The demise of Israeli sovereignty
by Jonathan Rosenblum
January 23, 2004
In Years of Upheaval, the second volume of his memoirs, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger describes the incredulity to which European statesmen always responded whenever he told them that the United States could not force Israel to do something. He writes, for instance, of the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War: "Our European allies were clear about what should follow the cease-fire: American pressure to induce Israel to return immediately to the 1967 borders. They assumed we had the power to force Israel to do our bidding. . ."
The American Secretary of State and his European counterparts were simply talking past one another. The Europeans were speaking the language of power. Kissinger, on the other hand, was speaking the language of rights. The United States might have the power to force Israel to take certain steps against its better judgment, but it could not do so, in Kissinger’s terms, because it lacked the right to do so. Sovereign nations, in his view, should be reluctant to force another nation to take steps that in its best judgment would be inimical to its ability to defend itself. (It was precisely that right that the French and English forced a sovereign Czechoslovakia to cede at Munich.)
This passage highlights a couple of key points. The first is how crucial the concept of sovereignty is to Israel’s very existence. At the core of the concept of sovereignty, notes University of Chicago professor Mark Lilla, is the "notion of autonomy, which in political terms means the capacity to defend oneself, and when necessary, wage war. If any nation, in the world has an interest in the preservation of the traditional concept of national sovereignty, it is Israel.
The classic conception of sovereignty lies at the heart of classic political Zionism -- the assertion of the right of the Jews to a national existence like other peoples, including a national home and the right to defend themselves. Political Zionism is inseparable from the 19th century European view that the sovereign nation-state is the proper locus of political activity.
Defense of the nation-state has always been intimately bound to a belief in human difference, and that institutions and political arrangements arise out of those differences. That was hardly a lesson Jews needed to be taught. Millenia before the birth of political Zionism, Jews had always nurtured a sense of their difference, even chosenness. And if they attempted to forget that difference, they could always count on their neighbors to remind them.
The Kissinger memoirs further highlight the degree to which one of the factors binding the United States and Israel is the belief in national sovereignty and retaining control over one’s own destiny. The United States has, of course, emerged as the great champion of national sovereignty in the world today. Most Americans remain highly skeptical of international law and of the bodies that would enforce that law. As George Will puts it, quoting Hobbes, "'Law without the sword is but words.’ But law backed by the sword – by coercion – must be legitimized by a political process. Americans wonder: How does that legitimation work for international law."
Certainly the votes of the members of the UN General Assembly or even the Security Council do not amount to a political process worthy of the name in American eyes. Even the Democratic candidates who whine most vociferously that President Bush should not have dissed our "allies" (like the French, who led Saddam to believe that they could shackle the United States forever at the UN) and that we should have worked harder to win an explicit UN resolution authorizing military action, would not dare to say that without UN approval American military action is by definition illegitimate. Such views are sure losers in American politics.
But if the United States and Israel are both heavily invested in the concept of the national sovereignty, they are not quite invested in the same way. To the United States, at this juncture in history, it matters little whether others accept its refusal to be subject to the International Criminal Court or any other supranational body that would deprive it of determining how best to protect the lives of its citizens. For all the European complaints about America’s "cowboy" president and unilateralism, no one in Europe has dared to threaten the imposition of sanctions on the United States for thumbing its nose at Old Europe.
Israel, however, does not have that luxury. Europe and others are only too happy to threaten Israel with sanctions. Indeed the combination of Israel’s stubborn insistence on its own sovereignty and its vulnerability to pressure have made it the chief target of today’s Europe.
THE RIGHT OF SOVEREIGN NATIONS TO DETERMINE their own affairs is not one that particularly resonates with European elites today. Recent European history has left European elites, at best, indifferent to sovereignty, and, more frequently, actively hostile. During the Cold War European nations ceased to be sovereign in the sense of being capable of defending themselves from the Soviet Union. And surveying the history of the twentieth century, the primary lesson for many European thinkers has been the dangers of nationalism and the belief in some degree of irreducible difference between peoples that underpins it. A broad European union has come to be seen as the panacea for the restraint of unbridled nationalism, particularly German nationalism.
