Israel, Machiavelli, and Power

Much has been said about renewed peace talks in Israel and the Palestinian territories (I-P).  Hopes of peace summits, timing, and a deteriorating situation in Gaza and the West Bank are points of conversation and hope.  While I long to see peace in the region I am dubious about its fruition. Why?  Power.

In the early 16th century Niccolo Machiavelli wrote his seminal work The Prince. This work was the first modern treatise of political philosophy and has been central to political philosophy over the centuries. What is relevant to our discussion is the understanding of human nature and politics that Machiavelli gives.  Machiavelli argued that men are “ungrateful, fickle, false, cowardly, covetous”.  I would submit that states, ruled by men, exhibit similar characteristics.  Too often politicians, academics, and intellectuals argue for an idealistic position of what should be, rather than what can be. It is unfortunate the situation the Palestinians find themselves in.  To be sure there is plenty of blame to go around: The Arab republics like Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon who continue to ignore the Palestinians, Israel for its constant bombardment of Gaza, the United States for vetoing virtually every Security Counsel resolution on the I-P conflict.  Unfortunately States do not act in a virtuous manner.

Michael Walzer, continuing the philosophical trend of Machiavelli, argues that States must act against moral norms in order to achieve a more prosperous and sustainable State.  It must be noted, however, that Machiavelli and Walzer were not arguing in favor of a Hitlerian system or in favor of someone like Stalin.  Rather, without disregarding some moral norms men like Hitler and Stalin would be able to rule and conquer.  The meek do not inherit the earth.  (See Walzer’s “Dirty Hands” essay)

How does this relate to I-P?  Israel is a State like any other.  The government is responsible for protecting its citizens, offering a judicial system, participating in the economy, and so forth.  We must remember that States, like individuals, are self-interested.  The Israeli government is not responsible for Palestinians living in Gaza or the West Bank.  Further, what incentive does Israel have to make peace?  Israel has continued to expand its borders, take control of vital water interests, all the while developing a superb military and sustainable economy.  What motivation is there for peace?

It has been said that developing a sustainable peace would hinder terrorism and attacks on Israel.  I strongly disagree with this analysis.  However, this is a moot point.  Israel uses the threat of terror and violence as propaganda to continue to its expansionist policies.  In this sense, Israel is content with dealing with groups like Hamas.  Why?  More military aid from the U.S., rhetorical points for expansion, justification in the International Community… need I go on.

Human Rights groups, the Arab league, and the U.N. continue to condemn certain tactics used by the Israeli military.  While I agree on some counts that certain tactics are inhumane, understanding why they use them would be of some value.  Remember, Machiavelli and Walzer both suggested that brutal tactics and the sidelining of morals is sometimes necessary to remain in power and prosperous.  The fact is, no amount of condemnation will stop these tactics.  Until Israel is faced with a legitimate threat, peace is not possible. Do I hear a certain Persian State flexing its muscles?

Commentators, politicians, and academics need to shift their rhetoric from what should be the case (pre-1967 borders, a free and democratic Palestine, etc) to what is an attainable case.  Unfortunately, at this point Palestinians will continue to suffer, be humiliated, and die.  This is a daunting statement and I don’t say it with any joy.  But because the U.S. continues to support Israel without reservationArab republics continue to build barriers for the Palestinians, and groups like Hamas and the IDF keep tension high peace is unattainable.  As it stands, without serious punishment from the U.S., Israel will continue its current expansionist policies.


16 thoughts on “Israel, Machiavelli, and Power

  1. Your on the right track with this with regards to what the states (whether US, Israel, or any other country) should and can do. Israel has no reason to be for peace so long as it keeps its economic growth and pleases its citizens with expanding settlements. Israel has the military power to destroy Hamas and Hezbollah, however, its just as you say, they need them to be the “…threat of terror and violence as propaganda to continue to its expansionist policies.” I’m unsure as to how Iran will affect the situation due to its current internal political issues, and its debatable what their actual military capabilities are considering most of their weaponry is from the US during the Shah era and we have the spare parts- but of course I’m sure they have purchased weapons post-1979 from other countries, but likely nothing as substantial.

  2. Thanks for the comment. A few points then:

    Hezbollah continues to grow stronger and Israel should keep an eye on the growing threat coming from Lebanon. Further, despite the civil unrest in Iran their nuclear program continues and will place massive constraints on Israel. Also, if you are interested in what type of weapons Iran has, or has purchased, look to the link at the bottom of this response.

