Israel needs a new map

President Barack Obama, left, pats the shoulder of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a joint news conference in Jerusalem, Israel.
(Heidi Levine / EPA)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has just formed a new government in Israel. But nothing of substance will change. Peace negotiations will not resume; settlement activity will expand; war with Iran will still be threatened; and Israel will move even closer to becoming an international pariah. When President Obama speaks to the Israeli public, he will no doubt treat his counterpart cordially, but that won’t mute the shocking honesty of what he has already said: An Israeli government led by Netanyahu cannot be a partner for productive peace talks.

In his visit to Israel, the West Bank and Jordan, and in the weeks ahead, the president can clarify the full implications of Israel’s isolation. Only thus can Washington hope to achieve the bare minimum it needs to engage seriously with the issue of peace: a shadow government in Israel offering a credible alternative to the fundamentalist/ultranationalist bloc that has dominated Israeli policy toward the Arab and Muslim worlds.

How close is Israel to pariah status? Quite close. Americans know that ratings for Congress are now in the single digits: below traffic jams, colonoscopies and cockroaches, though still above North Korea and telemarketers. If Israel were included in that survey it would of course do better than Congress — among Americans. But not in the world at large.


In a 2003 European Union-sponsored poll, Israel was seen as more dangerous to world peace than any other country. In 2006, an Israeli government poll conducted in 35 countries found Israel had the worst public image in every category it tested. In 2012, the BBC reported that 50% of 24,090 people polled worldwide thought Israel had a “mostly negative” impact on the world, tied with North Korea and exceeded only by Pakistan and Iran.

Worried about “delegitimization” as an “existential threat,” the Israeli government and its U.S. friends have funded a host of rebranding PR efforts. But Israel’s image has suffered more from repeated outrages to the world’s sense of fairness than from bad public relations.

Israeli leaders have repeatedly threatened to attack Iran, a signatory to the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, for developing nuclear technology with weapons potential, even as they refuse to join the NPT or acknowledge Israel’s own immense nuclear force. Israeli governments have launched several onslaughts against the Gaza Strip and Lebanon, inflicting collateral damage to innocents that has hugely exceeded Israeli casualties. In response to the United Nation’s decision to recognize Palestine as an observer state, the Israeli government announced radical expansion of Jewish settlement in sensitive areas of Jerusalem and the West Bank. Jews living in Palestine thousands of years ago are cited to justify a right of 21st century Jews to “return,” while Palestinian demands to return after 65 years of exile are deemed absurd.

Such policies and actions have shaped the international image of the Jewish state as defiant rather than courageous, belligerent rather than reasonable, dangerous rather than reliable.

Netanyahu and his allies can be blamed for many of Israel’s current excesses. But there are much deeper forces at work. One of them is the still-unrecognized reality of post-Zionism. Israel’s founding ideology has not adapted gradually to a changing world, and the American colossus has protected it from the consequences. When adaptation cannot occur gradually, it occurs suddenly. It is wrenching and disorienting. This is the sort of change in store for Israel.

Zionism proposed a Jewish state in Palestine as a solution to the great crisis of European Jewry in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Jewish state would protect a beleaguered people, end anti-Semitism and provide modern expression for Jewish nationalism. More than a century later, Israeli leaders, whether they believe in it or not, still invoke Zionism to justify their policies and to reject criticism. But the assumptions and beliefs that were an effective basis for policy a century ago are outlandish now.


Just consider: Theodor Herzl’s Zionism began with the assumption that the homelessness of the Jews was a vital problem for the international community, which would impose a Jewish state on resisting Arabs to solve it. Early Zionists imagined building a modern secular democracy, a rampart of Western civilization against a barbarian east sunk in backward religious ideas. Eventually, it was expected, the region would modernize, becoming like Israel, and accepting of and even grateful for its presence. It was assumed as well that in a Jewish state, Jews would be protected against threats to their existence.

The iron grip of this outmoded ideology is why Israel seems so out of step with the times.

Israel is not the vanguard of a Europeanized Middle East that embraces it gratefully. The world is fixated on an international problem of homelessness for a persecuted people — but not the Jews, the Palestinians. Israel is not secular, and it is not the only democracy in the region.

As the masses enter politics in the Muslim Middle East, the governments they are producing are not Israel’s allies.

Even the Iron Wall, the idea that at least medium-term security can be provided by establishing Israel in Arab eyes as an unwanted but permanent reality, collapses under the threat of missiles carrying weapons of mass destruction, and the Holocaust mania they engender.

Any ideology is a map of political terrain — locating dangers, roads ahead, obstacles and opportunities. Forced to use a Zionist map of the late 19th century to navigate the 21st, Israelis are confused, often to the point of fury and despair. Israelis need a new map; one that does not identify anti-Semitism as the root of the country’s problems; that is not wedded to the unilateralist “heroism” of land grabs in the 1930s and 1940s as a way to overcome moral uncertainties and international opprobrium; that does not fashion Palestinians as Nazis or the U.N. as the British Mandate.

The new map must also reflect the one fundamental objective of Zionism that has been achieved. Israel is a normal country, as prone to stupidity and brutality in the name of its old gods as any other. More ominously, it is as likely as any other small country to pay the terrible costs of not seeing the flaws in itself it so naturally sees in others.


In its day, Zionist ideology was a valuable problem identifier and guide to solutions. Now, however, except for the foundational principle that Jews deserve the rights of any other people, the traditional discourse of Zionism is an obstacle to Jewish welfare and security. Israel can live in a post-Zionist age, or it can die in one. As we say in the Jewish tradition, choose life.

Ian S. Lustick is a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, specializing in Arab-Israeli relations. He is the author of, most recently, “Trapped in the War on Terror.”