Israel Letter: The New Trap

—Jerusalem, early October


The recent Sinai agreement was negotiated in an atmosphere of growing confusion that is new and disturbing for Israelis. Although the economic recession has led to a sharp rise in emigration—some estimates range as high as 20,000 a year during 1974 and 1975—there is no feeling of pessimism about Israel’s being destroyed. Most Israelis still accept the endless rounds of reserve duty, the tedious vigilance against terror, and their bitter isolation from other countries as the price of survival, which they take for granted.

What is more deeply worrying are the visible signs of uncertainty among the Israelis about the goals of their extraordinary staying power. The reassuring conviction of the last eight years that there was a broad consensus about national purposes has been put in doubt. 1 So long as there seemed nothing more to contend with than unyielding Arab, enmity, typified by the Khartoum Resolution of 1967, the popular slogan ein breira (“there is no choice”) was comforting, if macabre. Now that Israelis face some real choices they must also face up to their internal divisions.

Writing in the daily Ma’ariv just before Kissinger’s arrival, the Hebrew University philosopher Shlomo Avineri revealed some of the ideological turmoil lurking behind what often appear to be merely tactical issues. Zionism, he argued, was intended to liberate and revive not Jewish lands but Jewish people. What was significant was Avineri’s evident sense of urgency that this elementary principle must now be reasserted and defended. For the prospect of withdrawal from the occupied territories is bringing to the surface a central but long-neglected question: Is merely producing more Jewish power an end in itself?

Particularly since the war of 1967 Israeli leaders have assumed with moral certainty that the efficient use of force is the key to survival—not only strategically but culturally. The military became glamorous, its leaders uncritically revered, and some of the more fanatical right-wing commanders of pre-1948 Zionism became approved folk heroes.2 More important, the occupation of the Golan Heights, the West Bank, and especially the Old City of Jerusalem seemed to provide not only the tangible guarantee but also the symbolic vindication of the Zionist project. Even Israel’s paper currency has begun to depict different views of the Old City’s walls; the portraits of workers, scientists, and poets are being discarded.

This policy of encouraging, or tolerating, various kinds of Jewish settlement in these conquered territories has engendered a cult of the land, a spiritual élan heavily laden with vulgarized religious mysticism and messianic righteousness. And such sentiments have become much more decisive in Israel’s politics than any strategic value the settlements may have. Many young Israelis have been schooled in continual war and lack the political sophistication of older generations: as one talks to them, and observes their vehement demonstrations, one realizes that withdrawal from these territories would now mean repudiating the heroic destiny which they see as justifying all their sacrifices.

In its most strident form,…

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