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Reagan and the “New” Israel

In response to:

The Victory of the New Israel from the August 13, 1981 issue

To the Editors:

Bernard Avishai’s concept of Israel’s future [NYR, August 13] seems to equate labor socialism with Zionism and partition with peace. Since the Tehiya party is fighting to free Israel of bankrupt bureaucratic socialism and attempts to buy peace by giving away land needed for security, it is not surprising that Tehiya is anathema to Avishai. But that doesn’t justify his asserting that Tehiya has put forward no new social programs or dismissing Dr. Yuval Ne’eman as “Dr. Strangelove”—a real cheap shot.

To set the record straight, Dr. Ne’eman has a long and distinguished career as an international-class scientist, an expert historian, a military leader, and an educator who has served as the president of Tel Aviv University. As chairman of the Mediterranean-Dead Sea Canal Committee Ne’eman has lead the now approved 110-kilometer canal that will supply critically needed hydroelectric power while also providing other benefits. Tehiya’s social program rather than being nonexistent as suggested in Avishai’s August 13th article, calls for dramatic new programs of energy development and urbanization along an east-west rather than a coastal axis. Tehiya’s programs would develop public infrastructure, alter existing tax policies, and lighten the heavy hand of bureaucratic socialism so as to create an environment within which innovational entrepreneurs can prosper and induce economic growth. One of their primary objectives is to provide Israel’s youth with a viable economic alternative to emigration. Their objection to the Camp David accord is not, as Avishai implies, a hollow campaign claim, but the results of recognizing the economic costs associated with giving up Israel’s oil supply and the military danger of restricting settlement to a narrow corridor along the Mediterranean within easy range of Arab weaponry.

Avishai’s view of Reagan’s Republican administration is equally cynical and contemptuous. He contends that Reagan will not allow Israel to expand settlements in Samaria and Judea because that would endanger the revenues of American industries such as Bechtel, the former employer of Casper Weinberger and George Shultz. Bechtel also makes transit systems; they were the builders of the San Francisco Bay Area’s BART system, but that hasn’t kept Reagan from dramatically cutting back capital grants for transit systems. Both the current leadership of the Republican party here and the Tehiya party in Israel have rejected the economic and social ideologies of the 1930s. What they offer is economic growth rather than redistribution, and defense capability rather than peace through appeasement. Their views are attracting strong support from the youth of both countries who have seen the failures of the political and economic ideologies that Avishai’s article on “The Victory of the New Israel” treats as sacrosanct.

Claude Gruen

Nine Gruen

El Cerrito, California

Bernard Avishai replies:

I did not imply that labor socialism is Zionism, but that Labour Zionism was Zionism, the assumptions and practices of which are the keys to Israel’s history—not its future. To their credit, many rising young leaders of the Labour party—Yossi Sarid and others—now acknowledge that the Histadrut failed, inevitably, to sustain the Zionist revolution much beyond the founding of the Jewish state. They are proposing to consolidate that state along even more social democratic lines within its recognized borders. That groups such as Tehiya and Gush Emunim can wrap irridentist policies in the rhetoric of Labour Zionism’s pioneers—and convince so many young Israelis that Zionism now entails further displacement of Arabs by Jews—only underscores how important it is for democratic societies to retire the obsolete slogans of past revolutionary heroes.

Partition may not guarantee peace, and Israelis should seek to ensure that Israel’s defense forces will continue to have the strength to deter or defeat its enemies. On the other hand, Israeli moderates sensibly fear that the occupation will bring on an uprising of Palestinian youth, a war of attrition with Syria, and the destruction of the peace with Egypt after the Sinai withdrawal. It will also inspire, they believe, a growing animus toward Israel among American politicians and political writers, and further exacerbate Israel’s diplomatic isolation. Finally, they take partition (by which Israel might maintain a large Jewish majority) to be a precondition for the survival of Israeli democracy. And much as they are loath to see their government negotiate with the PLO, they are more horrified by the likelihood that more West Bank settlers will preclude negotiations of any kind.

So Tehiya’s promotion of settlement “along an east-west axis”—a euphemism for West Bank annexation, which we can credit, no doubt, to Dr. Ne’eman’s career as a nuclear physicist and weapons strategist—is not a social policy for Israel’s economically distressed youth so much as a doomsday formula for them. Defense Minister Sharon’s recent admission that he still thinks the problems of occupation can be solved by acquiescing in the PLO’s toppling of Hussein’s regime in Jordan will not make the parents of those young men and women more serene.

The Gruens’ criticism of “bureaucratic socialism” does not extend, remarkably, to government projects such as the hydroelectric canal which Ne’eman now “leads” (and, in fact, it was conceived—Herzl’s Altneuland aside—in a parliamentary committee chaired by the late Yigal Allon). Since it will affect Jordanian installations, the canal’s diplomatic consequences should not be so casually ignored. But the Gruens’ central claims concerning social policy seem to me even more pretentious.

The late Pinchas Sapir, the former Labour finance minister, needed no coaching from the Gruens to put faith in Israel’s “innovational entrepreneurs.” He virtually subsidized the country’s private sector and foreign investors from 1969 to 1975; and he and his successor, Yehoshua Rabinovitz, did little to combat consequent tax evasion, profiteering, and inflation. It was Sapir’s record for high-handedness and the corruptions of his laissezfaire system—hashita—which caused so many educated voters to turn from Labour to the promise of Yigal Yadin’s market reformist democratic “movement for change” in 1977. But rates of growth under Sapir and Rabinovitz were twice what they have been under the Likud. This is because a great many of Israel’s investors, upon whom Likud has depended even more than did Sapir, have been fueling Israel’s much higher new rates of inflation with speculative, short-term investments in real estate and tax-free stocks and bonds. They have also been as content to save foreign currency in Switzerland or the US as in Israel. None of the Gruens’ economic and social mentors—from the 1790s—would have confused economic growth with the fact that an apartment in Jerusalem costing 700,000 pounds in 1977 now goes for over 5.5 million.

I certainly did not imply that Tehiya’s objection to the Camp David accords was a hollow campaign claim. The willingness of Ne’eman and Geula Cohen to squander Sadat’s initiative in order to keep Sinai oil (which never, by the way, amounted to half of Israel’s requirements) has seemed all too earnest. And reasonable people may wonder how Tehiya’s purely hypothetical intention to settle more Jews outside the heavily in-dustrialized coastal plain along an “east-west axis”—and thus, in their view, closer to permanently hostile Arab borders—has anything at all to do with the Sinai, or would put fewer Israelis within the range of Arab weaponry.

Finally, the Gruens are right to presume that the Reagan administration’s Middle East policy is at present contradictory—AWACs for the Saudis, more F-16s for Israel. But I doubt it will remain so very long. Reagan and his advisers may admire Israel, and they may think the Israeli air force a strategic asset. But events in the area over the last eight years forced three American presidents to choose between the hope of a Pax Americana in the Persian Gulf abetted by Sadat and the Saudis, and the prospect of Greater Israel; this has been done in full knowledge that Egypt’s regime cannot be allowed to seem a failure to its élites, and that the Israeli government would have nowhere else to go for military and economic support in all events. A democratic president might fear the Jewish vote in New York, California, or Illinois. Republicans are not so concerned about that vote. And especially not Republicans who were themselves the managers of Sunbelt corporations such as Bechtel that have for years been working with the leaders of Arab oil states in rapidly expanding programs of oil production, military procurement and basing, and public utility construction. This is not just a passion for greater revenues; it is an attitude positively inclined to the very notions of “economic growth” and “defense capability” to which the Gruens would have us rally.

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