—Jerusalem, early October


The recent Sinai agreement was negotiated in an atmosphere of growing confusion that is new and disturbing for Israelis. Although the economic recession has led to a sharp rise in emigration—some estimates range as high as 20,000 a year during 1974 and 1975—there is no feeling of pessimism about Israel’s being destroyed. Most Israelis still accept the endless rounds of reserve duty, the tedious vigilance against terror, and their bitter isolation from other countries as the price of survival, which they take for granted.

What is more deeply worrying are the visible signs of uncertainty among the Israelis about the goals of their extraordinary staying power. The reassuring conviction of the last eight years that there was a broad consensus about national purposes has been put in doubt. 1 So long as there seemed nothing more to contend with than unyielding Arab, enmity, typified by the Khartoum Resolution of 1967, the popular slogan ein breira (“there is no choice”) was comforting, if macabre. Now that Israelis face some real choices they must also face up to their internal divisions.

Writing in the daily Ma’ariv just before Kissinger’s arrival, the Hebrew University philosopher Shlomo Avineri revealed some of the ideological turmoil lurking behind what often appear to be merely tactical issues. Zionism, he argued, was intended to liberate and revive not Jewish lands but Jewish people. What was significant was Avineri’s evident sense of urgency that this elementary principle must now be reasserted and defended. For the prospect of withdrawal from the occupied territories is bringing to the surface a central but long-neglected question: Is merely producing more Jewish power an end in itself?

Particularly since the war of 1967 Israeli leaders have assumed with moral certainty that the efficient use of force is the key to survival—not only strategically but culturally. The military became glamorous, its leaders uncritically revered, and some of the more fanatical right-wing commanders of pre-1948 Zionism became approved folk heroes.2 More important, the occupation of the Golan Heights, the West Bank, and especially the Old City of Jerusalem seemed to provide not only the tangible guarantee but also the symbolic vindication of the Zionist project. Even Israel’s paper currency has begun to depict different views of the Old City’s walls; the portraits of workers, scientists, and poets are being discarded.

This policy of encouraging, or tolerating, various kinds of Jewish settlement in these conquered territories has engendered a cult of the land, a spiritual élan heavily laden with vulgarized religious mysticism and messianic righteousness. And such sentiments have become much more decisive in Israel’s politics than any strategic value the settlements may have. Many young Israelis have been schooled in continual war and lack the political sophistication of older generations: as one talks to them, and observes their vehement demonstrations, one realizes that withdrawal from these territories would now mean repudiating the heroic destiny which they see as justifying all their sacrifices.

In its most strident form, this political feeling has now found a political voice in Gush Emunim—literally, the Front of the Faithful—a nonparty movement composed of “religious” radicals, young members or sympathizers of the right-wing Likud, as well as a mixed bag of war heroes, cultural figures (e.g., the songwriter Naomi Shemer), and West Bank and Golan settlers.3 Boastful about the IDF’s military prowess, arrogant and narrow-minded in their interpretation of Jewish “self-determination,” they lately have become the hard core of opposition to compromise on the occupied territories and to diplomatic initiatives. When Henry Kissinger came to Jerusalem, Gush Emunim sent thousands of young men wearing knitted yarmulkes into the streets, its demonstrations leading to violent clashes with the police. It showed it could muster over 25,000 people in protest against the Sinai accord.

However, these impressive demonstrations were not necessarily an accurate measure of Gush Emunim’s political strength. According to the polls, perhaps 70 percent of Israelis—some of whom took to the streets themselves in less impressive marches—were willing to approve of September’s interim settlement, although they did so equivocally and tensely. But Gush Emunim’s influence is potentially much greater than its present members might suggest; for it has succeeded in boldly expressing ideas that more conventional Israeli leaders have been unwilling to challenge openly for a decade. It proclaims, for example, that occupying and setting the West Bank are not merely tactically necessary but must be celebrated as unifying “Eretz Israel.” Gush Emunim has grabbed the center of the stage in a drama in which Rabin’s still tottering government has been unwilling to take part.

