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Zionists & Palestinians

In response to:

West Bank Blues from the June 12, 1980 issue

To the Editors:

Terence Smith’s review of the books by Professor Harkabi and by Edward Said [NYR, June 12] was misleading on several points. Smith identifies Harkabi as a semi-official scholar who made his reputation by taking Arab threats literally, and who thus appeared to have been correct when the October war broke out in 1973. But following that war Harkabi’s critics pointed out that the “security borders” his views entailed hadn’t worked, while the allegedly implacable Sadat seemed open to compromise. Harkabi courageously reversed himself at that time and called on Golda Meir’s government to pursue Sadat’s overtures. Thereafter he endorsed negotiations with the Palestinians (as I reported in the NYR, June 13, 1974), became a bitter critic of the Begin government, a supporter of Peace Now and recently, as Smith points out, of a Palestinian state. So Harkabi’s reputation during the 1970s cannot help to explain his current reservations about the PLO and its covenant.

Smith should have been more careful in examining Said’s claims against Zionism. Smith makes much of a quotation from Herzl’s diaries of 1895 in which Herzl imagined “spiriting the penniless Arabs across the border.” But Smith should know that the Arab population increased during the period of Zionist settlement following World War I and that no Arabs became refugees until after partition was rejected and the 1948 war began. The Jewish settlers had in fact aimed to build Hebrew-speaking farms and villages, in which they would do their own manual labor. Even Said recognizes that the settlements were meant to prepare the way for a Jewish majority that would take several generations to emerge. It is true that Palestinian Arabs resented the ways by which the settlers transformed Palestine’s cultural landscape and everywhere encroached upon Arab communities; and certainly most Zionists were not sensitive to Arab anxieties. But Zionist leaders assumed with reason that to have colonialist relations with the Arabs would be worse.

Nor can one seriously maintain that Weizmann’s ideas “illustrate the nearly total disregard” of the Jewish immigrants for the native population. While presiding over the Zionist movement Weizmann successfully urged several political compromises with the Arabs which the latter rejected, at times violently. During the Arab revolt of 1936 he demanded that the Jewish settlers follow a policy of disciplined restraint (Havlagah) and for the most part they did. Weizmann, by the way, took over the leadership of the Zionist movement after he led a revolt against Herzl’s influence. The two men should not be casually linked in any review of the Zionist record.

Bernard Avishai

Cambridge, Massachusetts

Terence Smith replies:

The evolution in Harkabi’s thinking since 1973, described by Bernard Avishai, does not alter my basic point: Harkabi’s book must be read in light of the fact that he has built a career as an analyst on the premise that Arab leaders mean what they say. In an era when others in Israel tended to dismiss Sadat’s threats of renewed hostilities as empty bombast, Harkabi took them literally and was borne out by the Egyptian attack across the Suez Canal. The fact that his proposed “security borders” proved unworkable and that Sadat changed his tactics after the war is irrelevant. Harkabi’s literal approach is once again at work in his strict reading of the PLO covenant—perhaps this time to a fault. By focusing exclusively on the Covenant and dismissing the public suggestions of possible compromise from Arafat and others, Harkabi runs the risk, in my view, of missing the forest for the trees. He may be in the position of interpreting the covenant more literally than its authors.

As for the attitudes of the early Zionists towards the Arabs of Palestine, Avishai makes Edward Said’s point for him when he notes that the settlers “…everywhere encroached upon Arab communities; and certainly most Zionists were not sensitive to Arab anxieties.” The notion that colonialism would have been worse is cold comfort for Mr. Said and his circle.

It is Said, not I, who lumps Weizmann in with other Zionist leaders in their attitude towards the native Palestinians. It is true that Weizmann advocated a more conciliatory approach towards the Arabs of the area—a reflection of his more moderate negotiating tactics with Britain—but this does not soften Said’s view of him. Said, in fact, devotes several pages to quotes from Weizmann’s early writings to demonstrate that he shared the disdain of the early pioneers for their new neighbors. (“The effendi,” Weizmann wrote in one passage selected by Said, “is dishonest, uneducated, greedy, and as unpatriotic as he is inefficient.”) Weizmann was succeeded as leader of the Zionist movement, of course, by Ben Gurion, who has admitted in his own writings his “astonishment” on arrival in Palestine when he discovered that Arabs lived there! Ben Gurion’s way of coping with this surprise was to studiously ignore the Palestinians, as Amos Elon has pointed out in his work. In so doing, he set the tone for a whole generation of Israeli leaders up to, and most definitely including, Golda Meir and Menachem Begin.

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