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October 16, 2009

Roger Cohen on Exceptionalism; How Iran Could Learn a Thing or Two from Israel

In the New York Times yesterday, Roger Cohen published a thoughtful op-ed piece that examines Israel’s belief in its own exceptionalism. Far from being anti-Israeli, Cohen presents an assessment of the problems of Israeli exceptionalism and offers a way forward. In his article, Cohen focuses almost entirely on Israel; however, it is not just Israel that would do well to listen to Cohen’s advice, but Iran as well.
According to Cohen, the foundational belief structure of Israeli exceptionalism was laid bare by Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech before the United Nations. During his speech, P.M. Netanyahu portrayed Israel as the lone bulwark standing against the evils of the world,

[This is] Netanyahu’s summary of the struggle of our age: “It pits civilization against barbarism, the 21st century against the 9th century, those who sanctify life against those who glorify death.

Cohen correctly points out that such a black-and-white view of the world is attractive but overly simplistic. Such a perspective does, of course, allow Israel to perceive itself as exceptional and unique amongst the college of nations. Unfortunately, it also ignores that there are a wide variety of views regarding Israel and its actions on the world scene.
Instead of looking at the conflicts between Israel, its Arab neighbors and Iran as simply between good and evil, Cohen suggests a “less dramatic and more accurate” understanding,

That is to see it as a fight for a different balance of power — and possibly greater stability — between a nuclear-armed Israel (an estimated 80 to 200 never-acknowledged weapons), a proud but uneasy Iran and an increasingly sophisticated and aware (if repressed) Arab world.
Some of Israel’s enemies contest its very existence, however powerless they are to end it. But the death-cult terrorists-versus-reasonable-Israelis paradigm falls short. There are various civilizations in the Middle East, whose attitudes toward religion and modernism vary, but who all quest for some accommodation between them.
One casualty of this view, of course, is Israeli exceptionalism. The Jewish state becomes more like any other nation fighting for influence and treasure. I think President Obama, himself talking down American exceptionalism, is trying to nudge Israel toward a more prosaic, realistic self-image…
In other words, as I’ve long argued, Iran makes rational decisions. Rather than invoking the Holocaust — a distraction — Israel should view Iran coolly, understand the hesitancy of Tehran’s nuclear brinksmanship, and see how it can gain from U.S.-led diplomacy…
The Middle East has changed. So must Israel. “Never again” is a necessary but altogether inadequate way of dealing with the modern world.

Cohen does not suggest solutions Middle East tensions, but he does offer a way to at least decrease those tensions. His suggestion does not involve either side condemning the actions or existence of the other. Instead, it requires the much more difficult, but hopefully more successful, tasks of self-reflection and critique. It is certainly time for the Iranian government to look at its own actions, on both domestic and international stages, and seriously examine its own motivations.
Britain is the remnant of a failed empire, and the United States is involved in two wars that the majority of its citizens have no interest in prolonging. It has been fifty-six years since those two countries arranged the overthrow of Iran’s democratically elected Prime Minister, and thirty years have passed since the U.S.-backed shah was exiled. Iran’s relationship with Iraq is stronger than it has been in decades. As Roger Cohen pointed out, “History illuminates – and blinds.”

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