In Israel, it’s the season for stories of heroism – from the Holocaust, the War of Independence and the Six Day War. But the overriding narrative of today’s Israel is the wrong story, and decidedly unheroic. We are essentially living a story parallel to the one Israel’s founding fathers had intended for us.
What distinguishes today’s stories from the past is that before Israel’s statehood we as a people did not control our own fate, and now we do. We now possess the power to choose our story, but it’s a power our leaders try hard to persuade us we lack.
When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared “we will forever live by the sword" he imagines that Israel has no choice: – every war, every operation, every killing of a knife-wielding terrorist is forced upon it. Israel as a state is destined to only be reactive, lacking the agency to determine its course.
But there is an inverse narrative neither our leaders nor most Israelis like to consider: that since 1967, Israel’s story has been an active, conscious subjugation of the will of the Palestinians to its own.
This story of subjugation is not about what’s legal or illegal. Let’s say for argument’s sake that the occupation is completely legal, that the settlements are not a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention and Hamas wants to destroy Israel (all of which I actually believe). It is about getting away from the original intent of the Zionist movement, to be a free people in our own land, ruling justly and in accordance with the will of the international community. Instead, we are enslaved to the maintenance of the occupation.
The tragedy is not that Israel has had no choice but precisely the opposite – by choosing to hold onto the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, Israel radically altered its narrative arc.
Founded to be the Jewish homeland, a catalyst for reducing anti-Semitism, a source of inspiration for the Diaspora and a light unto the nations, Israel’s citizens were New Jews - strong and independent - in a script new to Jewish history for millennia. Until 1967, Israel was following that path. It overcame the economic burden of absorbing over a million immigrants to build a society with relatively little socioeconomic inequality; fostered diplomatic relations with most of the world, with a focus on development for African nations; and built up a formidable military force that easily defeated Egypt in 1956 and acquired nuclear capabilities. By 1967, Israel’s existence was secure.
1967 changed all that.
The Six Day War put Israel on a parallel path. The story shifted from Israel the unapologetic David to being Israel the apologetic Goliath. From being a light unto other nations to hasbara in defense of the occupation. Already in the summer of 1967, Israel was trying to obfuscate its de facto annexation of East Jerusalem, as Nir Hasson recently explained. Giving up territory would make us look weak.
Israel’s leaders knew right away that what they were doing did not reflect the exemplary behavior the Zionist movement had strived to display ever since the First Zionist Congress declared that it would seek to establish a Jewish home through public law – and not in contravention of it or by force.
The greatest damage has been internal. The settlement enterprise has become a divisive factor in Israeli society, sowing bitter rivalries among Jews not seen since the end of the Second Temple period, a story with its own tragic ending.
So, what do we want for our future? What will be the continuing story of Israel?
If you’re satisfied with the current story (and it’s a narrative just as seductive to many Diaspora Jews as Israelis) - go ahead, keep living by the sword, be prepared for Israel to suffer every year dozens of casualties, countless cases of PTSD, condemnation on the world stage and the occasional mini-war.
But if you find this story unacceptable, then what needs to happen? We need an exit strategy from the territories, the most radical one being unilateral withdrawal.
Consider the words of Vladimir Jabotinsky – the spiritual founder of Herut, the Likud’s predecessor, and mentor of Netanyahu’s father – to the 1937 Peel Commission on Palestine. He believed that it would not be a hardship for the Arabs of Palestine to become a minority, and he likened Arab and Jewish claims to “the claims of appetite versus the claims of starvation” because of the need to resettle millions of desperate Jews.
In 2017, can Israel liken its claim to the West Bank as a claim of starvation? Have we not completed the task of resettling Jews desperate for sanctuary?
The irony of the parallel story we have chosen is that Israel was more secure before 1967, when the 1956 war deterred hostile Arab states like Israel has never been able to do since. Given all of Israel’s technological advances, its diplomatic gains with the Arab world and its military and economic superiority over the Palestinians, how does it make sense that returning to the 1967 borders would be political suicide?
On the contrary, doing so is the only way in the long term to end Israel’s overwhelmingly defensive diplomatic and military posture and to restore its deterrence to pre-‘67 levels. And Israel is strong enough to withstand any short-term Palestinian aggression at a moral and material cost far less than the slow hemorrhage of this 50-year occupation.
But seeing the benefits of returning to our internationally recognized borders after 50 years of needlessly throwing away lives takes a boldness that the current national leadership lacks. Let us hope that Independence Day this year just enough Israelis will reflect on our national story and choose Israel’s original path rather than the treacherous post-67 trail with its disastrous results.
Steven Klein is an editor at Haaretz and an adjunct professor at Tel Aviv University's International Program in Conflict Resolution and Mediation.
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