Coping with a messianic hangover

The worst may be over for the Six Day War’s most improbable casualty – the Israeli consensus

Activists celebrate the 1975 agreement allowing settlement near Sebastia (photo credit: MOSHE MILNER / GPO)
Activists celebrate the 1975 agreement allowing settlement near Sebastia
(photo credit: MOSHE MILNER / GPO)
 “DON’T FIGHT,” said a patronizing Charles de Gaulle even before shaking Abba Eban’s extended hand in May 1967, as the Israeli foreign minister entered the presidential chambers at the Elysée Palace.
It took less than two weeks for Israel to ignore de Gaulle’s unsolicited order and launch the preemptive strike for which he would never forgive the Jewish state.
It was a show of mutual audacity: the Frenchman refused to accept his country’s diminishing clout, but minuscule Israel was not this imperial decline’s natural announcer to the self-styled successor of Napoleon, the Bourbons and Charlemagne.
Yet, in 1967, Israel could be this daring because it wielded a weapon that its victory would devour: consensus.
The prewar consensus was multitiered.
Emotionally, no Israeli Jew doubted Israel’s justice and its enemies’ evil.
Every child knew that Arab enmity was unequivocal, that enemy armies had assembled along Israel’s borders and that at stake was Israel’s very survival. In addition, the enlistment of the public to dig trenches, fill sandbags and tape windows.
and storefronts did wonders to drive home danger’s imminence and intensity.
Diplomatically, de Gaulle’s behavior fomented a sense of betrayal.
France had been Israel’s main arms supplier, and, ironically, its elegant fighter jet, the Mirage, would spearhead Israel’s military campaign. Israelis expected France to take a moral stand in the face of Egypt’s naval blockade of Eilat and its eviction of UN peacekeepers from Gaza.
Instead, they were embargoed and asked not to fight.
Had any fleet blockaded, say, the Port of Marseilles, de Gaulle would surely have lost no time bombing it no matter what the cost, went the consensus. His demand from Israel to hold its fire was, therefore, seen as a show of hypocrisy, cynicism and betrayal.
The Jews, it followed, were yet again on their own and, therefore, had better do what they think is right, regardless of the outer world’s misgivings.
Lastly, on the political plane, Israel’s leaders took a page from wartime Britain, creating what had previously been unthinkable – a left-right government.
The appointment of eternal opposition leader Menachem Begin as a minister in Levi Eshkol’s government both reflected and cemented a consensus that underpinned the soldiers’ motivation in the battlefield.
The coalition’s expansion was brought to the Knesset for approval the night of the war’s outbreak, with artillery shells raining on Jerusalem’s houses and machine-gun staccatos unsettling its empty streets. It was in that setting that Begin and his historic archrival, David Ben-Gurion, were seen walking arm in arm through the Knesset corridors, chatting discretely like a pair of old friends.
It had been 19 years since the former and future prime ministers emerged on opposite ends of the cannon with which Ben-Gurion’s troops sank Begin’s arms ship, the Altalena.
What back in 1948 seemed like an imminent civil war now became a national lovefest.
That idyll would not last long.
NEWS OF the conquest of Jerusalem’s Old City swept Israelis off their feet, regardless of political stripe and religious observance, but the victory’s magnitude and improbability would now debilitate the consensus that largely made it happen.
Overwhelmed by the sudden transition from prewar anxiety to postwar euphoria, Israel had no idea what to do with the vast territories it conquered in the war its neighbors had provoked.
“We should tell the inhabitants of the occupied territories these simple and clear things,” Amos Oz, then a promising, 27-year-old novelist, wrote that summer.
“We do not want your land… We will sit and rule here until the signing of a peace agreement.… The choice will be yours.”
Oz was soon joined by other literati and much of the academic elite, most notably philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz. Others, led by Nobel Laureate S.Y. Agnon, poet Natan Alterman and novelist Moshe Shamir, took the opposite view.
“This victory isn’t only about restoring to the Jews their most ancient and exalted national sanctuaries, the ones that are etched more than anything else in its memory and in the depths of its history,” wrote Alterman.
“This victory is about the erasure of the difference between the State of Israel and the Land of Israel.”
Two opposing schools of thought, Land for Peace and Greater Israel, were thus born and would come to dominate Israel’s political discourse and split Israeli society down the middle for the better part of half a century.
Initially, the politicians seemed to be treading a middle road between the two schools. On the one hand, Israel annexed nothing besides east Jerusalem, and was also a party to the UN’s Resolution 242, In the aftermath of the failed Camp David conference, which turned the abstract idea of land for peace into diplomatic currency.
At the same time, Israel allowed the return of Jewish refugees to and restoration of the Etzion Bloc, a cluster of settlements south of Bethlehem that were conquered and erased by the Jordanian Legion in 1948.
