The Chances for Peace: An Interview with General Peled

—January 1978
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Mattityahu Peled is a major general (ret.) in the Israeli army and chairman of the Department of Arabic Studies at Tel Aviv University. As a member of the Israel Council for Israeli-Palestinian Peace, he has since July 1976 taken part in numerous discussions with the PLO. He is currently a visiting fellow at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard. He writes:

This interview took place before the political and military committees of Israel and Egypt began their meetings. The political committee in Jerusalem, set up to grapple with the most sensitive issues dividing the parties, has since been suspended, and, at this writing, it is not clear when or if the talks will be resumed. The reasons for this setback are not yet entirely clear. Prime Minister Begin’s provocative remarks to the Egyptian foreign minister must surely be seen as a reflection of great internal political pressures for inflexibility under which he is laboring, and to which I point in this interview. President Sadat’s no less provocative recall of Mr. Kamel seems to have been only the most recent and extreme reflection of his growing dissatisfaction with the pace of the negotiations. But it is in any event important to understand that after thirty years of bitter conflict the road to peace will be often very rough, that all kinds of tactics and formulas will be employed by both parties to ease domestic political pressure and gain for their respective claims a favorable response from the international community.

The negotiations between Israel and Egypt require time and patience. At Ismailia political and military committees were shrewdly established precisely to provide a setting for months of diplomatic bartering. Clearly the partners to these talks will have to work harder than they have so far to maintain a climate of diplomatic earnestness and good will.

Above all, despite the reversal at Jerusalem, it is essential to realize how much progress has already taken place. There are still grounds for hope. And that is the spirit in which I offered the following analysis.

LEON WIESELTIER: The plan for the political and military disposition of the West Bank and Gaza which Prime Minister Begin brought to Ismailia—or at least that part of the plan made public—contained an interesting clause on the controversial matter of territorial sovereignty:

Israel stands by its right and its claim of sovereignty to Judea, Samaria, and the Gaza district. In the knowledge that other claims exist, it proposes for the sake of the agreement and the peace that the question of sovereignty be left open.

Did such language, or any other aspect of Begin’s plan, signal a shift in his thinking? In what way was the plan a new departure in Israeli policy?

MATTITYAHU PELED: I believe that plan displayed a substantial departure from Begin’s previous thinking. I see this in several points. First, he agreed for the first time that Israel’s claim of sovereignty over the occupied territories must be confronted with other claims which have as much legitimacy as Israel’s own. For a man like Begin, renowned for unswerving principles, this really was very significant.

Begin emphasized, moreover, that his entire plan should be subject to revision and reassessment after a certain period. He proposed five years. A shorter period might be agreed upon. But in any event he appeared to design this plan as a step toward something which he had not as yet defined. The panic that has overtaken many Israeli settlers in the occupied territories is quite justified—they should be worried, because for the first time it appears that their activities may not be as final or lasting as they would like.

LW: What of the self-rule offered to Palestinian Arabs? As a blueprint for the political rearrangement of the West Bank it falls short of the self-determination demanded by virtually all the Arab parties to the conflict.

MP: I do not believe that the idea is acceptable, or that it will be implemented. It seems, like other features of the plan, rather a phase in the negotiations. But there was in Begin’s conception of self-rule none the less an encouraging and important element. You will recall his stress upon the historical meaning of this proposal. He placed it in the context of centuries of Palestinian experience, and referred to the history of oppressed Palestinians under the Turks and British and Jordanians, and, finally, under us. Which is to say, he recognized that here is a people with a history—a view which was in Israel for a long time practically taboo.

He recognized as well that Jordanian rule on the West Bank was itself an oppression—no more the myth of a single Jordanian nation. And, perhaps most remarkably, he conceded that we are ruling the West Bank as conquerors. All this was seen as a far-reaching departure from many popular Israeli attitudes which Begin himself supported quite openly—which, indeed, he had himself most strongly formulated.

