Menachem Begin
Menachem Begin; drawing by David Levine

Prime Minister Begin has appealed to Americans friendly to Israel, and especially to American Jews, to back up his government. The present course of the Israeli government, however, seems to be working against, not in favor of, its own interests, and it is important to see why.

Five years ago even the steps taken last November by President Sadat toward conciliation and recognition of Israel would have been unthinkable. It would be tragic if, five years from now, we look back on his visit as a missed opportunity. It would be particularly damaging to Israel if its own recalcitrant diplomacy were held responsible for failure in 1978. For Israel to live without peace is a sufficiently bleak prospect; even worse would be growing doubts by Israel’s friends whether its pursuit of peace was as sincere, flexible, and determined as its own interests require. The current rigid and unforthcoming position of Israel’s government—although not necessarily its public opinion—has already caused such doubts to arise.

Israel’s government seems to assume that if peace cannot be achieved now a more favorable settlement will somehow be more likely later on. After all, the chances for peace have seemed more promising this year than perhaps ever before. If Sadat were willing to break ranks with his Arab allies and come to Jerusalem in November, why shouldn’t even more favorable conditions emerge in the future?

This could be a disastrous misperception. To be sure, Sadat’s initiative was partly born of despair and frustration, and it is far from clear that it can yield a just peace. But if it fails, this example of a more conciliatory approach by an Arab leader will be seen as futile and cautionary to other nations If Sadat falters, the prospects of a settlement will be dim, at least for the next few years; and this result will be more harmful and costly to Israel than its leaders seem willing to recognize. Time is working against the Israeli government’s position for several fundamental reasons, including the increasing pressures on its economy; its changing demography; its waning military superiority; and the dangers posed to its relations with the US.


Few modern industrial economies have burdens comparable to those of Israel today. Its tax rates may be the highest in the Western world. Its foreign debt amounts to about $10 billion, close to $3,000 per person. Strained as its economic resources may be, its budget and its budgetary deficit continue to mount, largely because of defense spending, which consumes a portion of its GNP higher than in any other nation: 32 percent in 1975 compared with 23 percent in Egypt, 9 percent in Iran (which was arming rapidly), and 6 percent in the United States. The figure has grown since.

The defense burden, of course, adds heavily to Israel’s balance of payments deficit and to its frightening rate of inflation. In 1977, in spite of exports valued at $6 billion, Israel’s payments deficit was nearly $3 billion, of which a major part was spent for weapons. Indeed, of total defense expenditures, about half were paid for in foreign currency. As arms become more sophisticated, and therefore not as easily produced in Israel, payments in foreign currency will have to increase. And mounting payments deficits clearly contribute to the inflation rate which, according to some estimates, will approach 50 percent during the current year.

The implications of these figures are certainly bleak. The more sophisticated weapons now being planned will increase considerably in cost. If there is no peace, Israel will want to have them, especially since its Arab adversaries will probably be adding the most modern arms to their own arsenals, whether they are provided by the Soviet Union or purchased by the rich oil nations. How will Israel acquire the arms it will consider essential for its security? One possibility is increased US military assistance. But is it reasonable to assume that this will be available without at least some strings attached? And won’t such aid increase Israel’s dependence on the US and diminish its own freedom of action?

The alternative is to demand that the Israeli population make even greater sacrifices to divert a yet larger portion of its resources to defense. But there are serious limits here. It is sad to contemplate the future of Israel if more and more must be spent on security and therefore less to sustain its economic, cultural, religious, and social life. Won’t a rising number of young and able Israelis emigrate? As a country that has been so largely built by immigrants of the first and second generation, Israel risks a sizable loss of Jews, particularly those who are among the more recent to have arrived.

What is more, if Israel is to validate the sacrifices that it expects of its people and fulfill its own destiny, it must remain a strong center of Jewish cultural, educational, scientific, and religious life. If Israel spends still more for security, less must remain available to maintain a vital Jewish culture. The cutbacks and sacrifices already being demanded approach the limits of what its people will freely accept. Considerable numbers have already left. More than 300,000 Israelis have come to live in the United States. Should many more Jews choose to leave, the demographic balance between Israelis and Arabs within the lands occupied by Israel will only worsen.



