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Allan Levine: From its birth, Israel has faced double standards and been wrongly maligned

Israel at 75: The Jewish state's crushing victory in the Six-Day War came at a high price

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Israel marks the 75th anniversary of its founding this year, and the National Post is launching a five-month celebration of the Jewish state, telling the remarkable story of its rebirth and resilience against all odds. We’ll toast its food, its multiculturalism, its world-leading innovation, its most intriguing people and more. Look for commentary, video, podcasts and more feting the “startup” nation.

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Over the past 75 years, there have been two main constants for the state of Israel. First, it has been perpetually on alert from attack by neighbouring Arab states (though several, most notably Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994, have agreed to peace terms); by Iran, an avowed enemy since the mid-1990s that has used Hezbollah militants in Lebanon as its proxy; and by Palestinian militants and terrorists, who have never accepted the legitimacy of Israel’s existence. And, second, from the moment Israel declared its independence on May 14, 1948, its actions have been placed under a microscope by much of the world and judged critically, usually by double standards.

The latter especially has been the case since the Six-Day War of June 1967, when Israel transformed itself from a mostly admired tenacious underdog to a maligned military power and occupier. Arguably, no country has been scrutinized more by world leaders, given as much prominent attention by the media, or denounced more often by the United Nations. Since 1955, the UN General Assembly has passed hundreds of resolutions about Israel, the vast majority of which could be classified as overwhelmingly negative. Indeed, the most recent one on Dec. 30 — passed by a vote of 87 in favour, 26 against, with 53 abstentions — approved a resolution asking the International Court of Justice to offer a judgment on Israeli “annexation” and the “legal status of the occupation” of the West Bank.

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Ironically, Israel’s 75th anniversary would not be happening without the United Nations. In November 1947, the UN General Assembly voted in favour of ending the British Mandate and partitioning Palestine into two states: one independent state for the Jews and one for Palestinian Arabs. The Jews accepted the partition, while the Palestinian Arabs and Arab states — including Egypt, Jordan (Transjordan), Syria, Lebanon and Iraq — did not; they wanted Arab sovereignty over all of Palestine. Attacks on the Jewish settlement began almost immediately and only intensified after Israel’s declaration of independence.

Somehow, with arms obtained from Czechoslovakia and financial and military support from Jews in western countries, Israel was able to hold off the onslaught until armistice agreements were negotiated. This was, however, only the opening salvo of this bitter and enduring conflict.

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This was the opening salvo of an enduring conflict

Led by Egypt’s president Gamal Nasser, the Arab countries repeatedly broke the 1949 armistice agreements and were intent on destroying Israel. There was the crisis in the Suez in 1956 — temporarily resolved through the negotiating efforts of the future Canadian prime minister, Lester Pearson, who was then the country’s secretary of state for external affairs — that in the long term settled little, but drew the Soviets and Americans, locked in the Cold War, into the conflict. For the next few decades, the Soviets supported the Arabs and the U.S. backed the Israelis, though not unreservedly so.

The military buildup in Egypt, Syria and Jordan and the constant threats to “wipe Israel off the map,” as president Abdel-Rahman Aref of Iraq put it, was finally countered by Israel with a surprise attack on Egypt on June 5, 1967. Israel had a standing army of approximately 75,000 and faced an implacable enemy made up of three major Arab powers, which had financial support and military assistance from another seven countries and a combined army of half a million men.

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Over the course of six days — from June 5 to 10, 1967 — Israel gave the term “underdog” a new meaning by staging one of the greatest military victories of all time, crushing its enemies and expanding its territory to the north, south and west so it was three and half times its prewar size. This included taking the old city of Jerusalem, which Jordan had controlled and barred Jews from entering since 1948.

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Yet this victory came with a high price. After June 1967, Israel was quickly transformed from the region’s underdog to its chief military power. And the world was watching, judging and lecturing. Nine days after the war ended, an editorial in The New York Times urged Israel to demonstrate generosity towards its defeated enemies, adding prophetically that “Israel’s courage and skill in battle cannot be overcome by propaganda. But neither can conquest bring peace.”

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That last statement has proved all too true. While Israel’s security requirements have been and are valid, its decision to establish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip ultimately led to angry criticism, as did its invasion of Lebanon in 1982.

After 1967, the Palestinians, for their part, took their fight against Israel to locales outside the Middle East. Terrorist attacks killed Israelis on planes and at airports in Europe. Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972 were kidnapped and murdered, and passenger jets were hijacked. The Palestinians, who were perceived to be victims of Israeli “Imperialism,” were condemned for these acts of violence, but some of the blame was also directed at Israel.

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Over the years, this castigation intensified in response to Israel’s harsh security measures imposed on the occupied territories, and its allegedly “disproportionate” retaliation to Hamas and Hezbollah rocket attacks (can you imagine the U.S. military response to rocket attacks by extremists in Mexico?).

Over the years, this castigation intensified

The political left initially had championed Israel’s cause when it was an underdog. Yet when Israel became a powerful modern military machine — and secretly acquired nuclear weapons — western socialists’ admiration for the Jewish state dissipated. The rise of the right-wing Likud Party in the 1970s with its more zealous policies on Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza and its outspoken and uncompromising leaders like Menachem Begin and Benjamin Netanyahu made the divorce permanent. Today, these former supporters of Israel are far more likely to march arm in arm with its enemies in protest parades against the “Zionist entity.”

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For the past five decades, Israel has been trapped in a conundrum of action and reaction. The Jewish state is (wrongly) maligned for instituting a form of apartheid on Palestinians, who have in theory accepted a negotiated two-state solution, though not in practice. Right-wing Israeli governments have not been fully supportive of this plan as well. According to recent polls, support for a two-state solution has considerably waned among Palestinians and Israelis. Thus, the cycle of violence and terrorism goes on — this past year was the deadliest since 2005, The New York Times reported in late December — with one result being that the right wing in Israel has gained more traction.

Following the recent Israeli election, Netanyahu, who is currently under investigation for corruption, has remarkably become prime minister once again and formed a cabinet in which right-wing and ultra-religious politicians will serve in key positions. This does not bode well for future peace negotiations. The untenable status quo as well as the denunciation of Israel as an aggressive military power — by the UN, on university campuses and at Washington, Ottawa and London cocktail parties — will continue.

National Post

Historian Allan Levine is the author of Seeking the Fabled City: The Canadian Jewish Experience. His most recent book is Details are Unprintable: Wayne Lonergan and the Sensational Café Society Murder.

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