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Passage to Palestine

Palestinian Leadership on the West Bank

by Moshe Ma’oz
Frank Cass (London), 217 pp., £9.95 (paper)

1949—The First Israelis

by Tom Segev
Domino Press (Jerusalem), 354 pp., 12,920 shekels

During the war with Japan, so the story goes, American intelligence succeeded in breaking the Japanese code—all except one adjective. This adjective would occur in sentences like “This nation is…,” “That leader is not….” Having gathered much data the decoders concluded that this adjective must be “pro-Japanese.” It was only after the war, when the code books were captured and studied, that it turned out that the adjective was “sincere.” In the Israeli case, the missing adjective in expressions like “This Arab nation is…” or “That Arab leader is not…” would probably have been interpreted, in the light of the evidence, as “pro-Western and willing-under-duress-to-consider-the -Labor-party’s-Jordanian-solution.” It would have taken the capture of the Israeli code books to learn that the adjective is “moderate.”

The use of the word “moderate” is acceptable only to one element of the Israeli regime, the Labor party and those on its periphery. For the other ruling group, the Likud, a moderate Arab leader—by any interpretation—is a contradiction in terms. Had an Arab leader been found who accepts the Likud position, they would have found a way to disagree with him.

These are days of search for Palestinian leaders who will meet the American–Israeli notion of moderation. Such people, when found, would be allowed to take part in a Jordanian–Palestinian delegation to the peace talks within the framework of the “peace process.”

The timing of Moshe Ma’oz’s book might seem to be perfect. He attempts to delineate the features of “moderate” Palestinian leaders who might be acceptable to (part of) the Israeli government as participants in a joint Jordanian–Palestinian delegation. His answer, in short, is: the mayors of the major West Bank towns. However, by the time Ma’oz finished writing his last chapter it turned out that all but one of the mayors he deals with were no longer mayors: all were deposed, some were expelled (Muhamad Milhem and Fahd Qawasma), some were badly wounded by “non-moderate” Jewish terrorists (Karim Khalef and Bassam Shak’a). Khalef died in the meantime, while Qawasma was murdered—in Jordan—by “nonmoderate” Arabs. The one exception is Elias Freij, still the mayor of Bethlehem. Except for him, Ma’oz’s candidates are no longer candidates.

The question of a Jordanian–Palestinian delegation is no doubt “on the agenda.” But it is doubtful whether it is indeed an important question. When we hear talk of a delegation that will join the “peace process,” two senses of that phrase have to be distinguished. The first is the ordinary one—a series of events and negotiations aimed at achieving a settlement between the warring parties. But there is also another, more Mediterranean, sense to the notion—something more akin to a “cease-fire in Beirut” than to a “cease-fire.” The peace process on this second interpretation is a game of let’s pretend, in which the parties behave as if they were negotiating; and while some, or even all, of them are interested in a settlement, each knows very well that within his own camp there is a faction capable of vetoing any negotiated compromise. The participants therefore cannot pay the price of compromise—and they know it. Nevertheless, each side has its reasons to keep the game of simulation going—whether because there’s no better one around, or because they need time to prepare for the next round of fighting, or whatever. Above all, each has to prove—to his own camp as well as to the opposing ones—that he has an indispensable political part to play.

Except for the numerous members of the research institutes studying the Middle East conflict, very few people believe that there is any real peace process going on now. In the case of such “conflict research,” like that of cancer research, the number of people who make their living from it threatens to approach the number of those who die from it.

My own suspicion is that the latest talk of the composition of the delegation that will join the peace process is talk of peace in the “as if” sense. Evidence for this I find, among other places, in the indefatigable search for “moderate,” rather than for representative, Palestinians. I should add, however, that a peace process of the simulated variety is not necessarily bad in itself. For one thing, it may postpone the shooting season. Also, unexpected things might happen. For example, one of the participants may be mistaken about the nature of the game and may take it seriously. And if this happens to be Secretary Shultz, then the “as if” game may turn into a real process. Even Shimon Peres, realizing that his term of office is soon to be over, may decide to become ambitious and take risks. But then, ambition should be made of sterner stuff than Peres’s, and after the fatally unpopular mistake of exchanging more than one thousand prisoners by arrangement with Ahmed Jabril’s “nonmoderate” organization, Peres’s space in which to maneuver was sharply reduced.

