I am a failure, and you have made me one.
—Bill Clinton to Yasser Arafat
One million people passed by Rabin’s coffin before his burial.
“I never thought,” said King Hussein of Jordan as he addressed dignitaries representing eighty different countries at Yitzhak Rabin’s funeral, “that the moment would come like this, when I would grieve the loss of a brother, a colleague, and a friend.” Rabin had been, Hussein said, “a man, a soldier who met us on the opposite side of a divide, whom we respected as he respected us. A man I came to know because I realized, as he did, that we have to cross over the divide, establish a dialogue, get to know each other and strive to leave for those who follow us a legacy that is worthy of them.”1
Departing the podium, the king was visibly shaken. Given his grandfather’s murder years earlier, the moment must have seemed agonizingly cyclical. Would the region forever languish in the grip of those who were determined to prevent peace at all costs?
Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak came to Israel for the funeral. So, too, did the clearly heartbroken U.S. president Bill Clinton. Clinton, who had ordered that flags in the United States be flown at half-mast,2 concluded his eulogy by turning to Rabin’s casket and whispering words that were then forever engraved on Israelis’ memory. “Shalom, chaver,” he said, “Good-bye, friend,” as he gently bowed before the body of the slain warrior-cum-peacemaker.
Shimon Peres, who had long had a bitter rivalry with Rabin over leadership of the Labor party, became acting prime minister upon Rabin’s death. The next day at the prime minister’s office, he declined to sit in Rabin’s chair; he understood that Israel confronted a gaping chasm that no one could fill. Peres, who had been a young man serving among Ben-Gurion’s entourage of founding fathers, knew that there was a country to run and a society to heal. Whether the latter could be accomplished was anyone’s guess.
SHIMON PERES HAD SEEN IT ALL. Born Szymon Perski in 1923, in Wiszniew, Poland (now Vishnyeva, Belarus), Peres moved to Palestine in 1934 with his family and was drafted into the Haganah in 1947 to oversee personnel and arms purchases, roles in which he continued during the early stages of the War of Independence. Peres subsequently served in a number of significant roles beyond his being a member of the Knesset, including minister of foreign affairs, minister of defense, minister of finance, and prime minister from 1984 to 1986. Now, committed to Rabin’s vision of peace, he pushed on with Oslo. In November and December 1995, Israel redeployed out of all the major cities of the West Bank (except Hebron) and allowed the Palestinian Authority to hold elections. Arafat was elected chairman and his Fatah Party won a majority of the council seats. Palestinian statehood seemed to be moving forward.
But Palestinian attacks did not stop. In fact, the rate of attacks and the casualty count were higher than ever before.3 The pretense that Oslo was anything but an abject failure was becoming increasingly difficult to sustain. “Instead of thanks,” said Peres, “we got bombs.”4 He moved Israel’s elections up by six months, confident that Israelis, repulsed by the Right’s assassination of Rabin, would elect him to lead the country. Indeed, polls showed him with a significant lead over his rival, Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud Party.
Palestinian terrorists changed that, however, with two attacks in Jerusalem, one in Tel Aviv, and another in Ashkelon, killing almost sixty Israelis in the heart of Israel’s cities within nine days. Israelis were outraged and frightened, and Peres was voted out of office a mere seven months after he had assumed Rabin’s place.
With security always their most pressing concern, Israeli voters often move to the political right after increases in terrorism; 1996 was no exception, and they elected Benjamin Netanyahu over Peres. Netanyahu did follow through on Israel’s commitment (as stipulated in the 1995 Israeli-Palestinian Peace Agreement, also known as Oslo II) to redeploy from Hebron, then the last West Bank city under Israeli control. Under American pressure, Netanyahu also later signed the 1998 Wye River Memorandum, designed to resume implementation of the stalled Oslo II agreements.
From the outset, though, Netanyahu had thought Oslo a misstep for Israel, and during the three years of his administration, did whatever he could to reverse the dangers that he believed Oslo had wrought. But in the elections that followed, Israelis, seeking a more centrist figure, swung back to the left and elected Ehud Barak.
One of the most highly decorated soldiers in Israel’s history, Barak had campaigned on a platform built on three fundamental promises. He pledged to get Israeli troops out of southern Lebanon, from which Israel had never figured out how to extract itself. He committed himself to making peace with Syria. And finally, despite increasing doubts about Oslo, Barak said he would make peace with the Palestinians.
Some of Israel’s leaders felt that it would be wisest to combine two of these objectives—if Israel and Syria could sign a peace accord, then Israel could leave Lebanon through coordination with Syria. But that was not to be. Syria, in fact, was pleased that Israeli forces were still deployed in Lebanon, since that enabled it to attack Israeli troops through its proxy, Hezbollah.5 The Syrian foreign minister stated that an act of Israeli withdrawal without Syrian consent would be considered an “act of war,” which one leading Israeli journalist remarked was “a mental contortion memorable even by local standards.”6
If Barak was to get Israel out of Lebanon, he was going to have to execute a unilateral withdrawal, which he did on May 24, 2000; the troops then serving in Lebanon had been born around the time Israel had first invaded in 1982.
