Jerusalem, late December

The aftermath of the October war is still very much before us, but Israeli society is already gripped by the urgency of “drawing conclusions” (“hasakat maskanot“). Indeed, the name “Yom Kippur War,” tentatively assigned by the Israeli press, seems to have stuck fast for reasons far transcending the actual day of attack. For the pain, introspection, and grim self-criticism which Jews so vigorously exercise on Yom Kippur have become, for the present at any rate, a way of life. This is a society facing its short-comings; the achievements can wait.

Internal political criticism has become stormy among a citizenry recognized for its insatiable political appetite and its generally patronizing approach to its own political leadership—even during the most tranquil periods. Each new assault on hitherto sacred cows (golden calves?) has led to feverish assaults on others; no one, nothing is immune. One must be cautioned, however, that the high voltage which the present public debate is generating should not be conceived as a threat to national unity, or to the fundamental authority of government to decide issues of peace and war. It is precisely the Israeli’s sense of social interdependence and the ultimately “for better—for worse” resignation characterizing the relations between Israelis and their governments that have made this intensity of critical debate possible. Only a couple each of whose partners is secure in the other can enjoy the constructive luxury of brawls, particularly in the midst of authentic crisis. The disenchantment here is with policies, decisions, and deciders, not with the Jewish national project.1

Premier Golda Meir, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, and Minister Without Portfolio Israel Galili, a special adviser on security affairs, are obvious preliminary targets, for they bore, indeed usurped, complete civilian responsibility for defense. The defense watch-dog committee of the Knesset has long been starved into paralysis, and the government as a whole was not consulted or advised about the deteriorating condition on the borders until four hours before the outbreak of hostilities. No doubt, Meir, Dayan, and Galili presided over a remarkable victory by military standards; but Israelis have other standards. Two thousand five hundred killed is a staggering setback to a life-hungry society. Nor are there joy and comfort here from the casualties inflicted on the other side. Quite the contrary. 2

There is, moreover, an unqualified dissatisfaction with the state of the country’s defenses at the outbreak of war. For Israelis get their “real” news from their husbands or sons at the front, and the stories filtering back from the Syrian front suggest that only the perfectly heroic skill and sacrifice of Israeli sons (baneinus), coupled with Syrian logistical incompetence, prevented destructive incursions into productive northern heartlands. On the Egyptian front, furthermore, there appears to have been such a shocking breakdown of communications that the General Staff’s “full alert” was not executed by the Southern Command.3

That Israelis draw inspiration and confidence from the dependable idealism of the Israeli Defense Forces (Tzahal) only increases their skepticism about what the disgruntled ex-Labourite Shulamit Aloni has dubbed “Golda’s Defense Kitchen” (“ha’mit-bach“), which had smugly dictated defense policy, operation, and expenditure for the last five years. Dayan, who had placed himself above criticism on defense matters, and who is generally suspected of having forced an intransigent line on the ruling coalition of “Labour Alignment”—against the explicit opposition of Mapam—by threatening to bolt the party to form a government with the coalition of right-wing parties,4 the Likud, is paying a double price, not only for his apparently faulty command but precisely for having flaunted his political indispensability. There has been very strong opposition to his remaining as defense minister in the next government, although his charisma, albeit tarnished, and his very close ties to Golda Meir still compel one to see his political future as uncertain.5

Israel Galili, on the other hand, faces more immediate political challenges. His name has become synonymous with the government’s lethargy in making peace initiatives because of his leading role in producing the “hawkish” and now unofficially defunct “Galili Document,” and then in cooperation with Dayan grafting it onto the Alignment. The “Galili Document” was a patchwork of plans for selective settlement of the occupied territories and indifference to Palestinian national aspirations, and was predicated on a Dr. Pangloss view of Israeli deterrent power. It has now been superseded by a highly syncretic but decidedly more dovish “fourteen-point program” which emphasizes territorial concessions and recognition for Palestinian Arab self-determination. I shall refer to this new document later, but the extent to which its acceptance compromises Galili’s position in the government is unquestionable.

