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Israel: The Sticking Point


Near El Arish, in the northern Sinai, twenty-five miles across the pre-1967 border, a cluster of red-roofed concrete boxes stands defiant on the sand dunes—Neot Sinai, one of the seventeen Israeli settlements that have been built in this area since Israel took it over from the Egyptians in 1967.

There are only twenty families in this cooperative, set up in 1973. All of them are stout supporters of Israeli Premier Menachem Begin. “We’re the government’s people, and this is the government’s cooperative,” declares Yitzhak Regev, a tanned and bearded figure who is Neot Sinai’s secretary. The framed letter bearing the crest of the state of Israel and displayed beside his desk underscores his point. “Dear friends,” it reads,

I was happy to read your letter telling me of your members’ meeting decision on 12 November, 1977. In the name of my wife and I, please accept our thanks for your unanimous decision to accept us as full members of the cooperative.

The letter was signed by Menachem Begin and dated December 1, 1977, just one week after Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s momentous visit to Jerusalem.

The premier intends to make Neot Sinai his home when he retires, much as Israel’s founding statesman David BenGurion, a lifelong enemy of Begin, whom he referred to as “that man,” retired to a kibbutz in the Negev desert. But while Ben-Gurion chose his home inside Israel proper, Begin has chosen his inside Egyptian territory.

Menachem Begin never tires of saying that no man on earth wants peace more than he. President Sadat says he has offered just that: peace in return for the Arab territories conquered by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War, and specifically, for Egypt, the return of the Sinai Peninsula including Neot Sinai and the other settlements. But as many times as Premier Begin has said that he wants peace, he has also said that the northern Sinai settlements will remain under Israeli control. And his loudest statement to this effect was not in any public speech, but in the letter proudly displayed in a sandy office cubicle 100 miles from Jerusalem.

Even before Begin’s rise to power a year ago, Israel’s settlements in the territories it conquered in 1967 never seemed to be negotiable—whether on the Golan Heights to the north, in the West Bank of the Jordan River to the east, or in the sands and rock of Sinai to the south. The Allon plan of the late 1960s called for returning much of the West Bank territory populated by Arabs while retaining the West Bank settlements. Wherever and whenever Israelis have set up civilian settlements, these have been permanent. This is part of Israel’s ideology, part of the way it established its borders in the 1948 war of independence, when it lost only the few settlements whose defenders were killed to the last inhabitant.

It is a matter of pride that Israel has never given up a settlement of its own will. As Golda Meir put it in July 1969: “Wherever we settle, that’s where our borders will be. Outsiders have never, and will never, determine our borders.” The sentiment has been echoed throughout the years by former premier Levi Eshkol, former defense minister and present opposition leader Shimon Peres, former premier Yitzhak Rabin—and, of course, current premier Menachem Begin.

The settlements were not seen as bargaining points, something to be conceded were the Arabs to retract their three “no’s” of the Khartoum Summit in September 1967: no peace, no recognition of Israel, no negotiation. They were predicated on the permanence of these “no’s,” and thus on the impossibility of returning territory for nothing. Their role was to strengthen Israel’s claim to the land it had occupied, to “establish facts” in the style of Israel’s pre-independence days in the faith that with time the world would recognize Israel’s claim to the land it had settled.

Time did not do what Israel’s leaders thought it would do. Israel saw peace as always awaited, never to arrive. And while ostensibly waiting, the country acted in the conviction that it would not arrive. Then the impossible happened, in the unlikely form of President Sadat addressing Israel’s parliament on November 20, 1977.

Ever since 1967, Sadat said, Israel had maintained that the basic problem was not territories, or even refugees, but the Arab states’ refusal to come to terms with and accept Israel’s presence in the Mideast. Now he offered the three elements that Israel had always stressed above all: direct talks, no more war, and, more important, recognition of Israel’s sovereignty. The quid proquo was the only thing that Israel had to give: territory.

Over a month later, Premier Begin formulated Israel’s answer: Israel was willing to recognize Egyptian sovereignty over Sinai, but insisted on retaining control of its civilian settlements there, and of the three major military air bases close by. On the West Bank, however, Israel would not concede territory: the most it would consider was self-rule for the Arab inhabitants of the West Bank, with Israel maintaining military control of the area, and with its settlements remaining where they are.

