The Days of the Israeli Empire Are Over

The world accepted Israel’s expansion beyond the borders designated for it in 1948, but those days are over.

Palestinian refugee Ali Abu Jabal, 73, in Jenin, West Bank in front of a mural of the holy land.
Palestinian refugee Ali Abu Jabal, 73, in Jenin, West Bank in front of a mural of the holy land. He was 7 years old when he and his parents left their home in Haifa during the 'Nakba.' AP

According to the patient’s medical report, the situation is dire. An entire territory, alive and kicking, is stuck in the patient’s throat and the doctors are helpless. Throwing up in order to get rid of it means an end to the Greater Land of Israel, in addition to the pain and blood involved. Swallowing it, on the other hand, means the loss of a Jewish state. An Arab poet once described facing two choices, the sweeter of which tastes the most bitter.

Thus, from one day to the next, the empire is receding toward the horizon. A twilight phase is emerging after a long day, that should have long ago been consigned to history. The time of conquest and occupations is over. Empires have folded their banners, with only memories left; pleasant for one side and bitter for the other. But this is the way of the world – nothing lasts indefinitely, and the rider does not remain in the saddle forever. It’s not by coincidence that life is likened to a wheel of fortune that changes with time. When it’s your turn to be on top, it would serve you well to think of those on the bottom.

In his 2007 book “A Blue and White Shadow,” Yair Baumel writes, “There is evidence that during the 1950s, when political circumstances were right and the conquest of the West Bank was feasible, Ben-Gurion was opposed to the idea out of concern that not enough Arabs would flee.” The Palestinians changed their attitudes after their 1948 “Nakba” (catastrophe, when the Israeli state was formed). “It’s either on it or under it,” they decided, referring to their land. A life as refugees was worse than death. In 1967, they implemented the first lesson of the Nakba by staying put. The Israeli-Palestinian writer Emile Habibi realized that his biggest achievement was not his glorious literary legacy, but rather his staying in Haifa. He wanted his tombstone to read: “Remained in Haifa.”

A “transfer” committee established by Ben-Gurion in 1948 determined that “the number of remaining Arabs should under no circumstances exceed 15 percent.” At this point in time, this desired number can be attained in two ways: a 1948-style expulsion, or a withdrawal from the territories. The first option is dead in the water, but the second one is still possible – but not for much longer.

Conquests have stalled

In 1956, after Israel occupied the Sinai Peninsula, Ben-Gurion was swept up in the euphoria, declaring with pathos: “We can once again sing the ancient song of deliverance by Moses and the Israelites: 'The peoples have heard, they tremble; pangs have taken hold on the inhabitants of Philistia. Then were the chiefs of Edom affrighted; the mighty men of Moab, trembling taketh hold upon them; all the inhabitants of Canaan are melted away' [Exodus 15:14-15].” He added that “Eilat will again become the main Hebrew port of the south, and the island of Yotvat (Tiran) will again become part of the Third Kingdom of Israel.” A few weeks later, Ben-Gurion began the total withdrawal from Sinai, leaving the Third Kingdom to historians.

There are two ways of looking at the present situation. On the one hand, this is an occupation that has already lasted for almost 50 years. On the other hand, the momentum of conquests has completely stalled around the world. One should not dismiss this fact. There is now a rearguard action taking place, striving to maintain the occupation of the West Bank. All that messianic energy – from Israeli politicians such as Naftali Bennett to outsiders such as billionaire Sheldon Adelson – is being devoted to machinations that would put the worst anti-Semite to shame, all in order to maintain a tight grip on territory that is merely 5,860 square kilometers (2,263 square miles), not much bigger than the Ramat Hanegev regional council.

All the fuss is over this tiny plot of land, with an army that is among the world’s 10 best, with an intimidating Shin Bet security service and an octopus-like Mossad, an air force and navy that rule large expanses.

For less than two decades, after the 1967 war, Zionism was in control of almost all of Greater Israel, as well as Sinai and a larger part of the Golan Heights. Now, some 50 years after that war, Sinai and part of the Golan are gone, and even Gaza has slipped away. Military excursions – such as the ones into southern Lebanon – can no longer be undertaken. Even the term “expansion,” with which the Left tarred the policies of occupation, is irrelevant. The task now is to preserve the little that is left. Who said the wheel of time doesn’t revolve quickly?

As if that weren’t enough, the Arab world is forgetting what it means to be against Israel. After the Arab League peace initiative of 2002, which called for recognition of Israel and normalization of relations with it, the Arab world became unrecognizably self-centered. The Egyptians are stewing in their own problems, and the good old days of uttering some token statement against the “Zionist entity” are long gone. Egyptians emphasize that they are abiding by the peace treaty, and are determinedly fighting armed groups in Sinai, partly in order to prevent firing at Israel.

In Syria, in which there is a multisided free-for-all, Israel is perceived as an extraterrestrial being from another planet. Hezbollah is engaged in the Syrian civil war.

To top it all, the existential threat from Iran has changed its features, now presenting a big smiley face. Hamas is now coordinating positions with Fatah, announcing – although without much fanfare – that it accepts the existence of Israel.

Farewell to the bogeyman

Most importantly, one can no longer use the bogeyman of an ascendant Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood rose and fell, and time did not stand still. On the contrary, even Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, as well as President Shimon Press, were unstinting in their praise of former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi for his contribution to reaching an agreement with Hamas in the Gaza Strip. In Arab countries, city squares are now occupied not by followers of the Muslim Brotherhood, but by their opponents. One Egyptian intellectual said that he had predicted the Muslim Brotherhood would last for about 50 years, not just one. For him this is the Egyptian miracle, connected to the miracle in Tunisia, in which the Muslim Brotherhood is also in retreat. Secular fervor, which used to be reticent, is now on full display in the streets of Arab cities.

“We have done a terrible thing to you,” said the last Soviet foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, to his American counterpart: “We have deprived you of an enemy!” Yoram Beck, in an article in Haaretz, explained that “the victory that came with the breakup of the Soviet Union, making the United States the sole superpower, signified the beginning of its decline.” A similar situation exists in our region.

The Arabs don’t relate to Israel any more, and the world is unconvinced by cries of “an existential threat hovers over Israel” coming from Israel’s messianic right, when an entire nation is under occupation. Thus, despite the noise the right wing is making, and in spite of its dangerous outbursts, one cannot avoid detecting its feelings of distress. In every language, the road it is marching on is marked as a dead-end.

This is the time for democrats to express themselves. Ambiguity only paved the way for the rule of the extreme right. The empire is crumbling and now is the time for a republic to emerge that will benefit everyone. This is not the time for stammering, the road is so clear. One has only to mount the horse and gallop away into a promising future.

The articles that appear in this section have also been published in Hebrew and Arabic