Who is an Israeli and who will be one? That is a central question in the current confused situation. If Israel continues to assert claims to the West Bank, as Begin’s government has, Israel’s indigenous Arab population will grow. If Gaza were also to be incorporated, then, on the basis of present comparable birth rates, there will actually be an Arab majority well before the end of this century (unless there is sizable Jewish immigration). If Israel is to continue as a Jewish state, these Arabs cannot become Israelis in large numbers. But if they are not to be Israelis, what will they be? In this period of perfervid nationalism, in which even minuscule ethnic groups assert the right to form a national state, some reasonable solution for Palestinian ambitions must be found. If not, the emotions and energies of the Palestinian people will continue to explode throughout the Middle East in ways that can only undermine peace, not to mention Western interests.

This issue stands at the heart of the present stalemate in the Middle East. Israel is profoundly wary of a Palestinian state and rightfully suspicious of any dealings with the PLO in view of its current unwillingness to accept the existence of Israel. At least half a dozen different approaches to the Palestinian issue have been suggested, ranging from confederation with Jordan to elections in the West Bank under international supervision. Perhaps they are all unworkable. But what is clear is that Israel has taken such a hard line on restoring territory and allowing self-determination that it must bear large responsibility for the stalled negotiations. A distinction must be drawn between reasonable demands that Israel be protected against attack and Mr. Begin’s present intransigence, which is based on historical and ideological claims to a greater Israel. Not only does Israel’s failure at least to explore a more flexible approach seem unjustifiable but its own peace plan is doing it harm.

First, the Begin government’s selective redefinition of UN Resolution 242 claims that Israel has no obligation to withdraw even partially from the West Bank. This definition isolates Israel from all its major allies and puts it in conflict with them; it also denies the official commitments of previous Israeli regimes while being vigorously opposed within Israel itself. For a nation whose security depends so heavily on the US continuing to provide arms, from one administration to another, it is hardly prudent to change positions taken by previous regimes in this way. Moreover, when Begin, as an opposition leader, voted against the Labor government’s acceptance of 242, he must have assumed that it did apply to the West Bank; otherwise, what need was there to oppose it?

Second, Israel’s plan is likely to create some second-class rights of citizenship for the Arabs who would remain in the West Bank (and perhaps Gaza) under its tutelage and occupation. This is suggested in Begin’s December peace plan, which would permit those Arabs local rights of self-administration but not full participation as Israeli citizens. But if Israel plans to absorb most of those Arab lands it now occupies, it will either end up with an indigenous Arab majority or it must set up a system for distinguishing the rights of Jews and of Palestinian Arabs that can only appear discriminatory. The Jews, after suffering horrendous losses from discrimination in the past, cannot themselves assign other ethnic groups an inferior status in the one state they call their own.

Which leads to a third problem, the risk of internal subversion and terrorism. Israel’s hard opposition to a Palestinian state, or entity, assumes that it will be taken over by extremists committed to the destruction of the Jewish state. That may be a legitimate fear. But it would be erroneous to assume that a large frustrated ethnic minority living within the territorial boundaries of the Israeli state would not pose an equally dangerous threat. It may be easier to contend with the animosity of a nation state, separated by clear boundaries, than with domestic terror. To control widespread terror means applying measures that affect one’s entire population. Curfews and restrictions cannot be applied selectively when populations intermingle. But to curb the civil rights of a large minority creates great sympathy for those whose rights are denied. To include a huge and deeply frustrated Arab minority within Israel hardly seems preferable to allowing that minority to form its own state—a relatively weak state whose freedom of military action would doubtless be subject to stringent international restrictions.



Perhaps the most frightening prospect of all for Israel is its diminishing margin of security. Israel may be more secure today than it can be in the future, not only because of the threat of internal terrorism I have mentioned but because of the mounting costs of weapons and the expense of military preparedness. Heretofore, Israel has always possessed a clear superiority in weapons over its Arab adversaries. But is this still a realistic goal? There are several reasons why Israel may not be able to sustain its military advantage into the 1980s and beyond.

