By Barry Rubin
1.) What makes Israel: An Introduction different than the other introductions to Israel on the market? What makes the book unique?
Actually, I don’t think there is a single book that provides a comprehensive explanation of Israel’s land, people, history, society, economy, politics, and culture. What we have had are two types of books: those on the Arab-Israeli conflict, including those by journalists who didn’t know the language or much about the country, on one hand, and impressionistic books written by people who visit for a few weeks and write mostly on the conflict, emphasizing interviews with extremists on both ends and often making ludicrous mistakes. There has never been a book about the actual country and the real people who live there.
I say that because there is no country in the world that foreigners think they know more about but really know less about than Israel. So this book is written based on the work on insiders and is comprehensive. What is very pleasing is that so many people have learned a lot by reading Israel: An Introduction.
2.) What are the key themes that readers should take away from it?
The most important theme is one that was once central but has generally been forgotten: Israel is a remarkable success story. We should remember the difficulties it faced in transforming a land without resources, surviving so much hostility, and turning a people with many differences and no military or governmental experience into a stable and prosperous democratic nation.
A second theme is the creation of a unique society—simultaneously diverse and united--mixing Jewish religious, Jewish historical, both eastern and western European, Middle Eastern, and Mediterranean influences. There are many surprises that belie the stereotypes.
I also think Israel is interesting as a variant of modern, Western, democratic society. True, Israel has been in some ways a canary in the coal mine for the world, though the cave-in has long since happened. But it is also a model for something else. This is why Israel is so important and interesting for Western Christians, Africans, and Asians. It is also one of the reasons why Israel is so hated by some sectors among Western elites. Israel is a nation-state at a time when that is unfashionable; melds religion into the national character when anti-religious views are held by Western elites, and is ready to defend itself at a time when self-defense is viewed as being close to immoral. While the foundation was laid by democratic socialism, prosperity was later by jettisoning statism and turning toward free enterprise.
In a real sense, Israel is the Western radical left’s worse nightmare—and that applies to the Jews among them. That’s why they must slander it and try to ensure its delegitimation, failure, and even destruction. Of course, that effort will fail.
Not exactly. What I have written is that there was never a possibility that Israel would attack Iran now, meaning 2012. There is a high possibility of an attack in the 2013-2015 period. I was explaining an attack wasn't going to happen at a time when virtually everyone in the world was saying the opposite. Now it is clear that my assessment was correct. I only mention this as a matter of credibility in judging future analyses.
4.) Do Israelis trust President Obama to have their back, as he recently declared he did?
5.) Do you believe a nuclear Iran is an existential threat to Israel?
Of course it is an existential threat. The question is whether that threat can be dealt with by means other than by an Israeli attack to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons.
I believe that there is a better alternative strategy which is a U.S.-backed Israeli ability to attack Tehran’s facilities if it needed to do so along with a real credible containment and a multi-level defensive system to make such a need to attack less necessary.
Let’s remember by the way that when the Democratic Party’s single largest contributor asked Senator Hillary Clinton what she would do in the face of an Iranian nuclear threat to attack Iran she said she would flatten them. Senator Barack Obama said he would study the matter. Obama’ weakness and waste of time has made things much worse and has made a future war more, not less, likely.
6.) What do you think have been President Obama’s greatest weaknesses handling the crises in the Middle East that have arisen during his tenure?
His misunderstanding and romance with anti-American, antisemitic revolutionary Islamists. His embrace of the Islamist regime in Turkey. His slowness and uncertainty in countering Iran’s growing power, with the conventional and subversive means used by Tehran being as dangerous as nuclear weapons. His failure to support Israel and his making the diplomatic peace process worse. It is a very long list.
7.) How should the U.S. handle the turmoil in Egypt? Should the U.S. cut off aid to Egypt?
It is too late in many respects. Obama should have followed the State Department’s proposal to support Mubarak’s ouster and a careful transition back in January-February 2011. Then, instead of working with the army and the moderates, the U.S. government embraced the Muslim Brotherhood and the media falsely presented that group as moderate.
As of now, it is too early to cut off military aid. The army is not the real enemy and there is no evidence it won’t turn over power to civilians. At this point, aid should be continued to prevent the army from collapsing or being radicalized. But at some time in the future the U.S. government will probably have to threaten credibly to cut off aid in response to Egyptian government behavior and might actually have to stop the aid.
But the U.S. government needs to recognize the threat of Islamism in Egypt and the fact that the Brotherhood is its main enemy. It needs to support three forces: the anti-Islamist Arab states, notably Saudi Arabia and Jordan; Israel; and the real democratic and anti-Islamist forces in Iran, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, and elsewhere.
8.) What do you think of American commentators like MJ Rosenberg and Peter Beinart, as well as groups like J Street, focusing on Israeli settlements as if they are the number one issue preventing peace between Israel and its neighbors?
For the first time in history, there is a well-financed, systematic campaign to try to destroy American Jewish support for Israel. The Israeli government has not backed the establishment of a single new settlement or the geographic expansion of any existing settlement since 1993. And if the Palestinian leadership had accepted a two-state solution in 2000 almost all of the settlements would have been dismantled years ago, just as happened in the Gaza Strip. So blaming everything on the settlements—absurd to anyone with a real knowledge of the situation—is an effort to avoid confronting the Palestinian and widespread Arab and Muslim rejection of Israel’s existence. That’s what blocked peace before there were any settlements and still do so today and for a long time to come.
9.) Any plans to write another book? If so, about what?
My next book is already completed and I think it is going to have a big impact. It is entitled, Nazis, Islamists and the Making of the Modern Middle East, written with Dr. Wolfgang Schwanitz, and based on newly released CIA and never before translated German documents. Basically, it shows how the alliance was stronger and more important than previously understood and also how individuals, ideologies, and groups that collaborated with the Axis have ruled the Arabic-speaking world for the last sixty years and will continue to do so in the current Islamist wave.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His book, Israel: An Introduction, has just been published by Yale University Press. Other recent books include The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center and of his blog, Rubin Reports. His original articles are published at PJMedia.