  3. Your analysis makes even more clear the importance of a hardline approach toward Israel–the kind that we’re so willing to take toward countries like Iran. Policies toward Israel, unfortunately, are not in any nation’s best interest but Israel’s. If you’re correct, and states are indeed entirely self-serving, then steps need to be taken to ensure that the billions of dollars in US aid currently being given to Israel actually do outweigh the detriment of not giving them that money–from a U.S. perspective, of course. If we’re being entirely realistic about it, there are few reasons besides precedent that we truly continue to give that money. That’s obviously an argument that can be had on a different forum, if needed.

    You say states don’t act in a virtuous manner, but what you mean is that states don’t act in a virtuous manner unless they’re forced to. Our reaction to the war in Gaza last year–indeed, our reaction to the Goldstone report and investigations since then–has only reinforced to Bibi that his actions go without punishment. There was no possible way that the incursion into Gaza was acceptable, given the circumstances. It was a war of deterrence and one inspired largely by Hamas’ toned-down, almost-moderate rhetoric. That we gave Israel free passage then, at what was arguably that nation’s lowest moral moment since the ’80s, only sent a signal of tacit approval.

  4. I think that, in general, states act in their best interests, like you said. It is clear that Israel is the poster child of this theory. You are correct in that they will not truly make peace until they have any incentive to. However, it is equally clear that states are not always rational enough to act in their best interests. For example, it is clear that having an ally like Israel is a good thing for the United States; however the carte blanche that Israel receives from the US is arguably detrimental to the United States.

    By unquestionably backing Israel, we are nurturing hostility against us. Hardly self-serving. This is, of course, fueled by AIPAC and internal politics and, while the need for re-election brings us back to self-serving individuals, it underlines the point that self-serving individuals do not necessarily lead to a self-serving nation all the time.

  5. Sara:

    While a hard line approach toward Israel might bring us closer to peace, it must be shown that such peace would be beneficial to the United States. Why would the U.S. want to push Israel towards peace? What benefit would the U.S. receive? Unfortunately, the U.S., like Israel, continues to benefit from a lack of peace.

    Stopping our very substantial aid to Israel would change very little. Further, that aid is, almost assuredly, tagged with conditions. The aid given to Israel is, largely, military aid not monetary. They buy our weapons, test our weapons, and are responsible for a large part of R&D. So on that point alone, aid could be justified.

    Finally, our lack of condemnation, de-facto support, of the Gaza invasion does show our tacit support. Again, if you are arguing the U.S should have a more hardline approach you must justify that claim. At this point, I see no credible benefits for the U.S. to take such action. Now, that doesn’t mean I think we should continue our unwavering support of Israel, it merely means that such support will continue until a credible case can be made for not supporting them.

  6. Ckeeler:

    I agree that a self-serving individual does not always translate into a self-serving nation. Also, our support for Israel does earn us a level of hostility. So does our support for Egypt, Saudi, and Jordan. There are two questions that must be asked in regards to Israel. 1)If we stopped our unwavering support would that hostility diminish in any real way? And 2) Do the benefits of supporting Israel outweigh the hostility earned. What do you think?

  7. Chase:
    Replying to what you said to Sara, I think you are assuming too much American benefit from its relationship with Israel. Sure, the US military aid helps American R&D, but, unless you have figures to prove me wrong, I would be hard pressed to believe that US aid to Israel is ‘responsible for a large part of [US] R&D.’ If military aid was cut to Israel, weapons would still be developed and tested. That being said I think that there are viable incentives for the US to become more even-handed. In response to the questions you posed:

    1) Our support for Egypt, Saudi and Jordan does create hostility, but mostly among the most radical. To compare Arab opinions of those countries with Arab opinion of Isreal is comparing apples and oranges. To diminish America’s unwavering support for Israel would certainly diminish the hostility felt towards the country. Of course, the most extreme would still find reasons to distrust America, but there would be a drop in anti-americanism.

    2) I do not think the benefits of supporting Israel to the extent that America does is beneficial. Of course, having Israel as an ally is a good thing, but to continue to support policies that disregard an entire people is absurd. It is possible to support Israel, but pressure them into actually moving towards peace. Currently, I do not see any benefit of Israel’s carte blanche. If America were actually self-serving, it would loosen the grasp that Israel has on its policies.

    This brings us back to AIPAC and the influence that it has on the US government. Because of the influence welding by the lobby, America is unable to act completely in its interest. I would disagree with the assertion that states must act in an immoral way to achieve prosperity, all the time. In this case, it would benefit the US (in the form of less anti-americanism is the region) to play the role of an unbiased actor.

  8. Chris:

    My point with regards to U.S. benefit to Israel was in reference to the aid given. The aid given to Israel has a positive gain in America. So the aid given to Israel is tagged with conditions for U.S. investment. What benefit to we get from supporting Egypt? Virtually none. What benefit do we get from Jordan and Lebanon? Virtually none. Our money in Arab countries fuels anti-americanism and keeps “our” authoritarian leader in power. My argument was that aid given to Israel has better justifications than that for others like Egypt.

