Roger Cohen on Israeli Exceptionalism

The U.N.'s Goldstone Report reveals a flaw in the Israel-Palestine debate

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The U.N. Goldstone Report accusing Israel of war crimes in the recent Gaza War drew the usual vitriol from Israel supporters and antagonists. American conservatives and Israeli hawks describe Gazan militants as Nazis abetted by an anti-semitic United Nations, while American liberals and Middle Easterners accuse Israel of attempted genocide. But The New York Times's Roger Cohen argues that the Israel-Palestine issue isn't really about race wars or existential fights for survival: it's about balance of power. "There's another way of looking at the ongoing struggle in the Middle East — less dramatic and more accurate," he writes.

That is to see it as a fight for a different balance of power — and possibly greater stability — between a nuclear-armed Israel (an estimated 80 to 200 never-acknowledged weapons), a proud but uneasy Iran and an increasingly sophisticated and aware (if repressed) Arab world.

Some of Israel’s enemies contest its very existence, however powerless they are to end it. But the death-cult terrorists-versus-reasonable-Israelis paradigm falls short. There are various civilizations in the Middle East, whose attitudes toward religion and modernism vary, but who all quest for some accommodation between them.

One casualty of this view, of course, is Israeli exceptionalism. The Jewish state becomes more like any other nation fighting for influence and treasure. I think President Obama, himself talking down American exceptionalism, is trying to nudge Israel toward a more prosaic, realistic self-image.

Cohen views Israel and Palestine from the liberal perspective, chiding Israeli leadership. But regardless of his position, Cohen's wider case, that Israel should move past its self-assigned exceptionalism and find a way to live with its regional neighbors, should appeal to both sides of the argument. "Israel should view Iran coolly, understand the hesitancy of Tehran’s nuclear brinksmanship, and see how it can gain from U.S.-led diplomacy," Cohen writes. "It needs to deal with the world as it is, however discomfiting, not the world of yesterday."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.