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Tue Jan 8, 2013, 07:26 PM

Israel's Discontents

By Mitchell Cohen, Author 'Zion and State: Nation, Class, and the Shaping of Modern Israel'

The old woman, then 80ish, looked at me that June morning in 1982 with sad eyes. She said softly but firmly, "Everything we always said about them was true." She was referring to the maximalists of the Zionist Right, led in the 1930s by Vladimir Jabotinsky, a charismatic intellectual, then by Menachem Begin, today by Benjamin ("Bibi" Netanyahu.

We were having breakfast, as we often did when she came to New York. Her name, not so well remembered, was Marie Syrkin. Her father, Nachman, was a leading theorist of the Zionist Left in the early 20th century. Marie was tough-minded, among Golda Meir's closest friends, and a champion in the U.S. of the labor movement that led Israel until Begin's electoral victory in 1977.

Her foreboding was justified. Begin had just led Israel into an ill-conceived war in Lebanon. He called it a "war of choice." Before then, Israelis insisted that they went to war when they had no choice. "A huge mistake," Marie went on, "No judgment, lots of slogans."

Something similar might be said in 2013. Bibi, a prime minister responsible for untold damage to his country's image, looks to come in first in elections scheduled for January 22 -- regardless of a record of ineptness and the indictment of Avigdor Liberman, his (now ex-) foreign minister for fraud, breach of trust and possible "moral turpitude." Liberman, once Bibi's protégé, leads a secular ultra-nationalist party that has amalgamated with his mentor's Likud. Some of their vote, polls say, is being lost -- but to an even more radical party, both religious and right-wing, led by Naftali Bennett, another Bibi protégé.

After the recent UN vote giving Palestinians special UN status -- one hopes Kurds will be awarded this too, one day, with backing from the Arab League and Palestinians -- an Israeli official bemoaned his country's loss of support in Europe.

Anti-Semitism, too often masquerading as anti-Zionism, plays a real role in this loss but the story is also more complex. Israel is indeed demonized like few other countries. (Anyone who knows the history of anti-Semitism will recognize remodeled tropes). It is impossible, however, to exonerate Israel's rash right-wing government for its current difficulties. It is one thing to thwart Muslim extremists who shoot missiles from Gaza; it is another to settle Jewish fanatics in the West Bank.



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