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Israel Letter: The New Trap

—Jerusalem, early October


The recent Sinai agreement was negotiated in an atmosphere of growing confusion that is new and disturbing for Israelis. Although the economic recession has led to a sharp rise in emigration—some estimates range as high as 20,000 a year during 1974 and 1975—there is no feeling of pessimism about Israel’s being destroyed. Most Israelis still accept the endless rounds of reserve duty, the tedious vigilance against terror, and their bitter isolation from other countries as the price of survival, which they take for granted.

What is more deeply worrying are the visible signs of uncertainty among the Israelis about the goals of their extraordinary staying power. The reassuring conviction of the last eight years that there was a broad consensus about national purposes has been put in doubt. 1 So long as there seemed nothing more to contend with than unyielding Arab, enmity, typified by the Khartoum Resolution of 1967, the popular slogan ein breira (“there is no choice”) was comforting, if macabre. Now that Israelis face some real choices they must also face up to their internal divisions.

Writing in the daily Ma’ariv just before Kissinger’s arrival, the Hebrew University philosopher Shlomo Avineri revealed some of the ideological turmoil lurking behind what often appear to be merely tactical issues. Zionism, he argued, was intended to liberate and revive not Jewish lands but Jewish people. What was significant was Avineri’s evident sense of urgency that this elementary principle must now be reasserted and defended. For the prospect of withdrawal from the occupied territories is bringing to the surface a central but long-neglected question: Is merely producing more Jewish power an end in itself?

Particularly since the war of 1967 Israeli leaders have assumed with moral certainty that the efficient use of force is the key to survival—not only strategically but culturally. The military became glamorous, its leaders uncritically revered, and some of the more fanatical right-wing commanders of pre-1948 Zionism became approved folk heroes.2 More important, the occupation of the Golan Heights, the West Bank, and especially the Old City of Jerusalem seemed to provide not only the tangible guarantee but also the symbolic vindication of the Zionist project. Even Israel’s paper currency has begun to depict different views of the Old City’s walls; the portraits of workers, scientists, and poets are being discarded.

This policy of encouraging, or tolerating, various kinds of Jewish settlement in these conquered territories has engendered a cult of the land, a spiritual élan heavily laden with vulgarized religious mysticism and messianic righteousness. And such sentiments have become much more decisive in Israel’s politics than any strategic value the settlements may have. Many young Israelis have been schooled in continual war and lack the political sophistication of older generations: as one talks to them, and observes their vehement demonstrations, one realizes that withdrawal from these territories would now mean repudiating the heroic destiny which they see as justifying all their sacrifices.

In its most strident form, this political feeling has now found a political voice in Gush Emunim—literally, the Front of the Faithful—a nonparty movement composed of “religious” radicals, young members or sympathizers of the right-wing Likud, as well as a mixed bag of war heroes, cultural figures (e.g., the songwriter Naomi Shemer), and West Bank and Golan settlers.3 Boastful about the IDF’s military prowess, arrogant and narrow-minded in their interpretation of Jewish “self-determination,” they lately have become the hard core of opposition to compromise on the occupied territories and to diplomatic initiatives. When Henry Kissinger came to Jerusalem, Gush Emunim sent thousands of young men wearing knitted yarmulkes into the streets, its demonstrations leading to violent clashes with the police. It showed it could muster over 25,000 people in protest against the Sinai accord.

However, these impressive demonstrations were not necessarily an accurate measure of Gush Emunim’s political strength. According to the polls, perhaps 70 percent of Israelis—some of whom took to the streets themselves in less impressive marches—were willing to approve of September’s interim settlement, although they did so equivocally and tensely. But Gush Emunim’s influence is potentially much greater than its present members might suggest; for it has succeeded in boldly expressing ideas that more conventional Israeli leaders have been unwilling to challenge openly for a decade. It proclaims, for example, that occupying and setting the West Bank are not merely tactically necessary but must be celebrated as unifying “Eretz Israel.” Gush Emunim has grabbed the center of the stage in a drama in which Rabin’s still tottering government has been unwilling to take part.

Indeed, since the job of prime minister fell into his lap over a year ago, Rabin has been reluctant to embroil himself in any controversy about the shape of Israel’s future. He has instead been cautiously and persistently committing himself to the path of least resistance. He replaced Shula-mit Aloni’s dovish group in his coalition with the National Religious Party, which insists that the entire West Bank must stay in Israel’s hands for the religious and “historic” reasons. He then pandered to rightist agitation in the La-bour Alignment and in the NRP by acquiescing in the accelerated pace of surreptitious Jewish settlement of the West Bank. Attempting to silence attacks from the Likud, he took its flashiest and most popular leader, General Arik Sharon, on to his personal staff—Sharon advocates holding on to the West Bank and the Golan forever—secretly promising that he would be chief of staff in 1977. And during the Sinai negotiations of last March Rabin made his reckless demand that Sadat agree to “nonbelligerency”—a demand that his foreign minister Yigal Allon was willing to forgo, and that was a principal cause of the collapse of Kissinger’s mission.

Since then Kissinger has obviously been determined to provide Rabin with a very different path of least resistance. During his brief visit to Washington in June, Rabin was made to feel that Israel’s relations with the Ford Administration had nearly been wrecked in March and had to be salvaged. Ford and Kissinger told him that American interests in the Middle East—both economic and strategic—would be compromised if Sadat’s “step-by-step” progress toward Washington were impeded by Israeli “inflexibility”; and in case Rabin had difficulty persuading the people back home of this, they dramatically announced that they were “reassessing” the entire Mideast situation, including military aid to Israel.

