In 1982 Israel captured Beirut, the capital of Lebanon. The attack on Beirut was led by General Ariel Sharon, a strong supporter of the Likud Party. The purpose was to destroy Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization, which had its headquarters in Beirut. Arafat and his staff escaped but two Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut did not. While Beirut was in Israeli hands General Sharon allowed Lebanese militia men from the Christian Fascist Phalange group, which worked with Israel, to go into the refugee camps and massacre 2,000 Palestinian men, women and children. Photos of the heaps of bodies, which looked like a Nazi death camp, were published around the world. For the first time much of the American press was sharply critical of Israel, General Sharon was especially blamed.
Except for a handful of critics, the American Jewish community had always been either full of enthusiastic praise for Israel or silent. Then the Labor Party government which was strongly connected to Jewish liberal Democrats was replaced by Likud, a party which many American Jews found deeply disturbing. Yet most of these people tried to act as if there had been no real change until the refugee camp massacre. Then for the first time many American Jews spoke out openly against Israeli policies.
This had repercussions in the Israeli government since Israel depended heavily on the moral and financial support of American Jews. In 1984 the Likud government was replaced by a "national unity government", a cabinet composed of both Labor and Likud members.
Then came the first intifada (literally "shaking off") a Palestinian uprising in the West Bank and the Gaze Strip. The world saw Palestinian teenagers with no guns throwing rocks at Israeli troops and getting themselves killed. Many Israeli Jewish young people protested against the excesses of Israeli troops in suppressing the intifada. These young people called for their own government to obey UN Security Council resolution 242 and withdraw its troops from the West Bank and the Gaze Strip and shut down the Jewish settlements in those areas. The Israeli peace movement called for a "two state solution" with the West Bank and Gaza Strip becoming an independent Palestinian country.
Meanwhile just as the socialist, secular Labor Party had lost to the Israeli religious right, among the Palestinians the socialist, secular Palestine Liberation Organization lost influence to fundamentalist Muslim organizations like Hamas, which had been originally supported by Israeli intelligence. Groups like Hamas gained influence not only because of the guns and bombs they used against Israel, but also because of their charities like soup kitchens for the numerous Palestinian unemployed.
In 1990 in the midst of the first intifada, Yitzhak Shamir of Likud became Israeli Prime Minister. Two years later there was revealed something which had really long been known. A new generation of Israelis was shocked by a letter Shamir and other Likud leaders wrote to Adolf HItler before World War II. In this letter Shamir and the others said their was no need for conflict between themselves at Hitler because they only wanted a "nationalist and totalitarian state for the Jewish people" just as HItler wanted such a state for the German people. Shamir lost his job as Prime Minister.
The new Prime Minister in 1992 was Yitzhak Rabin of the Labor Party who had been Defense Minister in the 1984 "national unity" government. Rabin was the first Israeli Prime Minister who was actually born in Israel. His parents were early Zionist settlers. In many ways Rabin personified the early pioneering Zionist's spirit that helped form the Labor Party.
In June, 1945, Rabin was a 23 year old officer in the Haganah - the socialist Zionist military organization. In that month a group of Holocaust survivors tried to enter illegally into what was then British controlled Palestine. The British authorities jailed them in the port city of Acco. Rabin led a team of Haganah fighters who broke into the jail and set the Holocaust survivors free.
Rabin's rescue of the prisoners is the basis for one of the main incidents in the best selling novel Exodus by Leon Uris. The leader of the Haganah group who did the jail break was called Ari ben Canaan in Uris's novel. In the hit movie Exodus Ari ben Canaan was played by Paul Newman. Rabin always denied modestly the he could be anyone who Paul Newman played, but his action inspired a novel and a film that symbolized Israel to millions of Americans. Rabin was a major figure in building the Israeli Army. In the 1967 six-day war with Egypt he was one of the outstanding commanders on the ground with the troops.
Like many Israeli military men Rabin had a talent for being brutally frank, as opposed to the sugar-coated version Israeli public relations tried to spread in the USA. When he wrote his memoirs in 1979 he caused a sensation in Israel. He admitted that in 1948 he had personally led Haganah troops in expelling 50,000 Palestinian civilians from their homes - an action that the Israeli government had always denied.
To end the Palestinian uprising, Rabin went to the USA where he met with American President Bill Clinton and Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat. Rabin recognized the Palestine Liberation Organization (which until then had been considered a "terrorist group".) He turned over the administration of a number of West Bank towns and cities to a Palestinian authority with headquarters in Ramallah. To a very limited degree Rabin tried to slow down the expansion of Jewish settlements on the West Bank. Also Rabin opened diplomatic relations with Jordan and withdrew troops from Lebanon.
He ended up antagonizing Israel's religious right. One of the most militant Jewish settlements was in the middle of the Palestinian city of Hebron - a very sensitive spot because the tomb of Abraham, ancestor of both Jews and Arabs, was there. A Jewish settler went into the shrine that sheltered the tomb of Abraham and found an elderly Palestinian man who was reading aloud from the Koran, the Muslim holy book. The settler tore the Koran up.
One young man from the settlement would lead groups of Jewish teenagers through the Hebron market place while he carried a rifle. One day he thought the teenagers were being attacked and he fired and a Palestinian fired back. When the shooting ended a Jewish teenage girl, Tirza Porat, and a Palestinian teenage boy named Musa were both dead. The Israeli army tore down some Palestinian houses as a reprisal for Tirza Porat's death. A later inquest showed that the young Jewish man had fired wildly and killed both Tirza Porat and Musa (The name Musa means Moses. Ironically an orthodox Jewish youth had killed Moses.)
