When to Just Give Up on Territory Disputes: Palestine, Kashmir, Dokdo?


One of the most basic tenets of almost all IR theorizing is that states are territorial, literally, and obsessed with holding, if not expanding what space they have. Even if you aren’t Alexander the Great or Napoleon, out to conquer whatever is there, you still want to hold on to at least what you have. Territory is a fundamental requirement of statehood (ask the Kurds), and more is better given land’s inherent scarcity. The logic for this is simple. There is only so much real estate in the world. Barring extreme scenarios like suddenly easier land reclamation (from the sea) or interplanetary colonization, space on earth is finite. So the race to control space is by definition a zero-sum game (the Scramble for Africa). If I have it, then you don’t. The more you have, the more secure you are from others (the further away they are), the more people you probably have, the more resources you are likely to find under the ground, etc.

And this logic is backed up by loads of empirical evidence. The Japanese fight individually with Russia, Korea, and China about islands. The USSR and China fought a border war, as did the PRC and Vietnam. The US Union invaded the Southern Confederacy. The Israelis and Palestinians seem ready to kill each other over inches of barren desert. I recall reading somewhere that after the Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai, Egypt sued Israel in the World Court over several hundred feet of extra space Israel wanted to hold for a hotel or something. (Egypt won.) And the above map makes clear just how severe the territorial dilemma can be for micro-states like Israel. (Do not take the source of the map as my endorsement of Israeli policy in the occupied territories; I chose it just because it makes my point well.) No state wants to be dismembered, and lots of blood in history has been spilt trying to expand one’s land space (imperialism).

But Israel’s endless troubles holding the Palestinians, much less converting the Palestinian space and people into exploitable resources rather than manpower and money sinks, or India’s endless quest to quell and hold Kashmir, raise a good IR theory question: when is it time to just give up and take less? I am not sure if this question has been researched much because we worry, obviously, more about expansionism and irredentism than voluntary cession. But there are some good examples of this also. This article got my thinking how Sudan’s Arab elite has simply decided to throw in the towel after 25 of years of civil war with the south. 15 years ago, Ethiopia’s government decided to do the same with Eritrea. And Britain, I think, secretly hopes the Northern Irish Catholics will outbirth the local Protestants and vote for republican unification, hence ridding Britain of the endless Irish question. In Korea, I frequently argue that Korea needs Japan more than Japan needs Korea, because NK is so scary, unification with it will be so expensive, China is so big, and the US is in relative decline in Asia. Hence, it would make national security sense for Korea to try to come to some kind of deal on its island dispute with Japan (the Liancourt rocks [Dokdo]). Better relations with Japan would help Korea prepare for the Chinese challenge and bolster it in the stand-off with NK. Nor is there anything of value on Dokdo (it’s a bunch of rocks, like most of the West Bank too) and because it is uninhabitable, control of Dokdo has no implications for division of the sea or seabed. In short, the benefits of a deal are high.

So there is a cost-benefit analysis at work here. At some point, an enduring, costly stalemate may just not be worth it. I can see a few reasons why:

1. Your country is already pretty huge, or the land disputed is comparatively tiny. If I were India, I think I would be pretty close to giving in on Kashmir. India is huge, both geographically and demographically already. How much does Kashmir really matter when you already have 1.3 billion people ? For Israel though, the problem is much more acute. The IDF has argued for years that the West Bank adds ‘strategic depth’ to little Israel, which, disregarding the  moral dimension, is accurate. By this dimension, the Eritrean succession surprises me, because it land-locked Ethiopia. I would have thought that would be a national interest worth toughing it out for…

2. There are no natural resources or other immediate, tangible national interests. Dokdo’s control does not alter any material element in the Korea-Japan relationship. If anything, it wastes Korean money to artificially keep people and services stationed there that would not otherwise exist but for this dispute. This is no ‘resource war.’ So what great benefit do you get beyond that patriotic tingle in your chest?

