- 1967: An Elegy of Conquest
Shortly after Israel's lightning victory in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, the leading Jewish philosopher and Israeli public intellectual Yeshayahu Leibowitz published his reflections on the territorial conquests that had brought the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem, the Sinai Peninsula, and the Golan Heights under the state's control.
Our real problem is not the territory but rather the population of about a million and a half Arabs who live in it and over whom we must rule. Inclusion of these Arabs (in addition to the half a million who are citizens of the state) in the area under our rule will effect the liquidation of the state of Israel as the state of the Jewish people and bring about a catastrophe for the Jewish people as a whole; it will undermine the social structure that we have created in the state and cause the corruption of individuals, both Jew and Arab … In a short time the spiritual and emotional links between it and world Jewry would be severed, as well as the cultural and sentimental ties to the historical tradition of the Jewish people and to Judaism. The only concern of the monstrosity called "the undivided land of Israel" would be the maintenance of its system of rule and administration.1
Leibowitz was attacked at the time for his scathing indictment, which was written in Hebrew and directed at an Israeli public that the philosopher felt had not reckoned with the consequences of the war. His sentiments did not fit well with the explosion of nationalist fervor, from the redemptive messianism of the religious right to more earthly outpourings of support for expanded state lines among secular kibbutz members and Labor party stalwarts of the left. Whether in the name of security or [End Page 536] national rights, God or Bible, a large swath of Israeli society and Jewish supporters abroad embraced Israel's expansion. Prophets of doom and their dissenting voices were unwelcome guests at this celebratory gathering.2
More than fifty years have passed, and Leibowitz sounds less like a gadfly or crank and more a diagnostician of the present reality. Revisiting his writings on the anniversary of 1967 raises the question of that fateful year's impact on Israel, on Palestinians and the wider Arab world, and finally on modern Jewish politics. Unlike the 1948 war, which enabled Israel to achieve internationally recognized borders along the armistice lines, the 1967 victory set in motion the slow erosion of state boundaries.3 In the wake of the war, a fierce debate broke out in the Israeli cabinet about the future of the newly occupied territories and how to manage the Palestinian population under direct state control. As meticulous historical research reveals, the government of Levi Eshkol made a "decision not to decide" on the fate of the territories, preferring indefinite control over the land without conferring rights on the inhabitants who lived there.4
This "temporary" state of indecision became a model for permanence, leading to one of the longest military occupations of the twentieth century.5 An entirely new legal and bureaucratic apparatus was set in place [End Page 537] to sustain this occupation, deferring any reckoning with the political rights of the captive population.6 Alongside the deprivation of rights came the extension of Jewish sovereignty through the building of settlements in the occupied territories, a project that began under the Labor government of Eshkol and expanded dramatically under the Likud-led coalitions of Menachem Begin and his chief builder, Ariel Sharon.7 The accompanying transformation of Israeli society, from the birth of Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful) to the influx of American Jewish settlers, led to the normalization of settlement life and the accompanying evisceration of the contiguous Palestinian territory itself.8
Beyond the daily indignities of life under such occupation, Palestinians have had to confront the deeper existential consequences of prolonged statelessness. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which was founded in 1964, was given new life in the aftermath of the war, as nationalist Palestinian leaders seized the struggle away from regional power brokers.9 A gradual abandonment of armed...