A long-time friend of Golda Meir (her translator into “nice Hebrew”) and de facto leader of the Achdut Ha’Avoda faction in the Alignment, Galili has lost his constituency, it would seem, to Vice Premier Yigal Allon, an outspoken “dove”—particularly in his attempts to find creative solutions to Israeli-Palestinian political conflicts—whose new found political courage6 makes him a strong candidate to form a new government should Mrs. Meir step down or, though this is unlikely, be forced out by the party “machine.” Mrs. Meir, as a matter of fact, seems to be the only member of the “kitchen” whose position remains stable.


It now seems indisputable, nevertheless, that Israelis are no longer prepared to tolerate Golda’s “democratic centralism” when the IDF, their most precious national asset, is involved.7 Indeed, there is a vocal public nostalgia for the days of Ben-Gurion when the IDF was not run by the fiat of folk heroes, but by rigorous standards of merit, noninvolvement in politics,8 and efficiency. This, of course, may be a somewhat idealized view, but one which all seem eager to believe in the wake of Ben-Gurion’s recent death, and the memories of a noble epoch which a three-day national mourning aroused. It is widely felt that the extent of the Arab surprise in the last war, in planning and execution, was, by comparison, caused by a withering of vigilance which often accompanies arrogance and elitism. This is a society which is not cynical about democracy after all, and the first surge of public outrage directed at the “failures” (“ha’mechdalim“) of government leaders and senior officers, and their practices, has temporarily been stifled only by the appointment of a Judicial Commission of Inquiry, unprecedented in its prestige, independence, and discretionary power.9

However, it would be simplistic to suppose that Israelis, or at least a significant number of them, will now be satisfied with merely a clarification of purely technical failures when the very political and strategic assumptions which these techniques were intended to serve are seriously eroded. Over these assumptions a decisive political battle has been taking place within the Alignment since mid-October. As I have said, the political vulnerability of the “kitchen cabinet” (Meir-Dayan-Galili) has not been ignored by the established opposition within the party. Maverick “doves” such as Yitchak Ben-Aharon, who resigned from the powerful Histadrut leadership to get closer to the action, and Arie Eliav, an ex-general secretary of the party, who has been waging his fight against the “Troika” out in the open for two years, have been pressing the initiative and Mapam has also been stirring.

But what now seems even more significant is that moderate ex-Mapai power brokers—the “fire extinguishers”—such as Finance Minister Pinhas Sapir and Tel Aviv Mayor Yehoshua Rabinovitch, and even steady apparatchniks such as Party Secretary Aharon Yadlin and election campaign chief Avraham Ofer, seem all to be committed to a new style and substance of leadership. The “fourteen-point program” was their victory, and Sapir seems to have tamed Eliav at the marathon Central Committee convention which adopted it, with a secret promise of a cabinet post for a committed dove. Mrs. Meir, it is true, will probably remain a secure leader, however modulated, out of deference to her magnetism,10 but the political wind sniffers broke openly with her at this meeting.

The writing on the wall is, after all, printed in block letters. In mid-December the polls showed the Alignment and the Likud running neck and neck each with about 30 percent of the votes,11 with a huge 30 percent undecided. Shulamit Aloni’s Civil Rights faction showed surprising strength. Moked, the left-wing splinter party, drew unprecedented crowds (two thousand in Tel Aviv on a Friday night) and seemed to be making real inroads in the Kibbutzim with its pragmatically dovish program. Moreover, over 46 percent polled agreed that at least “some territorial concessions” are now necessary, and only 20 percent insisted that no territory should be returned.

Granted that “territorial concessions” seems a rather simple-minded reflection of a complex problem, nevertheless the term has become an accepted litmus test of a willingness for diplomatic flexibility. The Alignment Party machine churned out election propaganda claiming that it is the only strong peace party and that a vote against it will “split the left.” This has worked before. But, at least this time, the “machine” has felt pressured to deliver more than empty socialist rhetoric; some leaders will go, or, as it is more commonly claimed, they “will fly“—an expression revealing the almost comic relish with which so many Israelis anticipate the cashiering of government ministers.