It would not be the last time that Israel would take unilateral action to withdraw from territory in the face of Arab violence. The coming years would demonstrate, however, that each time Israel withdrew from territory, it played into the hands of the Arab extremists. By 2000, Hezbollah had already shown that it could unleash lethal violence against one of the world’s most professional armies—between 1985 (after the intense period of the Lebanon war) and 1997, more than 200 Israeli soldiers were killed and over 750 were wounded. With Israel’s retreat, Hezbollah was able to solidify its position in southern Lebanon. During the last night of Israeli presence on the border, Hezbollah’s deputy secretary-general described the night as “a light at the end of the Palestinian tunnel, a hope that liberation might be achieved by treading the path of resistance and martyrdom.” “What happened in Lebanon,” he promised, “can be repeated in Palestine.”7
HAVING FULFILLED HIS PROMISE of getting Israeli troops out of Lebanon, Barak turned his attention to the Palestinians. In the summer of 2000, just months after May’s pullout from Lebanon, Ehud Barak, Yasser Arafat, and Bill Clinton convened at Camp David—the same rural retreat where, twenty-two years earlier, Begin and Sadat had met with Carter to hammer out their deal.
For years, the thorniest issues that the Israelis and Palestinians had to resolve in order to reach a deal—the Palestinian demand that Palestinian refugees be allowed to return to their homes in Israel, the status of Jerusalem, and the final borders of a Palestinian state—had been tabled. Now, Barak was determined to reach a comprehensive agreement. He offered Arafat 92 percent of the West Bank and sections of Jerusalem for the Palestinian state. To the surprise of the Israeli team, Arafat and his negotiating team refused to even consider the offer. First, Oslo had led to increased terror. Now, Arafat was turning down an offer—without even making a counteroffer—that the Israelis had thought he would consider either generous or at least a legitimate starting point from which to negotiate. Bill Clinton, too, was confused by the Palestinians’ intransigence.
The Camp David negotiations collapsed and the participants disbanded. Barak returned to Israel politically wounded, having angered the Right for offering far more than they thought he should have, while disappointing the Left by returning empty-handed. Arafat, meanwhile, returned home a national hero. He had stood up to the Zionists, determined to show that the Palestinians would not be satisfied with anything less than receiving their full demands on Jerusalem, borders, and the right of return. His will had not been broken, he wanted his people to see, and he had remained faithful to their national aspirations.
Dennis Ross, the American diplomat and author who was involved in Middle East negotiations for decades and served as Bill Clinton’s Middle East envoy, later wrote, “Both Barak and Clinton were prepared to do what was necessary to reach agreement. Both were up to the challenge. Neither shied away from the risks inherent in confronting history and mythology. Can one say the same about Arafat? Unfortunately, not.”8
Israeli analysts and historians, even those long associated with the Left, understood Arafat’s calculus.9 As long as negotiations dragged on, the international community would fete him as a reformed fighter now dedicated to peace. Were he to sign an agreement, however, the international community would expect him to govern and would hold him accountable for what unfolded in his newly founded state. With time, fewer and fewer people were inclined to believe that Arafat had any intention whatsoever of making the transition.
Tensions in the region rose. Six months after the withdrawal from Lebanon, and just over two months after the Camp David summit, opposition leader Ariel Sharon decided to visit the Temple Mount. While perfectly within his legal rights as an Israeli, his visit struck some as a provocation. Others asserted that Sharon was seeking to make clear to Palestinians that Israel remained sovereign over East Jerusalem and the Old City; perhaps, still others thought, Sharon knew that Arafat would respond to a gesture like that with violence and he wanted Israelis to see that before the government made any more concessions.
Whatever his motivation, Sharon had “apparently been told that Shlomo Ben-Ami, the Minister of Internal Security, was told by Israeli intelligence that there was no concerted risk of violence. This was implicitly confirmed by Jibril Rajoub, the Palestinian head of Preventive Security on the West Bank, who told Ben-Ami that Sharon could visit the Haram, but not enter the mosque on security grounds.”10
Sharon did not enter the mosque, but on September 28, 2000, accompanied by hundreds of Israeli policemen, he went up to the Temple Mount. The following day, twenty thousand Palestinian rioters stormed the Temple Mount; Israeli forces responded with small firearms, which only increased and intensified the rioting. In that day’s clashes, seven Palestinian rioters were killed, and three hundred Palestinians and seventy Israeli police were wounded. Leaders of the Palestinian Authority used vicious anti-Israel rhetoric on television, and on the radio they called for jihad (a Muslim term for religious war against nonbelievers).
Within days, Arafat and his security forces fanned the flames of conflict, which caused clashes to spread throughout the country. Many members of Israel’s security establishment believed that he had been planning the uprising for quite some time, and that Sharon’s visit simply afforded him the excuse to launch it.
Several of the many incidents became symbolic of the beginning of a four-year battle that would become known as the Second Intifada. A French TV crew captured on film a horrific scene that purported to show twelve-year-old Mohammad al-Dura being killed in Gaza as his father desperately tried to shield him. Despite Israeli insistence (later shown to be correct) that IDF troops had not killed the boy, the incident ignited the Palestinian street. Less than two weeks after the September 30 al-Dura incident, two Israeli reservist soldiers, called up for duty to serve as drivers, took a wrong turn on their way to the location at which they were to serve. Surrounded by a crowd in the Palestinian city of Ramallah, they were lynched and murdered. The image of one of the terrorists standing at a window and raising his blood-soaked hands before a cheering crowd made its way around the world; the images repulsed Israelis who felt, once again, that the Palestinians were far more interested in killing Jews than they were in creating a state of their own.*
This intifada, though much less of a mass revolt than the first, proved far more lethal due to the Palestinian Authority’s security forces’ use of weapons and suicide bombers.11 The conflict then spread to Israel’s Arabs as well, particularly in the heavily Arab-populated Galilee. Some Arab Israelis attacked Jewish property, vehicles, settlements, and institutions. Israeli Jews began rioting against mosques, Arab-owned businesses, and Arab residents in mixed cities.12 In what became known as the October 2000 Events or the October Ignition, Israeli police and the Arab rioters clashed after a demonstration escalated into violence. Arabs threw rocks and firebombs, launched ball bearings in slingshots, and, in a few cases, fired live rounds. In response, the police fired live ammunition, and in the course of a few days in October, thirteen Israeli Arabs were shot and killed by Israeli security forces.13 The Or Commission, which would later investigate the incidents, found that the police were unprepared for the violence and in some cases had overreacted.
