On June 10-12, 2005, the Organization for Democratic Action conducted a seminar on the Rise and Decline of Empires. Ten lectures provided a basis for discussion among forty participants. The lectures focused on the differences and similarities among the Roman, British, and American empires. In this issue we publish the lecture of Hadas Lahav on the decline of Israel’s mini-empire.
We shall attempt to describe the stages of Israel’s shrinkage since it reached the peak of its power in 1967. The retreat began with the trauma of 1973, followed by the withdrawal from Sinai in 1980-82, the Oslo agreement of 1993, the escape from Lebanon in May 2000, and now the separation fence and disengagement from Gaza.
1. Dependence on the West
Israel has always tied its fate to imperialism, seeking to gain the support of Western states by serving their interests in the eastern Mediterranean. We see this already in the War of 1956. At the behest of France, Israel joined her and Britain, two declining empires, in war on Egypt, whose president, Gamal Abd al-Nasser, had nationalized the Suez Canal. Thus Israel placed itself at the service of Western imperial interests, acting as their bridgehead to the region.
David Ben Gurion, the country’s first prime minister, saw military-technological superiority as the key to the future. With more than a touch of megalomania, he turned a fledgling state no bigger than New Jersey into a nuclear power. Israel became the sixth member of the nuclear club, after the US, the Soviet Union, France, England and China. On the eve of the 1967 War, it already had the ability to explode a nuclear weapon. (Avner Cohen, Israel and the Bomb, Columbia University Press, 1998. P. 19 in the Hebrew version.)
The crucial question is not how Israel got the bomb, nor how it persuaded France to supply the nuclear fuel and at what price. The question that interests us is why: why did Israel want nukes in its closet? The usual answer goes like this: As a tiny Western intrusion in a “sea of Arabs,” and under the constant shadow of the Holocaust, Israel felt that it needed a deterrent, an “insurance policy” which it could always fall back on; nuclear capability would provide this. Yet that is, at best, only half the truth. Judging from Israel’s rejection of Arab peace overtures and its history of conquest, we may fill out the answer thus: In the 50’s and 60’s, as will be shown below, its leaders were unwilling to settle for the existing borders. They intended to carry out a policy of expansion. They wanted to be able to pursue this policy beneath a nuclear umbrella, so that it would be clear to the Arabs that there was no hope of resistance. The bomb was meant to ensure Israel’s strategic standing as a regional power and to bend its neighbors to its will.
The decision to develop nuclear weapons was among the most fateful ever taken by an Israeli government. Yet it happened in secret, far removed from democratic debate. This fact demonstrates the very limited nature of democracy in a colonialist state. The same holds for other crucial decisions that have determined the course of Israeli life. So it was, for example, with the establishment of settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, with the blowing up of the Osirac nuclear reactor in Iraq, and with the large-scale plan for conquering Lebanon all the way to Beirut.
Ben Gurion once declared, “Important is not what the Gentiles say, rather what the Jews do.” Yet the same Ben Gurion established the principle that in every confrontation with Arab states, Israel must have a Big Power standing behind it. Its economic and military dependence, first on France and later on the US, enabled it to dominate the region, but the same dependence has been the source of its weakness.
Israel’s lightning victory in June 1967 sent its stock soaring on the American exchange and won it the standing of a favored nation. Like Taiwan and South Korea, it then became part of the strategic network that the US established against the Soviet Union. Aside from an army with proved credentials, it had an additional advantage: there was no opposition to the US either within the Zionist establishment or on the popular level.
America’s deep involvement, however, in all facets of Israeli life, and especially in the economy, has nurtured an absolute dependence on Uncle Sam. Yet Israeli and American interests do not always coincide. In the course of the decades, as Israel’s international standing has been shaken, and as internal splits have riven it, it has been forced to bow more deeply before Washington’s dictates.
