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An Exchange on Israel

In response to:

The New Struggle for Palestine from the April 18, 1974 issue

To the Editors:

In the normal inflammation surrounding debates and descriptions of the Middle East conflict, Bernard Avishai’s detached prose [NYR, April 18] feels like a cool breeze. The cool, at times patronizing, treatment of all the participants in the drama seems to be putting all the kings, politicians, and diplomats involved into their proper dimensions. The disinterested approach raises the hope that the situation can be viewed in an objective, sensible way, that one can point out slight mistakes or petty mischiefs, here and there, on the part of leaders or governments, while nobody needs to be seriously condemned, and that this aloof attitude can serve as an objective tool for analysis, and hence, perhaps, also for solution.

Unfortunately, the euphoria is short-lived. The article concludes on a pessimistic note, namely, that since “an improvement in Israeli relations with the Arab world…will probably not proceed at a much more vigorous pace than the one set by the original parties to the conflict, i.e., Jews and Palestinian Arabs, then Israel seems cursed with very little room for maneuver.”

The naïve may wonder, why, if the situation is so clearly reducible to a single channel, is Israel faced with a curse rather than with a rare blessing?* What is more, this vital channel—the Palestinians—is as open as never before. As Avishai puts it, one should not “assume automatically that cautious and realistic overtures from Israel to the PLO will be fanatically rebuffed” since “Arafat and recently Hawatmeh—supported by Sadat, Algeria’s Boumédienne, and the Soviets—are leading strongly to a strategic compromise whereby the construction of an independent Palestinian state would be begun on the West Bank and Gaza.”

Why then is the conclusion of the article not a clear call to Israel to seize the historical opportunity by declaring its recognition of the Palestinian nation, its readiness to negotiate a peace settlement with its representatives, whoever they may be, and its acceptance of the right of the Palestinians to establish a state alongside Israel? This, together with a declaration that in exchange for satisfactory peace treaties Israel will renounce all claims to territories occupied in the June, 1967, war, is the precondition for a dynamic of peace to get under way. A conclusion of this sort seems to be consistent with most of Avishai’s presentation. How is one to understand the tragic impasse—the curse—Israel is in, according to the article?

In trying to find the roots of this incongruity the veneer of impartiality gradually peels off. In fact, the major obstacle to an Israeli deal with the Palestinians is, according to Avishai, that “no Israeli government, no matter how dovish, will agree to anything short of full and effective demilitarization of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.” Thus, “the PLO’s expected resistance to demilitarization could topple” any arrangement.

This is a rather interesting way of putting things. Of course, the Israeli concern for physical safety is more than understandable. How about the parallel Palestinian concern? Perhaps they should not be concerned about “claustrophobic siege” since they never had a physical existence as a state. This issue has to be, and can be, settled in one of two ways: either the rhetorical claim that a Palestinian army reintroduces the 1967 siege, even if Sinai and the Golan Heights are demilitarized, should be dropped, thus leaving the question of armaments out of the discussion. Or, if one insists that the Palestinians “be partially satisfied by a Palestinian militia and police force bolstered by international guarantees,” then there should be a reciprocal commitment to disarmament on the Israeli side, in the context of a generalized agreement on disarmament in the region. Surely, in Israel there is no need for any group to “establish its rule within a comparatively traditional Islamic society where the force of arms has been perhaps the principal basis for political legitimacy.”

It seems to me that Avishai’s sense of tragedy stems from an assessment that the political consensus in Israel will not tolerate any of the above mentioned courses of action. But, if this is the obstacle to peace, if this is what will bring additional wars, then it is time to judge, not to acquit by invoking a snare.

Political scientists have a way of taking such incongruities lightly. Others find it much more difficult. In a meeting of high-school seniors of the two largest kibbutz movements, held at Givat Haviva, on March 12, 1974, the disenchantment and frustration of these young men—to be soldiers next year—was incredible. Such statements as “Our war?—it is all absurd, there is no sense in it”; “They call us like the rest, to enlist, with closed eyes”; “If to get killed then for something just—and here?” were made publicly.

