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Notes from Jerusalem

In the late Thirties I used to read about travelers to Berlin and Moscow who reported that the streets were quiet, all was orderly, they saw no signs of terror. I thought at the time that they were lying, but of course I was wrong. In the streets of Berlin and Moscow things were indeed quiet: the terror was happening in the cellars and the camps.

Memories of those days came back this summer when my wife and I spent a month at Mishkenot Sha’ananim, the elegant guest house of Jerusalem, where all was calm and pleasant. We knew that a few miles away dreadful things were happening: stones, tear gas, beatings, bullets. Our quiet seemed eerie, but it was quiet, and only an effort of the will brought the awareness that, in our small way, we were reenacting the frustrations and helplessness that have been the lot of millions in our century. I don’t mean that the Israeli repression of the Palestinians is on a scale with the events of Europe fifty years ago, but that the role of spectator to history, even the “engaged” spectator, remains intensely unsatisfying.

A short distance from Mishkenot a delegation of young American Jews, leaders in the campaign for Israeli bonds, was holding its meetings. The Jerusalem Post carried a picture of some of these amiable people, mostly women, putting on Israeli battle dress and smiling delightedly. Were they aware of the symbolism of such an act? of how it might strike at least some Israelis and most Palestinians?

The intifada (Arabic for uprising) is here to stay. For months Israeli officials have announced that soon things will be under control; but they are not. The intifada is more than the riots that TV no longer bothers to show or is prevented from showing; it consists of a sustained venture in nation-building during the course of a struggle for nationhood. The Palestinians have created for themselves an infrastructure of nationality—local committees, improvised schools, networks of information—that resembles the work of the Zionists under the British Mandate. I was told that Palestinian intellectuals—with what degree of irony I don’t know—refer to their leading figures as Ben-Gurion, Weizmann, etc. (And Sharon? And Kahane?) Clearly, the Palestinian strategists have carefully studied the history of triumphant Zionism; one might hope they would also emulate the liberal spirit that characterized the mainstream of the Zionist movement.

Can the intifada be destroyed? No. Suppressed? Yes, if Israel is willing to resort to the kinds of slaughter that Hussein used against the PLO and Assad against Syrian dissidents. But moral constraints still work within Israeli society, and especially, my dovish friends said, within the Israeli army command (though not necessarily in lower units—there much depends on who is in command of companies and other military units). Apart from moral constraints, the more intelligent of the hard-liners, I was told, fear the reaction abroad in case the suppression of the intifada takes on a “total” character. (Are there really such fears or do I assume a measure of intelligence such as usually evaporates in oppressive regimes?)

But even if the intifada were crushed, it would flare up again, sooner or later. Once young people are willing to die in behalf of a cause, be it a just or unjust cause, they will display a stubbornness that defies the rational calculations of its opponents. And the nationalist passion is the most powerful of our time. The Palestinians have strong convictions of their rightness. There are fanatics, terrorists, and hoodlums in their ranks, but they nevertheless form by now a national community with a distinctive consciousness. Until the Israelis acknowledge this fact, there can be no peace; whether there can be peace after they acknowledge it is another question.

In any case, the talk one hears in Israel about negotiating with Palestinians but not the PLO is sheer nonsense. And too late. Politics is the art of timing; a decade ago such a maneuver might have been possible (though I doubt it), but by now Israel must either negotiate with the PLO, openly or covertly, or not negotiate at all. And if there are no negotiations today, Israel will face something much worse five years from now.

Hussein’s decision to pull out of the West Bank—whatever it means, no one in Israel is quite certain—has made clear at least this one thing: Shimon Peres’s “Jordanian option” is either a delusion or a self-delusion. Peres is an intelligent man, and privately he must recognize that his program for the occupied territories has been shattered. But because he follows rather than molds opinion, he fears the electoral consequences of speaking candidly. And now he is reaping the fruits of years of equivocation. He waffles, and the whole country knows he waffles.

Some Israelis, discouraged after years of failed opposition to the official policy, yearn for a strong leader who will have the courage to negotiate with the Palestinians. They refer wistfully to De Gaulle and Algeria. But no such leader seems in sight.