As I have argued in these pages before (NYR, January 24, 1974), the October war was bound to convince Kissinger and both presidents he served of what the State Department has been asserting for many years, namely that the Persian Gulf is not a place where Israel can be counted on to act as a US police agent, even with the Shah’s implicit cooperation. Pax Americana would be better served, no doubt, by enlisting the support of Cairo and the more active cooperation of Riyadh, both of them eager to outfit themselves with American arms and logistical equipment. The prospect of petrodollars seems to be effectively silencing pro-Israel hawks in the Pentagon; and although the traditional solidarity with Israel of the US Congress is steady, this support could prove ephemeral.4 Since the Sinai accords, the Congress has been slower than ever before to come across with money and arms for Israel.5 If the McGovern Report is any indication, a sizable number in Congress are committed only to the “little Israel” of before the 1967 war—not to American support for an indefinite Israeli occupation.

The last few months may not have vindicated Kissinger’s statements that what is good for America is good for Israel. But they have convinced Israel’s political leaders that what Kissinger sees as bad for the US can be made to be disastrous for Israel. Consider, for example, the recent behavior of Yitz-hak Navon, the highly respected chairman of the Knesset Security Affairs Committee. He is a member of the tough-minded Rafi faction of the Labour Alignment, a crony of Defense Minister Shimon Peres—the leader of those who pressed Rabin to take a hard line during the March negotiations. Beginning in early August, Navon campaigned hard in favor of a new agreement without so much as mentioning Egypt; an open breach with America had become unthinkable.

In forcing Israel to agree to the September bargain Kissinger showed some grasp of Israeli politics and particularly of their current breaking point. He offered the Israelis relief from their fantasies that they would be “sold out,” while allowing them to avoid facing any of the large questions about the future of the occupied territories.

So far as the Sinai was concerned, the chief of staff Mordechai Gur had already abandoned the static defense strategy which dominated Israeli planning since the war of attrition of the late 1960s. He openly approved of the new line of defense and expressed satisfaction at getting the highly fatal military hardware—including the Lance missile—which had been held up since March. Even the Likud hardliners had to agree that a surprise attack across the new buffer zone—with its UN soldiers, its electronic warning devices, and promised US technicians—would be next to impossible. The loss of the Abu Rodeis oil fields will be more than regained if Israel receives the $2.3 billion Kissinger promised for its arsenals and its limping economy. 6

As for Sadat, he renounced the use of force, agreed to let Israeli cargoes through the Suez canal, closed down the independent PLO radio in Cairo. Yet Kissinger provided him with a clear victory. The unilateral pullback of Israeli troops from the Canal Zone and the oil fields allows the Egyptian leaders to claim that, unlike Nasser’s, their 1973 attack won a political battle. As Shimon Shamir, the leading Israeli Mideast expert, has argued, Sadat might now be expected to devote more attention to the staggering problems of Egyptian poverty with the help of Western aid and technology. He can count on $250 million in US funds, $300 million a year in new oil revenues (above domestic consumption), as well as substantial savings on Lloyd’s insurance rates for canal shipping.


The Sinai agreement thus satisfied some real interests, pulled Egypt further away from the USSR, allowed Kissinger to show he could put on yet another extravaganza—all of which obscured its reality, which is that it is no more than an elaborate cease-fire between two parties to a many-sided conflict.

Rabin himself admits that the pact offers no more than a chance to “buy time”—but he cannot acknowledge openly that several time bombs at once are meanwhile ticking away. If the pact is providing “momentum,” as Kissinger insists, it is as much toward collision as toward conciliation. For it remains a Mad Hatter’s affair, each side refusing to say what it means by “peace.”

Most conspicuously, the agreement takes no account whatever of the Palestinian question—a deliberate omission because neither side could make a single concession about Palestinian rights that would not have caused an uproar of protest at home: if Rabin had vaguely agreed to “Palestinian self-determination,” he would have risked his government’s fall. The tacit solution was therefore to put the future of the Palestinians at the bottom of the list of Mideast problems. But the Palestinian issue is the crux of the conflict, and the longer it is evaded the more repellent any of the conceivable solutions become for one side or the other.

  1. 1

    See Nahum Goldmann’s article, “The Psychology of Middle East Peace,” Foreign Affairs, October 1975.

  2. 2

    This “rehabilitation” of the terrorist underground still continues. Israeli television has recently featured an admiring special program on Ya’ir Stern, founder of “The Freedom Fighters of Israel,” without so much as subjecting his nationalist views to debate.

  3. 3

    See Judith Miller’s article, “Israel: The Politics of Fear,” The Progressive, July 1975.

  4. 4

    Recent polls have shown Americans opposed to stationing US technicians in Sinai by a sobering two-to-one margin, while claiming overwhelmingly to be supporters of Israel. Clearly also there is little popular enthusiasm for supplying Israel with billions of dollars of aid during a time of recession.

  5. 5

    See Leslie Gelb’s analysis of Senator Eagleton’s speech, The New York Times, October 1, 1975.

  6. 6

    London’s Institute for Strategic Studies reported recently that Israel spends $1,043 per person yearly on defense. This is two and a half times what the superpowers spend. Without US aid, the inflationary pressures would be unbearable.

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