His plan even broached the right of non-Israeli Arabs to settle in Israel and purchase land there, something which no previous Israeli administration had ever entertained. Subsequently Begin qualified this particular item to apply only to those Arabs who accept Israeli citizenship. But whatever the merits of this idea—and it has been criticized, not unreasonably, by some who fear that it inadvertently raised the specter of a binational state—it seemed yet another sign of a fresh and unprecedented approach. If we look at Begin’s statements not for their immediate diplomatic significance, but for signs of change in Israeli thinking on the requirements of peace, Begin appeared to go a long way in a direction which to me clearly points to the eventual establishment of a Palestinian state.

LW: Whatever the advisability of a Palestinian state, do you really believe that Menahem Begin will be the man to preside over such a solution? Begin’s opposition to any Palestinian political entity has been quite virulent, and not even his enemies believe that he is not a man of his word.

MP: Of course if you were to suggest to Begin that that is where he is heading he would deny it, and quite sincerely. But it is possible that he has passed the point of no return.

LW: At Ismailia?

MP: There, and in his comments on his plan, which were in many respects more telling than the specifies of the plan itself. Renouncing the absolute sovereignty of Israel over the territories, acknowledging the historical identity of the Palestinian people—these were great concessions for him. Perhaps I am optimistic, but Begin was a big surprise for many of us. We believed that he was incapable of such movement, that he was too dogmatic, too rigid. Immediately after he was elected he made statements which really froze the blood. But since then he appears to have budged somewhat. In power during the extraordinary breakthrough, Begin may be undergoing a fitful process of political education, during which he may, I think, come to realize that there is no contradiction between Israeli security and a Palestinian state. There were times—not long ago—when he believed that even the slightest withdrawal from the Sinai was incompatible with Israeli security, but within the last six weeks he seems to have concluded differently. The great danger, of course, is that this process of education will go much too slowly, undermining Sadat and souring the chances for a settlement.

LW: What of Begin’s ideological principles, of the long-standing territorial aspirations of Revisionist Zionism? Won’t these constrain Begin’s apparent desire to become the man who brought peace to his people?

MP: Perhaps, but cherished ideals can become, well, a kind of ritual. Consider the example of Arieh Eliav, the leader of the Sheli or peace party. Eliav’s book begins with the ringing declaration that the entire Promised Land naturally belongs to the Jews. You might say that Eliav and Begin once stood on similar ideological ground. But Eliav goes on to say that for practical political reasons we cannot have all that land, that we must learn to compromise. What Eliav realized a decade ago Begin may come to learn during the next year or so—that however much one must cherish ideals, still one must be able realistically to grapple with the obstacles to peace. And Begin, as Americans may not understand, has been willing to break with long-time political associates since his meeting with Sadat. When several veteran members of his Herut party voted against his plan, Begin told the Knesset that whereas it pained him to see old friends part company with his policy, still he would put his responsibilities as a national leader first. But one should not discount the influence upon Begin of his party’s intense commitment to a greater “Land of Israel.”

LW: You speak confidently of a Palestinian state as the best and inevitable outcome of recent efforts toward a settlement. I wonder if this is itself realistic or correct. Perhaps the most striking pattern in the present Middle Eastern canvas is that, with the exception perhaps of Syria, and of the PLO, which may not find its way to the talks, none of the parties to the eventual settlement appears to favor such a solution. Sadat is said to be opposed to an independent Palestinian state, notwithstanding the various difficulties since Ismailia. Hussein is hardly eager to invite trouble from the West Bank, which will anyway not be returned completely, if at all, to his jurisdiction. The Saudis have been reported as favoring a state if it were run by “loyal pro-Saudi Palestinians,”* which seems unlikely. American policymakers appear to frown upon a state which they believe may become a “radical” client of the Russians. And Israel, of course, can so far live without it. Why, then, do you insist that the establishment of such a state is essential if a settlement is to be attained?

MP: In the first place I am not so sure that all the parties you mention are opposed to a Palestinian state. Hussein would like a state confederated with his own, but he voices only one point of view. There are others in Jordan who would prefer a different arrangement. We should in any case distinguish between Hussein’s personal abhorrence for the PLO and his assessment of the real problem of the Palestinians. I do not think that even Hussein means to deny the Palestinians a political identity. Sadat’s problem has been clear: he has needed another Arab party at the talks. As Hussein is the most likely candidate, Sadat has made all sorts of verbal gestures to make it easier for Hussein to join in. Sadat’s opposition to a Palestinian state is, I believe, more a tactic than a conviction. That the United States is opposed is true; Iran also is opposed. But I must say that their shared fear that a Palestinian state will accept Soviet domination seems to me utterly unrealistic. And the Saudis will, in the end, support a state, because they understand—as everybody should—that no solution will be possible without it.

