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The Turning Point in Israel

Suddenly the political skies cleared and relations between the two states became friendly again. Speaking to a Jewish audience in Washington, the American ambassador to Israel, Samuel Lewis, said that the settlements do not promote peace, but he added that greater obstacles are placed in the way by others, i.e., the Arabs. Officials in Washington have begun to distinguish between the “global interests” of the United States in the region and “the problem of the West Bank and Gaza,” which does not, they believe, pose an immediate threat to American interests. Annexation, they say, is a fait accompli in any case; while it damages Israel’s image as a liberal democracy and thus embarrasses the Americans, Israel is a pariah anyway. Reports on incidents in the territories do not further Israel’s international isolation, they claim, because it could hardly be more isolated. There is also the growing feeling that the West Bank is an internal Israeli problem.

Fatigue underlies all these arguments. The Americans are sick and tired of the conflict. They are behaving just as one does in private life: after one has tried to solve a problem without success, one persuades oneself that it actually isn’t important.

The United States will doubtless continue to show concern for the territories, as in President Reagan’s recent statements, but increasingly the issue of the settlements will become the province of do-gooders and bleeding hearts; that constituency which has been helpless to prevent mass murder in Central America will probably be even less effective with regard to a conflict where it is much harder to tell the good guys from the villains.

Anyone who looks forward to an imposed settlement, or who fears one, is waiting in vain. Given the present atmosphere in Washington, the odds that the Americans will act more firmly now than they have during the past sixteen years are extremely slim.

The Arab-Palestinian Factor

Whoever wishes to reckon the true power of what is called the “Arab world” and its willingness to act in behalf of the Palestinian cause should take a good look at the events of recent months: the reaction of the Arab states, including Syria and Libya, to the Palestinians’ appeals for help last summer when they were besieged in Beirut; the Arab states’ reluctance to accept the evacuees; their indifference to the fate of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon; their inability to agree upon any statement on any substantive issue, from the Reagan initiative to the Israeli-Lebanese agreement, or even on the war between Iran and Iraq. The weakness of the Arab world, the dimensions of which were revealed by Fouad Ajami years ago, reached an unprecedented low in 1983. Hidden behind the impressive facaAade of OPEC and its petro-dollars was a rather wretched reality, which was manifest to all when the petroleum cartel collapsed. Nonetheless there are those who stubbornly maintain the myth of Arab power, in order to use it for their own ends. Not least among them is the government of Israel.

Even in the glorious days of Nasser’s pan-Arabism, devotion to the Palestinian cause was a limited devotion. Everyone paid lip service but acted only when it suited the interests of the Arab regimes. Now, in addition to the weakness of the Arab world, we see only fatigue and a feeling of impotence in their reaction to the Palestinian problem. The Arab states took on responsibility for the fate of the Palestinians forty-five years ago when the Palestinian leadership collapsed after the failure of the Arab revolt of 1936-1939. Many Arabs now have the feeling, especially in the so-called “moderate” states, that they have done what they could, and that they can no longer afford to make sacrifices on the altar of the “Palestinian problem.” They continue to pay lip service, but they find justification for their indifference and fatigue in the extremist and ill-considered actions of the Palestinian leaders.

The acts of the PLO, with all its various factions, both before and after the war in Lebanon, can only be called self-destructive. That collective character trait is far from new, and it has frequently been manifest in the history of the Palestinian national movement. Trapped in the rejection of any short-term settlement if it contradicts their ultimate goal, convinced that one must not compromise on matters of principle in a just cause, the Palestinians have waged a hopeless life-or-death struggle with the Zionist movement. They were contemptuous of Zionism until it was too late. But even then they did not cease to believe that they would succeed in exterminating it by force, and thus they brought disaster down upon themselves.

That self-destructive trait was particularly conspicuous both before the Lebanese war and during it. The attempt by the PLO to develop an independent military force that it could use against Israel in southern Lebanon was hopeless from the start. The very attempt to create such a force endangered the active and powerful national center which had been developed in Beirut and which could exist only in Lebanon because of the particular conditions prevailing in that country. The provocation in southern Lebanon offered Begin and Sharon an excuse to attack the national center in Beirut, to scatter its activists to the four winds, and then to destroy their centers of research and thought. All the efforts that were invested in maintaining a people’s militia among the inhabitants of the refugee camps went down the drain. The PLO leaders had failed to inspire a popular uprising in the occupied territories during the Sixties and Seventies, and in similar fashion they also failed among the Palestinians in southern Lebanon. The loss of their headquarters in Beirut set the Palestinian people back twenty years and once again turned them into a flock of refugees, subject to the mastery of the states that give them asylum; serving as pawns in their hands.

After the tragedy in Beirut was over, the PLO could still have rescued the remnant of its political strength. The sympathy that the Palestinians won after the Israeli bombardments, and the United States’s remorse for its silent support of the war in Lebanon, produced the Reagan initiative, which was an opportunity to convert the military debacle into a political victory. However, the life ring offered to the PLO was rejected with the excuse that acceptance was impossible because of internal disagreement.

The somnambulant policies of the leaders of the PLO are expressed brutally in practically everything that happens in the occupied territories. The PLO refuses to realize that the annexation of the territories is approaching the point of no return. If it does not adopt realistic policies, it will lose not only the Palestinians’ land but also its inhabitants. Understanding the significance of the physical facts that have been created in the territories was the principal reason for King Hussein’s willingness to pursue the Reagan initiative. Those facts have not made the PLO budge from its position. When some moderates had the courage to warn against the impending disaster, they were either silenced or assassinated. The Palestinian population of the territories has been neutralized because both Israel and the PLO have joined forces to destroy any chance for the growth of local political leadership. The radicals managed to torpedo every attempt to adopt realistic positions. The violent clashes that have recently taken place between the nationalist students and the Muslim Brotherhood offer yet another sign of the feelings of frustration and lack of direction that reign in the territories, and the bloody skirmishes last summer between the Fatah factions in the Bekaa Valley complete the picture.

In mid-1983 the PLO’s relevance steadily decreased. Its leaders will continue to fly from country to country in their executive jets. The Arab states will continue to give the PLO heavy financial support. The PLO will also continue to be the darling of some radicals in Israel and many in the rest of the world; the Palestinian issue will not cease to be a shibboleth identifying individuals and groups with either the “reactionary” or the “radical” camps, and the debate whether the PLO has become more moderate and whether it should be recognized will continue; perhaps a new wave of international terror will begin, or perhaps, alternatively, the PLO will decide to change course and join the search for a political solution. However, none of these choices will exert much influence on events in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, on international politics, on relations between the superpowers, or on political developments within the region.

With all its factional quarrels, cut off from reality in its homeland, manipulated by the Arab regimes for their own ends, and trapped in its unrealistic conceptions, the PLO will have little influence on the course of events. Twice in their history the Palestinians made a heroic effort to wage war alone against their Zionist enemies: between 1936 and 1939 against both the British and the Jewish Yishuv and, in 1947, against the embryonic state. Both of those efforts ended in tragedy, after which they were forced to consign their fate to their “sister Arab states.” The third attempt, the Lebanese war, is apparently also the last.

The Palestinian national entity was defeated and has become a phantom. But that phantom will continue to pursue its victors and the whole world. Followers of the Jabotinsky-Begin ideology and those who admire Sharon and Eitan will discover, to their surprise, that phantoms can be more dangerous than physical beings. Shadows cannot be beaten with sticks. The phantoms will rise from their graves, and Palestinian nationalism, which some have tried to destroy physically and others have tried to destroy conceptually, will give no rest. Absolute victories of that magnitude were possible in other eras. Many ethnic and national groups have been repressed, scattered, and made to disappear, but during their prolonged struggle with Zionism the Palestinians have formed themselves into a solid mass which will not disintegrate. Close to the turn of the twenty-first century one cannot expect the enlightened world, as cynical as it may be, to reconcile itself to the disappearance of the Palestinian nation. Moreover, after they acquire more perspective on recent history, many Israelis will come to understand that notwithstanding the intransigence of the PLO the Palestinians were not scattered to the winds because they were wicked murderers, but for the simple and cruel reason that they stood in the way. The feeling among Israelis that this reason is simply not sufficient and that their victory was too great will increasingly come to haunt them.

