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Israel’s “Insecurity”: The Most Dangerous Myth

Sometimes it’s the good guys who do the most harm, because they know not what they do.

Take, for example, the New York Times’ foreign affairs columnist Roger Cohen. He has become the U.S. mass media’s most progressive voice on the Israel-Palestine conflict, consistently telling the right-wing Israeli government to make genuine efforts and meaningful compromises for peace. With a name like Cohen, there’s no doubt he’s got the weight of his Jewish identity as well as the prestige of his newspaper behind him. So his call for a just peace carries as much influence as anyone’s in the mainstream political debate, and a lot more than most.

But the most recent U.S. decision on Mideast policy shows how limited is the influence of Roger Cohen and everyone else criticizing the Obama administration for its pro-Israel tilt. As Cohen noted in his latest column, Obama decided to veto a UN Security Council resolution “condemning Israeli settlement building in the West Bank” -- even though the president himself has said clearly that the U.S. “does not accept the legitimacy” of the Israeli construction and has demanded that it stop.

Why take such an embarrassing step, when every other Security Council member supported the resolution? “It’s Obama who’s facing an election next year where censure of Israel would cost him,” Cohen explained, stating the obvious.

Domestic politics still forces the White House to be the main obstacle to a just peace for Palestinians. And let’s not put all the blame on the right-wing Israel lobby. There’s a broad consensus across the nation lending a very willing ear to the lobby’s distorted message.

“Americans' views toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict held fairly steady over the past year, with a near record-high 63% continuing to say their sympathies lie more with the Israelis. Seventeen percent sympathize more with the Palestinians,” the latest Gallup Poll tells us. While the number of Palestine sympathizers has remained pretty much constant over the last decade, the number of neutrals or undecideds has dropped by half, and virtually all of them have shifted to the pro-Israel camp.

Why? That latest column from Cohen, the progressive good guy, holds a convincing clue.

The column is mostly about Israeli fears triggered by the pro-democracy wave washing across the Arab world. Cohen quotes an Israeli politician -- “Israeli policy is not just a tragedy, it’s almost criminal” -- and comments, “That’s right on both fronts. … I find all the Israeli anxiety troubling for moral and strategic reasons.” He laments “the siege mentality that blinds [Israel] to the opportunities multiplying around it.” He points out that Arabs are not being moved by any anti-Israel feelings:  “I never heard the word ‘Israel’ during two weeks in Cairo.” Then he lays out all the reasons that Israeli Jews should cheer for Arab democracy.  You can almost hear U.S. progressives cheering for Cohen.

Along the way, however, he shows all too clearly why the progressive view, though gaining ground, is still so far from determining policy in the White House: Even at its best, mass media journalism reinforces the old myth that Israel is fundamentally insecure, surrounded by enemies bent on destroying it. As long as that myth remains the foundation of American public discourse about the Middle East, most of the public will write off even the most immoral Israeli violence and oppression as unfortunate but necessary acts of self-defense.

Cohen feeds into that line, however unwittingly.  “Israel is anxious,” he begins. “It could count on the despots, like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, to suppress the jihadists [and] reject Iran.” 

Iranophobia -- fear of a supposed Iranian threat to Israel -- is an unquestioned premise in the mass media, even though (as a recent Israeli report noted ) “in 2003, Israeli intelligence officials thought Iran would have its first bomb by 2007. In 2007, they thought it would be 2009, and a year later they put it at 2011. Now the date has moved to 2015.” 

What about “jihadists”?  Cohen writes:  “Israelis are triply worried. 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?”


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But neither the Hamas government in Gaza nor the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt are promoting violent “jihad.” In fact both are doing whatever they can to weaken and ultimately destroy  violent “jihadist” movements like Al Qaeda, which is already quite unpopular with the Egyptian people. And both groups have made public commitments to seek better relations with Israel.

What about Jordan? “The Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt or its counterparts in Jordan … would not touch Al Qaeda with a pole. Neither would they allow any Al Qaeda infiltration either,” a Jordanian analyst recently commented.

Cohen writes, correctly, that Egyptians demanding democracy did not bring Israel into the picture. But he adds the mass media’s obligatory qualifier: “The Arab awakening is not yet about Israel. … But that could change if another skirmish erupts.”  What “skirmish”? Between whom? It’s all left to vague, frightened imagination, as usual.  

His quote from the Israeli politician includes this: “America is Israel’s insurance company and right now we need the C.E.O. to come and tell us, ‘You are not alone.”’ There’s that ubiquitous image of Israel as the lonely little David constantly forced to fend off the surrounding Arab Goliaths -- even though Israel has shown in every war that it can defeat the military power of all its Arab neighbors combined.

Finally Cohen sums up with the standard mass media picture of the conflict: “Palestine wants sovereignty. Israel wants security. Those are non-negotiable demands.” The implication is as obvious as it is universal in American mass media: Israel is insecure and “existentially threatened” by the Palestinians. Therefore it hesitates to negotiate for a Palestinian state until it gets ironclad guarantees for its security from the U.S. 

This is simply ludicrous. For at least 65 years Israeli Jews have been threatening Palestinians with massive violence, and all too often they’ve proven that they could carry out those threats whenever they wanted. If either side has a rational right to demand guarantees of security, it’s the Palestinians. The insecurity they face every day is unimaginable to nearly all Americans, except the few who have lived among Palestinians and seen it first-hand.

There’s the nub of the problem. Few Americans know anything about the Palestinian plight except what they get from their mass media. And even reporters at the progressive end of the spectrum, like Roger Cohen, constantly reinforce the message that Israel is threatened and vulnerable to being destroyed. They don’t do it intentionally. It’s just a well-trained mental reflex, a product of years of conditioning.

Cohen does not think insecurity excuses Israel’s egregious violence. But most Americans do think so. After all, when we’re threatened we fight back, by any means necessary. Ain’t that the American way? Why should we expect Israel to do any different? That’s how most of those 63% who sympathize with Israel see it.

And that, above all, is why progressives have so little influence over U.S. Mideast policy. 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 falls on the deaf ears of most of the public -- and, I suspect, most federal officeholders and policymakers -- because the myth of Israel’s insecurity is the ultimate trump card.

When the most prominent critics of Israel, like Roger Cohen, reinforce that myth, it makes the myth seem even more convincingly believable.  That’s why good guys can do the most harm -- unless they confront the myth of Israel’s insecurity head on and debunk it with the all the facts they can muster.

Progressives may assume that myth is so obviously false, there’s no need to refute it. But unless they make refuting it their number one priority, their words are unlikely to make any dent in American public opinion or government policy.

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Ira Chernus

Ira Chernus

Ira Chernus is Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of"American Nonviolence: The History of an Idea."

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