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Passage to Palestine

In the Israeli collective consciousness Yasser Arafat is the quintessential non-moderate Palestinian. This is only indirectly linked to his views: as I have just said, there are strong reasons to believe that he is less “extreme” in his views than Shak’a. For my part I believe that the distinctions between “moderates” and “nonmoderates” are a matter of style no less than of content.

Had Arafat shaved his ominous four-day beard, removed his headdress thereby revealing his baldness, and dressed in the customary shabby civilian clothes, he would have struck many Israelis as no more menacing than a middle-level official of the tax department, a man who could be a nuisance to the not-so-law-abiding average Israeli citizen. And, as such, his sponsorship of terror attacks on Israeli civilians would certainly be remembered; but when talk of negotiations arose, he would have appeared more pragmatic and “moderate.” But of course this is precisely the image that would have prevented him from being the leader of the PLO as a combative organization. As such a leader, he needs the dark sunglasses, the uniform with pistol, and all the rest—that is, the “nonmoderate” image. And this image is what made it possible for the Israeli leadership to present him not just as the “person with hair on his face” (Begin’s phrase), but even as the nonperson who can be taken for the devil himself. It should be mentioned, at the same time, that lately, given the increasingly visible presence of Shi’ites, Arafat necessarily comes to be perceived as somewhat more moderate in the Israelis’ eyes: the Assyrian beard, glowing eyes, and priestly black robe are rapidly becoming established as the incarnation of extremism.

The historical archetype of the non-moderate Palestinian was Hajj Amin al-Husayni, the leader of the Palestine community in the 1930s. The famous photograph of him with Hitler certainly did not contribute any softness to his image in the eyes of the Jewish settlement at the time. His archetypal moderate Palestinian opposite was Ragheb al-Nashashibi, a former mayor of Jerusalem; Ma’oz nicely explains the difference between the two men. But he omits to mention the significant fact that in the 1930s Ben-Gurion made an attempt to meet and talk with al-Husayni, presumably believing that a settlement is required with the real enemy, not with the reasonable, “moderate” one.

A particularly interesting chapter in Ma’oz’s book deals with the 1976 municipal elections on the West Bank. These were the elections that brought to prominence the local leaders who leaned toward the PLO at the time when Peres was Israel’s defense minister. Peres believed at the time that giving Palestinian women the right and the opportunity to vote would lead to the election of more moderate, that is to say, non-PLO, leaders—a rather curious idea, coming from a man who was supposed to have learned from Ben-Gurion a lesson in political realism.

As for the results of these elections, on the one hand, Israel’s leaders proudly—and rightly—claimed that there have never been more democratic elections on the West Bank; but, on the other hand, they tired to maintain at the same time that the PLO, in spite of the election results, did not represent the West Bank population. The problem was not so much the logical contradiction, but rather that the subsequent harassment of the elected mayors by the government was a straightforward attempt to undo the results of these elections.

The 1976 West Bank elections also revealed what a significant and powerful element the Communist party had become. Its impressive leader Bashir Barghuti is mentioned only once in Ma’oz’s book. Having served years in prison, both in Israel and in Jordan, Barghuti is in fact one of the most important behind-the-scenes leaders on the West Bank. The Communist party has been consistently the only political force in the West Bank to recognize Israel’s right to exist. However, it does not conform to the Israeli-American image of moderation because it is of course not pro-Western. It certainly could do much to thwart any Jordanian–Palestinian delegation that is formed under American auspices alone.

If the question, Who is a moderate Palestinian leader? is perhaps not so important as it is portrayed, the following question seems of great importance indeed: Why do the Labor party and those close to it stake all its hopes on a Jordanian rather than a Palestinian solution to the West Bank problem? I believe that the answer can be found in the intelligence-military-administrative-academic establishment that is loosely attached to the periphery of the Labor alliance and whose views in many ways are authentically represented in Ma’oz’s book. The people comprising this establishment are too sober to believe that Israel needs the Jordan Valley to ensure “strategic depth” for Israel’s forces in case of attack. Their thinking, to my mind, is different. Israel has been in complete control of the West Bank since the summer of 1967. The terrorist and guerrilla activities carried out there by the local population have since been relatively manageable (although it is true that eight Israelis were killed in the West Bank between last April and July). This state of affairs could hardly be achieved without a successful penetration of all layers of West Bank society by the Israeli secret services. My contention is that after all these years it is, for the establishment in question, simply too large a sacrifice to give up this kind of control over the West Bank.

Furthermore, the assumption of the establishment is that the Jordanian interest in this respect really overlaps Israel’s, given Hashemite fears of the very same Palestinian population. The hidden agenda, then, is shared covert control of the West Bank; while Jordan might be allowed overt control of the kind suggested from time to time by Hussein, with some thin Palestinian icing, in the guise of a “confederation.” As has been proved on the East Bank of the Jordan River, the Jordanians are in fact masters in the art of running a police state—one might say a “moderate” police state. They are therefore worthy partners for shared rule over the West Bank. In other words, when a member of the Labor establishment talks of Israel’s “security problems” in the West Bank he is not, I maintain, primarily concerned with the Jordan River as an efficient antitank ditch roughly three meters in width. Rather, he is expressing the wish to continue to have reliable knowledge about what happens in every village and in every house on the West Bank. The search for “moderate” Palestinian leaders, therefore, is a search for leaders who would ultimately tolerate covert and joint Jordanian-Israeli control over the West Bank.

During the early 1960s Ezer Weizman—then the Israeli Air Force Commander in Chief and later Ma’oz’s boss as defense minister—coined the slogan, “The best to the Air Force,” i.e., the best of Israel’s young people should aspire to fly planes. This in itself represented a revolutionary change of attitude in a community whose leadership kept proclaiming, even if it no longer believed it, “The best to the kibbutz (preferably in the Negev Desert).” In those days Weizman was a highly non-moderate Jewish leader; in the meantime he has become perhaps the most moderate of the present-day leaders. Immediately after the 1967 war, with prophetic sarcasm, Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz of Hebrew University said that Israel’s next slogan might seem to be “The best to the Shin Bet.” “Shin Bet” is the Hebrew acronym for Israel’s secret security services. Professor Leibowitz already saw, in a blaze of lucidity, where the Israeli raj on the West Bank was leading.

Ma’oz’s book has very little in common with the one by Tom Segev, an Israeli journalist. Among other reasons, Segev’s book, as yet available only in Hebrew, is fascinating to read, because he has a fine sense of the concrete details that reveal a country’s history. He gives an account of the state of Israel in 1949, the first year after its birth, and particularly of the first Israelis, those who lived in Palestine before the state was established, as well as the newcomers. By the end of 1949 there was one new immigrant for every two pre-independence settlers—and the immigrants were not just strangers but often seemed very strange indeed to the veteran Zionists.

The chapters of Segev’s book follow the basic divisions in Israeli society: between Jews and Arabs, old settlers (mostly Western) and new immigrants (mostly Oriental), secular and religious groups. And above all, the contrast between the dream and the humdrum reality. The dominant figure during this period was of course David Ben-Gurion, the Lenin of the Zionist movement. As with Lenin, Ben-Gurion’s order of the day was organization, organization, and once again organization. He was also a master at setting clear goals and identifying justice with the Labor party’s latest decisions as dictated by him to the party secretariat—decisions that in Ben-Gurion’s own jargon were referred to as “ethics of the prophets” and “light unto the nations.”

The main story of the first year is that of the great immigration, and it is told by Segev with a kind of acid compassion. The traditional Zionist movement’s vision of the great immigration to Zion was limited to European Jews, more specifically East European Jews. They were supposed to form the reserve army of the Zionist movement. The Oriental Jews were remote from the eyes and sentiments of the Zionist leaders. After the Holocaust, however, Zionism was deprived of its natural reservoir of immigrants; the Jews east of the Elbe were now being replaced by the Jews of the Orient. These were described by some of those responsible for their absorption into Israel, all of European descent, as of “inferior human material.” “The Moroccans are very wild people,” Segev quotes one official as saying. And in an academic symposium during the first year, discussions were devoted to “the nature of primitiveness,” and conclusions were drawn about the “mental regression” common among many Jews from Arab countries, as well as about their “retarded ego development.” These were decidedly not the kind of recruits the established Jewish community in Palestine prayed for “These may not be Jews in whose immigration we’re interested, but we cannot tell them ‘don’t come’ “—such were the words of Jacob Zrubavel, the head of the Oriental Jews department of the Jewish Agency, a devout socialist.

