Land of the Hart: Israelis, Arabs, the Territories and a Vision of the Future
The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile
Les Palestiniens du Silence
With Maalot and the subsequent Fedayeen raids only a few months behind us, and with the future of the Palestinians as clouded as ever, these three books demand attention. After the seemingly senseless deaths, with no direct negotiations between Arabs and Israelis yet in sight, these works at least raise the questions that lie at the heart of the Arab-Israeli tragedy. They may also provide some answers.
To those who know Arie Lova Eliav only by reputation—that is, as the most prestigious dove in Israel—his book will come as something of a surprise. It is certainly not the work of a starry-eyed idealist who believes that good will is a sufficient condition for peace. True, he presses Israel to allay Arab distrust by taking the initiative in making concessions. However, upon closer examination many of these concessions appear quite mild, rather conservative in fact. To be fair to Eliav, we must bear in mind that, although it has been updated since, his book was written before the Yom Kippur war and that it was then the only book of its kind by a high-ranking Israeli politician.
In view of the climate prevailing within the Labour party and in Israel itself when it was written, Land of the Hart is a very radical book. We must remember that when it was published in Hebrew in 1972 Israel had unquestioned military superiority. Thousands of Soviet advisers had been dismissed from Egypt. The US government considered Russian influence in the Middle East to be in decline; it viewed the stalemate as advantageous to its own interests, and it therefore no longer pressed Israel to make territorial concessions and was content to let it act as a gendarme in the region. The Israelis shared with virtually everyone else the belief that the Arabs would never dare to go to war because they could not hope to win. Israel’s good fortune, including new emigration from North America and an economic boom aided by cheap labor, gave rise to much complacency and perhaps even some arrogance.
Not surprisingly the Israelis concluded that they had no urgent reason to change the status quo: why not hang on to the occupied territories and wait for the Arabs to negotiate without preconditions? Eliav’s book—part visionary tract, part practical guide to policy—is therefore all the more remarkable, especially when we consider that it was written by a former military officer, diplomat, and secretary general of the Labour party who is now a member of the Knesset. Whatever disagreements one may have with his specific proposals, one can only admire his passion for peace.
Eliav’s views fail to break away from the conventional Israeli perspective, above all in his treatment of the Palestinian problem. Here he follows the Labour party line which has always been to refuse to deal directly with the Palestinians and was opposed to the Palestine Liberation Organization being represented at Geneva except as part of the Jordanian delegation. He writes, for example, about the “Palestinian-Jordanian Arabs” joining to negotiate a peace treaty. Similarly, he clings to his party’s line in opposing a separate Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. “I do not have in mind a Palestinian state in the administered areas separate from the state of Jordan; I am speaking of one Arab state which will contain the majority of the Palestinians.” He has many arguments, some plausible, that a separate Palestinian state would not be economically workable.
But would Eliav have granted to another nation the right to veto the establishment of the state of Israel on the grounds that it was doomed to be unworkable economically? Why is he not troubled by Jordan’s own lack of economic “viability”? One also cannot help wondering why an author who so painstakingly describes the flaws in a Palestinian state separate from Jordan does not pause to consider the drawbacks to a state linked to Jordan. Eliav must think the Palestinians very short of memory if after years of repression under Hashemite rule and Hussein’s brutal massacre of over 3,000 of their people in the civil war of 1970 he expects them to cooperate with the Jordanians within one national entity. For all his concern and sympathy for Palestinians Eliav seems hardly disturbed by Hussein’s brutality. True, he does not rule out the possibility of a revolution and the overthrow of Hussein. But after their experience in 1970, it is hardly reasonable to invite the Palestinian leaders to return to Hussein’s Jordan while telling them that they may one day take over the state. Why is Eliav, who is so worried about the economic prospects of a new state, not worried about setting up a state based on political instability and bloodshed?
What is it then that makes this such a splendid book, deeply informed, original, often provocative? The answer lies in Eliav’s remarkable moral qualities which are strongly evident throughout. The kind of integrity we find here is hard to come by in any case, but doubly so when one considers that as the head of a party machine Eliav might have been expected to be more of a political opportunist. It is this integrity that has earned him the respect of even those most opposed to him. Eliav, who has been accused by some Israelis of “inventing the Palestinian problem,” perceives that there will never be true peace in the Middle East unless the Palestinian problem is solved, and is critical of those Israelis who would like to put off the solution of that problem: “This desire to ignore the problem of Arabs in Palestine has been a leitmotif in our lives…. It behooves us—especially those of us who say that there is no such entity as Palestinian Arabs—to ask ourselves frankly: With whom were we living and against whom were we fighting in those decades before the establishment of the State of Israel?”