October 2000 was unlike Kafr Kassem in 1956, since in the later case, Arabs had without question resorted to violence. But in the minds of Israeli Arabs, the incidents were related. Like the 1956 Kafr Kassem massacre and the events of Land Day in 1976, the October 2000 killings reinforced their sense that they were perpetually second-class citizens whose lives were valued differently from those of Jews. Even when Haredim burned tires on roads in protest and used low-level violence, the security forces never opened fire on them.
In light of both Sharon’s visit and the deaths of Arabs on October 1, Arab violence became more intense. Molotov cocktails were thrown, buses were set on fire. Arab arsonists set forests afire. That was an intentionally symbolically laden attack; forestation had been a significant and emblematic Zionist project since the early aliyot, and in the past century, the Jewish National Fund had planted 250 million trees.14 The trees not only contributed to land reclamation, but exemplified Zionism’s drive to renew the Land of Israel. That progress was precisely what the arsonists were trying to destroy.
As the violence continued, President Clinton attempted one last-ditch effort to resuscitate the peace process. In late December 2000, Clinton presented his proposal, “The Clinton Parameters,” which proposed that the new Palestinian state would include 94 to 96 percent of the West Bank (though the parameters did not mention Gaza, Clinton clarified in January 2001 that the Palestinian state would include the Gaza Strip). Israel would be allowed to annex the settlements that were situated in substantial blocks of Jewish population, thus incorporating some 80 percent of the settler population. Clinton proposed dividing East Jerusalem into Palestinian areas, inhabited overwhelmingly by Arabs, and Israeli areas in which Jews lived. To assuage Israeli concerns about security, Clinton proposed temporary international and Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley and for the longer term, three Israeli-controlled “early warning stations.” Palestinian refugees would return only to Palestine, and not to Israel proper.
Technically, both the Israelis and Palestinians accepted the parameters, but as Clinton later noted in his autobiography, My Life, “Arafat had said he accepted the parameters with reservations. The problem was that his reservations, unlike Israel’s, were outside the parameters, at least on refugees and the Western Wall, but I treated the acceptance as if it were real, based on his pledge to make peace before I left office.”15
Shortly before Clinton left office, Arafat called Clinton to thank him and told the president that he was a great man. President Clinton replied, “Mr. Chairman, I am not a great man. I am a failure, and you have made me one.”16 On the last day of his presidency, Clinton warned George Bush and Colin Powell not to trust a word Arafat would say to them. Believing Arafat, he told them, “was the biggest mistake I made in my presidency.”17 Clinton, who had orchestrated the famous handshake between Arafat and Rabin, left the White House without having succeeded in settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
With the peace process sputtering and attacks on Israelis continuing unabated, the mood in Israel was grim. Israelis had had enough of Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Camp David had collapsed, yet Barak had continued to offer massive concessions to Arafat even as Arafat refused to budge. Having lost his support in the Knesset, Barak called for elections to be held in February 2001. Israeli Arabs boycotted the elections as a reaction to the events of October 2000, which further weakened the Left. Barak lost, and Ariel Sharon, heading the right-wing Likud party, was elected to replace him. Once again, Palestinian violence had returned the Israeli political right to power. Unlike Barak, Sharon was unwilling to participate in what he considered the charade of negotiations with the Palestinians. Arafat, he believed, had never intended to make a deal; it was time for Israel to be clear about that.
The peace process was dead. That realization was, for many Israelis, no less agonizing than the loss of the conceptzia after the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Ever since Israel’s Declaration of Independence had extended “our hand to all neighboring states and their peoples in an offer of peace and good neighborliness,” most Israelis had been raised on the belief that someday, somehow, the two warring sides would set their swords aside and usher in a new era for the Middle East. It had happened with Egypt, and then Jordan, too, had made peace with Israel. But the Palestinians, it still seemed, would settle for nothing less than Israel’s disappearance. A heartbroken and exhausted Left, which had long been pushing for compromise as the only way to peace, felt both naive and deeply betrayed. They found themselves quoting Abner, the leader of King Saul’s army: “Must the sword consume forever?”18 With grave disappointment and profound worry, they found that they could not answer no.
IN 2001, more than a hundred Israelis died at the hands of suicide bombers. Dozens more died in attacks of other sorts. As the Palestinians grew increasingly brazen, they attacked more heavily trafficked locations seeking ever higher body counts. In the summer of 2001, a suicide bomber attacked a disco on the Tel Aviv beach, which left twenty-one Israelis dead, most of them teenage girls from Russian families who had immigrated to Israel. Over a hundred were injured. Barely two months later, a suicide bomber attacked a pizzeria in downtown Jerusalem, at one of the city’s busiest intersections. One hundred and thirty people were injured in the blast, and fifteen were killed. Half of the dead were children.
Most of the perpetrators of the violence were coming from the West Bank. To make matters even worse, as Israelis saw it, Palestinian police and tanzim forces (from Fatah) were involved in many shooting incidents; Fatah operatives began carrying out suicide bombings, which they had not done previously. All this turned the Israeli public against Arafat, Fatah, and the Palestinian Authority and led most people to believe that Israel had no partner for peace.
