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Israel: The Tragedy of Victory

Less than a month after the Six Day War, at the beginning of July 1967, I heard David Ben-Gurion speak at Beit Berl, the “think tank” of the Israeli Labor party. Ben-Gurion was, by then, no longer a member of the party which he had founded and he had even given up his seat in the Knesset, where he ended his political career, a faction of one. In June 1963 he had finally retired to Sde Boker, a rather primitive kibbutz on the edge of the desert in the Negev.

The Ben-Gurion who walked into the meeting had about him the air of a prophet who had walked out of his tent to die, but had paused on this last journey to tell us truths which the less farsighted could not see and which only a man possessed by the spirit would dare tell. He warned his listeners against the euphoria that had swept the Jewish world in the aftermath of the Six Day War. Ben-Gurion insisted that all of the territories that had been captured had to be given back, very quickly, for holding on to them would distort, and might ultimately destroy, the Jewish state. He made only one exception of consequence: the Israelis should not relinquish control of the whole of Jerusalem. Ben-Gurion’s most striking assertion that night was that he did not expect immediate peace with the Arabs; for its own inner health, he said, Israel needed only to give back the territories very soon in return for a workable set of armistice arrangements.

A reporter from Israel’s news service, ITIM, was present. A few short lines of the speech appeared the next day in the Israeli papers. What Ben-Gurion had to say about returning the territories, and his solemn warnings against being emotionally overwhelmed by victory, were read in Israel as only another one of the angry outbursts of the founding father, who had now become a public scold.

Israel went on to rejoice in its new power and its new sense of space; no longer could one drive the length of the country in four hours. Levi Eshkol, the prime minister of Israel, shortly after the war was over offered the Arabs the return of nearly all the territories, if they would recognize Israel and negotiate peace. The response of the Arab League at a meeting in Khartoum in November 1967 was three resounding noes: no recognition of Israel, no negotiation, and no peace. And yet most Israelis, and almost all of their friends, did not believe the Arabs. It seemed beyond doubt that the vanquished would soon realize how badly off they were, and would sue for peace. In such a negotiation, almost all Israelis thought that they would undoubtedly have the power to make themselves more secure by returning less than all of the territories that had been captured in the war.

Now, twenty years after the heroics of June 1967, Ben-Gurion’s speech at Beit Berl, his wrathful cry that the most glorious of Israel’s victories could turn out to be even more poisonous than defeat, has become my most vivid memory of Israel in 1967, when, along with hundreds of thousands of others, I visited the West Bank for the first time, drove freely through the Sinai, and even brought home as a souvenir from the Golan Heights a plate of instructions in Russian from the wreck of a Syrian tank. I am more and more persuaded that the old man I heard that night twenty years ago was more prophet than angry octogenarian. It would, I now believe, have been better had the Six Day War ended in a draw and not in a series of stunning victories. And yet the full effect of the war on Israel cannot be understood unless we begin with the important, even positive, changes that were the results of this victory. The euphoria of victory lasted for years, and not without cause. The Six Day War gave Israel, and the world Jewish community which rallied around it then as never before, something more important than victory or captured territory in which to take satisfaction. It gave the Jews, for the first time, a sense of power.

Throughout the centuries since the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70, the physical existence of the Jews has depended on the good will of others. In 1948, the Zionists proclaimed the State of Israel and defended it in a costly war (6,000 casualties out of a population then of 600,000), but its power was modest. In 1956 Israel went to war against Egypt, to end raids by fedayeen guerrillas into its territory from Gaza. This military campaign was coordinated with the British and the French, who had their own reasons for attacking Egypt; they wanted to regain control of the Suez Canal, which had been nationalized by Colonel Nasser. Despite military success, which took the Haganah all the way to the Suez Canal, the war went badly for Israel, at least emotionally. The British and the French withdrew under American pressure, and they hastened to disavow any connection with the Israelis. By February 1957 the Israelis were forced, by American and Soviet pressure, to go back to their original borders. Israel benefited from the protection of a United Nations force which was interposed on the border in Gaza, and the fedayeen raids ended. But the deeper lesson of this venture was that Israel’s valor was a minor factor in a world in which even middle-sized powers, such as Britain and France, seemed negligible.