Avishai’s toleration of such incongruities seems to have no limits when it comes to improving the Israeli image. Take, for example, the statement that “the tragic death of a mother last month at Ramat Hamagshimim testifies to the sheer stupidity of removing Syrian guns from the Hula Valley in 1967, only to bring new settlements under Syrian guns after 1967.” This sounds rather strange when compared with his response to Richard Bevis in the Letters column [NYR, April 18], where he claims that the settlement of the Golan “is rooted in a coherent security strategy.” This strategy is not articulated, and one is supposed to draw the conclusion that Avishai, who can see through this policy of settlement, can assure us that it is nothing worse than a folly. The semantic fireworks as to who meant what by the word imperialism aside, one would still desire a somewhat more serious classification of the decision to double the number of Golan settlers, following a war in which it became clear that these settlements hamper, more than help, the defense of the area.

Or take the reference to settlement in the West Bank. Avishai claims that “outside of Jerusalem [it] has been sparse and mainly concentrated near Hebron at Gush Etzion…where Jews lived prior to 1948” (emphasis mine). In the first place the statement is untrue. There are roughly twenty settlements in the West Bank which are not in the vicinity of Hebron or Jerusalem or Gush Etzion. About ten of them span the length of the Jordan river (see Ha’aretz, March 16, 1973, reprinted in Israleft No. 14) starting with Nahal Kalia and reaching Mechola. There are settlements near Nablus, of which the most notorious is on the lands previously cultivated by the Arab village of Aqraba. But what is even more telling is Avishai’s attempt to provide rationale for settlement on occupied territory by reference to pre-1948 residence. This must sound as a very interesting principle to a Palestinian, who will assume, of course, that it is to be applied bilaterally.

In conclusion, I would like to alert your readers to a new style of a defense for the policies of the Israeli government. It aims at neutralizing intellectual criticism—largely Jewish—by creating the impression that even people who are prepared to rebuke the Israeli establishment for misdemeanors cannot but yield in the face of tragedy.

Daniel J. Amit

Jerusalem, Israel

Bernard Avishai replies:

Daniel Amit’s main objection to my analysis seems to rest on aesthetic grounds. He would have me forego what he calls my “tragic drama”—insipidly apologetic—and appropriate, it would seem, his preference for a more Manichaean plot. Otherwise I confess that I do not quite understand what Amit wants of me nor do I understand why he has strained every muscle to denigrate my substantive criticisms.

I have tried to argue (NYR, January 24 and April 18) that Israel’s security strategy (Amit: “of course the Israeli concern for physical safety is more than understandable”) from 1967 to 1973 was poorly conceived, impractical, and contributed finally to a disaster; a dirty suffering in which Arabs and Israelis shared equally. I surely never claimed for the Israeli government “slight mistakes or petty mischiefs.” Big mistakes are not slight mistakes. But neither was, or is, the Israeli government (or public) a sinister original sinner which ought to be “judged” with such indignant relish. Israel did not singlehandedly conjure up the Middle East conflict from some chronic moral rot, nor will she contribute much to a peace process by frivolous expurgation. Dilemmas exist even for the pure.

The specific issues Amit raises reveal this. He faithfully reproduces my argument that a basis for negotiations between the Israeli government and the moderate wing of the PLO may be developing, i.e., an independent Palestinian state, but that the demilitarization of the West Bank and Gaza would be a major stumbling block. He then dismisses my presentation of the problem, contending that demilitarization is no difficulty after all, and in so doing, claims to have stripped away my “veneer of impartiality” (as if anyone raising a son in Israel can pretend to be impartial about issues of war and peace). But first he feels compelled to condemn me for failing to call for an Israeli initiative in the face of this impasse (blessing?)—something I in fact did, unambiguously and more comprehensively than Amit, I thought, in both my previous articles.

