I've just finished reading Gershom Gorenberg's excellent forthcoming book The Unmaking of Israel. I'll write a separate post delving into it and grappling with what Gorenberg proposes will lead to what he calls "The Reestablishment of Israel," but for now, let's focus on an unrepresentative section of the text.
The Unmaking of Israel is a clincal, mostly dispassionate investigation into the unraveling of Israel under the corrupting stress of occupying Palestinian territory for 44 years. His thesis is a familiar one from 20th century experiences worldwide: Zionism had a difficult transition from revolutionary movement to institutional governance, and the aftermath of the Six Day War allowed it to defer that final reconciliation. I say mostly dispassionate because while Gorenberg writes to persuade and not to inflame, he has flashes of passion. The fate of the Israel Defense Forces causes one of them.
First, a bit of context. Every student in Jewish day school in the diaspora learns about something called The Altalena Affair. To make a long story short, the Altalena was a weapons shipment for the rightist paramilitary called the Irgun, which had little problem committing terrorism. After Israel declared statehood in May 1948, the Irgun was supposed to be incorporated into what became the Israel Defense Forces, the national military. In reality, there was an unsettled political arrangement about how to integrate the Irgun's leadership into the new civilian government and politics of Israel. As long as that ship could keep the Irgun armed, the rightists would have an armed option if politics didn't shake out their way; the new state wouldn't have a monopoly on violence; and the young state of Israel would be at risk of civil war. So in a tense operation in and around Tel Aviv, the new IDF shelled the Altalena and effectively settled the question.
We learn about the Altalena in Hebrew school for a few reasons. One is to so kids understand that difficult and painful steps -- Jew attacking Jew -- are necessary if a broader interest is at stake. Another, uglier lesson is that Jews take these steps and decide against being terrorists, while Palestinians don't. Tribalism has an ugly side.
Anyway, Gorenberg spends a chapter on the relationship between the West Bank settlers and the military and distills it into three passionate paragraphs that bear excerpting.
[A] vicious cycle is at work. Israel continues to hold the West Bank and expand settlements. Policing occupied territory and protecting settlers are military burdens, increasing the need for combat soldiers and officers who have no qualms about the occupation. To meet that need, the army depends ever more on recruits from the religious right. Yet this increases the danger of fragmenting the military when an Israeli government finally does decide to pull out of the West Bank.
For politicians, this is one more reason to postpone difficult, necessary decisions. The longer they wait, though, the greater the risks. The problem is not one of individual conscientious objectors. There are already whole units that the IDF fears using. As men who believe in the inviolable sanctity of the Whole Land of Israel climb the ladder of command, possibilities loom that are worse than refusal: outright mutiny, even decisions by senior officers to deploy their units to prevent withdrawal.
Watching this process is like watching a film of the Altalena run in reverse: the smoke returns to the ship, the shell to the cannon. The opposition unloads its arms at the Kfar Vitkin beach. Israel evolves backward, returning to the moment of a fragile state facing an armed faction dedicated to fantasies of power and expansion.
There is a reason that the second chapter in Gorenberg's book is called "Remember the Altalena." Gorenberg, a religious Israeli, desperately wants his country to remember one of its finest hours and act accordingly.