On the first night of Passover in 2002, some 250 guests had gathered for the traditional Seder at the Park Hotel in the seaside city of Netanya. A Palestinian terrorist disguised as a woman managed to get past hotel security and detonated a large explosive in the crowd, many of whom were elderly and some of whom were Holocaust survivors. The blast killed 28 civilians and injured about 140 people. Twenty of the wounded were severely injured, and two later died of their wounds. Several married couples were killed, as was a ninety-year-old. A father was killed with his daughter.
In the aftermath of this attack, Ariel Sharon decided to respond, and shortly thereafter, Israel launched Operation Defensive Shield. The largest Israeli military operation in the West Bank since the Six-Day War, it was designed to uproot the terror infrastructures in the major Palestinian cities there. In essence, Israel took back the cities that it had transferred to the Palestinians in 1995 as part of the Oslo Accords.
Israel did not stop there. Committed to stopping the terror and the attacks on its citizens, the government decided in September 2002 to build a separation barrier cutting off Arab areas in the territories from Israel. The wall, which took more than five years to construct, covered 480 miles (though it was never completed). When the northern section of the wall was completed, it managed to stop all terrorist attacks from that section of the West Bank. Despite its undeniable effectiveness, the wall evoked widespread international condemnation for the inconveniences it imposed on innocent Palestinians, but Israel’s leadership was not moved. Construction of the wall continued, and by December 2004, the number of suicide attacks had decreased by 84 percent.
Between September 2000 and September 2004, over a thousand Israelis had been killed and more than two thousand injured. Over twenty-seven hundred Palestinians had been killed. Beyond the toll of dead and injured lay another casualty—the Israeli peace camp. For decades, the Israeli Left had been predicated on a principle of “land for peace”—if Israel would only surrender most of the land that it captured in 1967, the Left insisted, the Palestinians would make peace. But Barak’s offer to Arafat and the ensuing intifada had proven that thesis dangerously naive. Even if Barak’s offer had not been sufficient, many Israelis believed, Arafat surely had a starting point from which to negotiate. But he never did that. Instead, Arafat unleashed round after round of violence proving to Israelis that he was a terrorist who would never make the transition to statesman. In the process, he eviscerated the Israeli political Left.
Israelis’ position was perhaps best captured by Benny Morris, who had in years past been a symbol of the political Left. He called Arafat an “inveterate liar” and concluded, with sadness, that a peaceful coexistence between Israel and the Palestinians might well be impossible. Reflecting on the public bewilderment at his shifted position, he said:
The rumor that I have undergone a brain transplant is (as far as I can remember) unfounded—or at least premature. But my thinking about the current Middle East crisis and its protagonists has in fact radically changed during the past two years. I imagine that I feel a bit like one of those western fellow travelers rudely awakened by the trundle of Russian tanks crashing through Budapest in 1956.19
Morris’s grave disappointment was shared by many others, including U.S. president George W. Bush, who later remarked, “Arafat had lied to me. I never trusted him again. In fact, I never spoke to him again. By the spring of 2002, I had concluded that peace would not be possible with Arafat in power.”20
In his 1923 paper “The Iron Wall,” Ze’ev Jabotinsky had argued that the Arabs would never end the conflict until they understood that the Israelis would not budge—it sadly seemed that he had been right. Yossi Klein Halevi later commented that the years of 2000 to 2004 turned Israelis into centrists. They agreed with the Left that creating a Palestinian state was critical for Israel, so that Israel would not continue to rule over millions of Palestinians. Yet they also agreed with the Right that creating a Palestinian state would put Israel in grave danger.21 They were stuck.
ON NOVEMBER 11, 2004, Yasser Arafat died at the age of seventy-five after a very brief illness. He was succeeded by Mahmoud Abbas (also known as Abu Mazen), whom he had appointed in March 2003 to the then newly created position of prime minister. Abbas had resigned out of frustration when Arafat prevented him from governing in any meaningful way, but he now assumed Arafat’s former position.
Abbas, born in Safed in 1935, had fled during the 1948 war. He was later educated in Cairo and then in Moscow, where he wrote a doctoral dissertation entitled “The Other Side: The Secret Relationship Between Nazism and Zionism,” in which he argued that Zionists had dramatically exaggerated the number of deaths of Jews at the hands of the Nazis. The notion that six million Jews had been killed, he insisted, was a “fantastic lie.”22 Abbas, one of the founding members of Fatah in 1959, had also been one of the Palestinian negotiators of the 1993 Oslo Accords.23
Though the Right harped on the issue of Abbas’s dissertation, other Israelis actually saw his election as cause for hope. Might having a Palestinian leader who had advocated negotiation over violence open a new chapter in the region?
MATTERS WERE SHIFTING ON the Israeli side as well. In December 2003 at a conference in Herzliya, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon declared his intent to unilaterally withdraw the IDF from Gaza and to remove all the Jewish settlements from the area. On April 14, 2004, Sharon wrote a letter to President George Bush. “Having reached the conclusion that, for the time being, there exists no Palestinian partner with whom to advance peacefully toward a settlement,” he said, “and since the current impasse is unhelpful to the achievement of our shared goals, I have decided to initiate a process of gradual disengagement with the hope of reducing friction between Israelis and Palestinians.”24
For thirty-four years, there had been Jewish settlements in Gaza. In 2004, eighty-eight hundred Jews lived there, surrounded by over a million Palestinians. The territory in which they lived took up a fifth of the Gaza Strip. But defending those few thousand Israeli Jews was becoming very costly for Israel, requiring tens of thousands of soldiers over the years; despite the force Israel arrayed, 124 Israelis had been killed in Gaza in the preceding five years. Sharon decided that since there could be no negotiated withdrawal from Gaza, Israel would withdraw unilaterally.
