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Israel: A Partial Indictment

The Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel and the Palestinians

by Noam Chomsky
South End Press, 481 pp., $10.00 (paper)

In his new book Noam Chomsky claims to describe and to assess the relations between the United States, Israel, and the Palestinians. But Chomsky’s “fateful triangle” has a rather bizarre shape: it is really a triangle with only one clearly visible side, the Israeli side. Most of his long book is about Israel’s behavior toward the Palestinians, which was literally highlighted by the Israeli flares over the Sabra and the Shatila camps. Indeed, Israel’s war in Lebanon, dubbed in Begin’s newspeak “Peace for Galilee,” is a main concern.

When he discusses the American side, Chomsky confines himself largely to Israel’s liberal “fellow travelers” in the US. Thus Alexander Haig is mentioned three times, whereas Irving Howe is mentioned thirteen times. The book in any case is not a political tract on a triad of relationships, but a fierce moral indictment of Israel, which is charged with grossly mistreating the Palestinians, while at the same time presenting itself through its American propagandists as an enlightened democracy. These propagandists are, for Chomsky, the kind of people that give hypocrisy a bad name.

Painful as it is for me to acknowledge it, we Israelis should, I believe, plead guilty to many of Chomsky’s charges. Not to the charges as he states them, but to something not altogether unlike them.

Take the case of the massacre at Khan Yunis in the Gaza Strip during the war of 1956, one of many unpublicized cases of Israeli brutality that Chomsky mentions. Israel was involved, according to the UN chief inspector, General E.L.M. Burns, in the massacre of at least 275 people. This number is cited by Chomsky although knowledgable Israeli sources I have talked to believe it is too high. What is missing from this account, however, is the fact that each of the persons who were shot was identified as a fedayeen (or terrorist, in Israel’s current jargon) according to lists compiled by Israeli intelligence before the killings. Execution without trial is evil, as is the mindless slaughter of innocents by Israelis at Deir-Yassin or by Phalangists at Sabra and Shatila. But it is a different sort of evil. Moreover, the military governor of Gaza at the time was Mattityahu Peled, and the battalion commander of Khan Yunis was Meir Pa’il, both prominent doves since the 1960s. Not that these two men had anything to do with the executions, but I suspect that had they been on Chomsky’s list of bad guys he would not have failed to mention their names. Fortunately they are, rightly I believe, on his list of good guys.

Chomsky’s indictment is highly detailed. Virtually no felony is missing, no misdeed left unaccounted for. And yet, though he finds Israel a sinful state, the clash between Israel and the Palestinians is in Chomsky’s eyes a conflict of “right against right.” He recalls that he has long held that the success of the official PLO rejectionist program would be “intolerable to civilized opinion.” He correctly observes that the Palestinians do not like the idea of the Jews having any rights in Palestine. Indeed, in a review of Chomsky’s book, Edward Said accuses him of “some inconsistency at the level of principle.”1 In Said’s account the inconsistency lies in his stating, on the one hand, that “Zionism has always excluded and discriminated against Arabs” and, on the other hand, that “Jews do have a communal right to settlement from abroad in Palestine.” To me there is no more contradiction here than in saying that a neighbor who is a bully has a right to a room of his own in the building, without of course having the right to bully his neighbors.

Said has another point to make concerning the rights of the Jews: “How can you formulate the right to move people into Palestine despite the wishes of all the already present native Palestinians, without at the same time implying and repeating the tragic cycle of violence and counter violence between the Palestinians and Jews?” This question has a nasty ring to it. Substitute “Britains” for “Palestinians” and “colored people” for “Jews” and you get just the kind of rhetorical question associated with Enoch Powell’s brand of racism.

Chomsky, however, obscures his own view of “right against right.” The resolution of the conflict, he claims, does not require a Palestinian recognition of Israel’s “legitimate right to exist.” This formula, he says, is not couched in the idiom of international relations and international law. Thus the US, for example, does not recognize “the legitimate right to exist” of the Soviet Union, especially not its conquest of the Baltic countries. Yet this does not prevent the US from recognizing the USSR in the only pertinent sense, namely that it is alive and kicking, or, in Chomsky’s terms, that it “exists and functions.” I find it surprising that Chomsky of all people should resort to such Realpolitik in his view of international relations. After all, this is exactly the position of many Israelis when they argue that Jordan “exists and functions” as a state, while “Palestine” does not have such status; so only Jordan is worthy of recognition. The language of “legitimate rights” is thus as important for the Palestinians as it is for the Israelis.

The justification for the demand of Israelis that the Palestinians recognize the legitimacy of the State of Israel is grounded in the fear of strong irredentist tendencies among the Palestinians. The Israelis worry that any solution based solely on recognition of Israel as an “existing and functioning” state, and not as an entity with a legitimate right to exist, would not be a stable solution. As soon as Israel were seen to have difficulties in “functioning,” its existence would become threatened. This precisely is what happened in May and June 1967, when an economic recession and a seemingly weak leadership combined to create a temptation for Nasser to undermine Israel’s existence.

Israel’s annexationists of course claim that Palestinian recognition of Israel’s right to exist would have no more than a ritualistic significance anyway. It would, they believe, be given for tactical purposes, and once its immediate aim—a Palestinian state—was achieved, Israel’s existence would be threatened again, with a vengeance. Those Israelis, on the other hand, who do value Palestinian recognition of Israel’s right to exist, argue that for a national movement to take the step of recognizing the “legitimacy” of the enemy is a cardinal ideological concession that cannot be given for tactical purposes only. According to them, precisely because it is so difficult for the Palestinians to recognize Israel it is important to insist upon it: therein lies the chance for a stable solution.

I don’t believe myself that the demand for the Palestinian recognition of Israel is “irrelevant.” I believe at the same time that there is a kernel of truth in Chomsky’s claim that the road toward solving the problems of the Middle East should begin with a political settlement and that real psychological and ideological conciliation could be expected only after such a settlement was worked out. Making psychological and ideological conciliation a necessary condition for any political settlement is tantamount to making the conflict all but irresolvable. The reparation agreement between Israel and Germany is perhaps pertinent here. In 1953 Begin led a stone-throwing demonstration when the Knesset ratified that agreement; in 1983, as head of government, he agreed to receive the German chancellor (although Begin resigned shortly before Kohl arrived).

According to Chomsky, the Palestinians, as represented by the PLO, are ready to recognize Israel. Recognize it, that is, in the sense he considers “relevant” to international relations. It is Israel, whether headed by the Labor Alignment or by a Likud government, that, together with the US, presents in his view a rejection front blocking a solution based on mutual recognition. Moreover, to Chomsky, the Palestinians’ readiness for recognition is evident. The evidence, for him, is the unanimous decision in April 1981 by the PLO National Council to adopt Brezhnev’s explicit proposal that “it is essential to ensure the security and sovereignty of all states of the region including those of Israel.” Brave words, no doubt. However, adopting someone else’s formula may be a tricky affair. You could uphold the “Brezhnev proposal” without specifying its content, and you could then choose from it the items that you like. In the meantime you ensure the support of the proposal’s sponsor. This is precisely the method adopted by Begin when he endorsed UN Resolution 242, which, in effect, calls for Israeli withdrawal from “[the] territories” on all fronts, including the eastern front (the West Bank) and the northern front (the Golan Heights). It was never Begin’s intention to withdraw from either one.

Another piece of evidence that Chomsky considers is the open pronouncement by the Palestinian leader Issam Sartawi that the PLO’s readiness for recognition of Israel “crystal clear.” I remember a press conference in Israel in 1976, at the time of the siege of the Tel al-Zaatar camp in Beirut, when I sat close to Matty Peled, who had just returned with a document he had written with Sartawi. Peled read out the document that called for Palestinian–Israeli coexistence. The journalists asked which PLO representative had signed the document, but Peled would not reveal his name. All he could do was give his word that there was such a Palestinian. The reporters became insistent and angry: an anonymously signed document was not what they had bargained for. The room was hot, the atmosphere tense.

Leaving the building, I asked one of the reporters, a tough and experienced journalist, whether he really doubted Peled’s account, for Peled is an honorable man. “That’s not the issue,” replied my friend. “The issue is that by tomorrow morning there will be a denial from Beirut.” And so there was. Farouk Kadoumi of the PLO promptly denied the content of the document, though not that a meeting had taken place. Peled and his associates then issued a statement under the title “Who Are You, Farouk Kadoumi?” The embarrassing answer to this question, however, was that Kadoumi was the PLO’s “foreign minister,” while Sartawi was, one might say, its Nahum Goldmann. Kadoumi, incidentally, in a Newsweek interview in the fall of 1976, said the Israelis will eventually have to accept the PLO plan for a secular democratic state even if they have to crawl all the way from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in the process. This statement does not appear in Chomsky’s book.

Much has happened since those days. Before he was assassinated in April 1983, Sartawi spoke out openly, sometimes with the covert blessing of Arafat, in favor of mutual recognition. There were various Palestinian signals seeming to suggest that with a modicum of good will an Israeli government could embark upon a process leading to negotiations. I believe that indeed there were such signals, but that they were accompanied by too much surrounding noise, whether in the form of contradictory statements or differing proposals, or Palestinian violence. Chomsky hears only the signals; most Israelis believe there has always been only noise and no meaningful signals whatever.

  1. 1

    Edward Said, “Permission to Narrate,” The London Review of Books, February 16, 1984, pp. 13–17.

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