Quality or Quantity for Jewish State?

<i> Dominique Moisi is the associate director of the French Institute for International Relations in Paris and the editor of the journal Politique Etrangere. </i>

The events of the last six weeks in Israel’s occupied territories have shed new light on the existential dilemma of the Jewish state, for Israel is at the same time more and less of a state than any ordinary nation in the world. It is more of a state because Israel, in spite of its present military superiority over its neighbors and diplomatic strength as the foremost ally of the United States in the region, considers itself to be, and largely is, in a pre-Renaissance situation, as existed before the emergence of mutually recognized nation-states. Most of its neighbors, with the notable exception of Egypt (and maybe Jordan), still question, at least in their hearts, Israel’s very right to exist. Since emotions can never be fully controlled, the Arab states could revert to open hostility.

The latest clash is the product of Israeli fear and Palestinian despair. The demographic situation within the territories occupied by Israel is looking like a permanent time bomb that the passage of time is aggravating, not defusing.

Israel has been encouraged by the combination of weakness, division and rigidity within the Palestine Liberation Organization. Yet the Israelis are also lacking the inspiration of a great leader, which they badly need. It is the tragic irony of history that, when small, Israel had a great statesman, David Ben-Gurion, while the “great” Israel has had only politicians. A mixture of fear and lack of clear alternatives pushes the Israelis to resort to crude Realpolitik as a source of inspiration and to allow themselves to retreat in a Masada-like type of behavior when confronted with external criticism.

Israel also is more of a state in another sense: It is the repository and the custodian of an ancestral history and a religious tradition that have miraculously survived in spite (or because) of the earlier dramas of history.


If Israel is a state in the pre-Renaissance mode, however, reliance on a cold Machiavellianism is insufficient. It is neither as powerful as the Soviet Union nor as secure in its identity as China, nor as protected from the clouds of history as Australia--nor, of course, as populous as most of its nemeses.

Israel remains, in spite of its present relative superiority toward its neighbors, a strong but vulnerable appendage on the surface of the Earth. Its long-term survival depends on whether it is accepted as legitimate by its hostile neighbors. This can only be the product of diplomacy and strength, not strength alone.

Israelis resent the fact that the world applies to them moral criteria that are not imposed on any other state in the region. This may be a dubious honor and an unfair singularization, but it is the price to be paid by a democracy--especially given its status as the only one in its region. It is also a price to be paid when one has set initially for oneself the goal of being different--a state more moral than the others, particularly the traditional European countries, whose immorality had led, through two world wars, to the catastrophes of European history that extracted from the Jews a singularly higher price.

It has been the tragic irony of history that the creation of Israel, a fulfillment of an immemorial dream but more concretely the translation of the last nationalist wave of 19th-Century European history, materialized itself--accelerated by the emotional shock of Auschwitz--precisely at the moment when decolonization was starting in what was to be called the Third World. As Palestinian demonstrations and Israeli repressions accelerate, the situation will gradually appear to be (and be seen as) one of the last manifestations of decolonization. Israel’s image, which had begun to recover from the excesses in Lebanon, leading to a mellowing of its diplomatic isolation, will tend to be tarnished again, probably with the same kind of emotional exaggeration.


Contrary to what has been said by some commentators, the latest developments cannot in themselves produce a new reading of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict--one that would make the Palestinians the gradual victor of the last 20 years. The respective inability of each side to come to terms with the other can lead only to tragedy for both. In the Middle East one can very well apply Albert Camus’ observation, on the aftermath of the Hungarian uprising of 1956: “One is always too generous with the blood of others.” But if one should not encourage extremism, can moderation be forced on others?

Ultimately Israel’s existence depends on its recognition as legitimate within its regional environment. Such a recognition presupposes a territorial compromise. The status quo is a guarantee for disaster. Israel’s essence as a democratic state and Israel’s security will in time suffer from it. It might be said that the fateful choice before Israel is one between quantity (keeping the territories) and quality (preserving the essence of the Jewish state).

Security is not necessarily a matter of acres.