Why So Many Liberals Get Israel Wrong
Zionism, at its heart, was a progressive cause before the term "progressive" became pop culture lore.
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For many centuries now, the big divide in international relations theory has been between liberalism and realism.
Realists believe that power matters, that states compete for power, and that war is an instrument of this competition. Liberals, on the other hand, have a more idealistic view of the world. This does not mean they are naive or foolish, but they believe there are aspects of international relations and geopolitics that lead to a more peaceful world than most realists see.
Nowadays, there are three major liberal theories. The first and most important of these theories is democratic peace theory, which suggests that democratic countries are hesitant to engage in armed conflict with other identified democracies. Several factors are responsible for motivating peace between democratic states, including:
“Monadic” forms – Democracies are in general more peaceful in their international relations.
“Dyadic” forms – Democracies do not go to war with other democracies.
“Systemic” forms – More democratic states in the international system makes the international system more peaceful.
A realist would say that it does not matter whether a state is a democracy or not, because all states behave according to anarchy, which is described as the lack of a supreme authority that can effectively resolve disputes, enforce laws, and order the system of international politics. After all, the Nazi party was elected democratically. So too, apparently, was Hamas in Gaza.
The second major liberal theory is economic interdependence theory, the mutual dependence of participants in an economic system who trade in order to obtain the products they cannot or do not produce efficiently themselves. Such trading relationships require that the behavior of a participant affects its trading partners, and it would be costly to rupture their relationship. More economic interdependence in the world, therefore, supposes more peace.
Lastly, the third major theory is liberal institutionalism, in which international cooperation is based on institutions (such as the United Nations) which dictate rules to which member states agree, thus reducing conflict and security competition.
The problem with each of these three liberal theories is, while Israel has tried to engage in each of them, the Middle East and North Africa are inherently non-liberal environments. And no matter how much Israel tries to be a liberal democracy in the region, the Jewish state is a product of its own environment, like every country in every region on this planet.
Democratic peace theory is consequently nonexistent in North Africa and the Middle East because democracies are not inherent to these regions. What’s more, economic interdependence between Israel and the Arab world has been shallow at best. The Abraham Accords, signed in 2020, was a step in the right direction, but it will take much more time for true economic interdependence to become fruitful.
And, while liberal institutionalism exists with organizations like the United Nations, Israel has been routinely and disproportionately targeted by such organizations in the most unjust and bizarre ways. Already in 1952, just four years after the State of Israel’s founding, an Israeli initiative at the UN for a ceasefire in Korea, put forward by representative Abba Eban, encountered serious opposition, only to easily pass once Norway replaced Israel as the sponsor.
Eban went on to famously say: “If Algeria introduced a resolution declaring that the earth was flat and that Israel had flattened it, it would pass by a vote of 164 to 13 with 26 abstentions.”
There was also the notorious “Zionism is racism” UN resolution in the 1970s. And eight years ago, then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry gave words to what Israelis had been feeling for decades, as he criticized the UN for its “obsession with Israel.” True to form, the organization issued 14 condemnations of the Jewish state in 2023 — double the rest of the world, combined.
Meanwhile, Israel remains the only liberal democracy in the Middle East and North Africa, and the only state in the region where Jews, Christians, and Muslims live in relative peace (within Israel, I mean). But don’t just take it from me. Khaled Hassan, an Egyptian ex-Muslim, recently said:
“Do you really want to know why I support Israel? It’s because if the entire world became Israel, we’d still be able to fall in love. To party. To dance. To hold hands. To go for a drink. To look after the vulnerable. To vote. To love and live under the rule of compassion and democracy. To have freedom of religion and freedom of speech. On the other hand, if the entire world became the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, Qatar, Yemen, Syria, Gaza, Iraq, et cetera, you know exactly what would happen. Hate, fear, terrorism, and bloodlust.”1
Lawrence, who knew Arabia well, compared Arab societies to shifting sand that one moment speaks quietly and the next turns into a storm.
“It is a society that has a strong tendency for violence, a society that can only exist under the rule of tyranny,” said historian Benzion Netanyahu. “It is a society that is overly preoccupied with genius, pride, and victory. It is a society that in a certain sense is still characterized by the ancient mentality of ancient times.”2
This is where realism, the antidote to liberalism, comes into play — but even within realism, there are different streams. Within the realm of structural realism, there are a handful of realists known as “defensive realists” who believe that the structure of the international system (“anarchy”) fosters security competition, but it really rules out the great power of war almost all the time. Therefore, it makes sense to care about the balance of power, but to focus on maintaining how much power a state has. Defensive realists contend that, if a state tries to gain more power, the system will punish it.
