Fifty years ago this Monday, on the first day of the Six Day War, Shlomo Gazit, head of the Israeli military intelligence’s assessment department, visited air force command to hear the stunning reports of the destruction that morning of almost the entire Egyptian air force by Israeli jets. As he would explain to me decades later, however, he would spend much of the subsequent week in a kind of “trance” because he also learned that day that his 23-year-old nephew was among the few missing Israeli pilots.
He still managed that week to produce a clear sighted blueprint for the future of the territories Israel had occupied after wresting them from the Jordanian, Egyptian and Syrian forces which had been ranged against it.
Gazit argued that “Israel should not humiliate its defeated enemies and their leaders.” He proposed an independent – albeit non-militarised – Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza Strip; the Old City of Jerusalem, which was now in Israeli hands after being under Jordanian control since 1949, would become an “open city … with an international status resembling that of the Vatican”.
Gazit was no maverick peacenik, but a career soldier, a veteran of the elite Palmach units in the war which had established the state of Israel 19 years earlier. And the 1967 victory for whose aftermath he was now seeking to prepare his superiors, was total; in a matter of days it swept away the deep fears Israelis had harboured in the run-up to this second major war which most saw as critical to the state’s survival.
Gazit sent his memorandum to everyone who mattered in the then Labour government, from Prime Minister Levi Eshkol down; not one of them replied. The government were anxious to avoid a serious split between those who saw the future as Gazit did, and those who wanted to keep the freshly conquered territories as a permanent part of a “greater Israel”.
But it was the latter group which filled the policy vacuum left by this indecision. Today, around 600,000 Jewish settlers live in 140 settlements in occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank, large tracts of whose land and water resources has been confiscated to make way for the settlements and their military protectors. The process began despite clear legal advice by Theodor Meron, the foreign ministry’s lawyer at the time, that such civilian colonisation of occupied territory violated international law. That remains the official view of almost all Western governments, including Britain’s.
This – abbreviated – version of the core of the modern Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a reminder that there were then, as now, many leading – and unimpeachably Zioinist – Israelis who believed that occupation was a wholly wrong course.
It is scarcely believable that after 50 years the Palestinians, a resourceful and mainly well-educated population, are still imprisoned in a maze of checkpoints closures and military zones, deprived of civil and political rights and governed by martial law. And all this nearly three decades after Yasser Arafat agreed to end the conflict in return for a state on Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem – 22 per cent of historic Palestine (Even Hamas, so long one of many excuses for not reaching a deal, last month issued its qualified support for such an outcome).
It’s easy merely to denounce Israel for its failure to end the occupation. Yes, the Israeli government, the most right-wing in the country’s history, has accelerated settlement building, is increasingly dominated by ultranationalist figures who will this week to unashamedly celebrate the ‘liberation” in 1967 of the West Bank and has shown little serious interest in the two-state solution which Gazit proposed half a century ago – and has, like the international community, advocated ever since.
But the Westerners who rail against Israel for the failure to end the conflict are being too easy on their own governments. An important new book by Nathan Thrall, The Only Language They Understand, eloquently expresses what has long been clear that there is no hope of a breakthrough unless the international community forces it on the parties – and in practice that means on Israel, vastly the stronger of the two and the only one which believes its interests lie in maintaining the status quo.
While the US provides Israel with over $3bn (£2.3bn) a year in military aid and the EU implements trade agreements which exempt only the most flagrant economic activity in the settlements from its provisions, Benjamin Netanyahu is entitled to believe he can maintain the occupation with impunity. Whether or not Donald Trump really wants the “ultimate deal” between Israel and the Palestinians, he is no going to procure it without applying a degree of pressure on the former, which it’s hard to see him contemplating.
Thrall argues that it is ”irrational” for Israel to bear what he sees as the huge cost of agreement with the Palestinians – especially the internal upheaval which would be triggered by withdrawing the West Bank settlements – unless the outside world can make the alternative much worse. I think Thrall exaggerates that cost relative to the potential gains for Israel: full diplomatic and economic relations with the Arab world, an end to the growing perception of Israel as an apartheid state, the reduction of costs – moral and financial – to its own citizens of using a conscript army to enforce the occupation. But that hardly detracts from his central thesis, that there will be no peace until the international community – and particularly the US and/or the EU apply real pressure on Israel. As Thrall points out, sanctions on banks, construction and communications companies that profit from business in the settlements but are not actually based in them, would have a transformatively adverse impact.
But why should the Western powers bother when there is so much else to worry about in the world? Leave aside the huge costs in aid, directly to Israel in the case of the US, and to the Palestinian authority to offset the impact of – some would say subsidise – the occupation in the case of the Europeans. What about security? It’s less fashionable than it used to be to suggest there is a Western security interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And of course it’s utterly crass to think that – say – Isis’s genesis lies in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or that its adherents could care less about the Palestinians. But it is not much less crass to suppose that the US support for Israel, right or wrong, is cost-free. A former general in charge of US Central Command, a fierce opponent of Israeli settlements, said in 2013: “I paid a military price everyday as commander of CentCom, because the Americans were seen as biased in support of Israel.” The general concerned was James Mattis, now Trump’s Defence Secretary.
Whether Trump heeds that warning – and no one would bet much money on him doing so – is beside the point. It is that not just the Israelis and the Palestinians who should be reflecting this week on the impact of what is surely the longest occupation in modern history. It is time for the Western powers to reflect on their part in prolonging a conflict which will never end of its own accord.
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