That it was Ariel Sharon, widely perceived as the quintessential hawk, who decided that Israel should leave Gaza, surprised many. In his own party, the right-leaning Likud, the decision aroused dismay. Benjamin Netanyahu (then finance minister), in particular, publicly argued with Sharon, insisting that getting out of Gaza would constitute a grave danger for Israel. Hamas bolstered Netanyahu’s argument when it began launching rockets from Gaza into Israel; in 2004 alone, Hamas fired 882 mortar shells and 276 Kassam rockets at Israel from Gaza.
Just as Rabin had been undeterred by the rise of violence after Oslo, Sharon insisted on plowing ahead even in the face of the rocket fire. To demonstrate the depth of his opposition to the strategy, Netanyahu resigned from his position as finance minister on August 7. The settlers in Gaza considered Sharon’s decision an outright betrayal. Sharon had run for office with a commitment not to execute a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and now he was doing just that. “Jews do not expel Jews” became the slogan of their movement; they wrote petitions, staged demonstrations, and held protests and hunger strikes. To mollify them, the government promised financial compensation for each family. To pressure them, the government also warned that those who resisted removal would be sent to prison.
In preparation for the removal of the settlers from Gaza and for the bulldozing of their homes and communities, the fourteen thousand police officers and IDF soldiers who were to be involved underwent special training in how to respond to any provocations. For the most part, the actual evacuation in August 2005 went smoothly. In some instances, settlers did pelt soldiers with stones and bottles filled with paint, but no one resorted to firearms. Elsewhere, settlers barricaded themselves in their homes to prevent soldiers from removing them.
Some of the settlers refused to believe that the Jewish state, which since the early aliyot at the close of the nineteenth century had been committed to acquiring land and building on it, would force some of the country’s most passionate Zionists out of their homes. In the synagogue of Neve Dekalim, one of the Gaza settlements, a twenty-one-year-old Israeli told a reporter, “This building is the symbol of our life. I don’t believe the army will come in here to take us out.” She was wrong.
There were no serious injuries, and no deaths. Soldiers went door-to-door to inform the residents it was time to go. It was a hot summer day in Gaza; where necessary, soldiers distributed water to those they were evacuating. Embracing the civilians they were evicting, some soldiers wept; others sat down to join the evacuees in prayer.
The disengagement from Gaza evoked yet another incident from the past, as well. Menachem Begin had long said that the moment in his career of which he was most proud was when he was able to avert civil war on the day of the Altalena battle in June 1948. In Gaza, Israeli society demonstrated great maturity once again. The armed forces had been meticulously prepared for the operation, and the Jews who were removed from their homes also comported themselves with extraordinary dignity and restraint.
Ariel Sharon had run for office promising not to evacuate Gaza, and then never called for a plebiscite on the disengagement; the entire process struck many Israelis as fundamentally undemocratic. But no one resisted with any significant violence, and the rule of law held fast. It was a heartbreaking day for many Israelis, but a proud one, too, for what was still a young democracy.
WITH THE GAZA EVACUATION complete, getting Israel disentangled from Palestinians on the West Bank was next on Sharon’s docket. To smooth his political path, he left the Likud and in November 2005 formed his own party, Kadima Yisrael (“Forward, Israel!”), recruiting centrists from both Labor and Likud. But four months after the Gaza disengagement, Sharon suffered a massive stroke and fell into a coma. Seemingly indestructible, the “Bulldozer,” as Sharon had been called, had been felled.*
Sharon’s successor, Ehud Olmert, the former mayor of Jerusalem, declared his intention to hand over the majority of Palestinian territories in the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority. Unlike some of his predecessors, Olmert was asserting that a Palestinian state could be established beforemany of the thorniest issues in the negotiations would be hammered out. “[I]f the Palestinians abandon the path of terror and stop their war against the citizens of Israel,” he said, “they can receive national independence and a Palestinian State, with temporary borders, even before all the complicated issues connected to a final agreement are resolved. All these issues will be resolved later, during negotiations between the two countries.”25
On the very day that Olmert made that announcement, the Palestinian Authority held elections. Hamas, a terror organization long sworn to Israel’s destruction, won the popular vote by a thin margin,26 but due to the Palestinian electoral system and to massive disunity within Fatah, they captured a large majority of the seats in parliament. A thin popular victory turned into a landslide.
Upon their election, Hamas officials declared once again that they would neither recognize Israel nor negotiate with it. Just as Israel was offering to make a Palestinian state possible, Palestinians elected a government that would only end the conflict when the Jewish state was destroyed. Any remaining glimmer of hope for the peace process ended. When Ehud Olmert resigned as prime minister in March 2009 after allegations of corruption, his initiative, too, died.*
IN WHAT WAS NOW a long-standing pattern, peace negotiations essentially ended; the violent conflict did not. And once again, the Israel Defense Forces was going to have to reimagine itself. That had happened in the First Intifada, when instead of facing standing Arab armies, the IDF found itself arrayed against a civilian population, armed more with stones than with firearms. It had changed again when the IDF had to learn how to fight the terror organizations behind the Second Intifada. Now, the IDF was battling terrorist organizations once again, but those terror groups now behaved much more like standing armies than anything Israel had faced in decades.
To the north, there was Hezbollah, and to the southwest, Israel faced Hamas. Both were unabashedly committed to Israel’s destruction and to terrorizing Israel’s population; both launched intermittent rocket attacks on Israeli population centers close to the border. Periodically, these attacks and Israeli retaliations escalated and became serious military engagements.
