Israelis will celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut on Tuesday, though the word celebration feels inapt. This is the second year in a row in which there is some measure of a pall hanging over Israel’s commemoration of its independence day. Last year’s 75th anniversary festivities came amidst the social upheaval and protest movement spurred by the government’s judicial overhaul proposals, with many Israelis worrying about the split screen of extolling independence while feeling that their democracy was under threat. This year, the disquiet will be more easily felt and far more widespread. It is not only the unparalleled and unprecedented tragedy of what was inflicted on Israelis on October 7, but the continued fallout from that dark day. It is hard to celebrate independence with—as of this writing, though hopefully not for even one minute longer—132 Israelis in Hamas captivity, with hundreds of thousands still displaced from the Gaza envelope and northern Israel, with accusations of genocide and the specter of ICC arrest warrants for Israeli officials, and with the diplomatic walls around Israel threatening to collapse. On top of all this, Israelis are saddled with a government that is immensely unpopular and that refuses to take responsibility for what transpired on its watch, one that large majorities of Israelis in poll after poll want gone but that refuses to leave. Independence this year seems less of a condition for which to be thankful and more of one for which to yearn.

An art installation at Tel Aviv's Hostages Square

Independence can mean different things. For Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and a large group of Israelis, being independent means removing as many outside constraints as possible on what Israel does. Netanyahu has reiterated that Israel makes its own decisions and will not shift its policies in response to external demands, and he has issued statements over the past few months expressly rejecting American requests or considerations on a variety of Gaza-related issues. Some of his ministers have declared that Israel is not the 51st U.S. state, while others have gone further in saying that Israel does not need American help. Israel famously hews to the position that it will defend itself by itself, and while this streak of Israeli independence is not unique, it is deeply rooted. It stems from a range of factors, from the sense that Israel is alone in the region and even in the world, to inherited trauma from the Holocaust and the nightmare of being defenseless Jews, to Israeli cultural stubbornness. There is a common dictum that the best way to get an Israeli to do something is to tell him that he can’t, and it is evident in the ways in which Israeli leaders approach the world and in their arguments across decades with their counterparts, American and otherwise.

The problem is that no nation in the modern era can prosper while dwelling alone—and certainly not without being an unipolar superpower—and in Israel’s case, the war in Gaza has acutely illustrated this. Israel is reliant on the U.S. for weapons. It is reliant on the U.S. for diplomatic support. It is reliant on the U.S.-led regional coalition to defend it from Iranian missiles. When the fighting in Gaza comes to an end, it will be reliant on the region to help rebuild Gaza and assume some of the enormous costs of doing so. It is reliant on the Palestinian Authority to oversee the daily administration of Palestinian areas of the West Bank and ensure that the entire place does not erupt. Israel cannot do whatever it wants whenever it wants without risking an enormous amount, and in this too Israel is not unique. There is a reason that the international system is comprised of different iterations of alliances, all of which bring benefits and also constraints. For reasons of history and geography, Israel more than many countries cannot go it alone, no matter how much it boasts that it has and that it will.

Pro-Palestinian protestors rally for the U.S. to stop sending aid to Israel

But it isn’t only that Israel is overly reliant on others. It is that Israel is demonstrably better off relying on others given its current realities. For the first time since its founding, Israel is not isolated in the region. It is enmeshed in a coalition of necessity to counter Iranian regional ambitions, and is far better off than it would be were it actually isolated. It also benefits from its tight alliance with the U.S. arguably more than any other country in the world. The choices that Israel has made since October 7—choices that have been opposed by the U.S. and Israel’s neighbors to varying degrees—are ones that are meant to demonstrate Israeli independence. From bluster about refusing to provide humanitarian assistance, to pledges to never allow a PA presence in Gaza, to an insistence that Israel will conduct a large-scale operation in Rafah no matter what, Netanyahu has consistently portrayed these choices as evidence of Israeli independence and strength. And as he has done so, Israel has seen its problems mushroom, and is now at the point where the U.S. is delaying weapons shipments, Saudi normalization has to contend with millions of Saudis who are newly radicalized by the scenes from Gaza playing on their televisions, and far too many rush to believe nonsensical Hamas claims about having accepted a ceasefire offer that did not actually exist because Netanyahu is seen as less credible and in some ways more intransigent than Hamas. Perhaps this demonstrates Israeli independence, but it does not bring with it any benefits.

I don’t think this is what Israel’s founders had in mind. Independence certainly meant not being at the mercy of others and reversing millennia of Jewish helplessness, but Israel’s Declaration of Independence expressly appeals to a variety of outsiders—the United Nations, Arab inhabitants, neighboring states, and Jews around the world—for help. It does so because Israel’s leaders recognized that independence did not mean going it alone in the face of everyone and everything, but meant establishing an independent state that would be sustainable over time and able to flourish. In 2024, that means understanding that defining independence as standing up to every potential partner and helper in an insistence that you will do things your own way or not at all comes at the cost of harming Israel’s actual independence.

A rally in Tel Aviv on April 13, 2024

For all of the times that Israel has seemed at an inflection point since October 7, it currently stands at a juncture that is genuinely perilous. The U.S.-Israel relationship is showing increasingly more daylight through its cracks at the worst possible moment, and the Israeli attitude that it is mostly on the U.S. to seal those cracks is finding few buyers. Israel has in many ways managed to wear its interlocutors down, so that rather than arguments about whether the PA is going to take over Gaza, the arguments are now about the scope of continuing Israeli military operations. Rather than arguments over irreversible and measurable steps toward Palestinian statehood, the arguments are now about simply winding down the Gaza fighting. If Israel keeps insisting that it will make all of these decisions on its own and without any outside intervention, there will also be no outside intervention of the type that Israel actually wants. Israeli independence must be safeguarded at all costs, but Israeli leaders are focusing on the wrong kind.

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