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January 15, 2024

Nassim Nicholas Taleb: Israel is a fragile state - From L'Orient Today

Karim Bitar, a professor of international relations affiliated with several universities and think tanks, interviewed former trader and book author Nassim Taleb about the Hamas-Israel war.

KB: Just 48 hours after the Hamas attacks on Israel on Oct. 7, you sent me a message predicting that this war might turn out badly for Israel, because current circumstances are radically different from those of 20 years ago. You told me that Hamas had planned and led to a reaction from Israel which would quickly get international public opinions to change, after the initial fear and solidarity with Israel. You mentioned in particular, as factors that would drive this change, the presence of millions of people on social networks, even in the West, who sympathize with Palestinian suffering. And you told me a few days later that the two major trends on a global scale, two sometimes contradictory trends, the one that aspires to more freedom and the one that aspires to more equality, while often in conflict, were both working to the disadvantage of Israel. I was intrigued by these messages because you are one of the few who predicted the global economic crisis of 2008 and warned us, in the early days, about the spread of COVID. Can you clarify your thoughts on the war in Gaza and its impact on Israel?

NT: Let's not take sides and examine the situation from an empirical [and predictive] point of view. I'm not into current affairs; my profession is risk analysis and mostly concerns the fragility of systems. The world is moving from a traditional, hierarchical and vertical system towards a networked horizontal system, spontaneously, at all levels. This phenomenon is accelerated by globalization. The press used to be vertical, in the sense that you and I passively watched the TV set and received whatever information the system wanted to give us. We could not contribute to the debate. As I explained in 'Skin in the Game,' thanks to social networks, the relationship is now more symmetrical; each of us both gives and receives information.

Indeed, disintermediation and social networks have enabled the emergence of what has been called 'citizen journalism.'

And this radically changes the balance of power. In the past, information was controlled by restricting its main agents, namely journalists. It must be remembered that media professionals in the Western world are extremely fragile professionally; losing their job could lead to being excluded from the job market. For instance, a decade ago, writing a favorable article about Noam Chomsky, who was blacklisted — or rather, 'graylisted' — was a career killer. In today's world, there are more than a billion 'journalists.' This horizontality, the fact that we can no longer control information, is very bad news for Israel. Why? Because of the narrative. The story as curated by Israelis is now in competition with other narratives. Even the most censored platforms, like Meta, may ban some pro-Palestinian expressions, but people can circumvent this by playing with words and symbols. They can use euphemisms. In addition, as I explained in Antifragile, under conditions similar to today's, banning certain books makes them even more intriguing.

And on top of this trend towards more freedoms, there is an even more powerful phenomenon: The social justice accelerating treadmill. That is, the increase in dissatisfaction along with the realization of initial aims for equality. Historically, when groups begin to demand their rights, the more rights we give them, the more rights they will ask for, and claims will accelerate on the way to perfect equality. Things went downhill in France after the King finally acceded to the initial request for a constitutional monarchy. For instance, today, we have never been closer to equality between men and women, yet we have never had more voicing of discontent. So until the Palestinians become perfectly equal to the Israelis, they will complain and the conflict will get worse. This is Israel's great problem. Its structure is quite anachronistic.

Here you join the great New York Jewish historian Tony Judt, who said that Israel has become an anachronism. He recalled that when the Zionist idea was born in 1897, colonialism was in fashion. But when Israel came into being in 1948, colonialism was already out of fashion. His article caused controversy.

Exactly, it's like my friend Bernard Avishai who was whacked, so to speak, 30 years ago because he said that Israel was an immigration agency that later failed to become a real State.

You too are often controversial. During this war, you were not afraid and you wrote 'It’s not a war. It is a systematic massacre of civilians, accompanied by the destruction of densely populated areas to make them uninhabitable, by cowards who hide behind technology. This is ethnic cleansing. In a war, human fights human.' You have been violently attacked for several weeks, but you are used to it since you were also the target of pro-GMO lobbies, of those who did not want to believe in COVID, etc. How did you experience these attacks?