JEWISH SETTLEMENTS also began sprouting on the Golan Heights and in the Jordan Valley. The Jewish Quarter in Jerusalem’s Old City was repopulated and new Jewish neighborhoods began rising in east Jerusalem.
Still, in those early years, the settlement project on the whole was consensual because it avoided the densely populated parts of the newly conquered lands.
That is why the Labor government sent settlers to the mostly empty Sinai where it established the resort towns Di-Zahav (Dahab), Neviot and Ofira opposite Saudi Arabia; the oil-producing community Shalhevet, opposite Africa; and the fishermen’s village Nahal Yam off the Mediterranean.
The exceptions of the Etzion Bloc and Hebron notwithstanding, the general understanding during the first decade after ’67 was that Israel avoids building settlements in densely inhabited Palestinian areas, and that even from where it does settle it may ultimately retreat for peace.
Even so, in 1977, the debate between Land for Peace and Greater Israel proceeded from theory to practice ‒ twice: first, when Labor lost power to Likud and then when Anwar Sadat landed in Israel.
The land-for-peace deal with Egypt in 1979 and the West Bank’s massive settlement since 1981 split Israeli politics between two starkly contrasting utopias. The clash between the two schools was so intense that many thought it would tear Israeli society apart, especially after the 1982 Lebanon War when Israelis, for the first time in their country’s history, were staring at fallen soldiers’ fresh graves while pointing fingers in each other’s faces.
Many, therefore, feared that Israeli society would not endure the fissure that the war of ’67 had carved.
They were wrong.
Israeli voters eventually gave both schools of thought a chance to execute their platforms.
Greater Israel got its opportunity in the 1980s when Begin and Ariel Sharon – as his defense minister – launched their settlement drive. Land for Peace got its chance the following decade when a Labor-led government signed the Oslo Accords.
Both experiments were followed by the massive Palestinian violence of the first and second intifadas. Ironically, that is how the Israeli consensus was restored. First, a critical mass concluded that Greater Israel had ignored the intensity of Palestinian nationalism.
Then, as they braved some 150 suicide bombers and hundreds of shooting, bombing and stabbing attacks, the same critical mass concluded that Land for Peace had ignored Palestinian disinterest in peace and endemic hostility to the Jewish state.
A new Israeli consensus emerged, for the first time since 1967, whereby the average Israeli understood both post-’67 schools as inverted utopias. Paradoxically, the faith in the Oslo vision after its collapse suddenly seemed as messianic as the theology that fueled many Greater Israelites.
Now, as noted by Hartman Institute scholar Micah Goodman in a new book titled “Catch 67,” both schools have toned down their  messianic argumentation. The Greater Israelites now speak less about God’s vows to the Jews and more about rational concerns like missile ranges and topographical superiority.
The rival school, for its part, speaks less about peace in our times and more about what it portrays as an Arab demographic threat to the Jewish state’s Jewishness.
Israelis emerged from the territorial debate as pragmatists disillusioned with utopias.
They will make concessions for peace when faced with peacemakers, but when faced with enemies they will fight. This became particularly apparent during the Battle of Jenin in spring 2002 when more reserve paratroopers turned out for the planned showdown with the suicide bombers than the number of troops that the IDF enlisted for that clash.
At its root, this consensus has always been there. That is why even a super-hawk like Begin, when faced with a man of peace like Sadat, struck the ultimate land-for-peace deal. And that is why, in 1967, when faced with a man of war like Gamal Abdel Nasser, even a grandfatherly peace lover like thenprime minister Levi Eshkol went to war.
Similarly, the pragmatic mainstream demanded last decade an anti-terrorism fence, despite opposition from both Shimon Peres and Sharon – the former, then foreign minister, because he feared the fence would compromise his Peace Now vision, and the latter, then prime minister, because he thought the fence would compromise the swaths of Greater Israel that sprawled to its east.
Most notably, the disengagement from Gaza in 2005 was backed by the mainstream public despite a massive and well-organized anti-retreat campaign that was aimed to win the hearts of average Israelis for what had been perceived as a sectarian, messianic cause. The campaign failed colossally. Israelis sympathized with the evacuees’ pain but they did not join their cause, and certainly did not help prevent the retreat.
The common impression abroad that Israel remains deeply split between the two schools is, in short, unfounded.
Yes, the current coalition is led by Greater Israelites. However, four of its parties – Shas, Kulanu, Yisrael Beytenu and United Torah Judaism – are not committed to the Greater Israel idea. Moreover, Likud’s ministers know that the day a sincere Palestinian peacemaker emerges most Israelis will demand a deal, and they know that the retreat from Gaza made the idea of evacuation a realistic option. Bruised and wrinkled, Greater Israel in 2017 is not the immaculate idea it was in 1967.