During the next decade, between the withdrawal in 1957 and the war of June 1967, nothing happened to change Israel’s perception of itself as still a “Jewish” state, that is, a community which could do little according to its own will: the Americans and the Russians held the ultimate veto power. In 1967 Israel chose to go to war when Lyndon Johnson was suggesting yet another formula for “buying time,” when De Gaulle was denouncing the Israelis as aggressors, when the British were on the borderline between neutral and unfriendly, and when it was feared that the Russians might intervene to support their two major clients, then, in the Middle East, Egypt and Syria. Israel’s decision to go to war was an act of daring, and of faith in its power to complete the action before those who might veto it could intervene.

On June 12, 1967, when the fighting stopped on all fronts, Israel was, for the first time, the modern heir to David. It had slain visible Goliaths, and it had defied even larger giants which were lurking behind them. Even nonbelievers spoke of miracles. In a very deep sense, the exile of the Jews, which had begun with the destruction of the Temple in the year 70, ended in the Six Day War. This victory “cured” Jews of the shame of powerlessness. They were now admired among other nations, and they could admire themselves, as a people of valor, and of independence.

Israel and the Jews of the world were transformed after 1967 by the “normalcy” of power, but not entirely for the better. In the Diaspora, the most striking immediate expression of the new Jewish spirit was in the Soviet Union. A handful of dissidents had begun to agitate in the early 1960s for the right to emigrate to Israel, and they had been supported by a few small groups in the United States and in England. At least overtly, the State of Israel had not been at all involved in these efforts: it had diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union which it did not want to endanger. The success of Israel in the June 1967 war was incendiary; it made Jews believe that they could prevail against mighty powers. Everywhere, both inside and outside, Jews began to fight more boldly, and without apology, for the right to leave the Soviet Union.

The Soviet Union has had reasons of its own for allowing some 275,000 Jews to leave so far, such as its announced desire to get rid of some troublemakers and its continuing wish to get something from the West in return. Nonetheless, it is clear that the Soviets did not wake up one morning to decide suddenly to let some Jews out. This battle was undertaken and essentially won by Jews who had been moved by Israel’s victory in 1967.

But the bravery of those who have fought within the Soviet Union for emigration has been accompanied by some bravado; in the West there have been histrionics, and considerable political unwisdom, among the activists for Soviet Jewry. It is possible to date the moment when these leaders chose to overplay their hand. In 1974, the Soviet regime was eager to avoid the enactment by the American Congress of the Jackson-Vanick amendment which made favorable trade relations dependent on free Jewish emigration. Leonid Brezhnev offered a commitment of orderly and continuing emigration from the Soviet Union of 38,500 Jews a year, and a solution of the “hard cases.” By now, if this agreement had been fulfilled, over 500,000 Jews would have left the USSR. But Brezhnev’s offer was turned down by Jewish activists in Moscow and by leaders of the Soviet Jewry movement in the West. They were persuaded that more could be obtained by further humiliation of the Soviet Union.

This opinion seemed to be confirmed by the events of the next several years, for emigration continued in substantial numbers, and it even reached a high point of over fifty thousand in 1979. The Soviet government eventually gave up hope that the Jackson-Vanick amendment would be repealed and emigration has been painfully slow during the last several years. Recently, there has been some movement in the Jewish community toward a more moderate approach to relations with the Soviet Union, but these stirrings have already been denounced by no less a figure than Anatoly Shcharansky. There are Jews, who continue to conceive the movement for emigration as an ideological challenge through which they hope to break the Communist dictatorship in Soviet Russia. This may be a laudable objective, but it is certainly beyond the power of Jews, even those who think they are first cousins to the heroes of 1967. The immoderation of the movement on behalf of Soviet Jews has been the self-defeating underside of its courage.

The effects on the self-image and actions of American Jews have been equally striking—and just as ambiguous. In the first decade of Israel’s existence support of the state had largely been a private matter, an internal concern of the American Jewish community. The relatively modest contributions to Jewish fund raising were enough to help pay Israel’s deficit (especially because very large amounts of money were then coming from German reparations). The US government had made almost no contribution either to the budget or to the armed strength of Israel, and American Jews had not even thought of making a political fight for aid. When President Eisenhower insisted in the winter of 1956 that Israel had to back down during the Suez crisis, the leaders of American Jewish organizations preferred to counsel Israel to heed him rather than oppose the wishes of the leader of the United States.

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.

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.

  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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