For example, a few hours before the outbreak of the 1973 War, Israel learned it was about to be attacked. Why didn’t it launch a pre-emptive strike against the Egyptian and Syrian air forces, as in 1967? Answer: it feared that the US would think it had started the war and would impose sanctions on it. (Thus Uri Bar-Yosef, Hatzofeh Hanirdam, Zmora Beitan, 2001, p. 344, soon to be released in English as The Watchman Fell Asleep: The Surprise Of Yom Kippur And Its Sources [Suny Series in Israeli Studies].)
Or another example: In response to American demands during the Lebanon War of 1982, Israeli PM Menahem Begin had to forgo assassinating the PLO’s leaders and allow its fighters to leave Beirut for Tunis. Israel also had to forgo a treaty with the Lebanese government, because the US understood that Lebanon could not make peace with Israel and still remain part of the Arab world. Washington’s aim was to stabilize the Lebanese government, based on most of the country’s ethnic groups, as part of a strategic axis against the Soviet Union within the Arab world. (Shimon Shiffer, Kadur Sheleg [Snowball], The Story Behind the Lebanon War, Yediot Aharonot Press, 1984, pp. 138-39 [Hebrew].)
A third example: In the Gulf War of 1991, two important precedents were established. First, although Iraqi scuds fell on Israel’s cities, the US forbade it to respond militarily. Never before had Israel absorbed an attack on its civilians without reacting. Second, all its military might, including atom bombs, were good for nothing when the US vetoed their use.
2. Retreat from “Greater Israel”
How has Israel related to its borders? Contrary to widespread belief, the pre-state leadership never accepted the borders specified by the United Nations Partition Plan of 1947. Likewise, after the formation of the state, the leaders refused to regard the armistice lines of 1949 as final. Many in the nation’s establishment considered them disastrous. They “cannot serve as permanent borders,” said Yigal Allon after the 1967 War. “Despite their length they lack all strategic value, and returning to them would be like re-entering a trap.” (Quoted in Yeruham Cohen, The Allon Plan, Ha-Kibbutz ha Me’uhad, 1972, p. 32 [Hebrew].)
Most Israeli leaders viewed the ’67 War as the correction of a historical injustice, not as a springboard for negotiations to determine permanent borders and normalize relations with the neighbors.
Until the War of 1973, Israel refused to bargain about permanent borders. The leadership of Mapai, which governed in those years, believed the existing borders would be subject to “correction” by military means. It rejected various probes and signals from the Arab states, which indicated a readiness to accept some form of peace agreement. Recently Ronen Bergman revealed that in 1966 Meir Amit, then chief of the Mossad, had formulated an offer to Egypt (including the cessation of Israel’s nuclear development) – there had even been contacts with a personage close to Nasser – but the Israeli government had shot the initiative down. (“Kakh Hukhmatz ha-Shalom Erev Sheshet ha-Yamim” [“Thus the chance for peace was missed on the eve of the Six-day War”], Yediot Aharonot, Weekend supplement, June 3, 2005.)
Israel’s rejection of all the post-1967 political efforts to resolve the conflict cost it a heavy price. After each such rejection, the Arab states raised their demands.
The blow that fell on Israel in 1973 revealed that it could not cow the Arab states into submission. Thus it had to open itself to the option of negotiations. The Camp David Accords of 1978 established a precedent. Israel retreated to the international border with Egypt, ceding Sinai. It tried to retain a tiny section at Taba, but arbitrators awarded even this to Cairo. From that moment on, no other Arab state would agree to get back less than all the land Israel had occupied. So it was in the retreat from Lebanon in May 2000, when Israel relinquished everything it had conquered in that country. So too the Syrians insist on regaining the Lake of Galilee’s northeastern shore, which they had controlled until 1967. Given the weakness of the Palestinian leadership, it is impossible to predict whether a future Palestinian state will retrieve all the occupied land, but it will be disgraced if it fails where others succeeded.
In April 2002, the Second Intifada forced Israel to shelve the Oslo Accords and re-conquer the Territories. PM Ariel Sharon, who had long opposed the separation wall, reversed his position and came out in favor. The wall acknowledges, in practice, the existence of the Green Line, that is, the pre-1967 border (which had completely disappeared from Israeli maps). True, its course sometimes departs from this, taking in swaths of Palestinian land in order to keep this or that settlement on the “Israeli” side. Nevertheless, partition is here. Israeli soldiers who grew up believing that Nablus, Jenin and Hebron are part of their State now confront this division. Israel’s government is quick to assert, of course, that the wall is for security and lacks all political significance with regard to the establishment of a national border.
