A Somber Anniversary

Israeli air force performs maneuvers to mark the 60th anniversary of Israel, above the beach in Tel Aviv, Israel, Thursday, May 8, 2008.
AP Photo/Ariel Schalit
This column was written by Avi Shlaim.
Israelis approach the sixtieth anniversary of the establishment of their state in a subdued and somber mood. Israeli society is deeply divided, and there is no consensus on how to mark the milestone. On the one hand, Israel can boast some stunning successes: a democratic polity with universal suffrage; a highly developed, some might say overdeveloped, multiparty system; an independent judiciary; a vibrant cultural scene; progressive educational and health services; a high standard of living; and a per capita GDP almost the size of Britain's.

The ingathering of the exiles has worked. Israel's population has reached 7,241,000, nearly ten times what it was in 1948. Forty-one percent of the world's Jews live in the Jewish state, speaking the Hebrew language that was confined to liturgy when Zionism was born at the end of the nineteenth century. In its central aim of providing the scattered Jews with a haven, instilling in them a sense of nationhood and forging a modern nation-state, Zionism has been a brilliant success. And these achievements are all the more remarkable against the background of appalling tragedy: the extermination of 6 million Jews by the Nazis during World War II.

On the other hand, some failures can be noted. The most pronounced one has been the failure to resolve the conflict with the Arabs, which has accompanied the Zionist enterprise from the very beginning. That conflict involved neighboring Arab states, but in origin and in essence it was a clash between two movements for national liberation: the Jewish one and the Palestinian one. In 1948 the Zionist movement realized its aim of Jewish national self-determination in Palestine. Israel's War of Independence was the Palestinians' catastrophe, al-Nakba in Arabic.

The moral case for the establishment of an independent Jewish state was strong, especially in the aftermath of the Holocaust. The case for a Jewish state was also bolstered by the international norm of self-determination for national groups. Based on this norm, the UN partition resolution of November 29, 1947, provided a charter of international legitimacy for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. However, there is no denying that the establishment of the State of Israel involved a massive injustice to the Palestinians. Sixty years on, Israel still has not arrived at a reckoning of its sins against the Palestinians, a recognition that it owes the Palestinians a debt that must at some point be repaid.

The conflict with the Palestinians, and with the Arab world at large, has cast a very long shadow over Israel's life. For the first forty-five years of the state's existence, Israel's leaders were unwilling to discuss the right of the Palestinians to national self-determination. In 1969 Prime Minister Golda Meir adopted an extreme position--hardly an uncommon one at the time--in denying that a Palestinian people existed at all. But the dilemma had been there all along, and the early Zionists were well aware of it, even if they seldom talked about it. The dilemma, in a nutshell, was that the Jewish aspiration to sovereignty in Palestine could not be reconciled with the Palestinian people's natural right to sovereignty over the same country. This was the "hidden question" that Zionist teacher Yitzhak Epstein addressed in an article in 1907. It was not long before the hidden question was transformed into an open and deeply contentious issue.

Ze'ev Jabotinsky, founder of the right-wing Revisionist Zionist movement and spiritual father of the Likud Party, was the first major Zionist leader to acknowledge that the Palestinians were a nation and that they could not be expected to renounce voluntarily their right to hold on to their patrimony. It was, he argued in two seminal articles in 1923, therefore pointless at that early stage in the Zionist enterprise to hold a dialogue with the Palestinians; the Zionist program could only be executed unilaterally and by force. Jabotinsky's prescription was to build the Zionist enterprise behind an "iron wall" that the local Arab population would not be able to break. Yet Jabotinsky was not opposed to talking with the Palestinians at a later stage. On the contrary, he believed that after knocking their heads in vain against the ramparts, the Palestinians would eventually recognize that they were in a position of permanent weakness; that would be the time to enter into negotiations with them about their status and national rights in Palestine.

In a way, this is what happened. The history of the State of Israel is a vindication of Jabotinsky's strategy of the iron wall. The Arabs--first the Egyptians, then the Palestinians and then the Jordanians--recognized Israel's invincibility and were compelled to negotiate with it from a position of palpable weakness. The real danger posed by the strategy of the iron wall was that Israeli leaders less sophisticated than Jabotinsky would fall in love with a particular phase of it and refuse to negotiate even when there was someone to talk to on the other side.

Paradoxically, the politicians of the right, the heirs to Jabotinsky, were prone to fall in love with the iron wall and to adopt it as a permanent way of life. Jabotinsky's iron wall encompassed a theory of change in Jewish-Palestinian relations leading to reconciliation and peaceful coexistence. Likud Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, by contrast, conceived of the iron wall as a bulwark against change and an instrument for keeping the Palestinians in a permanent state of subservience to Israel.

The first serious attempt to transcend the iron wall was made by Yitzhak Rabin following the Labor Party's victory at the polls in June 1992. On the face of it, Rabin was an unlikely candidate for overturning Israel's traditional policy toward the Arab world. He had spent a lifetime as a soldier, building up the iron wall for the dual purpose of deterring and withstanding Arab attacks. As chief of staff in June 1967, he was associated with Israel's most decisive victory over its enemies and the extension of the wall to enclose more of their territories. After the war, he sided with the majority in the Labor Party in preferring a settlement with Jordan's King Hussein to a settlement with the Palestinians. During his first term as prime minister, in the 1970s, Rabin remained implacably opposed to any negotiations with the PLO.

But during his second term, after exhausting all alternatives, Rabin grasped the nettle, which meant negotiating with the PLO. The upshot was the Oslo Accord and the historic handshake with PLO chairman Yasir Arafat at the White House in September 1993. What the accord amounted to was PLO recognition of Israel's right to exist, Israeli recognition of the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people and an understanding between the two sides that the remaining differences between them would be settled by peaceful means.