By Louis Rene Beres

[16 April 2001] The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas makes an interesting point: Although power is powerful and weakness is weak, power can weaken itself and weakness can become a source of power. This point is extremely pertinent to Israel and to the still-emergent state of "Palestine." Over the years, especially since Oslo, Israel's power has sabotaged itself in so many ways, undermining its capacity to endure. After Oslo, however, Israel's Palestinian "partners" have skillfully transformed their relative weakness into a purposeful means of commanding world attention and eliciting global sympathies. Not suprisingly, the "weak" Palestinians have repeatedly overpowered the "powerful" Israelis.

What, exactly, does all of this mean? At one level, it suggests that the ordinarily assumed bases of power in world affairs are greatly exaggerated and misunderstood. There is irony here, as well as paradox. For almost two thousand years, Jews were stateless and vulnerable - yet, in a number of important spheres of human activity, they were enormously important. Today, when there exists a Jewish State armed with nuclear weapons, the Jewish citizens of Israel are the most vulnerable Jews on the face of the Earth. No where else on this planet are Jews, as Jews, subject to prompt and concentrated extermination.

For their part, the Palestinians, aptly fond of their alleged weakness relative to Israel, have displayed remarkable power in their pre-state incarnation. Indeed, their weakness has been the prime source of this power. Reminding the world, again and again and again, how unfortunate and mistreated thay have been, the Palestinians manage - again and again and again - to get their way. Soon they, too, will have a state. Will this state enlarge their power, or will it - like Israel - evolve into a condition of genuine weakness? Perhaps, with a Jewish state existing next to a Palestinian state, there will develop - paradoxically - a mutuality of weakness.

There are some lessons here for Israel. First, Israelis must finally begin to understand that inventories of missiles, planes, bombs and warships do not constitute real power. Rather, the ingredients of real power remain subtle and often intangible. Moreover, these ingredients include the presumed opposite of power, which is weakness. As for leadership, this has proven to be far less consequential for Israeli power than anyone could ever have imagined. For the forseeable future, any leader of Israel will be incapable of serious vision - of a vision that understands the paradox of power and weakness. Among other things, this Israeli incapacity is rooted in a distorted image of "democracy," which elevates the uninformed judgments of The Many above the essential insights of The Few.

There are other lessons here for the Jewish State. One of the most obvious is the overwhelming weakness spawned by "post-Zionism." Retreating, daily, from the underlying religious and spiritual foundations of Judaism, Israel is being incrementally deprived of its most critical source of power. Eagerly seeking to become "normal," a good portion of Israel's anxious Jewish population - in contrast to Israel's Arabs - is STILL willing to blame itself for most of the problems with the Palestinians. Accepting the neediness of the Palestinians, and cowering before the PA's murderous judgments, these Israeli Jews STILL fail to understand that they, themselves, have transformed power into weakness. Rejecting, shamelessly, their own history and their own uniqueness, they have conspired, however unwittingly, in a condition wherein power has become weakness and weakness has become power.

A Hasidic tale instructs that we shall only be able to determine the hour of dawn, when the night ends and the day begins, when we can look into the face of another human being and have enough light to recognize in him a brother, a real brother. Until that moment, night and darkness shall still be with us. Understood in terms of Israel, "Palestine," and the paradox of power, this tale reminds us that, in the best of all possible worlds, we humans, all of us - will finally be able to go beyond the most primordial forms of tribalism and acknowledge our essential Oneness. Although such acknowledgment must not cause us to dilute our particular forms of uniqueness - in Israel, for example, our uniqueness as Jews - it will allow us - using the terms of Martin Buber - to rediscover the "I' in the "Thou."

Sadly, the world is not yet prepared for radical altruism - for circumstances wherein the Other can become the center of the Self. No, for the forseeable future, the Other is still a reminder that tribes circumscribe every realm of human relations and that, for the forseeable future, Self empowerment is still imperative. It follows that until we are ready, as a People and as a species, to place the ego outside itself, in the Other, we must understand and accept the power of weakness and the weakness of power.


LOUIS RENE BERES, Professor Department of Political Science Purdue University, was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971) and publishes widely on international relations and international law. His work on strategic matters is well-known in Israeli academic, military and intelligence circles.


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