On May 2, Israel will celebrate the 69th anniversary of its independence that was achieved against all odds in 1948. Next month, on June 5, the Jewish state will mark another historic event. It also will be the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War. In that war, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) fought against the armies of Egypt, Syria and Jordan (as well as troops from other Arab states), conquered the Sinai Peninsula, the Golan Heights and the West Bank in a whirlwind attack and liberated East Jerusalem, including the Western Wall. It was the culmination of 2,000 years of longing to return to that site.
It is doubtful whether there was a more decisive event in the history of Israel and the Middle East. In less than a week, Israel was transformed from a tiny state, hanging by a thread, surrounded by enemies armed to the teeth and under threat of immediate annihilation, into a confident regional giant.
If Israel's founders had been told about the situation in Israel 70 years after declaring independence in the most vicious neighborhood in the world, they would have been hard-pressed to believe it. On the eve of the Six-Day War, Israel was home to fewer than 3 million citizens. It had a tiny economy, just faltering along, and its borders were indefensible. Meanwhile, terrorist groups and regular armies alike all grew stronger and swore to wipe the state off the map. Israel's independence, they threatened, would be short-lived.
Today, Israel is home to almost 9 million citizens. Life expectancy is among the highest in the world. According to foreign publications, Israel is one of the strongest nuclear powers in the world. In the 1967 war, the country quadrupled its territory (though in 1982, Sinai was returned to Egypt). It expanded its narrow "midsection" and restored Jewish sovereignty over Judea and Samaria in the West Bank, where this authority emerged millennia ago.
Almost 50 years after the Six-Day War, all of the immediate existential threats to Israel, which hung over the country since Day One, have been lifted. Peace agreements have been signed with Egypt and Jordan. Iran's nuclear project will be on hold for about 15 years. Syria is a shattered state. So is Iraq. Hezbollah may still pose a terrorist threat, but it is not existential. The same is true of Hamas. In 2017, Israel is several times stronger than all the Arab states and its other Middle Eastern neighbors combined. It leads the world in cybertechnology and high-tech and boasts a flourishing economy. The gross domestic product approaches European figures, and the standard of living is high. The IDF enjoys absolute superiority on land, in the air and on the sea. Israeli brainpower has developed weapons systems to shoot down enemy missiles while they are still in flight, providing the country with a multitiered defense system unlike that of any other country. Israel launches advanced spy satellites, and it leads in drone technology. Tel Aviv is one of the most expensive, desirable and lively cities in the world.
And yet, there are still quite a few Israelis who miss the way life was 50 years ago, when Israel was a smaller but more united country. It may have been surrounded by enemies, but it was stubborn and acted justly. Now that it has seemingly reached green pastures, Israel knows no rest. Something is tearing it up inside. Social divisions are only intensifying, while political divisions pose a real threat. The sense of solidarity has vanished; tolerance has faded away. Instead, its tribes are lashing out at one another. The streets, and especially the social networks, are seething with hatred. Israel is being torn apart like never before.
Confronting the camp that will celebrate the "liberation" this June is a smaller but no less determined camp, which regards that war as a kind of curse, which brought us the "occupation" and with it the domination of another people. Israel is having a hard time reaping the benefits of its victory over its adversaries and enemies. It is as if it is now determined to attain victory over itself as well.
At the official dedication ceremony April 30 of Mount Herzl's new Memorial Hall for the casualties of Israel's wars, the father of one fallen soldier heckled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as he delivered his speech. A spectacle like that would have been unimaginable just 10 years ago. But in the past decade, Israel has become a seething cauldron, overflowing with passions, and sometimes even real hate. Many point accusingly at Netanyahu, who has dominated Israeli politics high-handedly since 2009 and is considered the "father of divisiveness as a political strategy." Netanyahu flourishes by inciting one tribe against the other and on fanning the flames of fear and paranoid anxiety, even when there is no real justification for them. There is good reason why his main political rival Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid has adopted a different approach. He tries to spread a message of tolerance and love, even if they are artificial. He rarely wages a full frontal attack on Netanyahu, preferring the alternative instead. He is building upon public exhaustion with the politics of division and hatred. We will find out in the next election whether this pays off for him.
Meanwhile, the internal debate that has plagued Israel since the Six-Day War — and has long since become a deep-rooted, unresolvable structural rift — continues. Israel is the only country in the world that has yet to decide what it wants from itself. It is the only country without permanent borders. It has controlled the West Bank for some 50 years, but it has yet to decide what it wants to do with that territory, and particularly with the approximately 2 million Palestinians living there.
It is being torn apart by conflicting trends. There is a growing group of religious Israelis who demand the annexation of the West Bank, even if this means ignoring the international community or the fact that annexation will threaten the very continuation of Israel as a democratic state. Confronting them is another group of Israelis, which still believes in a two-state solution and wants to part ways with the Palestinians.
This debate has only intensified in recent decades. It is getting sharper and descending into unknown territory right before our eyes. The nightmare scenario now involves coming to the verge of a civil war between advocates of the State of Judea, who demand the annexation of Judea and Samaria and want Israel to become a religious Jewish state — confrontational and isolated — and the citizens of the "old Israel," who strive to attain peace and believe in more modest, more cautious behavior.
Now plopped into the middle of this mix is a new US president named Donald Trump. The impact he will have on Israel's future could be dramatic. He arrived at a critical juncture, when someone is needed to think outside the box, someone who does not owe anything to anyone. Trump could be that man. He even wants to be that man. All that is now left to do is hope that he is that man.