Israel’s Forever War

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Courtesy:  Independent N/P


The Long History of Managing—Rather Than Solving—the Conflict


By Ottih Chinedu

To Israelis, October 7, 2023, is the worst day in their country’s 75-year history. Never before have so many of them been massacred and taken hostage on a single day. Thousands of heavily armed Hamas fighters managed to break through the Gaza Strip’s fortified border and into Isra­el, rampaging unimpeded for hours, destroying several villages, and committing gruesome acts of bru­tality before Israeli forces could re­gain control.

Israelis have compared the attack to the Holocaust; Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has described Hamas as “the new Na­zis.” In response, the Israel Defense Forces have pursued an open-ended military campaign in Gaza driven by rage and the desire for revenge.

Netanyahu promises that the IDF will fight Hamas until it achieves “total victory,” although even his own military has been hard put to define what this means. He has of­fered no clear idea of what should happen when the fighting stops, other than to assert that Israel must maintain security control of all of Gaza and the West Bank.

For Palestinians, the Gaza war is the worst event they have expe­rienced in 75 years. Never have so many of them been killed and uprooted since the nakba, the ca­tastrophe that befell them during Israel’s war of independence in 1948, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were forced to give up their homes and became ref­ugees.

Like the Israelis, they also point to terrible acts of violence: by late March, Israel’s military cam­paign had taken the lives of tens of thousands of Palestinians, among them thousands of children, and rendered well over a million home­less.

As the Palestinians see it, the Israeli offensive is part of a larger plan to incorporate all Palestinian lands into the Jewish state and get them to abandon Gaza entirely—an idea that has in fact been raised by some members of Netanyahu’s gov­ernment.

The Palestinians also hold on to the illusion of return, the prin­ciple that they will one day be able to reclaim their historic homes in Israel itself—a kind of Palestinian Zionism that, like Israel’s maximal­ist aspirations, can never come true.

Ever since the first Zionists began to conceive of a Jewish homeland in Palestine in the late nineteenth century, Jewish leaders and their Arab counterparts have understood that an all-encompass­ing settlement between them was likely impossible.

As early as 1919, David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s future first prime minister, recognized that there could be no peace in Pal­estine. Both the Jews and the Arabs, he observed, were claiming the land for themselves, and both were doing so as nations.

“There is no solution to this question,” he repeatedly de­clared. “There is an abyss between us, and nothing can fill that abyss.” The inevitable conflict, he conclud­ed, could at best be managed—lim­ited or contained, perhaps, but not resolved.

In the months since the October 7 attacks, critics of Netanyahu, not­ing his efforts to bolster Hamas and his push for Arab normalization deals that sideline the Palestinian issue, have accused him of trying to manage the conflict rather than end it. But that complaint misreads history. Netanyahu’s cardinal blun­der was not his attempt to parry the issues that divide Jews and Arabs. It was that he did so more incompe­tently—and with more disastrous consequences—than anyone else over the past century. Indeed, con­flict management is the only real option that either side, and their international interlocutors, has ever had.

From its beginnings, the conflict has always been perpetuat­ed by religion and mythology—vio­lent fundamentalism and messianic prejudices, fantasies and symbols, and deep-rooted anxieties—rather than by concrete interests and cal­culated strategies.

The irrational nature of the conflict has been the main reason why it could never be resolved. Only by confronting this enduring reality can world leaders begin to approach a crisis that de­mands not more empty talk of solu­tions for the future but urgent action to better cope with the present.

This Land Is My Land

Not far from the grave of The­odor Herzl, the father of political Zionism, on the mountain in Je­rusalem that bears his name, is a national memorial to generations of Jewish victims of terrorism. The monument reflects an Israeli tendency to try to prove that Jews were persecuted by Arabs in Pal­estine long before the first Zionists set foot there.

The earliest victim mentioned is a Jew from Lithuania who was killed by an Arab in 1851 after a financial dispute, and the eviction of some Arabs, related to the rebuilding of a synagogue in the Old City of Jerusalem. The memo­rial also mentions several Jewish victims of Arab robberies and 13 Jews who were killed in British bombing raids on Palestine during World War I. Palestinian historiog­raphy and commemorative culture rely on a similarly tendentious use of history.

