Israel's March of Folly

March 21, 2010

advaShlomo Swirski, Ph. D., Academic Director, The Adva Center, Tel Aviv

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In 1964, Lyndon Johnson “defeated Goldwater by the largest popular majority in American history and gained unassailable majorities in Congress… the result put Johnson in a position to do anything he wanted. His heart was in the welfare programs and civil rights legislation that were to create the Great Society… He wanted to go down in history as the great benefactor, greater than FDR, equal to Lincoln. Failure to seize his chance at this moment to extricate his Administration from an unpromising foreign entanglement [in Vietnam] was the irreparable folly… Confident in his own power, Johnson believed he could achieve both his aims, domestic and foreign, at once.”

Barbara W. Tuchman. 2007 (1984): 398.

In June of 1967, three years after Johnson’s unprecedented electoral win, Israel registered a decisive defeat over the armies of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan. By conquering the West Bank, it gained control over about half of the Palestinian people (including those who had become citizens of Israel in 1948).

Israel was now in an excellent position to make a serious attempt to put an end to its decades-long conflict with the Palestinians, a conflict that had transmuted over time into a confrontation with the entire Arab world and that had cost Israel three wars within twenty years. For one, Israel was in an ideal position to implement the very same solution to the Palestine problem that the UN had mandated only twenty years earlier, in 1947, and that the leading Zionist leaders had willingly embraced at the time – a division of the land between the two peoples.

… and yet…

Lyndon Johnson carried his country into a pointless war in Vietnam that led to his ousting from office; the Soviet Union did the same in Afghanistan, leading to the fall of its regime. France fought a pointless war in Vietnam and then a futile war in Algeria that nearly bled it white.

Israel’s march of folly has lasted longer and has cost more. True, the Israeli- Palestinian conflict is more difficult to disentangle: the two nations share the same territory and leaving en masse is not an acceptable option for either side. In many parts of the country (within the Green Line as well as beyond it) partition is no easy task. Furthermore, Israel has no monopoly on folly: the Palestinians, too, have arms – and much like Israel, they have not always employed them in ways conducive to a political settlement. But it is Israel that holds the better cards; actually, it holds most of the cards. Perhaps it is this fact that lured Israel into its 43 years’ march of folly, blinding it to the fact that its Palestinian gamble runs against its own long-term interests.

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