In a rare moment of perception, Thomas Friedman wrote recently that if you want to be taken seriously in Israel, “there is an unspoken question in the mind of virtually every Israeli that you need to answer correctly: ‘Do you understand what neighborhood I’m living in?’”
What brought this to mind was the latest broadside by Friedman’s fellow New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, who reiterated what has become the favorite mantra not only of those who support Chuck Hagel for secretary of defense, but of liberal American Jewish groups like J Street and even the Union for Reform Judaism: that Israel’s “true friends” are those who tell it, loudly and publicly, that its policies are “self-defeating and wrong,” in an effort to stop what they perceive as its rush to self-destruction. I fully agree that friends should warn against behavior they view as self-destructive. But anyone who thinks that confronting Israel publicly is helping rather than hurting it doesn’t understand what neighborhood Israel is living in.
As even Cohen acknowledged, Israel has real enemies. He cited Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal’s eliminationist threats; one could quote identical rhetoric from Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, “moderate” opponents of Ahmadinejad like former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, and Muslim Brotherhood leaders in Egypt. A good example is this clip (courtesy of MEMRI) of Egyptian cleric Mahmoud Al-Masri being interviewed on Egypt’s Al-Nas TV in November: After gleefully prophesying that the Brotherhood’s rise in Egypt and a successful conclusion to the revolution in Syria will enable Egypt and Syria to unite in a war of annihilation against Israel, Al-Masri assures his followers that this is just the beginning: “Ultimately, not a single Jew will be left on the face of the earth.”
So given that lots of people truly want to destroy Israel, how do Israel’s friends keep that from happening? The only way is through deterrence: convincing these enemies that, however much they’d like to annihilate Israel, they lack the capability to succeed. First and foremost, of course, that depends on Israel’s own military capabilities. But it also depends on perceptions of Israel’s international support.
To understand why, it’s worth reviewing that clip of Al-Masri’s, in which he blithely declares that Israel would have been annihilated in 1973 had the superpowers not intervened to stop the war. In reality, that’s nonsense: The war ended with the Israeli army threatening both Cairo and Damascus. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is that millions of people all over the Middle East believe it. And they believe the same about Israel’s victories in 1948, 1956, 1967, etc.–that Israel won only thanks to nefarious international assistance.
For that reason, perceptions of Israel’s international support are crucial: The more Israel’s enemies come to believe that Israel’s traditional supporters are drawing away, the more they will believe the ultimate military victory they seek is achievable. And since Israel has no more important supporter than America–its government, its public and its Jewish community–the perception that Americans are drawing away from Israel is particularly harmful. Yet when Israel’s “true friends” in America pick very public fights with it, that’s precisely the perception they create, however unintentionally.
People like Cohen or the leaders of the URJ would be genuinely horrified if Meshaal’s eliminationist vision came to pass. But by their very public broadsides against Israel, they make it far more likely that Israel’s enemies will seriously attempt to realize this vision. Thus with the best of intentions, they are causing Israel enormous harm–just because they refuse to understand what neighborhood it’s living in.