Israelis did indeed feel innocent before 1967, but the feeling was due to ignorance and blindness. Ignorance, because they bought into the myth that the Palestinian refugees had left of their own accord. Blindness, because from 1948 until 1967 they hardly saw Palestinians. The 718,000 refugees lived elsewhere, while those in Israel remained—until 1966—under military rule. The War of 1967 removed the blindfold, and the ignorance was corrected in the 80’s and 90’s, but the old beliefs are deeply ingrained and continue to cast their spell.
Soon Israel will mark sixty years, none of which have been innocent. As time goes by, rather then striking deeper roots, the State appears more and more like a passing episode. It is today undergoing a thorough collapse of values, threatening basic concepts on which it depends.
One of these is the concept of Israel as “Jewish and democratic.” In those cradles of modern democracy, the United States and France, church and state are separate. The law guarantees no religious group the upper hand. Israel is different. Political Judaism, like political Islam, blurs the boundaries between religion and state.
In 1947 the United Nations attempted indeed to draw boundaries according to religion. That division, however, would still have left a sizeable Arab minority within the Jewish state: 397,000 Arabs and 538,000 Jews. Israel formally accepted the Partition Plan, although it pointedly refrained from accepting the borders proposed in it.1
The Palestinian people, native to this soil, refused the Plan. What sort of justice, they wondered, made them pay the price for what the Europeans had done to the Jews? The proposed UN borders divided the Palestinian homeland and the Palestinian people.
The apparent Palestinian resistance to the UN Plan gave Israel the excuse it needed. The War of 1948, not that of ’67, was the first war of Occupation. More exactly, it was a war of ethnic cleansing plus Occupation. Israel took 40% more land than the UN had allotted and ousted seven-eighths of the Palestinians from its state-in-the-making.
This Original Sin of 1948 has pursued the Jewish state like a nemesis. Palestinians call it the naqba, catastrophe. (Chaim Weizmann, Israel’s first president, gave voice to the general Israeli mood when he called it the nes, miracle.) The Palestinians’ insistence on their Right of Return is viewed by Israelis as a demand to abolish the Jewish state. And so is born a curious kind of democracy in the Middle East, a democracy that expels and separates, a democracy that cannot, in principle, include the Other without subjugating him.
In 1949, at Rhodes, Israel drew the armistice borders. Since then the fighting has never stopped, and the borders have expanded and contracted repeatedly: “Operation Kadesh,” the “Six Days,” “Attrition,” “Yom Kippur,” “Peace for Galilee,” “Defensive Shield,” and a year ago, the “second Lebanon War.” The enemy appears on various fronts at various times, but the war is forever.
Mother of all Wars
In 1990, Saddam Hussein said that if America invaded, the result would be the “mother of all wars,” meaning a great victory achieved through determination and righteousness. For Israelis the mother of all wars was 1967, when the country’s domain tripled in a mere six days. The legend of that war is part of their collective consciousness.
Forty years later, the ’67 victory seems Pyrrhic. In the first flush of triumph, however, the reigning view was that no peace agreement would be needed. Israel’s military power would guarantee an end to war. Moshe Dayan, then Defense Minister, made the point succinctly. He referred to an Egyptian town on the Straits of Tiran (straits that control Israel’s access to Asia): “Sharm al-Sheikh without peace is better than peace without Sharm al-Sheikh.”
Dayan’s statement reflected no policy change. The principle of perpetual war was adopted in 1948. If you establish a Jewish state by conquest and expulsion in an Arab region, you will have to maintain it by force. For ever. This truth had long been recognized. “If I were an Arab leader,” said David Ben Gurion, “I would never sign an agreement with Israel. It is normal; we have taken their country.” 2 The same perception lay behind the erection of the atomic reactor in Dimona. It also led Israel’s generals, who viewed 1948 as unfinished business, to press for war in 1967.
Occupation is addictive, and, like a drug, it undermines the Occupier. He is sapped of strength—first moral strength, then the strength to exist. Since 1967 Israel has not known the taste of victory, nor is it likely to know it again.
In 1973 came the Yom Kippur War, and the shame of that debacle has set the tone since. It was the background for the peace treaty with Egypt in 1979, in which Israel’s motives were far from pure. That treaty was meant to divide the Arab world and pave the way toward a new Middle East, pro-Israel and pro-American.
Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, hoping to wipe out the disgrace of 1973, restore its prestige and create new alliances. The land, it was thought (in the biblical phrase), “would have rest for forty years.” It did not rest a day. Israel had intended to finish the PLO and with it the Palestinian problem. In one respect it succeeded: the PLO withdrew to Tunisia (Israel got Hezbollah in its stead). But the PLO was not the only loser: another was the Israeli consensus, which until then had firmly supported the country’s wars. The true character of their government’s Realpolitik was exposed to Israelis in 1982. Soon the “new historians” appeared, who traced the same Realpolitikback to the origins of the State. The myth of innocence went down the drain.
So did Israel’s quasi-socialist economy. The cost of the war was a factor in causing three-digit inflation. The cure was a major economic overhaul in 1985, which resulted in massive privatization, huge social gaps and a consequent breakdown of Zionist solidarity. I shall discuss this shortly.
The defeat of the PLO in Lebanon did not end the Palestinian problem. Five years later, the Palestinians of the Occupied Territories made the first Intifada, which fired the imaginations of the world’s oppressed. This was not the kind of conflict for which Israel’s soldiers had trained. They faced no regular army. Instead, they encountered the descendants of 1948, the stone-throwing refugees of Deheisha and Balata. The instinctive reaction of the Defense Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, was “Break their bones!” Israeli soldiers broke them, but they could not break the people. After years of killing and imprisoning, the same Rabin, along with Shimon Peres, initiated the Oslo Accords.