On June 25, 2006, using tunnels it had dug under the Israel-Gaza border, Hamas kidnapped Corporal Gilad Shalit, who was on active duty in a tank on the Israeli side of the border.* Israelis were stunned by Hamas’s daring and military abilities. On July 12, 2006, Hezbollah fired anti-tank missiles on two Israeli military vehicles that were patrolling the Israeli side of the border fence, leaving three soldiers dead. Worse, though, from the Israelis’ standpoint, was that two additional soldiers were kidnapped. Another group of soldiers sought to rescue them, and in the attempt, five more were killed.
Hezbollah demanded that Israel release prisoners in exchange for the soldiers (who, though unbeknownst to Israel, were already dead). Israel refused. Instead, the IDF sought to weaken Hezbollah, attacking both Hezbollah military targets as well as Lebanese civilian infrastructure, including Beirut’s Rafic Hariri International Airport. But Hezbollah fought back for several intense weeks during what became known as the Second Lebanon War and held a seemingly much more powerful IDF at bay. It was an example of the relatively new phenomenon of asymmetrical war, in which public opinion regarding civilian deaths effectively restricts a stronger democratic power. More than 1,000 Lebanese and 165 Israelis were killed, and Israel caused extensive damage to Lebanon. For approximately a month, the two sides bludgeoned each other. With improved use of ground troops, Israel finally began to get the upper hand, but the United States pressured Israel into accepting a UN-imposed cease-fire.
DESPITE HAMAS HAVING WON the parliamentary elections, Fatah did not relinquish its power. In June 2007, Hamas militants staged a violent coup and took control of the Gaza Strip from Fatah, blowing up Fatah headquarters in the city of Khan Yunis and throwing Fatah personnel off buildings. Abbas had been dealt a humiliating blow.
Then, every year or two, Hamas began to fire hundreds and even thousands of rockets at Israeli cities over a period of weeks or months, disrupting what had seemed a semblance of normalcy and quiet. Invariably, since Israelis expected their government to protect them, these Hamas barrages invited an Israeli response, and within days, the two sides were engaged in full-scale warfare. Israel’s air force punished Hamas from the skies, and in two of the conflicts, Israel decided to enter with ground forces. Vicious battles ensued as Hamas tried to hinder the IDF’s progress and sought to exact as high a price as possible in Israeli casualties. Hundreds of Palestinian terrorists, Israeli soldiers, and civilians would die in each round—many more of the casualties Palestinian than Israeli—but without substantial gains for either side. Time after time, the sides accepted a cease-fire, awaiting the next round.
It was lost on very few Israelis that what all these brief wars had in common was that they were all “wars that Israel was unable to win” in any decisive manner. In all of them, Israel and whoever it was fighting—Hezbollah (in Lebanon) or Hamas (in Gaza), depending on the conflict—bloodied each other but achieved no substantive strategic gain. Hezbollah and Hamas failed to get Israel to capitulate, withdraw, or change any major policy, while Israel was unable to destroy those terror networks or assure itself that they would not attack again. In fact, Israelis began to realize, they had not really won a war since 1973. True, the IDF had performed admirably in 2002’s Operation Defensive Shield, which was in effect a short war, but Israel had had no decisive wins of the 1967 sort in decades and found itself arrayed against an enemy much more tenacious and brutal than many had previously imagined.
In the conflicts, as casualties mounted, Israelis took note of an additional change in their society. If in the 1960s it had been the kibbutzim that had produced officers—and suffered casualties—at rates disproportionate to their percentage of the population, it was now the national religious community that had taken on that role. By 2010, though the national religious community represented no more than 10 percent of Israel’s population, they made up some 25 to 30 percent of soldiers in combat units. Similarly, there had been a dramatic increase in the percentage of graduates of the officers’ training course who were from the religious community; that rate had risen from a mere 2.5 percent in 1990 to 26 percent in 2008.27 Israel’s military leadership—but also its patriotic passion—was now coming from a very different segment of society.
IF IN THE CONFLICT with the Palestinians Israel was stuck, in other realms it was flourishing. In the 1950s, Israel had been out of money and had no resources for housing or food for the hundreds of thousands of immigrants coming to its shores from North Africa and elsewhere. By the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first, Israel had become a technological powerhouse.
In the sixty years since its founding, Israel’s economy had grown fiftyfold.28 By 2008, Israel had an annual 3.1 percent growth rate in GDP, one of the highest in the world at that time.29 It had the highest concentration of engineers and research and development spending in the world, as well as the highest concentration of start-ups.30 In that same year, Israel had the second-highest number of companies listed on NASDAQ (the United States was first), with more companies on the list than the entire European continent combined.31 Per capita venture capital investments in Israel were “2.5 times greater than in the US, thirty times greater than in Europe, 80 times greater than in China, and 350 times greater than in India.”32
Several factors had contributed to this enormous success. One was the many thousands of educated Russians who had made their way to Israel, creating a cadre of very ambitious people anxious to overcome the deficits that immigration had wrought. “Immigrants,” a leading Israeli policy expert noted, “are not averse to starting over. They are, by definition, risk-takers. Any nation of immigrants is a nation of entrepreneurs.”33 Israel was now reaping the benefits of having been committed, from the outset, to offering a home to Jews no matter where they came from. The integration of Russian immigrants into Israeli education, the army, society, and the economy enriched the still young state in numerous ways.
Other factors also contributed to Israel’s becoming a “start-up nation.” When in the mid-1980s, the joint U.S.-Israel program to design the Lavi fighter plane was shut down in response to mounting pressure from the U.S. Congress,34 some fifteen hundred highly trained Israeli engineers suddenly found themselves unemployed. Many of those engineers were those who then created the startups that made Israel a leader in technology, brought tremendous wealth to part of Israeli society, and gave Israel once unimaginable positive visibility among investors and inventors across the globe.35
IN THE INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY, however, Israel was perceived not as a start-up nation, but increasingly as a pariah state. Having made no significant headway through the use of terror, the Palestinians turned to another tactic—the international delegitimization of Israel. That was in many ways a natural outgrowth of the United Nations’ 1975 claim that Zionism was racism. Now, other groups would pick up that baton and insist that Zionism itself was born in sin and that Israel, therefore, simply had no right to be.
