean at rapid speed. Unfortunately, a lot of people have no understanding of what is at stake here and they’re just mimicking these words.
Sarah: I’m sorry.
David: No. Democracy, this is the thing. I mean, Israel’s an elected government only four or five months ago, and nobody disputes the election was fair and free with proper public debate, really classic democracy at work and the government is a democratically elected government. You’re hearing the leaders of the protest movement openly say, now their objective is to bring down the government, not to stop reform, but to bring down the government, which you can say whatever it is about it, you can support it, whatever, but that’s not necessarily advancing democracy, that’s number one. The other thing is democracy. There’s a continental European, it’s way beyond what we can talk about now, but there’s a continental European way of defining democracy, and there’s an Anglo-Saxon way, and the United States and Britain are anchored to one way and France is anchored to the other way. It’s really the symbol of it. Israel in many ways is debating which of those two forms it goes, both are Western forms of democracy right now, and I personally don’t like the continental European one. I think it’s grounded in a philosophy that isn’t democratic. But nonetheless, I see why they do, but this is not democracy versus dictatorship. This is the vision of democracy in competition with each other.
Sarah: Exactly. Hussein?
Hussein: Yes. I think we’re out of time. I’m going to ask one last question that we also received multiple times, and that’s actually a perfect perfect time for it. You just spoke about these concerns about American involvement in these protests and with the American vocal almost anti-Bibi language that is veering to these dangerous areas. But you also spoke a lot about American support for Israel. We received a lot of questions asking given the rise of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism in college campuses and anti-Israel sentiments in the progressive movement and parts of the Democratic Party are you not afraid that we’re witnessing the end of such support?
David: Yeah. No, I think this is something very real, even in some of the evangelical communities, the youth aren’t as solid as they used to be. I think though, the answer to that is, unfortunately, this is an internal American question. I think Israel, the progressive left does understand it. Israel does symbolize the core values of Western civilization, and its survival and its strength are a reflection of those core values. As the progressive camp is increasingly in rebellion with the West, it sees Israel. Israel’s important to them. It is maybe one of the most important issues for them so for them, the destruction of Israel, the weakening, and ultimately the destruction of Israel becomes one of their core flagship policies.
I think that that though can’t be solved by Israel alone. If Israel weathers the storm well, and it becomes a beacon for the West to sort out some of its internal, social, religious, the societal questions, which I think Israel will have somewhat of an impact on that, that’s one way it can influence. But at the end of the day, this is really about your vision of America, and who wins that debate ultimately will determine whether America stays pro-Israeli or not. But it won’t be the same America if somebody like Ocasio-Cortez rules America. It just won’t. I mean, this is not the same vision of America that George Washington had, or even Truman, or John F. Kennedy.
Sarah: Right. David, as you know, I could speak to you forever and ever. You are just a brilliant analyst and such a gift to the American people and to Israel and the Jewish people. We just value your friendship immensely and what you’ve contributed throughout the years. If you like these programs, we do really ask that you support us. Keep us alive at emetonline.org. We do more than have our weekly webinars. We’re on Capitol Hill every single day, meeting with members of Congress and trying to find the right words every single day to move the needle a bit more towards empathy towards the state of Israel and what it’s up against in the Middle East. Please also support the Center for Security Policy. It’s a wonderful organization and if they have brilliant people like David Wurmser and Frank Gaffney and they’ve been doing good work for way over two decades since before, way before Oslo, when I first met you guys. Thank you so, so much David and to be continued.
Sarah: Okay. That was a good day. That’s…
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