NEW YORK – Globalization has made economies more open and interdependent, and national boundaries more porous. But 19th-century notions of exclusive sovereignty and territorial nationalism persist, nowhere more so than in the bloody Middle East.
Israelis are right to claim that their country is unfairly singled out for acts of self-defense, such as the most recent invasion of Gaza. Many of its critics may not even be aware of the killing in 2009 of 40,000 Tamils, mostly civilians, by the Sinhalese-dominated army in Sri Lanka’s civil war, or the subsequent electoral triumph of ruthless religious majoritarians.
Still, even a broader, nonpartisan view will find Israel among the nations where the political mood of the majority, manipulated by opportunistic politicians, has turned bellicosely nationalistic.
The latest Gaza war suggests that more Israelis are entering what the Israeli writer David Grossman calls a “cruel and desperate bubble,” terrifyingly obedient to its “law of violence and war, revenge and hatred.”
Ironically, Israel, which is blessed with a robust high-tech sector, also embodies the greatest contradiction today between the imperatives of old-style territorial nationalism and a modern globalized economy. Take, for instance, the cancellation of several European and U.S. flights to Tel Aviv after a Hamas rocket landed near Ben-Gurion International Airport. This was correctly seen as economically damaging by a country that relies upon extensive trade outside its Middle Eastern neighborhood.
Indeed, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made the dynamic Israeli economy a cornerstone of his security policy, the fragile pillars of which include Palestinian disunity, the isolation of the West Bank and blockade of Gaza, and steadfast support from the U.S. Congress, if not the White House. Yet even those who agree with Netanyahu that Israel faces an existential threat still have to answer the hard question: Can his ambitious edifice survive the new world disorder?
Since 1967, Israel has almost imperceptibly acquired indeterminate new boundaries and disaffected subjects in the manner of 19th-century imperial nation-states. Now, in the early 21st century, it has to contend with other re-drawers, who are empowered as well as radicalized, of the Middle East’s map.
Successive Israeli governments may appear to have succeeded in creating indestructible boundaries on the ground, as well as in the air. The Israeli Defense Forces’ barrier, which separates Israeli territory from the West Bank, has successfully blocked the flow of suicide bombers. The so-called Iron Dome prevents most Hamas rockets from reaching their targets.
In the past, too, freedom and democracy depended upon the exclusion of others; the walls of the Greek polis drew clear lines between citizens and enemies. But the impulse to shut oneself off in an interconnected world can only clash with other aspirations that modernity creates: whether to grow and expand or to live a quiet and dignified life.
The IDF’s barrier and the settler enclaves not only make a Palestinian state unachievable and, if it was ever attained, ungovernable. It also, ironically, contradicts the expansionist vision of “Eretz Yisrael.”
In any case, the most primitive rockets can clear all fences and walls; better-designed ones will no doubt beat even the Iron Dome; and deeper tunnels will be dug. Not surprisingly, punitive Israeli measures — the blockade of Gaza from 2007 and military incursions in 2008-2009, 2012 and 2014 — eventually reveal themselves as futile exercises in self-assertion. Each time, the increased sophistication and ferocity of the attacks is matched by greater resilience on the other side.
The consistent Palestinian refusal to be shocked and awed by superior firepower will puzzle only those who have failed to grasp the central idea and event of the 20th century: the urge of self-determination and decolonization. Unfortunately the viciousness of Hamas, either as insurgents today or as postcolonial rulers tomorrow, won’t obscure the fact that archaic and discredited notions of national power trapped Israel on the wrong side of history.
“In the 21st century there is no room for a colonialist entity,” the Israeli journalist Ari Shavit points out in “My Promised Land.” It is partly why the West “is gradually turning its back on Israel.”
There are ever greater challenges to consider: the likely Western rapprochement with Iran, the most stable and powerful country in the region, and the widespread radicalization of Sunni Muslims that has already spawned an organization even al-Qaida considers too extreme: the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.
Much more innovative concepts than the now-impossible “two-state” solution are needed to secure peace and security for the broader region as well as for Israelis and Palestinians. However, flexible definitions of nationality and citizenship cannot be expected from right-wing Israeli politicians, who aim to coax their fearful electorates into a fantasy of hermetically sealed borders.
These exponents of “bubble nationalism,” like others in the world today, may preside over more years of unconscionable violence before they are able to admit to the fragility of 19th-century notions of power and sovereignty in this age of globalization.
Pankaj Mishra, a Bloomberg View columnist, is the author of “From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia.”