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The Deadlocked City’: An Exchange

To the Editors:

While I generally agree, as usual, with most of Amos Elon’s observations about Jer- usalem in his “The Deadlocked City” [NYR, October 18, 2001], may I point out what I found as a factual mistake of some significance?

Elon writes that “if Israel had not annexed East Jerusalem in 1967 and planted 200,000 settlers there, it could have had peace with Jordan in the early 1970s.” Regardless of what one thinks about annexation, Elon is wrong in his claim regarding Jordan. As director-general of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs I participated in the late 1970s in some of the secret meetings held by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Foreign Minister Yigal Allon with King Hussein of Jordan. Needless to say, the King was extremely unhappy with Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem. Yet this was not the reason he was unwilling to sign a peace treaty with Israel. Time and again he emphasized that he could not be the first Arab ruler to sign a formal peace treaty with Israel, because of the ostracism—and worse—that would come from the Arab world, and from his own mainly Palestinian population. As everyone was saying, and as the King himself repeatedly maintained, he would be willing to be the second Arab ruler to sign a peace treaty with Israel—and a compromise regarding Jerusalem was never ruled out by him in these private talks.

What happened to a much stronger and more stable country like Egypt, after it signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1978 when it received back all its territory from Israel—practically all Arab countries cutting off diplomatic relations with Cairo, Egypt’s expulsion from the Arab League, eventually the assassination of President Sadat—all suggest that King Hussein’s fears were not unfounded. When Israel made its agreement with the PLO in 1993, King Hussein was able to follow, and in the peace treaty with Jordan Israel recognized the special role the Hashimite Kingdom would play regarding the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem when a final peace treaty with the Palestinians would be signed.

A minor comment on the Mount Scopus campus of the Hebrew University: one may disagree on the architecture, but I don’t know where Elon got the idea that “few professors use their oddly shaped offices [and] most rush back to West Jerusalem as soon as their courses are over.” If Elon would have visited Mount Scopus he would have seen that most teachers do use their offices on a daily basis, the campus and its libraries are thriving with thousands of students, most of whom live on campus—and, incidentally, many of the younger faculty members do not live in West Jerusalem, but are among the “200,000 [Jewish] settlers” who now live in East Jerusalem.

Shlomo Avineri
Department of Political Science
The Hebrew University
Mount Scopus, Jerusalem

Amos Elon replies:

In recounting only what took place in secret talks between Israel and Jordan during which he himself was present in “the late 1970s,” Mr. Avineri does not mention what had happened earlier.

There are good reasons, both direct and indirect, to believe that had Israel not precipitously annexed the former Jordanian sector of Jerusalem soon after the 1967 war, in violation of both international law and the express wishes of the Palestinian inhabitants, and had it not simultaneously launched the disastrous settlement project on the West Bank, peace with Jordan might have been a very real possibility. Both Yaakov Herzog, then director-general of the prime minister’s office, and Foreign Minister Abba Eban thought so at the time.

Herzog has since died, but I am sorry that Eban has not yet publicly reiterated what at the time he told newspapermen on an “off the record” basis. We were told then that King Hussein of Jordan, in several meetings with both these men and other Israeli representatives between 1968 and 1972, was offering peace if Israel withdrew from East Jerusalem and restored the rest of the occupied West Bank to Jordan. This, we were told, was totally unacceptable to Israel and was therefore rejected, even though Hussein was said to be ready for concessions regarding the Western (Wailing) Wall and the adjacent ancient Jewish quarter of the Old City.

In the intoxicating atmosphere after victory in a sudden war mystically named for the Six Days of Creation, Israel rejected Hussein’s offer. It insisted that what was by then euphemistically called “reunited” Jerusalem (including the former Jordanian sector) would be Israel’s national capital lanezach nezachim (“for ever and ever”). Israel further expected Jordan to cede the entire Jordan Valley from south of the Lake of Galilee to the Dead Sea, as well as much of the heavily populated Palestinian area between Jerusalem and Hebron, including Bethlehem. This was the so-called Allon plan of June 1967, named after Labor Minister Yigal Allon. Allon, later Avineri’s boss in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, personally backed the first successful settlement attempt by religious fanatics (first as illegal “squatters”) into the predominately fundamentalist Muslim town of Hebron. As a result, Hebron became the festering source of dark hatreds and violent clashes that culminated in 1994 with the massacre by a settler of thirty Palestinians praying inside the main mosque.