THE RESTORATION of the Israeli consensus is particularly unique considering the steady erosion of the consensus elsewhere in the West.
While Donald Trump hammers at pillars of the American consensus ‒ from the media’s legitimacy to the judiciary’s authority ‒ and with immigrants pressuring the European Union’s cohesion while nationalists defy its ideals, Israelis haven’t demonstrated much since 2011, and when they did it was not about the territorial issue, but about economics.
The economic side of the Israeli consensus is a case in point.
In 1967, Israel was a socialist economy with extensive governmental planning and a dominant public sector that comprised more than two-thirds of the economy. At the time, it was part of the consensus.
However, after having reached the brink of bankruptcy while inflation soared to 415%, Israel became split economically between socialists and capitalists. Israel seemed unable to produce a new economic consensus, even in the face of impending economic doom.
Then, however, much like the dynamics of 1967, Israel’s politicians united at the brink of catastrophe – in this case the near extinction of foreign-currency reserves – and delivered the stabilization plan that saved the economy by steering it away from socialism to capitalism. The transition was so sharp that eventually even most kibbutzim were privatized.
Israel’s economic reformers stopped short of fully dismantling its social safety net and health care system. Even so, by 2011, as thousands took to the streets and demanded cheaper housing, tuition and food, the economic consensus seemed shattered.
It wasn’t.
Like the debate over the future of the territories, in this realm, too, the utopian opposites are there, represented roughly by Benjamin Netanyahu, the Thatcherite, and the neo-socialists in Labor and Meretz. In between, however, sprawls a broad consensus that wants private enterprise to thrive, but also to foster justice for the underprivileged and opportunity for the poor.
This consensus has been so powerful that it has kept a succession of disparate finance ministers ‒ from Labor’s Avraham (Baiga) Shochat to Likud’s Yuval Steinitz through Kulanu’s Moshe Kahlon ‒ from journeying too far away from the mainstream’s quest for capitalism with a human face.
Israel’s economic success would not have happened without this new consensus. Then again, it pales when compared with the third dimension of the steadily emerging Israeli consensus: religion.
The eruption of messianic fervor at the sight of Jewish troops climbing the Temple Mount in 1967 spelled a great threat to the Israeli consensus.
The victory that made many assume the Messiah was around the corner implied potential impatience with secularism. At the same time, many in the secularist elite would grow impatient with, and fearful of, the newly energized messianic avant-garde that later took over the settlement cause.
All this was besides the fact that the Israeli consensus already had been challenged prior to 1967 by a modern Orthodoxy that imposed on the secular majority religious matrimony laws, kosher kitchens in the military and various Sabbath restrictions.
Understandably, then, many wondered whether Israel’s young society could ever produce any kind of religious consensus.
Well this may surprise many, but the fact is that distances have narrowed dramatically on this front, as well.
POLLS INDICATE that some 90% of Israeli Jews observe the Passover Seder; 60% fast on Yom Kippur; 70% keep kosher; 94% circumcise their boys; and 66% hold a Sabbath meal and say its special prayer, the Kiddush, every Friday night.
That means Israelis are overwhelmingly traditional. Moreover, there is a new spirit of religious experimentation that is slowly but steadily narrowing gaps between Israeli Jews.
The holiday of Shavuot, when Jews historically stayed up all night studying Judaic texts, was once celebrated markedly differently by observant and secular Israelis: the former upheld tradition, celebrating in synagogues the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, while the latter celebrated spring, fertility and harvest.
In recent decades, however, secular Israelis flock on Shavuot night to lectures, symposia and study forums where Judaic texts are studied in novel ways. At the same time, modern-Orthodox Israelis are embracing a new feminism that in 1967 was unthinkable in Israeli synagogues. With dozens of communities already welcoming women’s sermons, adopting egalitarian liturgy and even ordaining women rabbis, the phenomenon is clearly set to grow.
Even more improbably, the ultra-Orthodox population that once opposed Zionism and shunned the secular workplace now produces 2,500 soldiers annually and also sends thousands of its young men and women to learn secular professions in newly opened colleges. In doing so, they, too, are joining the transforming Israeli consensus.
This month, as historians, diplomats and journalists mark the Six Day War’s 50th anniversary, many will lament it as the moment the Israeli consensus died. That was true last century. This century, in the aftermath of the failed Camp David conference in 2000 and the violence that followed it, the Israeli consensus has been restored.
That is an accomplishment by any yardstick, but all the more so when compared with the crises of national identity and social solidarity plaguing European countries from Ukraine to Belgium, not to mention the multiple civil wars across the Arab world.