Hafez Assad
Hafez Assad; drawing by David Levine


Your duty is to beat off attacks, but the smell of blood must not go to your heads. Remember that justice is in our name, defense [Haganah]; our aim is to provide security for creative work. Your organization is subordinate to this ideal—not its master.

Havlagah (“Self-restraint”) Haganah pamphlet circa 1937

January’s disengagement pact between Israel and Egypt understandably conjures up more than it immediately promises to deliver; how can one resist anticipating the taste of peace? The atmosphere of terror and suspicion on both sides became so dizzying that all other issues were virtually eclipsed. Now it appears that both sides are prepared to recoil from this dependable violence. No doubt, distrust and hatred still smolder, but at least cynicism about the prospects of peace has been rendered frivolous, and the cycle of sin and retribution has been significantly broken.1

Far more important than this new atmosphere, however, is a new political certainty. Whatever the concealed, perhaps sinister, designs of either side, were Cairo and Jerusalem to commit themselves to an over-all settlement sincerely and unambiguously, their first bilateral pact would not look different from the one they signed and executed with meticulous care.

The two main features of the agreement, i.e., the unilateral Israeli withdrawal to the Gidi and Mitla passes, and the Egyptian commitment to reopen the Canal (the east bank of the Canal being partially demilitarized) and to rehabilitate Canal cities, may superficially appear to favor the Egyptians. But this appearance was an important element of the agreement itself and no doubt helped President Sadat with his internal problems. His firing of his hawkish chief of staff, General Shazli, and, more recently, of Hussinein Heykal, the Nasserite editor of Al-Ahram, and their replacement by pro-Western moderates (respectively, Gamsi and Amin) reveal that Sadat’s internal challenges have not been puny. His mass victory celebration in February, to which even Qaddafi came, did not strengthen Sadat’s war potential, only his power to conclude a binding peace.

At any rate, the December agreement has clearly served the strategic interests of both parties. Israel’s lines at the close of the war would hardly have been desirable as a long-term defense perimeter. If the fluid situation in the field hardened into a political border, the Israelis would have faced a continuous war of attrition, or been subjected to wholesale attacks by the reinforced First Army to the west of the bulge and the Second Army to the north. Moreover, so long as the IDF continued to threaten Cairo directly or to maintain its siege on the Third Army, the Israeli government would have had to contend with both the possibility of direct Soviet intervention and growing American resentment as Kissinger was dragged into another diplomatic confrontation with his partner in détente.

Finally, and by no means the least of Israeli calculations, was the severe strain on Israel’s citizen army and already disrupted economy caused by full mobilization. Morale was withering while political disillusionment was running high. The army voted more heavily for the opposition Likud than for the Alignment, and double the national average for the leftish parties. The sandy winds and sobering poverty of “Africa” were abandoned emotionally by the IDF but with little regret.

Nor did Israel’s strategic gains in withdrawing prove to be greater than those of Egypt. A final Israeli strike could never be discounted, and Sadat surely knew that this would cripple Egypt’s diplomatic leverage and put an end to his own political career—this quite apart from what appeared to be his very real concern for the entrapped soldiers of the Third Army.

The more sensitive point however is whether Israel was bullied by the US into giving up an important bargaining card by returning effective sovereignty over the Suez Canal to Egypt and acquiescing in the reconstruction of civilian life in the area. This was the substance of the right-wing Likud’s criticism of the pact. General Sharon attacked the plan, claiming that by giving up the heights which command the Canal ten kilometers to the east, Israel “loses the all-important deterrent to a massive Egyptian crossing.” The Likud demanded at least a declaration of “non-belligerency” in return for the withdrawal (although they usually admit in the same breath that such a declaration would not be worth a damn, particularly as long as Sinai remains largely occupied).

This mechanical argument ignored what should have been obvious: that Israel has a positive interest in Egypt’s economic and social reconstruction of the war zone. And in fact this Cobdenite spirit completely dominated the Israeli government’s enthusiastic response to Egyptian Foreign Minister Fahmy’s announcement that rebuilding on a large scale would be begun even before the pact was fully implemented.

Furthermore, the immediate risk Israel has taken by repatriating the Canal should not be exaggerated. Control of southwest Sinai remains in Israeli hands; and this includes both Sharm al-Sheikh, the point from which a blockade on the Gulf of Suez (not just the Gulf of Aqaba) might be introduced, and the billion-dollar-a-year Abu Rodeis oil fields.2 In fact, one might bluntly contend that it is Sadat who has taken the biggest gamble, and this can be appreciated by imagining his dilemma should progress on a general settlement be seriously stalled—a possibility which, given the delicacy of the other fronts, is not at all unlikely—leaving him with a greatly deteriorated military position.


Sadat, moreover, has openly committed himself to de-Nasserizing Egypt’s economy—selling off state enterprises to private capital, overturning land reform, cutting down the political influence of students and labor unions. He has made it clear that he badly wants foreign capital and corporate technology to develop Egypt’s production; he has been fending off bitter political opposition within the Arab Socialist Union by crowing that his diplomacy has been getting results. It is therefore not surprising that he has engineered so remarkable a rapprochement with Dr. Kissinger—Israel’s new political ringmaster—and has publicly called for immediate diplomatic solutions at every opportunity. He has been told, after all, that in two years he might be facing President Jackson.

Yet the deal with Egypt is still a risk for both sides and remains vulnerable, above all because of the other disputes that can affect it. The Syrian front is much more prickly than the Sinai. The Golan is a stretch of heights and high plains forty to eighty kilometers deep, which both the Israelis and Syrians proved could be traversed in about fifteen hours by large numbers of assault vehicles. Control of these heights by either army menaces the vital heartland of the adversary; the IDF now threatens Syria’s cultural and industrial center in Damascus while for twenty years the Syrian army harassed the Hula Valley, in which lie many of Labour-Zionism’s most important settlements.

The “obvious” solution, i.e., a staged withdrawal combined with demilitarization, would therefore have to be based on a buffer zone so slender that Israel would enjoy little “strategic depth,” a concept which, as used by Israel’s general staff, refers simply to the ability to absorb an attack and remain capable of retaliation, a sine qua non for a citizen army. To succeed, such a solution would seem to require the kind of good will that has been worked out, for better or for worse, with Jordan; but Syrian-Israeli relations are so utterly poisoned by ideological antagonisms and atrocities that a settlement on the Suez model would be remote if the superpowers are not willing to impose it.

Kissinger, at least, is trying to do this. Gromyko has seemed more concerned to maintain a tense situation in which Soviet diplomatic and military assistance will be indispensable. The Israeli paper Yediot Achronot (March 7, 1974) claims that he was instrumental in fanning Ba’ath radicalism against President Assad, a development which heated up the front with Israel, and that he cautioned the Syrian president against over-chumminess with the Americans. With Soviet influence declining in Egypt, the USSR can be expected to hold on to what it can in Syria, while continuing to advocate negotiations in Geneva and détente generally.

General Assad had precariously maintained his floundering prestige within the ruling Ba’ath party3 before October by outdoing the party’s radicals in his extremism and, unlike Sadat, hinging his political fate upon a Soviet-sponsored “anti-imperialist, anti-Zionist, pan-Arab revolutionist,” etc., strategy; the first main achievement of this strategy was to be the “Liberation of Palestine.”4 True, Assad has now moved off this position slightly, releasing the Israeli POW list, and sending a negotiating team to Washington in defiance of the hawk faction led by Foreign Minister Khaddam; but his choices are limited by his own precedents and by Soviet machinations.

For its part, the Israeli government has responded to the Syrian threat with comprehensible but, in view of its own often brutal retaliations, somewhat sanctimonious shudders. In fact, Israeli policy on this front has evolved into a nonpolicy, with little diplomatic flexibility. The Golan was de facto annexed to Israel when it was captured in 1967, and has since been dotted by almost twenty kibbutzim and other settlements (about two thousand people) whose undisguised purpose is to establish the facts of this annexation; settlers here are already stirring up opposition to withdrawal. The tragic death of a young mother last month at Ramat Hamagshimim testifies to the sheer stupidity of removing Syrian guns from the Hula Valley in 1967, only to bring new settlements under the Syrian guns after 1967. But the government persists. A new town is being planned and Mrs. Meir has recently declared the Golan to be “inseparable from the state of Israel.” The claim made in Israel that this is merely a “bargaining position” is hardly a convincing one.


Nevertheless, the Americans, Egyptians, and Saudi Arabians (Faisal wants to see Jerusalem before he dies, not Damascus) are bringing pressure on Assad to approach the disengagement talks seriously, and correspondents in the Syrian capital have claimed that he is reconciled to a cease-fire and troop separation based on the existing situation in the field. Damascus, we should remember, is still within the range of Israeli artillery. Nor would there be opposition in Israel to a unilateral withdrawal to pre-October lines by the IDF in exchange for demilitarization. But can this formula really be expected to satisfy Assad, whose suspicions that this first pact may be his last appear more justified than those of Sadat?

Some hope for a more lasting diplomatic solution may exist with respect to the Syrian city of Kuneitra on the Golan’s southeasternmost tip, occupied by Israel since the 1967 war. Perhaps the rehabilitation of this torn-up city and the return of the 60,000-80,000 refugees who lived in or near it (the Syrians claim 150,000-175,000 for the entire Golan) could prove to be the first positive step toward the kind of peacemaking represented by the Canal reconstruction. The prospects would be even more encouraging if both sides could also grant some degree of municipal autonomy to the approximately 10,000 Druze villagers who before October, 1973, made up the remainder of the Golan’s non-Jewish residents—and if there were also a declared freeze on Jewish settlement subject to future negotiations.

So far however the Israeli government has unanimously taken an intractable stand toward territorial concessions on the Golan; and it will start any negotiations by opposing the return of Kuneitra (so as to leave this card for a “final” settlement); like the Syrian murder of Israeli POWs, this attitude could sour the climate of the talks before they even get underway. Kissinger’s impressive talent for courting the enemies of “imperialism” appears to be in for its most strenuous performance.

The closer we come to talks on Syrian-Israeli disengagement, however, the clearer it becomes that disengagement is really not the main point. In fact it is on the most tranquil military front where the difficulties are intimidating; for Jews and Arabs have been plainly fighting all this time about something more real, if less tangible, than the consequences of their most recent round of war. And it is a bitter irony that the fundamental national-political struggle within, and for, historic Palestine is only emerging into full view after Israel’s savage battles with other nations have been grudgingly tamed.

The long-obscured Palestinian question has now sharpened into a triangular conflict among the government of Israel, the Hashemite monarchy in Jordan, and the Palestinian Arabs whose growing national consciousness now seems inextricably linked to the fortunes of the Palestine Liberation Organization. The Moslem summit meeting in Lahore during late February seems to have iced Arafat’s cake by bestowing upon the PLO (and Arafat personally) recognition as the only legitimate representative of the Palestinian people—a decision which, unlike that of the Algiers conference, Hussein has been forced to accept. The Financial Times (March 5, 1974) reports moreover that the Soviet Union has officially recognized the PLO; should the PLO set up a government-in-exile after the Syrian disengagement (as was decided at the PLO Damascus conference) the latter could probably expect to enjoy the recognition of 103 countries, including the whole of the Soviet bloc.

The Israeli government’s overriding and irreducible concern remains and will remain the proximity of any Arab means of making war on the Jewish state’s heavily populated coastal plain (Ashdod, Tel Aviv, Netanya, Haifa) and on Jerusalem.5 I do not mean to ignore the far more demanding claims of the Likud opposition—a subject to which I will return. But no Israeli government, no matter how dovish, will agree to anything short of a full and effective demilitarization of the West Bank and Gaza Strip—not even the most accommodating Israeli leaders could risk the reintroduction of the claustrophobic siege which prevailed until 1967. But here the problem thickens.

The Israeli government still insists that the “Palestinians” be lumped together with the Jordanian regime. The Alignment’s “fourteen points” of last December, for example, call for a negotiated settlement with a “Jordanian-Palestinian” state. This is a self-defeating casuistry which promotes a very distorted image of real possibilities. Most Palestinian Arabs now living under Israeli occupation (and how much more so those in “Fatahland” refugee camps) regard Hussein as a treacherous and bullying conqueror, who by virtue of his fanatically loyal and Bedouin following (disproportionately concentrated in the senior ranks of the army) had maintained a twenty-year regime of cultural and political repression and economic exploitation of the West Bank. Reimposing Hashemite sovereignty in the occupied territories would irrefutably invite a desperate and concerted wave of terrorist-guerrilla activity by the PLO,6 almost certain to have popular support,7 which might very well crest in another prologue to “Black September”—once more raising the specter of Israeli-Syrian and perhaps even superpower confrontation.8

The little king seems eager to deal with Israeli leaders and they with him. But he is a fossil of His Majesty’s Colonial Office, of T. E. Lawrence and Glubb Pasha and their soaring yet simple-minded imperial visions. And although Hussein now seems capable of handling internal threats from the understandably cautious and generally traditionalist Palestinian Arabs who make up 80 percent of Jordan’s population (how many divisions do they have?), it seems an absurd folly for Israelis to stake their security hopes upon an exclusively Hashemite solution, while claiming that they are indifferent to internal Arab affairs. All moral considerations aside, Israelis are historically bound to Palestinians in a cycle of tragedy and cannot afford the luxury of shortsighted self-righteousness.9

Nor should one assume automatically that cautious and realistic overtures from Israel to the PLO will be fanatically rebuffed. Some of the most experienced and informed Arab experts in Israel believe that it would be both timely and opportune—and no greater risk to security—if Israel now took the initiative by 1) inviting the PLO to begin negotiation, 2) declaring unilaterally that satisfaction of Palestinian national construction will be a favored principle of Israeli policy, 3) offering to participate unconditionally in a tripartite body (Israel-PLO-Jordan, under the American-Soviet sponsorship set up for the Geneva talks) to resettle Palestinian refugees on both sides of the Jordan, and 4) acquiescing in the formation of a Palestinian national council including West Bank and Gaza residents.

