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Israel: A Partial Indictment

The “beautiful eyes” rationale is that Israel should be an enlightened democracy which the American public can wholeheartedly admire. This is held to be the best, if not the only, long-run guarantee for continued US support of Israel. True, the US backs some of the most obnoxious dictatorial regimes in the world. But it has always attempted to cover this with some ideological camouflage. From this point of view, for Israel to be moral and enlightened is not only virtuous but also prudent.

The opposing thesis is that Israel can be the largest and best aircraft carrier for the US in the Middle East. The US would then have to support Israel, much as it supports its Sixth Fleet. From this point of view, Israel is bound to lose its beautiful eyes, owing, among other things, to the fact that more than a fifth of its work force is employed by its industrial-military complex, which forces it to become increasingly dependent on arms sales, often to the leper regimes of this earth. In the long run, therefore, Israel should cater to the Moral Majority in the US, rather than try to meet the standards of I.F. Stone.

Most Israelis do not like this dichotomy. They would like Israel to be an aircraft carrier and have beautiful eyes. The gap between these images becomes an unbearable strain, made more acute by the prospect that the West Bank will be annexed and Israel transformed into an undemocratic apartheid state.

On this issue, Chomsky seems to adopt the “seventh-month” thesis of Meron Benvenisti, according to which the trend toward complete annexation of the West Bank and Gaza is now irreversible—or rather, it is reversible only in the sense that a seven-month pregnancy is still reversible.2 Since Benvenisti holds that the process of annexation is now in its seventh month, so to speak, one of his suggestions (not Chomsky’s) is to declare a formal, de jure, annexation right away so that at least the civil rights of the population in the territories will be safeguarded. He maintains that it is easier and more practical to fight for the rights of the occupied Arab population than to fight against the annexation.

But the belief that once annexation finally takes place the Arabs will be assured civil rights seems to me hopelessly naive. Nothing will prevent the government from accompanying the act of annexation with revived “defense regulations” that will, for all practical purposes, deprive the West Bank Arabs of their rights. An official annexation, as far as I can see, will make Israel an official apartheid state.

Nor do I believe that the facts created on the West Bank preclude a reversal of the present annexationist process. The key issue determining the reversibility of the situation is to my mind the number of Jewish settlers in the West Bank. And this number, excluding those in Jerusalem, is only 25,000. The grand plan to settle 100,000 Jews in a short time seems unrealistic. One hundred thousand permanent settlers in the West Bank would have confirmed Benvenisti’s thesis. Paradoxically, it is Gush Emunim (“The Block of the Faithful”) that stands in the way of a large-scale Jewish settlement of the West Bank, and for two reasons. First, such extensive settlement can take place only in large Jewish suburbs, and by settlers who seek a place to live, not to fulfill the ideology of “Greater Israel.” But Gush Emunim insists on settling in many smaller places that are unattractive to such nonideological settlers. Luckily, then, the huge expenditure for the West Bank settlement policy of the present government is being invested in a large number of Potemkin villages rather than in a small number of large townships.

Second, Gush Emunim has made such a fuss over the dangers of the West Bank roads as a result of Arab stone-throwing that nonideological potential settlers have been put off. So in spite of the tempting conditions offered settlers in the West Bank, the Likud government has not really succeeded in its ambitious settlement policy. There are many settlements, but relatively few settlers, a fact that Chomsky does not give serious attention to.

Another factor supposedly strengthens the seventh-month thesis—the transfer of much of the Arab work force to jobs in Israel, which might have been thought to lead inevitably to the creation of one indivisible economy. But the economic transformation of the West Bank, which impels Palestinians to leave their villages to work inside the old borders, has in fact weakened the local ties of these villagers and made them conscious of their Palestinian identity.

Even Begin and Rafael (“Raful”) Eitan, the former army chief of staff, did not believe that the situation in the West Bank is irreversible. For them the war for Eretz Israel had not been settled: it still had to pass through Beirut, the PLO stronghold in Lebanon, which was perceived as a potential competitor for control of the West Bank, and thus had to be eradicated. Chomsky rightly accepts the analysis of Yehoshua Porath, a noted Orientalist, and of Danny Rubinstein, a well-known journalist, according to which Israel resorted to a war against the PLO in Lebanon not because of the terror it inflicted on the northern border of Israel but because of the terror it did not inflict there. That is, it was the PLO’s restraint, and the fear that it would gradually begin to be perceived by the world as a political rather than a military organization—and as such as a potential partner for negotiations over the future of the West Bank—that drove the Israeli government to action. The PLO’s ability to control its forces and prevent skirmishes and incursions on the northern border, thereby honoring the cease-fire agreement of July 1981, was a principal reason for Begin’s and Eitan’s decision to wage war.

