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Israel and the End of Zionism

Benyamin Netanyahu.
Benyamin Netanyahu.; drawing by David Levine


In the seclusion of a cardiac clinic outside Vienna, a few months before he died there in 1904, Theodor Herzl, the father of secular Jewish nationalism, set down his thoughts on the Zionist movement he had founded in 1896. It would undoubtedly triumph, he thought. In fifty years’ time, at the very latest, there would be a Jewish state. In an ironic aside, he added, “Don’t commit any follies while I’m dead.”

At that early stage, “Zionism” was not yet appropriated by regressive nationalists or transformed by religious fundamentalists into a messianic goal. Nor was it as yet challenged by Palestinian nationalists, Islamic fundamentalists, or terrorists. “Zionism” was simply a fancier term for “Jewish nationalism.” Like other European movements of national liberation—the Czech, the Irish, the Italian, the Polish—it was a child of the Enlightenment and the ideas of the French Revolution. It called for the separation of Church and State. Its immediate aim was to provide persecuted Jews with a safe haven that would be recognized in international law, a National Home established through peaceful means.

It is tempting today to look back on those early years with wonder but also with some irony, and perhaps some bitterness. Instead of safety there was ceaseless war. History or, if you like, ideology invariably defeats or overshoots our aims by realizing them in a radically different form, or only partially, or too well.

In the years after Herzl’s death, there was, of course, no shortage of folly among his followers, or of critics to point it out. The first Zionists ignored or belittled the presence of another people in the land they were trying to repossess after an absence of almost two millennia. The political imagination, like the imagination of the explorer, often invents its own geography. The early Zionists suffered from the common Eurocentric illusion that territories outside Europe were in a state of political vacuum. They took it for granted that the native population of Palestine would willingly assimilate with the Jewish newcomers; at the very least they would welcome the arrival of the Jews as promoting their own economic prosperity.

The Zionists were fervently, and at great sacrifice, pursuing a national, social, and cultural renaissance in their ancient homeland; they were blind to the possibility that the Palestinians might entertain similar hopes for themselves. It is always difficult for one people to understand the nationalism of another. Hindsight makes all this sound unbelievable today, but the fact is that there was little evidence of Arab nationalism before 1908 and none at all of a specific Arab-Palestinian variety. Before 1918, few if any of the Jewish settlers ever contemplated the possibility that Arabs and Jews might clash one day in bloody battle as Germans and French did, for almost a century, over Alsace-Lorraine, or as Catholics and Protestants still do in Northern Ireland.

This early innocence ended in the 1920s, following the first civic disturbances in Palestine. After this rude awakening, arguments proliferated about how to achieve peace and reconciliation. The liberal and secular tradition prevailed. To meet the Arabs of Palestine halfway, David Ben-Gurion in 1924 favored a bi-national state. Echoing a famous line in The Brothers Karamazov, he asserted that the Zionists had “no right whatsoever to deprive a single Arab child even if through this deprivation we shall realize our aims.” There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of this sentiment at that time. Others proposed limits on Jewish immigration. Unfortunately, all such compromise solutions, including several schemes to partition the country, were rejected by the Arabs.

In the resultant deadlock, in the early Forties, Hannah Arendt went further than most critics and declared the entire Zionist enterprise a tragic miscarriage because of the failure to achieve a peaceful modus vivendi in Palestine between Arabs and Jews. Two decades later, Jacob Talmon, another prominent historian of nationalism, pondered the same question. He too was disturbed by the seemingly irreversible move to all-out war. But he concluded that even though the Jews might have acted more wisely or more tactfully in detail, in style and tone, it would not have made much difference in the final analysis. The same could not be said about the Arabs, Talmon thought. By adopting an attitude of absolute and total intransigence, the Arabs had reduced the Jews’ alternatives to two: either give up their aspirations—this would have seemed quite unthinkable in those years, immediately after the Nazi Holocaust—or build the National Home in the face of Arab opposition. Since no give-and-take was possible and even modest forms of Zionism based on limited immigration and limited settlement invariably met with maximum Arab resistance, there was no choice, Talmon wrote, but to aim at maximum results with maximum strength.

It was after the Six-Day War of 1967 that the view of Zionism as a secular liberation movement, in the liberal European tradition, was first seriously challenged in Israel by aroused nationalists and religious fundamentalists. The nationalists—they were by no means confined to the traditional political right wing—spoke of “manifest destiny” and believed that might was right. Even though more than a million Palestinians lived in the newly occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, Israel, they said, was justified in suppressing their national rights. Israel was said to have a valid legal and “historic” claim to the entire territory west of the River Jordan—and to much else besides. Settling this territory was, in the words of General Ariel Sharon and other spokesmen of the new nationalism, the “Zionist answer” to Arab enmity. The religious fundamentalists euphorically shared this view. They knew exactly what borders God and Abraham had agreed upon in the Bronze Age and claimed they could hear the footsteps of the messiah that heralded the End of Days. Settling the newly occupied territories was a meta-political, divinely ordained task.