Oslo was an attempt to co-opt the Palestinian leadership (in disarray after supporting Saddam). The PLO cashed its only chip, the recognition of Israel, while the latter yielded nothing on the major issues (statehood, refugees, Jerusalem, land and water). Instead, Israel doubled the size of its settlements and shut itself to Palestinian labor, whose dependence it had cultivated since 1967.
Oslo hitched the fate of the Palestinians to the American wagon. The agreement created a Palestinian Authority, which was soon exposed in its corruption and lost the trust of the people.
From Greater Israel to Glutted Israel
Forty years ago, when Nablus, Hebron and Jerusalem were “liberated,” the children of Israel, including many secularists and socialists, felt flooded with mystical feelings, as if Redemption had occurred. The idea of Greater Israel, including at last the biblical portions, swept through the populace. Liberated land should not, of course, be returned. The ruling Labor Party at once founded settlements in Gaza and the West Bank, although avoiding, for the most part, densely populated areas. In 1977, when the Likud came to power, Israel went into those areas too, intending to fulfill its Manifest Destiny. Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon planted dozens of settlements in the heart of the country, seeking to ensure that no one, in future, would ever be able to partition the land.
Since then, blood has covered blood. The oppression of the Palestinian people has known no limit. Hundreds of thousands have gone to prison, often without being charged. When the prisons filled up, tents were erected. Torture chambers have operated around the clock. The intent of these measures was to break the Palestinian will to freedom. Yet the enterprise failed. The Palestinians could not be broken, and destiny ceased to be manifest. Greater Israel became a trap for the Jewish state, a messianic delusion impossible to maintain.
In 2003 the settlers’ erstwhile champion, Ariel Sharon, announced a plan for unilateral disengagement from Gaza. The move was intended not to free the Palestinian people, rather to secure parts of the West Bank for Israel while creating four Bantustans (Gaza, West Bank North, West Bank South, and—in the event of a treaty—East Jerusalem Limited). In the short run, disengagement appeared to absolve Israel of responsibility for Gaza while turning the latter into the world’s biggest prison.
The idea of Greater Israel was by now in total eclipse. In its place appeared Mammon, disguised as neo-liberalism. Since the economic reform of the mid-80’s, Israel had been selling off public companies for peanuts, privatizing itself to death. Israel for the Jews became Israel for the Jewish rich.
Kadima, the ruling party founded by Sharon, represents the authentic Israel: a combination of Shimon Peres and Tzachi Hanegbi, Ehud Olmert and Haim Ramon. Corrupt and visionless, it lacks the will to shape a new lot for its citizens or neighbors. The country’s military leaders—once known for their courage, daring and honesty—are today suspected of cowardice, mendacity and careerism. Populist billionaires are courted by generals, artists and just plain folk. A country that refused to give up its conquests has divided itself into rich and poor. The government serves the rich, but the rich do not serve in turn. The world is their homeland. As fluid as capital, they have no commitment to a particular place. Land is real estate, and real estate is everywhere: in Thailand, Russia, New York or Buenos Aires. Mammon circles the planet in pursuit of the next business opp. And the poor? They are mobilized to sanctify the homeland with their blood.
Forty Years After
The country’s face has changed beyond recognition. The rich have gotten richer, the poor poorer, precisely in accordance with the code of the early 21st century. The poor peoples of the world, the Palestinians among them, remain behind. After forty years of Occupation, during which Israel flooded the markets of the occupied and exploited their manual labor, we find—no wonder—Territories without an economy, weak, divided and chaotic.
Meanwhile, Israeli society is fed up with the role of occupier. It wants to turn its back on the Palestinians and curl up into its bubble. Life sans Occupation is more comfortable. It can even be “fun,” as Ehud Olmert promised during his successful election campaign. But fun bears a price: you would have to let the neighbor live. No Israeli leader has learned that fact.
The forty years have also changed the Palestinian people. Lacking a realistic political leadership, caught in an internal conflict between the fundamentalism of Hamas and the corruption of Fatah, this people has likewise lost its identity and its way.
And now, amid chaos, when nothing is left to divide, the most conservative of American presidents has a vision: the Palestinians have a right to their own state beside Israel! Yet no one is dancing in the streets of Ramallah. The Palestinians know too well that on the ruins left by Israel, behind the wall, they have no chance of building a state, rather at best a few Bantustans dependent on the kindness of the European Union. In this respect, forty years later, the Occupation goes on, despite all attempts to mask it.
Palestinian society is in deep crisis. So is Israeli society: the crisis is different in form but similar in essence. It is a crisis of identity. Historically, we know, a crisis like this can give birth to new political and social currents that can cope with difficult questions. We live in the shadow of capitalism, which benefits a privileged minority at the expense of everyone else. The Occupation is one means among others by which capital oppresses its subjects. The new Israel, privatized, is proof that the vision of profit has trumped the Zionist ideal of historical justice for the Jewish people. This is no accident. Justice for one group cannot come at the price of injustice for another. For this reason, the solution must be an ideology that unites the oppressed, one that crosses national and religious borders, focusing on the right of the working majority. This can be an alternative to separation barriers. If they take their lot in their own hands, Jewish and Arab workers in Israel, as well as Palestinians in the Territories, will find a common language, one that will enable them to live in full cooperation, whether in one state or in two with permeable borders. Only then will there be true democracy here, a democracy that unifies people and recognizes their equality.