The myth of Israeli power

Nabil Abdel Fattah
Thursday 29 Feb 2024

The history of the Arab-Israeli conflict has much to say about the development of Arab societies and the need for a more nuanced view of Israel and the West in the Arab world.


The expansion and strengthening of the Israeli state’s military, scientific, technological, and economic power, as well as its various institutions and apparatuses, can be attributed to several factors.

These include the development of scientific research, international support from the US and the West, advocacy from Jewish and Christian Zionist groups, and the involvement of major international businesses and corporations.

Some of this is due to the immigration of Western Ashkenazi and Eastern Sephardic Jews to Israel, which has led to social and economic dynamism under a parliamentary system that enshrines public and individual freedoms within the framework of Zionist ideology and its political use to promote the values of work, efficiency, and responsibility.

However, the coming to power of the religious right, and the intention of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to introduce legislative amendments restricting the power of the country’s judiciary in order to protect him from being put on trial for corruption, has caused sharp divisions within Israeli society.

There is no doubt that the shift to the right in Israel has weakened post-Zionist currents in Israeli society and led to the country’s right-wing extremists dominating policy on the war on the Gaza Strip in a way that will affect the image of Israel among some segments of Western and world public opinion.

The history of the Arab-Israeli conflict appears in one of its aspects in the form of a dichotomy between freedom and control, democracy and totalitarianism, and political authoritarianism dominating over political pluralism.

Democracy alone has not led to a halt in the hostility between conflicting parties in Israel, and nor has it prevented Israel’s military aggression even if it has signed peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan and more recently normalised its relations through the so-called “Abraham Accords” with the UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco.

Israeli supremacist views have not been limited by the country’s democratic system, institutions, and ostensible political values, given the racist expansionism of the present Israeli government, something that has also been the case historically with the Israeli Labour Party.

The Arab countries that have been involved in multiple wars with Israel have been hampered by the absence of political freedoms, scientific research, and the values of responsible and creative work.

They have suffered from a lack of equality and equal citizenship rights, one of the most important reasons behind their historical backwardness, and this has hindered their development, weakening their ability to face decisive confrontations with Israel in its successive aggressive wars until the 1973 War and, most recently, the Al-Aqsa Flood Operation carried out by Hamas last October.

The personalisation of the state has been one of these obstacles, with the making of policies and decisions concentrated at the summit and revolving around the personality of the individual ruler. This has contributed to the failure of these states and their societies to focus on these conflicts.

From these conflicts, obstacles and frustrations and the Palestinian resistance movement and its various groups emerged. These were affected by what was happening in the Arab environment and Arab policies towards Israel and towards these armed political organisations.

Having set out this background, we can approach the current war on the Gaza Strip and attacks on the West Bank from the perspectives of Israel’s aggressive tendencies and the Palestinian resistance, placing them in the context of the crises of freedom and authoritarianism in the Arab world.

First, the rise of the Zionist Movement and the establishment of the state of Israel on historically Palestinian land caused major changes in Arab geopolitics, and with them successive wars and armed conflicts from 1948 to 1973. Then there was the explosion of the Israeli settlements and the proliferation of settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip until the withdrawal of the Israeli army from the later and the dismantling of the settlements in 2005. This was followed by successive Israeli military strikes on the Strip, the institution of the siege, and the policies of collective punishment, genocide, and the forced displacement of civilians.

The Israeli war targets the residents of Gaza along with the Palestinian groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad with the intention of liquidating these movements, dismantling their infrastructure and weaponry, destroying the tunnels under Gaza, creating a buffer zone and establishing control over the Strip amid a policy of ambiguity about the aftermath of the war.

Second, in the light of this history of aggression and settlement, a sense of defeat has been installed on the other side, with a major part of the dominant political language in the Arab political, media, and ideological discourses in each stage of the confrontation reflecting this. This has been the case in the liberal and socialist discourses and in the Arab nationalist discourse that seeks to confront political Zionism. It was evident in the peace process and in the discourse of normalisation with Israel, as well as in the agreements made with Tel Aviv from Camp David onwards.

Israel has become part of the legitimacy crisis of the ruling regimes in the Arab world since independence, with this crisis being reflected in social systems, class and educational disparities, and levels of social awareness between the affluent at the top of the social system and the disadvantaged among the popular majorities in Arab societies.