3. The disputed territory is not ‘holy ground.’ I think this is the most tricky condition, because these sorts of disputes, zero-sum in nature and frequently rooted in long-standing neighborhood grudges, are exactly the sort of thing that get layered in over-heated nationalist rhetoric about holy struggles, national identity, God-given missions and all that sort of metaphysical talk. Witness the Jewish right in Israel talking about biblical claims from Moses to the West Bank, or Hamas’ reverse claim (also made up) of the centrality of Jerusalem to Mohammed’s revelation (it was just a sideshow in the big Arabian picture). For a hysterical and mawkish Korean version of Dokdo as holy ground, try here (be sure to listen to the song). I think there is a good dissertation here.

Illiberal Zionism Update: Beinart Nails It



Peter Beinart is exactly the sort of liberal necessary to win the GWoT. He correctly realized that the American right is not credible in its claims to defend Western liberalism against salafi illiberalism, because too much of the GOP base is too illiberal now and sees the GWoT exactly as Bin Laden does – a theological clash of civilizations – only they are on the other side. The increasingly Christianized and fundamentalist (Protestant mostly) GOP wants to ‘win’ the GWoT as a triumph of Christianity and/or American power. They are, as Walter Russell Mead correctly notes, ‘Jacksonian Zionist,’ not liberal. No Muslim, correctly, will believe US power to be neutral, serving universalist liberalism, when Bush needed to be told that the GWoT had biblical justification and Sarah Palin insists that Israel be allowed to do whatever it wants in the Occupied Territories.

In the same vein, he makes a good case here for the growing illiberalism of Zionism and the increasing inability of liberal countries to support its religio-nationalist, rather than liberal, opposition to Islamism and Arab authoritarianism. I made exactly the same point a year ago. (It is always nice to be confirmed in one’s prejudices I suppose, but Beinart does a better job of it than I did.) Sullivan adds his usually biting and gloomy commentary.

All sides seem to be sliding toward a clash of civilizations paradigm. All the more reason for the US to focus on the battle of ideas against salafism and get out of the Middle East in the medium-term

There’s No US-Israel ‘Crisis’ — It’s just Regular Old Alliance Politics


I can’t be the only one who thinks this whole got quickly overbaked – one small step in a well-established, well-publicized endeavor leads to the biggest crisis among friends in decades? Regardless of your opinion of Israeli West Bank behavior, settlement/colonization is a very widely-known and long-standing policy, so there’s little new here.

So this is less about Israel itself, and more about the changed US debate on Israel since the release of The Israel Lobby three years ago. Neocons who are nervous that elite opinion in the US is shifting against Israel saw an opportunity to push back before things go to far. And those pushing for more distance between the US and Israel saw an opportunity to push the issue into  mainstream credibility. But little of this impacts the real depth of the US-Israeli alliance (shared anti-Islamism, liberal democracy, fear of Iran). The whole thing smacks of inside-the-Beltway navel-gazing by people paid to hyperventilate. To rework Rahm Emanuel, never pass up an opportunity to manufacture a crisis.

1. Sure, Biden got snubbed. But ‘alliance politics’ are old hat. At least since the 70s, the US has been complaining that its allies don’t listen to it, that they don’t pay enough for their defense, that they freelance without asking the US for permission. Israel is just doing what lots of US allies have already done (which doesn’t mean it’s right, only that’s fairly typical). Consider that only two or three NATO allies now spend on defense what they they are treaty-obligated to spend (at least 2% of GDP). That includes really big ones like Germany, Italy and Canada. European allies have a pathetic 3 aircraft carriers between them. Or consider that the Europeans don’t want to go to Afghanistan, even thought they are treaty-obligated to do that too. Do we flip out about this every year? No. (Should we? Yes.) Or consider Mexico. Our closest ally in Latin America (since NAFTA)  has illegally exported 10-20 million of its poorest people to the US in the last generation, yet somehow we can’t get them take border security seriously. So why single out Israel so much for its bad behavior? Indeed, this has always been the biggest problem I have had with the Walt/Mearshiemer take on Israel (although I’m sure it’s not because of the idiot charge that they’re anti-semitic).

