Israel’s Political Abyss: Self-Reliance vs. Moralism

<i> Yagil Weinberg is a senior MacArthur Fellow at the Maryland Center for International Security, and a visiting professor at American University's School of International Service. </i>

With two weeks left before casting their ballots, Israelis face a tough choice between differing approaches to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. This choice divides the Israeli public as never before. It could determine the future shape of Israeli society.

In foreign affairs, two principles have guided Israeli policy: extreme self-reliance and moralism. Until now, these principles have coexisted. But the eruption of the Palestinian intifada (uprising) has thrown them into stark opposition. Now Israelis must choose.

The underlying principle of the self-reliance argument is that no one can be trusted to ensure Israel’s survival. Throughout history, Jews have been abandoned to their bitter fate.

The heroic warriors of the Bible; the zealots of Masada, who preferred death to slavery under Rome; the partisans of the Warsaw ghetto, who staged a desperate revolt against the Nazis--all are favorite images. Jewish survival in a hostile world is ensured only by political and military strength. As Menachem Begin wrote, “The world does not pity the victims, it respects the warriors.”


This self-reliance principle was a core component of traditional Zionism, in both its Labor and revisionist (Likud) forms. Its adherents argued that it was better to be strong and morally imperfect than righteous and dead.

The other ethos derives a different set of imperatives from Jewish history. As eternal victims, Jews must never victimize others. Adherents to this settle for less exciting heroes: the biblical prophets, who envisaged a just society; Hillel the Elder, who summarized Judaism in one sentence, “What is despicable to you, do not unto your fellow,” and the first Israeli president, Chaim Weitzman, who said the Jewish State “must be built up without disturbing the legitimate interests of the Palestinian Arabs--not a hair on their heads may be touched.”

Followers of this view, found mainly on Labor’s side of the spectrum, prize compassion over strength. The fair treatment of the Palestinian minority becomes a categorical imperative: It is worth taking security risks to avoid moral injustice.

The moral dilemma for these Israelis is how to be truthful to the Zionist vision of freedom and equality for all--embodied in Israel’s declaration of independence--while ensuring the state’s survival.


Until 1967, Israelis did not have to choose between self-reliance and morality. Two assumptions guided Israel in its policies. The first was that the Arab-Israeli conflict is a “given,” with no expected resolution. The second was that under circumstances of continuing conflict, preference should be given to strategies that recognized Israel’s vulnerability due to its lack of strategic depth and demographic weakness.

As a result, Israel’s security strategy was based on avoidance of unnecessary risks and adoption of a “worst-case analysis” to guide foreign policy.

The 1967 War created a new set of options. The newly acquired territories were perceived by segments of Israeli society to be more than the minimum required for defensible borders and strategic depth. At the same time, control over a large population of Palestinian Arabs raised questions about moral and political issues.

A split developed in Israel over the treatment of the territories and their inhabitants. Right-wing parties, led by the Likud Bloc, had an agenda based on their ethos of uncompromising self-reliance. In addition, the Likud camp had a strong ideological preconception about Israel’s right to permanent control of the occupied territories. This dictated avoidance of any territorial compromise.

The Labor Alignment struggled to adapt to the new realities. They tried to find a balance that would accommodate Israel’s security but also allow the Palestinian Arabs to live in dignity.

Under both Labor and Likud governments, the “self-reliant” and “moralist” approaches to the territories coexisted--until the Palestinian intifada broke out last December. The status quo ante, uneasy Israeli control over territories inhabited by Palestinian Arabs, suddenly collapsed. Israelis were faced with a new status quo of unquenchable unrest. Ten months and more than 230 deaths after the intifada erupted, Israel cannot put off a decision on how to extricate itself from the crisis.

A confused Israeli government has attempted to quell the uprising. Violence and civil unrest must stop, its members argued, before any political approach could be tested to bring any breakthrough in the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But all the tactics--live ammunition, beating and bone-breaking, deportations and mass raids, arrests--proved equally unsuccessful.

Many Israelis feel endangered by the riots. Many believe that concessions made under duress will be interpreted as weakness, thus encouraging more violence. Such fears are exacerbated by Palestinian Arabs, now calling for “liberation” of Israel’s major cities, Tel Aviv and Haifa.


Israelis who favor self-reliance advocate a harsh stance against any territorial compromise. The intifada only assured them that the West Bank and the Gaza Strip must be retained, because they enhance Israel’s security. They argue that Palestinian Arabs who do not accept Israeli occupation must be silenced by force or expelled.

For those who cherish moralism, returning the occupied territories is preferable to continued mistreatment of belligerent Palestinians. Controlling 1.3 million Palestinians in the territories is unhealthy to Israeli society, these Israelis say. But given the coexistence within Labor thinking of both “self-reliant” and “moralist” stands, the intifada challenge has been most acute for Labor. Reporting in the Israeli media creates further confusion for the Israeli voter. Images of belligerent Palestinians calling for the destruction of Israel are juxtaposed with those of a conciliatory Yasser Arafat, wishing peace to the Israeli people. A self-assured prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir, repeats his uncompromising position: No negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organization, no Palestinian state, no territorial compromise. An emotional foreign minister, Shimon Peres, elaborates the need for moderation and the exchange of territory for peace, for an international conference and negotiations with any Palestinian willing to recognize Israel’s right to exist.

Each of the two principles guiding Israeli policy-making leads to a different option: A morally untenable occupation, or a militarily precarious compromise. Possible alternatives to the occupation are rejected by a majority of Israelis. Most believe that one alternative--annexation--would alter the demographic balance in Israel, creating the possibility of an Arab majority. Under these circumstances, Israelis feel that they would have to make a choice between being a Jewish state and being a democracy.

Another alternative, the mass deportation of Palestinian Arabs from the occupied territories, while favored by only a tiny minority, is gaining popularity. However, the perceived immorality of the “transfer” of more than a million people from their homes makes it highly unlikely.

Those in Israel who believe in the benefits, to both Israelis and Palestinians, of an eventual peaceful coexistence look for a political compromise between the two basic principles. For the Labor Alignment the ability to articulate such a compromise is the only way to overcome the party’s internal rift.

A major obstacle to agreement among Israelis is the assertion that there is no Palestinian with whom to negotiate. It is unlikely, many Israelis believe, that a united, moderate Palestinian platform could emerge--one that accepts the State of Israel and sues for peace.

This may be the first and the last time that the Palestinian conflict and territorial compromise capture the attention of the Israeli electorate. For Israel, these choices are are epoch-making.