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The Mideast War: A Reply

In response to:

Two Statements on the Mid-East War from the November 15, 1973 issue

(Note: In the November 15 issue of The New York Review appeared a statement on the Middle East war signed by twenty-one members of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The following reply has been received from Professor Daniel Amit of the Racah Institute of Physics of the Hebrew University. It is in the form of an open letter to Professor Jacob Talmon, one of the signers of the statement.)

Dear Professor Talmon:

The statement of a group of professors concerning the war in which we are entangled reached me today. Your name appears among the signers on this document, and dismay at having discovered your name among them has impelled me to write to you, to you in particular. I would like very much to believe that you did not compose the document, and that the appearance of your signature on it represents the power of social pressure in time of crisis, and not your identification with its content.

During a conflict as deep and prolonged as the one between ourselves and the Arabs, it is no wonder that it is the voices of propaganda which are most heard. Each party to the conflict possesses a complete apparatus for the production of myths whose main purpose is to prevent contemplation and to eliminate wavering in all that concerns the line adopted by one government or another. Your image as a historian, Professor Talmon, has always served as an inspiration to those who tried to preserve their sanity in a whirlpool of propaganda wars and lies. The source of the profound dismay lies in the fact that the document largely contains propaganda worthy of having been written in the office of I. Galili, Minister of Information, with the assistance of some of your cosignatories.

The central point, or perhaps the central assumption, of the document is that the objective of every hostile act of the Arab states toward Israel is the annihilation of Israel. This seems to be absolutely clear to the signers of the document, just as it is clear to them that every Israeli action is defensive and sincere. All the interpretations of acts and statements made during the period preceding the war acquire their meaning from this dogmatic point of view. Among other things, moderate Arab statements and actions and Israeli actions and statements which are apparently aggressive are interpreted in this light.

It seems beyond doubt that the creation of the State of Israel in the midst of the Arab countries, in a period in which they were engaged in a struggle against Western colonialism, was a severe trauma for them, and it is quite reasonable to take their statements from that period at face value: namely, as a desire for the annihilation of the Jewish state. It is reasonable, as well, to believe that during those years preceding and immediately following the creation of the state the main urge in Israel was the defense of its existence. There was a permanent sense of threat which, as a result of the experience of the Jewish people in World War II, was always conceived in terms of genocide. But is it possible to force such a straitjacket on the interpretation of events for all time to come? If this interpretation is applied with such force it turns into a law of nature, and all the persuasion and influence that can be exercised by your colleagues abroad will be to no avail, since if your colleagues were to convince the Arabs to adopt a friendlier language, as the conclusion of your letter requests, the dogma will interpret it as hypocrisy and pretense.

Let us take for example the argument that “the real issue today, as it was in 1967, is the determination of Egypt and Syria to destroy Israel.” What is the basis for this argument? It seems to me that the events of the past few years could support an opposite thesis, although they may not constitute a proof of it. All the Arab states with the exception of Syria immediately accepted Resolution 242 of the Security Council; Egypt responded favorably to Jarring’s document, which included recognition of Israel and the signing of a peace agreement with her as part of a process of settlement. Both in Egypt and Jordan official declarations were made which included, as part of the peace provisions in which they were interested, the signing of a peace treaty with Israel and the mutual recognition of borders. Almost without exception all the aggressive declarations of the Arab states in the past few years have concerned their occupied territories. Similarly the aims of the present war as declared by Egypt and Syria are not “to go to any length in order to destroy the existence of Israel,” as you write, but to return the conquered territories. Allow me to emphasize that I am not maintaining that these declarations constitute proof of the real intentions of the Arab states; but they do not at any rate support your argument.

Continuing along the same dogmatic lines, you state that “though aware of the Egyptian and Syrian plans the government of Israel chose to abstain from a preemptive strike and rather do all it could to avert the danger by a diplomatic effort.” Maybe. However, was it not your duty as a historian to draw the attention of your less-experienced colleagues to the possibility of a different interpretation of the events which occurred in our area in the last few weeks? For example, Dayan stated in his first broadcast following the Egyptian-Syrian attack that the reserves were not called up specifically to avoid entering into a period of waiting—i.e., if time were needed in order to employ diplomatic means it could have been obtained from the Minister of Defense, albeit at some economic cost, possibly high. You do not even mention the nature of the diplomatic efforts. Why not? Do you believe, Professor Talmon, that war would have broken out had the government of Israel declared, before fighting began, that she accepted as a basic element in any agreement the right of the Egyptians and the Syrians to all the territories conquered in 1967, and that she recognized the existence of the Palestinians as a party in the Israeli-Arab conflict?

I am not suggesting that such a declaration would necessarily have led to an agreement, but it would doubtless have postponed the outbreak of war until it was clarified whether prospects for settlement existed. It is quite possible to argue that a declaration of this type is undesirable, or perhaps that it implies an Israeli surrender. But it is not possible to state at one and the same time that “the Government of Israel chose…to do all it could to avert the danger by a diplomatic effort.” We all condemn the aggressor who opens fire. However, if such a condemnation is accepted without considering the background events, how then will the war of June, 1967, be interpreted? What your statement and official propaganda refuse even to consider is the possibility that prior to the outbreak of fighting there had been an escalation of provocations by both sides.

Concerning the question of Israel’s readiness to withdraw or to relinquish the territories occupied in war, the argument in your letter is very peculiar. You state that “the Arab doctrine of prior agreement by Israel to withdraw from territory is illogical and unacceptable.” Your reasoning seems based on the logical consideration that were these conditions to be fulfilled, the Egyptian-Syrian attack would be far more dangerous in that it would be closer to our homes.

