The upcoming Israeli elections mark a possible turning point in the Mideast with more moderate Israelis challenging Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-line land grab of Palestinian territory. But Netanyahu’s approach is not the deviation from Israel’s history that some claim, says Lawrence Davidson.
By Lawrence Davidson
There is trepidation in the Zionist ranks over the March 2015 elections for a new Knesset or parliament. It seems that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu got angry at his more “liberal” coalition partners Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid because of their opposition to the proposed Israel-equals-a-Jewish-state bill.
In essence, Netanyahu fired them, sacrificing the government’s majority in the Knesset and necessitating the upcoming elections. Some observers believe that the election represents something of a crossroads for the Jewish state.
Roger Cohen, a New York Times columnist wrote a headline piece in the Sunday Review section of the newspaper on Dec. 21, 2014. It was entitled “What Will Israel Become?” and tells us that “uneasiness inhabits Israel.”
Quoting the Israeli writer Amos Oz, Cohen explains further, “there is a growing sense that Israel is becoming an isolated ghetto, which is exactly what the founding fathers and mothers hoped to leave behind them forever when they created the state of Israel.”
Cohen believes that it is Netanyahu’s settlement policy in the West Bank and East Jerusalem that is driving Israeli isolation
Cohen hopes that the upcoming elections will turn out Netanyahu and his allies, all of whom want to expand settlements. What he wants in their place is a coalition of more “moderate” parties which will halt expansion and revive the possibility of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Mr. Cohen isn’t alone. He quotes Ofer Kenig, an Israeli political analyst with the Israel Democracy Institute, as declaring “this [upcoming] election is a critical juncture. We have to choose between being a Zionist and liberal nation or turning into an ethnocentric, nationalist country. I am concerned about the direction in which this delicate democracy is heading.”
Recasting Israeli History
There is something decidedly odd about these concerns. They’re odd because they recast Israel as having originally been something other than “ethnocentric and nationalist.” Or, to put it another way, that most of those founding “fathers and mothers” were something other than the recognizable historical precursors of Benjamin Netanyahu and his expansionist passions.
Liberal Zionists who claim otherwise are essentially ignoring the sort of racist nationalist worldview they are affiliated with. However, Zionist history is too well documented to escape the truth. This is particularly the case in the recorded attitudes that launched the Israeli settlement of the Occupied Territories (OT).
In 1967, just after conquering the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Golan Heights, it was not just the rightwing Likudniks who were mad for expansion. It was also the allegedly moderate leftwing Laborites.
Indeed, the great majority of Israeli Jews, regardless of political orientation or level of religiosity, considered the conquest of the OT as a positive historic achievement. Then as now, for the more strident of them, retaining the territories was seen as synonymous with patriotism.
Tom Segev, in his book 1967: Israel, the War, and the Year That Transformed the Middle East (from which the following quotes and data are taken), gives many of the details. In a post-war 1967 poll “nine out of ten [Israelis] replied that the Old City [of Jerusalem] should not be given back; 85 percent said the Golan Heights should not be returned; 73 percent thought that Gaza should not be relinquished; 71 percent said the West Bank should not be given back a smaller majority, 52 percent, said the Sinai Peninsula should not be given back either. Labor Party member Levi Eshkol, who was the prime minister at that time, described the conquests as a “miracle on top of a miracle.”
On a post-conquest tour of the Jordan Valley, Eshkol stopped repeatedly to examine the soil, to “feel it, smell it, taste it,” so enamored was he of being in possession of the area. A group of prominent Israeli writers of the day, representing both the political right and the left, published “a proclamation for a Greater Israel” and declared that “we are bound to loyalty, to the integrity of our land and no government in Israel has the right to give up this integrity.”
As we will see, this is the sentiment that now holds the future of all Israelis hostage.
It was in this national frame of mind that the settlement movement began, launched by what longtime Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Abba Eban described as a reborn Israel – a better place than had existed before the 1967 war. So convinced were the Israelis (and Zionists generally) that a new and greater era had begun that almost no one foresaw the dire consequences of “loyalty” to the land.
And those who did see problems never really considered reversing course because of them. For instance, Theodor Meron, the Israeli foreign ministry’s legal counsel in 1967, told the government that settlement of the conquered lands was illegal under international law. He then suggested that settlement go ahead anyway, but disguised as military encampments.
As usual, the Zionists did not care that they were “liberating” someone else’s property and that there was bound to be strong objections. When the Palestinian resistance came, the Israelis reacted with resentment and a rambling list of grievances: decrying that they were hated by the Arabs and by most non-Jews in general and that going back to the 1967 borders would invite a new Holocaust.
When in 2002 the Arab League offered Israel genuine peace with all its commercial benefits in exchange for withdrawing from the Occupied Territories, the Israelis turned them down flat.
Though they did not say so, they simply did not want peace. They wanted the land just as their “founding fathers and mothers” had. Now they have had the land for nearly 50 years and, like a poisoned chalice, it has sickened them. What was considered a “miracle” was really a prelude to disaster and led to a downward spiral into barbarism and growing isolation.
Come the March Elections
But what if Cohen and Kenig get their wish and the March elections remove the Netanyahu government and replace it with one seemingly less dedicated to a maximalist settlement program? Will that lead Israel to reverse course enough to gain peace and worldwide acceptance? Not likely.
A new, more “moderate” government would be restrained by the still prevailing historical sentiment that to give up the West Bank would be an act of treason. They might try to exercise more flexibility in any future negotiations, but there would be a limit to how far they could go.
Therefore, for the Palestinians the result of the upcoming election will determine no more than the size of the Bantustans that will be ultimately offered to them. If Netanyahu wins, they can expect enclaves of minimal size and utility.
From some other government – perhaps led by the Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog – there might be some improvement on this package but, once more, we can be sure that it will fall short of a viable and truly sovereign Palestinian state.
The logic of Zionism has always aimed for a Jewish state in all of “Greater Israel,” and the resulting ideological dedication has been strong enough to prevent any significant change of course. Even the withdrawal from Gaza was a tactical maneuver to contain Palestinian resistance and better secure the West Bank. This dedication is also deadly as is attested to by the strength of the present settler movement: organized, armed to the teeth, and with roots in the military and police. Just how will this group react to any government that even marginally tries to rein them in? There is a good chance they will react with violence. Remember the fate of Yitzhak Rabin. Under such circumstances, it is going to take a lot of leverage, coming from both inside and outside of Israel, to bring about serious change. It is also clear that the Palestinians alone do not have the capacity to apply this leverage.
Thanks to the United States and its special interest-dominated political system, the Palestinians are thoroughly outgunned by a Zionist state that is willing to ethnically cleanse them at every opportunity. That is why to bring about the necessary change in Israeli behavior, episodes of Palestinian resistance must be accompanied by international efforts to isolate Israel economically and socially. The boycott effort is a long-range one. Nonetheless, it is Palestine’s best hope. Regardless of the outcome of the March elections, Israel’s habitual violence and its ongoing violation of international laws and the standards of human rights will not change. However, sooner or later the boycott, allied to ongoing episodes of Palestinian resistance, will bring Israel to a real crossroads and then difficult choices will have to be made.
The questionable claim that Israel unites all the Jewish people will not survive these choices. At that point the Israelis, and perhaps the Jewish people worldwide, will divide between those who cling to racially based past hopes and those who see survival as possible only if such hopes are abandoned.
It is an unfortunate fact that the same road that leads to Palestinian liberation may simultaneously lead to dangerous Jewish factionalism. But that is the price the Zionists seem destined to pay for having sold their national soul to a racist ideology.
Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest;ã€€America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism.