Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

A Sisyphean fate for Israel (part 1)


By Louis René Beres

Israel after Obama: a subject of tragedy, or mere object of pathos?

Israel, after President Barack Obama’s May 2011 speech on “Palestinian self-determination” and regional “democracy,” awaits a potentially tragic fate. Nonetheless, to the extent that Prime Minister Netanyahu should become complicit in the expected territorial dismemberments, this already doleful fate could quickly turn from genuine tragedy to pathos and abject farce.

“The executioner’s face,” sang Bob Dylan, “is always well-hidden.” In the particular case of Israel, however, the actual sources of existential danger have always been perfectly obvious. From 1948 until the present, virtually all of Israel’s prime ministers, facing periodic wars for survival, have routinely preferred assorted forms of denial, and asymmetrical forms of compromise. Instead of accepting the plainly exterminatory intent of both enemy states and terrorist organizations, these leaders have opted for incremental territorial surrenders.

Of course, this is not the whole story. During its very short contemporary life, Israel has certainly accomplished extraordinary feats in science, medicine, agriculture, education and industry. It’s military institutions, far exceeding all reasonable expectations, have fought, endlessly and heroically, to avoid any new spasms of post-Holocaust genocide.

Still, almost from the beginning, the indispensable Israeli fight has not been premised on what should have remained as an unequivocal central truth of the now-reconstituted Jewish commonwealth. Although unrecognized by Barack Obama, all of the disputed lands controlled by Israel do have proper Israeli legal title. It follows that any diplomatic negotiations resting upon alternative philosophic or jurisprudential premises must necessarily be misconceived.

Had Israel, from the start, fixedly sustained its own birthright narrative of Jewish sovereignty, without submitting to periodic and enervating forfeitures of both land and dignity, its future, although problematic, would at least have been tragic. But by choosing instead to fight in ways that ultimately transformed its stunning victories on the battlefield to abject surrenders at the conference table, this future may ultimately be written as more demeaning genre.

In real life, as well as in literature and poetry, the tragic hero is always an object of veneration, not a pitiable creature of humiliation. From Aristotle to Shakespeare to Camus, tragedy always reveals the very best in human understanding and purposeful action. Aware that whole nations, like the individual human beings who comprise them, are never forever, the truly tragic hero nevertheless does everything possible to simply stay alive.

For Israel, and also for every other imperiled nation on earth, the only alternative to tragic heroism is humiliating pathos. By their incessant unwillingness to decline any semblance of a Palestinian state as intolerable (because acceptance of “Palestine” in any form would be ruthlessly carved out of the living body of Israel), Israel’s leaders have created a genuinely schizophrenic Jewish reality in the “new” Middle East. This is a Jewish state that is, simultaneously, unimaginably successful and incomparably vulnerable. Not surprisingly, over time, the result will be an increasingly palpable national sense of madness.

Perhaps, more than any other region on earth, the Jihadi Middle East and North Africa is “governed” by unreason. Oddly, this very reasonable observation is reinforced rather than contradicted by the prevailing patterns of “democratic revolution” across the area. While the pundits, politicos and journalists optimistically expect that the fall of area-tyrants will be a good thing, from the informed Israeli standpoint, exactly the opposite must be observed. Already, especially in Egypt, the hand of Jihadi elements is being strengthened widely. In non-Arab Iran, which will soon become a nuclear power because neither Israel nor the United States had effectively stood in its way, preparations are well underway to further assist Sunni Hamas allies in Gaza, and to further prepare Shiite Hezbollah surrogates in Lebanon, both for an Islamic victory in the inevitable next (religious) war.

The Peace of Westphalia in 1648 put an end to the Thirty Years’ War, the last of the great European religious wars sparked by the Reformation. In the Middle East and North Africa, however, we may still only be at the start of the next great religious wars. If fought with biological and/or even nuclear weapons, such conflicts may rage until every flower of culture is trampled, and until all things human are leveled in a vast chaos. From such wars, there may be neither escape, nor sanctuary.

Credo quia absurdum. “I believe because it is absurd.” Israel very desperately wants to discover some discernible correctness and clarity in the persistently squalid theatre of regional world politics, but the polite diplomatic meanings with which they are pressed to coexist seethe menacingly with grotesque allusions and dangerously hidden meanings.

Mythology can help Israel to better understand its options. In ancient myth, as recounted by Albert Camus, the Greek gods had condemned Sisyphus to roll a great rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would unceasingly fall back of its own weight. By imposing this terrible judgment, the Greek gods had imposed the dreadful punishment of interminable labor. But, at the very same time, they had also revealed something far more difficult to understand: Even useless labor need not be meaningless. Such labor, they knew, could also be heroic.