It is indeed widely believed that the mass Oriental immigration to Israel during that time was not the outcome of a planned decision, but rather a natural consequence of the Zionist vision of the gathering of the exiles. On the other hand, it is commonly assumed that Ben-Gurion’s decision to declare the establishment of the state of Israel on May 14, 1948, a decision disapproved of by many of the other Zionist leaders, was an act of sheer will—which earned him the title of “One in his Generation.” (Rabbi Yehuda Fishman, Ben-Gurion’s minister of religion, said at the time that it was lucky Ben-Gurion was not an Orthodox Jew, or else many would take him to be the Messiah.)

I myself believe that the reverse is the case. That is to say, the mass Oriental immigration to Israel during 1949 was, in my view, the direct result of a decision by Ben-Gurion—a true act of will—while on the other hand I see the Declaration of Independence on May 14, 1948, as having merely ceremonial significance. Even if the views of those who opposed Ben-Gurion had been accepted, the invasion of Palestine by the Arab armies would have come on that day, the last day of the British Mandate, anyway. The political outcome would sooner or later have been the same. King Abdullah of Jordan and King Farouk of Egypt were not that much interested in the lofty words of the Declaration of Independence read out that day in the Tel Aviv museum. Each feared that the other would beat him to it and gain a larger share of the Palestine pie.

Why did Ben-Gurion want mass immigration? The ideological reason, that Israel’s raison d’être was the ingathering of the exiles, certainly influenced him. But Segev is also right when he claims, drawing upon a variety of evidence, that Ben-Gurion saw in mass immigration the best way to ensure Israel’s military might in the long run. The new immigrants were for him a “desert generation,” from whom not much could be expected. But their sons and daughters would be “real” Israelis, from whom, as he was fond of saying, the first Yemenite chief of staff would emerge. Like most of his friends among the leaders of the new state, he believed that the Moroccans were savages, but unlike them he did not think that they were all that different from the rest. “I’m told many of them are thieves,” he is quoted as saying. “I myself am a Polish Jew, and I doubt that there is any Jewish community with more thieves than the Polish one.”

In Israel, then as later, people loved the immigration, but not the immigrants themselves. The new immigrants, Segev tells us, were put behind barbed wire in the Immigration Gate camp. Israeli society today pays dearly for those early traumatic experiences of the newly arrived. But, it has to be added, the community outside the barbed wire generally was a very poor one in those days. In order to be able to absorb the huge waves of immigrants it accepted severe austerity measures, including strict rationing, one aim of which was to ensure a minimum supply of basic commodities to all. Segev tells the story of the austerity period vividly and well. The austerity was not only an economic necessity, it also fitted the puritanical character of the people in power, and their desire to govern the economy by means of administrative regulation. Liberalism, it must be remembered, was very far from the mentality of the Israeli leaders. (The Histadrut weekly paper demanded, for example, that mediocre artists not be allowed to tour abroad, lest they ruin Israel’s reputation.) And yet, as one of the newspapers at the time put it, while the previous waves of immigrants were absorbed into the existing community, the new waves starting in 1949 were absorbed alongside it.

Martin Buber predicted serious dangers. “I’m looking for a common tradition, but I find it nowhere,” he said; “I see only broken tablets.” I’m not quite clear just what danger Buber was prophesying. But as early as January 1949, Zalman Aran, the Lunacharsky of the Zionist movement, was farsighted enough to predict that the Oriental communities would form the power base of Begin’s Herut party. (Aran once said of himself that he realized he was sane only on three days of the week, but the trouble was that he didn’t know which three. This prediction, however, certainly was made on a sane day.) It took almost thirty years to happen, but in 1977 these humiliated people helped to bring Begin to power.