In 1994 one of the settlers named Baruch Goldstein went to the shrine at Abraham's tomb. He shot and killed 29 unarmed Palestinian men there. Finally Palestinian police arrived and killed Goldstein. In the Jewish settlement Goldstein's grave was made into a shrine and he was called a saint. In reprisal, the Muslim fundamentalist group Hamas sent a man with a bomb strapped around him onto a bus filled with Israelis. He blew himself up, killing most of the people on the bus. This was the first Palestinian suicide bombing.
The next year, 1995, Prime Minister Rabin was at a rally for peace. Yigal Amir, a young Middle Eastern Jewish man, walked up to him and shot him. It is strange that in Israel, the most security conscious country in the world, the police and soldiers around Rabin let Amir get through with a pistol. In fact the police and soldiers almost parted their lines to let Amir get through.
Amir was a student at Bar-Ilan University, a center of religious right sentiments. Three other young men were accused of being his accomplices, but charges against them were quickly dropped.
There was no attempt to pursue the possibility of a conspiracy to kill Rabin, which might lead to others in Israel's religious right. Some religious right-wing Israelis openly said that they were glad that Rabin was dead. Any attempt to investigate a conspiracy and prosecute more people besides Yigal Amir would divide Israel bitterly in front of its enemies in the surrounding Arab states.
Thus Rabin was murdered - a man who was one of the most prominent products of the socialist Zionist tradition, a man whose deeds had been made into a symbol of Israel by the novel and movie Exodus.
Rabin's widow Leah refused to receive condolences from the Israeli government, which would not investigate her husband's murder thoroughly, for fear of antagonizing Israel's religious right. Instead Leah Rabin met with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
Rabin's successor as prime minister was Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud Party. Both the Jewish religious right and the Muslim fundamentalist Hamas expressed joy. Both Jewish and Muslim fundamentalists wanted a hard-liner like Netanyahu who would make peaceful compromise impossible. Peaceful compromise would certainly mean secular democratic societies for both Israelis and Palestinians. In such societies, Jewish and Muslim fundamentalists might be reduced to irrelevance.
Netanyahu appointed as his minister of housing ,General Ariel Sharon, who had presided over the massacre of Palestinian refugees in Beirut. Sharon began a program of still more expansion of Jewish settlements in Palestinian land on the West Bank.
In 1998 Ehud Barak of the Labor Party became Prime Minister. In negotiations with the Palestinian authority, Barak offered what was supposed to be a major concession - that portions of the eastern part of Jerusalem would be turned over to Palestinian control. These areas were close to the ancient walled city with its holy places, so turning them over to the Palestinians was certain to offend the Israeli religious right.
But Barak allowed the construction of highways connecting the Jewish settlements on the West Bank. Only settlers could travel on these highways. At intersections with other roads the Israeli army set up check points to stop and examine the cars of any Palestinians going through.
The new highways fragmented the West Bank with corridors that could easily be sealed off by Israeli troops. As Palestinians and even some Israelis said, a Palestinian state under such control would be no more independent than the "Bantustans" - black tribal territories under the old white racist government of South Africa (which the Likud government of Israel had supported.)
Palestinians began to realize that nothing was going to be done to remove or even to diminish the already existing settlements. If Prime Minister Barak ever tried to do such a thing, he would lose the swing vote of the religious parties and his government would collapse.
Then Israeli intelligence assassinated a Hamas leader in a time of supposed peace. Palestinian youth began to attack Israeli police and soldiers. Barak's government did collapse. He was replaced by ex-General Ariel Sharon of Likud. In September 2000, Sharon wanted to spend the solemn day of Yom Kippur in the sanctuary area around the Mosque of Omar - the site of the Courts of the ancient Jewish temple. He got permission of the Muslim religious authorities, but no one had bothered to tell the throngs of Muslims, mostly elderly men, who gathered around the mosque to pray (it was too small to hold all of them).
Sharon showed up with large squads of Israeli police who forced the elderly Muslims to move. The rudeness of this incident turned the occasional violence into a full-fledged second intifada uprising which continues until this day. As Israelis fear for their safety, support for the Labor Party has dropped to an all-time low.
For 150 years Jews have been in the forefront of every movement for peace, freedom and social justice. The Israeli Labor Party was founded by people who were products of these movements. But to have a national home for the Jewish people to be safe from persecution, the political ancestors of Israeli Labor Party assumed that they had to have a space controlled absolutely by Jews. To have such a space, they had to discriminate against Palestinians in the same way Jews had ben discriminated against. After the Holocaust, these assumptions of absolute Jewish control became even stronger. They were justified by what was regarded as political realism. Ruthless measures were justified by saying the survival of the Jewish people must be protected at all costs. There was a faint undertone which said, not only must Jews be protected from being physically killing, they must be protected from intermarriage and assimilation at all costs.
The tragedy of the Labor Party and of many American Jews who support Israel is that while holding these views of ruthless political realism they still hold the socialist and humanitarian values from which the early Zionists came. They have to make the most contorted justifications - or denial - of Israel's oppression of the Palestinians.
When Israeli Labor takes measures against the Palestinians it takes them only halfway. Labor is held back by the values that were so much a part of its early history, so it loses out to a Likud Party which is only too willing to carry oppressive measures all the way.
(in Hebrew means "I believe".)
I believe that the solution to the Israeli/Palestinian problem will not be found in the "ruthless political realism" which Likud applies so well. The problem with this "realism" is that it is not realistic.
I believe that the solution will be found in the original socialist and humanitarian values which the Labor Party partly deserted but never completely abandoned. These values are exemplified by the Israeli reservists who have gone to prison rather than serve on the West Bank and inflict injustice on the Palestinians.
I believe we must be realistic about these values - that is, we must realize the extreme difficulty of bringing them into reality. But in the end, these values are the only alternative to the madness.