Israel now faces the prospectively endless task of pushing a massive weight up the “mountain.” Always. And, almost for certain, the great rock will always roll right back down to its point of origin.

There is, it would appear, no real chance that the rock will ever remain perched, fixed, securely, at the summit. Why, then, should Israel even bother to push on?

For Israel, long-suffering and always in mortal danger, there is no easy solution to its essential security problem. In the fashion of Sisyphus, the Jewish State may now have to accept the inconceivably heavy burden of a possible suffering without end. There is, of course, always hope, but, for now at least, the only true choice seems to be to continue pushing upward with no apparent relief, or to sigh deeply, to lie prostrate, and to surrender (that is, to follow the “peace process” to “Palestine”).

What sort of sorrowful imagery is this? Can anyone really be shocked that, for the beleaguered people of Israel, a Sisyphean fate must lie beyond their ordinary powers of imagination? Expectedly, the Israelis still search for ordinary diplomatic solutions. They look, commonly, into politics, into personalities, into leaders, into tangible policies. They seek remedies, answers, peace settlements, cartography, disengagements and realignments. They examine, sometimes meticulously, the whole package of ordinary prospects that would allegedly make Israel more “normal,” and hence more “safe.”

But safety will never come to Israel through banality. Israel is not “normal,” nor can it be made normal. For reasons that are bound to be hotly debated and argued for centuries, Israel is unique. To deny this uniqueness, and to try to figure out ways in which the great tormenting stone might finally stay on the top of the mountain forever, is to seek very superficial answers to extraordinary questions. Above all, it is to misunderstand Israel’s special place in the world, and to chain All Israel to what the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard generically called the “sickness unto death.”

The worst fate for Israel is not “merely” to have to endure one war after another, or even to keep rolling the rock up the mountain. Rather, it is to try to buy its way free from its own irresistible destiny and torment by falsifying itself.

For each individual on earth, one’s personal existence is wholly improbable. Consider only that the number of possible combinations for the human DNA molecule is ten to the 2,400,000,000th power. This means that the odds of any one of us being “me” are one in ten to the 2,400,000,000th power.

These are not betting odds.

One can readily imagine that these not very promising numbers apply as well to nation-states in world politics. Still, when we speak of Israel, the singular Jewish state, we must enter into an entirely different kind of calculation. In essence, Israel’s existence is both more and less probable than the life of any single individual. The apparent paradox lies in Israel’s special origins, and also in its absolute uniqueness.

Read on…

Louis René Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971) and is currently Professor of International Law at Purdue University. The author of ten major books and several hundred scholarly articles on world affairs, his columns appear in many major American and European newspapers and magazines. His book Mimicking Sisyphus: America’s Countervailing Nuclear Strategy (1983) offers a different strategic adaptation from the same Greek myth. In Israel, Professor Beres was Chair of Project Daniel.

For further reading, we suggest A High Price: The Triumphs and Failures of Israeli Counterterrorism by Daniel Byman.

Recent Comments

  1. […] on President Barack Obama to make more appointments. But these rates don't mean more… A Sisyphean fate for Israel (part 1) – OUPblog (blog) – blog.oup.com 05/27/2011 Israel TodayA Sisyphean fate for Israel (part 1)OUPblog […]

  2. […] just don't understand, they may have a point. There's much that Americans don't …A Sisyphean fate for Israel (part 1)OUPblog (blog)Anti-Semitic EntertainersArutz ShevaForeign Policy Still Does Not Flow From the Will […]

  3. […] especially hard to dismiss. After all, following even a “small” nuclear war (now a distinctly plausible expectation), cemeteries the size of small cities will need to be […]

  4. […] successive administrations, Bush and Obama, publicly pledged, as official U.S. policy, that a nuclear armed Iran would be unacceptable. If we […]

  5. astromuffy

    In as much as I have remained willfully ignorant of all that, I can’t ignore this topic any longer. I think it’s going to be even worse than humiliating pathos. Whether a Jewish state comes through this travail or not, we’re all in big trouble. Pretty much damed if it does and damned if it doesn’t. It will take the whole world down with it. Ah well, like you said, nothing lasts forever. This is the end of an age.

  6. […] Oxford University Press: https://blog.oup.com/2011/05/israel-sisyphus1/ […]

Comments are closed.