Seventy years ago tomorrow David Ben-Gurion signed the declaration of independence which, in the midst of a fierce Arab-Jewish war, established the State of Israel in the shadow of the Holocaust.
It is a birthday that Ben-Gurion’s successors have many reasons to celebrate, going much deeper and wider than Israel’s status as the region’s leading – and only nuclear – military power. In seven decades it has built a formidably strong economy, a cutting edge high-tech industry, a Nobel prize-winning science base and one of the world’s best health services, and has permanently revived the Hebrew language. It has a vibrant cultural scene and a still viable parliamentary democracy.
But the conflict that underlay the 1948 war has not been resolved. That war also generated the nakba, or catastrophe, which Palestinians will commemorate on Tuesday, and in which more than 700,000 of them were driven from or fled their homes in what is now Israel. Israel, moreover, remains without internationally recognised borders. Its stunning military victory over Egyptian and Jordanian forces in the 1967 Six-Day War left its military occupying Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem – in the latter two of which Jewish settlement continues to expand despite a widespread international consensus that it is illegal in international law. Millions of Palestinians are without the right to elect the government that fundamentally controls their lives.
It will be tempting for many Israelis to forget all that this week. Benjamin Netanyahu’s standing internally has probably never been higher, despite the police investigation into his alleged corruption. Donald Trump’s withdrawal from Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran is a triumph for his main foreign policy. The decisive action of Israel’s military against Iranian forces in Syria commands support far beyond his nationalistic base. And finally, to Mr Netanyahu’s unbridled delight, Mr Trump will on Monday move the US embassy to Jerusalem, in open defiance of a protocol endorsed by Western governments, including hitherto the US, that the city cannot be recognised as Israel’s capital before a peace agreement is reached with the Palestinians.
Tempting but not necessarily easy. The protests in Gaza, organised by Hamas, and reinforced by anger over Mr Trump’s Jerusalem move, the seventh anniversary of the nakba and above all by a decade-long Israeli blockade which has imploded the Gaza Strip’s economy, have already claimed 40 Palestinian lives. Hamas is already threatening that on Monday and Tuesday the protests will break through Gaza’s border fences. Israel’s military will probably contain the protests, albeit with as yet unknown consequences in bloodshed. But they will serve as a reminder – especially abroad – that the conflict remains unresolved.
The 70-year-old declaration of independence, a remarkable document, asserted – unassailably – “the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign state”. But it also promised to “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex…”. The Arab minority – around 20 per cent – of Israel’s own citizens, unlike the Palestinians in the occupied territories, enjoys full political and civil rights. But while to its great credit Israel is doing much to improve the minority’s economic prospects, legislation before the Knesset that will reduce – among other things – the status of Arabic as an official language alongside Hebrew, and Mr Netanyahu’s notorious warning to his base in the 2015 election that Arab voters were heading to the polling stations “in droves”, threaten Arab Israeli citizens’ own sense of security.
But the declaration also endorsed the 1947 United Nations resolution prescribing partition of the whole land into two states, Israel, on 56 per cent of historic Palestine, and an Arab one on 44 per cent. Israelis are quick to remember that this never happened because the Arab leaders rejected it. They less often remember the historic 1988 compromise in which Yasser Arafat finally accepted, bowing to the inevitable, partition that would give Palestinians a state on 22 per cent of the land, with Israel on 78 per cent.
Today, when leading members of Mr Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition openly reject it in favour of annexing large parts of the West Bank, that two-state solution remains the best option for resolving the conflict. While Israelis reflect this week on their country’s short but in many ways glorious history, they would do well to imbibe the spirit of the declaration signed 70 years ago by the greatest of its founding fathers.