The 1967 war was the great turning point in Israel’s view of itself and in its relationship with its neighbors. The victory in that war astounded public opinion abroad; at home it closed many political minds. The Israelis ignored Abba Eban’s advice to be “generous” victors. The war had given them more secure borders. It had also given them the bargaining chips they had lacked before. For the first time since independence in 1948, Israel could have traded land for peace. This opportunity, we now know, was missed. Few things can be as intellectually debilitating as a great victory. “Nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won,” Wellington wrote from the field of Waterloo.

The painful impact of this early missed opportunity still overshadows everything. Underlying it is the tragic tendency of large parts of Israeli society to reinterpret its tradition in the harsh terms of an integralist or religious state ideology still known under the old name “Zionism.” The tragedy reached a particularly grim point last May when, in a mixture of aroused “Zionist” tribalism and religion, power politics, cynicism, and inertia, the Likud was voted back into power. The Likud version of “Zionism” once again became a stumbling block to peace. This happened at the moment when it seemed that liberal, secular Zionism, as originally conceived, had successfully achieved all or almost all of its stated purposes. We still don’t know what effects this tragedy will have on what has been, until now, an open society, a democracy. It would have been difficult, even in the best of circumstances, for Israeli democracy to survive a rigid “state ideology.” Those Frenchmen in 1848 who did not give up in time on “la révolution” helped clear the ground for Napoleon III. As Karl Kraus warned, in the final analysis every “ideology” gravitates toward war.


Last May, an Israeli government, even though it had signed a historic accord with the Palestinians, even though it had achieved formal peace with Jordan and established diplomatic relations with Morocco, Tunisia, and the Gulf States, was narrowly defeated by a coalition of right-wing nationalists and religious fundamentalists. That same government had also, largely because of its peace initiatives, set in motion an economic boom unprecedented in the history of the country.

Before the election, it would have seemed that Israel’s hundred-year-old struggle to exist was almost over. It had successfully broken out of its isolation in the region, in the third world, and in Eastern Europe. It had been able to establish strong diplomatic and trade relations with India, China, and dozens of other countries. The last vestiges of a fifty-year-old Arab economic boycott, direct and indirect, were successfully removed. Moreover Israel was said to be the strongest, most effective military power between France and India. True, Israel was still part of a volatile, unstable region, often said to be a “jungle.” Yet Israel was not a helpless little creature in this jungle, but a leopard or a well-trained lion. It possessed an extremely efficient military machine composed of energetic and highly committed men and women. It relied on a nuclear deterrent and sophisticated intermediate-range delivery systems. It was a regional mini-power in close alliance with the United States and other leading powers in Europe (Germany) and the Near East (Turkey).

The end of the cold war had improved Israel’s strategic position in the regional power game. The collapse of the Soviet Union had deprived Israel’s adversaries of the war arsenals and political support of a superpower. There were still clashes and setbacks but the general trend seemed fairly steady. The “peace process” was said to be irreversible. Syria was the last neighboring state still officially at war with Israel. But the remaining issues with Syria were no longer charged, in Syrian eyes, by seemingly insurmountable psychological, conceptual, or even metaphysical problems. The remaining issues with Syria were the more “normal” ones among neighboring states: over borders and the distribution of water resources.

The conflict with the Palestinians, too, was no longer the zero-sum game it had been for so long. Israel and the PLO had recognized each other. Rabin was the first Israeli prime minister with the courage to remind Israelis that they were not alone in The Land, there was another nation there. For this blasphemy he was assassinated a year later. His murder was a “religious” murder. It was committed with the monstrous innocence and sincerity of the true believer. The killer had been trained by fanatic rabbis. As far as he was concerned, he had pulled the trigger on their behalf.

Rabin and Peres were reconciled to the idea that the Palestinians would eventually establish their own independent state even as the Israelis had established theirs. This cannot be said of the new administration headed by Benyamin Netanyahu. On the contrary, the idea of Palestinian independence is clearly anathema to him. Netanyahu keeps saying that he will honor all international agreements made by the previous government. He also makes it plain that he considers the Oslo agreement a grievous, if not criminal, mistake. The most he seems ready to grant the Palestinians is a form of very limited local autonomy in some two or three dozen Bantustan-style enclaves, on less than 10 percent of occupied territory, surrounded by ever-growing Israeli settlements established on expropriated Palestinian land.