I care very little about my reputation and, furthermore, when it comes to public matters, I have no friends. One cannot be a genuine scholar or thinker if afraid of social ostracism or the prospect of eating alone at the university’s cafeteria. Furthermore, lobbies terrorize the vulnerable to keep them under control and set an example. A public failure can destroy their image. I'm hard to attack, so they'll find easier targets — at least for now.

These organized attacks and attempts at intimidation prove that Israel is a fragile state, heavily dependent on the West, particularly the US. A fragile company is one that depends on a large customer. There's an illusory stability, but the risk is evident: The company will eventually go bust some day in the future. This is because, with a big client, there could be a management change or the client could encounter troubles.

Israel is extremely dependent on propaganda, projecting the image of the victim in need of protection. It relies on the United States for cover at the UN, among other things. AIPAC, the pro-Israeli lobby in the United States, raises millions of dollars to protect Israel and defeat its adversaries.

And it prides itself in its official communication on having elected 95 percent of the candidates it supported.

That's it, but this system is fragile because the public will eventually find out, and Americans don't like being manipulated and don't like the feeling of coercion by the government. For example, I met someone who is campaigning for Rep. Jamaal Bowman, who is being violently opposed by AIPAC.

[AIPAC even encouraged its Republican supporters to sign up for Democrats to defeat Bowman in the Democratic primary, just as they offered millions of dollars to a candidate to run against Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Palestinian origin, to whom Bowman is close.]

People previously only knew about AIPAC within the system, among politicians and elected officials. Now it is in broad daylight: We know who the ones it supports are and it can turn into a black mark. But there is something worse.

There is a certain vicious dialectic, because the strength of the United States behind Israel and its unconditional support no matter what has prevented Israel from making efforts to integrate into the region.

But consider something more severe. Ethno-states may or may not survive [they can make it if small and non-aggressive]. Settler ethno-states are definitely anachronistic. What I call settler nationalism is an aggravated form of both colonialism and nationalism. Under Netanyahu, Israel has become even more settler nationalist than it was, with the controversial 2018 law defining Israel as the 'nation-state of the Jewish people,' which is of course problematic for the 'other' people who happen to be there. Now Israel is a country with its back against the wall. Why? Because ethnic settler nationalism can only work with apartheid and ethnic cleansing. It so happens that apartheid and ethnic cleansing are no longer very fashionable here in the United States. If you look at the age pyramid in America, those under 35 favor the Palestinians and those under 24 much more so – that is anyone who took a history class on colonialism or has social media friends on another continent.

Recall that my principle is that anything fragile will break one day.

We find this same trend among American Jews, who remain predominantly liberal and progressive. AIPAC and Netanyahu today rely less on Jews than on 'Christian Zionists,' and on certain evangelical currents which are both anti-Semitic and Zionist.

Israel's problem is that its major client, under new management, may change course. We are in a situation where a state was supported by those who intended to protect it, but ended up causing harm. Nothing has harmed Israel more, not even Netanyahu's policies, than AIPAC. AIPAC could be said to 'support Israel like the rope supports the hanged man.' It is AIPAC that has blurred the distinction between Israel and Judaism, potentially exacerbating anti-Semitism due to Israel's actions.

So, the idea I had in mind when I wrote to you on Oct. 9 is that the Israelis didn’t realize they were out of step with the period we’re in. They know very little about the dynamics of the system. After what Hamas did, people are starting to take a closer interest in Israel. The more they learn about the issue, the more apparent the problem becomes. They see that Zionism, once perceived as a defense mechanism, has mutated into an aggressive, anachronistic and murderous form of settler nationalism.