Between 1967 and 1978, Yigal Allon expanded his “plan” to include several other heavily settled Palestinian territories. At his urging, the original squatters’ colony of Hebron was officially adopted and subsidized; the government built the settlers’ houses on confiscated private land and surrounded them with barbed wire and searchlights from high watchtowers. (Pier Paolo Pasolini on a visit to Israel at the time was quoted as saying that only Jewish masochists would reconstruct in their own country the architecture of the Nazi concentration camp.) Parts of the main local mosque were handed over to the settlers to serve them as a synagogue. I remember asking Allon at the time why he insisted on approving such drastic steps. He answered, condescendingly, that the Palestinians “must simply learn” to live with us. As for peace with Jordan, he added, sooner or later Jordan simply had to make peace with Israel. It had no other alternative if it wished to survive.

In view of what has happened since, Avineri, too, might deplore Israel’s shortsightedness at the time. The government was rightly criticized at the time by Avineri himself; he was one of the first who publicly came out in favor of Palestinian self-determination. He did not go as far as some of his colleagues at Hebrew University who warned that the settlement project on the West Bank was sheer madness: in human consequences an inexcusable crime; in political terms, a disastrous mistake.

Israel might have been well served had it not been so adamant, so hungry for more settlements, so committed to a false notion of “secure” borders. Even if the Israeli leaders pushed their eastern border a dozen miles further east, in this age of advancing weapons technology they would still not be more secure, especially if this came at the expense of another movement for national liberation. On the contrary, as in nineteenth-century Europe, a border could never be deemed secure unless it made the other side feel insecure, thus assuring the inevitability of the next war.

The year 1967 was a watershed. It gave new life to the Palestine Liberation Organization, which up until then had been an insignificant, marginal little group, oppressed by both Jordan and Egypt. At the same time 1967 also opened new prospects; for the first time since its foundation Israel had something to offer in return for peace. Peace became possible, at least with Jordan and Egypt. It is true that in their famous Khartoum resolution, the Arab states resolved not to recognize, not to negotiate, and not to make peace with Israel. But within months, Jordan was directly negotiating. It is now known that in the late 1970s, even as Prime Minister Golda Meir was publicly lamenting, “If they would only sit down with us!,” Eban, Allon, Herzog, Dayan, and others were negotiating directly with Hussein but never reached an agreement because it always had to be on Israel’s terms. King Hussein was even exchanging gifts with Dayan and Allon, usually precious guns or swords and other war toys. If Israel had been more realistic, more conscious of the historical forces released by its conquests, Hussein of Jordan might indeed have become the first Arab leader to make peace.

Successive Israeli governments convinced themselves that peace was not essential, but territory was. Time was on Israel’s side. No government was more unreal than that of Golda Meir, who claimed there was no need to hurry. Poland and the Soviet Union had also annexed conquered German territory after the Second World War. As for the Palestinians, she added on one occasion with acid maternalism, “There are no Palestinians. I am a Palestinian.” By the time Avineri met the Jordanian king seven years later there already were so many absolutely “unnegotiable” faits accomplis on the West Bank and in Jerusalem, the King no longer dared to be the first.

If an accord had been reached with Hussein in 1967–1968, the so-called “Palestinian problem” would not have disappeared. But it would have reverted once again to being mainly Jordan’s problem instead of bedeviling Israel, as it does to this day, corrupting domestic politics and its legal system and poisoning Israel’s relations with Europe and the US over three long and bloody decades. During this time, the political system has fallen into the hands of religious fundamentalists, nationalist fanatics, and cynical secular politicians who claim they know exactly what God and Abraham had agreed upon in the Bronze Age.

In addition, over the years, Israel’s economy became precipitously dependent on cheap Palestinian migrant laborers; the legal system was corrupted by the almost constant refusal of the courts—including the Supreme Court—to act against gross violations of human rights in the territories. Numerous draconian measures were adopted by the military administration, and upheld by the courts. These included imposing collective punishment on entire families for the transgression of one person, the blowing up of family homes, the imprisonment of tens of thousands of Palestinians without trial, and the massive confiscation of land for ostensibly “public” purposes but in reality only to serve the needs of 400,000 Jewish settlers.

If Israel had been more imaginative after the 1967 war, such horrors might have been prevented. Many wounds, especially those of the dispossessed Palestinians, would have continued to fester, perhaps for years. But a settlement of their just claims and rights might have been more feasible if the West Bank had been evacuated by Israel and also, perhaps, if land had been made available across the Jordan. Israel, of course, would have had to assume its share of responsibility for the dispossession of Palestinians in 1948. Peace might have given Israel the courage to do so.

All of this sounds like a pipe dream today; but it must be considered. The best solution was never attainable. The worst—we can see it now daily—might have been avoided. There were alternatives available but they were not taken because of decisions made or not made. What is the use of studying history if not to see why decisions are or are not made and by whom? Otherwise, historiography would be little more than the useless record of one damned thing after another. Things happened as they did not because they were inevitable. It might have been otherwise.

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