In his election campaign, Netanyahu—prodded by his American political adviser Arthur Finkelstein—had promised “Peace” but with “Security.” Four months later, there was considerably less security and certainly less peace than before. Netanyahu undermined both with his hostile rhetoric and rash, intemperate acts, taken in disregard of his defense and foreign ministers, the army general staff, and the security services. They had warned him against the recent opening of the Herodian Tunnel under the Muslim quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. In this and other acts, Netanyahu aroused a degree of anger in Jordan, Egypt, and among the Palestinians that had not been seen in more than a decade. Israeli soldiers and Palestinian policemen were shooting at one another. The peace process seemed suspended. For the first time since the 1967 war, Israeli tanks were dug into battle positions on the outskirts of Palestinian towns. A new dynamic of conflict was set in motion. It will require immense skills and efforts to reverse it once again.

Before all these terrible events took place, there was terror, but there was also hope. Acts of terror were painful; yet they were not the threat to Israel’s existence previously posed by the hostility of the neighboring Arab states. Most Arab governments were ready to combat international terror jointly with Israel. Yasser Arafat’s newly formed security forces were actively collaborating with Israeli security forces against Islamic and other Palestinian terrorist groups. Freud once remarked that it was easier to establish bonds of sympathy between two parties as long as there was a third they could hate.

On both sides of the great chasms that had divided Israel and its Arab neighbors for almost a century, the passions were cooling. New generations were working to find reconciling formulas. I would not say they found many, but they had found a few.

This in itself was new. In the past, Arab rejection had been total. Their rejection seemed at times almost metaphysical. It went so far as to denounce the simplest human contacts. Arab threats bordered on the genocidal. Israelis who had witnessed or fought in one, or in two or three, of the Arab-Israeli wars—there were at least five full-sized wars and endless skirmishes in between—were still overwhelmed by memories of those days, and by the fears resulting from them. The fears were real. Otherwise the Peres government would not have been defeated in 1996 by half a percentage point. Years of conflict had left sediments of hatred, paranoia, brutality, and tribalism. Many were finding it emotionally difficult to adapt to the new realities. Even as Israel seemed more powerful than ever before, many Israelis still felt, or were manipulated to feel, vulnerable and weak. Memory of the Nazi Holocaust remained a national trauma. Some had argued in recent years that it was time to begin to cure the wound instead of only administering to it. But this did not happen. On the contrary, memory was sometimes crudely manipulated and made into a political instrument (as when the late Menachem Begin compared Arafat to Hitler). It was often difficult to distinguish between memory and propaganda.

There was also a widespread feeling of being all too often at the mercy of blind forces. Parallels with Bosnia or Northern Ireland or Algeria easily came to mind. As in Bosnia and Ireland there was a confluence of ancient resentments, ethnic prejudice, hate-mongering, and political demagoguery, the same explosive mixture of nationalism and religion. In William Butler Yeats’s well-known words:

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned…

The tide is still high. There is still reason to think that in the end it will ebb. Terror never wins. But it puts societies to a severe test. Last May, over 50 percent of Israeli voters failed that test, which was, perhaps, more taxing than most. Buses filled with innocent passengers had been blown up by suicide-bombers in central Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Worshipers in a mosque had been massacred by a doctor, an observant orthodox Jew. Cities in northern Israel had been shelled by Islamic terrorists from across the Lebanese frontier. Nor did Israel’s retaliatory execution of the fundamentalist bomb expert Abu Ayash or Israel’s air attacks across the Lebanese border, often launched for reasons of domestic politics, have any success in restoring peace along that border. Protract a mistake long enough and the worst warnings become self-fulfilling.

Those who witnessed these events and certainly those who have paid their human or material price will continue to argue over them as Arendt and Talmon did forty or fifty years ago. Many people applauded the historic accord between Israel and the PLO, and the famous handshake on the White House lawn three years ago. Nonetheless, some felt they had reason to worry and even to say at the time, “Marvelous, but it’s late—let us hope it isn’t yet too late!” Even during those jubilant days some inevitably went on asking: Could it have been done at a lower price? Couldn’t there have been an agreement earlier? What were the chances missed? How real were they in the minds of those who rejected or ignored them or were simply unable to grasp them? What opportunities for making peace were there after 1948? After 1967? Or 1973? Were there none? Which, if any, were missed by conscious design, ignorance, or miscalculation?

