book review

Israel’s Irrational Rationality

Israeli policemen removing a protester during the eviction of Jewish settlers from the illegal settlement of Amona in the occupied West Bank, February 2017

Israeli policemen removing a protester during the eviction of Jewish settlers from the illegal settlement of Amona in the occupied West Bank, February 2017. (photo: Corinna Kern / NurPhoto / Getty Images)

By David Shulman / The New York Review of Books
June 22, 2017


No amount of coddling and reassuring, no increased bribes in the form of more money or military aid, will have any effect on Israeli policy for the simple reason that Israel considers any sacrifice that would be necessary for peace far worse than maintaining the current situation . . . . The assumption that Israel genuinely wants a peace agreement is simply wrong; the costs of such an agreement are tangible, immediate, and perhaps overwhelming, involving the loss of territory, an end to colonization, and potential political collapse, whereas the costs of maintaining the status quo are for many Israelis, if at times unpleasant, eminently bearable.


This June, Israel is marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Six-Day War. Some Israelis, including most members of the present government, are celebrating the country’s swift victory over Egypt, Jordan, and Syria as the beginning of the permanent annexation of the entire Palestinian West Bank; others, like me, mourn it as the start of a seemingly inexorable process of moral corruption and decline, the result of the continuing occupation of the West Bank, along with Israel’s now indirect but still-crippling control of Gaza. As it happens, my own life in Israel coincides exactly with the occupation. I arrived from the US in 1967, not as an ideological Zionist but as a young student who had fallen madly in love with the Hebrew language. Sometimes I think it is my passion for the language that has kept me here for five decades, although I would now want to add the strong feeling that it is my fate and my good fortune to be able to fight the good fight.

The country I came to live in fifty years ago was utterly unlike the one I live in today. It was no utopia, but its society was broadly moderate and humane, a mildly Mediterranean version of a modern European social democracy. Despite what some would say, it was not a colonial settlers’ society. There was widespread fear and even hatred of Arabs, including Arab citizens of Israel, but it was nothing like the rampant racism one now hears every day on the radio or TV. Shame, sincere or not, had not yet disappeared from public life.

In those early years, most Israelis regarded the occupied territories — which included the Golan Heights and the Sinai Peninsula as well as the West Bank and the Gaza Strip — not as providing an opportunity for enlarging the boundaries of the state through colonization but as bargaining chips in an eventual and hoped-for peace settlement with the Arabs. There were as yet no Israeli settlements in the territories and hence no fanatical, messianic settlers; the Israeli army could still claim, with some justice, to be an army of defense, not a police force sent to ensure that the project of seizing Palestinian land take place without too much resistance from the local population.

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