By Roger Cohen
December 29, 2017
In 1919, David Ben-Gurion, who 29 years later would become the founding prime minister of Israel, dismissed the possibility of peace.
Speaking at a public discussion, he said: “Everyone sees the difficulty of relations between Jews and Arabs but not everyone sees that there is no solution to that question. There is no solution. There is an abyss and nothing can fill that abyss ... We want Palestine to be ours as a nation. The Arabs want it to be theirs, as a nation.”
Almost a century on, Ben-Gurion’s prescience, in this statement, is clear. Today, Jerusalem, contested city, is adorned with banners saying: “God Bless Trump. From Jerusalem DC (David’s Capital) to Washington DC.”
President Trump’s rash recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, its boundaries to be determined, has won him friends in Israel even as it has envenomed the festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
One thing is safe to say about 2018: It will not bring peace to the Holy Land. Peace is not built on provocations or ultimate-deal fantasy.
Tom Segev, a prominent Israeli historian who has just completed a biography of Ben-Gurion, told me Israel’s founding father was not much interested in Jerusalem when he first went to Ottoman Palestine in 1906. He was not drawn to “David’s capital,” preferring to stay with the Jewish pioneers in Petah Tikva and elsewhere.
“Jerusalem had too many Orthodox Jews, who were anti-Zionist, and too many Arabs,” Segev said. Ben-Gurion was interested in forging a new Jew: the scrawny scholars of the European shtetl poring over sacred texts would become vigorous tillers of the soil. “Tel Aviv was the capital of Zionism; Jerusalem of Judaism,” Segev suggested.
The Zionist movement accepted United Nations Resolution 181 of 1947, calling for the establishment of two states — one Jewish, one Arab — in Mandate Palestine. It accepted a split that excluded Jerusalem from the nascent Jewish state, with the city as a separate entity to be administered by the United Nations.
Arabs, however, rejected Resolution 181, went to war, lost, and under the Armistice Israel took control of West Jerusalem, which became its capital. War erupted again in 1967, Arabs lost again, Israel captured East Jerusalem and declared the whole city reunited as its capital. Settlement of the occupied West Bank began.
This lightning victory in the Six-Day War occurred a half-century ago. Most Israelis were born after it. The pre-1967 lines mean nothing to them. These are the facts. Then comes emotion.
Such a victory could only be God-given. As Segev put it, “That’s when the euphoria starts, lasting until today. Strong nationalism and strong religion begin to coalesce. It was somewhere inside our collective soul.”
By the mid-1970s, Israel stood at the fulcrum of its shift from brave upstart to colonialist power. The messianic push to settle the West Bank (and so the biblical Land of Israel) would shift religious Zionism from a marginal phenomenon to the heart of Israel’s politics. The nation’s culture began its steady journey from a communal to an individualist culture.
Yitzhak Rabin, the secular general who concluded that only territorial compromise with the Palestinians would bring peace, was killed in 1995, not by a Palestinian but by an Israeli religious zealot. Since then Israel has moved steadily right.
Was this inevitable? Could an ethno-religious Jewish state only find itself in eternal conflict, controlling the lives of Palestinians? Segev thinks it was inevitable. “If I were a Palestinian, I would also fight the Jews,” he said. “That was the price of Zionism.” Hence his book’s title: “A State at All Costs.” Was it worth the price? “I am very much aware how high the price was,” he said.
I don’t think it was entirely inevitable. Had Rabin lived, there would have been a chance for peace. Had the cultivation of victimhood not proved a fatal Palestinian temptation, a chance could have existed. And what of the price paid? Put a gun to my head, or rather my heart, and I will say as a Jew that, yes, Israel was worth the price.
The Jews needed a homeland. History proves that. Assimilation never worked; the Holocaust was no more than a culmination. The United Nations, in 1947, backed such a homeland. And if I, as a Jew, have lived a privileged life in the diaspora, it is in part because of the pride and strength that the new Jew of Israel forged. “Never Again” became more than mere words through Israel’s might.
But the Israel hoped for by Ben-Gurion has lost itself, corrupted by overreach. “The situation is very bad in the occupied territories,” Segev said. “There’s a systematic violation of Palestinians’ human rights. Our government is more and more right wing, racist, anti-Arab. If they were members of a government in Austria, we’d recall our ambassador in protest.”
This is the government cheered on by President Trump and an American ambassador, David Friedman, who sounds like the West Bank settlers’ envoy. This is the government leading Israel nowhere. This is my shame.