The UN and its affiliates were ground zero for this battle. Ever since the 1970s, the UN had been a transparently anti-Israel forum. Ben-Gurion had called it the “theater of the absurd.”36 Abba Eban, Israel’s eloquent—and often pithy—ambassador to the UN and later to the United States, once said of the UN, “If Algeria introduced a resolution declaring that the earth was flat and that Israel had flattened it, it would pass by a vote of 164 to 13 with 26 abstentions.”37
By 2000, even the UN’s pretenses were largely gone. Though the UN had ostensibly revoked the “Zionism is racism” resolution in December 1991, the culture there did not change. In 2001 and 2009, UN-sponsored conferences against racism in Durban, South Africa, decreed once again that Zionism was colonialism, that Israel was an apartheid state, and that Israel had been born in sin and established through “ethnic cleansing.”38 Copies of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf were distributed at the conferences.39
Between 2003 and 2012, the UN issued 314 resolutions concerning Israel, nearly 40 percent of all resolutions passed in that time. That constituted six times more resolutions than those addressing any other country; the “runner-up” was Sudan.40 At the end of 2013, Israeli deputy foreign minister Ze’ev Elkin pointed out that of the 103 resolutions about individual countries from the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), 43 of them (42 percent) had condemned Israel.41 During the UNHRC’s 2013 March session alone, six resolutions were adopted criticizing Israel, while only four addressed all the remaining countries of the world combined.42 Israel was the subject of more emergency sessions in the UNHRC than any other country.43 At the same time, the UNHRC failed to pass a single resolution condemning two hundred thousand deaths in Darfur or human rights violations by China, Cuba, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, or Zimbabwe.44
There were some observers who understood the dynamic and sought to right the scales. After the UN issued a scathing critique of Israel’s conduct in the 2014 war with Hamas and held Israel responsible for civilian deaths, Richard Kemp, a retired British Army colonel and former commander of British forces in Afghanistan, struck back. In an op-ed in the New York Times, he reminded his readers who was responsible for the perpetuation of the conflict. Though the UN had blamed “Israel’s ‘protracted occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip,’ as well as the blockade of Gaza,”45 it knew that that was not the case. Israel had withdrawn from Gaza a decade earlier, Kemp reminded his readers, but Hamas used the disengagement as an opportunity to escalate the conflict. “The conflict last summer, which began with a dramatic escalation in rocket attacks targeting Israeli civilians,” wrote Kemp, “was a continuation of Hamas’s war of aggression.”
As for the accusation that Israel had violated international humanitarian law, Kemp compared the IDF to other armies and said:
The [United Nations] commission could have listened to Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff, who said last November that the I.D.F. had taken extraordinary measures to try to limit civilian casualties. Or to a group of 11 senior military officers from seven nations, including the United States, Germany, Spain and Australia, who also investigated the Gaza conflict recently. I was a member of that group, and our report, made available to Judge Davis, said: “None of us is aware of any army that takes such extensive measures as did the I.D.F. last summer to protect the lives of the civilian population.”46
The United Nations was even indicted by Samantha Power, then U.S. ambassador to the UN. Not usually regarded as a particularly warm advocate of Israel, even Power acknowledged that something sinister was at play:
[W]e have seen member states seek to use the UN Security Council, the General Assembly, and even the most arcane UN committees in ways that cross the line from legitimate criticisms of Israel’s policies to attempts to delegitimize the state of Israel itself. The only country in the world with a standing agenda item at the Human Rights Council is not North Korea, a totalitarian state that is currently holding an estimated 100,000 people in gulags; not Syria, which has gassed its people—lots of them. It is Israel. Bias has extended well beyond Israel as a country [but also to] Israel as an idea.47
Zionism had always been an idea as much as it was a country. Now Power had articulated precisely what had happened to the standing of that idea. In 1917, with the Balfour Declaration, Britain endorsed the idea of a Jewish state. In November 1947, at the UN vote on partition, the international community did the same. Less than seventy years later, though, most of the international community had changed its mind. What had become objectionable was not the behavior of the Jewish state, but the notion that the Jews ought to have a country of their own.
The fact that the pretense was gone, however, did not mean that the bias would stop. It was clear that if the UN had to vote again on the creation of a Jewish state, unlike the outcome in November 1947, this time the motion would have virtually no chance of passing.
Nor was the UN the only locus of the battle. Many ostensibly impartial human rights organizations focused their attention disproportionately on Israel, subjecting it to a transparent double standard. Human Rights Watch was a classic case in point. Robert Bernstein, who founded the organization in 1978 to advocate for victims of human rights violations, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times in 2009 denouncing the very organization he had created:
Human Rights Watch has lost critical perspective on a conflict in which Israel has been repeatedly attacked by Hamas and Hezbollah, organizations that go after Israeli citizens and use their own people as human shields. . . . Leaders of Human Rights Watch know that Hamas and Hezbollah chose to wage war from densely populated areas, deliberately transforming neighborhoods into battlefields. They know that more and better arms are flowing into both Gaza and Lebanon and are poised to strike again. And they know that this militancy continues to deprive Palestinians of any chance for the peaceful and productive life they deserve. Yet Israel, the repeated victim of aggression, faces the brunt of Human Rights Watch’s criticism.48
That sort of double standard was not uncommon. In the form of numerous organizations and with the complicity of much of the press and European governments, the delegitimization movement—a relentless criticism of the Jewish state that “exhibits blatant double standards, singles out Israel, denies its right to exist as the embodiment of the self-determination right of the Jewish people, or demonizes the state”—continued to gain momentum.49
In many cases, the organizations purporting to be devoted to ending the occupation barely sought to camouflage their opposition to the very idea of a Jewish state. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement (BDS) was founded in 2005, just as Israel was pulling out of the Gaza Strip. It called for ostracizing the Jewish state until it not only ended the occupation of Palestinian land since 1967, but also gave equal rights to Arab-Palestinian citizens and granted the right of return to Palestinians who had fled the fighting in 1948 as well as to their descendants, who then numbered in the millions. There was no way that Israel could absorb all those Palestinians (thus ending a Jewish demographic majority) and still remain both Jewish and democratic. That, of course, was precisely the point. BDS was aimed at destroying Israel.
It was an exceedingly clever tactic. By using the language of human rights, which spoke powerfully to the sensibilities of American Jews, the BDS campaign and other organizations succeeded in convincing many young American Jews to wonder whether the Jewish state was not in some significant way a betrayal of the values that had long made Judaism a positive force in the world.
More sophisticated observers understood what was at play. At the first UN conference on anti-Semitism in New York in June 2004 (before BDS had even become a strategy), one noted human rights activist and scholar described the state of affairs. “[T]he evil of anti-Semitism today moves through the UN host like an opportunistic pathogen,” she said. “First, discrimination of Israel followed by its demonization; the deification of the enemies of the Jewish state, the denial of Jewish victimhood; the denunciation of the Israeli who fights back; and finally, the refusal to identify the assailants.”50 In Europe, overt anti-Semitism increased, as did violence against Jews. European Jews understood that they had seen this “play” before, and in 2015, western European immigration to Israel hit an all-time high.51 Once again, many Jews felt they had to flee.
OF MORE IMMEDIATE CONCERN to Israel’s government was the spread of nuclear technology, and particularly the nuclear aspirations of governments committed to Israel’s destruction. The Begin doctrine was tested in 2007 when Israel acquired incontrovertible evidence that Syria was building a nuclear reactor near the Euphrates River. After bringing President George W. Bush into the picture, Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert ordered a covert military strike on the facility. It was completely destroyed in a strike by Israeli aircraft, without a shot being fired by Syria.52
Israel faced a more formidable challenge to the Begin Doctrine in Iran. In April 2006, Iran announced that it had managed to successfully enrich uranium for the first time, a critical step in the development of nuclear weaponry. Iran’s intentions were clear. That same year, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared without hesitation his desire to see “the Zionist regime wiped off the map.”53 That policy persisted. In 2012, the Iranian chief of staff, Hassan Firouzabadi, announced, “The Iranian nation is [committed to] the full annihilation of Israel.”54 Iran, though, is farther away from Israel than Iraq. And hoping to forestall an Israeli attack, Iran buried its nuclear program deep beneath the ground, out of the reach of Israeli bombers and weaponry.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu invoked the Begin Doctrine, as well, and insisted that if the international community did not prevent Iran from going nuclear, Israel would somehow do it alone. But U.S. president Barack Obama and his administration were not inclined to use force or even to give Israel the green light (or weaponry) to stop Iran’s march toward a weapon and to end Iran’s threat to annihilate the six million Jews living in Israel.* In March 2015, world powers (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, Germany, and the European Union) met with representatives of Iran in Lausanne, Switzerland, to negotiate a framework deal to stall Iran’s nuclear development in return for an easing of some of the crippling economic sanctions that had been enforced on the regime for decades. The deal, entitled the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, was signed on July 14, 2015.
The agreement did not require Iran to dismantle its vast nuclear infrastructure, and the restrictions that it imposed would expire after ten years. Lawmakers opposing the deal noted that at its foundation was trust of Iran, which, they said, was foolhardy. Henry Kissinger, a Republican who had proven over the years that he was hardly in Israel’s pocket, coauthored an opinion piece with former secretary of state George Shultz, arguing that the West had made a terrible strategic mistake and had abdicated its moral responsibility:
The threat of war now constrains the West more than Iran. While Iran treated the mere fact of its willingness to negotiate as a concession, the West has felt compelled to break every deadlock with a new proposal. In the process, the Iranian program has reached a point officially described as being within two to three months of building a nuclear weapon. . . . History will not do our work for us; it helps only those who seek to help themselves.55
Israelis of many walks of life saw the development as ominous. The United States, ostensibly Israel’s most significant ally, had not only parted ways with Israel on a major policy, but incomprehensibly to Israelis, seemed to be lifting obstacles that might prevent a country determined to destroy the Jewish state from acquiring a nuclear weapon. This spelled, some thought, a dramatic shift in U.S.-Israel relations and left Israelis feeling alone and vulnerable in a way that they had not been in many decades. “Most disturbing for me personally,” wrote Michael Oren, who had served as Israel’s ambassador to Washington as the Obama administration was both negotiating with Iran and keeping Israel in the dark, “was the realization that our closest ally had entreated with our deadliest enemy on an existential issue without so much as informing us.”56
In many ways, even Israelis who did not believe that Iran would attack Israel understood that an Iran that could attack Israel was a game changer. No one captured the sentiment of Israel’s population better than Yossi Klein Halevi. What Israel would eventually decide to do, he said, would determine whether the creation of the state had ultimately made any difference at all.
“A Jewish state that allows itself to be threatened with nuclear weapons,” said Klein Halevi, “will forfeit its right to speak in the name of Jewish history.”57