Meanwhile, during November and December the press and the articulate public set a very peppery tone of debate. Petition campaigns flourished, led by hitherto politically inactive but extremely influential men: distinguished scholars (Talmon, Rottenstreich, Avineri, Shamir), writers (A. B. Yehoshua, Amos Oz, Amos Elon), ex-generals (Mati Peled, Meir Payil), actors (Hannah Maron), and, of course, kibbutz leaders (Dan Sion, Muki Tzur), and hundreds more; and if there was a common theme to the various petitions it was that all peace initiatives must now be attempted, with due regard to fundamental national security. The most impressive campaign was an abortive12 attempt to force all parties to reopen their “election lists” so that a new leadership, such is the implication, might have been chosen more democratically to deal with the “new” situation.


“So what’s new,” as it were? Is there not a depressing familiarity about conflict and war between Jews and Arabs? Yes, but the catchwords, “new situation,” refer not to the supposed constancy of Arab enmity, or to the chilling specter of “Jewish fate,” but to the real and now more evident strategic alternatives which appear to have existed all along for the Israeli government to explore, but to which Golda and her leadership addressed themselves only with unambiguous claims that no such alternatives had existed.

For a start, the notion that the Israeli Army has had no choice (Ein breiras) but to sit on the Suez Canal and dig in on the heights overlooking the road to Damascus until Egypt and Syria respectively agree to direct negotiations with no preconditions appears to have been a poor strategic decision even under the very worst of scenarios which would reflect the very worst of Arab intentions. The sorry fact that nobody ever called Sadat’s peace bluff, if it was a bluff (he did after all make clear rumblings about “recognition” and “peace” to Jarring, and in an interview with de Borchgrave, if Israel would agree, in principle, to return the whole of Sinai), is only coincidental to the more central point that a unilateral withdrawal from the canal, with strongholds left to, say, a UN Emergency Force, might have ironically served Israel’s strategic interest.

The elegant image of “security borders” was blown apart by two thousand artillery pieces. For as Dayan himself contended in a wholly plausible response to early criticism, the IDF, being mainly (four-fifths) a reserve army, cannot sit eyeball to eyeball with professional, standing, continuously mobilized Arab troops. Israelis have a country to build, he rightly observed, and simply cannot sit at the front in numbers sufficient to repel a massive first strike. Also, a preemptive first-strike is ruled out13 for political reasons (i.e., American reasons), as is even a full reserve mobilization at every sign of “smoke” (for the practical reason that Sadat’s threats and maneuvers could have turned the IDF into a gigantic yo-yo—at forty million Israeli pounds a spin). Thus the inescapable conclusion must be that “security borders” are rather short on security—particularly and tragically for the 500 to 600 boys who manned the Bar-Lev Line when hostilities broke out.

Granted, the war was fought on the Golan and in the Sinai, not near Israeli populated areas. But in an age of missiles only a mutual balance of terror has precluded a dreaded new wrinkle anyway.14 Besides, as Mati Peled and Meir Payil, both reserve generals, have pointed out, a new war should not have to be fought near Israeli cities in the future, for surely this at least is a durable consequence of the Six-Day War. The extent of Israel’s territorial sovereignty is not the point. The real question, they continue, is whether the ceasefire lines offer more security than demilitarized zones; the latter being a possibility which the government had steadfastly opposed, conjuring up the image of fleeing UN troops in 1967.

But, the generals argue, was that situation strategically so bad? The proof of the pudding is in the tasting. Any military infringement by Arab armies upon another UN-controlled buffer zone would be an immediate and mutually understood causus belli, would provide the Israeli command with a clear and unambiguous signal cum time for calling up the reserves, and would impose on invading Arab armies precisely that kind of fast-moving wide-open battle at which the IDF excels, and in which Israeli air superiority can be far more decisive. The upshot of their arguments is that, on the contrary, “security borders” invite battle on the worst possible terms for the Israeli fighting man, and any distinction between the relative security of the Israeli fighting man and the security of the state is slim indeed. The loss to Israeli society of so many of its finest young men—breadwinners and fathers—is incalculable; their deaths in bloody slugging matches on Mt. Hermon or on the Canal is particularly bitter.

