The Future Isn’t What It Used To Be

“I believe that there is absolutely nothing Israel can do that would end the unprecedented and unwarranted support the US gives it,” a reader wrote in response to my post, When You Circle the Wagons, Shoot Outward! He then cited numerous examples of Israel being “given a ‘by’ for everything it does.”

While I don’t disagree with his historical recounting, I definitely challenge his assumption that it means much of anything about the future.

In times of rapid change, historical trajectories are poor indicators of future events. Change is nonlinear. It leaps and spurts and stalls, rolls back and jumps laterally as well as vertically. (This is why the ‘experience’ we seem to value in leaders is so often a handicap – it equips them to deal with the past and instills a desire to solve old problems in old ways, because that’s what they know how to do.)

To greatly simplify the science, the behaviors of complex adaptive systems are ‘emergent’. They arise from the messy, nonlinear interactions among the ‘initial conditions’ of the moment, the rules governing the system, and the relationships among the agents that make up the system.

The initial conditions continually ‘refresh’. (A technical way of saying change is constant and the bumper sticker was right – shit happens.) As these initial conditions shift, the outcomes manifested by the system shift, too, because it’s continually ‘co-evolving’ with its environment.

The most important initial condition here is the degree of support for Israel on the part of American Jews, because of their disproportionate influence (relative to population) on American politics.

The default setting in US politics has been strongly pro Israel for 60 years. That meme was still operational during the 2008 presidential election, when each candidate went out of his way to boast about his support for the Jewish state.

However . . .

The goal of politicians is to get elected. (And reelected.) They always have a finger to the wind. (Want to know what POTUS is going to say in the State of the Union? Just see what’s running 66% or better approval in polls and focus groups, and he’ll be behind it or taking credit for it.)

So long as America’s Jewish voters were solidly behind Israel, so were elected officials. But that’s shifting. As Peter Beinart expressed it so succinctly in The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment for the New York Review of Books, ‘For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door, and now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead.’

There have been several key milestones along this road. The Walt and Mearsheimer piece in the London Review of Books was one. Jimmy Carter’s bestseller, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid was another. The 2008 / 2009 Israeli attack on Gaza pushed many American Jews over the edge, and gave rise to grassroots efforts such as Jewish Voice for Peace and Another Jewish Voice, and more sophisticated, inside the Beltway movements, such as J Street.

No less an American hero that CENTCOM commander General David Petraeus has argued that America’s relationship with Israel is important – but not as important as the lives of American soldiers, which Israeli intransigence threatens by providing rallying points for Al Qaeda and others.

Even in Israel, pragmatists (few though they may be) get this. ‘Israel is gradually turning from an asset to the United States to a burden,’ Mossad Chief Meir Dagan recently told the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

This is a pattern, people.

It’s true that Israel and its supporters in America have been remarkably successful in controlling the narrative. They have spun the media, turned out the voters and bought the politicians.

But that’s a legacy model. It’s 20th century stuff. We live in an open source, post-print world. There’s too much bandwidth out there for any group to enforce message discipline or control the narrative today. Citizens with cell phones, iPads, Flip cams and Twitter, Flickr and YouTube accounts are now more important to framing narratives than the New York Times. Traditional media is, as a Pentagon official said of US Special Envoy George Mitchell, ‘too old, too slow … and too late.’

The ‘Freedom Flotilla’ organizers knew and took advantage of this. The Israelis completely misunderstood it, were suckered in, and are now paying the price. Not only did they look to all the world like criminals and thugs, they also managed to look incompetent in the process.

As the Economist put it, ‘Once admired as a plucky David facing down an array of Arab Goliaths, Israel is now seen as the clumsy bully on the block.’

Nobody likes clumsy bullies. Or votes for those who do.

For additional background, see Was Gaza Israel’s Waterloo?