Third, the shocks of the Israeli wars have revealed some of the results of authoritarianism in the Arab world and how this has affected minds and freedoms. There has been a decline in the level and quality of scientific and cultural production, along with the development of forms of creativity not limited by the rule of law and justice.

This decline has led to the rise of literalist currents in the Arab world, where many strands of thought and political action have focused on interpretations of foundational religious texts, the idea of a unified Arab nation, and the idea of a unified Islamic nation centred around the concept of the Caliphate. Political, religious, philosophical, and interpretive Salafi have emerged and have become detached from objective social reality as a result of the retreat of politics, widening gaps in society, and the ongoing transformations of the rest of the world.

Fourth, the wars with Israel have signalled much about the condition of the modern Arab world, its historical and accumulated problems, and its dependence on US and European centres, as well as the authoritarianism that has bred a sense of inferiority towards them.  

The shocks of the defeats that have taken place in the confrontations with Israel have revealed a crisis in the formation of a scientific spirit in the Arab world, as well as the weakness of research in the natural sciences and in the social sciences in the region.

There is an absence of social and political demand for science and knowledge in the face of the legacies of backwardness and in relation to the conflict with the Israeli state and society and its development in many fields. Israel has benefitted from advanced weaponry transferred by the US and the European countries and from advances in the digital revolution and artificial intelligence.

Fifth, the dominance of Arab authoritarianism with support coming from a conservative reading of religion and literalist clerics has led to a conflict between political authoritarianism and religious authoritarianism represented by the Islamist and Salafi jihadist groups. This fierce struggle has led to the denial of freedom of thought, freedom of opinion and expression, and public and personal freedoms. This has resulted in people being imprisoned in received ways of thinking, unable to take the initiative, or only rarely, in politics and community work.

Sixth, the establishment of Israel and its occupation of Arab territories after the defeat of June 1967 led to the countries of the region seeking their legitimacy in confronting Israel and liberating the Palestinian Territories. After this, the aim was to liberate the Occupied Arab Territories, all the while upholding a political authoritarianism not relying on democratic values or a democratic political culture and institutions.

These regimes have relied on political and social mobilisation and elections and referendums whose results have been predetermined in advance. They have rested on circles of loyalists and followers and excluded the will of the people from politics, denying it through mechanisms of authoritarian repression and a reliance on authoritarian versions of religion as a support and source of political and religious legitimacy.

The shocks of the wars with Israel have contributed to support for an Islamist religious discourse as an alternative to the ruling political regimes, carrying with it discrimination against religious minorities and towards non-Sunni religious sects. This trend has been consolidated and reinforced by Israel’s excessive violence towards the Palestinians and the discourse of right wing religious extremists calling for the “annihilation” of the besieged Palestinian people and the emptying of the Occupied Territories through more Israeli settlements in the West Bank, both of which we are seeing in the ongoing war on Gaza.

Seventh, stereotypes of a single and monolithic West, denying it its historical objectivity, plurality, specificities, and diversity have helped to shape the Islamist political discourse towards Western values, religions, beliefs, and secularism, fuelling an extremist tendency that rejects public and personal freedoms and freedom of speech and conscience.

This stereotypical notion of the West in the literalist mindset of the Islamists has led to the dominance of the dichotomy of Islam and Christianity, Islam and Judaism, the “house of peace” and the “house of war,” disbelief and faith, and us and them. This monolithic image has led to oversimplification and superficiality in relations with the Euro-US world and its ruling systems. From here there has been a weakness in following up on or appreciating the components of the Western mind, its political and cultural systems, and its various specificities.

Eighth, there has also been a stereotyping of Israel, reducing it to Zionism and its scientific and military development without looking into what has made this development possible and the real nature of its political and social and economic systems.

This tendency has led to a lack of understanding of Israeli society’s internal dynamics and the emergence of different currents within it, including those critical of the occupation and its policies. It has also hindered an understanding of the complex relationship between Zionism and Judaism and the diversity of views within both.

This limited approach has failed to grasp the significant advances made by Israel in various fields, including science, technology, and the economy. While acknowledging these achievements, a nuanced analysis should also consider the factors that have contributed to them, such as the influx of highly skilled immigrants, strong government support for research and development, and close collaboration with Western academic and technological institutions.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 29 February, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

Short link: