Begin vs. Begin


When President Sadat came to Jerusalem in November 1977 he stole the initiative from Arab “rejectionists”—not only Syria, Iraq, Libya, but all the important factions of the PLO. Among these are Yasir Arafat’s Fatah, the Syrian-backed Saika, the Iraqi-backed ALF, Naif Hawatme’s PDFLP, and George Habash’s PFLP. What seems forgotten now is how bitterly most of these countries and factions were feuding with one another then. The Syrian and Iraqi Ba’athists were competing to dominate the region north of the Persian Gulf. Fatah and Syria (and Saika) were at odds over President Assad’s strong-armed intervention in Lebanon, particularly the Syrian army’s murderous crushing of Fatah at the Tel-a-Zaatar refugee camp in early 1977. Fatah was also feuding both with the Libyan-financed PFLP over Arafat’s apparent readiness to negotiate with the US and with the Iraqi ALF, which had long resented Arafat’s prior involvements with the Syrians. The Syrians had, after all, accepted UN resolution 242 and had negotiated a disengagement agreement with Israel; like Fatah they were eager to go to Geneva.

Surrounded by such ideological antagonism and ambition, Arafat’s position was diminished. His only patron was King Khalid of Saudi Arabia, who cautiously preferred Fatah’s non-“Marxist,” pan-Islamic line to that of the “radicals,” and was hedging against Syria’s growing power. After he went to Israel, however, Sadat soon had the tacit support both of Khalid (whom the Egyptian army protected) and also of Hussein. His initiative seemed superbly pragmatic. It offered a chance to secure the return of Arab lands captured in 1967, to pressure the Americans into forcing Israel to change its position on Jerusalem and the Palestinian question—and to do so without a risky Geneva Conference and without giving the Soviets a part in the negotiations. Hussein in 1977 still had substantial allies in the West Bank and Gaza—the mayors of Bethlehem and Gaza, Freij and Shawa, the former mayor of Hebron, Jaabri, the Ramallah lawyer Shekhadeh, and Anwar Nuseibeh, Hussein’s former minister of defense, among many others. He was still anxious to rule the mosques of Jerusalem, still seemed open to some kind of deal.

Sadat, in short, could not have chosen a better time to break the old taboos and change the rules. The Palestinian Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza were, then as now, mainly supporters of the PLO—the only visible symbol of Palestinian self-determination—but this was vague support since the PLO’s leadership was obviously disorganized and exhausted. Sadat (and, it was assumed, Hussein) seemed to promise a more plausible first step to political independence from Israel. The Palestinians could not be immune to the huge popular success of Sadat’s trip in Jerusalem and Cairo. A delegation, mainly from Gaza, went to Cairo to greet the “hero of peace” three weeks later. That peace seemed a real alternative to the occupation was dramatized by the way Arafat sat shocked and helpless in the Egyptian parliament as Sadat announced his determination to address the Knesset.1

Had the Israeli and Egyptian governments worked out some peace settlement soon after Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem, the PLO leaders, like the rest of the Arab world, would have had to continue to respond to events which outflanked their policies and exacerbated their old divisions. And the settlement would have been reinforced by the enthusiasm of tens of millions of Egyptians (many more than the combined population of all rejectionist Arab states) who had been prepared by Sadat’s regime to view peace as the beginning of domestic development: population would move from the Nile Valley to the Canal Zone, conditions for foreign investment would improve, funds would shift from the army to public utilities, to economic integration with Sudan, and so on. There was little cynicism evident in Egypt during those days; and Sadat’s growing prestige might have been a decisive American and Israeli asset in the search for a comprehensive settlement with the other Arab nations.

Peace would have been concluded at the Ismailia summit in December 1977 had Israel agreed to evacuate the whole of the Sinai—including the Rafiah settlements—and to endorse the principle that “Palestinians be given the right to participate in the determination of their future.” This was the Aswan formula announced by Sadat and President Carter after the summit meeting failed to produce an agreement on principles. For Begin to endorse this formula would also have meant suspending Jewish settlements on the West Bank and keeping silent about the future status of Arab Jerusalem. Political organizing on the West Bank would have to be permitted as well, along with an increase, by surreptitious stages, in the presence of Jordanian administrators and police.

Shimon Shamir of the Shiloah Institute, one of Israel’s best informed experts on Arab politics, believes such actions by Begin could have then served as the basis for a treaty. So do Egypt’s acting foreign minister, Butros Ghali, and the American ambassador to Israel, Samuel Lewis. But in late 1977 and early 1978 Begin balked, suggesting an autonomy plan a little like the one Tito granted Croatia. He denied that UN resolution 242 would apply to the West Bank—still, to him, “Eretz Yisrael.” He acquiesced in Ariel Sharon’s bulldozer diplomacy by which he kept extending settlements in North Sinai.

Now (as he did at Camp David) Begin has openly capitulated on most major points, including complete withdrawal from the Sinai—but not on suspending settlements. He has also withdrawn most of the objections he posed after Camp David to Egypt’s treaty obligations with other Arab nations in case of war. Not that these objections were ever decisive: if war comes, each country’s interests will prevail over its signatures. In any case Egyptian Prime Minister Mustapha Hallil announced to the Egyptian Parliament on April 9 that Egypt will side with Syria in a “defensive war” to retake the Golan Heights if its negotiations with Israel fail. He also said that “normalization” with Israel can only proceed at a pace that corresponds to progress in achieving full Palestinian autonomy, at least in the Gaza Strip as a first step. Israel for months sought to avoid this “linking,” but none of Hallil’s statement is contradicted by the text of the treaty Begin signed.

Few observers have noticed that, according to the treaty, negotiations on normalizing trade and tourism are to begin only after six months, i.e., after negotiations on autonomy are already supposed to be fully under way. General Matti Peled, who is closely acquainted with Egyptian leaders, told me if these collateral negotiations bog down, he doubts Egypt would send an ambassador to Israel after nine months—as the treaty specifies. Then we shall not have peace but some nervous and de facto “interim agreement,” with the Israeli army withdrawing to a line running from El Arish to a point west of Sharm al-Sheikh. There will be no optimistic momentum, no progress on commercial and diplomatic relations, and no American military and diplomatic presence between the Israeli army and the Egyptians.

Former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has already predicted this kind of deadlock. Naphtalie Lavie, Foreign Minister Dayan’s closest aide, hinted to me that this would be considered a “tolerable” outcome. But there can be no doubt that it could degenerate into a situation far more precarious for Israel than any since the 1967 war. And the Carter administration, which openly supports Egypt on the Palestinians, will not be sympathetic to Israeli claims for support under the separate agreement Secretary Vance negotiated with Dayan.

Begin cannot avoid this dangerous deadlock unless he makes good on an autonomy plan he really abhors. Unlike the one he presented Sadat at Ismailia, the one he suddenly endorsed at Camp David promises “full” Palestinian autonomy: an elected council, an end to the military government, a “strong” indigenous police force, the retreat of the Israeli Defense Forces to specified enclaves. Furthermore, this autonomy was and is to be “transitional,” leading to Palestinians enjoying their “legitimate rights”—a clear strengthening of the Aswan formula. Israel’s withdrawal of North Sinai settlements will be a clear precedent for the Golan and West Bank (Begin’s demurrers notwithstanding).2 Dr. Moshe Sharon, Begin’s own former adviser on Arab affairs, called this autonomy plan a certain step to an independent Palestinian state and a precarious one at that because tensions between “autonomous Palestinians” and Israeli settlers are, in his view, bound to stir up nationalist and secessionist sentiments among Israeli Arabs as well. Israeli hawks such as Ariel Sharon and Mier Har-Zion have already issued dark warnings to the Arab citizens of Israel that they not “repeat the tragedy of 1948.”3

Yet all these Israeli concessions already seem stale, deceptive, possibly futile. Begin has himself cut down the possibilities for peace by stalling so many months. According to the reports of many journalists,4 the Egyptian public is solidly in favor of peace, a sentiment confirmed by the huge vote for Sadat in his referendum of April 19. But as the more skeptical students who were interviewed pointed out, the word peace has now become a euphemism for inflated economic hopes. Most Egyptians resent the feeling of being cut off from an “Arab world” of which they consider themselves the center. And although tens of thousands of Egyptians continue to work in the Persian Gulf, the rest of the Arab world is now diplomatically lined up against Egypt, committed to the sanctions voted at the second Baghdad conference in late March. Egypt has even been expelled from OPEC.

The Saudis have broken diplomatic relations with Egypt but are unlikely to cut off covert aid to Egypt or, more important, to withdraw an estimated two billion dollars in deposits from Egyptian banks. The Saudi royal family’s political and economic connections to American oil concerns and Western banks have become stronger with the growth of its oil revenues,5 and it will not—in spite of the tendency of the national guard’s Prince Abdullah to flirt with the Soviets—bring the Western economies down on its head. It is doubtful that the Saudi leaders will want to antagonize Senator Church further and thus risk losing the expected delivery of seventy-five F-15s. But the Saudis also have a stake in “Arab unity”: they think, and with some reason, they are vulnerable to pro-Soviet radicals in South Yemen and Iraqis in the north and they cannot afford to live under the kind of military threat posed by Nasser during the 1950s and 1960s. They can punish Sadat by remaining aloof and punish the rest of us, including President Carter, by yielding a few more percentage points to the demands of the OPEC price hawks. The recent 9 percent rise in the price of crude oil was a signal that they resent Sadat’s “independent” course (quite aside from their desire to show they have a heavy interest in Jerusalem).

A year ago the Saudis would not have had to worry about pressure on them to close ranks against Sadat. But as the negotiations dragged on, Syria and Iraq have had time to make a spectacular reconciliation—a Ba’athist “sulkh” motivated by Sadat’s threat to deny them the advantages of joint war making. In these circumstances King Hussein could not remain neutral. He has decisively joined with Syria in opposing the Camp David agreements—from which, as Begin’s statements have implied, he would get nothing but the honor of policing the Palestinians for five years.6 Hussein has even been mending his fences with Arafat and has promised joint action with the PLO in organizing West Bank resistance. Moreover, it seems unlikely that Jordanian security officials could have been unaware that Fatah was attacking across the Jordanian border near Kibbutz Tirat Tzevi in mid-April. (The attackers were killed by Israeli soldiers.)

For Israelis, the most ominous result of their government’s faltering has been the recovery of the PLO. With Syria and Iraq working together, their clients in the PLO are much more unified than before. Arafat’s Fatah seems, paradoxically, much weaker in the face of the power which can now be arrayed against it—hence the failure of Fatah to organize a national government in exile under its own leadership at Damascus this winter. But Arafat presides over a much stronger PLO organization, and his personal prestige was sharply increased this winter by his connection with Iran’s Khomeini. For the first time since the Lebanon debacle, Arafat now has some leverage independent of Syria: by leading the fight against Sadat he can appear as the unifier of pan-Arab, pan-Islamic, and Palestinian interests.

As for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, they have responded enthusiastically to the PLO’s apparent rehabilitation. Mayors, professional associations, professors and students, labor unions, bureaucrats—they are all more organized and united than at any time since 1967 under the exclusive influence of pro-PLO politicians such as Mayor Faid Kawassme of Hebron and Karim Khalaf of Ramallah. The West Bank and Gaza were shut down tight in protest on the day the treaty was signed and there has been a marked rise in terrorist activity around Jerusalem and elsewhere in Israel. Even the old supporters of Hussein, e.g., Mayor Freij of Bethlehem and Anwar Nuseibeh of Jerusalem, have been sharply critical of plans for autonomy, notwithstanding the large offers made to them by such American diplomats as Harold Saunders. The prestigious, hitherto independent mayor of Gaza city, Rashad-a-Shawa, is planning to visit Arafat in Beirut presumably to coordinate plans in view of Sadat’s intention to establish autonomy in the Gaza strip.

Shawa, apparently with the PLO’s blessing, has nevertheless suggested that autonomy might be acceptable to him if it could become a demonstrated step to a Palestinian state as the Egyptians adamantly claim. Farouk Kaddumi, head of the PLO’s political department, has publicly taken the same line since November when, at the first Baghdad Conference, even the most strident Arab rejectionists joined for the first time with Saudis and the Jordanians in calling for a negotiated settlement under UN auspices. General Peled, who regularly takes part in exchanges of views with Fatah leaders, now believes that if negotiations between Israel and Egypt produce autonomy proposals consistent with those of Peled’s Sheli Party, Fatah will join these negotiations. The Sheli Party resolution to the Knesset called for a suspension of Jewish settlements and “full” Palestinian control over internal affairs, land, and other resources leading to an independent Palestinian state after five years.

General Peled’s speculations may be optimistic. PLO terror continues unabated; and it is hard to forget that the PLO, when it had Sadat’s invitation to negotiate with Israelis at Cairo in January 1978, refused to accept it. But every Palestinian sees the suspension of Jewish settlement as the real test of Israeli and American intentions. Without it, they will oppose “autonomy” as if it were a prelude not to Palestinian independence but to Israeli annexation.


It is precisely on the crucial question of Israelis settling the West Bank that Begin’s ideology and record are most vulnerable. While he procrastinated diplomatically, producing no concrete diplomatic advantages and many disadvantages, Begin’s government has been fencing off thousands of dunams of Arab land and tripling the number of Jewish settlers: from 2,000 in the summer of 1977 to 6,000 today. These are not large amounts of land but the settlers are fanatic and well-armed. They think they are “Zionist” pioneers and have begun to treat Begin as if he were a representative of the British mandatory government. Not that Begin has ever even hinted that he personally would want to give up claims to sovereignty over the West Bank or allow the status of these Jewish settlements to be compromised. Last November I heard him tell a meeting of his hard-line Herut faction of the Likud that he would bring the negotiations on autonomy to a standstill if Herut’s positions were to be challenged. On April 22, his government approved two new settlements between Ramallah and Nablus.

Moreover, the military government has now established civilian regional councils for the Jewish settlements, an evident prelude to some Israeli claim of sovereignty over at least part of the territory. Most provocative and discouraging of all, the director-general of the prime minister’s office, Eliyahu Ben-Elissar, has prepared plans for autonomy under which Israel would keep exclusive control of (1) the West Bank’s water table, (2) its “state” lands—i.e., common lands farmed by Arab peasants which, before 1967, had been registered in the name of the King, (3) its communications and roads, and (4) public order. Finally, Israel will control immigration into the West Bank and Gaza. Palestinian Arab residents, according to this plan, will have autonomy over their persons but not over their resources. According to Davar’s thoughtful West Bank correspondent Daniel Rubinstein, this much autonomy would be substantially less than that currently enjoyed under the military government.

Still the settlers denouncing Begin could be right in suspecting that he may now be much closer to serious peace-making on the Palestinian question than ever before. He may be closer as well to suspending Jewish settlements as a first step as negotiations approach with Egypt over autonomy. As the dovish journalist and Sheli Party Knesset member Uri Avnery put it recently, the really important fight is now between Begin and himself. All the reasons Begin had had for coming this far—who could imagine him agreeing to return the whole Sinai and dismantle settlements if he were still in opposition?—are stronger now that the treaty is signed.

It is true that some of Begin’s faltering over the past sixteen months may be attributed to his need to placate the outspoken hawks in the Likud who are outside his own Herut faction—Ariel Sharon and Yigal Horowitz—and what might be called Scripture-hawks in the National Religious Party—particularly Zevulun Hammer and Yehuda Benmeir. But Begin’s internal difficulties with the allies in his coalition have been greatly exaggerated in the Western press.7 Begin is the first among unequals in his cabinet. His reputation as a hard-liner ever since he commanded the Irgun, combined with the similar reputations of Foreign Minister Dayan and Defense Minister Ezer Weizman, has been more than adequate to isolate and discredit his hawkish critics in the Knesset and outside. The physicist Yuval Neeman, who implacably opposes any compromise with Arabs, is now trying to organize an “anti-defeatist” political party against Begin and has met with little success. As I wrote after Begin’s election,8 the public would tend to trust any government he heads to recognize an American ultimatum when it sees one, and he would be in a far stronger position to compromise than was Rabin’s government.

Furthermore, Begin’s electoral backing for signing the treaty with Egypt and for continuing to go along with Carter is at least double his potential opposition. Polls show consistently that at least 65 to 70 percent of Israelis generally trust the US, consider its support indispensable, and think Sadat sincerely wants peace.9 More significantly, the same number say the occupied lands are invaluable only for strategic—not for religious and “Zionist”—reasons. They oppose settlements which seem an obstacle to peacemaking, oppose transferring Israeli government offices to Arab East Jerusalem. In view of these opinions, their overwhelming opposition to a Palestinian state seems to me largely a reflex reaction to PLO terror and what they see as the danger of its being installed officially next door, and not a matter of principle.

By contrast, only 15 to 20 percent declare that they support annexationist policies—more civilian settlements, more “territorial depth.” Most of these voters support the NRP which, for all its bluster, has no alternative to Begin since it stands to lose so much in opposition, e.g., the rabbinical prerogatives in administering marriage, divorce, dietary laws. Moreover, the NRP is itself divided. Four of its twelve members of the Knesset are doves and a small but increasing number of the rank and file subscribe to the “Power and Peace” (Oz V’Shalom) faction headed by David Glass. Glass told me that this group would leave the NRP if the latter chose settlements over peace. On the other hand, the NRP’s youth organization, the Bni Akiva, has threatened to leave the party in the event of an opposite decision. The Machiavellian “old guard,” headed by Interior Minister Joseph Burg, is anxious about such a split but more anxious to control the ambitions of religious hawks like Zevulun Hammer and Yehuda Ben-Meir. That is why the recent appointments of such a fixer as Burg to handle the West Bank and Gaza autonomy negotiations is not quite as dismal as it seems, but points to Begin’s determination to avoid clearcut commitments on autonomy at this stage.