For what now seems clear in all of this is that Dayan, Meir, and Galili understood “security borders” to mean not borders which are properly defensible, but merely borders so radically disadvantageous to enemy Arab states that the latter would not dare to attack Israel again. In other words, borders which are secure because they are unlikely to be attacked, but which are paradoxically anything but secure as soon as they are. One is tempted to recall Abba Eban’s description of the UN Emergency Force in 1967: “an umbrella which is removed as soon as it begins to rain.” Dayan’s borders seem to have withstood the test even less successfully. The government’s contention that Israel must not permit the re-creation of those conditions which invited war in 1967 now appears to be a remedy far more fatal than the disease. And it is a remedy that in the process closed off any chance for a meaningful Israeli peace initiative.

It is, of course, anything but clear that Israeli peace initiatives might have led to a productive response from the other side. Internal Arab propaganda is still virulently anti-Zionist, and no one would want to test Arab claims that this war was only fought to “liberate territory” and that they would have stopped at the ceasefire lines of 1967. But, as Professor Shimon Shamir, head of Tel Aviv’s Shiloach Institute and the country’s main Arab watcher,15 has recently claimed, whatever the beneficial results of aggressive peace-probing (e.g., encouraging moderate circles on the other side?), it is certain that Israeli intransigence did not merely spar with a stable Arab “enmity,” as Professor Harkabi, a pro-hard line Arab expert, liked to put it. Instead, this intransigence transformed the very nature of Arab struggle; that is, from the quixotic and periodic chauvinist outbursts of 1967 and before to a full-scale national effort in which all domestic and international resources were mobilized—from a “holy war” of pan-Arab pretensions to a war of “just liberation.”

The continued and explicitly indefinite occupations appear to have been a political blunder, moreover, for the latter seem to have forged a national unity in Syria and especially Egypt (we must deal with the Palestinian question separately), which was certainly unprecedented—and all the more remarkable in view of the stunning class divisions that had to be overcome—and which was bound to erupt in acts of “lunacy.”

This brings us to a final point about “security borders.” The policy presupposes that in the final analysis the only dependable political weapon at Israel’s disposal is the IDF invincible. The “final analysis” was consequently acceptable. Not only would a tough posture supposedly discourage Arab attacks, but it had turned out, or so the government understood, to be the vital link that guaranteed American backing despite, and ironically in service of, very real American interests in the Arab world. America, predictably, was ready to acquiesce eagerly in a powerful IDF periodically knocking out fully equipped Soviet clients—burned-out Soviet tanks cannot assault the Persian Gulf.

The actual dynamics of the Arab-Israeli conflict are, for American interests, quite irrelevant. After all, where were American arms from 1948 to 1967 when they were no less necessary and when American Jews were no less restless? But as Kissinger pointed out on a visit here in 1969, American support is not unconditional. Israel must maintain its dominance in the area “alone” and cheaply, for America can neither risk alienating the Gulf states beyond the breaking point,16 nor see its projected détente with the Soviets deteriorate beyond repair. Consequently, as her policy unfolded, Golda was required to prove Israel ever more invincible to her American patron in order to keep open Israel’s only source of arms. Nor did she abstain from the cold war rhetoric which was music to Nixon’s ears,17 including implied support for American intervention in Vietnam which shocked all but the most “realpolitikal” of Israelis.

Israel thus became committed to a policy which ironically made not only its genuinely pacific political objectives (does anyone really believe all that “Trot” nonsense about Israeli “imperialism”?) but also the continued support of its only powerful external assistance dependent on an almost naked military superiority. But now that the emperor seems to have at least fewer clothes, and Americans are rediscovering their traditional and obvious neutrality, many Israelis are understandably perplexed.