2. If you want America’s allies to behave better, then stop reaching for hegemony and start playing hard to get (Walt’s own idea btw, thereby increasing my confusion). US hegemony, or more specifically, our relentless celebration of it as America’s right because we are so awesome, tells allies that we love the top-dog slot so much, that we’ll never pull back from more involvement, more force, more shadow world government. This is my biggest beef with the Kagans, Robert Kaplan, Irving Kristol and the neocon persuasion generally. Just how much more do we have to spend on defense? How many more bases do we have to build? Kaplan even admitted that the US mission in Afghanistan is bleeding us white and better serves China than the US; but then he says we must go anyway! How can you possibly convince the allies to help if you say you’ll commit suicide before withdrawing…

This sort of attitude says that being the king-dog, lone superpower isn’t just good for US security or economy. Now it’s a part of our very identity. After three generations have been raised on the post-1940 National Security State, globe-spanning American exceptionalism is a part of who we are now (“God’s special mission for America,” to quote George W. Bush). Besides being exactly the forerunner of domestic tyranny the Anti-Federalists warned about way back in the 1780s, it also tells the world that the US will never abandon allies. Hence we cannot credibly threaten them.

3. Not only does this incentivize free-riding (Germany, Mexico), it also encourages misbehavior (Israel), because the US will never abandon its global role, because it loves it so much. This is (one) fatal flaw of the neo-con argument for US expansion. (The other is that we can’t afford hegemony much longer). Walt makes this argument regularly: if you want the allies to actually do what we tell them, then you have to be willing to cut them off once in awhile, to punish them for misbehavior. But given that NO ONE has the guts to cut Israeli aid on Capitol Hill, then the regular expectation should be Netanyahu-style misbehavior, not compliance. Think of Joe Lieberman and John McCain as enabling an alcoholic: why would Israel possibly stop if the consequences are absolutely zero? Ditto on Germany and defense spending.

Korea is a good comparison case here. US threats of alliance abandonment are far more believable here, because they are real. The size of US Forces in Korea (USFK) is in long-term decline. USFK is not tied into a larger multilateral framework like NATO, which would make it harder for the US to leave. Most Americans don’t know as much about Korea as they do our more culturally western allies, and if they do, they think rich Samsung-land should be able to defend itself. All these reasons cast doubt on the US guarantee to Korea. Koreans know this, and they know how much they need the US. As such, Korea is a far less troublesome ally to the US than most. By contrast, the Israelis or Germans know we aren’t going anywhere; too much of America’s self-identity as a totally awesome superpower is tied up a forward US presence in Europe and the Middle East. (Maybe there is a measurable relationship between cultural distance and credible threats of alliance abandonment; someone write that master’s thesis.)

4. The long-term structure of US foreign policy makes it all but impossible for individual initiatives, even from the POTUS himself, to change allied behavior. We tell Israel to be nice to the Palestinians once in awhile, while we simultaneously deepen our long-term position in the greater Middle East. Do you really think we can credibly threaten Israel with abandonment (a sanction for misbehavior) while US force structure so obviously say we won’t? As we build a huge string of bases that tells everyone – Jew, Muslim, Arab, Afghan, Persian – that we’ll be here for a long time? If you want the allies to burden share and follow orders, then stop enabling them through the endlessly sprawling national security state and endlessly expanding defense budget.

‘Andrew Sullivan is an Anti-Semite,’ or the Israel Lobby is in a Panic

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In the last few weeks, the literary editor of the New Republic, Leon Wieseltier, accused Andrew Sullivan of being an anti-Semite for his changing, increasingly tough views on Israel. For original post, go here; for Sullivan’s response, here; Greenwald, as usual, gave the most insightful read of the whole thing. Also, Cole, Chait, and Mead.

1. My sense of Sullivan’s work – from reading his blog irregularly, his essays at the Atlantic, and his book Conservative Soul – is that the charge is ridiculous. Sullivan is as thoughtful a writer as they come. I can’t think of anyone who has so openly showed, through his blog, the humanist thinking process day-by-day. Unlike academics who strive to present iron-clad work as if they’d thought of every angle, Sullivan has basically thrown open his brain so the whole world can watch him think. He routinely retracts, modifies, and apologizes when he makes mistakes or reconsiders. In this way, he is wonderfully honest – head and shoulders above the partisan hackery of most of American punditry. The blog is essentially the organic thinking process of classical liberal, with a touch of conservative sadness, muddling through tough questions, as we all do, only for the whole world to watch in print. It is a fascinating process, occasionally mundane or humorous, frequently engaging, but prejudiced? Hardly. That violates the very spirit of thinking-out-loud behind his blog that has made it so popular.