Indeed, since the job of prime minister fell into his lap over a year ago, Rabin has been reluctant to embroil himself in any controversy about the shape of Israel’s future. He has instead been cautiously and persistently committing himself to the path of least resistance. He replaced Shula-mit Aloni’s dovish group in his coalition with the National Religious Party, which insists that the entire West Bank must stay in Israel’s hands for the religious and “historic” reasons. He then pandered to rightist agitation in the La-bour Alignment and in the NRP by acquiescing in the accelerated pace of surreptitious Jewish settlement of the West Bank. Attempting to silence attacks from the Likud, he took its flashiest and most popular leader, General Arik Sharon, on to his personal staff—Sharon advocates holding on to the West Bank and the Golan forever—secretly promising that he would be chief of staff in 1977. And during the Sinai negotiations of last March Rabin made his reckless demand that Sadat agree to “nonbelligerency”—a demand that his foreign minister Yigal Allon was willing to forgo, and that was a principal cause of the collapse of Kissinger’s mission.


Since then Kissinger has obviously been determined to provide Rabin with a very different path of least resistance. During his brief visit to Washington in June, Rabin was made to feel that Israel’s relations with the Ford Administration had nearly been wrecked in March and had to be salvaged. Ford and Kissinger told him that American interests in the Middle East—both economic and strategic—would be compromised if Sadat’s “step-by-step” progress toward Washington were impeded by Israeli “inflexibility”; and in case Rabin had difficulty persuading the people back home of this, they dramatically announced that they were “reassessing” the entire Mideast situation, including military aid to Israel.

As I have argued in these pages before (NYR, January 24, 1974), the October war was bound to convince Kissinger and both presidents he served of what the State Department has been asserting for many years, namely that the Persian Gulf is not a place where Israel can be counted on to act as a US police agent, even with the Shah’s implicit cooperation. Pax Americana would be better served, no doubt, by enlisting the support of Cairo and the more active cooperation of Riyadh, both of them eager to outfit themselves with American arms and logistical equipment. The prospect of petrodollars seems to be effectively silencing pro-Israel hawks in the Pentagon; and although the traditional solidarity with Israel of the US Congress is steady, this support could prove ephemeral.4 Since the Sinai accords, the Congress has been slower than ever before to come across with money and arms for Israel.5 If the McGovern Report is any indication, a sizable number in Congress are committed only to the “little Israel” of before the 1967 war—not to American support for an indefinite Israeli occupation.

The last few months may not have vindicated Kissinger’s statements that what is good for America is good for Israel. But they have convinced Israel’s political leaders that what Kissinger sees as bad for the US can be made to be disastrous for Israel. Consider, for example, the recent behavior of Yitz-hak Navon, the highly respected chairman of the Knesset Security Affairs Committee. He is a member of the tough-minded Rafi faction of the Labour Alignment, a crony of Defense Minister Shimon Peres—the leader of those who pressed Rabin to take a hard line during the March negotiations. Beginning in early August, Navon campaigned hard in favor of a new agreement without so much as mentioning Egypt; an open breach with America had become unthinkable.

In forcing Israel to agree to the September bargain Kissinger showed some grasp of Israeli politics and particularly of their current breaking point. He offered the Israelis relief from their fantasies that they would be “sold out,” while allowing them to avoid facing any of the large questions about the future of the occupied territories.