Eliav’s treatment of the Palestinian resistance groups is the most understanding and magnanimous part of his book. Unlike so many of his compatriots, he does not simply write them off as killers who should be exterminated. He feels that Israelis must kill the guerrillas who attack them. “When someone is coming at you to kill you, kill him first.” But he never denies the Palestinians their basic rights as human beings. He is critical of those in Israel who dismiss the guerrillas by referring to them as “gangs” or “rabble” or “Arabooshes.” He recognizes that “we must not deprecate these organizations with respect to their courage” and he refers to the guerrillas as an “embittered people who are certain that they are fighting for a cause, and who by no means lack courage and enterprise.”
He is also critical of those who try to justify Israel’s occupation of the West Bank by the claim that “the Palestinian Arabs in the [West Bank] never had it so good,” that they are better off than the Arabs of the other countries: “This kind of talk has a terrible ring to it and calls to mind echoes from our own exilic past—“Those Jews have it good.’ ” He warns that unless Israel commits itself to returning the occupied territories, “the work of Arabs from these areas in Israel is nothing more than the exploitation of cheap labor of one ethnic group by another….” Most important, Eliav attacks those who call for concessions not on moral but on demographic grounds, for “even if there were no demographic ghost stalking us we would still have to take a stand on principles.”
Eliav is highly critical of the inertia, complacency, political opportunism, and greed for territory which prompted many Israelis after 1967 to drop any serious search for peace. He wants Israel to take the initiative precisely “because we hold most of the good cards and not they,” and to make a unilateral declaration about what territory it is prepared to give back in return for a settlement. As to the argument that there is no one to talk to, he says that “this may be due precisely to the fact that we are not clearly stating any principles…. The Palestinian Arabs can also tell themselves: “There’s no one to talk to.’ ” Eliav is especially concerned about those who see the establishment of settlements in the West Bank as a means of creating a series of faits accomplis.
This method…affirms the feeling of the Palestinian Arabs that…all our declarations about open political options are just talk while in fact we are effecting creeping annexation of all the territories of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. This method does not deceive a single one of us or the Palestinian Arabs, the other Arab nations, or the rest of the world.
It is a credit to Eliav’s realism that he saw as early as the 1960s that peace had to be slowly and painfully built on the basis of a mutual give and take. It is even more to his credit that he resigned as secretary general of the Labour party when he felt that many members of that party had ceased to give peace initiatives the priority they deserve.
Eliav illustrates the very best of the Zionist spirit, its humanitarianism, its idealism. He is a worthy descendant of men like Weizmann, Magnes, and Buber. His clearsightedness makes his book even more relevant today than it was before the Yom Kippur war, because now for the first time the Arab leaders may be prepared to meet him half way.
Amos Elon’s book on the Israelis,* first published in 1971, can now, I think, be read as a complement to Eliav’s book. Unlike Eliav, Elon is mainly interested in Israel’s internal history, but he shares Eliav’s obsession with the specter of mutual suicide in the Arab-Israeli struggle, as well as his understanding of the Palestinians. Few writers about Israel have equaled Elon’s sensitivity. He captures very well the mood of his nation, its hopes and pride as well as its anguish and deep pessimism. He is most impressive in his treatment of the Palestinian question. He writes:
The tragic irony is deepened by a fatal parallel. There is a symmetry between the Israelis’ traumatic memory of holocaust and the neurosis of shame and anger, humiliation and white rage, that has been generated among Arabs by Israel’s recurrent successes.
This theme recurs throughout his book. “There is an unexpected element of irony in the fact that Israeli Jews, who owe their experience as a nation to their extraordinary memory of past history, should now be forced to rely on the Arabs forgetting theirs.” He concludes: “At the root is a disastrous struggle between two rights, a clash between two irresistible compulsions, the very essence of high tragedy.” He recalls that in Camus’s La Peste Tarrou tells Dr. Rieux that in choosing between the whips and victims on this earth, there is a third possibility: compassion.
The Israelis: Founders and Sons by Amos Elon (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971; Bantam Books, 1974).↩
The Israelis: Founders and Sons by Amos Elon (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971; Bantam Books, 1974).↩