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Israel: The Tragedy of Victory

The bitter losses suffered in the Yom Kippur War remade attitudes in Israel toward the Arabs. Now even the Palestinians could no longer be dismissed. Acts of terrorism, such as the massacre of Israeli athletes at the Olympic Games in Munich and the bloody attack on a school in Maalot, both in 1972, horrified Israelis, but they also changed the image of the Palestinians from hapless adversaries to people to be feared.

And yet the basic legacy of the Six Day War remained. Since 1956, as I have said, it had been widely believed in Israel that what the country wins in war it usually loses at the diplomatic table. In 1956, General Dayan had marched through the Sinai in one hundred hours only to be pushed back by the diplomats. The Yom Kippur War of 1973 was further “proof” of this proposition. No one had tried to stop that war while the Israelis were losing. The Americans and the Russians enforced an armistice and saved the Egyptians from total defeat only after General Sharon had succeeded in crossing the canal into Africa. The only time that Israel had not been done out of the fruits of victory—so many, if not most, Israelis thought—was in 1967, when the military success had been swift and complete.

The ultimate military result of the victory in June of 1967 was the war in Lebanon, which began fifteen years later almost to the day, in June 1982. Begin called the invasion a “war of choice,” and not one that was waged for immediate defensive needs. General Ariel Sharon who was the minister of defense, went to war over the objection of most of his general staff, and without fully briefing the cabinet, in pursuit of a “grand design”: to establish a Christian-dominated government in Lebanon which would depend on the Jewish state for its survival; to weaken Syria; and to sweep the Palestinians in Lebanon into Jordan, where they would create such disorder that the Hashemite dynasty would fall and Jordan would become “Palestine,” finally absorbing the inhabitants of the West Bank. Sharon seems to have sold all of this to Begin piecemeal, on the promise that it would be a short and cheap war which would produce grandiose results. It was to be a replay of the glorious days of June 1967.

The enchantment of the memory of 1967 was such that Sharon, a brilliant combat commander, completely missed the difference between tank maneuvers in open territory, in which great battles could be won in a few hours, and the grinding, interminable demands of street fighting in a sprawling city like Beirut. He understood even less that the attempt to reenact the Six Day War in Lebanon in 1982 was predestined to fail, for both political and moral reasons. In Israel and in the Western world, the events of 1967 had been perceived as a defensive action. The war of 1982 was seen, with nearly the same unanimity, as an attempt to end the Palestinian problem through force—and never mind what might happen to the Palestinians as they fled before their enemies, the Christian Lebanese and the Israelis. Sharon and Begin had learned the wrong lesson from the Six Day War. There was something parvenu about the attempt to shoot down Palestinian nationalism by an incursion into Lebanon. The power that had been acquired in 1967 was now being flaunted, and misused, in a cause which the nations on which Israel depended would not accept.

For the Jewish world generally, the most striking effect of the Six Day War was a religious one. Before the war the official rabbinate in Israel had declared that the creation of the state was “the first root of the Messianic redemption.” This formula is the climactic assertion of the prayer for the State of Israel that is recited at Sabbath and holiday services in most of Israel’s synagogues—but until 1967 it remained a prayer and not a call to action. There was only a small group of activist Messianic believers in Israel in those early years. They were mostly associated with the yeshiva, or school for Talmudic study, which was led by Zvi Yehudah Kook, whose father, Abraham Isaac Kook, late Chief Rabbi of the Holy Land, had believed that the First World War was the prophesied war of Gog and Magog and that the Zionist venture was the beginning of the Messianic era. His son and the young men who studied at the Kook yeshiva were certain in the 1960s that the biblical borders of the land of Israel would somehow soon be returned to Jewish control. When this happened in June 1967, a small band of religious Messianists were transformed from impractical dreamers to armed prophets. They were going to bring the “end of days” now, and others began to join them.

Almost immediately, these Messianists succeeded in transforming the religious Zionist parties, and not only in Israel. Until 1967, the religious Zionists had been on the defensive; they had fought to preserve an enclave for religion in the state of Israel. They needed money for their educational institutions, and they wanted to establish Orthodox Jewish practice as the law of the land, at the very least in such matters as marriage, divorce, and conversion. The religious Zionists had achieved these limited goals through a long-standing political alliance with the Labor Zionists. The State of Israel was run, during its first thirty years, by secular, pragmatic social democrats, almost all of whom, from Ben-Gurion to Golda Meir, never crossed a synagogue door; but these nonbelievers guaranteed the religious minority their limited but considerable enclave in the Jewish state in order to be sure of their support in coalition governments.

The armed prophets who appeared in 1967 very quickly chased out the older, quietist leadership of religious Zionism. The political leader of this young guard was Zevulun Hammer, who was then a firebrand—though he is now, as minister of religion in Israel’s coalition cabinet, considered too moderate by his former associates and followers. The official leader of the religious Zionists, Dr. Yosef Burg, ceased being a moderate, at least in public: he moved very far toward accepting the proposition that these were Messianic times and that the commandment of this hour was to reunite the holy soil of Judea and Samaria with the rest of the Promised Land.