Of miscalculation, there was no lack on both sides. The worst miscalculation by the Palestinians was their failure to accept the 1947 UN partition resolution. If they had done so, they could have had an independent Palestinian state, one considerably larger than the region they are claiming today. Thirty years later that folly was compounded by their violent rejection of the “autonomy” (“national” autonomy, as it was called) offered them within the frame of the US-sponsored Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty in 1978. Autonomy was offered as an interim solution, pending new negotiations and possibly a referendum on the final status of the agreement after five years. If the Palestinians had accepted this interim plan and set up an autonomous government, I think it is fair to say that by now they would have an independent Palestinian state side by side with Israel, and at peace. The thirteen American colonies started out with much less. The offer of “autonomy” was made before the powerful rise in recent years of Islamic fundamentalism, and before the large influx of militant Israeli settlers into the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. A couple of years ago I asked Yasser Arafat why he had rejected that offer. “Wouldn’t you have had an independent state by now?” I asked. All he could answer was to say very pointedly: “For your information, nothing was offered personally to me.”1

On the Israeli side, which is my main concern here, I would name three equally disastrous miscalculations or delusions. Before I list them I must emphasize that they were committed by people who only twenty or twenty-five years earlier had suffered perhaps the worst disaster to hit an ethnic or religious group in modern history. But it must also be emphasized that the Palestinians, in the bitterness of their dispersion after 1948, were also a people traumatized and disoriented by their loss and defeat at the hand of the victorious Jews. I am not comparing the two disasters. But they affected the attitudes and judgments and national identities on both sides.

Of three disastrous Israeli miscalculations, the first was the delusion that dominated Israeli military opinion in the aftermath of the lightning victory of 1967: that in the foreseeable future, say the next fifty years, the Arabs were left with no real military option. As to long-term strategy in the light of this assumption, only the leaders of the Likud opposition had a clear idea of their aims and interests: they wanted the whole of the historic Eretz Israel even if this meant they would not have peace. Such clarity of purpose was rarely if ever shown by the ruling Labor Party led by Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan. Their long-term plans were never clear even to themselves.

The second miscalculation was a conviction, shared by nearly everybody in politics and the national press, that the national aspirations of the Palestinians could safely be overlooked. Golda Meir made her famously ignorant comment: “Who are the Palestinians? I am a Palestinian!” I once asked Moshe Dayan, “Can you really ignore the Palestinian wish for national self-determination?” He answered, “Why see a problem where there is none?” Like so many leaders in today’s world, Dayan, as defense minister, was accustomed to traveling by helicopter, unencumbered by traffic jams and other human impediments, and to viewing the world at a glance from high up, like a Homeric god. “How many Palestinians are there on the West Bank?” he asked. “A few small townships?” This was not a military problem for him.

Later on, during the years of the intifada, all the members of the governing coalition, including Rabin and Peres (who later changed their minds) and, of course, Prime Minister Shamir and Housing Minister Ariel Sharon, equally shared in the delusion that a democracy could crush, by force alone, a national uprising against colonial rule by stone-throwing youths. Mr. Netanyahu perhaps still believes that it can. At the time, it just could not be done. Neither by breaking bones, as Rabin proposed early in the intifada, nor by the expulsion of hundreds of militants. Not even by putting more than 10 percent of the adult male Palestinian population at various times in military prisons and detention camps. Prisons only produced more militants. The detention camps were political schools where a new generation of Palestinian leaders was formed; they now fill leading posts not only in the new Palestinian Authority and National Council, but in Hamas as well. Heavy casualties were inflicted on the insurgents, including many children, but to no avail. When feelings supplant rational thought in international relations, they tend to become the justification for brutality.

A third miscalculation was the attempt to preempt land-for-peace options by heavily settling the occupied Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights.

The settlements, in the opinion of most military experts, did not increase Israel’s security. On the contrary, during the Yom Kippur War the Golan Heights settlements imposed an additional burden that was very costly in human lives. Billions of dollars were invested by Labor governments in the occupied Sinai, and were written off after 1979, when the settlers were uprooted and the peninsula returned to Egypt as part of a peace agreement.

Today, some 300,000 settlers in the former West Bank and Gaza Strip and in East Jerusalem make up a powerful parliamentary lobby that fights any possible territorial concessions in exchange for peace. How many more billions will be written off when tens or hundreds of thousands of settlers lose their homes, livelihoods, and illusions as Israel withdraws from much of the West Bank and the Golan Heights, and possibly parts of East Jerusalem, as it must if it is to negotiate peace and co-existence?

Peace, at least with Egypt and Jordan, we now know, was a practical possibility from as early as 1971. It is true that immediately after the Six-Day War the Arab coalition at Khartoum proclaimed their famous three No’s: “No negotiations, no recognition, and no peace with Israel.” (Actually, there was a fourth, rarely cited “No” in Khartoum: no renunciation of the rights of the Palestinians.) But this rigid position soon changed in Egypt and Jordan. In 1971, UN mediator Gunnar Jarring addressed identical notes to the governments of Israel and Egypt. He asked President Sadat: Would Egypt be ready to conclude a peace treaty if Israel withdrew from occupied Egyptian territory? And he asked the Israelis whether they were ready to withdraw if Egypt made peace. Egypt’s answer was yes. Israel’s answer was no. Israel’s position at the time, announced by Dayan, was that the continued occupation of Sinai down to and including Sharm-el-Sheikh without peace was preferable to peace without Sharm-el-Sheikh.

