Micah Goodman is a well-known public intellectual in Israel, and his book Catch-67 is a contribution to the obsessive Israeli debate about the future of the West Bank. The underlying question is the place in history of Zionism, the ideology that led to the creation of the Jewish state and has sustained it ever since. No Zionism, no Israel. Here was a national liberation movement like any other, except that Jews had lost their national territory in the distant past and therefore were bound to have to fight longer and harder than other nationalists to recover it. Today Kurds, Kosovars, and even Ukrainians are similarly unable to fix their national identity to a homeland with agreed-upon borders. If Israel hands all or most of the West Bank to the Palestinians, Zionism will have reached its limit and be in retreat. Other Israelis take the view that after the First World War the British cut up Palestine in their own interest and the Jewish national home has no legal or moral obligation to renounce the claim to the West Bank, or to the East Bank, come to that. Zionists and post-Zionists form two factions, each accusing the other of folly, deliberate endangerment of the state, treason, and a wish to commit political and national suicide.
For reasons that go deep into their past and their culture, Arabs have not seen Israelis as a people willing and able to fight for survival in their own historic country, but rather as settlers, colonists, imperialists, or agents of the United States who would naturally prefer to flee rather than stand up for themselves. Misinterpreting reality in this way, Gamal Abdel Nasser, then the President of Egypt, in May 1967 ordered troops to take up positions in the Sinai Peninsula on Israel’s southern frontier. At his bidding, the mobilization of Syria and Jordan completed the encirclement of Israel. In a radio broadcast he crowed that if Israelis wanted war, they were welcome. In his mind, the moment had evidently arrived to show that the Arab Middle East was not going to accept a Jewish state in its midst and that the Palestinians would come into their own.
A hesitant Levi Eshkol, the Israeli Prime Minister at the time, evidently didn’t want war. A correspondent sent to cover this crisis, I had a chance encounter in the hotel in Tel Aviv with Elie Wiesel, the novelist and Auschwitz survivor. With some distress, he told me that an old friend of his, a ranking Major-General, had attended a meeting where a decision not to go to war had been taken, and this officer could not help weeping at what he perceived as the helplessness of Israel. Large numbers of the international media and a varied swarm of cause-mongers were arriving. The unspoken thought was that another Holocaust was in the offing. Nervous Israelis could have fled the country, but there is no evidence that any did so. On the contrary, the streets were filled with soldiers rejoining their units and there seemed to be a sense of purpose in the face of whatever might be coming.
On the opening day of the war, the Israeli preemptive strike destroyed the Egyptian and Syrian air forces on the ground. Two days later, the Sinai desert was littered with boots that Egyptian soldiers had thrown off in order to run away faster and the Arab Legion had returned to base in Jordan. Up until then, British Mandated Palestine had been partitioned between Israel, Egypt, and Jordan. By the end of the week, this former entity with its two million or more Palestinians on the West Bank and in Gaza had been reconstituted, but this time under Israeli rule.
The assumption in Israel was that the outcome of the war was bound to be a treaty settling the relationship between themselves and the Arabs. Moshe Dayan, the Minister of Defense and a conquering hero to many of his compatriots, announced that he was waiting for a telephone call. Light as it was, the remark reveals the value system that has been operating for a long time throughout the Western world to give political reality to the conclusions of the battlefield. Victor and vanquished decide how to conduct themselves, the one reacting to the other in a process akin to bargaining that is strictly rational and inclining to democracy.
The telephone did not ring because Arabs have a value system that is not just different but totally incompatible, and it too has been in operation a long time. The high and mighty as well as the poor and humble have to gain honor and avoid shame because these values will determine what people think of them. Victory in the battlefield brings high honor; defeat is deepest shame. Defeat at the hands of Jews is a shame so absolute that only military measures are able to wipe it out. What is at issue here is status, something personal and irrational, not open to measurement or bargaining, and inclining to dictatorship. Ostensibly on behalf of the Palestinians, Arab representatives met some weeks after the war was over and passed a resolution that there could be no peace, no negotiation, no recognition of Israel. In Cairo, Nasser resigned, whereupon huge crowds of sobbing Egyptians beseeched him to stay in office to fight another day. Resignation was an admission that he had brought shame on the whole nation. In 1973, Anwar Sadat, Nasser’s successor as president, ran a repeat of the 1967 war. A military museum in Cairo celebrates hypothetical victory, although at the time of the cease-fire Israeli tanks were a few short miles outside Cairo.
Arabs, of course, have ways of making peace. Harold Ingrams, a British official in the days of empire, describes in his invaluable memoir Arabia and the Isles his career of treaty-making between warring Arab tribes, a process so delicate and personal that it might well last several generations. Everyone involved has to be ceaselessly attentive to the status of victors and vanquished. Notables from the parties in dispute have to use their experience and authority to find a balance satisfying the imperatives of shame and honor. Once the 1967 war was over, I spent a lot of time on the West Bank and in Gaza interviewing Palestinian notables. They were indeed men of experience and authority, but if they were to conduct themselves according to the Israeli value system, they would have become self-declared losers, disgraced by the stigma of shame and therefore rejected by their people. All they could do was to recommend that the Israelis withdraw unilaterally from the territories that had been fought over, and then they, the Palestinians, would see what to do next. To Israelis, this was tantamount to saying that no costs had to be paid either for starting the war or for losing it. A political vacuum was created which the various groups in favor of armed struggle and terror made haste to fill.
Goodman has some telling passages about Vladimir Jabotinsky, a gifted but pessimistic politician of Russian-Jewish origin who long ago warned his fellow Zionists that it was “infantile” to think the Arabs would welcome them, but, the world being what it is, they should press on just the same. Goodman’s own view is that Israelis must learn the lesson of contemporary history: “they must stop ruling over other people.” That means leaving the West Bank, and of course Gaza as well, to the Palestinian inhabitants. “The dominant emotion among Palestinians is humiliation,” he observes, and saying goodbye is the way to soothe it. He offers the parallel generalization—“The dominant emotion among Israelis is fear”—but gives no evidence in support. In fact, the prejudice of the international media and the outright anti-Semitism of the cause-mongers of the Left compel more and more Jews to emigrate to Israel.
In any case, Goodman proves in the latter half of his book that it is impossible for Israel to stop ruling Palestinians. Though Zionists and post-Zionists come from diametrically opposed directions, in Goodman’s opinion both are right. Israel needs conditions of democracy, security, and Jewishness, any two of which can be combined, but not all three. Those who aspire to incorporate some or all of the West Bank would be obliged to grant democracy to the Palestinians, and that would put an end to the state’s Jewishness. Those who push for evacuation can have Jewishness and democracy but not security because Palestinians would be free to resume terror and violence at will. So it comes about that the mere existence of the Palestinians has been enough since 1967 to give them a sort of wrestler’s hold over Israel’s plans and hopes. The status quo is shaky, and a great many more lives are likely to be lost for no purpose other than that there’s nothing better in sight now or soon. Clearly “land for peace,” the proposition politicians have been mouthing for years, is pure wish-fulfillment. Along with the Palestinians, the whole Arab order is disintegrating under a value system that depends on irrationality.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 3, on page 71
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