LW: But moral considerations aside, why should Israelis tolerate on their border a state governed by people with a record of murderous and unreconstructed hostility toward them?

MP: It must be remembered that many proposals that could have produced a solution to the conflict have foundered upon Palestinian resistance, beginning with the Feisal-Weizmann agreement of 1919. The Palestinians may not be strong enough to bring about their own solution to the conflict, but they will always be at least strong enough to block other solutions. For this simple reason they must be offered some symbols of sovereignty. And such symbols are in fact what the PLO is after. The PLO knows that its state is bound to be very small, very weak, very dependent. But as Arafat and others have indicated several times in the past year, a flag and a passport and the certainty that there is a place they can call their own is what the Palestinians mainly desire. They have quite minimal goals.

LW: Minimal goals? But the stated and unrevised intention of the PLO has been the liquidation of the Jewish state and the return to what Palestinians call Palestine—not to speak of the likelihood that a radical Palestinian state would turn also upon Jordan. Have not irredentism and an implacable opposition to Israel been the cornerstones of PLO policy, and, indeed, the main sources of its popular appeal?

MP: The PLO revised their position some time ago. The first public expression of a new policy was made as long ago as 1975 by Said Hammami, the PLO representative in London, and I am sure that he was killed on January 4 for advocating such a position. It is true that the PLO has not revised or rephrased or abolished its Covenant, but that is largely the result of clumsy treatment by Israel, the United States, and others. They were ready to change the Covenant, to replace it with a more positive and workable statement of aims, but they were never strongly encouraged to do so, never made to feel certain that they would gain acceptance if they did so. The last time was in March of 1977, when the Palestinian National Council met in Cario. There they awaited an American signal that a change of heart would be rewarded with a place for the PLO at Geneva as the legitimate representatives of the Palestinians. Such a signal never came. President Carter issued his statement on the Palestinian right to a “homeland” on the last day of the Council. All the familiar, intransigent resolutions had already been passed. Had Carter made his statement only a short while before, things might have developed differently.

LW: But then last summer Secretary Vance reported from Saudi Arabia that the PLO was about to recognize UN Resolution 242, and again the PLO disappointed, and reaffirmed its intransigent position.

MP: Yes, that is true. But I would interpret the obstinacy and radicalism of the Palestinians as mainly a sign of their own insecurity and weakness. The PLO is not a large, powerful organization. And its insecurity is compounded by Syrian pressure in Lebanon. The Syrians are at present conducting intensive propaganda campaigns against Arafat in the refugee camps. The Syrian army is virtually occupying southern Lebanon. To speak of Arafat as if he were sitting as a sovereign in Lebanon, able to act with complete independence and according to his own real desires, is quite unrealistic. In many respects his hands are tied.

LW: Moderation is in the Palestinians’ best interest. But what evidence is there that Arafat knows that? On what basis do you maintain that his hard line until now has been more expedient than genuine?

MP: There have been many talks with Arafat, most of them unpublicized, some of them leaked to the press. There have been fruitful exchanges between Israelis and Palestinian officials, and between Palestinian officials and Americans with sufficient authority to represent the American point of view. Two important PLO officials, Said Hammami and Issam Sartawi, were allowed to present the moderate Palestinian position accepting peaceful co-existence of two states quite openly—most recently in London last October—in the hope that they would be able to persuade a larger audience of the PLO’s genuine willingness to negotiate. Unfortunately all they could report back was failure. They were met with no indication that moderation would be worth the risk, that demands of their own to be accepted as a party to a settlement would be recognized in return.

LW: Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem was a moment of truth for all concerned, not least for the Palestinians. Arafat’s response was to go angrily to Tripoli and join forces with such fanatics as Qadhafi, George Habash, and Nayif Hawatmeh. Surely the so-called rejectionist front cemented in Tripoli is no sign that terrorism is about to be replaced by statesmanship.