Among the people I know in Israel, doves of various kinds, there is a feeling of depression seemingly stronger than any I can recall during previous visits. Highly articulate and deeply political, these people seem disinclined to talk about “the situation.” What more is there to say? Some of the keenest political analysts I know in Jerusalem, generally associated with Labor or groups slightly to its left, could only say that the sole hope of people like themselves was that the Big Powers would impose a solution of sorts in the Middle East. For a local solution they had no hope.

There are optimistic pessimists and pessimistic pessimists. The latter emphasize the weight of popular opinion, ideological pressures, capacities or incapacities of leaders—“subjective factors.” The optimistic pessimists acquiesce in all this, but stress impersonal historical forces, the general trend in the world today toward conciliation, etc.—“objective factors.” But the pessimistic pessimists say that even if one grants the importance of historical forces, they are likely to have an effect only over a longish period of time and meanwhile….

The debate continues. Common to all analyses is a recognition that none of the terrible events of the past several years—not the Lebanon war, not the massacres in the Sabra and Shatila camps, not the intifada even—has yet shaken the Israeli public to the point where the dominant sentiment in favor of toughness and suppression is threatened. My sense of the popular mood in Israel is that it consists of a mixture of arrogance and fear: we can beat those wretched Arabs; the hordes of Arabs may yet overwhelm us. Some friends, reaching for hope, report that the popular mood—as they have tested it in taxis and markets—has shifted just a little. Even “the street,” macho and not a little racist, will at times recognize that negotiations of some sort will be necessary, but not of course with the PLO, and anyway, the Likud will be firmer in negotiations than Labor….

A significant and growing minority of Israelis now speak openly in behalf of “transfer”—a euphemism for the forced expulsion of Arabs from the West Bank and perhaps Israel itself. Actually, a limited “transfer” is already in effect: leading Palestinian militants are regularly dumped into Lebanon. Three Israeli parties, commanding perhaps 10 percent of the vote, bluntly advocate “transfer”—these parties can properly be described as fascist. And this too, I suppose, must be taken as evidence of the “normalization” of life desired by the Zionist fathers.

Within the Palestinian camp internal disagreements, until now suppressed through discipline or, in a few instances, murder, have begun to break out openly. The Abu Sharif initiative, calling for a two-state solution, has yet to receive formal approval: Arafat, wretched opportunist that he is, for weeks kept a tight silence about the statement of his aide, while evidently allowing leaks suggesting that he might, just might, approve such an arrangement. (Even Israeli doves grow impatient; they wish Arafat would say something from both sides of his mouth.)

In Jerusalem, Peace Now called a meeting in mid-July at which a major Palestinian figure, Feisel Husseini, answered questions. An impressive and witty man, Husseini proposed that two states—Israel and Palestine—live side by side in peace. Without either accepting or rejecting the idea of a demilitarized Palestinian state, he at least toyed with the idea. And while he felt that in principle Arabs who left or were ejected from Israel in 1948 had a right to return, he also indicated that in practice this might be a right that would not necessarily be exercised. Agree with all he said or not, and even with allowances for where and to whom he was speaking, Husseini gave the impression of a man with whom serious discussion is possible.

Four days later Husseini was arrested by the Israeli authorities. After a few days Prime Minister Shamir’s office leaked word that it had found in his office a document proposing the creation of a Palestinian government in exile. It was also charged that he is a leader of the intifada. Despite protests organized by Peace Now and other Israeli groups, Husseini has been sentenced to six months’ “administrative detention” (that is, prison without trial), the third time this has happened to him. I would think myself that if he is indeed a leader of the intifada, that is good news since he is the sort of Palestinian with whom it might be possible to deal. But it almost seems as if Defense Minister Rabin chose to detain Husseini precisely because he is a moderate Palestinian—as if to say that for the ruling Israeli elite of both major parties there is little significant difference among Palestinians. True, Rabin also says he is ready to negotiate once the intifada is broken—the sort of thing occupying powers always say. And where does Rabin propose to start his negotiations? In which broiling desert camp?

Some of the Israeli doves are torn, uncertain, tired. Peace Now, which has been the leading peace organization for a good many years now, has lost some of its more militant followers to various small groups—there are said to be about twenty of them—that take more extreme positions. The members of one of these, Yesh G’vul (There’s a Limit), refuse to serve in the occupied territories, and in a country like Israel, where army service has traditionally been seen as a moral obligation, this is a very serious step. So far, only a few dozen young Israelis have followed the Yesh G’vul line; some have been sentenced to prison for a few months.