Sharon wanted more than that. He was after a “New Order” in the Middle East, with Israel as a small superpower in its center. His intention was to push the Syrians out of Lebanon, as well as the PLO and the Palestinians in general, and create a Maronite state there, headed by Bashir Gemayel. The next stage in his plan envisaged the Palestinians uprooted from Lebanon overthrowing King Hussein of Jordan, or at least bringing about, with a little help from Israel, the division of Jordan between a PLO-controlled north and a Hussein-controlled south. During this intervention Israel was supposed to reach the Saudi border. Sharon was quite explicit about this “New Order” in his lecture at the Institute for Strategic Studies of Tel Aviv University in December 1981.

The war in Lebanon, then, was the outcome of a coalition between those who wanted to fight the Syrians (Sharon, General Drori) and those who wanted to fight the PLO (Eitan). Begin—according to a convincing report in the newspaper Ma’ariv in September 1983—wanted to fight both.

There is nothing like a failure to bring the truth to the surface. Two books recently published in Israel, Snow Ball by Shimon Shiffer and Israel’s Lebanon War by Ehud Ya’ari and Ze’ev Schiff, tell the full story of the Lebanon war.3 Unlike Chomsky, the authors rely on primary sources. But the picture they draw is not inconsistent with Chomsky’s, except that they concentrate on the behavior of Israeli leaders throughout the drama. The main thesis that emerges from these books is that a bull was in search of a china shop—the bull being Sharon. Both books convincingly claim that the invasion of Lebanon was directly encouraged by Alexander Haig. (I recall a conversation with a senior official in the Begin administration who told me: “Well, did you expect Begin to stop at the forty-kilometer line, when Haig himself was after more?”) It emerges, moreover, that Israel’s war tactics failed not so much because of Sharon’s and Eitan’s lack of talent as because they constantly had to disguise their aims both from the Israeli public and, more significantly, from the government.

Israel’s Lebanon War provides a detailed and brilliant analysis of the background of the war. The opposition to it appeared even before the fighting had begun. Peace Now held several demonstrations against the prospect of an invasion. A number of articles were published in the Israeli press, notably by Schiff himself in Ha’aretz, warning that war was imminent. One of the factors that contributed to the virtual ineffectiveness of this opposition is the change in the nature and structure of the Israeli army since the 1973 Yom Kippur war. Until then the regular army was relatively small, and the main military power was with the reserve troops. Afterward the regular army increased significantly, and this enabled Sharon and Eitan to maintain the army at high alert and to use it without undermining normal life in Israel, and without stirring up resistance among the reservists, who include most of the concerned citizens of Israel. This relative independence of the regular army was to my mind a central factor in neutralizing opposition to the war before it actually started.

Once the war began, the Labor party leaders were promptly dragged into it; their dubious excuse was that they were promised it would stop when the army had gone forty kilometers into Lebanon. I have little doubt that the Labor party acquiesced because its leaders felt that they had, the year before, misjudged the situation regarding the bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor, and believed that condemning that attack had cost them the 1981 elections.

Chomsky makes his own contribution to the history of the Lebanon war; the two Israeli books do not make his own redundant. Here he writes as the Devil’s accountant, specifying and describing in detail Israel’s mistreatment of Lebanese and Palestinian civilians. He relies heavily on the report by Dov Yirmiah, a noble and immaculately moral Israeli army colonel who was responsible for aid to Lebanese civilians. This is an atrocious story, which, to be sure, adds to the other atrocious stories that have accumulated during Lebanon’s long civil wars and for which we Israelis cannot be exonerated.

The center of Chomsky’s account of the war is the Sabra and Shatila massacre, in which every taboo was broken in the name of the Israeli totem. Chomsky is horrified not only by the massacre itself, but by what he sees as the attempt by Israel and its friends abroad to exonerate and to promote Israel by praising the commission of inquiry set up to investigate the events. Chomsky sees the Kahan Commission report as aiming to supply some sort of indulgence for Israeli society and to bring it back to the fold of the enlightened nations.

