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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.

  1. *

    The Economist, January 7, 1978.

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