MP: I agree that the PLO had a golden opportunity when Sadat invited them to come to Cairo. They should have jumped at it. Sadat required nothing of them, not even acceptance of Resolution 242. The PLO deliberated for three or four days—anxious days in Jerusalem, I assure you—and decided not to seize the opportunity. They rejected Sadat’s offer. The explanation they gave to friendly critics was that the pressures by the Syrians made participation impossible.

LW: There seems always to be an excuse.

MP: Yes, too often there is. But while Tripoli was commanding everybody’s attention Sartawi was permitted to go to Vienna in mid-December and deliver a speech at the Karl Renner Institute, which was widely publicized in Egypt and Israel and Europe—but I saw not a word of it in the American press. Sartawi said that the whole of the affair at Tripoli should be viewed as a rhetorical posture, as in many respects not important. He declared that the PLO admired Sadat’s leadership, and is waiting only to receive assurances that the Palestinian problem will be properly presented. If such assurances were to be obtained, the PLO would be willing to join the conference. Sartawi’s speech was widely reportin Israel as a significant message by a ranking official of the PLO. In Egypt there was speculation that Sartawi would himself go to Cairo. But, again, there was no reaction, no sign that Sartawi’s announcement was being taken seriously.

LW: What is Sartawi’s position in the PLO?

MP: After Hammami’s murder I couldn’t say. In the past he has been charged by Arafat to persuade people wherever he could of the possibility of moderation by the PLO. I do know, from my own sources, that the Syrians demanded that Arafat execute Sartawi for his speech in Vienna—for his bold deviation from the hard line. As for Hammami, there have been a number of convincing reports that he was murdered by Arab extremists directed from Baghdad His killing is another clear indication that there are elements in the Arab world intent upon destroying the moderate currents within the PLO. It is really tragic that these moderates have failed to enlist support, particularly from the Americans. They are fighting desperately for a more reasonable and realistic Palestinian policy.

I do not believe the PLO is fundamentally dedicated to terror. It is dedicated to a specific political goal. At times terrorism and violence have appeared to be the only way. But the PLO is aware that different means will have to be employed if it is to acquire the political power it seeks. And just as Begin might change his thinking, so too might Arafat.

LW: Hammami is dead and Sartawi in danger. Arafat is by all accounts not a leader strong enough to enforce his own uncertain moderation upon his movement. What of the Palestinians on the West Bank themselves? There are reports from the West Bank of a local leadership independent of the PLO. Recently 450 West Bank Arabs journeyed to Cairo to meet with Sadat. According to other reports these new spokesmen are, however, widely regarded as opportunists or quislings. Is there a new Palestinian leadership in the making? Could such a leadership enter into the negotiations in place of the PLO?

MP: The spokesmen for the new group to which you refer are indeed despised on the West Bank. This is not to say that all of the delegates are so despised, or that there have not emerged local leaders with some authority. I refer to those West Bank mayors who welcomed Sadat’s visit and wish to follow it up. Their response was quite encouraging, not least because they may be available as negotiators so that Israel can overcome its refusal to talk with terrorists. But these leaders also insist strenuously upon Palestinian self-determination, and have not disavowed loyalty to the PLO. I do not believe that it will be possible for any Palestinian leadership to develop, however moderate, that will not demand self-determination. And if the mood on the West Bank is often very intransigent, that is in good measure the fault of the Israelis, who did not encourage an authentic and moderate popular alternative to develop.

Any eventual accommodation with the Palestinians is going to require farreaching concessions on their part, concessions on principles and on certain features of the state they will have to accept. For such concessions to be meaningful they will have to be made by a leadership respected by the Palestinians. And that is Arafat’s real strength: he is the only leader in a position to make concessions which the Palestinians will accept. Of course he must be able to do so in a manner which will allow him to retain his prestige among the Palestinians. But that he is really their only leader with enough authority to compromise makes him necessary to the progress toward peace.

LW: Speaking of Palestinian compromises, is Palestinian self-determination compatible with complete or partial demilitarization of the West Bank? Is there any contradiction between Palestinian self-determination and Israeli security?