So far as the Sinai was concerned, the chief of staff Mordechai Gur had already abandoned the static defense strategy which dominated Israeli planning since the war of attrition of the late 1960s. He openly approved of the new line of defense and expressed satisfaction at getting the highly fatal military hardware—including the Lance missile—which had been held up since March. Even the Likud hardliners had to agree that a surprise attack across the new buffer zone—with its UN soldiers, its electronic warning devices, and promised US technicians—would be next to impossible. The loss of the Abu Rodeis oil fields will be more than regained if Israel receives the $2.3 billion Kissinger promised for its arsenals and its limping economy. 6

As for Sadat, he renounced the use of force, agreed to let Israeli cargoes through the Suez canal, closed down the independent PLO radio in Cairo. Yet Kissinger provided him with a clear victory. The unilateral pullback of Israeli troops from the Canal Zone and the oil fields allows the Egyptian leaders to claim that, unlike Nasser’s, their 1973 attack won a political battle. As Shimon Shamir, the leading Israeli Mideast expert, has argued, Sadat might now be expected to devote more attention to the staggering problems of Egyptian poverty with the help of Western aid and technology. He can count on $250 million in US funds, $300 million a year in new oil revenues (above domestic consumption), as well as substantial savings on Lloyd’s insurance rates for canal shipping.



The Sinai agreement thus satisfied some real interests, pulled Egypt further away from the USSR, allowed Kissinger to show he could put on yet another extravaganza—all of which obscured its reality, which is that it is no more than an elaborate cease-fire between two parties to a many-sided conflict.

Rabin himself admits that the pact offers no more than a chance to “buy time”—but he cannot acknowledge openly that several time bombs at once are meanwhile ticking away. If the pact is providing “momentum,” as Kissinger insists, it is as much toward collision as toward conciliation. For it remains a Mad Hatter’s affair, each side refusing to say what it means by “peace.”

Most conspicuously, the agreement takes no account whatever of the Palestinian question—a deliberate omission because neither side could make a single concession about Palestinian rights that would not have caused an uproar of protest at home: if Rabin had vaguely agreed to “Palestinian self-determination,” he would have risked his government’s fall. The tacit solution was therefore to put the future of the Palestinians at the bottom of the list of Mideast problems. But the Palestinian issue is the crux of the conflict, and the longer it is evaded the more repellent any of the conceivable solutions become for one side or the other.

In Israel hatred for the PLO is running high, incited in large measure by the relentless terrorism and slanders of the Palestinian leaders. Israel meanwhile frequently bombs the Lebanese villages where PLO forces are known to hide out but where civilians are inevitably killed. One hears rumors of “moderate” factions in Beirut, of Ara-fat’s dwindling power. But, with only a few exceptions, such as Said Ham-mami, the London representative of the PLO,7 the PLO leaders go on flatly denying Israel’s right to exist. Nor has any alternative to the PLO even begun to show itself in the political vacuum the Israelis have foolishly created on the West Bank.

More immediately threatening are the new dangers on Israel’s frontiers with Syria and Jordan. Few people in Israel expected that Hussein, America’s old protégé, would engineer an alliance with Syria, the leader of the so-called “Refusal Front”. of pro-Soviet countries (including Iraq and Libya). Since he was dealt out of the Rabat conference a year ago, Hussein has continued to collaborate with Israel on civil services on the West Bank. But during the last six months he has agreed to coordinate his military policy with Syria, stopping just short of a joint military command. He threatens openly to turn to the USSR if he doesn’t get the elaborate air defenses he wants from the US. Although Hussein has been trying to mediate between Egypt and Syria,8 Jordan would now be a serious threat to Israel in any future war.

What is so troubling for those Israelis who still hope to return the West Bank to Hussein—and that hope is still the government’s official position—is Hussein’s apparent feeling that he now has nothing to lose. He seems to have given up any hope of undoing the PLO’s support, whether in the UN, the Arab capitals, or among the West Bank Palestinians. He has to swim rather than sink, and the current has swept him toward Damascus. Defense Minister Shimon Peres has had to take this new alliance seriously; and he has ordered a hardening of Israel’s positions all along the Jordanian front.

