The Magazine

Next Year in Jerusalem?

No Greater Israel; no New Middle East. What's next?

Nov 6, 2000, Vol. 6, No. 08 • By TOM ROSE
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THE EVENTS of the past few weeks have forced Israelis to jettison fantasies of a "New Middle East" characterized by regional integration, open markets, the free movement of people, and, most important, peace and security. Instead, they face the depressing task of recalibrating their national compass to reflect reality: Israel remains trapped in a dangerous, violent, and rejectionist Middle East.

Yet, as desperate as the present condition seems in the life of this still largely unformed nation, it could be the harbinger of a new beginning. For the first time since the state of Israel was reestablished in 1948, there is no abiding or even ascendant ideology that guides her. The past month's organized and violent assault against Israel has destroyed the last operating political idea to prevail in these parts: that a settlement could be reached with the Palestinians, and that this peace would usher in prosperity and stability.

The state of Israel was the product of a political movement whose objective was to restore the Jewish people to its ancient homeland, sovereign and free. The founders of modern political Zionism formed this revolutionary movement as a practical solution to a very material problem: The Jewish people's statelessness subjected them to persecutions and dangers they were helpless to combat. If a homeland could be fashioned, early Zionists argued, the Jewish people could be saved from disaster and even restored to national greatness.

Like most things Jewish, Zionism long ago underwent its almost preordained schism. One wing went right, while the other stayed left. The two camps, with their evolving values and political programs, have taken turns running Israel ever since the country was established. Yet at bottom, it was the initial Zionist vision that legitimized all the subsequent iterations of the Jews' claim to sovereignty and power.

Israel's first generation was too busy staving off physical destruction while developing the institutions of statehood to worry about much else. The Six Day War changed that in 1967. Israel emerged from its victory tripled in size -- in possession at last of the Jews' ancient and sacred capital of Jerusalem and the lands of biblical Israel, along with the Golan Heights and Sinai Desert. Israelis could suddenly afford to dream.

The two surviving wings of modern Zionism have spent the last 30 years developing and trying to implement their contrasting visions of modern Israel. For a decade after 1967, the socialist Labor party held political power, but the conservative religious Zionist movement made headway on the ground. It held that Jewish settlement of all of the ancient Land of Israel -- notably the newly captured territories -- would presage the in-gathering of the exiles and the subsequent redemption of man. Security hawks jumped aboard, not because they shared the movement's religious views but because they believed that holding the 1967 territories was essential as a bulwark against Arab invasions. The settler movement, spawned in the very first days after the Six Day War and later dubbed "Greater Israel," grew for more than a decade and finally saw political triumph with the election of Menachem Begin in 1977. But by the early 1980s, it was starting to decline.

While conservative Zionists were executing the vision of Jewish settlement, Israel's socialist Left was patiently chipping away at Greater Israel's ideological preeminence. The Left argued that the only true way to fulfill Jewish destiny was to relinquish the lands conquered in 1967 in exchange for a comprehensive regional peace. By the early 1990s, the Israeli public was tired of spending money on infrastructure in the territories, and of enduring casualties and world opprobrium in the face of the intifada. Israel's attendance at the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference under the leadership of a Likud government, followed by Benjamin Netanyahu's acceptance of the principle of land for peace after his election in 1996, were the final nails in the coffin of Greater Israel. That version of the Zionist dream was dead.

It was the Left's turn. Their post-Zionist Zionism championed the view that Israel's historic conflict with the Arab world in general, and the Palestinians in particular, resulted less from the Arabs' rejection of Israel's right to exist than from Israel's military occupation of Arab land. Ending the occupation, they reasoned, would not only end the conflict, it would usher in a period of peace, prosperity, and security for Israel unprecedented in the 4,000 year history of the Jewish people. This vision held sway under Rabin, Peres, and Barak.