At the beginning of the nine­teenth century, fewer than 7,000 Jews were living in Palestine, making up about 2.5 percent of the population of what was then an Ottoman province. Some of their communities had been there for many centuries. As more Arabs and Jews migrated there, the ter­ritory’s population grew, and with it the relative proportion of Jews. Most Arabs came from neighboring countries in search of employment. Most of the Jews came for religious reasons and as refugees from po­groms in Eastern Europe, and they tended to settle in the Old City of Jerusalem. These immigrants had no intention of establishing Jewish statehood in Palestine. In fact, most Jews at the time did not believe in the Zionist ideology, and many of them even opposed secular Zionism on religious grounds.

By the end of the nineteenth century, there were about half a million Arabs in Palestine, where­as the number of Jews, although it had increased steadily, was around 50,000, or about one-tenth of the population. Nonetheless, Herzl’s international activities, including a visit in 1898 to Jerusalem, where he was received by the German Kaiser Wilhelm II, began to worry leaders of the Palestinian Arabs.

The following year, Yusuf Diya al-Khalidi, the mayor of Jerusa­lem, expressed his concerns about the Zionists in a remarkable letter written to the chief rabbi of France. “Who could contest the rights of the Jews in Palestine?” Khalidi began in polite, even sympathetic, French prose. “My God, historically it is your country!” But that history was now deep in the past, he con­tinued. “Palestine is an integral part of the Ottoman Empire, and more gravely, it is inhabited by others,” Khalidi wrote. The world was big enough, with plenty of uninhabited land for Jewish independence, he concluded.

“For God’s sake—let Palestine be left alone!” Herzl, who received the letter from the French chief rabbi, assured Khalidi in his reply that the Zionists would develop the land for the benefit of all inhabitants, includ­ing the Arabs. Previously, however, he had written that the Zionist proj­ect might require the resettlement of poor Palestinians to neighboring countries.

Around the time of Herzl’s death, in 1904, young Zionists, mostly so­cialists from Eastern Europe, began to come to Palestine. One was Da­vid Gruen, who later changed his name to David Ben-Gurion. Born in Poland, he arrived in 1906 at the age of 20 and joined a Jewish work­ers’ group in the Galilee. His first political activity was the promotion of “Hebrew labor”—an attempt to require Jewish employers to hire Jews rather than Arabs. At the time, the Zionists’ acquisition of land also led to the dispossession of some Arab agricultural workers, some of whom reacted violently. In the spring of 1909, Ben-Gurion’s settle­ment was attacked, and two of his fellow members were killed, one of them apparently in front of Ben-Gu­rion. The future prime minister of Israel concluded that the Jews and the Palestinian Arabs had irrecon­cilable differences; there was no escaping the conflict.

Ben-Gurion’s attitude toward the Arabs was further shaped by two other experiences. During World War I, he was expelled from Pales­tine by the Ottoman authorities. On one of his last days in Jerusalem, he ran into a young Arab with whom he had studied in Istanbul. When Ben-Gurion reported that he was about to be expelled, his acquain­tance replied that as his dear friend, he was deeply sorry for him, but as an Arab nationalist, he was very happy. “That was the first time in my life that I heard an honest an­swer from an Arab intellectual,” Ben-Gurion said. “His words burned themselves into my heart, very, very deeply.” Years later, Ben-Gurion had a conversation with Musa Alami, a prominent Arab Palestinian and politician. Ben-Gurion promised as usual that the Zionists would devel­op Palestine for all its inhabitants. According to Ben-Gurion, Alami re­plied that he would rather leave the land poor and desolate for another century, if need be, until the Arabs could develop it themselves.

Ben-Gurion often dismissed the “easy solutions” that he attributed to some of his colleagues, such as the notion that Jews could be en­couraged to learn Arabic or even that Jews and Arabs could live together in one state. They were refusing to acknowledge the facts. Ben-Gurion’s own concept of the Jewish future in Palestine was based simply on acquiring as much land as possible, if not necessarily the entire territory, and populating it with as many Jews and as few Arabs as possible. His views about the conflict remained unchanged to the end of his life and continuously informed his efforts to manage it.

Switzerland In Judea

In 1917, the Zionist movement achieved one of its most important successes when British Foreign Sec­retary Arthur Balfour declared the United Kingdom to be in favor of establishing a “national home” for the Jewish people in Palestine. The Balfour Declaration, as it became known, was part of a strategic Brit­ish plan to take the Holy Land from Ottoman dominion. In reality, like almost everything to do with that land, Balfour’s policy was driven more by sentimental religious ideas than by rational statecraft. A staunch Christian Zionist, Balfour was committed to the idea that the people of God should return to their homeland after a 2,000-year exile so that they could fulfill their biblical destiny. He aspired to go down in history as the man who made this messianic transformation possible.

