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With the rise of settler terrorism, can Israel still be described as a rational political actor?

Benjamin Netanyahu’s long pause as he addressed world leaders at the UN General Assembly in his inimitably disdainful manner will probably be the first image that comes to everyone’s mind in a conversation about Israel and its growing irrationality. As tempting as it is to focus on the cartoonish image of Netanyahu on the international stage, Israeli irrationalism goes beyond the idiosyncratic behaviour of one person, even if that person is the country’s prime minster.

In what appear clearly to be signs of growing concern, Saudi Arabia has called for Jewish settlers to be blacklisted as terrorists. In an appeal to the UN the Gulf monarchy now joins the European Union and the Palestinian Authority trying to find ways to combat the routine violence carried out by Israeli settlers in occupied Jerusalem and the West Bank. At the very least, there should be recognition of the problem for what it is: acts of terrorism against Palestinians by Jewish religious extremists.

The dangerous spike in settler attacks in Jerusalem is the culmination of decades of Israel’s culture of impunity, discrimination, Judaisation policy and, above all, complicity with non-state Jewish and Evangelical Christian extremists in their efforts to alter the religious, social and cultural fabric of Jerusalem. Well-funded and highly orchestrated plans to expedite the coming/return of the Messiah have transformed marginal religious zealots into a political force.

Israel’s democratic cloak has been successful in concealing the extent to which this noxious marriage between religion and politics is endangering the country’s ability to behave rationally. After all, if it was serious about ending the conflict under parameters already agreed upon – which include returning East Jerusalem to the Palestinians – it would not allow its own religious fanatics to compromise peace, and offer tax breaks to messianic Jewish congregations in Jerusalem.

These decisions and the inability to control settler-terrorism, shatter an implicit narrative about violence in the Middle East, which in many respects is no longer sustainable. It’s impossible to maintain the position, as Israel regularly does, that violence perpetrated by Palestinians is largely driven by apocalyptic, messianic motives unconnected to any socio-political context, while at the same time hold the view that violence perpetrated by Israel is largely driven by political necessity and genuine existential threats, posed by people with an apocalyptic and messianic world view.

The distinction matters because there is great political utility and propaganda value in holding the position, common to many commentators, that Israel is a rational actor fighting against irrational forces. This is a convenient Orientalist misrepresentation, distorting perceptions of legitimate and illegitimate violence. Too often these relics of Orientalist stereotypes, about Muslims and Arabs in particular, are appropriated to justify unjustifiable violence. This is typified by legions of Israel’s supporters, who contend that its devastating use of force against its enemies, such as the onslaught on the civilians of Gaza last year, is a sensible and rational response of a country trying to survive in a “tough and crazy neighbourhood”. They maintain that in order for Israel to ensure its military primacy against “people who love death more than we – the civilised – love life”, Israel must be willing to “out-crazy” the “crazies”. Israel’s “craziness”, they insist, is grounded on realist considerations. It’s a mind-set that even has its own military manoeuvre called the “Dahiya doctrine”.

There’s a long tradition of supposedly rational behaviour of this kind in politics, where mindless “craziness” is deployed in the service of apparently rational objectives, most notably in the dropping of nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the US in 1945. There are many other examples. Netanyahu also showed similar logic in a recent tweet where he declared a “war on stone throwers”; yes, a war on Palestinian stone-throwers, who will now be in sharp focus within Israeli crosshairs following the permission granted to the Israel Defence Forces to use deadly snipers against Palestinians throwing stones.

Despite the craziness of these policies, we are meant to believe that they emanate from rational actors pursuing rational objectives through means that are, at worst, controversial and not irrational. It’s certainly a contentious point but not one that I’m keen on labouring here. What is more interesting, judging by the rise in settler attacks against Palestinians in East Jerusalem, is a different kind of craziness that’s emanating from Israel; one that moves the country into the position of an irrational actor; where theology supersedes tangible political goals and obligations under international law are trumped by sacred text fused with a sense of God-given entitlement to the “land of Israel”, no matter what the political cost. It’s a scary prospect indeed, considering that we are talking about a country with nuclear weapons, but it’s a prospect that needs consideration because of its grave potential consequences.

