The Magazine

The Collapse of Zionism

May 29, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 35 • By CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER
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The most improbable story of the twentieth century is the return of the Jews to sovereignty in their original homeland. The establishment of a Jewish state after two thousand years of dispersion and powerlessness is an idea that just a hundred years ago, at the founding of the Zionist movement, seemed delusional. The only thing more improbable is this: That after merely fifty years of independence, the Jews of Israel would tire of it, lose faith in the enterprise, and forfeit their redemption. As things are progressing now, the collapse of Zionism may be the story of the twenty-first century.

For the last twenty years, Israel has been in retreat. One can make reasonable strategic arguments for some or all of the specifics. But the fact of retreat is undeniable. In the south, Israel gave up Sinai, three times the size of Israel, for a cold and hostile peace with Egypt. In the north, Israel is in the midst of a retreat from Lebanon that will leave its northern cities vulnerable to terrorist attack for the first time in a quarter century.

Israel has already conceded to Syria the entire Golan Heights. The only thing that keeps Israel from carrying out this withdrawal is Syrian insistence on making it as humiliating as possible. Syria refuses to offer the minimal courtesies in negotiations or the minimal gestures toward real peace. Even Israelis on the left, such as the novelist Amos Oz, have come out against a deal with Syria and against Israel's abject negotiating stance. Assad, said Oz, is "demanding not just peace, and not even just the Golan, but that Ehud Barak should go to meet him dressed only in his underwear, with his hands raised in surrender, and, if at all possible, wearing a bandanna on his forehead inscribed with the motto 'Israel sucks.'"

And on the most important front, on the Palestinian front, Israel has been engaged for seven years in a thinly disguised unilateral withdrawal. The Palestinians have not tempered their demands one iota since 1993. All the while, Israel has been ceding territory, authority, and legitimacy, while violating its own "red lines" on everything from final borders (the Jordan Valley is for the first time on the block) to a unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood. Just last week, Arafat instigated widespread rioting to remind Israelis that the military option is his to exercise whenever he wants. How did Prime Minister Barak respond? Even as Palestinian police were firing live ammunition at Israeli soldiers, he got his cabinet to approve the transfer of three villages in the Jerusalem area as a show of goodwill.

Some call such displays of magnanimity a sign of maturity. Another word for it is demoralization. In a recent essay in Commentary, Daniel Pipes pointed out the remarkable asymmetries, moral and material, in the Middle East today. On the surface, Israel has the appearance of a powerful, almost invincible, Middle East presence. It has a vibrant democracy, a highly developed economy, and continued technological superiority. (It is, for example, one of the world's Internet powers.)

Israel's Arab neighbors have none of these, but they do have will. Indeed, a half-century into their struggle with Israel, the Arab will to prevail is more powerful than ever. True, paper treaties have been signed. But the animus toward the very existence of the Jewish state has grown deeper, finding religious sanction in fanatic Islamicism and becoming the staple of official propaganda and popular culture. The Israelis, war weary and desperate for peace, willfully overlook these signs and search endlessly for just the right negotiating formula, just the right territorial concession, just the right dose of placation to bring them an illusive final peace.

The retreat is not just territorial. Israel's physical withdrawal is an epiphenomenon, a surface manifestation of a far more profound withdrawal: psychological and, ultimately, ideological. The territorial retreat tries to grapple (however mistakenly) with the question of how a Jewish state can survive; the ideological retreat raises serious doubts about why a Jewish state should survive.

These doubts, and the relentless attempt by Israel's intellectual elites to instill them in the mainstream of Israeli culture, have been chillingly catalogued in a new book by Yoram Hazony. The Jewish State: The Struggle for Israel's Soul lays bare the debate that has been raging in Israel -- in Hebrew, and thus beyond the ken of most Western observers -- about the necessity, indeed the morality, of a state that defines itself as Jewish.