Even if we accept the idea that Jews returned home after 2000 years, it remains a fact that they spent much less time there than outside, unlike the natives who seem to represent some continuum since the Late Bronze Age. And even if we consider the 'racial', 'ethnic' or genetic arguments, Palestinians have a more solid claim to the land than these newcomers. A quick genetic analysis would show that the groups closest to the Judeans of Roman times, before the second destruction of the Temple, are the Samaritans, the Christian Palestinians, the Christian Lebanese [due to less mixing], the Karaite Jews [a small minority], Syro-Mesopotamian Jews [that is, non-Yemeni Mizrahis], the Druze and finally the Muslim Lebanese and Palestinians. In other words, the majority of today's Levantines. Therefore, the 'we are coming back home' argument loses its weight in the age of genetics and DNA analysis. It becomes closer to pure colonialism.

Shlomo Sand also wrote his bestseller 'The Invention of the Jewish People.'

Obviously. I'm not saying the racial argument is valid. But if Israel wants to use it, it doesn't work in its favor.

There is another important point on which I would like you to react. You told me 'You cannot be Sparta under globalization. Peace Incorporated doesn't work.' Could you elaborate?

It's a bit like the idea you cited that Israel can no longer be 'a villa in the jungle,' as former Prime Minister Ehud Barak said. [Karim Bitar’s interview with France 24 TV]. That's the problem, Sparta no longer exists. The Levant is littered with dozens of empty Crusader and Hospitaller fortresses. The identity of countries changes over time and militarism does not protect anything in the long run. If identities were fixed and immutable, we would speak Gaelic in France today. If I am in favor of Federalism in Lebanon [and the Levant], it is for Tocquevillian reasons: Protecting non-aggressive minorities [religious or cultural] from the majority and maintaining a diversity that continually evolves, in order to avoid a fixed and coercive central identity. The nation-state is obsolete [it came and went]; city-states are here to stay.

You also think that a real risk weighs on Egypt. Will we see a reconsideration of Camp David?

What I am certain of is that 'peace from the top' doesn’t work. Let's go back to what I said at the beginning, about the transition from a hierarchical model to an interactive horizontal model. In the past, there was a model where the king of France signed a pact with the Ottoman Sultan. There was a big party and everyone was happy. Today, there is no sultan around and peace with Egypt is a peace that has been more than cold. There are 110 million Egyptians today, more than twice as many as when their leaders signed the peace. There are no Egyptians visitors in Israel. Sisi is there because the Americans still have not understood what world we live in. We are no longer in a world of scheming chancelleries. Peace is not made with ink; peace is made with business transactions at the individual level. Israel is not at war with Palestinians. It is at war against time.

So the Abraham Accords were doomed to failure, even before the attacks of Oct. 7?

To start with, the signatory countries of the Abraham Accords have no common border with Israel. There, the local population is anti-Zionist, sometimes even anti-Semitic. Let me repeat that everything that comes from the top is fragile. MBS, I think, will have the presence of mind to submit to public opinion shaped by the images of the dead in Gaza.

A Rabbi wrote to you saying that you were more faithful to the ethics of Judaism than most members of the Israeli establishment, that your knowledge of the Torah and the principles of Judaism exceeded theirs. Do you agree with Daniel Barenboim who said that today's Israeli policies are a betrayal of the entire ethics of Judaism? Have you been influenced by Jewish thought?

I had my Talmudic phase. Its way of reasoning appeals to me. Its method of thinking relates to the disputation of the Berytus school of law. I think almost like a Jewish intellectual, having spent a large part of my social and academic life with Ashkenazis. Today, Israel is fundamentally a fragile state. For its survival, Israel must radically change its model and accept equality with the Palestinians at all levels – and without exception. This is because, like gender equality, even small disparities can significantly increase Palestinian anger. The Israelis have wasted valuable time doing propaganda in America, not realizing that it is the Palestinians they must try to convince. If they can succeed in convincing them, there would be some hope. But I have my doubts.

Nassim Taleb, a former trader, is the author of the five volume Incerto (which includes The Black Swan, Antifragile), translated into fifty languages. He currently researches the fragility of systems.

Karim Bitar is a professor of International Relations at the Saint Joseph University of Beirut and Ecole Normale Supérieure (ENS Lyon). He is affiliated with several international think tanks.

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