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Israel: The Tragedy of Victory

Since 1967, despite the immediate and enormous outpouring of Jewish money, the need for economic and military support of Israel by the American government has become a prime political issue in the United States. It was made so by the organized Jewish community, which had no inhibitions about going public even during the turmoil and disarray of the Vietnam War years. It was not simply that the Arabs were less popular than they had been before, for on the evidence of all the polls their reputation, though not high, remained fairly stable throughout the 1960s and beyond. The change in American Jewish policy had something to do with the increasing power and self-confidence of Jews in American life; but it is undeniable that the worldwide acclaim for Israel in 1967 and thereafter added cubits to the stature of American Jews. The “Jewish lobby” was no longer spoken of in whispers, and its official leaders no longer pretended that they advanced their cause only by gentle persuasion.

This new forthrightness on behalf of Israel and, secondarily, on behalf of Soviet Jews, has brought Jews, as a community, more prominently into the American political process than they had ever been before. The Jewish lobby, particularly the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), has fought both Republican and Democrat administrations, not only on behalf of Israel but also against almost every attempt to do something for any of the Arab states.* Paradoxically, these very ethnic, parochial efforts by Jewish organizations have served to move their leaders into the main current of American politics. The Jewish lobby, especially when it has been most intransigent, has acquired a place among the forces with which even the most powerful American politicians must reckon; senators have good reason to believe that they risk their seats if they antagonize AIPAC and its allies, and similiar fears have been felt in the White House itself. The style of pro-Israel political advocacy in the United States has been determined by an exaggerated sense of power; suggestions of compromise are denounced by the lobby as weakness; only total support of the Israeli government of the moment—or sometimes of policies even more intransigent—is deemed to be “good for Jews.”

This expression of the post-1967 spirit has been clearest in the relations between Israel and the Diaspora. The American Jewish community cast itself very early for the role of chief priest of the temple of unqualified admiration of Israel. If Jews were now to be proud and unafraid everywhere, then Israel, which was the source of this pride, could not ever be seen as wrong. It was irrelevant that within Israel itself criticism had begun to rise as early as the speech by Ben-Gurion I had heard three weeks after the end of the Six Day War. Respected Labor party leaders such as Lova Eliav and Yitshak Ben-Aharon, who both served as secretary general of Histadrut, strongly argued that Israel could and should take the risks of withdrawal from the West Bank in order to achieve peace. American Jews did not read the Hebrew press, and those who quoted it to them were dismissed as the bearers of treasonable tidings from writers on the fringe of Israeli society. This American Jewish attitude should not be attributed, simplistically, as coming from new converts to Zionism, some of them prominent in neoconservative circles. It was a view that pervaded the Jewish community until well after the war in Lebanon, and its debacle has come only recently with the revelations of the Pollard spy case and the role of Israeli officials in the Iran-contra affair.

The result has been that successive governments of Israel knew that they had a “blank check” from organized American Jewish opinion, at the very least because unquestioning support of the Israeli government was seen in the United States as the necessary emotional base for the work of Jewish political activists and the fund-raisers. That American Jewish opinion should be open to the pluralism one finds among Israelis; that realistic, independent, and critical views of Israel would provide a better and more honest basis for relations between American Jews and the Israelis; and that such a relationship would be a much more solid, lasting, and self-respecting expression of Jewish pride—these ideas are only now becoming conceivable among organized American Jews. Perhaps twenty years, or more, is not too long a time to wait for emotions of pride to move from chest beating to civilized debate. But it has, in my view, been a costly period both for Israel and American Jews.

To turn now to the developments in Israel itself: In the first nineteen years of the existence of Israel, Menachem Begin was a figure on the fringe. In the 1950s he had threatened the negotiators of the reparations agreement with West Germany (and especially Nahum Goldman) with death. Before, in 1948, after the United Nations resolution establishing a Jewish state in international law, Begin had declared permanent “war” against the partition of Palestine. Until 1967 most Jews in Israel, and elsewhere, regarded such ultranationalist notions as absurd. After 1967 the rhetoric and the practice of aggressiveness, in the name of Jewish nationalist purpose, seemed ever less absurd to more and more Jews.

I found out that this transformation had begun in the most heartbreaking moments of my weeks in Israel right after the Six Day War when I visited a close friend, Dr. Hayim Yahil, an urbane and politically liberal diplomat, a former director general of Israel’s foreign office who had been a lifelong member of the Labor party, and who had lost a son in the battle of Jerusalem. He knew where the young man had fallen, but he had not been able to bring himself to go to that spot outside the wall of the Old City. I took him there in the early evening of my second day in Jerusalem. We stood at the side of the road, with buses going by, so that there was not even an instant of quiet, and together we said the kaddish. Much later that night, at home, after I had told him about Ben-Gurion’s speech, he answered: “Can we give back the land for which young men like my son died?”