Segev describes the contest to gain the political allegiance of the new immigrants, especially the attempt on the part of the ruling Mapai to prevent them from falling under the influence of the religious parties. This is significant because most of the Oriental Jews came to Israel as religious Jews, in marked contrast to the previous waves of secular-minded immigrants. In the end, however, Ben-Gurion reached a compromise with the religious parties, whose support he needed to form a coalition government. In contrast to Bismarck he was afraid of a Kulturkampf, an all-out struggle against religious influence. And he believed the price he would have to pay the religious parties would be lower than the price being demanded by the left-wing Mapam, which at that time saw Soviet Russia as a “second homeland.”

Ben-Gurion was interested in getting economic aid from the US, and hence gave up any thought of neutrality in the cold war of those days. True, in Ben-Gurion’s party there was talk of socialism—Golda Meir even spoke of “socialism in our time”—but what they meant was, basically, some form of enlightened étatisme.

The debate over the borders of the state of Israel, as Segev describes it, took place in 1949 and not, as is commonly supposed, during the war of independence of 1948. It was in 1949 that the armistice agreements with the Arab states were signed, and the “Green Line,” the borderline that held until June 1967, was agreed upon. For the younger generation in Israel today the Green Line is somewhat like the Mason-Dixon line for most Americans. The map with which the post-1967 generation has grown up has a very different outline from the one that prevailed between 1949 and 1967, with its famous narrow waist near Tel Aviv.

This visual fact is evidently useful to those in Israel who now defend the status quo of the occupation. The Green Line, however, was already at the center of controversy in 1949. “Not the land but the soul was divided,” Begin insisted loudly, while Mapam proposed to capture the West Bank in order to replace the Hashemite Kingdom’s domination of it by “progressive” local elements who would sign a peace treaty with Israel. Ben-Gurion’s position at the time was that Israel had no obligation to help establish an independent Arab state. For him the choice was between a domocratic Jewish state and a binational Greater Israel; his decision in favor of the first was unequivocal.

The 1949 peace talks with Egypt and Jordan ended not with peace treaties, but only with armistice agreements. Whether or not it was then possible to achieve more in these negotiations I do not know. But I do believe that Ben-Gurion’s guiding image at the time was that of the dry dock. The state of Israel, like a dry dock, could only function when the walls around it were locked, so as to enable the level—of the water in the one case, of the Oriental Jews in the other—to go up. This is why a state of no peace, i.e., closed borders, yet no war—and therefore a continued influx of immigrants—was seen as having distinct advantages.

Segev writes that Ben-Gurion was insensitive to the human tragedy of the indigenous Arab population. He quotes him as saying: “Land with Arabs on it and land without Arabs on it are very different things.” He was interested in land of the latter sort. During a staff meeting before the 1948 battle over the Arab towns of Ramle and Lydda, Ben-Gurion was asked what would be the fate of the local Arab residents. He responded, Segev writes, with a swinging gesture of his hand that was interpreted by Yitzhak Rabin, then one of the operation’s commanders, as an instruction to expel the Arabs. But this was during the war. The revelations in Segev’s book concern cases of expulsion that continued well into 1949. For example, the expulsion of the Arabs of Magdal—later to become Ashkelon—was carried out with Ben-Gurion’s blessing. When the Haifa Arabs were concentrated into a ghetto, Ben-Gurion chose not to be informed about it. Ben-Gurion’s close friend at the time, Itzhak Ben-Zvi—later the president of Israel—is quoted by Segev as saying “there are too many Arabs in Israel.” On the same occasion Ze’ev On, a member of the Knesset, said: “The landscape improved lately. I enjoy my trips now from Tel Aviv to Haifa when I see no Arabs on the way.”

This mode of thinking and talking about the Arabs owed much, no doubt, to a deep sense of anxiety, as well as to a desire for revenge. In the young state the Jews were convinced, and with reason, that the war, in which I percent of the Jewish population was killed, was imposed upon them by the Arabs. They were also fearful that the Arabs who remained within the borders of the state of Israel would become a “fifth column,” since their allegiance would belong naturally to their brethren outside the borders.

Segev’s story of the encounter between Jews and Arabs after the foundation of the state is a painful one. It certainly does not justify the smug history of some Labor Zionists, who are used to looking forward to the past and who describe Israel as having been born in a kind of immaculate conception, original sin starting only with the rise of Begin to power some thirty years later. The story of Israel in 1949 is, in Segev’s account, a heroic story but not a pretty one.


Dealing with Palestinians November 21, 1985

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