MP: It is a great mistake to equate Palestinian sovereignty with a threat to Israeli security. There exist at present several states which have sovereignty but must accept certain limitations on that sovereignty—Japan, for example. But nobody would argue that Japan is not sovereign. Demilitarization, or some limitation of the military strength of a Palestinian state, is something which would have to be discussed at a peace conference. But from a military perspective I must insist quite emphatically that there is no contradiction between Palestinian self-determination and Israeli security. Both requirements can be met without imperiling a settlement. It is not hard to define the limits within which the military capacity of a Palestinian state would be set. Nor in my view would the leaders of the PLO object to such a limitation. They know that their state would be small and poor, unable to allocate large expenditures for guns and planes; and the less they will need for the military, the more they will have for the people.

LW: Why do you believe that a Palestinian state on the West Bank would not become a client of the Soviet Union?

MP: Because there would, in the first place, probably be some very specific clause in a peace treaty regarding the presence of foreign forces or elements, a clause which the PLO would probably not oppose. Secondly, I believe that once they win their state, they will be very eager to run it in a manner compatible with the needs of the population. What point would there be in going to the Russians? They will, after all, depend economically upon Israel and Jordan—and, of course, upon Saudi Arabia. Why should they strain their relations with these states for the sake of a few Russians?

LW: They could also find money from Libya and Iraq. But there is a greater problem here. However essential the PLO may be to a settlement, I wonder if it has not, willingly or otherwise, played itself out of the negotiations by this point. President Carter said as much in December; in Paris Secretary Vance reiterated American disappointment in its position, and in Washington Brzezinski did so again, if more cautiously. Has the PLO’s inflammatory behavior since Sadat’s visit to Israel robbed it of any role in the peace process?

MP: Quite possibly. The PLO is now in a very tight corner. If they do not do something drastic during the next few weeks, something to clarify their position, some very dramatic initiative, they may very well rule themselves out. And that would be unfortunate, because their bitterness will remain an obstacle to peace. For this reason I would wish that American officials meet with the PLO leadership and encourage it to go ahead, by assuring it that acceptance of Resolution 242 would gain for it a place in the peace making process. Above all, moderate elements within the PLO must be immediately reinforced. It is really very, very late.

LW: Will the existing Israeli settlements in the occupied territories impede the progress toward peace?

MP: They could; but it is likely that in the next few months, if the political climate begins to change, many settlers will return to Israel. This is to some degree already taking place. There are only about four or five thousand people involved, and certainly it will become difficult to recruit new settlers at this point. And of course there is an unsurmountable legal difficulty about the settlements: the land was taken illegally, and I doubt that any Israeli court, whatever the eventual political condition of the territory, would rule that the settlers were rightful owners of the land.

LW: What is the present policy of the Israeli government on settlement in the territories? Recently Moshe Dayan and Ariel Sharon went to Yamit, the controversial Israeli settlement in northern Sinai. Dayan defended Begin’s new accommodations with Egypt. Sharon told the settlers to grow more crops and raise more children. And there have been other conflicting signals.

MP: This is a period of transition in which all kinds of voices will be heard. Officially, of course, settlement in the territories has not been condemned, as it should have been; in certain quarters the settlers are still considered heroes. But the government’s policy has become considerably more prudent, for example in ruling out plans for new settlements in the Sinai. Above all it is up to the settlers to realize that they should not waste any more of their lives in such a venture.

LW: What about Jerusalem? It is of singular symbolic significance; the Saudis in particular appear to be preoccupied with its complete return.

MP: The first thing is to define what exactly we mean by Jerusalem. After the 1967 war Israel annexed to the municipality of Jerusalem a large territory which never belonged to it, inhabited by about 100,000 Palestinians living in villages whose names most Israelis do not even know. This area is properly a part of the West Bank. As for the Old City, the holy places will have to be administered according to some common charter or framework that will guarantee freedom of access to members of all religions; Begin has himself suggested such an arrangement.

LW: But as Hussein observed recently, the Old City does not consist entirely of holy places.