As for Syria, the dangers of war on the Golan Heights, instead of quieting down, as Kissinger implied they might, have now become seriously menacing. Claiming to fear that Sadat will make a separate peace, Assad, encouraged by the Russians, has been threatening to play a dangerous game of brinkmanship with regard to the UN forces on the Golan, whose mandate runs out in November. At the UN, his foreign minister Abdul Khaddam denounced the Egyptians and the US for breaking up Arab unity and called Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians far worse than anything done by the Nazis. If he did not absolutely reject any new negotiations, he came very close to doing so.

If this blustering continues, the elimination of the UN buffer zone, narrow as it is, would be terribly dangerous. Both the Israelis and the Syrians are capable of pre-emptive strikes. Assad could well try to improve his bargaining position and to undermine the Egyptian accord by a new war of attrition—something that paid off earlier, during the disengagement negotiations in 1974. And should fighting with Syria break out, all of Kissinger’s schemes would quickly unravel. No doubt with this in mind, he told Israeli journalists that he expects to be back here in the fall and that he does not believe that the obstacles to an interim settlement on the Golan are insurmountable.

Here we can see clearly the trap in which Rabin finds himself. While the Syrians seem nearly to have shut the door on talking with Israel, and while the Israelis insist at the UN that they are eager to talk, Rabin himself has told the Israelis that, so far as an interim agreement is concerned, the “room for maneuver” on the Golan is “next to nothing.”9 But as long as he refuses to discuss the Palestinians, only interim agreements can be placed on the agenda. Rabin, moreover, did not simply mean that the Golan, in contrast to the Sinai, is only forty to sixty kilometers deep. He was begging a far more volatile question.

The effect of last year’s disengagement pact with the Syrians was to leave Israel’s Golan border running along the ridges that overlook the |string of new settlements which Mrs. Meir’s government impetuously constructed on the territory conquered in 1967. First conceived as a security measure, these settlements quickly became a pretext for outright annexation. Any interim pact with Syria—no matter how “cosmetic,” as Rabin likes to put it—will either place these settlements in jeopardy or mean that some will have to be abandoned. Sources close to the government are whispering about a so-called “octopus” formula, by which the relatively narrow spaces lying between the settlements would be ceded back to Syria, thus leaving the settlements themselves “intact.” But you cannot weave a border in and out of a settlement and expect the men and women who live there to have much faith in their future.

It seems far more probable that the fight will be waged over the present line—and any wavering over that line could bring down Rabin. In late September Gush Emunim organized a march of 5,000 demonstrators to the Golan. The marchers, moreover, included a good many members of the left-wing and usually dovish Shomer Hatzair kibbut-zim—which shows how powerfully attached to the Golan Israelis have become. Indeed, Rabin recently has been aggravating his own problems by approving more settlements on the Golan.

No doubt Kissinger could try to force another interim pact through the Knesset. But this time it would likely mean that those Labour politicians who have proclaimed that “settlements are not erected only to be withdrawn” would have to eat their words, and some will gag. And although Rabin appears to have gained control of the Mapai party, the pliable and largely dovish core of the Labour Alignment, his own party and government risk being pulled apart by powerful politicians who won’t compromise on the Golan settlements. For example Israel Galili, Golda Meir’s old political fixer, was the minister who originally presided over the Golan annexation after the 1967 war. He will likely oppose any move from the present line, carrying with him some of those in the Achdut Ha’avoda faction in the Alignment. The mainly hard-line Rafi faction, whose position is advanced by key ministers such as Shimon Peres and Gad Yaacobi, may find an American-dictated Golan agreement sufficient pretext to bolt to the Likud. (Three Rafi backbenchers, including Dayan, already voted against ratification of the Sinai pact.)

Reserve General Mati Peled, who served under Rabin for many years, suspects that Rabin, more concerned with staying in power than anything else, fully expects to be “forced” back to the 1967 borders by the Americans. But Rabin’s political gains have been dramatic mainly in an opportunistic sense. Rather than confronting his opposition, he has been making concessions to it. He is still not powerful enough to impose Kissinger’s will upon Rafi nor, when it comes to a showdown, can he expect to claim more than approximately fifty-five seats in the Knesset—i.e., six short of a majority.