    1) Perhaps. However, I am highly dubious that reducing our support for Israel would change, in any dramatic fashion, public opinion towards the United States. This issue is one among many and once fixed the other issues, arguably more serious issues, will come to the forefront.

    2) I agree with you that AIPAC has too much influence in America. In fact, I think lobbying groups should be regulated heavily, if not disbanded completely. However, I disagree with you that the U.S. has no gain from supporting Israel. Israel, and the U.S., do not want peace. They both gain too much from having a status quo system. Israel has advanced its territory, gained precious land, and developed a strong and prosperous military and economy. Why would they stop? The U.S. receives the brunt of criticism. However, anti-americanism will exist, particularly in the Middle East and South West Asia, regardless of how we treat Israel. Our support for local dictators, our manipulation of economies and oil, Iraq, and Afghanistan are points of more serious anti-Americanism.

    Finally, I see no way in the near future (a few years or so) that the U.S. could become “an unbiased actor”. We are not seen as such and will not been seen as such. I think China or Brazil must fill the gap, the U.S. cannot do it.

    1. 1) Agree to disagree here. Arab opinion of the States changed for the better (albeit briefly) after Obama’s Cairo speech. That was just talk, actual action would certainly have a magnified effect.

      2) I understand Israel’s lack of incentive for peace. What is America’s? Yes, aid to Israel stimulates investments, but I am not saying that we should not support Israel. Israel would invest in American efforts even if we pressured them to stop settlement construction. Of course America benefits from its alliance with Israel; but not from, I believe supporting Israel under all conditions. You’re right there will always be anti-americanism in the region, even if the US becomes less biased in the I-P conflict. However, to say that a fair handed approach would have no effect is rather silly. There will always be a significant amount of anti-americanism in the region for the reasons you cited, but US support for Israel is one of those reasons. If you take one away, there is less.

      To be clear, I don’t see the US even becoming an unbiased actor. However, due to the amount of support we give Israel, China (who wouldn’t want to get involved anyway) and Brazil’s efforts would be thwarted by the US.

  9. Chase, I think Chris’s point is that regardless of any relative benefit gained by supporting Israel through funneling in foreign aid, the net value to the US is negative. The compounded effect of AIPAC only drives home the point that we’re not acting in our own self-interest when we support Israel. Even if you’re right, and we gain more from supporting Israel than we do from becoming bedfellows with authoritarian regimes elsewhere in the Middle East (still up for debate), we also lose far more from supporting Israel.

    The mere fact that if this issue were resolved, others would arise is not a good reason to discount the potential benefit to our relationships abroad. I’m of the belief that the US is simply not connecting the dots between Middle Eastern animosity and our unfettered support of Israel, despite all evidence to support a pretty strong correlation. Even if, as you might object, US policy toward Israel only provides a guise through which the Arab world can funnel anger that would be present regardless of that policy, removing that single reason would at the least cut through a very, very popular call to arms.

  10. Chris and Sara:

    I will concede that if the U.S. pressured Israel to stop settlements that the level of anti-Americanism would decline. However, I do not think it would be as substantial as both of you are suggesting and would last only temporarily. The anti-American sentiments are much deeper than our monetary support for Israel.

    Furthermore, if we are discussing whether aid to Israel is beneficial to the U.S. there can be no doubt that there are substantial benefits. I disagree with both of you that the net value is negative-mainly because I do not believe anti-American sentiment is primarily focused on this issue.

    Also, this is a moot point. Israel doesn’t need the money. They are a first world country with a sustainable and prosperous economy. I am skeptical that if the U.S. ceased its aid that public opinion would change all that much because I have seen no evidence to suggest it would.

    Further, the question is why would Israel stop without serious incentives or punishments? Ceasing our aid to Israel might create minor problems for Israel but there are plenty of other countries willing to supply weapons-like Russia or China. We would give up our economic and military relationship with a secular, democratic, Western country only to drive them into the hands or our competitors. I agree that we should attach certain conditions for the money, like a freeze on settlements, but I am unwilling, at this point, to halt our aid or relationship with Israel.

    I feel for the Palestinians. I think many policies implemented by the Israeli government are wrong and cruel. That being said, I could point to dozens of similar countries or minority groups that are under similar oppression. However, my sympathetic feelings do not equate to attainable policy options.

    1. We are in agreement here, Chase. No one is arguing that the US should stop our aid or relationship with Israel. No one is stating that this relationship is not beneficial (however, the extent of the relationship could be altered). Our disagreement only lies in how much bitterness and resentment would be relieved by a more unbiased US approach.

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