The Dilemma

For all practical purposes the annexation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip now seems only a matter of time with or without Menachem Begin. Theoretically the process might be “reversible,” but a realistic estimate of the forces at work for annexation as against those that oppose it leads to the conclusion that for the foreseeable future all of Palestine will be ruled by an Israeli government; that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has therefore become an internal, ethnic conflict, and that Israel is now a dual society.

One difficulty in realizing that the present situation is virtually permanent is that there is no fixed definition of “annexation”. Indeed, no one is interested in finding one. Many believe that only the formal application of Israeli law to the territories—which has not yet taken place—would be a sure sign of annexation. But the prevailing laws that have been worked out by the Israelis show every sign of being permanent. Refraining from formally applying Israeli law is merely a smoke screen that serves the interests of both the advocates of annexation and their opponents. The advocates know that formal annexation would oblige them to deal with the question of the permanent status of the Palestinians; the opponents are interested in retaining the illusion of nonannexation since it allows them to cling to another illusion—that the options remain open. The indifferent majority couldn’t care less.

Defining the system in force in the territories is not, however, a theoretical matter. Misunderstanding the true significance of the situation could allow the development of a regime ominously similar to that of South Africa. The political realities of Palestine in the 1980s are reminiscent of what was called “Herrenvolk democracy.” In such a system the minority (sometimes even the majority) is disfranchised and deprived of basic civil rights; in contrast, the ruling group enjoys all the attributes of democracy. Such a system should not be confused with a dictatorship. On the contrary, the dominant ethnic group plays by all the rules of democratic freedom, but only that group can benefit from them. Israel annexed East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, for example, without automatically granting voting rights to their residents. Up to now it has been possible to justify this situation as part of a “military occupation” that temporarily deprives the occupied citizens of their political rights until the signing of a peace treaty. Now the “temporary” occupation merely camouflages the consolidation of a hierarchy of superiors and inferiors.

In just two years a generation of Israelis and Palestinians will come of age who were born after 1967. Those young people have only known the present reality. This new reality makes the traditional division between hawks and doves over the issue of the partition or integrity of Palestine an anachronism. Now, faced with the prospect of ruling over more than a million Arabs who will not have full democratic rights, both sides must offer realistic answers to a different question: is Israel to be a Jewish state or a democratic one?

That question, which was hypothetical until now, has become an immediate dilemma. The doves must contend with the situation against which they warned, but which they were powerless to prevent. The hawks must contend with the reality for which they worked while ignoring its unbearably heavy cost. In grappling with the new situation, hawks and doves might discover, to their surprise, that they are in the same camp. Some doves support territorial compromise not because of their liberal views but because they are afraid of the Arabs and are xenophobic. And more than a few hawks are seriously worried that the Zionist dream will become a nightmare which will destroy the character of the state.

The dilemmas that Israel faces in the post-Begin era are not limited to the political question of who is going to replace him or to debates about new policies, but are far more fundamental. They pose the deep question whether the entire Zionist conception, which became fossilized somewhere between 1936 and 1948, can be made to fit the reality that has now emerged. It seems to me that the institutional, party, educational, and symbolic systems of Israel must all be reevaluated. A new equilibrium between nationalistic objectives and humanistic values must be found. Zionism cannot escape the fate of other great liberating philosophies. Its failure to adjust to changing realities may turn it into a dark force.

This essay can be read a eulogy for the humanistic tradition in Israel. It can also be read as a plea for a new beginning.

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