I was present one afternoon at a meeting of the Israeli-Palestinian Writers Committee, a small group headed by two novelists, the Israeli Yoram Kaniuk and the Palestinian Emil Habibi. The committee had already drafted a simulated peace treaty between Israel and “Falastin” along the two-state approach, signed by a few dozen Israeli and Palestinian writers. Inevitably, this committee has found itself embroiled in the inner politics of the Palestinian intellectuals, and this has made for difficulties. But writers who do not belong to the committee are starting to sign the simulated peace treaty, as if to suggest that what they can do, those in power on both sides can try to do. What impressed me about this small group of writers and intellectuals was not so much the things it had done as the sheer fact that it existed at all, that repeatedly Israeli and Palestinian writers have been able to sit down together and talk peacefully and seriously about points of agreement and disagreement.

Within the Israeli peace camp, however, there are conflicts and rivalries over strategies and tactics. I heard among a few Israeli leftists rather bitter attacks on Peace Now for what they felt was its failure to go “all the way” in accepting the Palestinians as a partner, though it was Peace Now that had presented Feisal Husseini at its forum.

Such conflicts and rivalries are unavoidable in a cause that cannot break out of its status as a minority. I found myself cast back, unhappily, to the late 1960s, when I had been on the “moderate” side in the debates in the American peace movement—had I been right? or righteous? Well, perhaps both: right basically, but wrong in the way I expressed my rightness, sectarian in my very opposition to sectarianism. It was painful to see what looks like a partial replay of all those wrenching quarrels of twenty years ago. Sectarianism is not just a blight of the left; sectarianism is generic, it is original sin.

Right now, given the principled immobilism of Shamir and the tactical flaccidity of Peres, it is the Palestinians who have, or at least could have, the political initiative. They are reported to be considering the establishment of a provisional government that would also recognize the right of Israel to exist. This would surely lead to diplomatic gains for the PLO but not, in the immediate future, to negotiations.

On August 13 Abu Sharif was quoted by Reuters as saying that the PLO is ready to “accept international guarantees for the security of all states in the region—at the top of them Israel.” Shortly after Abu Sharif’s first statement, an important PLO figure, Abou Iyad, had said that Abu Sharif spoke only for himself, not for the PLO; but now in an interview dated August 14 in the Journal du Dimanche Abu Iyad said, “We are thinking about forming, not a government in exile, but a provisional government.” Abu Iyad referred to UN Resolution 181, specifying the proposed partition of Palestine in 1947, but this, he said, did not mean the PLO would insist on the proposed 1947 borders (entirely unacceptable to almost all Israelis); it means, he said, that the PLO is “referring” to 181 as the basis of the UN proposal for “the establishment of two states.” Asked whether this meant recognition of Israel, he replied “Naturally, as resolution 181 contained a precise reference to the creation of an Israeli state.”

What does all this come to? A mere maneuver? Internal jockeying among PLO factions? Inner uncertainties in the minds of the PLO leaders? The beginning of a serious turn by the PLO? It is hard to say. But one thing seems certain: the only decisive step would be an end to these “feelers” and an official, public declaration by the PLO, delivered by Arafat himself, saying where it now stands.

The move now apparently under consideration by the PLO would have the positive feature of disposing, so to say, of its covenant, which proposes the dissolution of Israel, something that only the more extreme Palestinian groups still talk about. Establish a provisional government or government-in-exile and the PLO as now constituted comes to an end—and with it the covenant. But while the “removal” of the covenant would be a positive step, the creation of a provisional government would not be acceptable to the major Israeli parties. The one Palestinian step that might help Labor and its dovish allies in the November election would be for the PLO to recognize the right of Israel to exist but not immediately establish a provisional government. It is highly unlikely that the Palestinians will do this—no equivalent gesture has come from any Israeli in power.

For the moment, the choice in Israel remains one between optimistic pessimists and pessimistic pessimists. From either point of view, a true peace in the Middle East still seems far away.

September 1, 1988

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