3. Retreat from settler-colonialism
The notion that the Occupied Territories belong to the liberated motherland was translated, on the ground, into a settlement-enterprise that long ago passed the point of no return. Contrary to widespread belief, Gush Emunim (pron. goosh, the Bloc of the Faithful, discussed in Challenge 88) did not initiate this movement. It was the Labor Party that did so, ruling (under the name “Ma’arakh”) during the first decade after the 1967 War. From within Labor’s ranks came the Allon Plan, whose concept went like this: “When conditions ripen for a comprehensive solution, it is vital that as many Jews as possible should already be living in settlements along the borders that Israel needs. Every settlement-presence will be taken into account when the day for negotiations arrives.” (Cohen, The Allon Plan, op. cit., p. 139.) But Labor’s deeper, archaic-biblical sympathies took it beyond geopolitics. In 1968 it founded and funded Kiryat Arba on the eastern edge of Hebron. In the mid-1970’s it permitted five Gush Emunim outposts in the northern West Bank, the biblical heartland. Moshe Dayan, the Labor Defense Minister in 1967, described the tingle he felt in his bones on hearing the names of biblical cities like Shiloh, Bethel, Tekoa and Anatoth. (Moshe Dayan, Milestones, Yediot Aharonot Press, 1976, p. 491 [Hebrew].)
The relationship to Gush Emunim shows the consensus shared by all Zionist parties with regard to the settlement-enterprise. The Gush has been the dominant factor in the Territories ever since it entered public consciousness by its Purim festivities at Sebastia in 1975. These messianic gangs succeeded in winning the sympathy and support not just of the political establishment but of many in the cultural establishment as well, including composer Naomi Shemer (“Jerusalem of Gold”) and poet Natan Alterman. Such leading lights gave Gush Emunim the public legitimacy that it needed in order to carry out its illegal tactics. “Even the leader of the [leftist] Mapam, Yaakov Hazan, said of them: ‘They aren’t fascists, rather they’re religious youngsters who believe in the rightness of their cause. They believe in the way of settlement just as the members of ha-Shomer ha-Tsa’ir [the “Young Guard” that founded many kibbutzim – HL] believed in their way during the 1920’s.’” (Quoted in Akiva Eldar and Idit Zertal, Adonei Haaretz [Lords of the Land], Kinneret-Zmora Beitan, 2004, p. 289 [Hebrew].) For their part, the settlers were happy to develop their image as “new pioneers” – not robbers of land.
All this has changed. In the early 90’s, we shall see below, Israeli policy makers faced a choice: to continue the settlement-project, which (ever since the first Intifada) was alienating Israel from the rest of the world, or to tamp that project down and meld with the movement of the Western powers toward globalization. They chose the latter course. On the ground this choice has meant a retrenchment with the aim of preserving and expanding the bigger settlement blocs, accompanied by a willingness to forgo useless, isolated settlements. That is the aim of the present Disengagement Plan: to strengthen Israel’s hold on the West Bank blocs while at the same time gaining favor with the US and the rest of the world.
To the hard core of the settlers, however, the motive for the settlement-project was and is religious. In their minds, the project belongs to God. And so we see a rupture, for the first time, between the retreating colonialist state and those whom it “sent forth,” its erstwhile “pioneers,” in whose minds the only legitimate boundaries are biblical.
4. Limitation on warfare
Ever since its founding, Israel has viewed war as a means of redrawing its borders and revising the map of the Middle East. In 1956 it used it in alliance with foreign powers, and in 1967 it used war again to correct the “historical injustice” of the 1949 lines. Its victory in ’67 encouraged the annexationists, who believed that every future military confrontation would improve Israel’s position in negotiations. According to Moshe Dayan, all the proposals aired in Israel’s government during the first week after the war, “were based without exception on the assumption – unrealistic, to my mind – that in the postwar situation, Israel could…determine its borders… as it wished, as well as the future of the Palestinian Arabs that had come under its control.” (Dayan, Milestones, op. cit., p. 488.)
