The existential vise in which the state of Israel lives is tightening as the civilian body count and property destruction in the Gaza Strip mount. The latest war between Israel and Hamas is further testament to the historical fact that Israel’s forefathers had to conquer the land that today’s Israelis dwell in and ferociously defend. What hope is left of finding a lasting settlement with the Arabs?
In his My Promised Land, Haaretz journalist Ari Shavit repeatedly and poignantly poses his country’s most pointed questions: How to live as free and moral people on the ruins of a dispossessed people? How to assuage the wounds inflicted on the expelled Arabs? And how to cherish the nation-fortress so dearly bought?
“Israel is the only nation in the West that occupies another people,” writes Shavit. “On the other hand, Israel is the only country in the West that is existentially threatened. Both occupation and intimidation make the Israeli state unique. Intimidation and occupation are the twin pillars of our condition.”
Shavit loves his country yet does not shy from describing the blood that flowed when his people took possession of it. He’s not alone in that uncomfortable place. The historian Benny Morris’ account, “1948,” is similarly unsparing of the brutalities that accompanied the expulsion of 700,000 Palestinians into permanent exile as the new state struggled to be born. Though denied a university post for years because of his apostasy from official Zionist positions on the “liberation struggle,” Morris did not change a word in his book but did change his mind about the nature of the Israeli state, seeing not its leaders but the Palestinians and their leaders as unassuageable enemies with whom peace might never be made.
That change was symptomatic. Though distinguished Israelis like David Grossman raise their voices against the attack on Gaza, and though there have been small protest marches in Israel, opposition to the fighting among Israelis remains subdued, with most opinion supportive, or detached. Tamar Herman, a political scientist, former Peace Now activist and author of the fullest study on the movement, says the pro-peace left has “lost contact with the mainstream.” Even Grossman, whose son was killed in the 2006 Lebanon war, writes that the logic of the present impasse compels Israel to defend itself, though he’s strongly critical of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s refusal to reach out to Hamas and to talk in good faith to the leader of the moderate Palestinian camp, Mahmoud Abbas.