Interview with Israeli historian Zeev Sternhell

Two states? A Sisyphean task

Leading historian Zeev Sternhell talks to Inge Gunther about the 70th anniversary of the founding of Israel, the impact of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Israelʹs religious-nationalist settler movement

You must have been 13 years old, one of the few in your family who survived the Holocaust, when David Ben-Gurion declared Israeli statehood on 14 May 1948. What did you feel when you heard about the foundation of the Jewish state?

Zeev Sternhell: I was living at that time in Avignon, where I came to from Poland just after Second World War. The foundation of Israel and the war for its independence had a lot of impact on me. I was a still a child, but I wanted to take part. When I reached the age of 16 years, I decided to make aliya, to immigrate to Israel, because I wanted to participate in building a new society. 

Today we have had a state for 70 years, it‘s probably very far from what we hoped for. Yet in the early days people could hardly believe they were seeing those Jews, whose relative had been gassed by the Germans, creating and fighting for a place for themselves.

In your case the enthusiastic henchman became an outstanding critical voice. Did that happen before or after the Six Day War?

Sternhell: In 1967 I like most Israelis had no doubt that we were just responding to the Egyptian military threat. Nobody among us was thinking about Jerusalem and the West Bank. Later we came to understand that it was all a miscalculation by Nasser, that he had never intended to go to war. After our victory I didn‘t believe that we would keep Sinai and the West Bank. I was convinced that we should and that we would pull out of all the territories occupied in 1967.

The question is why did we not evacuate the conquered territories when we still could have done it easily? By 1977, when Likud won the elections for the first time, the Labour party had had ten years to take the initiative. At that time Sinai and the West Bank were still regarded as something of a package for negotiations on the basis of "land for peace".

Jewish settlement in Lechem (photo: ARD/T. Teichmann)
Building of settlements continues apace? Last December, following the U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israelʹs capital, several Israeli media outlets reported plans to massively boost settlement construction. Haaretz reported that Israelʹs Ministry of Construction had submitted a proposal for three new settlements in the Jordan Valley, designed to house 10,000 people. Previously Maariv had published an article on the planned construction of 6000 new settler apartments in East Jerusalem

Why wasnʹt it possible to stop the religious nationalist settler movement?

Sternhell: Initially they were only a tiny minority. I personally have no problem with conquering the land before 48/49, because that was a vital, an essential necessity. We needed a piece of land for ourselves. But I have a real problem with us retaining the territories of 1967. All the goals of Zionism can be realised within the Green Line. We have no right to deny the Palestinians human rights, including those relating to self-rule and independence.

How come, 70 years after the foundation of Israel, the government is seeking to push through legislation that emphasises the Jewish character of the state in such a way as to make the Arab minority feel even more second rate?

Sternhell: Israel was always intended to be a Jewish state. But at the same time, its Arab citizens were meant to have full rights of citizenship, politically, if not socially. Today the ruling right-wing parties are creating a new legitimacy, claiming that the country belongs to the Jews, because 3000 years ago we received it from God himself. Now there are even members of the Knesset prepared to go on record saying that the Palestinians cannot claim equal rights to the land because they are not Jews.

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