Demilitarization poses no problem for Amit because the two ways that he proposes to overcome it—no demilitarization for either state in a repartitioned Palestine, or, the reciprocal demilitarization of both Israel and the Palestine state—assume that the means of war remaining at the disposal of Arab states would be merely “rhetorical.” This is unworthy of Amit’s talents.

A fully armed Palestinian state poses more than a rhetorical threat; particularly with modern armaments so sophisticated and the Soviets so eager to dispatch them—and “advisers”—to this part of the world. But although I appreciate how difficult it would be for Palestinians to swallow one-sided demilitarization or a merely symbolic army, and said so, surely Amit’s argument that, to be fair, demilitarization1 should be reciprocal is absurd. He is just wishing away the Syrian, Iraqi, Egyptian, and even Jordanian armies. The latter forces moreover should go much farther to satisfy the “parallel Palestinian concern [for] physical safety” than any utopian “generalized agreement on disarmament in the region” could go to satisfy Israel’s security needs; needs which Amit, again, does not deny. The lion has not yet lain down with the lamb.

Satisfied that his nifty prescriptions have dispensed with the problem of demilitarization Amit feels emboldened to locate the real “obstacle”: the so-called “political consensus in Israel,” which “will bring additional wars.” He then judges away some more. I am not sure what Amit means by consensus. Most Israelis it is true do not think that Arab guns have merely rhetorical power. But, as the kibbutz adolescents he later describes surely illustrate, there is no consensus in Israel for intransigence. There is on the contrary a growing majority here which supports investigating all channels to peace. This is also increasingly reflected in the pronouncements of Israeli leaders: e.g., Yitzhak Rabin, Israel’s new prime minister-elect, recently declared that “it would be no disaster if Israelis had to get a visa to visit Kefar Etzion (on the West Bank)”; and Shlomo Hillel, the hitherto hawkish minister of police, revealed that Israel would negotiate with Arafat in Geneva if he came as part of the Jordanian delegation—an irrefutable softening of the Meir government’s position.

Granted the Meir government has hitherto rebuffed all PLO overtures; only Arie Eliav tried to establish a dialogue with Hawatmeh in the wake of the latter’s conciliatory interview with journalist Paul Jacobs. But with the Rabin government in the making and the Syrian disengagement pact “at hand,” it would be surely responsible for any Palestinian leader who is sincere about peace to exercise restraint.

Instead radicals within the PLO have seen fit to respond with acts that violate even those undistinguished moral standards hitherto shared by Arab terrorists and the Israeli defense establishment. The Qiryat Shemona massacre moreover was roundly applauded by every stream in the PLO and by every Arab government. And not to be outdone, Hatwatmeh, who had spoken petulantly about his thwarted dream for a binational partnership in Palestine only a few weeks before, dispatched his killers to a schoolhouse at Maalot on May 15.

In fairness to Amit his letter was written before these events shocked and depressed us all. I was myself impetuously enthusiastic perhaps about Hawatmeh’s feigned moderation. But surely these acts underlie the reluctance of Israelis to “purge” themselves of skepticism about a PLO state in the very heart of Jewish populated areas.

Of course Hawatmeh could have killed a thousand children and yet the Palestinian problem would still not disappear. Nor does there seem to be an alternative for Israel other than negotiating with the PLO if only—as Professor Harkabi has suggested—in order to encourage disunity within it, or, what amounts to the same thing, encourage the real moderates who have now aligned themselves with the PLO to split off decisively from the present leadership. But no Israeli leader can or ought to treat the PLO leaders magnanimously. There cannot be peace without them perhaps but it is not clear at all that there can be peace with them.

About the question of settlements in the occupied territories, Amit is concerned that I had attributed this arrogant Israeli policy to “a coherent security strategy”—he conveniently neglects my characterization of this as “anachronistic”—and wants me to depict this policy as “worse than a folly” (sic). I suppose that I am so wrapped up in my “cool breezes” that hot air does not appeal to me. But I thought I had made it clear that I disagreed with this policy. At any rate I did not elaborate on what I meant by a “coherent security strategy” for considerations of space and I regret this now.