The victory gave the army demigod status in a society that lived by the gun. Soldiers were adored. The military displays on Independence Day were the jewel in the crown of Israeli culture. “Our situation was never better,” declared the politicians in the summer of 1973, and Dayan proclaimed: “We can say today that the basic claim of the Arabs will not stand and will not remain. Gaza will not be Egyptian, the Golan will not be Syrian, Jerusalem will not be Arab, and a Palestinian state will not arise.” (Ibid., p. 229.)
The irresponsibility of Israel’s leaders after the victory of 1967 was evident in the ease with which they rejected the political option. The “kitchen cabinet” of PM Golda Meir, on the eve of the 1973 War, consisted of herself, Moshe Dayan and Yisrael Galili. They had a choice, writes Uri Bar-Yosef, “between a very promising political option, which for starters offered Israel almost all it could hope for in a political settlement with the Arabs, and the alternative of war, toward which, the three reckoned, Israel was indeed advancing. They did not so much as discuss the matter. … The behavior of the three may be explained, in part, by their confidence that even if war should break out, the IDF would win, and Israel would come to the negotiating table with stronger cards.” (Uri Bar-Yosef, Hatzofeh Hanirdam, op. cit., p. 179.)
War did break out, shaking Israeli society to the roots. There was utter loss of confidence in the leadership, which had failed to foresee the disaster. Four years later the electorate ousted the Labor Party for the first time, installing the Likud under Menahem Begin. But Israel’s newly exposed vulnerability had its effect: Begin chose the political option. For the first time ever, Israel entered negotiations with an Arab state, Egypt. The result was the retreat from Sinai.
In The New Middle East (Steimatzky 1993, p. 52), Shimon Peres claims that the War of 1973 could have been the last and that the Lebanon War of 1982 threw the process off track. Is this so? Was Lebanon a mistake, a swindle by a crazy defense minister, an anomaly in Israeli military policy? We don’t think so.
Although his government had signed a peace accord with Egypt and pulled out of Sinai, Begin never gave up the dream of Greater Israel. After his re-election in 1981, he undertook to eliminate the Palestinian problem by military means. In August of that year he appointed the belligerent Sharon as Defense Minister. In the Lebanon War, which he started in June 1982, Begin let loose his blind hatred for the Palestinians, whom he dubbed “two-legged animals” and mortal enemies of the Jewish people.
When we try to understand Israel’s logic in initiating the Lebanon War, we need take international conditions into account. One year earlier Ronald Reagan had replaced Jimmy Carter in the White House. Reagan started a Crusade against the Soviet Union that was meant to wipe out the disgrace of Vietnam. Begin sensed a new opportunity. He set off for America and presented Reagan with a proposal of his own: to erase Israel’s disgrace of 1973 by establishing a new order in Lebanon. Reagan’s concept was that Israel should take part in blocking Soviet advances in the Middle East. To this end it would do no harm to hurt the PLO a bit and teach Syria a lesson. The sole American concern, at that stage, was that the Lebanon War should not break out until Israel completed its withdrawal from Sinai on April 25, 1982. And so it went. The war started shortly after the withdrawal from Sinai but before the Lebanese elections, set for August. One purpose, in Israel’s view, was to liberate the Lebanese from PLO intimidation, so that they would be free to elect Bashir Gemayel, a Christian, to the presidency. Lebanon, Begin believed, would then make peace as Egypt had done.
Many joined the Israeli Chief of Staff at the time, Raphael Eitan, in viewing the Lebanon War as “the battle for the Land of Israel.” By eliminating the PLO in that country, Israel would ensure its control “back home” over the West Bank and Gaza for ever.
But something went awry. What had been touted as a 48-hour operation got stuck. America, the world, and above all the Israeli army and public, although ready to support a quick, surgical strike, had difficulty swallowing the government’s two-month pounding of Beirut, with thousands of civilian casualties, which culminated in a massacre at the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila.