As was often the case with West­ern officials at the time, Balfour’s apparent reverence for the Jews si­multaneously drew on deep anti-Se­mitic prejudice. Like others of his era, he attributed almost unlimited power and influence to “the Jew,” in­cluding an ability to determine his­tory and even convince the United States to enter World War I. (It was hoped that the Balfour Declaration would sway American Jews to push the United States to join the Allied powers in the war.)

By the end of 1917, the United Kingdom had conquered Palestine, thus beginning nearly 30 years of British rule. During this period, the Zionist movement laid the political, economic, cultural, and military foundations for the future state of Israel. Tensions with the Arabs in­creased over the years as hundreds of thousands of new Jewish immi­grants, mainly from Europe, con­tinued to arrive. In the 1920s, these immigrants were motivated not by support for Zionism but by the se­vere new immigration restrictions imposed by the United States. In the 1930s, more than 50,000 Jewish refugees arrived in Palestine from Nazi Germany, although in less des­perate circumstances most of them would have preferred to stay in their country.

Large-scale immigration of Jews sparked more waves of Arab violence against Jews and against the British authorities, who were seen as supporting Zionist aims. This came to a head in the Arab revolt of 1936–39, in which Pales­tinians rose up against the British colonial administration through a general strike, an armed insur­rection, and attacks on railways and Jewish settlements. Amid this turmoil, the British began to regard Palestine as a nuisance. To get rid of the problem, they appointed the so-called Peel Commission, which recommended dividing the land into Jewish and Arab states—the very first “two-state” solution.

Although the Jewish state it en­visioned was small, amounting to just 17 percent of British Mandate Palestine, Ben-Gurion supported the plan. Notably, Arab inhabitants of the area designated for the Jew­ish state were to be transferred to the Arab state, a provision that he described in his diary as a “forced transfer,” drawing a thick line under the words. Most of his colleagues, however, wanted much more land for the Jewish state, setting off a contentious debate between the center-left Zionist leadership and right-wing “Revisionists” who cul­tivated a dream of a Greater Israel on both banks of the Jordan River. Although they stood to gain control of about 75 percent of the land, the Arabs rejected the idea of a Jewish state in principle, and the British withdrew the plan. Here, again, was the “abyss” between Jews and Ar­abs that Ben-Gurion had identified years earlier and that would become even deeper after the Holocaust and the war of 1948.

In January 1942, a few weeks before Nazi leaders met at the in­famous Wannsee Conference to discuss the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question,” Foreign Affairs published an article by the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann calling for the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. At the time, no one outside Germany knew about the Nazis’ planned extermination camps, but their treatment of Jews in occupied Western Europe and during Germany’s ruthless assault on the Soviet Union had already made clear that the Nazis were threatening the existence of the entire Jewish people. Only total victory over the Third Reich could halt the extermination of the Jews, and although Weizmann expressed a hope that a better world could be built after the war, his article was an urgent appeal for a Jewish home­land. Palestine, he wrote, was the only place where Jews, particularly Jewish refugees, could survive.

From a Zionist perspective, Weizmann’s proposal contained el­ements of compromise: more than 20 years earlier, at the Versailles peace conference after World War I, he had presented a map of the Land of Israel with biblical borders that extended to the east bank of the Jordan River—territory much larger than the country would ever attain. In his article, by contrast, Weizmann did not specify borders but proposed unlimited Jewish im­migration to a democratic country that would offer equal rights to all its inhabitants, including Arabs. Although he wrote that the Arabs must be “clearly told that the Jews will be encouraged to settle in Pales­tine, and will control their own im­migration,” he asserted that Arabs would not be discriminated against and would “enjoy full autonomy in their own internal affairs.” He also did not rule out the possibility that the new Jewish state could join “in federation” with neighboring Arab states. But like Ben-Gurion, he also foresaw the need to contain the Pal­estinian Arabs: should they wish, he wrote, “every facility will be given to them to transfer to one of the many and vast Arab countries.”

Attempting to convince his readers that the Jews were wor­thy of help, Weizmann somewhat pathetically promised that “the Jew” no longer fit the anti-Semit­ic stereotypes that were prevalent in the West before the start of the Zionist project. “When the Jew is reunited with the soil of Palestine,” he wrote, “energies are released” that if “given an outlet, can create values which may be of service even to richer and more fortunate coun­tries.” Weizmann compared the hoped-for Zionist state to Switzer­land, “another small country, also poor in natural resources,” that had nevertheless become “one of the most orderly and stable of Europe­an democracies.” Seven years later, he was elected the first president of Israel. In the meantime, the Nazis had murdered six million Jews.

