06/28/2012 08:17 am ET Updated Aug 28, 2012

Israel's Fateful Hour

In 1988 the American edition of Yehoshaphat Harkabi's Israel's Fateful Hour appeared, the sequel to his The Bar Kokhba Syndrome (U.S. edition 1983). Harkabi, former head of Israeli military intelligence and a longtime professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, called attention to what he termed Israel's march toward "national suicide," the inevitable result in his view of Israel's settlement project as pushed by Israel's Likud Party, then and now in power.

The alternative was to withdraw from the occupied territories, back to the 1967 borders, not necessarily for the sake of the Palestinians but in order to guarantee the ongoing existence of Israel. Otherwise, the prospect of Israel's survival would be undermined by two factors, the demographic factor and the threat of civil war among Israelis. Israel would, if it continued to expand its settlement project, rule over an Arab population that outnumbered its Jewish citizenry. And, if settlements progressed as he foresaw, the settler zealot mentality and belief in the right of Israel to control Judea and Samaria would lead to clashes among Jews that could tear Israel apart.

The demographic prediction has come true. The Palestinian Arab populations of the West Bank and Israel are now projected to outnumber Jews by 2016; if Gaza is included, Arabs already outnumber Jews. Shimon Peres was warning of the threat of civil war in Israel in 1995, in the aftermath of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. Added to these threats is the spread of lethal weaponry that can easily reach Israel's cities possessed by non-state actors as well as states, a trend that will increase.

Significantly, Harkabi quoted Rabin, then (1987) defense minister in the Likud government led by Yitzhak Shamir, as declaring during the first intifada that the settlements were "a burden." In fall 1995 Rabin, following the second Oslo Accord, would declare that the settlers were a greater danger to Israel's security than the Palestinians, to which Benjamin Netanyahu riposted that "no Jew had hitherto ever longed to give up slices of the homeland." Rabin was assassinated shortly thereafter and, with Netanyahu's election as prime minister in June 1996 the settlement project resumed in the midst of futile efforts by the Clinton administration to implement clauses of the Oslo II Accord, overseen by Dennis Ross.

Israel's fateful hour is approaching. The chances of Israel existing by mid-century are no more than twenty percent if its governments continue to pursue the settlement project. While attention in the United States has focused on arguments relating to Peter Beinart's The Crisis of Zionism and the weakening of Israel as a democracy, various Israelis, including current defense minister Ehud Barak, have begun to raise the prospect of a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from parts of the West Bank as necessary to save Israel. Ami Ayalon, former head of Shin Bet, has recently toured the U.S. calling for such unilateralism, to be taken in stages and only if approved by the Knesset, a doubtful prospect at the moment. In conference settings he has expanded upon arguments made in op-eds in the Times and elsewhere; in the former he has also called for acceptance of the Arab peace initiative of 2002, studiously ignored by Ariel Sharon and Netanyahu. On the other hand, current unilateral proposals envision initial withdrawals only from lands east of the security barrier whose path deliberately intrudes deep into the West Bank on occasion. While domestic political realities in Israel may oppose any withdrawals, significant retention of lands east of the 1967 borders will never bring Israel peace and will further its path toward Harkabi's prophecy of national suicide.

Ayalon's initiative, and statements such as Barak's, call attention to another of Harkabi's points, stressed in The Bar Kokhba Syndrome, whose subtitle, significantly, was Risk and Realism in International Politics. For Harkabi, the Bar Kokhba rebellion (132-135CE) removed the Jews from the stage of history. The Zealots risked everything to gain independence from Roman control and lost everything, including the survival of the Jews as a people living in their homeland, even if only as part of the Roman empire. Harkabi saw the Zealots' determination as "messianism," the religious conviction they could gain everything for the Jewish people. In Israel's Fateful Hour Harkabi dealt with what he called "the new messianism" that called for full Jewish control of the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan river, a "maximalist" position in its insistence on retention of the West Bank based on history as well as religion. He included Revisionist Zionism in this messianic framework, especially Menachem Begin, but also quoted Benjamin Netanyahu as saying "If we withdraw we will die." Harkabi believed that Israel would die without withdrawal.

It is no coincidence that various former heads of Israel's military and intelligence agencies have recently referred to Netanyahu as having "messianic tendencies." They usually refer to his bluster on Iran in this context but often note the dangers of the settlement project as well. Among those making such statements was Shaul Mofaz, new head of the Kadima Party, who has just joined Netanyahu's coalition.

Netanyahu intends to continue the Revisionist blueprint and expand settlements; his claim that he backs a two-state solution was aimed at the Western media, not Israelis. It would be a disaster for Israel and for the national security of the United States to affiliate itself with these policies, but politically dangerous not to do so as President Obama has discovered. Republican majority whip, Eric Cantor was quoted in the Washington Post in fall 2010 as telling Netanyahu that Congress would defend him against the administration.

It is no accident that Harkabi, like those, including Ami Ayalon, who now express fear of the implications of Revisionist goals as embodied in Netanyahu, are former prominent military as well as intelligence officials; Ayalon was head of the Israeli navy before taking over Shin Bet. Israelis as well as Americans should listen to the realists who evaluate Israel's long-term security, as did the late Yitzhak Rabin, not maximalist politicians with messianic visions.

Charles D. Smith, Professor Emeritus of Middle East History, College of Middle East and North African Studies, University of Arizona, author of Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, now entering its eighth edition.