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The Uprising

During the spring of 1948, as the war between Jews and Arabs in Palestine was becoming even bloodier, the American ambassador to the United Nations, Warren Austin, is reported to have asked: “Why can’t the Jews and the Moslems learn to practice Christian charity?” Like Warren Austin, the columnists and commentators who have been writing and speaking about the recent unrest that has spread from Gaza to all of Israel have been preaching at Jews and Arabs, asking them to behave reasonably. Many are calling for the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza; others are backing the “Jordanian option,” that is, the redividing of the West Bank between Israel and Jordan. All have talked about the need for flexibility and a change of heart on both sides.

Moderate, reasonable people, including many Israeli writers and intellectuals, have been advising a peace of mutual recognition for more than twenty years, since June 1967 when Israel conquered the West Bank and Gaza. Why is that old advice being repeated now? Many commentators seem to think that the recent outbreaks, and the harsh methods that the Israelis have used to contain them, have caused such a strong reaction in Israel that after two decades of stasis, it will begin to detach itself from Gaza and the West Bank. The Palestinians, it is claimed, are ready to compromise their ideology, which requires the return to them of all of Palestine, on the day that Israel offers to negotiate with them.

That the recent riots and protests are likely to have such an effect is a foolish illusion. There was, however, something new about them. The Arabs of pre-1967 Israel never joined in mass demonstrations against the government, and until this December there had not been an Arab general strike, not even for a day, since Israel was founded in 1948. But Israelis have long memories. Before the state was created, during the 1920s and 1930s and into the 1940s, there were long periods of guerrilla warfare in Palestine, and the Arabs called many general strikes. The price that the Arabs demanded for ending the war between the communities was agreement by the Jews to stop Jewish immigration. The Jews found war preferable, especially since they had the military force to contain the other side. The Arabs in Israel were able to mount a brief general strike in December but they are far less threatening than their predecessors, who assailed a far weaker Jewish community before 1948—and the Jews now control the apparatus of the state.

There is another new element in the present outbreaks. Until the mid-1980s the most dramatic terrorist attacks were made by PLO teams from outside Israel’s borders, while the Arabs under Israel’s control have been relatively quiescent. In recent years there have been few PLO incursions but the number of violent incidents within the borders of the undivided Israel has grown dramatically. The protests of mid-December, started by angry young people within the territories, were the strongest expression so far of homegrown Arab violence against the Israelis. According to the most reliable reports, the outbreaks were spontaneous; help from the PLO came only after young Arabs in Gaza set the demonstrations in motion. The thousand or so political prisoners who are rapidly being tried by Israeli political authorities are almost all young men between their mid-teens and mid-twenties. These demonstrators have grown up under the Israeli occupation, as have their sisters and younger brothers who were with them when the rocks and Molotov cocktails were thrown.

During the first outbreak, when television cameras were turned on, it looked disgraceful for armed soldiers to be firing at teen-agers and women. A day or two later, the government made it clear that it was rounding up young people who were easy to find, and who could be jailed or deported across the Jordan River. Israeli military authorities were, in fact, visibly pleased by the lack of expertise among the rioters they have in custody. The Israeli press and recent polls suggested that the Israeli public was not only much relieved that the riots were contained but confident that future outbreaks are likely to be contained more professionally, that is, with less deadly force, and therefore with less embarrassment to themselves. A poll in the conservative daily Yedioth Aharonoth on December 25, however, showed that 69 percent of the Israelis surveyed favored harsher security measures in the territories and 47 percent said that since the riots they took a harder line toward the Arabs.

This is not the mood of a country about to change its fundamental policies. The current disorder tends to push the moderates, or many of them, closer to the hard-line nationalist camp, if not into it. The familiar cry is heard that one cannot make concessions or negotiate while terrorists are attacking the forces of law and order. This is precisely what the leaders of the Labor party in Israel, Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres and Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, have been saying. They are clearly afraid that, if they were to be perceived as “giving in to terrorism,” the Likud party could defeat them in an election. Menachem Begin won in 1981 by appropriating the slogan “national camp” for his party and thus forcing the Labor party to “prove” that its more moderate policies were not anti-national. “Giving in to terrorism” is a slur that would instantly be applied to Labor if its leaders sounded in the least bit daunted by the task of quelling the disturbances.