As a result, Europe has witnessed, in recent decades, the transfer of political power from national parliaments to supranational agencies. Those supranational agencies are run by bureaucracies that are, in George Will’s words, "essentially unaccountable and unrepresentative. European bureaucrats," Will observes, "operate on the assumption that nations and human nature are essentially "soft clay that can be shaped by the hands of political artists."
The paradigmatic thinker for the new European ruling elite of bureaucrats is the late Yale Law Professor Myres McDougal. McDougal was wont to write 800 page tomes with such off-putting titles as the the Law and Public Order in Space, Public Order of the Oceans, Human Rights and World Public Order all of them virtually the same. (Another Yale professor Leon Lipson once quipped that McDougal was the author of millions of words, some of them different.) McDougal’s works consisted essentially of long checklists of factors that bureaucrats should take into account in fashioning the appropriate public policies. History and politics, needless to say, were not subjects that held much interest for McDougal.
NO LESS DISMAYING THAN EUROPEAN ATTITUDES TO NATIONAL SOVEREIGNTY is the rapidly declining understanding of sovereignty among Israel elites. That decline is but one more sign of Israel’s post-Zionist, indeed post-Jewish, malaise.
No act, of course, is more emblematic of the contempt of some Israelis for their nation’s own sovereignty than Yossi Beilin’s Geneva Initiative. Many commentators have already noted that were Beilin an American citizen, he would have faced prison under the Logan Act for conducting foreign affairs as a private citizen. But even more telling, he would have had to flee the country. As Jeremy Rabkin, one of the world’s leading authorities on sovereignty, told me last week: Imagine that on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, Teddy Kennedy had flown to Europe to meet with Jacques Chirac, and at the end of the meeting, they announced that they had found a way to resolve the Iraq crisis. Kennedy would have been well-advised to stay in Paris rather than face the wrath of his fellow Americans.
Even that analogy does not capture the full enormity of Beilin’s actions. One has to imagine that Kennedy was found to be on the payroll of the French Foreign Ministry to get a full picture of Beilin’s sins. His office is funded by the European Community to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars annually, and the entire Geneva Initiative is, in fact, a European initiative. In short, Beilin has negotiated Israel’s future while in the pay of a foreign power whose hostility to Israel is well-established. Most worrisome of all is the lack of outrage in Israel to Beilin’s antics. Indeed his actions have made him the leading candidate to head the new party of the Israeli Left.
More, Beilin’s actions are part of a larger pattern. For years, the mainstream Israeli Left has been advocating the stationing of international observers between Israeli forces and the Palestinians. That is nothing less than a call for the renunciation of sovereignty, for those observers sole purpose would be to tie Israel’s hands in defending itself. International observers would never bother observing the preparations of Palestinian terrorists for suicide bombings. Rather their efforts would be solely confined to the Israeli response to Palestinian terrorism.
This week’s announcement by acting Attorney-General Edna Arbel that she would have difficulty defending the Israeli security fence in the Israeli Supreme Court and the International Court of Justice in the Hague because of the hardships imposed on Palestinians barely raised an eyebrow in Israel. It should have.
The first duty of a sovereign state is to value the lives of its citizens above all others. No doubt the security fence, like checkpoints and closures, impose hardships on Palestinians. But those hardships are at least reversible, unlike the effects of a suicide bomber going off and killing and maiming dozens of Jews. Arbel’s failure to recognize this point renders her unfit to serve as Attorney-General.
Arbel shows the same attitude to the decisions of the political echelons that European bureaucrats in Brussels show to national parliaments: She knows better. (In this she merely apes the attitudes of the Israeli Supreme Court to which she aspires.) She is better equipped than Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz to judge Israel’s security interests. And her enlightened judgment about the proper balance between the threat to the lives of Israelis and the suffering of Palestinians is to be preferred to that of the government.
Israel can hardly expect other nations to be more solicitous of its sovereignty than are its own elites.
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