Other sources of political opposition to further concessions came from the old right-wing Labor pioneers in the Moshav movement and the Achdut Ha’avodah party. They persist in the once plausible and now obsolete identification of settlements with security. These are a rather small group of highly political men and women (e.g., Amos Hadar, Shoshana Arbel-Elmosnino, Israel Galili) whose sons and daughters settled on the Golan, in North Sinai and the Jordan Valley under the regime of Golda Meir and Dayan. They believed that, like their grandparents under the Turks, they were securing the frontiers of Jewish society. Now Dayan has himself renounced such anachronistic reasoning, as he had to when he voted along with the ninety-four others to withdraw from the so-called Rafiah settlements in the Sinai. But the forces of Israel’s “agrarian reaction,” as Amos Elon put it, have refused to accept Dayan’s about-face. They fear that as agricultural “pioneering” is further discredited they will be engulfed in what they see as the hedonist, materialist, urbanizing trends of modern Israeli society. Begin, it must be said, is not at all beholden to these Laborites who now accuse him of abandoning settlements “he never built”; he has had a cultivated revisionist contempt for them most of his life.

By far the most serious political problem for Begin comes from his own Herut faction, from his old Irgun cronies such as Ya’acov Meridor, Haim Landau, and Knesset Speaker Itzhak Shamir or from younger intransigents—Begin’s own bright young men—such as Moshe Arens, the Knesset foreign affairs and security chairman, and M.K. Yigal Cohen-Orgad. These men cannot challenge Begin’s control of Herut; but they can nudge him toward making guilty proclamations of loyalty to Eretz Yisrael and to “Jabotinsky’s thought.” They are currently trying to get him to fire Dayan, whom they view as the engineer of Begin’s concessions. Worse, they can embarrass him into “standing up” to the Americans and going easy on the hysterical young Israelis who are insisting on settling on the West Bank. This dogmatic group of Herut leaders could ruin Begin’s confidence in the process to which he has made himself hostage. They could provoke that cynical, petulant sense of impotence with which he defies—and helps to create—a world turned against the Jews.

Indeed the tightly organized groups around Gush Emunim (“Bloc of the Faithful”)10 have become the most formidable challenge to Begin partly because they have so much backing in his own party. These “faithful” groups have been pressing Begin to let them settle further in “Judea and Samaria.” Their allies in the government, in violation of official decisions, have funneled both money and supplies to them in the field. As the minister for agriculture in charge of settlement, Ariel Sharon has been particularly irresponsible in encouraging this irregular financing. And Sharon has grandly promised Gush Emunim that Begin’s government will approve a huge expansion of West Bank settlements, housing over 60,000 new settlers, over the next five years, at a cost of 600 million pounds, or about $27 million.

Even more ominous, the Gush Emunim settlers have now committed themselves to armed resistance. Led by a vigilante lawyer, Elyakim Ha’etzni, Gush settlements are organizing “patrols” to “keep order” in Arab towns. When they decide that the army is not acting quickly enough, they intend to use force to stop Arab demonstrations, clear roads, etc. Armed settlers from “Ofra” near Ramallah are generally suspected of firing the shots that killed two Palestinian high school students in Halhul—in self-defense, so it is claimed. But such actions—if they are not stopped now—could develop into a kind of vigilante terror sure to sour Israeli-Palestinian relations even further. This, the settlers feel, would be to their advantage.

If peacemaking is to move to some more constructive stage, Begin’s government must act decisively against these groups and suspend Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Even if “autonomy” is never instituted, the Israeli government could only hope to keep the Egyptians and Palestinians open to some other more realistic plan—assuming one could be found—if it curbed the proponents of this absurd expansionism. It will certainly not be easy for Begin to do so given his own views of Judea and Samaria. His old revisionist strategy for rehabilitating the Jews always aimed to retrieve the culture of those presumably more elegant and martial Biblical Jews who lived in this “Promised Land” until the first century. He has already made a secret promise to the NRP and Sharon that he will permit new settlements in the near future. Insiders in the Herut party have told me that he signed a commitment to them to resign if he departs from Ben-Elissar’s principles on Palestinian autonomy.

But Begin’s coalition now has a much strengthened peace faction as well. He knows he will defy it at his peril. The Camp David agreements have sharply focused the available diplomatic choices. There is now one and only one peace agenda to which the Americans and Egyptians can practically agree. Israeli leaders can choose only to go along with it—with all its implications for the Palestinian question—or not; and Begin’s four senior ministers have chosen to go along.