US policy during those years was ambiguous, to say the least. US efforts to reconcile Israelis and Arabs were half-hearted. Immediately after the Six-Day War, Abba Eban informed the United States of a secret (“tentative”) Israeli cabinet decision to agree to withdraw from Egypt and Syria (though not from the Palestinian West Bank) in return for peace. An account of that meeting, in the form of a telegram marked “secret” from Secretary of State Dean Rusk in New York to the State Department and to President Johnson, was released last summer by the US government at the request of the New York Review.2 Despite repeated requests, the US government still refuses to release follow-up diplomatic papers that might show what, if anything, the US did to transmit this offer, and what replies it received. There remains a suspicion that it did little or nothing. During the Vietnam War, President Johnson was probably only too happy that its client in the Near East was bashing the clients of the Soviet Union. Israeli troops were stationed alongside the blocked Suez Canal. There was no American national interest in reopening the canal; on the contrary, as long as Soviet supply ships bound for North Viet-nam were forced to circumnavigate the African continent, the US may have been anxious to keep the Canal blocked.

The price for peace, at that time, was the evacuation of territory occupied in the 1967 war. Six months after telling the United States that it was ready to retreat from occupied Egyptian and Syrian territories in return for peace treaties, the Israeli cabinet formally withdrew this offer. The United States was not informed of this decision. The offer to withdraw may not have been serious in the first place—if it was, would Menachem Begin have voted for it in the Cabinet? A succession of later Israeli governments refused to relinquish any territory. Before the intifada, the occupation was working only too well and even more than paying for itself.3

Sinai was finally evacuated by the Begin government in 1979 in the expectation that this would grant Israel a free hand in the West Bank and on the Golan Heights. This proved an entirely vain hope. Think of the lives on both sides that might have been saved in two bloody wars, and during the intifada, if peace had been concluded earlier. Think of the human energies wasted for more than a generation on shortsighted settlement programs. Think of the false hopes that were generated, only to be crushed into cynicism, or worse, religious fanaticism and violence. Think of what might have been achieved had the billions poured into the shifting sands of Sinai, the Golan Heights, and the West Bank, been spent on more useful causes. The energies wasted there over the years might have produced large benefits for Israel and the neighboring countries for decades.

These are speculations, of course. I don’t mind raising them even though historians often refuse to do so. They believe that the lessons of history must be deduced from what has actually happened and not from what might have happened. But I dislike their pompous respect for something only because it actually happened. To consider what might have happened is equally important. Iffy questions continue to crop up, relentlessly, as a result of the opening of national archives. The alternative history that they offer is, of course, only a tentative hypothesis. I would argue that such hypotheses are, in a sense, necessary too. We go to archives not only to find out what happened but also to see if the alternatives were real in the eyes of those who rejected or overlooked or could not grasp them.

The best was perhaps never attainable. The worst could have been avoided. Only if we look at events in the frame and setting of these alternatives can our writing of history claim to be more than mere prose (often rather bad prose) and objectively true. Things did not necessarily happen as a sequence written in the stars. Events happened in the aftermath of the lightning victory in 1967. The famous Six Days it took to win that astounding victory assumed the near-mythic quality of the Six Days of Creation. Things happened after that great victory, decisions were made or not made, as a result of particular human traits, preferences, accidents, and other events that in themselves were not, so to speak, “necessary.” It might have been otherwise.


Nevertheless, as movements of national liberation usually go, Zionism seemed until recently, by and large, a success, or a relative success—if you take Zionism not as a theology (as Rabin’s assassin did) but as the secular liberation movement it originally was. In recent years it was beginning to achieve so many of its original—secular—aims that a case might now be made that as an ideology it has outlived its usefulness. Hence the frequent talk in Israel, recently, of “post-Zionism.” What has been a success was the attempt to give Jews a territory, a national homeland where, for better or for worse, they would be able to exercise a measure of political control over their own fate. They had lacked such control over the centuries, wherever they lived, in ghettos or as free men, always dependent on shifting moods of tolerance and persecution—nowhere as cruelly as in Nazi-occupied Europe during the Second World War.