2. Wieseltier’s piece is pretty shoddy. It is a collection of extrapolations, slippery allegations, and ad hominem shots. Name-dropping Niebuhr and Auden was pretentious and served no point. I would not have accepted this from a graduate student. You can’t write this way unless you have an assured platform. Wieseltier is a like PhD who just got tenure – ‘now I’ll say anything  I want.’ If he weren’t an editor of one the best intellectual-policy magazines in the US, no one would have read this essay. It is telling that most of the debate has either sided openly with Sullivan or suggested that Wieseltier overreached or overreacted.

3. The real story, as Greenwald and Walt have also suggested, is the growing panic of Israel’s deep supporters in the US. The ground is shifting against Israel, particularly because of its continuing hard-right insistence on retaining the West Bank. The current prime minister, B Netanyahu, has clearly deepened the rift with the US by his open recalcitrance on the settlements. Much of the credit for this shift on Israel is due to Walt and Mearsheimer’s book and the subsequent flood of discussion it unleashed and legitimized. (They too enjoyed the institutional power of saying whatever they want; tenure in top 10 schools gives you that kind of space.) Walt’s blogging, relentless, measured and intelligent, has kept up the pressure. Increasingly it has become clear that the biggest obstacle for peace is now the Israeli religious right, not Hamas or Hezbollah. The fundamentalist-zionist Orthodox have now pulled Israel’s otherwise modern, liberal population into a semi-imperialist venture that increasingly smacks of permanent apartheid for the Palestinians. There is simply no way the US can support this; Israel’s friends in the US know this, and they are panicking. The consensus of elite opinion on Israel is swinging against them, and anti-semitism charges against the likes of Jimmy Carter, Walt, Mearsheimer, and now Sullivan, tells you more about the changing American debate on Israel, than it does about these writers.

3. I find the charge of anti-semitism thrown at intelligent writers like these inappropriate, because it is a prejudice we associate with crass, vulgar, unrefined thinking. That is, we assume the racism and other bigotry reflects a lack of thoughtful thoroughness. So ‘X is an islamophobe after 9/11, because he has no idea about Islam, but still makes snap judgments based on minimal information.’ Yet clearly, Sullivan, Walt and the rest do in fact know a great deal about Israel, Judaism, and the associated issues. They have a long, substantial body of work over many years demonstrating, rich nuanced thinking on all sorts of topics. Their work, not just on Israel, but on lots of topics, is not a collection of from-the-hip prejudice, but usually pretty well-thought out. That’s why people read them to begin with. (Remember that Mein Kampf was a publishing failure originally; before reading it was coerced, the normal German saw right through it for the bigotry and poor thinking it was.)

Certainly ‘smart’ people can be racist or anti-semitic, but I bet the proportion is lower. Why? Presumably, all the reading, traveling, and reflection we associate with intelligence leaves some sort of intellectual mark. This is why we send our children to school to begin with. Presumably it humanizes the thinker to the circumstances of other people, encourages one to try to see the world through others’ eyes, and expands one’s sense of self. Consider Walt. He is the chairman of the finest political science program on the planet. Do you really believe the people who vetted him throughout the long institutional path to this height somehow missed his latent anti-semitism? Hundreds, maybe thousands, of professors, students, and administrators somehow missed this roaring prejudice? Is it possible? Sure. Probable? That question answers itself. So leave the racism charges for uneducated boors like Timothy McVeigh; it’s just a gimmick to stifle debate of things you don’t like.

2010 Asian Security Predictions


This is always a useful exercise, if only to see how wrong you are next year. So let me go on record.

These are in no particular order.

1. There will be some kind of power-sharing deal in Iran before the end of the year.

Why: Andrew Sullivan’s superb coverage suggests to me that the regime is increasingly facing a mobilized population pushing for something like a color revolution. Given the the regime is divided too – which is a strong hallmark that it may lose the gathering contest – it seems highly unlikely the troika dictatorship of Ahmedinijad & cronies, the clerics, and the Basij can survive entirely intact. The won’t be swinging from the lamposts, but look for something shaky and transitional like Zimbabwe’s messy on-again-off-again coalition government.

