Israel Under Siege

The Politics of Insecurity and the Rise of the Israeli Neo-Revisionist Right

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Raffaella A. Del Sarto
  • Washington, DC: 
    Georgetown University Press
    , April
     2017.
     296 pages.
     $32.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781626164079.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Raffaella A. Del Sarto’s Israel Under Siege is a timely addition to the scholarly analysis of Israeli foreign policy. At a time when achieving peace—or even starting a meaningful peace process—between Israelis and Palestinians seems more elusive than perhaps it has been over the last three decades, Del Sarto’s study of the type of policy consensus that has emerged in Israel over national-security and regional issues in the first decade of the 21st century is indeed very useful. In this exhaustive research study, Del Sarto offers a comprehensive description of what she terms the Israeli neo-revisionist ideology, which has become the hegemonic worldview in Israel with little, if any meaningful opposition. In the wake of the collapse of the Oslo peace process and the outbreak of the second Intifada, which brought suicide terrorist attacks to the heart of Israel’s urban centers, a rejectionist, aggressive consensus over security questions has emerged that has rendered talk of peaceful solutions all but irrelevant. 

Rather astutely, Del Sarto identifies three key elements of the current Israeli foreign policy discourse. The first is the constant threat from terrorism and the need to engage in what is tantamount to a constant war against terrorist threats (and setting the total elimination of the terrorist threat as necessary step for any serious engagement in the peace process). The second is the notion that there is no genuine partner on the Palestinian side who advocates peace with Israel. This notion was first articulated by Prime Minister Ehud Barak in the wake of the collapse of the Camp David peace summit in 2000 and has continued to dominate Israeli public sentiment ever since. Third, Israeli politicians and policy makers have described Iran as an existential threat to Israel—as an irrational regional power that once in possession of nuclear weapons will seek to destroy the Jewish State. Del Sarto does not dismiss the argument that Israelis’ sense of threat and insecurity is grounded in reality; rather, in a critical manner, she shows how it has been manipulated, to borrow an old term, to manufacture consent around one dominant worldview. The manner by which she shows this is both grounded in relevant research and quite convincing. 

So, if the sense of threat to Israel is somewhat hyped and used by policymakers to advance a certain position, what might explain the rise of the Israeli Right in the current century? Was Israel prior to the second Intifada a hotbed of political debate, where competing visions about Israel’s place in the region and its relations with its neighbors was vigorously debated? Del Sarto, rather perceptively, shows that throughout its history (even going back to the pre-State Jewish community in Palestine), Israelis lived under a sense of existential siege, believing that they were facing an enemy determined to push them to the sea. And as a result, Israelis, historically, tended to embrace leaders who championed hawkish policies. In fact, one could make the argument that only for a brief period in Israeli history, starting with the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and ending with the second Intifada in 2000, did the Israeli public engage in a heated, meaningful debate in which two clear political alternatives regarding Israel’s relations with the Arab world were seen as viable: the Greater Israel camp and the those who favored some kind of two-state solution. This period also witnessed a culmination of other important processes that Israel has been undergoing since the late 1960s: the liberalization of the Israeli economy, the de-regulation of the Israeli media and higher education, and a very activist supreme court that advanced a liberal agenda for a host of civil issues. The violence of the second Intifada did indeed destroy the Israeli peace camp, but Del Sarto argues that this is not the result of the emergence of some new ideology or a radical shift in Israeli history: Benjamin Netanyahu or Ariel Sharon are not necessarily more hawkish than Ben Gurion or Moshe Dayan had been. And is the current anxiety about Iran all that different from the way Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt was perceived in Israel in the 1950s and 1960s? And isn’t the claim that there is no partner on the other side all that different from the manner in which the PLO was described by Yitzhak Shamir in the 1980s as the PLO was signaling a willingness to negotiate on the basis of UN Security Council resolution 242? Israel has reverted in the 21st century back to the Iron Wall consensus, which as Del Sarto herself shows rather powerfully has been the dominant feature of Zionist and Israeli foreign policy since the 1930s. 

Israel, since the start of the new millennium, did witness, as Del Sarto’s title suggests, a political rise of the Right; but this new kind of right-wing populism has mainly manifested itself in domestic policies: the brutalist dismantling of the Israeli welfare state, attacks on the supreme court and efforts to curtail its powers, and an all-out assault on the perceived old (leftist) elites in the media and academe. Israel today is far more religious and socially conservative than it has been in the past. But when it comes to foreign policy, it seems that Israel has returned to the traditional aggressive and overly suspicious tendencies championed by its founding fathers. 

For an analysis of the current Israeli debate (or lack thereof) over foreign policy, Israel Under Siege is an important addition to the scholarly field. For a broader understanding of Israeli political history, it may fall somewhat short.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Eran Kaplan is Professor of Jewish Studies at San Francisco State University.

Date of Review: 
May 31, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Raffaella A. Del Sarto is Associate Professor of Middle East Studies at the Johns Hopkins University, School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), SAIS Europe at Bologna, and a part-time professor at the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, European University Institute in Florence, Italy. She is the author of Contested State Identities and Regional Security in the Euro-Mediterranean Area, the coeditor of The Convergence of Civilizations: Constructing a Mediterranean Region, and editor of Fragmented Borders, Interdependence, and External Relations: The Israel-Palestine-European Union Triangle.

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