To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle.
--- George Orwell

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Almost Fifty Years Later, Israel’s “Six Day War” Still Isn’t Over

IDF Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren at the Western Wall, Jerusalem, 1967.

“The war of 1967 casts a shadow still. As the Duke of Wellington said, the only thing worse than a great victory is a great defeat.”

This was David Remnick writing in a 2007 New Yorker piece marking the 40th anniversary of the Six Day War, which also marked the 40th anniversary of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. We're coming up on the 48th anniversary of that war in early June, with the Economist noting that an end to the overall Israeli conflict with the Palestinians has “seldom seemed so far away.”

Remnick’s piece, which he called “The Seventh Day” in reference to the story of creation in Genesis, highlights the role that religious triumphalism has played in making the conflict so insoluble since then, the headiness it induced feeding a sense of messianic destiny, moral superiority, strategic advantage and political entitlement. “So profound was the Israeli national delirium in the days and weeks after the war,” Remnick explains, “that it was impossible for most Israelis to think straight about the long-term consequences of retaining conquered territory… In those early days of postwar euphoria, there were a few prominent Israelis who dared to warn of the moral and political degradation that would come with the occupation…A new kind of Zionist, one that fused faith and nationalism, replaced the old pioneers, the kibbutzniks.” As he explains: 

After being told that the state was in mortal danger, Israel was now in possession of Biblical Israel—the Western Wall, the Temple Mount, all of Jerusalem, the Tomb of the Patriarchs, in Hebron, and many other such sites scattered throughout the West Bank. Once the Old City was secured, on the third day of the war, Dayan, the most theatrical of all Israeli commanders, flew by helicopter to Jerusalem and staged his arrival in the manner of General Allenby, the British general who took Jerusalem from the Turks in 1917. “We have returned to the most holy of our places,” Dayan declared. “We have returned, never to part from them again.”

General Shlomo Goren, the chief rabbi of the I.D.F., blew a shofar at the Western Wall and advised his commanding officer, Uzi Narkis, that now was the moment to blow up the Dome of the Rock, the mosque that sits on the Temple Mount. “Do this and you will go down in history,” Goren said. “Tomorrow might be too late.”

Narkis refused the lunatic suggestion and even threatened the rabbi with arrest. Nevertheless, the national poet, Natan Alterman, was accurate in declaring, “The people are drunk with joy.” A photograph of a weeping I.D.F. soldier at the Western Wall was published all over the world and seemed to embody the new conflation, for many Israelis, of the state and the sacred, the military and the messianic. The song “Jerusalem of Gold” displaced, for a time, the traditional anthem “Hatikvah.” In the daily Ma’ariv, the journalist Gabriel Tzifroni described the “liberation” of the capital in terms rarely used in traditional news reporting: “The Messiah came to Jerusalem yesterday—he was tired and gray, and he rode in on a tank.” When the fighting broke out, Ben-Gurion had written in his diary, “There was no need for this. I believe it is a grievous mistake.” But now Ben-Gurion was suggesting that the walls of the Old City be destroyed. Eshkol himself, posing the question of how Israel was going to rule a million Arabs, briefly considered a plan of transferring hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to Iraq and elsewhere.

Since 1949, there had been talk of “recapturing” the holy sites of the West Bank and Jerusalem––most Israeli generals still considered 1948 to be unfinished business, just as their Arab opponents did––but permanent conquest had never been, as policy, the goal of the war. Occupation was to be temporary. And then it wasn’t. Under the bizarre and often harsh leadership of Moshe Dayan––“the mysterious Cyclops of Israeli politics,” in the words of the distinguished historian and journalist Amos Elon—the Israelis thought of themselves as “enlightened occupiers,” and yet in time they resorted to many of the methods employed by the British colonials during the Mandate period: collective punishment, torture during interrogation, the demolition of Arab homes. Israel also expelled entire Arab communities and destroyed villages; around two hundred thousand Arabs fled the West Bank for Jordan. Israeli forces destroyed the villages of Beit Mirsim and Beit Awa, in the southern West Bank; nearly a third of the city of Qalqilya was razed before the U.N. and the United States demanded that Dayan stop and rebuild. In the meantime, religious Zionist leaders such as Zvi Yehudah Kook, of the Mercaz Harav yeshiva, in Jerusalem, and Moshe Levinger, a founder of the Gush Emunim settler movement and the settlement in Hebron, went from being marginal dreamers to armed prophets and politicians.

The Israeli leadership could not conceive of itself as anything less than benign, and even persuaded itself that a subjugated Arab population would come to appreciate its overlords. “The situation between us,” Dayan creepily informed the Palestinian poet Fadwa Tuqan, “is like the complex relationship between a Bedouin man and the young girl he has taken against her wishes. But when their children are born, they will see the man as their father and the woman as their mother. The initial act will mean nothing to them. You, the Palestinians, as a nation, do not want us today, but we will change your attitude by imposing our presence upon you.

The most complete book on the war’s aftermath––the “seventh day”––is the journalist Gershom Gorenberg’s riveting and deeply depressing The Accidental Empire, which describes how, in the decade following the war, the mainstream Labor governments of Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, and Yitzhak Rabin either feigned ignorance of the growing settlements or blatantly encouraged them. As a result, they helped to legitimatize the settlement ideology of their right-wing successors Menachem Begin, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Ariel Sharon. Gorenberg makes clear that, though the Israelis at first designated the early settlements “temporary” military outposts, in order to avoid violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, “the purpose of settlement, since the day in July 1967 when the first Israeli settler climbed out of a jeep in the Syrian heights, had been to create facts that would determine the final status of the land, to sculpt the political reality before negotiations ever got under way.” Here the project of revisionism was neither scholarly nor benign; the creation of “facts on the ground” was a political attempt to rewrite, with bricks and mortar, the contours of one nation at the expense of another.

Forty years later, a quarter of a million Israelis live in a hundred and twenty officially recognized settlements; an additional hundred and eighty thousand live in annexed areas of East Jerusalem, and sixteen thousand in the Golan. In the years before Israel was established, settlers argued that the more land they bought or seized, the greater their security. The settlers of “Greater Israel” and their supporters, who regarded the old borders as “Auschwitz frontiers,” refused to see the peril in their policy. The worst consequence of occupation, of course, has been the terrible privations, physical isolation, and psychological disfigurement that it has imposed upon the Palestinians. For the Israelis, occupation has been, as Gorenberg describes, a grave security hazard and source of moral corrosion.

Moshe Dayan, with Palestinians on the West Bank.