For Israel has sacrificed its relations with the Afro-Asian bloc and the Soviet bloc, and its romance with the international left, out of the conviction that these were all unimportant in comparison with the fundamental strategic need to keep the IDF sitting in strongholds, and “in the game.” The most frustrating lesson of the last war seems to have been, however, that the IDF may defeat the Arab armies a score of times without achieving Israeli political objectives. For the relative military power of each side is far from the only determinant of political outcomes in the Middle East; at least, that is, for the Arab states, who enjoy the endless support of the Soviet Union (war has been the latter’s entering wedge), and almost as great a quantity of oil.

There is for Israelis, however, a more painful point. The IDF is precisely a people’s force. It is not a Foreign Legion. Sadat can cold-bloodedly threaten to sacrifice a million Egyptian soldiers in order to achieve his objectives, but Golda Meir cannot. The IDF is not a political card that can be continually played; it is not a political card at all. It is a civilian defense force—highly motivated, highly trained, and highly efficient, but its morale and willingness to sacrifice must never be abused. In the long run, cynicism within the IDF about cavalier or shortsighted political decisions will threaten it far more effectively than SAM missiles. And there is a vague, retrospective uneasiness here that the government’s use of it over the last five years may have overstepped this pragmatic and moral limit. The prime minister of Israel is not authorized to endanger a single soldier’s life in order to prove Sadat a lunatic.

The Palestinian issue is, of course, more tender and more tricky. Maximalist Palestinian nationalist aspirations still require the dismantling of Jewish national existence—and, despite Qadhafi’s recent offer in Paris (where is the CIA when you need it?) to make this suicide as painless as possible—it is clearly a blueprint for continued bloodletting. No Jew in Israel, of course, faults the government for not taking such offers seriously, and for remaining vigilant against terrorism. But there is a growing sentiment, nevertheless, that the stubborn reluctance of Israel to recognize the principle of Palestinian Arab self-determination and thereby help to cultivate a politically independent group of Palestinian leaders and organizations within the occupied territories was a badly wasted opportunity.18 Surely this might have complemented Israel’s humane policies of normalizing productive and social relations there.

Instead, despite open borders with Jordan and a healthy abstention from press censorship, Israeli authorities severely curtailed fresh or dissenting political activity in the territories and relied on the traditional Jordanian elites and political institutions. My own conversations with the Arab merchants of Jerusalem suggest that the prestige of Arafat, and even of Habash, has never been higher, and it is gallingly clear that this is mainly by default.

The educated and prosperous Palestinian bourgeoisie of the West Bank, and in the Persian Gulf “corporate refuge,” comprise a natural constituency for a moderate nationalist regime, progressive with regard to rapid economic development, expansion of social services and utilities, and even progressive toward labor relations, since they would still have to compete with the high standards for working conditions set by the Israeli Histadrut. Moreover, the members of a moderate regime of this sort might be reasonably expected to reconcile themselves to Israel’s existence, however much they resent it, for the reparations and the attraction of enhanced future prospects which such an approach would bring. But neither the political potential of the resident Palestinian bourgeoisie (there is no developed working class) nor their reasonable suspicions of the Jacobite Fedayeen (the terrorist groups) have been given growing space. A political elite requires more than an appropriate ideology or a power base to assume leadership; it requires some history of political success, organized cadres, and a recognized appeal—who should know this better than the Labour-Zionists?—but among Palestinian Arabs today there is a serious poverty of choice.

Hussein remains unlikely to inspire the loyalty of Palestinians. He is hated by them for his excesses of “black” September, 1970, and moreover Egypt and especially Syria would not want to settle the “Palestinian issue” by turning it over to Hussein. But Israel is now boxed in to a pro-Hussein solution, along the lines perhaps of the federation which the Hashamite king had proposed last year but which had hitherto been rebuffed. Israel must now grasp for an accommodation with Hussein because any development of indigenous political leadership among the residents of the “territories” was narrow-mindedly thwarted amid Golda’s sanctimonious and esoteric arguments that she was a Palestinian and that there can be no “third” Arab state in the area.

