Preview of Controversial Israel Article

The small state needs all deterrents it can obtain, but it also may have to adopt a low profile in order to survive.

An excerpt from Walter Laqueur's "Exodus" appearing in the March/April issue of  The National Interest.


For Israel, 1967 was, or could have been, the great turning point. It occupied virtually all the lands west of the Jordan River, and for the first time was in a position to make substantial concessions since it now held enough territory to begin a tit-for-tat. Israel waited for a phone call from the Arab governments indicating their willingness to make peace, but the call never came. And so Israel became saddled with the West Bank (or Judea and Samaria in the language of the settlers who soon began to stream into the newly gained territory). But they also gained Gaza.

Without Gaza, some Israeli politicians (such as the late-Knesset member Israel Galili) argued, Israel could not exist. A few at first, the settlers swelled to several hundreds of thousands. Many (but not all of them) were filled with the messianic fervor that had become the fashion: God himself had restored to the people of Israel the historic homeland he had promised them as well as holy Jerusalem, which would never again be divided.

The events of 1967 generated in Israel a wave of mystical trances and messianic expectations-there were mass petitions to not give up a single inch of the conquered territories. The National Religious Party, which had been among the most moderate and peaceful political forces, became one of the most fanatical. Its leader, Zerah Warhaftig, declared immediately after the end of the war that one ought to get rid as quickly as possible of the non-Jewish holy sites in Jerusalem, for keeping them would only spell major trouble. But this was quickly forgotten, and the Israeli parliament passed a law declaring that Jerusalem should never again be divided, even if today's Jerusalem is de facto a divided city.

In an article published in Commentary in August 1967 titled "Israel, the Arabs, and World Opinion," I wrote that most people in Israel were not aware of the enormity of the problems facing them:

The administration and policing of large areas populated by Arabs were bound to create nightmarish problems. It could be predicted with near certainty that there would be an increasing number of acts of sabotage, and that the Israeli authorities would have to respond sharply. And it was easy to imagine world reaction to such incidents. . .
Israel now faces hard times. There is a massive propaganda onslaught . . . about the new Hitlerites and their barbarous atrocities; already we have heard about Israeli Gauleiters and Lebensraum, and next . . . Israeli extermination camps.

And I concluded that:

Pressure for revenge on Israel will be overwhelming. . . . a new military adventure [is] extremely probable not in ten or twenty years, but well before.

The prediction was accurate-the Yom Kippur War of October 1973 came a mere six years later. In an attempt to regain prestige after the stunning defeat of the Six-Day War, Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack against Israel. Though in the end there were no substantial territorial gains, a level of Arab pride was certainly restored.

Seen from today's perspective the war of 1973 was not an unmitigated disaster for Israel-without this war there would have been no Sadat visit to Jerusalem and no peace with Egypt. Most Israelis, including the political class, did not pay attention at the time to the demographic implications of holding on to the occupied territories-that given the much higher Arab birthrate the number of Arabs in Greater Israel would be in the near future as large, or larger, than the number of Jews.

True, apart from the mystical mood, there were rational arguments for holding on to the new borders. There was nothing sacrosanct about the Israeli borders of 1948, which made the country difficult to defend. And it is quite doubtful whether giving up the conquered territories would have affected in any way the rise of Muslim fundamentalism.

Fatah, founded in the 1950s, stood for the liberation of all of Palestine from the Mediterranean to the Jordan. It was only after the war of 1973 and the various misfortunes of the Palestine Liberation Organization that Fatah somewhat softened its position, expressing a willingness to make at least some concessions.

There was at least a chance that giving up the territories would have had some effect, whereas holding on to them was bound to lead to the disappearance of a state both Jewish and democratic. And since it should have been clear that sooner or later most of the occupied territories would have to be surrendered in any case, was it not more prudent to do so from a position of strength than weakness?

Which leads to a cardinal shortcoming of Israeli policy in recent decades: the failure to accept that a small country with seven million inhabitants (of which about 20 percent are Arabs) needs to behave according to its status in the world and its limited power.

There is a naive belief in Israel, only slowly eroding, that on the international level there is one justice for all, that if (not only figuratively speaking) major powers can get away with murder, smaller ones can get away with it too. In brief, many Israelis fail to understand what has been clear all throughout history, even to minor mafiosi: when facing a strong, hostile coalition, the correct policy is to try to divide it. The small state needs all deterrents it can obtain, but it also may have to adopt a low profile in order to survive. The benefits of such a strategy should have been clear given the many internal conflicts within the Arab world, but they were ignored for decades.