Moshe Dayan believes that he has rehabilitated his name with this treaty; he has given notice to Begin that he will not tolerate actions which jeopardize it. It is generally acknowledged that Dayan exerted subtle but decisive pressure on Begin to come to terms with Sadat at Camp David and after. Begin has maneuvered the autonomy negotiations out of Dayan’s hands, but he cannot hope to keep Dayan in the cabinet indefinitely under such conditions. Dayan is now publicly warning Gush Emunim not to play “catch as catch can” in the occupied territories. 11 What is more, he has been saying that the precedent of Sinai can apply in the Golan.

Ezer Weizman, who threatened to resign if President Carter should leave Jerusalem empty-handed, seems even more committed to this peacemaking than Dayan. He has unambiguously emerged as its most forward-looking and eloquent proponent. As minister of defense, he runs the occupation. He has, like Dayan, pointedly cautioned West Bank settlers against further squatting and vigilantism and, unlike any Labor defense minister, has been willing to use the army against them in the past to enforce government decisions.

Begin’s third senior minister to back Camp David is Yigael Yadin, the deputy prime minister. He had Begin sign a coalition agreement in late 1978 to the effect that every new settlement proposed by the government would have to be endorsed by the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Security Committee. There, in spite of its chairman, the hard-liners are outnumbered. Gush Emunim will not have its way in the face of the combined objections of these ministers. Its proposed “cornerstone laying ceremonies” at ten new sites on the West Bank during Passover were canceled by order of the military government. Weizman is generally believed to have given this order.

Not that these ministers have as much electoral weight as the NRP and Herut. Dayan has no party. Weizman is still widely considered within the Likud to be rather shallow and reckless. Yadin leads only the hollowed-out remains of the Democratic Movement for Change—the half in which the old Herut maverick, Justice Minister Shmuel Tamir, has emerged as the strong man. The other half, led by the liberal lawyer Amnon Rubinstein, has gone into opposition. Nevertheless, Begin knows that unlike the NRP, these ministers, especially Weizman, are popular among the large educated middle class in Israel. He can reshuffle his Cabinet, but the three ministers could make common cause with the Labor opposition and those to its left.

The Labor Party was unable or unwilling to withdraw from the northern Sinai settlements. It would probably not have been able to bring Israel to a peace treaty with Egypt. But, unlike Begin, most of the Labor leaders have conceded that Israel’s cultural borders should correspond to its political ones: they are very wary of Jewish settlement in the heart of Arab populations and are currently calling for some “territorial compromise” on the West Bank which does not compromise the security of Israel’s own urban heartlands.

Shimon Peres, Dayan’s old ally, now presides over a party which, he knows, is much more sympathetic to Palestinian nationalism than in the past—two of Labor’s chief organizers, Uzi Baram and Yossi Sarid, have become enthusiastic supporters of “Peace Now” (Shalom Achshav)—and certainly more so than the Likud. He has himself revived the “Yariv-Shemtov Formula” which supports negotiations with any authoritative Palestinian group prepared to employ peaceful methods and recognize Israel. Moreover, since Hussein and Arafat have had an apparent rapprochement, the traditional Labor policy of solving the Palestinian problem through a “Palestinian-Jordanian state” may now be less wistful than in the past. Of course a Fatah-Jordan negotiating partner is not what Labor leaders had in mind, but just such a partnership—i.e., between PLO moderates and Hussein—might enhance the prospects for a largely demilitarized West Bank in the event of Israeli withdrawal from it. In any event, Begin has broken some taboos of his own. It may have occurred to him that Labor’s traditionally more dovish policies are consistent with the peace expectations he has himself encouraged.

The polls would confirm such speculations. It is possible that the Likud would now win reelection as the Nobel Prize-winning party of peace. Mina Zemach, the only pollster to predict Begin’s victory in 1977, now shows Likud winning forty-four seats to Labor’s forty-one. But whenever Begin’s ability to continue making peace is in doubt, especially if he is suspected of sacrificing peace to “ideological” considerations, the party’s popularity plunges. The Zemach poll showed Labor with forty-five seats to Likud’s thirty-five during Begin’s make-or-break trip to Washington this March. At any rate, the Labor Secretary Chaim Bar-Lev is now confident enough to announce that Labor is eager for an early election.

