A nation held hostage to history

Patrick Cockburn starts our series on the 50th anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel, and explains why the sensational military victory of 1967 has become a curse for Israelis today
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The Independent Online
THE VERDICT on the first half century of the history of the state of Israel came two and a half years before the official anniversary. It was delivered by Yigal Amir, a nationalist student at a religious university, who fired two shots into the back of Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister, as he left a peace rally in Tel Aviv in 1995.

Few assassins have been so successful in achieving their aim. The death of Rabin meant that Israel would not fully end the occupation of the West Bank and the isolation of Gaza. Some 5.4 million Israelis would continue effectively to control the lives of 2.8 million Palestinians. Palestinian self-determination would be denied. The legacy of the past would continue to dominate the present.

Fulfillment of the Oslo accords of 1993 would not have changed anything which had happened in 1948: the independence of Israel and catastrophe for the majority of Palestinians, forced to flee their homes and not allowed to return. It offered nothing to the 3.5 million Palestinians of the diaspora. It did, however, offer back part of what Israel conquered in 1967, in a victory which it has spent 30 years trying, not very successfully, to absorb.

The relationship between occupiers and occupied established at this time has dominated the Israeli political agenda ever since. It produced continual friction between Israelis and Palestinians, ensured a militarised mentality in Israel, gave preeminence to the security organs of the state, led to the legalisation of torture and debased standards of government. Yossi Beilin, Israel's leading dove and the architect of the Oslo accords, said: "Israel's sensational victory of 1967 became a curse."

It is a curse likely to continue. For Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, the lessons of the past are as valid today as they were when first experienced. He holds that friction with Arab states is inevitable. He believes Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, his predecessors, were pursuing a chimera in imagining that normal relations with Arab states were ever really possible. The way to handle the Palestinians is to show Israeli strength, "lower their expectations" and make them grateful for whatever they receive.

So far, Mr Netanyahu's policy has worked better than many of his opponents expected. Apart from the fighting which followed the opening of a tunnel under the Muslim quarter in Jerusalem in 1996, which left more than 60 dead, there has been little bloodshed. But there is no sign of Palestinian expectations diminishing. The competing authority of the Palestinian Authority and Israel on the West Bank produces, in the long term, chronic instability.

The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin was also a verdict on the way Israeli society had developed over the previous 48 years. The central divide in Israeli politics has always been between the religious and the secular, between those who go to the synagogue often and those who seldom go at all. This is complicated and deepened by the division between Jews, from Russia and Eastern Europe, with a strong secular culture and who set up the state, and those from the Middle East, whose Jewish identity was entirely religious.

But the melting pot had worked in a peculiar way. After 1967 it produced a lethal blend of territorial nationalism and religious revivalism. The settlers in the West Bank, though small in number, were the shock-troops of the right. They believed that the West Bank was Judea and Samaria, was the land given by God to the Jews. They consciously wanted to make the settler the prototype of the Israeli of the future, replacing the left-wing kibbutznik in the Israeli pantheon.

In this they have had some success. But, more important, since 1977 it has become extremely difficult for Labour to win an election in Israel. Too many of the voting blocs - ultra-Orthodox, Russians, Jews originating in the Middle East - are aligned against it. Labour only just won the election in 1992 with a strong leader and support from the US. This is unlikely to recur. Political divisions within Israeli society are not growing any less. But they are unlikely to have a significant impact unless Mr Netanyahu gets Israel involved in a war on the West Bank or elsewhere.

Armed conflict with the Palestinians is possible, but war with neighbouring Arab states is unlikely. Israel has peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan and everything which followed the 1982 invasion of Lebanon has given the Israeli public a lasting distaste for involvement in Lebanese affairs. Despite Israel's military superiority over its neighbours, it has not won a war since 1973. The Israeli influence on the rest of the Middle East is largely exercised through the US.

Israel has far greater strength than the Palestinians, but the Palestinians have the ability to deny Israelis lasting peace. There is no sign that they have receded in any way from their demand for self-determination. Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, has built the nucleus of a Palestinian mini-state in Gaza, though restrained by Israeli restrictions and his own Ruritanian style of rule. But relations between Israelis and Palestinians continue to deteriorate, with increasing effect on the politics of the 850,000 Israeli Arabs.

Israel was a state created by force in 1948. Palestinians were forced to flee and not allowed to return. The nation created was relatively homogenous. But victory in 1967 again brought large numbers of Palestinians under the rule of Israel, which could not expel them and did not want to create a bi-national state by annexing the area and giving them full civil and political rights.

For 20 years the occupation continued with limited Palestinian resistance. But the outbreak of the Intifada in 1987 showed that this could not continue. Israel became wholly absorbed in holding the occupied territories. Oslo was an attempt to escape from this dilemma, to move to a new and less bitter stage in the history of relations between Israel and the Palestinians.

It failed. The process was too long. Its opponents - Israeli settlers and Islamic suicide bombers - had six years in which to derail it by bomb and bullet. They used both. In 1994 Baruch Goldstein, a settler in Hebron, killed 29 Palestinians as they prayed in the al-Ibrahimi mosque. Hamas responded with suicide bombers who killed more than 100 Israelis in two years.

The past proved impossible to escape. For many Palestinians, what they gained in the 1990s was dwarfed by what they lost in 1948. For many Israelis the gains of 1967 were too sweet to disgorge 30 years later. Some believed that doing so was against the will of God. This explains why there is so little celebration among Israelis on the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the state. It is as if they suspect that a past full of violence is going to repeat itself.