The Israeli consensus was shattered. The deep fissure caused by this war brought forth, for the first time here, the phenomenon of conscientious objection. Anti-war demonstrations reached unprecedented proportions. It was now clear that Israel had nothing to gain on Lebanese soil. Israel pulled back, clinging to a narrow “Security Zone” in southern Lebanon: total withdrawal would signify that the empire was shrinking. In May 2000, PM Ehud Barak finally made the pullout complete.
The Lebanon War closed Israel’s military options in the foreseeable future. The retreat from Sinai had brought the quid pro quo of peace with Egypt. From Lebanon, in contrast, Israel returned empty-handed.
5. Since Lebanon, damage control
After the expulsion of the PLO to Tunis during the Lebanon War, the weight of the Palestinian problem shifted to the Occupied Territories.
In December 1987, facing dead-end Occupation and the stubbornness of the Likud government under Yitzhak Shamir, the Palestinians launched the first Intifada. The relative weakness of the PLO opened the way to a new voice, which was not just military: the voice of the Palestinian people in the Territories. Israel found itself confronting a problem for which it had no technical solutions: a struggle with a whole people. The Zionist leadership was again caught unprepared. The revolt shifted the main battlefield from external fronts such as Egypt or Lebanon to the back yard. “The longer the uprising continued, the more deeply a thought penetrated into the consciousness of many Israelis: that the country was returning in fact to the initial lines of the conflict with the Palestinians, to the very first stages, which had preceded even the War of Independence – to a struggle over the most basic issues.” (Ze’ev Schiff and Ehud Ya’ari, Intifada, Schocken, 1990, p. 325 [Hebrew].)
Israelis began to sense that the rug was being pulled out from under them. The Americans, for their part, concluded that the time had come for a political process. With the Soviet Union gone, they had nothing more to fear from a Palestinian state. After the Gulf War, they convened the Madrid Conference. As the 1992 elections approached and Shamir appeared immoveable, Washington threw its support behind Labor’s Yitzhak Rabin. Under pressure of the changes wrought by the Intifada, Rabin was prepared to break the taboo against recognizing the PLO.
The outcome was the Oslo Agreement. It did not, however, contain the basis for resolving the conflict. Although there was readiness for compromise on the Palestinian side, Israel again preferred a tactical maneuver. The settlements were left in place. Instead of sovereignty, the Palestinians got a puppet regime which was supposed to help Israel make the switch from direct occupation to neocolonialism.
On the Israeli side, nonetheless, Oslo caused a deep crisis. An abyss opened up between the believers in Greater Israel and the supporters of compromise. In early 1994, Baruch Goldstein single-handedly derailed the Accords by massacring worshipers at a mosque in Hebron. The climax came in late 1995, when a fanatical right-winger murdered Rabin.
Strangely, the assassination strengthened the right-wing. The Likud came to power under Binyamin Netanyahu. Although Labor’s Ehud Barak replaced him in 1999, his term was brief. To the vast majority of Palestinians, Oslo had brought only disappointment and hunger. The agreement had lost the support of the “street” even before Yasser Arafat went to Camp David. He knew that for want of public backing he could not sign. Soon after the talks collapsed, a second Intifada broke out. This time, though, it was not a popular uprising, rather a violent rebellion led by Hamas, using a method to which Israel had no military answer: the suicide bomber. The Likud again came to power, this time under Ariel Sharon, and adopted a policy first put forth by Labor: utter separation from the Palestinians.
Meanwhile, another kind of war has developed: the war of population growth. What will Israel do, when in another ten or twenty years more Arabs than Jews will be living between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean? How will it be able to go on ruling a population that does not want it? How, in such circumstances, will it be able to go on claiming to be both Jewish and democratic?