“Offensive realists” believe that states look for opportunities to gain more power, and almost every time they see an opportunity to gain more power, with a relatively high likelihood of success and low cost of execution, they will try to capitalize on that opportunity.
The Middle East and North Africa are largely comprised of states that look for opportunities to gain more power, and the Israel-Hamas war is a direct manifestation of “offensive realism.” More specifically, Iran sees an opportunity to embolden its “Axis of Resistance” in the region.
“Iran is currently doing everything it can to normalize relations with the Arab states and thus take the place of Israel, which had become increasingly closer to these countries,” said Dalia Ziada, an Egyptian political analyst. “The Iranians want to win over the Arab states as allies for their major goal: to wipe out Israel.”3
The Saudis, whose enemy is Iran, see an opportunity to side with Israel and the Palestinians to further entrench themselves as the leading Muslim power of the Middle East.
And Israel, too, now sees an opportunity to rid terror groups of their presence on the Jewish state’s borders and further establish itself within the region, likely through a normalization with Saudi Arabia, which keeps telling the world how much they want to make peace with Israel.
Historically, the issue between Israel and Arab states was never about the Palestinians (i.e. occupation, human rights). This is what many liberals get wrong about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Palestinians only seriously organized themselves in the 1960s, with the supreme help of the Soviets, who used the Palestinians as pawns to oppose Israel, a democratic state, during the Cold War.
The Arabs, too, have used the Palestinians as pawns in fear of the concept of Zionism, which is fundamentally a Western movement. It is a movement that lives on the border of the East, but always faces the West; in a well-known sense, Zionism has always been a forward position of the West in the East. And so it is today: Israel stands against the natural tendencies of the Middle East to penetrate the West and enslave it.
For this reason, the Arabs see Israel as a foreign creature in their region. And they fear the Jews’ existence as the only Western country in the Middle East. They feel that we are endangering their culture, their religion, and the structure of their society and regimes.
Even with Egypt and Jordan, which Israel made peace with in 1979 and 1994 respectively, there is a cold peace. With the UAE, prosperity is the core variable of economic interdependence. But right now, as Israel faces an existential war, the core variable is survival — and survival always trumps prosperity, especially when prosperity and survival inevitably come into conflict.
As you might be able to tell by now, Israel is literally and figuratively just a sliver in the Middle East and North Africa. There is a much greater geopolitical game at play here, of which Israel is a part by nature of existing in the region, and of which the Palestinians are a part by nature of being a convenient reason to oppose the region’s only liberal democracy.
All you have to do is look at the civil wars in Yemen, Syria, and Sudan to know that Israel and the Jews have little to do with the greater regional geopolitical frameworks. Thus, as my friend Avi Melamed says, to understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, you have to understand North Africa and the Middle East. The region’s larger, more powerful forces dictate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, not the other way around.
As it relates to Zionism, make no mistake: Zionism, at its heart, was a progressive cause before the term “progressive” became pop culture lore. It centered around anti-imperialist decolonization, a workable solution to genocide (the Holocaust), live and let live (a two-state solution which Israel agreed to as part of the 1947 UN Partition Plan), and multiculturalism (Jews moving from across the world to Israel, to live alongside Muslims, Christians, and others).
Still, as former left-leaning Israeli politician Einat Wilf said, Zionism “had the misfortune of success. As such, it is maligned for its very success in self-transforming victims into sovereigns, now cast as ‘privilege.’ But isn’t the very goal of ‘progress’ in ‘progressive’ to move away from victim to self-possessed?”4
Instead of trying to model their minority’s group success after Zionism, mostly liberally minded peoples have looked at the Jewish cause with disdain, as if to ask: “How is it possible that the Jews succeeded while we haven’t?”
Instead of holding success against the Jews, perhaps it would be more beneficial for Israel and other all minority groups to celebrate the Jewish state’s liberally driven success, and try to replicate it in other places, for other peoples, across the world.
Khaled Hassan on X
“Ben-Zion Netanyahu in an interview in 1998.” Haaretz.
“Im Westen fallen viele Leute auf eine grosse Lüge herein.” Tages-Anzeiger.
Einat Wilf on X