The recent talk of “post-Zionism” also reflects a conviction that the continued predominance in law and official policy of a Zionist state ideology might be discriminatory in a country where one fifth of the population today is Arab. As a measure of, if you will, “affirmative action,” Zionism was useful during the formative years. Today it has become redundant. There is need to move ahead to a more Western, more pluralistic, less “ideological” form of patriotism and of citizenship. One looks with envy at the United States, where patriotism is centered on the Constitution; naturalization is conferred by a judge in a court of law; identity is defined politically and is based on law, not on history, culture, race, religion, nationality, or language.

If the task that the Zionists had set themselves is soon to be accomplished, it could be argued that as a form of “affirmative action” the Law of Return, too, has become redundant. The law poses serious problems anyway. In 1995, the minister in charge of immigrant absorption warned that unless the law is revised, eight or ten million potential “Jews” in remote places could qualify for repatriation and automatic citizenship; this includes nearly two million Falashmora in Ethiopia, some four million so-called Bene Menasse in Burma and India, and many others in Asia and Africa. Yet the country is already as crowded as Holland or Singapore. It is running out of space, clean air, and water.

One of the first who expounded on these themes was a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the philosopher Menachem Brinker. But the first self-styled “post-Zionist” was undoubtedly Ben-Gurion. Ben-Gurion claimed in 1951 that there was no more need for “Zionism” since an independent state had been established in which the majority of citizen were Jews. This, after all, had been the aim.

Thirty years after Ben-Gurion, Brinker went much further. He claimed that it was not only that the state had been established. Even the most ambitious task the “Zionists” had set themselves was being realized—the ingathering in Israel of a majority or near-majority of the Jewish people. For this reason, Brinker argued, Zionism would soon be “over.” Israel would enter a “post-Zionist” age. Exact figures are, of course, not yet available, but the spread of assimilation in the West and in the former Soviet Union suggests that most avowed Jews may already be living in Israel.

The spread of assimilation is often decried today by Jewish thinkers as a disaster—even as “another Holocaust.” What a perfect example this is of the power of metaphor over reality, even at the price of diminishing the Nazi Holocaust! Herzl and some of the other early Zionists would have hailed assimilation as a welcome byproduct of the Enlightenment. Zionism itself grew out of the Enlightenment’s emphasis on the promise of the future. It is true that an acute nostalgia for the past was inherent in all Romantic and nationalist thought. But in its essence Jewish nationalism was a new beginning rather than the sudden politicizing of an ancient religious bond. It was a risorgimento for Jews. Theologically, it was the great Jewish heresy of the nineteenth century. The religious establishment was vehemently opposed to it. Herzl spoke of the need to establish a National Home (not necessarily in Palestine, but one recognized in international law) for those Jews who were “unable or unwilling to assimilate.” The original formula was later narrowed to Palestine and refined to embrace the revival of Hebrew and a secular Jewish or Hebrew culture. These aims have certainly been achieved. Most early Zionists would have been content with considerably less. Later, their declared aim was broadened to bring about the repatriation to Israel of the majority of the Jews of the world. With 4.5 million Jews now living in Israel, this aim too, if not achieved already, should be accomplished soon.

Zionism was a part of the final wave of liberal European nationalism. It drew on thinkers as diverse as Fourier, Kropotkin, Herder, Mazzini, Herzen, Tolstoy—apostles of socialism, nationalism, and populism—together with their lesser-known Jewish counterparts, disciples and interpreters, Moses Hess, Leon Pinsker, Ben Yehuda, Ber Borochov, and A.D. Gordon. As a political trend, it was perhaps more European than Jewish. In one of his letters to Hannah Arendt, the German Zionist leader Kurt Blumenfeld said that Zionism was “Europe’s gift to its Jews.”

The early Zionists, of course, were of that species of revolutionaries who lived in their own world of radiant expectations. The leftists looked forward also to a perfectly just society. The rightists postulated the rebirth of the so-called “Muscle Jew.” All upheld the need for assimilation on a collective basis: to become like all other people and peoples. Assimilation, as they understood it, did not mean that one ceased to be oneself. They did not intend to slavishly abandon their historical or ethnic identity, but rather to shed only the uniquely religious identity Jews had insisted upon during the Middle Ages. Assimilation meant exchanging the absolute uniqueness of “a People that dwelleth alone” for the more relative or “normal” difference that existed between Frenchmen and Germans, or between Italians and Danes. In this sense the early Zionists (and the secular majority of Israel today) were following in the footsteps of Spinoza. Spinoza, too, rebelled against the medieval exclusiveness of Jewish life, when religion was the quasi-political law of a phantom state: those who observed rabbinic law were “patriots”; those who did not were “traitors.” The early Zionists were rebelling against this total medieval system, as they called for the Jewish people to become a more “normal” people, a “people like all other peoples.” In this, too, they were successful—perhaps too successful.