In his preface Ma’oz writes:

Finally I wish to indicate that while studying the subject and writing the book, I also drew upon my personal experience as an adviser on Arab Affairs to the Israeli Defence Minister Ezer Weizman and to the Coordinator for Activities in the Territories, General Danni Matt, during 1979–80. I believe that my participation in Israeli policy-making on the West Bank has not prejudiced my scholarly approach to this delicate and controversial subject. I trust that this position indeed enabled me to acquire a deeper understanding of the West Bank issue, also from the perspective of its Palestinian community. Without compromising my scientific discipline, I have pursued the study of the West Bank leadership with empathy, and this has enabled me to perceive the complexity of the problems which face them.

There is no reason not to believe him. That is, there is no reason to believe that the book Ma’oz might have written, had he not been an adviser, would in principle have been different. I am even willing to go along with him when he says that his job as an adviser made him understand better the point of view of the West Bank Palestinians. At the same time, the passage is interesting because it is symptomatic of an Israeli reality. This is a reality in which four professors of the Middle East department of Hebrew University have served as advisers to the West Bank governors, or “coordinators.” (One of the four was Menachem Milson, to whom I shall return shortly.) The title of “adviser” may conceal the fact that the role itself is a powerful one, with considerable influence on life in the West Bank. And yet it is significant that, for many an academic researcher, the transition from an academic chair to a position in the military administration, and then to a Middle Eastern research institute and to intelligence research, is smooth and natural. In this sense Ma’oz’s book reflects the patterns of thoughts current in those circles in the Israeli “intelligence community” and “military administration community” that are on the outskirts of the Labor party.

There are, however, different kinds of military governors. Ma’oz mentions his having been an adviser to General Danni Matt. I myself remember Matt as my commanding officer in the long-gone days before the occupation of the West Bank. He was then a commander of a paratroop battalion who had a legendary reputation as a military leader, and was thought by most of us to have extreme political convictions: to the right of him, it was said, there was only the Syrian desert. In the Israel of today he is close to the mainstream. This suggests that the task of finding Israeli “moderates” to form a delegation to the peace talks might not be an easy one.

It was Professor Colonel Menachem Milson who gave the job of adviser a particularly bad name. He is also a target for Ma’oz’s criticism. For a while (between 1981 and 1982) he did have an important part to play concerning the “moderate Palestinian leadership” on the West Bank: he was determined not so much to discover it as to create it. His sense of mission significantly included his conviction that he was carrying out Labor party policy; he also believed that he was harnessing Sharon, the defense minister at the time, to this policy.

The idea was this. The “Jordanian solution” of the Labor party required “moderate” Palestinian leadership that would not demand a Palestinian state. That is to say, non-PLO leaders. This implied the uprooting of PLO influence in the West Bank. Now Milson believed that the PLO’s sphere of influence was restricted to the urban intelligentsia in the West Bank. And since most of the West Bank population consists of villagers, who were held to have merely local interests limited to such questions as water, electricity, sewage, and roads, Milson was resolved to create an appropriately rural moderate leadership. This would compete with the PLO and would cooperate with Israel and Jordan in finding a “solution-by-division” of the West Bank problem.

Milson’s basic assumption concerning the urban PLO was fallacious. For one thing, the ratio of town dwellers to villagers among the PLO detainees in Israeli prisons corresponds by and large to their ratio in the West Bank population.

The war Milson consequently waged against the PLO on the West Bank consisted, among other things, of harassment of any town and mayor he believed to be politically affiliated with, or leaning toward, the PLO. He also established a new organization called the Villagers’ League—termed “quisling” by no less an authority than General Shlomo Gazit, the former head of military intelligence. One immediate consequence of this policy was that not only the PLO but even the Kingdom of Jordan proclaimed a death sentence on any “moderate” who joined the Villagers’ League.

Sharon, who had responsibility for the occupied territories in the Begin government, of course used Milson in his own war against the political influence of the PLO in the West Bank. But Sharon had no need for substitutes for the PLO: his only partner for negotiations on the future of the West Bank was Begin. Milson, however, succeeded in outHeroding Herod. He raised the political temperature on the West Bank to such a level that he became a liability even for Sharon. Milson resigned about five minutes before he was to be fired by Sharon.

Ma’oz is no Milson. He is sensitive to the way people change their views—among other things, as a result of the jobs they hold. From his book it appears that he himself would have been willing to have Bassam Shak’a or Karim Khalef—the two mayors who were badly wounded by Jewish terrorists—as partners for talks and negotiations. I’m not sure how many partners he would have found within the Labor party for these talks. At any rate the interesting question is: why Bassam Shak’a, but not Yasser Arafat? After all, there are good reasons to believe that Shak’a, as an active supporter on the West Bank of the Syrian Baath, may be closer to the pro-Syrian—i.e., less “moderate”—faction of the PLO; not to mention that his legs were blown off by Jewish terrorists, a circumstance that can hardly be expected to moderate his views. Why Shak’a and not Arafat?

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