Once Israel returns to “normal,” i.e., to a situation in which scattered acts of violence are the accepted norm, it is highly unlikely that the more moderate Israeli political leaders will move any more boldly than they have before. Why risk domestic political turmoil—which any serious concessions would create—when the situation is quiet? This is the Catch-22 of the moderate Israeli politicians: they are trapped into “national unity” by Arab violence but they also prefer not to fight both the Likud and each other (for there are both hawks and doves in the Labor leadership) when the pressure is off.

Shlomo Hillel, the speaker of the Knesset, is the leader of the Labor hawks, who, in his calculations, make up about half (twenty-two) of all the Labor members of the Knesset. Hillel was quoted in the Israeli papers on January I as demanding that Peres not go beyond the official platform of the party, which rules out the return of much more than half of the West Bank and insists on Israeli military control of all the territory west of the Jordan. Hillel left no doubt that in the view of the Labor hard-liners, Peres had been speaking much too broadly in his various calls for negotiations.

In view of these political pressures Shimon Peres’s recent calls for an “international conference” to consider a peace settlement were heard in Israel as a message to the superpowers, and especially to the Americans, to bring pressure on the Arab nations to consider moderate solutions, and thus help him prove that “moderation pays.” He hoped that the Americans would thus dislodge enough marginal votes to make him prime minister in his own right. The Americans refused, and Peres never had the votes in the Knesset, or in the country, to support a serious shift in the Israeli position. It was and remains the accepted wisdom among practically all Israeli political observers that a new election would produce the same political stalemate that exists today, with the possible exception that Labor might lose a few seats if some of its own more hawkish members decided to join the right. It would take someone with the appeal and authority of De Gaulle or Ben-Gurion, i.e., someone who does not now exist, to bring Israel to a détente with the Arabs, or at least with some of them.

The Palestinians are no more united than the Israelis. The Jordanians do not want a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza since it would be a threat to the monarchy. Over 60 percent of Jordanians are Palestinians, whose loyalty to the king is likely to be diminished by a Palestinian government in Ramallah, on the West Bank. The more militant factions of the PLO will continue to be at war with both Israelis and other Palestinians, in pursuit of an undivided Palestine under their control. The groups of angry young people who have been making themselves visible on the West Bank have carried the Palestinian flag in their demonstrations; but according to recent reports they have not for the most part been close to the PLO, even as many have continued to say, in a kind of incantation, that it is “the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.”

In addition to the young Palestinians who have been rioting, a more sophisticated leadership has appeared. Hanna Siniora, the editor of Al Fajr in East Jerusalem, and Mubarak Awad, an Arab-American who heads an institute in the West Bank to study nonviolent politics, have called on Palestinians to engage in nonviolent civil disobedience by refusing, for example, to pay taxes or to buy Israeli products. The leader of the moderate Israeli Peace Now group, Tzaly Reshef, has said, “We need to hear moderate voices on the other side that will give us, the doves, the feeling that our minimum demands for security and survival will be met.” This plea may perhaps be answered by Siniora and Awad and their supporters. But Arab moderates remain a minority, an endangered one, and Peace Now has yet to show it can become more than a marginal force in Israeli politics.

The PLO leadership has also explored new positions. There were rumors of a meeting somewhere in Europe during the last days of December between representatives of the PLO and leaders of the riots in Gaza and the West Bank. The PLO apparently offered help so that it might claim a share in the “victory.” On the international scene, moreover, Arafat has suddenly become more visible and more forthcoming. According to Ma’ariv of January 1, Arafat told a Kuwait newspaper that the Palestinians must remember that “there are Jews in the land.” In a separate interview in The Washington Post of January 4, he talked optimistically of setting up a Palestinian government in exile to negotiate a Palestinian state with “the presence of UN forces for any period” that Israel required on the Palestinian side of the border. Such actions and statements by Arafat serve to remind the maximalists among the Palestinians, who want the undivided land of Israel, that there is no hope of achieving Palestinian aims except through compromises with the Israelis; but no political program that he can announce will have even the grudging assent of all the various Palestinian factions. Palestinian unity exists so long as they are at war with Israel; it falls apart the closer they get even to talk of a political solution. The more formidable obstacle to a Palestinian state is that it is opposed by the Israelis and the Jordanians, both of which feel threatened by it, and by the Americans, who remain unconvinced that such a state would be peaceful and that it would stay out of the Soviet orbit.

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