I am sure that Amit will nevertheless agree that, besides Gush Etzion, Israeli settlements on the Golan and along the Jordan were understood—incorrectly—by Israeli planners to be an element in the country’s defense strategy. In fact most of those on the Jordan are paramilitary bases (“Nahal“) and not civilian settlements (such as are on the Golan) as Amit implied.

The commitment of Israeli leaders to this anachronistic strategy, I wanted to argue, has derived from the impressive success of such settlement during the 1948 war. It is undeniable that frontier kibbutzim “secured” the perimeters of the Jewish Yishuv; were it not for the tenacity of Yad Mordechai in the south and Mishmar Ha’emek in the Jezreel Valley, and others, the Jewish State might never have withstood the onslaught of Arab armies. It was no mere coincidence, therefore, that Golan settlers perceived themselves to be pioneers and idealists. Heroic stands are hard to forget.

The memory, however, has been greatly jolted by the war as Amit points out; but he does not point out that the reflex-like decision by the Meir government to double settlement and so forth on the Golan after the October war has never been carried out. Furthermore the twenty-odd families of Patzael—the group near Aqraba to which Amit refers2—are already voicing, at least to foreign journalists, skepticism about their prospects for staying indefinitely. Indeed most of the West Bank and Golan settlers have already created an organization—poorly received by the public I might add—to pressure the government to permit them to stay. Obviously they suspect something that Amit does not.

As far as Gush Etzion itself is concerned, I pointed out that the latter has been re-established on the (vacant) site of the pre-1948 kibbutz; but I did not try to justify it on these grounds. Rather I tried to promote the elementary principle that the West Bank need not be Judenrein and that a new Jewish presence (like the one which was slaughtered in 1948) near Jewish holy places in Hebron is morally fertile. Or does Amit see racial separation as an acceptable element of Palestinian Arab self-determination?

Amit is still not content. He must also throw in the gratuitous insinuation that for Israelis the principle of coexistence would only be expected to be applied to Jewish designs on the West Bank. The record proves just the reverse to be the case. Notwithstanding their understandable cultural discomfort, Arab communities have progressed economically and lived peacefully within Israel’s borders since the beginning of the Jewish state. The same is not true of Jewish communities in Arab Palestine where no Jew—not even an American Jew—was permitted to live or indeed enter before 1967. I realize nevertheless that Jewish settlement in the West Bank ought to be limited and that Arab settlement in Israel will not be unrestricted. But a rehash of stale moral claims is tedious. Jews and Arabs have since developed broader horizons and this is lost in Amit’s sanctimonious bluster.

Amit closes by alerting unsuspecting readers to my ploy: by spinning a tragedy I preempt a stinging rebuke for the Israeli “establishment” (sic). Having unmasked me Amit will surely be suspicious of my confession that things really do not appear simple to me. I almost envy him his impatience with complexity. But not quite; Israel has had enough of prophets.

  1. *

    This point of view assumes that there are no desires for permanent annexation of Egyptian or Syrian territories.

  2. 1

    See the Palestinian scholar Fawaz Turki’s sensitive piece in The International Herald Tribune, April 30, 1974, emphasizing the difficulties of demilitarization along lines similar to the ones I discussed.

  3. 2

    A study of the expropriation of Aqraba’s lands might heighten Amit’s sense of tragedy. Patzael took over part of the “common land” previously cultivated by Aqraba’s quasi-feudal felaheen only during years with uncommonly heavy rains. The moshav then offered their skill to instruct neighboring Arab farmers in irrigation and fertilization techniques, and also brought water. Under present political conditions this expropriation was clearly an unnecessary provocation. But just as clearly there is more at stake here than a conflict over land.

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