Israelis have, of course, never been as good or as awful as they are sometimes described. They were probably the first and so far the only predominantly Western people whose birth and formative years as a nation were accompanied by—and suffered from—a near-total exposure to the modern mass media. The process of history-making in the old-new land was so encumbered by the manufacture of stereotypes that it was often difficult to disentangle fact from fiction. Years after Leon Uris’s novel Exodus had made the transition from book to movie with all of its two-dimensional characters fully intact, many people continued to see Israel as a place where potential Einsteins and Freuds were playing chess in corner coffeehouses, and where others—when they were not draining swamps—were dancing the hora and making the desert bloom.

After the Six-Day War the stereotype collapsed into its opposite. David grew into Goliath. The hero was now the ruthless oppressor. It was still a cliché, however, and the cliché hardened over the years as Palestinian resistance mounted against the continued occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and became a self-fulfilling prophecy. A popular American news magazine recently coupled two clichés in describing Israel as the land of “money and brains.” I really wish that were true. Nevertheless, I would say that Israel’s true achievements are considerable. Contrary to the cliché, warfare is not one of them. While Israel retained an edge over its adversaries in every war, it has never been able to translate its military victories into political gain.

Let me sum up the five principal fields where achievements have been real:

First and foremost, despite half a century of near-permanent war, during which time the military prerogative had always been paramount, democracy was successfully preserved—as was a truly remarkable freedom of thought. Fifty years ago this was far from certain. Hannah Arendt was not alone in assuming that democracy could hardly survive where the military effort tied up so many human and material resources. But democracy did survive. And with it came an astounding degree of openness, with few attempts by Israelis to hide their faults from themselves and from others. (Unless Israel soon withdraws from the territories it occupied in 1967, this democracy is in danger of degenerating into apartheid for Palestinians and into a pre-Mandela South African- style democracy for Israelis.)

Second, an ancient language was rekindled from the ashes. In 1905, only five families in Palestine spoke Hebrew. Today, five or six million people speak the language; of these some two million are Palestinians. There have also been remarkable accomplishments in recent years in the arts, poetry, theater, music, and literature. Israel’s best Jewish writers, from the 1966 Nobel laureate S.Y. Agnon to Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua, Nathan Zach, and David Grossman, have been concerned with exposing the dark underside of “Zionism,” the gap, often half-tragic and half-comic, between what one had hoped for and what one had achieved. The trouble with the future—they all seem to be saying—is that it’s not what it used to be.

Third, a large number of frightened, demoralized refugees were given a new life, an identity. They had been harassed men and women who believed, not without reason, that without a country of your own, you have neither voice, nor rights, nor admission into the fellowship of peoples. You are, in Leon Pinsker’s words, the “bastards of humanity.”

Fourth, after decades of austerity, a thriving economy, with little, if any, unemployment and growth rates surpassed only by those of Southeast Asia, and an annual per-capita gross national product approaching that of England.

And finally, the beginnings of peace, not only with Egypt but with Jordan, too, and a first agreement with the Palestinians—the root cause, the very heart of the Hundred-Year War between Arabs and Jews. Or so it seemed only a few months ago.

Reconciliation with the Palestinians was not a sentimental or happy ending to a sad story of seemingly endless war. Certainly not as in one of those old Russian novels, where after long and bloody struggles, enemies fell into each other’s arms. The ending was messy and cantankerous and incomplete. The rhetoric was often atrocious. There was a lot of cursing in smoke-filled rooms. But the process was moving forward because, in the eyes of all sides, every possible alternative was seen as potentially much worse.

This, too, was new. For decades, the situation was never thought to be “ripe” for peace. It was always too early or too late. War followed war. After each act, as in a Shakespearean tragedy, the sides exchanged poisoned swords. The stage was littered with corpses. After the third or fourth act you felt like crying, “Wait a minute, where is the catharsis in this tragedy?” There never was a catharsis. As a parent in Israel you had a feeling that your children were given to you on loan. The disorienting abstractions of national and international political rhetoric had produced a kind of fatalism, a numbness. In the Arab countries, strategic thinking was paralyzed by a mixture of fear and disdain, and in Israel by an antiquated and dangerous notion of “secure borders”—antiquated because it ignored the changing nature of modern weapons-technology, and dangerous because it echoed the most lethal of all nineteenth-century myths in Europe, where no border was ever considered secure unless it made the other side feel so insecure that the next war was inevitable.

A theology of conflict evolved on this basis. In Arab theology, Israel was pictured as the spearhead of Western imperialism. The Israeli theology of conflict postulated the existence of an ingrained, peculiarly Arab form of anti-Semitism. Behind every Arab or Palestinian they saw an SS man. Nasser was another Hitler on the Nile. The conflict, it was said, was unlikely to be resolved because of its allegedly unique nature and for a variety of other reasons, psychological, conceptual, and religious. This too was eventually disproved. At first with Egypt, later with Morocco and Tunisia, then with Jordan, and most recently with some of the leading Gulf States. Finally, with the Palestinians.