One must only hope that the situation can still be salvaged and that the power which Arab extremism and the Israeli government’s inertia have bestowed on the Fedayeen does not torpedo Israel’s chances for an over-all settlement. As of this writing, the Algeria Conference and the Soviets have sanctioned the PLO under Arafat as the only legitimate representative of the Palestinians, Hussein has about-faced and agreed to attend a peace conference even if the PLO is there, and Kissinger is reported to be secretly committed to a “third state” idea; but the Alignment’s new “fourteen point program” is absolutely opposed to anything short of a Palestinian-Jordanian federation. For although the Israeli government officially and belatedly recognizes that no settlement can be possible without accommodating sensible Palestinian national demands, it understandably cannot contrive the amnesia to overlook Arafat’s murderous escapades. Yet who else is there?

These words are being written in late December. Before us lie bitter Israeli elections, a peace conference, more great-power jostling, and fully mobilized armies. Yet despite the turbulence there is timidly hopeful talk: about a Druze buffer state to separate Israel from Syria; a reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis in a way worthy of the Jerusalem experience; about staged withdrawals leading to joint Egyptian-Israeli patrols of a demilitarized, repatriated Sinai; of cultural exchanges and trade; of peace. It strikes one as so Utopian precisely because it all sounds so reasonable.

The conclusion of the Yom Kippur liturgy heralds the messianic age with a robust sounding of the shofar as if the single-minded introspection of the preceding day can in some way help to bring about the millennium. This motif is not absent from Israeli society as it emerges from three months of Yom Kippur.

Postscript: January 2

The December 31 elections will likely produce a flurry of assessments presuming a clear rightward shift among Israeli electors. But closer analysis confounds this picture. Recent events have strained mechanical party loyalties to the breaking point, and even in retrospect there is nothing to suggest that the great number of voters who declared themselves undecided (some 30 to 35 percent) were insincere.

The Alignment did indeed present itself as the party of peace initiatives, and it dangled before the voters the image of a new collective leadership untainted by October’s failures. But the Likud, on the other hand, was more than anything else the party of protest. Likud gained eight seats but did not gain them all at the Alignment’s expense. In the light of the way votes were scattered in municipal elections, I am not persuaded that the Likud could have deprived the Alignment of three or four of its seats had the voters’ desire to punish the government been satisfied, i.e., had a new Alignment leadership, which paradoxically promised to be a good deal more dovish than the present one, actually taken over before the elections. Moreover, we should not ignore the four or five seats which the Alignment lost to left-wing splinter parties such as Shulamit Aloni’s Civil Rights group and Moked, whose supporters are politically energetic and can be counted on to give these seats disproportionate significance.

Nevertheless, the most dramatic result of the elections was not that the Alignment declined but that it recovered. For its late rally depended on a large number of astute Israeli voters being ready to swallow the contradiction of supporting the Alignment in order to repudiate the very policy that an Alignment government followed during the last four years. Labour’s peace strategy seems to have been rewarded.

Still the final distribution of seats leaves the formation of a stable “peace” cabinet no easy matter. An implicit coalition of the left remains a seat or two short of a simple majority; and Rakah, the pro-Moscow Communist party depressingly popular among the Israeli Arabs, would never be invited to hold the balance with its four seats.

Labour’s present coalition partners, the religious parties, won their predictable sixteen seats, which have usually been added to Labour’s plurality in the past. But these groups have now incorporated into their platforms opposition to territorial concessions in “Judea and Samaria,” i.e., the West Bank, promoting, in a way worthy of Feisal, Jewish territorial claims for historic and religious reasons. The religious parties will probably not want to abstain from the government coalition for they would have little raison d’être in opposition, and an association with Likud is still impossible for them. But their influence may well strengthen the present government leadership and force the competing factions within the Alignment into an insufferable dead-lock.

So it would seem that, short of a major rift within the religious parties, the election has provided only a mandate for Israel’s participation in Geneva’s first phase, having to do with a disengagement of forces; a coherent policy on more complex issues, especially on settlement with the Palestinian Arabs, will almost certainly require another round of elections.

This Issue

January 24, 1974