Tel Aviv – Binyamin Netanyahu’s furious rejection of US President Barack Obama’s proposal to use the 1967 borders as the basis for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute – frontiers that he called “utterly indefensible” – reflects not only the Israeli prime minister’s poor statesmanship, but also his antiquated military philosophy.
In an era of ballistic missiles and other weapons of mass destruction, and in which the planned Palestinian state is supposed to be demilitarized, why is it so vital for Israel to see its army “sit along the Jordan River”? If such a tripwire is really necessary, why shouldn’t a reliable international force carry out that task? And how can hundreds of isolated settlements spread amidst a hostile Palestinian population ever be considered a strategic asset?
Netanyahu should, perhaps, have studied the lessons of the 1973 Yom Kippur war on the Golan Heights before denouncing Obama’s idea. When the war started, the first thing the Israeli army command sought was the evacuation of the area’s settlements, which Israel’s generals knew would quickly become an impossible burden, and an obstacle to maneuver, for their troops. Indeed, the last war that Israel won “elegantly” – in the way that Netanyahu imagines that wars should be won – began from the supposedly “indefensible” 1967 lines.
That is no accident. Israel’s occupation of Arab lands in that war, and its subsequent deployment of military forces amidst the Arab population of the West Bank and close to the powerful military machines of Egypt in the south and Syria in the north, exposed it to Palestinian terrorism from the east. At the same time, occupation denied Israel’s army the advantage of a buffer – the demilitarized zones that were the key to the 1967 victory against both Egypt and Syria.
For borders to be defensible, they need first to be legitimate and internationally recognized. But Netanyahu does not really trust “the gentiles” to supply that type of international recognition of Israel’s borders, not even when America is behind him, and not even when Israel today has the most powerful military capabilities in the Middle East.
The son of a renowned historian who served as the personal secretary of Zeev Jabotinski, the founder of the Zionist right, Netanyahu absorbed from childhood his father’s interpretation of Jewish history as a series of tragedies. The lesson was simple: the gentiles cannot be relied upon, for Jewish history is one of betrayal and extermination at their hands. The only remedy to our fragile existence in the Diaspora lies in the return to the Biblical Land of Israel. Our Arab neighbors should never be trusted; hence, as Jabotinski preached, the new Israeli nation must erect an Iron Wall of Jewish power to deter its enemies forever.
To be fair, such an existential philosophy was not the right’s monopoly. The legendary General Moshe Dayan, who was born in a socialist Kibbutz on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, was no less a skeptic about the chances of coexisting with the Arabs. A gifted orator, this is how he put it in a eulogy to a fallen soldier in 1956:
“Let us not be deterred from seeing the loathing that is inflaming and filling the lives of the hundreds of thousands of Arabs who live around us. Let us not avert our eyes lest our arms weaken….This is the fate of our generation, this is our life choice, to be prepared and armed, strong and determined, lest the sword be stricken from our fist and our lives cut down….We are a generation of settlers, and, without the steel helmet and the cannon’s fire, we will not be able to plant a tree and build a home.”
Yet the same Dayan, who in 1970 said that “the only peace negotiations are those where we settle the land and we build, and we settle, and from time to time we go to war,” was forced by cruel reality to admit that the best security to which Israel can aspire is that based on peace with its neighbors. Eventually, he became the architect of a historic peace with Egypt. His bookAre We Truly Condemned to Live by the Sword to Eternity? marked the transformation of the soldier into a statesman.
If Netanyahu is ever to lead a historic reconciliation with the Palestinian people, he should start by endorsing a courageous, almost post-Zionist insight reflected in Dayan’s 1956 eulogy. Fully aware of the bitter legacy of Palestinian disinheritance following the 1948 war, Dayan refused to blame the murderers. On the contrary, he understood their “burning hatred.”
Unfortunately, Israel today has a prime minister with the mentality of a platoon commander who nonetheless likes to cast himself as a latter day Churchill fighting the forces of evil bent on destroying the Third Jewish Temple. Of course, a great leader must always have a sense of history. But, as the French philosopher Paul Valéry put it, history, “the science of things which are not repeated,” is also “the most dangerous product which the chemistry of the intellect has ever evolved,” especially when manipulated by politicians.
Menachem Begin, a hawkish predecessor of Netanyahu as prime minister, once had the insolence to say to the great historian Yaakov Talmon that, “when it comes to the twentieth century, I am more an expert than you are.”
Talmon responded with “The Fatherland is Imperiled,” a pivotal article whose conclusions are as relevant today as they were in 1981. Not until occupation ends, Israel lives within internationally recognized borders, and the Palestinians recover their dignity as a nation will the Jewish state’s existence be finally secured.
Shlomo Ben Ami, a former Israeli foreign minister who serves as Vice-President of the Toledo international Center for Peace, is the author of Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: the Israeli-Arab Tragedy.
Read more from Shlomo Ben-Ami here.