First, as I have said, the cost of new weapons will mount sharply. Several Arab nations—Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Libya in particular—will have cash surpluses allowing them to acquire much larger and more costly arsenals, either for their own armies or to be shared with other Arab states. Planes can be moved swiftly from one nation to another. It is for this reason, among others, that Israel is so concerned to stop the sale of F-15 fighters to Saudi Arabia. But Israel will not be able to deny sophisticated arms to all its potential Arab adversaries, some of whom will seek to acquire them because of potential threats to and from one another.

If Saudi Arabia seeks to match the military power of Iran or (potentially) Iraq, how can Israel stand in its way? And yet Israel cannot prevent weapons from being used in a common Arab defense—or offense. Such a common front becomes all the more likely when we consider that because of Israel’s exposed position—and its memories of the way in which the Yom Kippur war began—Israel will likely strike first if it fears attack. Even if the Saudis do not intend to use their planes against Israel, the circumstances surrounding the outbreak of a war might lead them to share those planes with Egypt or Jordan. A risk of this sort could, in turn, tempt Israel, if it expects attack, to make preemptive strikes on Saudi airfields.

Saudi Arabia is currently spending about $8 billion on defense. It could easily spend more. If Israel can prevent the Saudis from purchasing sophisticated weapons from the United States, then they will buy them elsewhere. Indeed, they already buy much of their military equipment from Britain and France. If the most modern planes cannot be acquired from the United States, it is not inconceivable that Saudi Arabia would confinance French or British production of equally sophisticated fighter planes in the future. And the Saudis are not alone. Libya and Iraq, with its vast recent oil finds, will also have the funds to obtain very advanced weapons.

This prospect suggests that Israel’s ability to prevail in future wars may diminish. So will its ability to defend its civilian population if missiles based in Syria (and perhaps operated with Soviet help) are used in any major conflict. Partial destruction of Tel Aviv or Haifa would be devastating for Israel. Even in the Six-Day and Yom Kippur wars Israel suffered losses that, as a percentage of its Jewish population, approach or exceed the overall losses sustained by the United States during the entire war in Vietnam. The gigantic costs of another round of war could have a shattering effect on Israel, even if it won on the battlefield.

What this means is that Israel may lose one of its main political weapons: the threat to vanquish its enemies in another war. The experiences of all past wars, from 1947 to 1973, have created a conviction both in Israel and in the Arab world that Israel has the greater military strength, to be drawn on as circumstances require. Another war fought with extensive casualties could destroy this conviction and could, in fact, sharply limit Israel’s ability to choose to go to war when threatened.

There are additional security problems. As General Peled wrote recently, the current Israeli boundaries are expensive to defend. Before 1967 only a few thousand men were needed to police Israeli borders. Now several divisions are required, creating a cost that is unlikely to diminish if Israel remains as the occupying force on the West Bank. Would it not be more efficient to pass on that cost to Jordan by returning substantial portions of this territory? Israel has already shown itself vulnerable to wars of attrition; to mobilize reserves for occupation and patrols is very damaging to its economy. The invasion and occupation of Lebanon have not only cost millions each day but have disrupted domestic production and services as reserves have been called to arms.

All of these costs still can be absorbed by Israel, although they are increasingly onerous. The country still has a margin of superiority in weapons over its enemies. It has never lost a war on either the civilian or military battlefield. But time may well be changing this balance.


American aid to Israel is already immense, far greater on a per capita basis than for any other nation. As I have suggested, Israel will have to seek more aid from the US. But is it reasonable simply to assume that the US will supply what is requested? Much depends on whether Israel’s claims are convincing. It is one thing to guarantee Israel’s security against pernicious external threats. It is another to expect the US to provide Israel with arms superiority and economic credits if Israeli policies themselves appear to be an obstacle toward peace.