Dr. Yahil had already taken the first steps to found the League for the Undivided Israel, of which he was chairman until his death a few years later. A major demand of this group was that Jewish settlements had to be extended into the West Bank. These efforts began in 1968. The Israeli army created farming units at strategic points in the valley of the Jordan. These were manned by soldiers doing national service; but soon there were unauthorized settlements as well. A handful of Messianic believers sneaked into Hebron in 1968, supposedly to celebrate Passover at the tomb of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They refused to budge, and the army protected them.

The government of Israel was then still in the hands of the Labor party, and it was to remain so until the election of 1977. The Labor politicians were unwilling to confront such unauthorized settlers. No settlement was ever removed by force until Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon were in office and reluctantly withdrew from Yamit in the northern Sinai in 1981, in order to comply with the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty.

The Labor politicians permitted a few illegal Jewish settlements on the West Bank because, so they asserted, the relatively small number of settlers would be a negligible obstacle to peace negotiations—but this reason was only part of the truth. The other, perhaps deeper, cause for the passivity of Labor was that many of its leaders had themselves been transformed by the Six Day War. When they were young, before they had acquired desks in Jerusalem and chauffeur-driven cars, most of the leaders of the Labor party had been among the founders of the kibbutzim in the 1920s and 1930s. As Ben-Gurion had shown by his move to the kibbutz of Sde Boker in 1963, the tradition of pioneering gave these Labor Zionists a strong and confident sense of identity and a claim on the right to govern. By the 1970s Israel had become a consumer society, and the children of the founding families were leaving the collective settlements. After the 1967 war, the only element in Israel that insisted on settling in places where Arabs might shoot at them was the right-wing, religious members of Gush Emunim (“the bloc of the faithful”). By now, of course, most of the settlements on the West Bank are bedroom communities for Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, but the earliest settlers there were full of ideological fervor, and they proclaimed they were carrying out a religious mission to reclaim the entire “land of Israel” for the Jews.

These settlers, who were so alien to the Labor Zionists in ideology and motivation, nonetheless reminded them of their youth when they stole by night into Arab areas to create new Jewish positions. As the years have gone by, the relationship of the Labor party to Hayim Yahil’s claim to “the undivided land of Israel” has thus become ever more ambiguous. The official position is that the Labor party is willing to trade “territories for peace,” but there is no map on which its many factions agree. The Labor party today contains representatives of the entire spectrum of Israeli opinion, from ultrahawks who are de facto annexationists to doves who agree with Ben-Gurion’s advice on withdrawal. Labor, which was in control of the government for the first decade after the Six Day War, did not resist the temptation of Israel’s newly won power. Levi Eshkol had intended to keep the captured territories much as they were before, with minimal interference by the occupying army, so that they could be bargaining chips for peace; but he died in 1969. His successors, Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin, had a much more grandiose vision of Israel’s new power. They allowed and sometimes encouraged more and more restrictive control of life in the occupied territories because they did not believe that the Arabs could ever rally enough counter-power to call Israel to account. The idea that the territories could be central to a bargain with the Arabs receded.

During the 1970s, the rhetoric about the Arabs was becoming ever more negative in Israel, and it was not limited to ultra-nationalists. Most Israelis were sure after 1967 that the Arabs were feckless blusterers and that Israel would always maintain intellectual and technological superiority. One can find evidence of this view in the Israeli press of the early 1970s, but it was, for me, most pointedly expressed in a meeting with Golda Meir in 1972, when, as prime minister of Israel, she was at the height of her reputation. That year a number of efforts were made to reopen the Suez Canal so that the oil tankers from Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the other states in the region would not have to go around Africa on their way to Europe. The benefit of this proposal to Egypt was that it would again have been receiving some hundreds of millions of dollars in income a year from the tolls of the canal. The benefit to Israel was that a reopened canal, even after an Israeli withdrawal of a few kilometers (while retaining the whole of the Sinai), would represent a de facto agreement by Egypt not to make war on Israel again. This offer was transmitted to the Israeli government through numerous channels. Historians still argue whether the proposal came to nothing because the Egyptians withdrew their support of the idea or because the Israelis were intransigent. When I, as one of the backdoor messengers, came to Golda Meir to tell her of the offer, she suggested that she need make no concessions to the Egyptians because they were schlemiels; the next year, on Yom Kippur Day, these schlemiels crossed the canal in force.

  1. *

    See the new book by Edward Tivnan, The Lobby: Jewish Political Power and American Foreign Policy (Simon and Schuster, 1987), which gives a careful account of AIPAC’s influence and activities.

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