Decisive moments in history

By Anshel Pfeffer, April 17, 2008

Six historic choices

Opening the gates of Aliyah
As the country emerged from the 1948 Independence War, it included only around 600,000 Jews, and had little infrastructure. Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion took upon the new-born state to bring in and absorb a million Holocaust refugees and half-a-million Jews from Arab states. The decision had the potential to devastate the almost non-existent economy, and to tear apart the fragile society. In the space of less than a decade, the population tripled and a vibrant and diverse Israeli cultural identity was born. The price: Israel’s economy was shackled for a generation to come, and a social divide was produced that is only beginning to close.

Building the nuclear option
The young Shimon Peres, with the backing of Ben-Gurion, embarked upon an adventure unthinkable for such a young and badly resourced country. Through scientific ingenuity and a series of secret deals with a sympathetic French government, the Dimona nuclear reactor was built and Israel’s most significant strategic asset came to be. Today, without ever admitting it, Israel is seen as a nuclear power. Its leadership and most of the population believe that this is the ultimate deterrence against its enemies. But Dimona remains a dark secret that is spurring on a regional arms race.

Launching the Six-Day War
Was the 1967 war inevitable? Did Israel have to launch a surprise attack on Egypt and the Arab air forces? Was the blockade of the Strait of Hormuz a mortal threat? Historians will continue to argue, but none will dispute the significance of Levi Eshkol’s cabinet decision, egged on by public opinion and the intrigues of the generals, to embark on Israel’s greatest military operation eventually on three fronts simultaneously. In less than a week, the threatened state was firmly established as the regional superpower; and, for better or worse, the frontier lines of the Israeli-Arab conflict were redrawn forever.

Unifying Jerusalem
In the aftermath of the Six-Day War, the official government position was that the captured territory was collateral for a future peace deal. On the ground, reality was rapidly changing. The Eshkol government’s decision to extend Israeli law to Eastern Jerusalem was not simply a redrawing of the municipal boundaries, nor just a response to the emotional outpouring at the liberation of the Western Wall. It established a reality that still exists today — that any comprehensive deal could be reached only at the price of tearing one, or both, of the sides from part of their historical bedrock.

The Economic Plan
With inflation at 1,000 per cent in the mid-1980s, a unity government of Likud and Labour, together with employers and unions, agreed upon a package deal that would slash public spending, freeze hiring and control consumer prices. Each side gave in — even the military, forced for the first time by Defence Minister Yitzhak Rabin to swallow deep cuts. The immediate result was drastically to rein in inflation. In the longer term, it put the economy on a clear path of privatisation, lower taxes, less public spending and deregulation. Israel abandoned its social and socialist precepts and embraced capitalism.

It is probably too early to judge the long-term effects of the Oslo process, finalised with the accords signed in September 1993. Was this a capitulation that led only to new waves of bloodshed, or can it still be seen as the breakthrough without which any peace accord would be unfeasible? For the foreseeable future, that will remain a question of political ideology rather than historical analysis. But Yitzhak Rabin’s acquiescence to a deal dreamt up by Shimon Peres’s acolytes in misty Scandinavian hideaways meant that the Palestinian leadership would have to be part of any future power equation.

Last updated: 2:37pm, April 22 2008