Chomsky is very critical of the commission which, he believes, was not really committed to exposing the truth. To me the commission to exposing the truth. To me the commission did remarkably well in this regard, but that is not the point. The commission’s real failing was that its recommendations were incongruous with its findings.4 Its members went to great lengths to exonerate Israel from “direct” responsibility for the massacre: that responsibility, for them, belonged solely to the Phalangists. In my view the commission gave the concept of direct responsibility an interpretation so narrow that it was incompatible even with Israeli law. Israel’s army had the responsibility for protecting the remaining Palestinian civilians in Beirut after the killing of Bashir Gemayel. In these circumstances, to have allowed the Phalange commander Elie Hobeika and his men—the Damour Battalion—to enter the camps was something like appointing Dr. Mengele as chief surgeon at the Hadassah Hospital. In view of Hobeika’s known record, notably in the massacre of Palestinians at Tel al-Zaatar, talk of indirect responsibility here is dubious. On the other hand, in its finding that the Israeli government and military were indirectly responsible for the massacre, the commission gave the concept of “indirect responsibility” a moral interpretation so broad that it bordered on a finding of direct responsibility. Jews, it has rightly been argued, have in their history suffered too many pogroms instigated by “indirectly responsible” agents to make too much of the distinction.

The Kahan Commission, it must be understood, was concerned not to follow the unfortunate example of the Agranat Commission, which was appointed to investigate the lack of preparedness for the Yom Kippur war in 1973. That commission went out of its way not to implicate Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan, among other political leaders, and it put the entire blame on the army. The Kahan Commission made a point of blaming politicians as well as military leaders. In varying degrees it indicted Begin and Shamir, but concentrated on Sharon. Had it come out strongly against Begin he would certainly have rejected the report, and most of the population would have backed him. Impeaching Sharon was as far as the commission could go, if it was to achieve direct political results. And in fact Sharon (together with Eitan) really was the high official most responsible for the massacres.

Removing Sharon from the ministry of defense following publication of the commission’s report was indeed an achievement, but it was also, as some of us have been horrified to find, a short-lived one. In April, Sharon came close to being elected the leader of the Likud for the coming elections, losing to Shamir by only about fifty votes out of 730. In the words of Arieh Na’or, the former secretary of Begin’s government, “Sharon’s ‘March’ has begun.” And in order to remove any doubts about what kind of march he was referring to, he was later quoted as saying that except for his baldness, Sharon reminds him of Mussolini. The announcements of Sharon’s political demise, therefore, are sadly premature.

Chomsky’s book ends with the eschatological title, “The Road to Armageddon.” I wish that the Lebanon war were indeed the war of Gog and Magog, after which the millennial redemption would be sure to come. But for the present, Israel is caught in a fateful triangle very different from the subject of Chomsky’s one-sided polemic, a triangle of three acute Israeli conflicts—between the religious and secular populations; between the Ashkenazi and the Oriental communities; and between Jews and Arabs. And the triangle is surrounded by a circle of 400 percent inflation. For one of these conflicts there exists a gradual solution. That 22 percent of marriages are now between Ashkenazim and Oriental Jews and that this proportion is increasing by one percent each year will in time soften the Jewish ethnic conflict. But the others remain, and threaten to explode.

Soon elections will take place in the shadow of a traumatic war whose memory the Israeli public seems anxious to repress. The Labor Alignment has a chance to return to power, a prospect that holds no joy for Chomsky. For him there is no real difference in policy between the Alignment and the Likud, only the difference between hypocrisy and brutality. Yet between the sane hypocrisies of the Alignment and the self-righteous brutality of the Likud, I would not hesitate to prefer the Alignment. Underlying the hypocrisy of Labor there is some recognition, at least, that humane values count, including the value of exchanging territory for peace. That, perhaps, is the way to avoid Armageddon.

Letters

Chomsky’s ‘Fateful Triangle’: An Exchange August 16, 1984

  1. 2

    Commenting on Anthony Lewis’s column on Benvenisti’s study of the West Bank, Chomsky writes, “He is right to observe that there will soon be nothing to negotiate.”

  2. 3

    Israel’s Lebanon War will be published by Simon and Schuster in September. Shimon Shiffer, Snowball (Idanim, 1984).

  3. 4

    See the excellent analysis of the commission report, The Missing Crucial Point by Shimon Lehrer, a reserve paratroop major (Amit Publishing, in Hebrew).

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