Israel’s lost 40 years

MEIR SHALEV is the author of "A Pigeon and a Boy," to be published in the U.S. in October, and a columnist for the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot. This was translated from Hebrew by Evan Fallenberg.

I WAS BORN during the 1948 war, which we Israelis refer to as the War of Independence. At the time, we were fighting against the Palestinians and the Arab nations, who refused to accept the U.N. Partition Plan that would have divided Palestine into two states for two peoples.

My mother conceived me in Jerusalem, which was, at the time, under siege. The city was being bombarded, and there was no water, no food, no medicine. My mother’s brother was a fighter whose job it was to escort supply convoys attempting to enter the city. In my mother’s eighth month of pregnancy, my uncle managed to smuggle her out through the hills and brought her to the village where she had been born, in the Jezreel Valley. A month later, the three of us were reunited in the same hospital: She and I were in the maternity ward while he fought for his life after a piece of shrapnel ripped out his eye and lodged deep in his skull.

Nineteen years later, during the Six-Day War of 1967, which started on June 5, it was my turn to fight. I took part in the battles for the Golan Heights. Several weeks after the war ended, I was given a short furlough and went home, to Jerusalem. My father led us on a tour of the places that had been off-limits to us until that time: the Western Wall, the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, the Temple Mount, his father’s grave on the Mount of Olives. He was quite overcome with emotion. Throughout my childhood he had taken us for walks along the border fence that had cut through the city, showing us these sites from afar. Now the fence had been removed.


The next day, we toured the West Bank to see the places where the heroes of the Bible had roamed. I’d always loved my father’s stories and was very moved by his excitement, but I told him that this victory of ours would work against us in the future. “We’ve bit off something that will choke us,” is what I said. I remember the exact words because they made my father so angry that I was only too happy to return to my army unit the next morning.

Several months later, I was gravely wounded and hospitalized in the same place where I’d been born.

As a result of my injury, I was released from the army. Over the years, my friends did their reserve duty in the Gaza Strip and in Judea and Samaria, as did their children, who, like my own, grew up and went into the army. I learned from them about what was taking place in those places, and that there was a price to pay for assuming ownership of the holy sites, for establishing settlements, for creating a Greater Land of Israel.

Forty years have passed since the Six-Day War. My parents are no longer alive. I can no longer argue about politics with my father. The truth is, we put a stop to that while he was still alive. We discovered that it is was much more pleasant and interesting to argue about literature.

Forty years have passed, and Israel has indeed choked. The country is busy dealing with one matter: the occupation -- the territories, the Palestinians, terror, holy sites, the establishment and evacuation of settlements. Forty years have passed, and Israel has neglected everything that the Israel of 1948 wished to occupy itself with: education, research, welfare, health.

“Forty years” is not just some round number. It is a period with traditional meaning, a number through which God tends to emphasize his will. The flood continued for 40 days and 40 nights; Moses remained on Mt. Sinai for 40 days and 40 nights; the Jewish people wandered the desert for 40 years; Jesus sequestered himself there for 40 days. It seems to me that God is sick of religious figures and generals and politicians who claim to speak in his voice. He is taking advantage of this mathematical moment and letting everyone know that now is the time to settle up.


Forty years after that great victory, he is showing us that it is not only the Palestinians who are paying the price of occupation and settlement; the Israelis are as well.

Forty years, and Israel is forced to decide which is more important: the lives of its sons and daughters or the graves of its ancestors.

Forty years of an army whose main occupation has been manning roadblocks, detaining suspects, assassinating enemies and guarding settlements have brought us to the high level of arrogance and low level of capability that the Israeli Defense Forces displayed during last year’s war in Lebanon.

Forty years of deceitful, villainous dealing in the occupied territories have caused corruption to seep into our own politics and society.

Forty years, and we must come to terms with the fact that Israel cannot cultivate democracy at home and apartheid in the backyard.

Forty years, and for the first time one can hear voices doubting whether the Jewish state will be around for another 40.


I was born during the War of Independence, which was foisted on us by our neighbors who refused to accept the partition of Palestine and thereby brought defeat and disaster upon themselves. I fought in the Six-Day War, which led Israelis to err in a similar fashion. Extremism, fanaticism, stupidity, being drunk with power, the bad mixture of politics and religion -- all these have caused us to make unwise decisions.

The settlements continue to grow and expand; terror is getting stronger, hatreds deepening. But the principle introduced 60 years ago is as right now as it was then: partition. Two nations, two states. Israel must give up the land it took over in 1967. The Palestinians must relinquish lands they lost in 1948. But neither side has leaders with the courage and the ability and the preeminence to make big decisions.

In another year both Israel and I will turn 60. Neither of us is young anymore, but I am pleased to report that I look far better. Israel cannot hear anymore, doesn’t see well, can’t really grasp matters or understand clearly. Worst of all, Israel refuses to undergo the operation that would return it to good health.