For Rabin’s coalition with parties outside the Labour Alignment is already under heavy strain. The politically devout old guard of the National Religious Party has been hard-pressed by its young and mystically, inclined fanatics who are closely connected with Begin’s Herut faction of the Likud, and more so with the crusaders of Gush Emunim. These old Religious Party leaders will not sit in a “defeatist” government, unless it were made clear to them that this is the only kind of government in which they can sit, i.e., should Rabin exploit his new and perhaps temporary popularity by calling a quick election and winning a personal mandate. Even the usually tame leaders of the Independent Liberal Party have been making perfunctory threats to abandon the government over a Golan withdrawal.

Nor can Rabin derive much consolation from the dovish left. Mapam leaders have been threatening to quit if Rabin refrains from proposing an overall settlement; and these noises must be taken more seriously now that the declining Mapam party will have to compete with a serious new dovish coalition for the votes of the leftist kibbutz members. In late March Lova Eliav finally left the Labour Party, joining with Shulamit Aloni, Mati Peled, and others to form the Yaad (“target”) group. Together with the “New Left” Moked party, they control five Knesset seats and have a good chance of gaining more in the next election.

But although Yaad’s leaders are skeptically determined to support Rabin on the Sinai withdrawal, Lova Eliav himself told me that he regards the “step-by-step” strategy as doomed unless it can be linked to progress toward a settlement of larger questions. He and most of the Israeli left are pressing for a direct confrontation with the Palestinian problem: they want Rabin to make it clear that Israel will negotiate with those Palestinians who recognize that Israel exists. They contend, persuasively, that this will convert the Golan and Sinai questions into a haggle over real estate and security guarantees, instead of a bitter dispute over a principle on which Israel must anyway compromise. Indeed, they have declared themselves prepared to join in bringing Rabin’s government down over the Palestinian issue.

Even a token withdrawal on the Golan promises to become a bitter struggle over the basic principles of Zionism. Since 1967, most streams in political Zionism have taken a decisively rightward course, associating the practice of Jewish social and national reconstruction not with the painful tasks of developing a modern and pluralist Jewish civilization, but rather with “Jewish” sovereignty over lands and the fulfillment of “historic rights.” The Golan has become a symbol of choice between the Israel that offers Jews realistic political autonomy and the one that promotes a Jewish Risor-gimento.

As the focus shifts to the Golan, Rabin will be facing the first really serious test of his leadership. Political manipulating, which he has executed so successfully, will no longer do. Moreover, Rabin will have to be tactful, for the government coalition he has inherited has been largely responsible for the frenetic and romantic nationalism he will have to confront and discourage if he is to bring off future diplomatic accords. He cannot begin merely by cracking the heads of the Gush Emunim. Its intense young members are seen as zealous patriots, and they are after all fighting to save the homes of settlers who, at much personal cost, settled in occupied territory with the government’s backing. Rabin’s difficulty will be compounded further by the persistence of open Arab hostility which has always led Israelis to make seductive conclusions about the saving value of military power.

But this is a test Rabin can simply no longer avoid. Events have made him prime minister, and events now require him to be a leader. He is clearly not, as Lova Eliav wittily says, a “sphinx. with no secrets.” But Rabin has been a highly timid politician with a constituency far too small to support the prospect of withdrawal he now seems to accept tacitly but cannot forthrightly defend. Unless he can quickly capitalize on the esteem with which he is for the moment regarded by a majority of Israelis10—i.e., unless he wins a mandate to pursue with Kissinger a policy of compromise on the occupied territories before the situation deteriorates on the Golan Heights—it is difficult to see how the new agreement can be a prelude to anything but more bitter tension and, ultimately, to conflagration.

This Issue

October 30, 1975