2. Israel will not bomb Iran.

Why: I have always found this possibility wildly overrated. The logistics are atrocious, the military value is mixed at best (b/c Iran has de-concentrated its nuclear program, unlike Iraq’s Osarik), the Americans oppose it, the Palestinians will go ballistic, it would save the mullahs from the own currently rebelling people.

3. Japan will disappoint everyone in Asia by doing more of the same – more moral confusion over WWII guilt and wasteful government spending that does nothing meaningful to reverse its decline.

Why: The DJP did not really get elected to change things, but more to make the status quo work again. The Japanese growth model was great until 1988, and then the Japanese locomotive just went off the rails. But I’ve seen no evidence of the socio-cultural revolution in attitudes toward consumption, education style, the construction industry, lifetime employment, government debt, etc. that means the Japanese public actually wants to reform Japanese social structures.  In fact, Hatoyama wants to roll back the one big change of the LDP in the last 20 years – the privatization of postal service cum government slush fund. On education, e.g., various Japanese figures have said for decades that the Asian mandarin system of memorization is rigorous and suffocating. (Koreans say the same.) But nothing has happened.

As for the apology tour everyone in Asia wants from Hatoyama? Forget it. Again, there is no public opinion data from Japan that suggests that Japanese really want a Willy Brandt-style Asienpolitik to heal wounds with China and Korea. East Asians still retain 19th C notions of race, and the Japanese are still tempted by the rightist spin on WWII that it saved Asia from white imperialism and brought modernity to Korea, China, and SE Asia. If Japan really apologizes – particularly to Koreans on whom they look down as weaker and backward – then a central myth in the conservative pantheon of Japanese race and history will shatter. The Japanese elderly and conservatives are not even close accepting this normative shift; there’d be riots in the streets.

4. North Korea won’t change at all.

Why: If there is one thing we all seem to expect all the time, but never happens, it’s this. Everyone has predicted the implosion of North since the early 1990s. The end of Soviet aid, the Chinese recognition of SK, the death of Kim Il Sung, the weakness of the playboy son Kim Jong Il, the famine, the placement on the axis of evil, Jong Il’s stroke – all were supposed to bring the much-prophesied end.

I see only one faint shred of evidence of movement –the pushback on the currency reform of December 2009. The regime sought to reign in private markets – emergent as an alternate food source after the 1990s famine – by dramatically shrinking the money supply. There has been resistance, especially in the Chinese border regions. But that Kim felt that he could simply roll back 10 years of under-the-radar marketization suggests how strongly the regime feels it is entrenched.

5. The US drawdown from Iraq will be softened, hedged and qualified to be a lot smaller than Obama seemed to promise.

Why: If there is one thing post-Saddam Iraq has always needed, its more US troops, not less. I agree that we seem to have turned a corner there. But Thomas Ricks seems worried, and I think he scoped Iraq’s problems better than anyone, including DoD under Bush. We are supposed to leave by August 31, 2010, but are they taking down those mega-bases we put up? Are the contractors pulling up stakes? If more contractors simply fill the US hole, isn’t that cheating? A fairer way to put it is that the US will be there in a different capacity – training, protecting, arming, flying, fighting (semi-publicly and less though) – kinda like the way we stayed in Vietnam even after Nixon and Laird declared Vietnamization. So, I will agree that US combat troops will shrink somewhat, but the US presence will stay massive, and I bet that combat troops will hang on for awhile under various escape-hatch provisions about ‘conditions on the ground’ and what not.

Does the US Need a Long-Term Exit from the Middle East?: 2. Iran

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In my last post, I suggested that maybe Afghanistan is a bridge too far. More generally after 8 years of the GWoT, I am starting to think the GWoT more generally is going that way too. I know it is vital for US security, but the costs are really starting to scare me, encouraging the isolationist hidden in every American: if they don’t want our help in Eurasia, fine – let them kill each other as they wish.

A friend went to hear a Council on Foreign Relations speaker on Iran – inevitably an ex-national security type. The speaker said we are leaving Israel in the wind to deal with Iran, and that the likelihood of an Israeli strike is rising faster than most people think. Here was my response.