6. The Writing is on the Wall
In 1967 it seemed that Israel’s military power would enable it to avoid further confrontations. Events have punctured this illusion. We now know that the ’67 victories had no strategic value. They have only postponed the basic problem: the conflict between Zionism and the Palestinian people. Each tactical victory has been followed by a strategic setback. The 1967 War led to the rise of a stronger PLO, independent of the Arab states. The Lebanon War of 1982 was intended to eliminate this PLO, but its exile to Tunis merely shifted the center of struggle from outside to inside, breeding the first Intifada. Israel sought to end that Intifada by means of the Oslo Agreement, but again it opted for a tactical gain, erecting (instead of a truly sovereign state) a puppet regime. Palestinian disappointment and rage burst forth as the Second Intifada. This has engendered the Disengagement Plan, which is again an attempt to postpone a solution – by unilaterally separating from the 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza while doggedly clinging to most of the West Bank settlements.
Viewing the situation in the large, we see that the conflict no longer has the form of a confrontation between nation-states. Israel’s struggle is presently twofold: with the civilian Palestinian population and with itself. Internal discord puts the country’s existence in question. Adding to this is a deep economic crisis, accompanied by the dismantlement of the welfare state.
The second Intifada laid to rest Israel’s dream of continuing the Occupation by a neo-colonialist system. On the other hand, it remains unwilling to permit the formation of a viable Palestinian state. What then to do? One seeks quick fixes, miracle cures.
One such cure is the separation wall, which demonstrates, as said, that the Green Line exists. Another is the plan to disengage from Gaza, which breaks the taboo against dismantling settlements.
As a result of the new reality, the Israeli political map has undergone quiet transformation. The two major parties, Likud and Labor, have understood that international, economic and social realities do not permit the nation to continue behaving as a superpower. While Labor has shunted off leftists such as Yossi Beilin and Yael Dayan, the Likud has neutralized its hard-liners. The two sides of the Israeli establishment, left and right, are coupling to bring about the birth of disengagement.
In this uniting of forces among Israel’s elite, globalization plays an important role. “The project of peace became possible after this elite, in the 1990’s, realized that it was better to merge with the processes of economic globalization than to continue the neo-Zionist project of settlement and of oppressing the Palestinians.” (Yizhar Be’er, Book supplement to Haaretz, June 1, 2005, reviewing Uri Ram, Ha-globalizatia shel Yisrael [The Globalization of Israel − McWorld in Tel Aviv, Jihad in Jerusalem], Resling, 2005 [Hebrew].) The McWorld people defeated the “Jihadists” from Jerusalem, namely the Israeli right-wingers. The latter have become an archaic minority, still dreaming about the Complete Land of Israel. The McWorldists, hailing from the Left and the Right, form a hybrid creature, whose program consists of No’s in two directions: “No,” they say, to an independent, viable Palestinian state, and “No” to the Complete Land of Israel. They busy themselves with quenching fires for survival’s sake, taking care not to look hard at the day after disengagement.
Against the backdrop of this political and ideological vacuum, Israelis have begun to ask themselves, Where did we go wrong? Haim Yavin, the veteran news broadcaster (Israel’s “Cronkite”), has done a five-part series excoriating the settlers; he would prefer, he says, to visit Hebron with a visa. Historian Tom Segev concludes that the 1967 War was avoidable. “More and more Israelis,” he writes, “see it as a perpetual source of sorrow.” (Haaretz June 8, 2005.) And pop-singer Arik Einstein chants, “The land of my birth is going to the dogs.”
The outgoing Chief of Staff, Moshe Ya’alon, expressed the feeling of many: “Not Iran, not Syria, and not Iraq. …The external threat to our existence comes from the Palestinians… The combination of terrorism and demography, along with our own question marks about the rightness of our way, together constitute a recipe for a situation where, in the end, there won’t be a Jewish state here.” (HaaretzWeekend Supplement, June 3, 2005.)
Are we on our way to a third Intifada, as Ya’alon warns, or will Israel finally understand that it cannot go on as an occupying power? Will it finally begin drawing permanent borders? For it is clear, at last, that neither side in the conflict can win by armed force. Much depends on events that take place far from Jerusalem – in Baghdad, for instance. The existence of Israel depends on that of the American empire. The weakening of America’s global position must serve as a warning light to the Israeli mini-empire. It is a liability of empires, however, that they tend to lose touch with reality until the roof falls in.