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The Mideast War: A Rejoinder

(Note: In the November 15 issue of The New York Review appeared a statement on the Mideast War signed by twenty-one members of The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. In the November 29 issue Professor Daniel Amit of The Hebrew University replied in the form of an open letter to Professor Jacob Talmon, one of the signers of the statement. Professor Talmon’s rejoinder to Professor Amit follows.)

Dear Professor Amit:

May I start my reply to your Open Letter (NYR, November 29, 1973) by pointing out the differences in our approaches, yours as a scientist and mine as a historian. Dialectical thinking seems to be alien to you. Nor do you appear to have much feeling for the dynamics of historical events and situations. This is at the root of our present disagreement. A government statement, an official handout, a conference resolution, and a sentence in a minister’s speech are treated by you not only at their face value but as if they were components of a chemical experiment and data in a physical process.

Our statement presented the Yom Kippur War as a war for Israel’s very existence and spoke of the Arabs’ basic desire to destroy the state of Israel, whereas you refer to Arab declarations which in your view indicate no such intention, but rather a desire for political settlement. You fail to see that even if these were meant seriously and sincerely when they were made, once the guns began to roar a new and very different dialectic was created by them from that in peace time. War develops a momentum and a dynamic of its own. Do you really believe that had the going proved to be good and the Egyptian tanks had broken through in the direction of Tel Aviv and the Syrian troops reached Tiberias or Haifa—as seemed quite possible when we were drafting our statement—past conciliatory Arab statements would have halted the élan of success, the sweep forward, and the fury of the more determined, the more ruthless, and the more extreme? There would have been nothing to stop the Arab victors at the 1967 borders and to prevent wholesale massacre, not to speak of the liquidation of the state of Israel.

In face of the stark fact of imminent mortal danger to the homeland created by so much idealism, toil, and sacrifice, on the morrow of Auschwitz and of the unspeakably tragic end of over a thousand-year-old Jewish civilization in Central and Eastern Europe, what relevance had all that careless talk of one’s own loose-tongued and excitable politicians, the occasional lack of restraint, tact, prudence, or foresight by government, the mystique of manifest destiny which turned the heads of some Israeli scribes, to which you refer, and all of which have hardly made any significant, lasting, and irreversible change in the position of the territories occupied since June, 1967?

In the hour of the supremely dangerous surprise attack, the grimmest diagnosis of Arab intentions, the vital importance of defensible borders, the fate in store for us had we had no strategic depth to delay the attackers assumed terrible reality. You seem to have been so strongly affected by the experience of the anti-Vietnam War stand of the intellectuals in America that you have become oblivious to the abysmal difference between what was at stake for the US in Vietnam and what was at stake for the Israelis in Israel: a matter of a great power’s prestige and perhaps ideological commitment as compared with the physical survival of the Yishuv, indeed, in my opinion, also of Judaism as a corporate entity in the diaspora, since the destruction of Israel was sure to deal an irreparable moral blow to Jews all over the world.

You give the impression of one of those left-wing intellectuals who can find all the excuses and mitigating circumstances for the nastiness of foreign governments but can never free themselves of the worst suspicions regarding the leaders of their own country.

You grow eloquent about the traumatic experiences which inhibit the Arabs from meeting the Israelis face to face, but you seem to give hardly any weight to Israeli traumas, fears, suspicions, and blockages which make them deeply apprehensive of the Arab refusal to talk to them, and which consequently hinder them from agreeing to a total withdrawal to the June 4, 1967, borders and from accepting a Palestinian state on the West Bank run by the Palestine Liberation Organization, pledged to wipe out the state of Israel through indiscriminate terror, boycott, and sabotage, as distinct from a Palestinian-Jordanian federation which Israel favors.

You rightly deprecate annexationist declarations and moves by Israeli leaders as contradicting the statements on Israeli readiness to negotiate without prior conditions, but you take no exception to the Arabs’ relentless insistence on the prior acceptance of the principle of total withdrawal from all the occupied territories, as if that were not a precondition. You furthermore appear to assume that the conflict only began in June, 1967, and that it was only the Israeli refusal to give up the territories then acquired that stood in the way of a peaceful solution. Surely the Six Day War was only an explosion of a deep-seated and prolonged crisis, and it is not enough just to sweep away all that happened after June 4, 1967, to cure it. You hardly mention Israeli anxiety to secure defensible borders and guarantees for its continued existence, and do not give a thought to the nature of the desired peace settlement.

I do not see any reason to retract the view which I expressed in 1968, that had the Arabs shown any sign of readiness to recognize the state of Israel as a datum, a fact of nature and history, and demonstrated it in the only convincing manner in which such an attitude can be proved—namely by responding to Israeli requests to meet face to face, to negotiate all and everything with no preconditions—the Israeli government would have come forward to meet them more than half way, and Israeli public opinion would have overwhelmingly accepted a reasonable compromise. I have referred in one of my articles to the private conversation I had with the late Prime Minister Eshkol only a few days after the Six Day War, in which he told me, “I do not want Arab territory. At last we have something to offer to the Arabs: territory in exchange for peace.”