Unrealized Gains

In November 1947, the UN Gen­eral Assembly recommended the partition of Palestine, this time in a division that would give each side broadly equitable areas of land, with the Old City of Jerusalem un­der international control. The Ar­abs rejected the plan, in accordance with their traditional objection to Jewish statehood in Palestine. The Zionists accepted partition, al­though Ben-Gurion expected war and hoped that it would end with territory that was empty of Arabs.

Soon afterward, Arab militias be­gan a series of attacks on the Jew­ish population, and Zionist groups retaliated with actions against Arab communities. In May 1948, Ben-Gu­rion declared Israel’s independence. It was a dangerous gamble. Regular Arab armies and volunteers from Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Transjordan were about to invade the new country, and top commanders of the Jewish armed forces warned that the odds of de­feating them were even at best. U.S. Secretary of State George Marshall demanded an immediate cease-fire; Ben-Gurion feared that the Zionists were not ready for war. Before the UN partition plan was announced, he had tried in vain to persuade the British to stay in Palestine for five to ten more years, which could have given the Jews more time to in­crease immigration and strengthen their forces.

But faced with the historic op­portunity to declare a Jewish state, Ben-Gurion chose to obey a Zionist imperative that he said had guided him since the age of three. He later explained that the Israelis won not because they were better at fighting but because the Arabs were even worse.

In keeping with his abiding view that establishing a Jewish majority was more important than gaining territory, he led the army to push out or expel most of the Arabs—some 750,000—who fled to the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza, which Ben-Gurion left unoc­cupied, as well as to neighboring Arab countries.

A direct line could be traced from the Zionists’ cam­paign in the 1920s to replace Arab workers with Jews to the far larger effort in 1948 to remove Arabs from the land of the new Jewish state. Israel lost close to 6,000 soldiers in that war, nearly one percent of the new country’s Jewish population at the time.

When the war ended in early 1949, green pencils were used to draw armistice boundaries between Israel and its Arab neighbors, the famous “Green Line.”

Gaza became an Egyptian protectorate, and the West Bank was annexed by Jordan. Israel now controlled more terri­tory than it had been allocated in the UN partition plan. It was also almost free of Arabs; the ones who remained were subjected to a rather arbitrary and often corrupt military rule. Most Israelis at the time saw this as an acceptable situation—a rational way of managing the con­flict.

The Arabs in turn considered Israel’s existence a humiliation that had to be remedied. In Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, authorities did not allow Palestinian refugees to be integrated into their new countries of residence, forcing them instead to live in temporary camps, where they were encouraged to nurture the idea of return.

In the first two decades after in­dependence, Israel made remark­able achievements. But it failed to reach the Zionist goal of providing the entire Jewish people with a safe national homeland.

Most of the world’s Jews, including many survivors of the Holocaust, still pre­ferred to remain in other countries; those in the Soviet Union and other communist countries were forbid­den to emigrate by the authorities in those places. After the 1948 war, most Middle Eastern Jews, many of whose families had been in the region for thousands of years, no longer felt safe in Muslim coun­tries and chose—or were forced—to leave.

Most settled in Israel, at first often as destitute refugees. By the mid-1960s, immigrants who had ar­rived since independence made up around 60 percent of the Israeli pop­ulation. Most had not yet mastered the Hebrew language, and they of­ten disagreed on basic values and even on how to define a Jew.

Ben-Gurion continued to man­age the conflict, but many Israelis, particularly newcomers, felt that Is­rael’s existence was still in danger. Only a few close confidants knew about Ben-Gurion’s nuclear project. Border wars frequently broke out; the IDF prepared contingency plans for the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

During the Suez crisis of 1956, Israeli forces invaded Egypt, occupying Gaza and the Sinai Pen­insula, but withdrew a few months later. In a cabinet meeting, Ben-Gu­rion said that if he believed in mir­acles, he would ask for Gaza to be swallowed up by the sea.

After Ben-Gurion resigned in 1963, Israelis were left with a weak and hesitant leadership and a deep economic crisis. More and more of them began to lose confidence in Is­rael’s future. In 1966, the number of Jews emigrating from the country exceeded the number entering it. A popular joke referred to a sign sup­posedly hanging at the exit gate of the international airport that read: “Would the last person to leave the country please turn off the lights?”

Continued on Foreign Affairs (www., April 23, 2024.


Biola Lawal

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