“She sounds to me like your standard neo-con hawk actually – mixing analysis with policy preferences, trying to scare the hell out of the West with frightening scenarios that imply if only the US was tough and committed, this would not have happened. I think she reads the Kagans too much.

A few points:

1. Nuclear proliferation is inevitable. It’s already underway in Asia seriously. The US can’t bomb, sanction, invade all these places. We better find a way to live with this, instead of saying every time a proliferator is on the cusp that we should consider military force. That’s a recipe for forever war as the costs of nuclearization continue to come down.

2. Israel’s security is not America’s security. If they want to start a war with Iran, then that’s their issue. The US informal security guarantee to Israel cannot mean that we get chain-ganged into every conflict it wants to fight.

3. I think the likelihood of an Israeli strike is wildly overrated. They’re not stupid, and they know they are deeply isolated on this one. Israeli hawks are probably bluffing to encourage the US and UN to move more meaningfully on Iran. It’s the Richard Nixon ‘madman’ theory all over again: if Israel acts wild and erratic enough, maybe others will be spooked into doing something.

4. Iran with nukes is more dangerous, but let the locals balance/contain it first. It should not be our affair firstly.

5. We don’t really have much choice. Iran is genuinely committed to nuclearization, and Americans are unwilling to use serious force to stop that. So all we can really do is watch from the sidelines. Our hands are tied by a US public opinion that has been deeply anti-interventionist after Afghanistan and Iraq.”

Asked if I had suddenly become a dove on the GWoT:

“I don’t know. Maybe. But I think more that I am really beginning to worry about the costs of the war on terror. It goes on and on, and the US is bankrupt now, seriously, and really overstretched. We just cannot afford this stuff much longer – we’re becoming like Britain in the 30s or the USSR in the 80s. I can see the enthusiasm out here in the Chinese scholars I meet. They are relishing watching American fritter away its power running around the caves and deserts of the ME. Israel is our friend and should be, but the ME is becoming a sinkhole for US power. We desperately need Israel to find peace with its neighbors, or to cut it loose, because its exceptionalism is becoming just too expensive for the US now. We need to start seriously telling the Israelis that American support is not a blank check. If the Jewish religious right wants an apocalyptic war over the territories, and  to bomb Iran…, well, that’s just a bridge too far. Right now Iraq and Afghanistan are enough. Do we really need to risk a regional war between Israel and the US on one side, and Muslims on the other?  Increasingly, I am thinking we need a long-term out from the ME. It’s bankrupting the US. I don’t know. My thinking on the ME is in real flux; maybe because I am watching Asians get rich and strong while we are stumbling. The trend lines are just not good. The ME just seems so intractable, and it is becoming such a huge drain on the US.”

To the charge I might abandon Israel:

“Well, I am watching Asians get rich while we are hunting ghosts in the ME. The Chinese love this. They are watching the world’s only superpower blow its lead and fritter away its power in a probably vain effort to bring peace to the ME. It is becoming increasingly apparent that this is a fool’s errand. You must be thinking the same…”

More Cairo Fallout: Zionism Must Remain as Liberal as Possible

The bedrock of Israel’s claim to moral superiority in the Middle East (ME) is its liberal democratic pluralism. It is the only ME state ranked ‘free’ by Freedom House. This separates it from the dictatorships, openly islamist governance of Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Gaza or the pan-Arabist nationalist narratives so common elsewhere. In a neighborhood filled with illiberal, particularistic ideologies rooted in the conservative communalism of race or religion, Israel has hewed to a liberal universalism. This morally elevates it above its neighbors and appeals to the West, to whom liberalism is modern, and Arabism and Islamism feel like 19th century reactionary throwbacks.

Yet this is only partially true, of course. Israel too has a nationalist-religious narrative – Zionism, the restoration of Eretz Israel. This narrative is well-known, but its formal proclamation as Israel’s legitimation would be problematic. That would place Israel’s intellectual justification in the same particularist/communalist realm as its neighbors. Instead of a liberal, open state contending with reactionary aggression, de jure Zionism would make the Middle East into a competition of religio-nationalist projects, in which one is triumphant through force of arms.