MP: The only solution I can envisage for the rest of the disputed city is some kind of line which would divide sovereignty—but a line which would be of no practical significance for the administration of municipal affairs. Such a purely formal border will be perfectly acceptable to the Palestinians. The Israelis will resist accepting it. But it is worth noting that when Begin was asked about Jerusalem, he replied only that it should never again be divided. He completely avoided the question of what other nominal arrangements could be implemented within a unified city. Of course on this issue of an undivided Jerusalem Begin will be quite firm.

LW: What has been the impact of Sadat’s visit upon the climate of political debate in Israel? A short while after that startling weekend the Sunday Times of London published a poll which revealed that 37 percent of the Israeli population are willing to exchange the West Bank—excluding Jerusalem—for a settlement. Still other polls cite a slightly higher figure for such an attitude. Is there now in Israel a growing popular mandate for a more flexible and forthcoming approach to the Arabs?

MP: The great majority of Israelis have never in fact hungered for territorial expansion. Their most genuine sentiment was fear. They did not believe that there was anybody on the other side who would respond in kind to initiatives for peace; this was always the argument against the doves’ calls for concessions. But Sadat’s visit shattered this distrust. No longer can concessions be seen entirely as acts of faith. This was Sadat’s great achievement: he did indeed tear down those barriers of which he spoke to the Knesset. And the fifty or so Israeli reporters who returned from a couple of weeks in Cairo brought back to the Israeli public an image of Egyptians with a human face, of people as weary as the Israelis of war and as anxious for peace. And so, for example, Gush Emunim, which has been the spearhead of considerable popular support, recently appeared to have become quite isolated. And there have been other such signs.

LW: Then the Israeli public would go along if Begin really revises his thinking?

MP: That is correct. The most significant poll I have seen showed that 80 percent of the Israeli population is willing to accept whatever Begin decides. Begin’s real problem is with the Knesset—more precisely, that the Knesset does not accurately reflect the sentiments of the nation. Begin received only 64 votes out of 120 for his plan. Many who wished to vote for the plan did not; in the Labor party, for example, a significant number reluctantly adhered to party discipline and abstained. Begin, if he felt too handicapped by an artificial parliamentary situation, might call for new elections in an attempt to consolidate his political base. He might wish to organize an unprecedented, tight coalition which would include the moderates in Likud as well as Yadin’s Movement for Democratic Change, liberal elements in Labor, Eliav’s doves, and elements of the National Religious Party too, half of whose members are themselves suddenly beginning to sound like outspoken doves. Such a coalition would be of a piece with the national mood.

LW: But hardly of a piece with the mood of Begin’s own party.

MP: Certainly not. One of the consequences of Begin’s sudden shift is to have thrown his party into disarray. At a recent Herut convention Begin won an important contest with only 60 percent of the party vote; a short while ago it was inconceivable that anybody in the party would have voted against him. But the alienation of his own party does not make Begin’s position any easier. He is under extraordinary pressure to honor its hard line; and we cannot preclude the possibility that he will at some point succumb to such pressure, and take his new attitude no further. Begin might well attempt to placate his old allies, probably with statements that might seem clumsy or offensive to the Egyptians.

LW: Still, the scenario you have described in our talk is, let us say, rather optimistic.

MP: Of course something might happen to make the negotiations much more difficult or even impossible. The longer it takes for Begin to move along to a more moderate position, the more difficult it will be for Sadat, who needs results—if only in principle—to retain his leadership and justify his gamble. Should Begin fail to be sufficiently forthcoming, he could fatally weaken the forces for moderation in the Arab world.

I would not, in any case, expect Begin’s government to accept the PLO so long as Israel does not first accept the principle of Palestinian self-determination. Whether Begin can bring himself to do this remains to be seen. But if that principle finally becomes palatable—and Begin’s diplomacy has given some hope that it might—the Israeli attitude toward the PLO will no longer be the same.

At that juncture it would urgently be in the Palestinians’ interest to accept Resolution 242. Of course any ensuing negotiations with Palestinians will not be easy. But it would be a dangerous fiasco for all concerned if such negotiations never take place, if the Palestinian problem continues to frustrate the movement toward peace—a fiasco because for any nation the only really reliable form of security is peace.

  1. *

    The Economist, January 7, 1978.