Instead, as Professor Shimon Shamir, perhaps the most respected of the experts, pointed out in Haaretz (February 22, 1974), Israeli’s West Bank administration (i.e., Dayan) has even forbidden a delegation from the territories to attend the Damascus conference of Palestinian leaders. But who, as Shamir observed, might better bridge the yawning gap to the PLO than West Bank moderates, merchants, and intellectuals, with good connections on both sides.

The PLO itself now appears in the midst of a fateful internal struggle reminiscent of the vicious one between moderates of the Haganah and extreme nationalists of the Irgun when the Zionist settlers were faced with Partition. By all accounts, Arafat, and recently Hawatmeh—supported by Sadat, Algeria’s Boumédienne, and the Soviets—are leaning strongly to a strategic compromise whereby the construction of an independent Palestinian state would be begun on the West Bank and Gaza; it is further reported that this faction has gained the upper hand on the hard-line PFLP led by George Habash. Even the so-called “moderates” in the PLO still couch their conciliatory line in talk of a “staged struggle,” presumably saving the liquidation of Israel for some future date. But the PLO’s transparent sophistry which called for a “democratic, secular Arab state” in historic Palestine is now dead, and with it, we can hope, a primitive, purely political nationalism lacking in social theory.

Some of the recent PLO statements go farther than ever before in asserting that an Israeli-Palestinian “partnership” must begin by coexistence of two states.10 The name of Anwar el-Khatib, the moderate former governor of Jerusalem, who has retained the respect of both Hussein and the PLO, has been often mentioned as a possible leading minister in a regime led by Arafat. Factions within the PLO are now openly discussing the challenge of creating national economic and social projects. At least a significant part of this still-evolving movement seems to be realizing that fruitful fields and factories engender more dignity than a thousand noble deaths. Most West Bank Arabs will support this approach wholeheartedly; and it is an ideological tendency which Israelis can encourage particularly by proposing bold and imaginative solutions to the plight of refugees.

But any eventual coexistence of Hashemites, Palestinians, and Arabs suffers from a chronic danger. A PLO regime in a newly independent Palestinian state is the least likely to agree to demilitarization. We are not dealing here with the Rhineland or the Sinai. Even the most congenial relations between the Israeli government and the PLO would not dispel the fact that the latter sees itself as a militant, vanguard party, the sole authentic embodiment of Palestinian nationalism. Moreover, the PLO depends on its military command system for coherent political organization, and must establish its rule within a comparatively traditional Islamic society where the force of arms has been perhaps the principal basis for political legitimacy. 11

The PLO’s expected resistance to demilitarization could topple any diplomatic house of cards before it could be reinforced by economic development and face-to-face contacts. This very prospect underlies the Labour-Alignment’s contention that Israel’s security demands no more than one Arab state straddling the Jordan River. But the Labour-Alignment will not be able to dictate to the Palestinians what leaders will represent them. Nor will Hussein. So that as long as the replacement of Hussein seems unthinkable for the State Department, and no significant thaw in Hashemite-PLO relations is imminent, then Palestine appears headed for yet another doomed proposal for partition into Jewish and Palestinian-Arab entities.

On February 22, Maariv reported that Arafat claimed to have been offered the prime ministership of Jordan by Hussein. More interesting than the validity of the claim was Arafat’s denigrating and negative response. More plausible is Haaretz’s report of March 8 that Hussein will shortly inform Kissinger that he foregoes his claim to the West Bank—which would serve only to intensify the quandary of Israel’s leaders.

Moreover, when one realizes that an improvement in Israeli relations with the rest of the Arab world (and the Soviet bloc)—no matter how propitious—will probably not proceed at a much more vigorous pace than the one set by the original parties to the conflict—i.e., Jews and Palestinian Arabs12—then Israel seems cursed with very little room for maneuver. However impatient Sadat may be privately with the PLO, he cannot ignore its rising prestige and its pressures.

Little room is more than no room, however, and every inch ought to be explored by Israeli planners.13 Therefore the question that begs for urgent consideration is elementary: who or what group will emerge from Israel’s murky political soup to assess the Palestinian challenge and make Israel’s diplomatic response? For it is highly improbable that political success inside Israel will directly depend on the winning side’s approach to the vital Palestinian question. In the next issue I will discuss the “political earthquake” (“reidat adama“) which has been taking place inside Israel and whose outcome will, for better or worse, reshape its future.

March 27

This Issue

April 18, 1974