But Likud’s “annexationism” aside, Begin’s greatest weakness is in Israel’s economy. Likud came to power mainly because Labor had been viewed as high-handed and corrupt by Israel’s largely Sephardic wage-earners and its largely Ashkenazic intelligentsia. Since then Likud’s finance minister, Simcha Ehrlich, has brought in “liberalizing” measures which have only strengthened Israel’s “black-money” underground economy.12 Tax evasion, once a problem, now is felt to be a plague. Some 80 billion Israeli pounds are, according to Begin’s own energy minister, in circulation among Israel’s 100,000 or so independent businessmen. Of these, 34,000 are not even keeping books. Perhaps half of Israel’s inflation, now running between 60 and 70 percent, is caused by the huge amounts of undeclared money in comparatively few hands, pulling up prices of consumer goods, furniture, and clothes, and especially apartments.

A two-bedroom flat in Jerusalem now costs about a million and a quarter pounds, while the average wage is about 6,000 pounds a month. Middle-class life has already become an advantage that wage-earning parents cannot hope to pass on to their children. This is the reason for the high rates of emigration and also, alas, for the enthusiasm among young Jerusalem couples for subsidized housing in occupied territory around the city. Instead of getting the state to act against tax evasion, Ehrlich has relaxed controls on foreign currency. The result is a heavy influx of dollars that keep the Israeli pound much too high with respect to world currencies. This has put enormous pressure on Israel’s exporters and may lead to a recession in the country’s most productive industries.

Ehrlich has also cut the budget, mainly by cutting subsidies for essential foods. But since so much black money is, like government capital subsidies to banks and bureaucracies, invested, sometimes anonymously, in government bonds linked to the cost-of-living index, these painful cuts in workers’ living standards have done little to curb inflation but have redistributed income to groups whose problem is, literally, too much money. Nor are Israel’s million or so often striking workers impressed by Ehrlich’s offer to convert black money into white with a puny 35 percent tax. The polls reveal that many salaried workers are now more impressed with Labor’s social-democratic promises, in spite of their lingering suspicions about Labor’s ability to deliver on them. The Histadrut managed to organize an impressive demonstration—150,000 workers—against Ehrlich’s policies in Tel Aviv and Haifa.

Ehrlich has understandably also made himself a champion of the “peace process.” He has been making up part of the deficits in the government’s budget, burdened also by huge outlays on defense, with American money. He is afraid to lose the small capitalist constituency of his Liberal faction by fighting tax evasion seriously, and is even more afraid of losing up to two billion dollars a year in American aid and preferred loans in a squabble over West Bank settlements. Ehrlich is anticipating, not without justification, some economic gains if a stable peace with Egypt can be achieved: revenues for Israeli technical experts, new markets, etc. On the other hand, he knows Israel is economically unprepared for a new state of siege without help from the American dole.

Nor can Begin presume that Washington’s Israel lobby will successfully bring pressure on Carter and Congress to be openhanded if Israel insists on an annexationist settlements policy. Polls show that only 30 percent of the US electorate favor an increase in economic aid to Israel and 73 percent would oppose increased military aid. Carter knows the voters may wonder why the federal government will do for defiant Israel what it will not do for Cleveland. There is also substantial opposition in the Democratic Party to new West Bank settlements—from politicians as different and as powerful as George Ball and Senator Ribicoff—and American Jews have little influence outside the Democratic Party. Arthur Hertzberg, past president of the American Jewish Congress, told me in Jerusalem that American Jewish leaders, while publicly loyal to Begin, have been unusually circumspect about accepting permanent occupation.13

Finally, should Begin decide to suspend settlements he will also enjoy the support of a much larger popular movement than the one that can be marshaled against him. “Peace Now” has grown beyond the protest led by 350 reserve officers. It can probably count on the more than 100,000 people who took to the streets before Camp David. Its platform opposing new settlements has been endorsed by scores of well-known professors, professionals, and pop stars, twenty-five members of the Knesset, and most political writers in the daily press. Moreover, the movement’s nominal leader, Dedi Zucker, assured me that his movement will be particularly vigilant against Gush Emunim’s squatter settlements in the coming months, and may even attempt to block the new settlements in the West Bank physically.

It would be wrong to underestimate the influence of the “Peace Now” movement in the Cabinet. Sources close to Defense Minister Weizman have revealed hat he and Begin are greatly concerned about the army’s morale. They are anxious not to risk forcing it into a battle which so many key officers will consider to have been avoidable. Nor does Weizman, an air force pilot by training and in spirit, relish the IDF becoming an occupation police.

Israel’s growing peace forces have been notably civil toward Begin now that he has signed the treaty, but their message to him is that they consider the Israel-Egypt treaty as a good deed with a future. Israelis are tired of their claustrophobic history and now have something very precious to lose. More than anyone else, Sadat seems to have understood this, agreeing to “open borders” immediately and giving free rein to Israeli journalists in Cairo. Begin, still trying to live down his terrorist past, is not eager to be the one to squander this much progress.

