When the Jews of Palestine were faced with the 1947 UN partition plan that gave them half of Mandatory Palestine, they were not thrilled. The half that they were given was largely composed of desert, it was disjointed, and it was practically impossible to defend due to long borders and slim pieces of land. Yet they decided to accept it.
They likely felt that it was better than nothing, and they were willing to live with it if the Arabs were too. The Arabs, however, were not, so a war ensued, and remarkably, in what became known as the War of Independence, the Jews were able to take more land and make their new state more defensible. It was still not ideal. The amount of land was still small, and it did not include the Biblical Judea and Samaria which many Jews consider the heartland of Israel, but it was a lot better than nothing, and it gave Jews everywhere a state to which they could go if they needed it or simply desired it.
From 1948 to 1967, there was no question in Israel as to what the state’s borders were. The state did not include Judea and Samaria, nor did it include Jerusalem’s Old City. But just as Arab aggression reshuffled the cards in 1947-1949, it reshuffled them again in 1967 when it forced another war on Israel. In that war, Israel invaded Judea and Samaria, including Jerusalem’s Old City. The entry of Israeli soldiers into the Temple Mount was a moment of great joy and pride for Jews everywhere, and it is still fondly remembered today.
But from that moment, many questions needed to be answered. Among those questions: Should Israel control the Temple Mount? Should Israel annex the portion of Jerusalem outside the green Line (the 1949 Armistice Line)? Should Israel re-settle Judea and Samaria from which all Jews were chased during the War of Independence?
On the Temple Mount, for better or for worse, the decision was made early. Jews would have limited access while the Jordanian Waqf would continue to administer the Al-Aqsa Mosque. The annexation of East Jerusalem occurred early as well, on June 28, 1967.
The settling of Judea and Samaria did not occur at first. It started very slowly in 1970, reaching a population of only 50,000 in 1985. But just as Arab aggression reshuffled the cards to Israel’s advantage in 1947-1949 and in 1967, continued Palestinian aggression (first Intifada, second Intifada, the rejection of several peace plans, and continued terrorism) gave Israel an excuse to continue building settlements. The Jewish population of Judea and Samaria is now at half a million, and it continues to grow quickly.
But what is the long-term plan for Judea and Samaria, better known internationally as the West Bank? On that, there is no consensus in Israel, mostly because the heart and the head say two very different things.
The heart says that Judea and Samaria is the heartland of Israel and therefore without it, Israel is not Israel. The heart says that Jews were forced to leave that land, not only during the War of Independence but in several earlier wars too, and that it’s only right that they would now come back. The heart says that although Arabs may stay, their identity isn’t linked to that land to the same extent that Jewish identity is, so they should find a way to accept Jewish presence.
The head says that there is no practical way for Israel to keep all or even most of the West Bank without either being an occupier forever or becoming a state with drastically unequal rights for its citizens based on religion. That’s because if Israel was to annex the West Bank and allow its Arab residents to become citizens, Israel’s Jewish majority would disappear or at least be dramatically weakened. So, the head says that on balance, not annexing the land is better for Israel’s security and democracy, and that Israel should maintain its forces in the West Bank but should limit and even reduce its settlements.
This leads to a crisis of identity: Is Israel the state of the Jews with a responsibility to be remain strong, Jewish, and democratic, or is Israel not really Israel unless it includes its “heartland”?
In this crisis of identity, although the heart’s position is essentially advanced by the Israeli right and the head’s position is mostly advanced by the Israeli left, there are plenty of Israelis across the political spectrum who hold both positions simultaneously knowing very well the contradiction. That is often the case when the heart and the head say different things.
Israel’s peace offers as late as 2008 (Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s offer to Palestinian President Mahmood Abbas) demonstrate that for most Israelis, the head would likely win the battle if only Palestinians gave up terrorism and were willing to live in peace next to Israel. But due to continued Palestinian terrorism, the opportunity for that compromise to be made has been lost again and again and again.
One could say that the Palestinians have pushed Israelis towards choosing one identity over the other. The fact this could well lead to Israel’s undoing makes one wonder whether it is intentional on the Palestinians’ part, but regardless, Israel continues to build more and more settlements, and it continues to put its own future increasingly at risk.
Whether Israel will suffer the consequences of this trend or whether it will correct it in time is impossible to predict, but there are signs that Israelis are increasingly realizing the risk of letting their heart dictate to their head what should be done in Judea and Samaria. This is perhaps the consequence of an increasing trend in settler violence against Palestinians, but regardless, it is the sign that the identity crisis that has been dormant in Israel since 1967 may finally be coming to the surface.