It is interesting to reflect on the deeper reasons for this change. On the Palestinian side, the end of the cold war and the collapse of the Soviet Union were important factors. The basic change on the Israeli side—the recognition that the Palestinians also have a case—was not a victory of “Jewish ethics” over right-wing crypto-fascist thinking, as Peres was suggesting during the election campaign. Nor was it, in the words of Arafat, who echoed a well-known phrase by De Gaulle, a “peace of the brave.” It was a peace of the tired.

In the century-old Palestinian-Israeli conflict, exhaustion was the great peacemaker. Two national movements clashed for almost a century over the same piece of real estate. On both sides, people finally came around to realizing, simultaneously, that the only practical way out was to divide the real estate. I emphasize this simultaneity. There had been times in the past when the Jews favored partition (perhaps because they were weak) but the Palestinians were opposed (perhaps because they thought they were strong). Or vice versa. Timing was always of the essence and, until the Oslo agreement three years ago, the timing was never right.

Since Netanyahu’s election the timing is out of joint again. Netanyahu never made a secret of his opinion that the Oslo agreement was a sell-out to a pack of terrorists and murderers. Unlike Peres he did not offer to surrender occupied territory in return for peace.

It remains to be seen if the peace process can now be advanced by rhetoric alone or by muscle-flexing. I very much doubt it. In his first 100 days in office, perhaps deliberately, perhaps through inexperience, but with remarkable thoroughness, Netanyahu undid much—or nearly all—of what had been achieved in three years of reconciliation with the Palestinians. And, with a truly rare talent to botch and bungle nearly everything else he touched, he also damaged the economy, the capital market, tourism, the legal system, the stock exchange, relations with Jordan and Egypt, with the United States and Europe, and with his own party. Until President Clinton’s precipitous initiative in early October, there were moments when it seemed as though Israel was being sucked back into the black hole of history. Netanyahu had thrown Israel back by years. The rift with Egypt—worse still, with Jordan—was nearly complete. The newly established diplomatic relations with Morocco and Tunisia and trade relations with the Gulf States were frozen or completely suspended. Nevertheless, many people still believed that Netanyahu had no choice but to continue what was begun by his predecessors, and that Arafat had no choice either.

I don’t know about Arafat. I know that Netanyahu’s problem is not only with himself, but with his party as well. If he makes concessions to the Palestinians and the Syrians in order to make peace, he risks losing his party and his nationalist religious coalition partners. If he satisfies his party and his coalition partners, he risks losing the peace and facing a new war. He has tried to do both until now, with disastrous results. In his post-victory speech he made a great pitch about healing the deep rifts dividing the nation. But the rifts have only deepened. Those who thought—or hoped—that he would be a pragmatist clearly underestimated the strong ideological component in his political and intellectual makeup. Inexperience can be overcome in time. The dogmatic fixations of a lifetime are not easily or quickly shaken off. Abba Eban once said that it wasn’t that governments were constitutionally incapable of arriving at the right decision; the trouble, he said, was that they did so only as a matter of last resort. Let us hope this last resort, this last effort, will not come when it’s too late.

November 14, 1996

Eban said Israeli thinking “less crystalized” re West Bank. They were still working on basis two tendencies, two conceptions in goi [Government of Israel]. One tendency assumed that the Hashimite kingdom of Jordan would continue and that an agreed settlement on the basis of the demarcation line should be worked out. Another idea was that there should be some kind of association between the West Bank and Israel on the basis of autonomy and economic union. The difficulty with this latter approach, said Eban, was that it would push Hussein back across the Jordan River. Moreover, there were no international constitutional precedents for such an arrangement.

The secretary interposed by wondering whether there were not precedents on the basis of letting the people concerned decide. Eban replied that goi was trying to take soundings on the intelligence level.

  1. 1

    The New York Review, August 12, 1993, p. 24. 

  2. 2

    For an account that puts the matter in a more optimistic light, see Abba Eban: An Autobiography (Random House, 1977), pp. 435-436. In the single document the US government has released the following remarkable exchange concerning the future of the West Bank occurs: 

  3. 3

    As a colonial enterprise, the occupation was economically highly profitable for Israel. In one stroke it had enlarged the domestic market by almost 25 percent. With the tacit connivance of the Israeli trade unions, it provided industry and agriculture with a supply of cheap labor. The military administration of the territories curtailed all industrial development. The West Bank and Gaza were opened to all Israeli products. But West Bank agricultural and industrial goods were allowed into Israel proper only when they did not compete with Israeli produce.