But Sadat will be undone if President Carter does not act quickly to dispel the appearance that this is a separate peace that gives Begin a free hand in the West Bank, while the Palestinian residents there are left with no choice except opposition under the PLO’s direction. Of course, any long-term effort to reconcile Israeli security with Palestinian nationalism will not be easy: both peoples now share an integrated economy,14 an ecology, a water supply, and a rather small territory with an interdependent system of roads and communications. They also share deep suspicions of each other’s designs on Jerusalem. Moreover, the PLO and Israel—or Israel’s client, Lebanese Major Said Haddad—clash daily in southern Lebanon. So it is difficult to take a first step toward peace without being able to see five steps beyond: e.g., Israelis ask if they should gamble with control of the common water resources under Israeli and West Bank hills while the abundant waters of the Nile and the Litani River in Lebanon seem out of reach to them without a comprehensive peace.

The answer can only be that, without such a gamble, comprehensive peace itself will be out of reach and this, like a consolidated peace with Egypt, is more crucial to Israel’s future than anything else. Moreover, it is not much of a gamble to suspend settlements and challenge the Palestinians to renounce terror and accept UN resolution 242, as the US demands, in return for negotiations. But even if the PLO is not ready for peace, stopping settlements could clear the way for an attempt by Dayan to court the Syrians in the manner he used to court the Egyptians prior to November 1977. Dayan’s public suggestion on April 17 that the Golan may be traded for peace would seem to hint at just this kind of initiative. A suspension of settlement will also keep West Bank settlers and their opponents off balance and more convinced that US pressure on behalf of Palestinian “rights” cannot be disregarded by Begin. Presidential primaries or not, it is squarely up to President Carter to keep these possibilities alive.

Make no mistake. Menachem Begin is fanatically committed to a unified Eretz Yisrael. But realities, imposed with some skill by President Carter, have maneuvered him into being magnanimous in the recent past. Jabotinsky, Begin’s mentor, for all his emphasis on aggressive militarism, also talked of the Jews attaining a state of mind, or comportment, he called hadar—suggesting control, conscious grace, noblesse oblige. If Begin is capable of this virtue, its time has come.—Jerusalem, April 25


Who Crushed Fatah? November 22, 1979

  1. 1

    Eric Rouleau recalls in Le Monde, March 27, 1979, how close Sadat had come to eclipsing the PLO in November 1977.

  2. 2

    Israeli withdrawal from North Sinai is taken as a precedent not only by Arab parties but also by President Carter. In his carefully worded response to King Hussein’s “14 Queries,” Carter reiterated that Jewish civilian settlements in the West Bank are a violation of the Geneva Convention (Ma’ariv, April 17, 1979).

  3. 3

    Israeli settlement of the West Bank has contributed to nationalist feelings among Israeli Arabs by implying that the 1949 borders are not final: irredentist claims cut both ways. Moreover, the resources (approximately three billion dollars) spent settling occupied territory were not spent on settling Northern Galilee, where Arabs are now a strong majority.

  4. 4

    For example, Israel television journalists Rafik Halibi and Ehud Yaari conducted an extensive series of interviews during Begin’s visit. See also Amos Elon’s report, Ha’aretz, April 11.

  5. 5

    See Fred Gottheil’s “The Manufacture of Saudi Power,” Middle East Review, Fall 1978.

  6. 6

    Anthony Lewis’s report on Crown Prince Hasan’s criticism of the agreements appeared in Ha’aretz, April 23, 1979.

  7. 7

    Even a hardheaded observer like George Ball has been wide of the mark on this point; Ha’aretz, April 8, 1979.

  8. 8

    New York Review, June 23, 1977.

  9. 9

    See, for example, Yedioth Aharonoth, November 10, 1978 and April 13, 1979.

  10. 10

    See Arthur H. Samuelson’s forthcoming piece on the Gush in Harper’s; I discussed their activities and ideology before on these pages, New York Review, October 30, 1975.

  11. 11

    Yedioth Aharonoth, March 31, 1979.

  12. 12

    See my election report, New York Review, June 23, 1977.

  13. 13

    NBC poll, March 29, 1979. See Hertzberg’s article in Ha’aretz, March 16, 1979.

  14. 14

    Just how far the West Bank economy has been integrated with Israel’s is summarized by Brian van Arkadie, Benefits and Burdens, a report of the Carnegie Foundation, 1977.