Were it not that I had in front of me the distinguished list of signers of the document, my teachers and colleagues, I would have considered this argument to be an exercise in demagogy. Would it really have followed from an agreement in principle to relinquish the territories that the military situation on the Day of Atonement would have been different from what it was? Or do your conclusions depend on converting “readiness to withdraw” into actual “withdrawal”? In fact, the Arab demand before the outbreak of war was not for withdrawal prior to agreement but rather for an agreement in principle to withdraw from all territories. There are those who are frightened even by withdrawal in exchange for a settlement. There are those who conclude that even had we reached an agreement with our neighbors in exchange for withdrawal an attack would still have been launched. I cannot believe that this is your position. After all, were this the case, what would be the point of arguing that our government and our people were ready “to ensure that every conceivable step to bringing these negotiations to a mutually acceptable and positive conclusion” would have been undertaken so as to bring about a settlement?

Concerning this readiness, as a historian and an educator, can you, Professor Talmon, really maintain that the past six years have provided any clear signs of Israel’s readiness to enter into an agreement? Can one say today that the path to peaceful coexistence is through free discussion”? Obviously the answer is yes for him who interprets “free discussion” as the readiness of the Arabs to relinquish their claims to the territories and of the Palestinians to give up their national aspirations. But do Israel’s activities in the occupied territories—in East Jerusalem, in the Jordan Valley, in the Rafah approaches, and in the Golan Heights—really leave room for free discussions? What about the five no’s of Dayan (Ha’aretz, September 10, 1973)?

  1. Gaza will not be Egyptian.

  2. The Golan will not be Syrian.

  3. Jerusalem will not be Arab.

  4. There will be no Palestinian state.

  5. We will not desert the settlements we have founded.

Does this provide a basis for free discussion? And what is the contribution to the freedom of future discussions of the so-called “Galili document”—i.e., the proannexationist plan of the Minister of Information that was adopted some weeks before the war broke out as one of the guidelines for Labor Party policy?

Certainly for many of the signers the above conditions of Dayan represent the most basic guarantees of Israel’s interests. They are entitled to their opinion. However, anyone who holds these views and at the same time argues that the way to peace is through free discussion is deluding himself. Your statement closes with the argument that “the nature of territorial settlement will only emerge as a function of mutual trust.” Undoubtedly we have many reasons for distrusting the Arabs. But consider, for example, the way in which Arie Eliav, the former secretary of the Labor Party, was spurned by his Party for his views on reconciliation. Would this inspire in them trust in us?

Following the official Israeli line, your letter brings up as principles of paramount importance the recognition of Israel and direct talks. If we were considering the most desirable forms of conducting international relations, these principles would be accorded a prominent role. However, within the immediate situation they provide little more than an instrument, albeit an efficient one, toward creating favorable public opinion; their meaning is questionable. For quite a few years Arab foreign policy has related to Israel as Israel. In both the Jarring document and in Resolution 242 of the Security Council specific mention is made of sovereign states signing agreements with each other and of respecting each other’s boundaries. In their favorable response to these documents the Arab states show that their refusal to recognize Israel is not one of basic principle. Possibly one cannot conclude from these responses that they represent the real intentions of the Arabs. But your own letter concludes that their intentions are the opposite.

I will not be telling you anything new if I mention that official recognition has special significance in the eyes of the Arab states for historical reasons; and that if we can trust their words, recognition will be the result of an overall agreement in our region. The same applies to the issue of direct talks. These two topics, which Westerners generally find difficult to understand, have acquired deep symbolic significance in the consciousness of the two sides in conflict. Take for example the Palestinian problem. Can one doubt that the problem of the Palestinian people represents one of the most complex and painful elements of the conflict? Yet Israel does not recognize the existence of the Palestinian people and she is not willing to negotiate with them. In my opinion this is a direct result of the fact that recognition of their national aspirations, and serious efforts to satisfy them, would have traumatic effects on Israeli society. Official Arab recognition of Israel and entering into direct talks with her will have similar effects in Arab societies.

To conclude, I must add that the above comments are not directed to those who see themselves within the propaganda machine that apparently is inevitable in times of war. Rather, I ask whether you do not believe with me that it is possible to justify the existence of the State of Israel, and to provide the moral strength with which to defend her, by applying honest historical standards and careful reasoning. Don’t you believe that only a discussion of this kind will reveal, if and when they appear, the paths leading to peace? Let us recall the painful words of George Orwell in his summary of his desperate attempt to reveal to the world just a few of the real facts concerning the Spanish civil war: “I saw, in fact, history, written not by what happened but by what should have happened according to a certain ‘party line.’ “

Even in this difficult hour there must be someone who will tell this nation and its friends that the key to ending the war is political and not military. That today, no less than at any other time, what is needed is (1) an Israeli declaration of readiness to replace the ceasefire lines of greater Israel with borders based on the lines of June 4, 1967, and (2) recognition of the existence of the Palestinian nation, and a readiness to enter into negotiations with her to settle the outstanding problems between the two nations. Within the framework of an agreement it must be ensured that there is provision for demilitarized zones that will give Israel security and will inhibit aggression. And now, more than at any other time, we must be sensitive to the fact that it is dangerous to continue analyzing the developments in the region according to prior estimates of the balance of power. There are now clear signs of possible escalation in which the local balance of power will become irrelevant and in which the Arab-Israeli wars will be no more than a confrontation and testing ground for the armaments of the USA and the USSR, with all the attendant dangers this poses to the very existence of Israel.

Daniel Amit

Hebrew University, Jerusalem

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