If the Golda Meir government had seemed intransigent on the issue of territorial concession on the West Bank, all the more so the Begin government, led by a man for whom History counts even more than military security. As soon as Begin came to power, his political language was introduced throughout the Israeli press. “Liberated territories” instead of “administered territories” (“occupied territories” had long been lingua non grata); “the land of Israel” to indicate all the land within the present borders, including the occupied territories; the Biblical names of Judea and Samaria for the West Bank. Asked right after the elections if he would annex the West Bank, Begin replied: “We don’t use the word annexation. You annex foreign territory, not your own.”

A man for whom the events of four thousand years ago are as real politically as those of a week ago, Begin sees the West Bank as part of the historic land of Israel—and thus as part of modern Israel. To let it go into foreign hands again is for him unthinkable. And to give up any settlements elsewhere, such as in Sinai, is a precedent for giving up settlements and territory in the West Bank.

Begin’s senior aides have a more recent sense of history, one based on the twentieth-century story of Israel’s fight for independence and the continuing Mideast conflict since then. At his right hand on the settlement issue is “mon général,” as Begin calls him—the flamboyant Arik Sharon, whose election to parliament as the head of a two-man faction enabled him to become both agriculture minister and the influential head of the ministerial settlement committee, responsible for settlement policy.

Sharon’s cowboy style both in private on his ranch and in public is in keeping with his treatment of the territories as if this were the Wild West, where land is up for grabs for those with the daring to grab it. He is a forthright expansionist, whose thinking is guided above all by military strategy but also, one suspects, by the aura of “Arik King of Israel,” the title accorded him by the public when he turned the tide of the 1973 Yom Kippur war by leading Israeli paratroopers over the Suez Canal. He likes room to maneuver in, both militarily and psychologically. Explaining his policy some months ago, he said:

It all depends on what kind of Israel one envisions: an overcrowded, nervous, irritating and ecologically sick strip of concrete along the coast, or an ecologically healthy country with a sound distribution of its millions of inhabitants over a much larger area.

At Begin’s left hand is Defense Minister Ezer Weizman, the only one in Israel’s leadership to have struck up good personal relations with President Sadat. An urbane politician and former head of Israel’s air force, Weizman favors “proper” organized settlement in large numbers in the West Bank, as opposed to what Israelis call the “partisan” style favored by Sharon, who still operates in the “stockade and watchtower” style of Israel’s pre-independence days when settlements were set up literally overnight.

A man of political common sense, Weizman insisted on a freeze on all new settlement work while negotiations with Egypt and the United States were underway—a freeze imposed belatedly and now apparently lifted. He wisely refrains from talking about his settlement plans, aware of the explosive potential of the issue at this time. Even Arik Sharon is now cutting down on what one observer called his “open-mouth policy,” though a February remark by his chief aide that “settlements in Sinai are more important than negotiations with Egypt” passed unreprimanded by Begin.

In the shadows of the cabinet is Deputy Premier Yigael Yadin, who won a fifteen-man faction in the parliament but whose murky policy consists of generalized principles with no specific plans. Though he favors some form of territorial compromise, Yadin joined a government adamantly opposed to any concession on the West Bank. Thus while purporting to play “the good guy” from within (“I can do more to influence government policy from within than without”), he is doing little more than assuring the government a comfortable majority. And his integrity was seriously undermined when, to what should be his everlasting shame, this internationally respected archaeologist did not resign from a government that used archaeology as a blatant excuse to cover up an illegal settlement attempt at Shilo on the West Bank in March 1978.

Shilo, the center of a short-lived international furor, is a group of eight caravans surrounded by a barbed-wire fence on an exposed rocky hillside twenty-five miles north of Jerusalem. Its only access is the steep pot-holed gravel lane carved out by the settlers themselves in March.

This is indeed a rich archaeological site, the first center of the Israelite religion after Joshua led his people into Palestine and a major shrine in the times of the Biblical judges. But the eight families now living there have never used an archaeologist’s spade in their lives. “We had an arrangement with government authorities that we’d be allowed to live here as archaeologists until they could arrange a regular residential permit,” Shilo’s young secretary, Shevah Weiss, explained to me. “No,” he smiled, “none of us is doing any archaeology. It was merely an arrangement of convenience.”

No one has yet discovered who gave the Shilo group the go-ahead, if anyone. They, of course, are not saying. But they are also not budging.

The Shilo settlers are all members of Gush Emunim—the Faith Bloc—a small but vociferous movement, fiercely nationalist, with strong antiliberal views and an element of racism. Its members’ fervent national and historical consciousness is based on religion: since they believe divine law overrides secular law, they dismiss democracy with contempt and direct their public appeal to the emotions and away from rational thinking.

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