Our government communicated this attitude to the American government a month after the war. It was the implacable No of the Khartum Conference, sustained and made painfully persuasive by guerrilla action and terror, that caused so many people in Israel to despair of the possibility of a peaceful settlement and to turn all their attention to strategic considerations. It was this No that fortified others in their mystical belief that God was hardening the heart of Pharaoh and inspiring His people to fulfill their destiny by recovering the totality of the promised land, and that finally goaded those on whom the triumph of Israeli arms had too intoxicating an impact to dream of some kind of imperial action on a minute scale. This never became the unanimous resolve or the general mood of the population, or indeed the policy of the Israeli government, whose gravest sin was actually immobilisme.

Like other “peace mongers” in Israel, including the present writer, you seem most reluctant to remember that for every single conciliatory Arab statement one could quote hundreds of hair-raising and blood-curdling threats and torrents of abuse in the Nazi style. And when examined critically with the help of philological Arab scholarship, even the Arabs’ moderate utterances turn out to have shades of meaning which are by no means reassuring. For instance, they speak not of peace, but of non-belligerency; not of recognition of the state of Israel, but of recognition of borders. All in all, until the Yom Kippur War, what the Arabs had really been promising, when one discounts empty phraseology, amounts to: you first get out, get back to your June 4, 1967, borders, and then, then…. Would any state in the world have thrown away all the cards it held against a hardened adversary, whom it had so many reasons to distrust, for merely a most ambiguous expression of intent?

Then, then…is explained as meaning that even if we, in this case Egypt, make a declaration about ending the state of belligerency or even patch up some settlement, Israel will still have to restore “the legitimate national rights of the Palestinian people.” The official Arab spokesmen prefer not to elaborate the point. But the guerrilla leaders never tire of proclaiming that they envisage not merely the establishment of a Palestinian state on the West Bank of the river Jordan, not just permission for Arab refugees to return to their old homes, or compensation for losses sustained and resettlement wherever possible, but after our return to the 1967 borders, Israeli withdrawal to the 1947 (as distinct from the ceasefire of 1949) borders, then the “total liberation of the soil of the Palestinian homeland,”^*, some add the “repatriation” of all the Jews who came to Palestine after 1948, and, in another version, since the November 2, 1917, Balfour Declaration on the Jewish National Home.

There is now a ceasefire, although unfortunately the guns are not yet quite silent. The process of peace-making has at an agonizingly late hour been started, and all men of good will must pray and labor for the success of the shaky and fragile enterprise. A dialectic quite different from that which became operative on the day of the Egyptian and Syrian attacks has now been set into motion. I can again take my bearings, as before Yom Kippur, from a perspective which makes the Arab-Israel conflict appear as a tragic clash of rights. Both sides are laboring under deep stress: the Jews were driven by homelessness, holocaust, a great historic vision, and an unconquerable urge for national self-expression in their ancestral home, and the Arabs had their dream of restored greatness and glory frustrated by alien newcomers, repeated defeats on the battlefield, a grave refugee problem just at a time when the European powers were making their exodus from Asia and Africa.

To repeat a famous sentence by Dr. Weizmann, this is a problem which can only be solved on the lines of least injustice. Both sides have a case, and there can be no solution which is capable of offering full satisfaction to both sides. Any resolve of either side to achieve such complete satisfaction for itself is sure to perpetuate war, untold misery, and growing barbarization, and to lead to irreparable disaster for all concerned, including the two superpowers.

Since on both sides there are men in the grip of neurosis, engendered by deep resentments, injured pride, fears, suspicions, rancorous spite, it is the duty of all thinking and responsible people to do all in their power to combat hawkishness, hysteria, and wild talk in their own camp and carefully to spare susceptibilities in the other, and to try to alleviate the malady by dispelling specters and nightmares, by reducing things to their right proportions, and showing to men driven by furies where all this may lead. This is why, with all the terrible awareness of the ever-present contingency of annihilation, I have been urging my readers in Israel not to succumb to this kind of neurosis, lest the obsession become the cause of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Each side lives in genuine fear of the other. Rather asymmetrically, the Israelis fear Arab resolve completely to destroy them, the Arabs Israeli ambitions to overwhelm them in a very sensitive part of their domains.

Mutual fear is the cause of ceaseless escalation. It is therefore most imperative to break, at some point, this vicious circle: Israel by renouncing territorial claims beyond what is absolutely vital to its security and the Arabs by genuinely accepting Israel, and the world by offering and persuading the contending parties to devise guarantees that would give a greater feeling of security to both sides. The practical arrangements, including the territorial settlement, will emerge as a function of mutual trust shown in free negotiations by the Israelis on whom this war has had a sobering effect and by the Arabs who have come out of it with a greater self-assurance and a sense of regained honor.

J.L. Talmon

Hebrew University

Jerusalem

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