On Monday, I had the great fortune to meet with Matan Vilnai, a senior member of Mifleget Avodah (the Israeli Labor Party) and the current Israeli Deputy Defense Minister. Vilnai served in numerous senior and command positions in the Israeli military during his 36 years of service. He is probably best known for his participation as Deputy Commander in the July 4, 1976 Operation Thunderbolt. During this operation, Israeli elite units succeeded in rescuing 102 of 105 Israeli hostages held by PFLP terrorists at the Entebbe Airport in Uganda.
He retired from the military and turned to public service in 1998. First elected in 1999 with the Labor Party under the One Israel alliance, Vilnai has held a number of positions including Minster of Science, Culture, and Sport under Ehud Barak and Minister of Science and Technology under Ariel Sharon’s post Gaza Disengagement coalition. In the 2009 election, he held sixth place on the Labor Party ticket and serves under Defense Minister Ehud Barak in the current government coalition. Labor currently holds 13 seats in Knesset, making it the fourth largest party in Knesset after Kadima, Likud, and Yisrael Beiteinu, and the 3rd largest in the Likud-led governing coalition.
We opened our conversation with a rather frank discussion about the connection of Israelis to the Land of Israel. Having been born in Jerusalem and having lived in Israel his entire life, Vilnai insists that as an Israeli, it is obvious to him that “this is our country. Our history is here everywhere and we do not have to discuss it with ourselves (as a Diaspora Jew must do). For those of us born in Israel, it is obvious that we are Jewish , that this is our country, and that we are here to stay.” Because of this conviction and ostensibly in-born connection to the land, he feels it is not necessary to be “religious.” While Jews living outside the land may feel they need to wear a kippah or engage in religious observance to assert their connection to Judaism, Vilnai believes Israelis experience no such need.
His father, Zev Vilnay, was and arguably remains one of the foremost scholars of the Land of Israel, whose pioneering work on the country’s geography, ethnography, history, and folklore built the foundation of Land of Israel Studies. Even outside Israel, his Guide to the Land of Israel (מדריך ארץ ישראל) was, in its day, one of the most popular hiking and traveling guides to the country. He was also one of the signatories of the 1967 manifesto of the Movement for the Whole Land of Israel (התנועה למען ארץ ישראל השלמה) which petitioned the state to annex all the territories conquered by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War.
This philosophy, the younger Vilnai asserted, was his basic education, valuing the whole of the land as the historical birthright of the Jewish people. So too, he argued, was this long the underlying approach of the Israeli Labor party in its many incarnations since the creation of the state. Vilnai’s assessment is supported by the language of many socialist and labor elites including David Ben Gurion and Chaim Weizmann, the first Prime Minister and President of Israel respectively as well as Revisionist Zionists led by Ze’ev Jabotinsky and later Menachem Begin.
This approach recessed significantly to the background of Israeli politics both in the decade leading up to the establishment of the state when Zionist Socialists were more interested in securing a state rather than waiting for one framed by historically ideal borders. Irredentism further remained a mute subject between 1948 and 1967, with the exception of the marginalized Revisionists, in favor of more pragmatic territorial claims to those borders secured by Israel in the 1948-49 War of Independence. However, Vilnai is correct in that Land of Israel Studies, emphasizing Jewish history in the whole of the land and the Bible as History remained central in both primary and secondary education.
In the post-1967 euphoria surrounding the Israeli capture of the Old City of Jerusalem and the whole of Judea and Samaria, this philosophy roared back into the public area initially tempered only hesitantly by Israel’s weakened socialist elite. They, including Ben Gurion and then Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, recognized a danger in extending Israeli control over a large and potentially restive Palestinian Arab population in the West Bank and Gaza. This did not stop either from making public pronouncements trumpeting Israel’s return to its ancestral borders, mirrored by Yigal Allon, Menachem Begin, Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren, and many many others.
The Israeli left, however, has grown increasingly cautious in their application of the Whole Land of Israel philosophy as practical policy. Vilnai firmly positions himself in the Israeli camp which declares that it is better to concede territory and preserve a decisive Jewish majority in a part of the Land of Israel than to potentially become a minority with sovereignty over the whole of the land. It was this philosophy which drove former Labor Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin and current Israeli President Shimon Peres, who were themselves once strong advocates of Jewish settlement in the territories, to initiate the 1993 Oslo Accords.
Although understanding the important role of the historical Land of Israel in Israeli national identity, Vilnai believes in the end it is better to have peace. The most important thing is the preservation of a Jewish democratic state alongside a demilitarized, peaceful Palestinian one. Referring to isolated Jewish settlements in the West Bank, he insists that a situation in which “a few thousand Israelis live in a sea of Arabs” cannot be sustained.
In our discussion of Gaza and the 2005 Disengagement, this demography-centered approach was readily apparent. Although initially opposed to unilateral measures which he would rather have been coordinated with the Palestinian Authority, he preferred Israeli withdrawal to continued control. This was not due to the cost of defending Jewish settlement or legal or moral issues raised by occupation, but the threat posed by Israel absorbing some 1 to 1.5 million more Palestinians.
Despite the troubled history of the peace process, it must still be Israel’s agenda to concede territory for the creation of a Palestinian state and to reach a peace deal with Syria. This means a full withdrawal from the Golan, the creation of a Palestinian state in all of Gaza and most of the West Bank, and an agreement which creatively shares Israeli and Palestinian sovereignty in the city of Jerusalem. “Everyone understands the solution, even the deep right. The question is how to reach it.”
So if everyone understands the solution, what is blocking the resolution of this conflict? Ideologies of marginal parties aside, he believes that Israeli public opinion is not yet ready to accept territorial withdrawal. Several factors may be at work here. Still recovering from the national trauma of the Gaza Disengagement, many Israelis are not ready to face the internal conflict which is likely to be raised by displacing tens of thousands of fellow citizens.
So too, the security environment and lack of international diplomatic support left in the wake of the Israeli withdrawal has hardly engendered confidence in another territorial concession. Finally, the relative quiet of the past few years may have lulled the Israeli public into a false sense of security. “This is our national tragedy,” Vilnai asserts. It may take the resumption of intercommunal conflict to push Israelis to support the more rapid emergence of a Palestinian state with defined borders.