The borders of Auschwitz

David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, had he not died before 1967, would surely have been disappointed to hear it said that he and fellow Zionists who fought to create a Jewish state had such meager success that in its first two decades of existence, Israel was barely an improvement on Auschwitz.

It’s hard to know who should be more offended by that assessment: the victims of the Holocaust or Israel’s founders?

In his response to President Obama’s suggestion that Israel should — with mutually agreed land swaps with Palestinians — retreat to its 1967 borders, Benjamin Netanyahu says that such a move would place Israel behind “indefensible” borders.

Netanyahu is alluding to a phrase now employed by many on the right that he himself once invoked: “the borders of Auschwitz.”

In the New York Times, Robert Mackey and Elizabeth Harris explain:

That resonant phrase, which suggests that Israelis would face genocide should they withdraw fully from the land they have occupied since the end of the 1967 war, is based on a mangled version of a remark made by the Israeli diplomat Abba Eban in 1969. According to Haaretz, Mr. Eban told the German newsweekly Der Spiegel in that year: “We have openly said that the map will never again be the same as on June 4, 1967. For us, this is a matter of security and of principles. The June map is for us equivalent to insecurity and danger. I do not exaggerate when I say that it has for us something of a memory of Auschwitz.”

Israeli leaders have frequently used some version of this phrase to invoke the existential dread of the Holocaust when pressed to withdraw from the occupied territories as part of a peace agreement.

In 2002, Ariel Sharon told William Safire that a proposed Saudi peace plan was unacceptable because, “Israel cannot return to the ‘67 borders. Abba Eban long ago called them ‘Auschwitz borders’; Israel would not be able to exist.”

A decade earlier, when another Israeli leader, Yitzhak Shamir, expressed his outrage when the administration of President George H. W. Bush called for a freeze on Jewish settlements in the occupied territories — in exchange for $10 billion in American loan guarantees — The Times reported that a senior official in the prime minister’s office, a young Benjamin Netanyahu, complained that Israel was being asked to accept, “the borders of Auschwitz.”

Writing about the use and abuse of this phrase in 2007, the Haaretz columnist Bradley Burston observed that the right-wing Israeli politicians who had frequently invoked Mr. Eban to support their refusal to cede territory were less likely to mention another of his famous maxims: “Israel’s birth is intrinsically and intimately linked with the idea of sharing territory and sovereignty.”

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