The religious parties have split and resplit in the last twenty years. It is true that their proportion of the vote in Israeli elections has not risen but has remained static at something under 15 percent. Nonetheless, in their new form as radical Messianists, the religious parties have become a far greater force in Israeli politics than they used to be. The near-equal division of forces between Labor and Likud has made all these smaller parties more important. Each of the two main blocs has continued to court them as possible partners in a “narrow” coalition. Shimon Peres seems now to have given up the hope that the religious parties might return to their “historic pact” with Labor, but the radical Messianists have succeeded in moving Israeli politics to the right. So long as Labor had hope of enticing the religious groups back into an alliance it effectively postponed and avoided the question of exchanging territories for peace. Meanwhile, more and more “facts on the ground” have been created on the West Bank by settlements, control of land and water, and integration with the Israeli state apparatus. Meron Benvenisti may well be right that such developments seem irreversible. If so a settlement with the Palestinians has been made immensely more difficult.

There is no way of knowing whether more modest policies following the Six Day War would have produced a better result for Israel, for the Jews of the world, and for peace in the region. As it is, the results have been ambiguous when they are not discouraging. True, some Palestinians on the West Bank and a few Palestinian leaders have said they accept the principle of the partition of Palestine, which they utterly rejected before and immediately after 1967. Some say that they are now ready to settle with Israel for a state in the West Bank and to accept that such a state be circumscribed by near total disarmament, so that it should not threaten Israel. These moderates, however, are not now likely to produce such an offer from the Arab side. But even if they could, the power of the right wing in Israel has grown sufficiently so that a deal of this kind, which would not have been conceivable without the victory of 1967 and would have been accepted gladly in May of that year, is no longer acceptable to Israel’s internal factions. Boldness and intransigence are depicted by the right-wingers as the sole legitimate heirs of those glorious days. Did not Menachem Begin win the election of 1981 by proclaiming himself to be the leader of the “national camp,” thus relegating all of those who were more moderate to the semitreasonable fringes?

There is an even more painful truth: An attempt by Israel to settle with the Palestinians in a compromise requiring the return of most, not even of all, of the West Bank would undoubtedly lead to civil disobedience, and worse. This would happen not only in the name of ultranationalism and religious Messianism; a deep undercurrent in Israeli life would cling to Hayim Yahil’s conviction that holding on to the territories is the debt that the present owes to the heroes of 1967.

Having lived through this period, much of it in Israel and mostly in the United States, I believe that the Six Day War was inevitable, and not because Nasser had closed the straits of Tiran, thus providing Israel with a reason that was valid in international law to resort to arms. The Jewish state could not regard itself as validly in existence until it had, at least once, perceived itself to be defying the world. Unfortunately, even tragically, this new power has been used deplorably. That the Arabs would have no choice but to abjectly sue for peace was a complete misconception. Only the Egyptians, who had lost both the Suez Canal and their oil fields in the Sinai, had been severely damaged in 1967. They found ways of redressing the balance through a diplomatic settlement, but not before they had damaged Israel by going to war. The rest of Israel’s Arab opponents could wait, and they have done so. Israel has chosen to respond by becoming America’s “strategic ally” against the Soviet Union, in the so far correct belief that its major ally would not push it with any seriousness toward negotiation with the Arabs.

Every suggestion that has been made in the last decade for imaginative diplomacy for peace has been vetoed in Israel, although Israeli military leaders such as General Yehoshafat Harkabi and General Aharon Yariv have argued for years that Israeli withdrawal from the main occupied territories could be negotiated in ways compatible with Israeli security. (This was the view I heard expressed several times in the mid-1970s when I lectured at Israel’s army war college.) A de facto coalition of right-wing ideologues and of Labor hard-liners continues to feel, as Golda Meir did, that peace is something that Israel will confer on the Arabs, on its terms, as an act of largesse. It is this immodesty, this exaggeration of power, that is the underside of the shining glory of 1967.

Still, it is worth emphasizing that during the twenty years since the Six Day War, the Arabs have sinned against peace more than Israel. Had they taken up Levi Eshkol’s offer in 1967, they could have had a settlement far more favorable than any that they are likely to get now. The signals from Arab moderates in recent years have again and again been rejected by Arab hard-liners, who have used terrorism as a way of announcing that they are not ready for any version of a peaceful settlement.

To a sad and unsettling degree, Arabs and Israelis have become mirror images of each other. In each of the camps, it is seen as advantageous in internal politics to block movements toward peace. In early April Vice Premier Peres went to Spain on yet another of many trips in search of backing for a peace conference; en route, he was denounced by Prime Minister Shamir as a fool for whose failure Shamir prayed. In late April Yasir Arafat paid for a show of unity by the PLO at its meeting in Algiers by breaking the PLO’s link with Jordan and announcing the continuation of “armed struggle” against Israel and its installations abroad.

And yet, sinful though the Arabs have been, blaming them does not diminish Israel’s burdens, for it needs peace more than the Arabs do. Israel has now become an American dependency, because it cannot maintain both its standard of living and the state of war without at least $3 billion of American aid annually. Israel’s society has been altered, and distorted, by its being an occupying power; as the Palestinians on the West Bank become ever more numerous and more restless, Israel is in danger of becoming the Belfast of the Middle East. A more frenetic exercise of power cannot solve these mounting problems. Israel has no intelligent choice but to pursue peace.

It is easy to forgive a people which has had only twenty years to change its sense of itself from victim to victor. Unfortunately, the twentieth century has given Jews, and everybody else, very little time to absorb change. The tragedy of the last twenty years is that the new Jewish power has not been more open to the counsels of moderation.

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