The question for Israel is not simply whether the US will send arms but what conditions will be attatched to them. In so far as US and Israeli interests seemed to merge, this problem did not arise. During most of the Sixties and early Seventies, the US government considered Israel as its principal ally against Soviet penetration of the Middle East while the US was losing the war in Vietnam. By the mid-1970s conditions had radically changed. First of all, Sadat removed his Soviet advisers and shifted sides. Then, after the oil embargo and price increase, other anti-Soviet regimes became far more prominent. Clearly Egypt and Saudi Arabia have now become major allies of the United States, both of them offering, as does Israel, effective collaboration against Soviet expansion. The Saudis in particular have done much to advance US policies against the USSR. They have given military aid to Zaire and Somalia when the US would have been embarrassed to do so. They sold oil at reduced prices to both Taiwan and South Vietnam (before its collapse). These policies, along with enormous loans to third world countries, have served the purposes of the State Department and the White House, whatever some may think of those purposes or of the Saudi regime itself.

But of even greater importance is the vast and growing wealth of the Saudis and the other Gulf states. By 1980 the Arab cash reserves derived from oil will amount to well over $100 billion. Already over $40 billion of Arab money is invested in the United States or in US financial instruments. The Saudis are buying some $1 billion in US Treasury bills every three months, notwithstanding the decline of the dollar. They have held steady the price of oil. And they are major purchasers of American products and services. In 1976 alone, according to a recent estimate, Saudi Arabia contributed $8.8 billion to the US balance of payments through purchases of one sort or another.

Who can deny in 1978 that any American government would now see its interests as falling on both sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict? That is why the Carter administration has been so eager to promote the prospects of peace. Without peace, the US will continuously face conflicting choices, pitting Israel and the anti-Soviet Arab nations against each other. If a settlement becomes likely, a common interest could emerge among the US, Israel, and the “moderate” Arab nations, bound together by what they would perceive as a common set of enemies: the Soviet Union, international communism, and the threat of radicalization within the Arab world, sponsored, for example, by such regimes as Libya’s or Iraq’s.

It is only to be expected therefore that the United States will make arms available to both sides while stipulating conditions for their use. Israel will have to learn that it does not have an exclusive claim on American interests and policy in the Middle East. The United States cannot jettison Saudi Arabia and Egypt without risking both economic disruption and Soviet gains. And it cannot afford to identify itself unconditionally with Israel’s hard-line positions without antagonizing some Arab regimes whose cooperation it finds essential to deal with a world that is increasingly interdependent, short of energy, and financially precarious.

I fear that the current Israeli leaders have not perceived this fundamental shift in American priorities. Instead, the recent visit of Prime Minister Begin suggests they have a static and obsolete approach to the United States. Of course Israel’s political influence here is still powerful; but it will not serve Israel’s interests to drum up American support for its unpromising peace program and against the US government. Sadat is unlikely to pursue a settlement while Israel demands control over large additional territories for historical and ideological reasons. And, as I have argued, acquiring those territories will increase the risks to Israel’s security.

This view seems to be shared by a growing number of Israelis. The Labor opposition has taken issue with much of the Begin peace plan. The Democratic Movement for Change, which still remains in the cabinet, rejects Begin’s settlement policy and his selective redefinition of Resolution 242. Defense Minister Ezer Weizman has advocated a more flexible approach. And Israeli public opinion seems to be shifting. A recent letter of 300 reserve officers to the prime minister emphasized that peace should have greater importance than retaining the occupied territories. Some 35,000 Israelis attended the rally to protest Begin’s intransigence upon his recent return from Washington.

For the prime minister to ask Israel’s friends here to support such a doubtful and controversial policy is to misuse the vast influence that is today still available to Israel in powerful circles in this country. That influence is bound to wane as the attractions of the Saudis, the Egyptians, and the other anti-Soviet Arab regimes, if they play their hands well, grow larger. How sad it would be if Israel used its privileged position merely to ward off pressure and postpone a settlement to an indefinite date.

When that settlement comes, not only will its terms have worsened for Israel, but Israel’s influence within the United States will have decreased as that of others grows. The singular opportunity available today to Israel—and to no other nation—to shape its destiny by using its American friends will have been thrown away. This cannot be in the long-term interests of Israeli security. And if this is true, those who care for Israel cannot do as its prime minister has asked. Israel should settle now, if settle it can. In view of the opportunities at hand, and the grim price of refusing them, Israel’s friends cannot advocate anything less.

This Issue

May 18, 1978