This week, Israel is marking the 50th anniversary of its improbable victory over Arab assassins. Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser saw annihilation of the Jewish state as a uniting mission for his project of pan-Arab nationalism and had declared: ‘Our path to Palestine will be covered with blood.’ In June 1967, he enlisted Syria and Jordan in his plans for invasion and few thought Israel, then a meagre strip of land nine miles wide at its narrowest point, could withstand the onslaught. Herzl’s dream in the desert was about to be unwilled.
In a stroke of tactical cunning, though at the time it looked to be an act of suicide, Israel launched a pre-emptive strike against its tormenters and in under a week, armed with Dassaults, Super Shermans and the covenant of Psalm 121, it had defeated the Arabs and conquered vast swathes of territory. Little Israel now controlled the land from the Suez to the Jordan and had liberated the old city of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount.
Fifty years on, the world has never forgiven Israel for surviving and Israelis, and the Diaspora, have struggled with their position as ‘history’s most improbable occupier’, as Yossi Klein Halevi put it. That ambivalence runs through commemorations being held this week, as Israel recalls how close it came to destruction, honours those who fought and fell, and even sneaks in some pride at its unlikely triumph. In Haaretz, Uzi Benziman laments reunited Jerusalem as ‘a banal city’ where the Haredim hold too much sway. Michael Koplow tries to convince readers of the Atlantic that success was actually defeat. The Six-Day War, he intones ominously, left Israel with ‘a far more expansive and ambitious’ Zionism. He considers that a bad thing.
This is the dilemma of the liberal Zionist, torn between the national particularism that Israel represents and the universalism of modern progressive politics. But the Right is scarcely more secure in its Zionism. The long-running psychodrama about the location of the US embassy, the obsession with every semantic slip that either concedes or denies Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, the effort to distract the world from the occupation with right-on noises about women and gays – this is where the restless Zionism of Jabotinsky and Begin now slouches; defensive, evasive, and praying that no one asks what it plans to do next.
It’s not as if there are no ideas. The Left believes Israel can only free itself from hubris and safeguard its democracy by surrendering land and supporting the establishment of a Palestinian state in Judea and Samaria, the territories we must call the ‘West Bank’ because merely to state their true name gives the game away. The Right says the time has come to assert Israeli sovereignty over Judea and Samaria – in effect bringing an end to the Six-Day War and planting an Israeli flag in the middle of what would have been a Palestinian state.
Israel’s military might overshadows that of its neighbours. It could, if it wanted to, declare sovereignty tomorrow. All hell would break loose — though this being the Middle East how would anyone know — but the IDF could contain any insurgency. The UN and the Foreign Office would throw a strop but that is surely one of the selling points. Diplomatic and economic sanctions would follow but Israel could ride them out; there’s only so long you can snub the country that invents your medical tech.
The real impediment is not the State Department or the Europeans or even the Palestinians. What stands in Israel’s way is Israel. The victors of 1967 risk a retroactive defeat because while they beat the Arabs, they didn’t win the Jews. Israeli and Jewish opinion is still sharply divided over the settlements and how Israel should pursue peace. Doves warn that Israelis cannot continue as occupiers and hope to remain democrats but hawks scoff at the idea that Jews can be occupiers in the Land of Israel – before remembering the middle ground and throwing in some sobering talk about security. Israel must either have the land or it will have the sea.
In truth, the two Israels – the Israel of the Oslo Accords and the Israel of the Edmund Levy report – are each in denial. The Right is willing to sacrifice international legitimacy for sovereignty, the Left will sacrifice almost anything for international legitimacy. Each also has a point. The residents of Judea and Samaria, Israelis and Palestinians, cannot be kept forever in limbo. Israel must declare its intentions towards the bride or return the dowry. But the Palestinians have refused successive offers of peace and continue to organise their culture around anti-Semitism and impotent fantasies of expelling the Zionists and reviving a nation that never was. A two-state solution may be desirable but it has never looked less viable.
None of these quandaries will be solved by building the American ambassador a new office 30 miles to the south-east. Nor can they be willed away to Turtle Bay, where many Israeli doves yearn for the UN to impose peace on Bibi Netanyahu. There is an occupation of boots and guns and checkpoints and it isolates Israel and undermines Zionism, the only nationalism worth a damn. There is another occupation, the annexation of the Israeli mind by the myth of an American moshiach, of the answer to Israel’s problems always coming next year in Washington DC. If it is to bring an end to the 50-year Six-Day War, Israel must rid itself of both occupations.
Stephen Daisley is a columnist for the Scottish Daily Mail
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