Contentious as it may sound, the Zionist state’s behaviour is more typical of an irrational actor pursuing irrational objectives. Such objectives, which conflict with international law, buck the recognised political process and so are, to say the least, irrational. It’s a kind of insanity that is displayed by other faith groups whose goals and objectives are totally irrational and completely at odds with their own co-religionists, let alone the international community.

The notable difference, however, is that mindless zealots springing from other faith communities are not assisted by powerful friends, unlike Israel. Those wishing for an apocalyptic end and striving frantically to set the scene for the coming of the messiah and the Armageddon, normally represent no social and political constituency; nor do they usually sit in a democratically-elected parliament to influence government policy on matters affecting local, regional and global stability. In Israel, though, they do.

Israel’s political landscape is wrapped in all kinds of extremism; from xenophobic secular nationalists to religious zealots. Add to that mix the unquestioning support from millions of Evangelical Christians in America and Europe, and the potential for disastrous consequences do not bear thinking about. The inherent conflict between the state of Israel and the land of Israel has gone through a slow but nonetheless dramatic transformation, with the state now playing its part within a cosmic drama prophesising redemption of Israel and the coming of the messiah.

It’s no secret that the very foundation of Israel was made possible through the fusion of a number of powerful elements. Nationalism, of course, and, more importantly for the sake of this discussion, powerful theology that had been dormant until Zionism saw the political benefit of its resurrection. It wasn’t until Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967 that religious currents morphed into a more powerful force, emerging as they have into a political actor, which the state has to reckon with.

A number of factors have contributed to settler-terrorism but, arguably, none more so than the growth in the number of Israeli soldiers from a religious background. There’s been a massive “theologisation” of the Israeli army, as one historian has noted: “There are now entire units of religious combat soldiers, many of them based in West Bank settlements. They answer to hard-line rabbis who call for the establishment of a Greater Israel that includes the Occupied Palestinian Territories.”

The percentage of officer cadets who are religious has grown 10-fold since the early 1990s. This is down to Bnei David, established in 1988 as Israel’s flagship preparatory programme for orthodox Jews heading for the IDF. In the early 1990s, orthodox Jewish men accounted for 2.5 per cent of military graduates. Since then, that figure has grown to more than 25 per cent. In some combat units, they make up as much as 50 per cent of new officers, roughly four times their proportion of Israel’s population. The upward trend, coupled with a parallel decline in the number of combat soldiers and officers coming from secular families, is changing the face of the IDF dramatically.

IDF personnel are often photographed while praying; the picture of a Jewish man in front of his tank or artillery piece, dressed in his IDF uniform with a prayer shawl draped over his shoulders, is now one of the iconic images of an Israeli soldier. It is a powerful example of how militarism blends with religious piety. The IDF can no longer be said to be exclusively a tool for the defence of the Israeli state; it is equally an instrument for seizing “the land of Israel” from its indigenous inhabitants.

This begs the question, will the army remain loyal to the state? There are very good reasons to be concerned about the stated goals and intentions of the growing number of religious Zionists now serving in the army. As noted in the Guardian, these highly motivated soldiers could turn the traditionally secular IDF into an ideological instrument and create conflicts about a duty to obey the rabbi or the commanding officer.

Amos Harel, a military correspondent for Haaretz, asked, “Has the IDF become an army of settlers?” This is not just a question of importance for Palestinians in Jerusalem; it is equally a serious issue for Israel itself. Could the IDF be relied upon to evacuate Jerusalem and West Bank settlements – as they did in Gaza in 2005 – with battalion commanders being, increasingly, religious?

Harel notes the potential for mass disobedience in the face of such orders, making many Israeli politicians and senior officers to pause for thought before ordering soldiers to take actions against Jewish communities in the territories.

It’s highly presumptuous to believe that Israel remains a rational actor despite the madness of its policies. It’s possibly less so to believe the opposite; that Israel has indeed become an irrational actor within the international political system holding quasi-political objectives that cannot be reconciled with international law and the international community. Israel’s inability to rein-in the Jewish settlers and risk an unimaginable conflagration that answers the prayer of the zealots in its midst is a clear indication that, at the very least, it doesn’t have the will to do so and – worst case scenario – that Israel’s will and capability are perfectly in step. That is, indeed, a chilling thought.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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