Arab and Islamist ideologies claim Palestine as national soil or holy ground. Western liberalism finds this reactionary and distasteful. To the extent that Israel argues for and practices a liberal use of this space (as it does, e.g., in permitting free worship for all in Jerusalem), then the West will sympathize with its attempt to defend liberalism against reaction. But if Israel overindulges a soil/blood/religion narrative too, then western sympathy diminishes. If Palestine is read as sacred Zion, holy soil, by Jews, then the conflict slides easily toward a religious or cultural contest in the vein of a clash of civilizations.

Clearly the settler movement endorses exactly this sort of thinking. For them, Eretz Israel is a holy and nationalist project. But more disturbing is when such logic is directed as justification at Americans who should not be expected to support a religious, nationalized project. This violates our liberal values, and opens the door for Arabists and Islamists to ask why we prefer the Jewish religio-national project for Palestine over their own. The answer, of course, is greater cultural and religious affinity between Americans and Israelis, as well as more political comfort with Israel over its (dangerous and badly governed) neighbors. But if we openly assert this, then we lose all moral claim to arbitrate neutrally the Arab-Israeli dispute. Then we become a partner to one side in a particularistic cultural showdown, rather than a defender of liberal universalist values. This is exactly the suspicion that Obama worthily tried to overcome in Cairo.

I am thinking here of M Peretz’ and Netanyahu’s rejection of Obama’s Cairo speech. Peretz is miffed that Obama did not validate the zionist narrative of Israel’s foundation. Obama sought “to diminish the determination of the Jewish people through the ages, and especially since the age of nationalism in the mid-nineteenth century, to reclaim their homeland, to bring its very earth out of desolation and restore its dispersed sons and daughters to Zion–all this not as a reparation [for the Holocaust], but as a right.’ And Netanyahu: “The right to establish our sovereign state here, in the Land of Israel arises from one simple fact: Eretz Israel is the birthplace of the Jewish People.” To boot, Netanyahu wants the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a “Jewish” state.

Yet Obama is exactly right to reject such illiberal logic. To endorse such conservative romantic metaphysics would be politically disastrous and violate core American liberal beliefs. It is exactly this sort of rhetoric, even from the avowedly liberal New Republic, that convinces Arabs and Muslims that Israel is just another religio-nationalist project they must contend with their own. This sort of ‘holy soil’ rhetoric fires the conflict, not softens it.

We all know that Israel was founded in great part on the intellectual basis that Peretz and Netanyahu describe. But this sort of religious nationalism no longer commands normative respect in the West. The reason the West today prefers Israel to its neighbors is its liberalism – civil rights, elections, religious freedom not its Zionism (except for the US religious right). So every time Israeli leaders and defenders wander into zionist, antipluralist territory about the Jews’ ‘right’ to Palestine – well, then Westerners just can’t go down that road.  Invoking divine rights, national privilege from time immemorial, Moses, or God to claim territory is exactly the same logic Muslim ideologues use to denote parts of the world as ‘Muslim lands,’ which may therefore be purged of non-Muslim influences. The claim that Israel must be ‘Jewish’ has never been demanded of the Palestinians before. It is creepy, because it implies demographic control measures should Israel’s Jewish majority status be jeopardized. The US can hardly be expected to support such language.

Hence, the dilemma seems to be to square the zionist desire to have a de facto Jewish state with the liberal need to have Israel be a de jure pluralist democracy. This problem is similar to Quebec’s desire to be both liberal and francophone. An open constitutional declaration of a Jewish national-religious state would make Israel into a more liberal, Jewish version of Iran. But Judaism could heavily influence national life if Jews were a strong majority within a liberal democratic frame, as is the francophone case in Quebec. The best way to achieve that is to cut the occupied territories loose as soon as possible and keep the overt zionist jargon under wraps. Israel can be a Jewish-majority state, as the US is a Christian-majority state or Quebec is a francophone society, but Israel should never seek to constitutionally be a ‘Jewish state.’ This is what religious ideologues in places like Saudi Arabia or Calvin’s Geneva do. Zionism needs to try to be as liberal as possible. If not, Israel is just another competing tribe in the factionalized Middle East, with no principled claim on Western support.