The indefatigable editors and sponsors of New Outlook, the monthly of Israel’s peace camp, convened an international symposium in Washington on October 27. “Eminent scholars and statesmen,” as the announcement put it—Israelis, Palestinians, and Americans—were invited to talk about solving the Palestinian problem. As with an earlier New Outlook conference in Israel, this one was intended to show that a dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians could and should take place. To have prominent Israelis talking to Palestinians in Washington might impress American politicians and American Jews, might suggest that the Begin government is partly responsible for the siege against which it is struggling. The participants were expected to do what Begin will not do—endorse Palestinian self-determination, insofar as this would be consistent with Israeli security. In full view of President Carter and the Zionist Organization of America, they would discuss the kind of two-state solution that Israeli and PLO officials might eventually negotiate.
New Outlook’s first conference, held in November 1977, was widely viewed as a success since it seemed a “prelude,” as the New Outlook editor Simha Flapan grandly remarked, to President Sadat’s “historical visit to Jerusalem” later that month. Unfortunately history’s cunning of reason was not on the side of Flapan’s little magazine this time. The conference had its poignant moments but these mainly pointed up the deep dilemmas that have already stalled the Camp David autonomy plans and that were bound to leave many of the conference participants bitterly divided.
As for the participants themselves, it must be said that they were not exactly what the conference organizers had in mind. One purpose of the symposium had been to find a way to bring together West Bank mayors (e.g., Karim Khalaf, Faid Kawassme), well-connected Palestinian intellectuals (Walid Khalidi, Edward Said) and others loyal to the Fatah leadership in the PLO, and the centrist doves of Israel’s Labour Party. Such dovish Labour Party politicians and intellectuals as Abba Eban, Yossi Sarid, A.B. Yehoshua, Uzi Baram, and Micha Harish have met with West Bank Palestinians in the past. But a meeting in Washington, unlike one in Nablus, would be seen as a move toward mutual recognition by Labour and Fatah leaders. For even if all the participants came as individuals, even if neither side claimed to speak for their movements, it would still be clear that they would not have come to Washington without the approval of people higher up. An important precedent would have been set. Or so the New Outlook organizers hoped.
Those who showed up at Washington’s International Inn for this wedding of sorts, however, were immediately discouraged to find neither the bride nor the groom present. Just before the meeting was to begin it became clear that neither the West Bank mayors nor the Labour Party doves were coming. Conspicuously represented instead were young people of the Israeli “Peace Now” movement, which is not a political party and is mainly concerned with protesting new West Bank settlements and calling for an end to Israel’s rule over Palestinians. “The government of Israel,” it holds, “should conduct negotiations with any Palestinian body which accepts the path of negotiation as the only means of solving the Middle East conflict.” Endorsing this view in Washington were people from Mapam as well as the civil rights leader Shulamit Aloni and some prominent academics. And there were also the leaders of Israel’s Sheli Party, including Lova Eliav, Matti Peled, and Meir Peil, all of whom have broken with the Labour Party and advocate a bolder policy: direct talks with the PLO and peaceful co-existence with a new Palestinian state.
But neither the Labour Party nor the PLO would allow themselves to be represented at the conference. Professor Hisham Sharabi, the editor of the Journal of Palestine Studies, and the fiery West Bank Palestinian writer Raymonda Tawil came; both are known to have good connections with Fatah leaders. But they appeared at the meeting expressly to denounce any attempt to circumvent that leadership, and to attack the conference’s strategy—of inviting West Bank mayors to come as individuals—as an insulting attempt to do so. So even before it began the symposium failed.
Why will Labour and the PLO not put themselves into position to conduct serious talks? In Labour’s case the reason cannot be as simple as PLO terrorism, for Shimon Peres is known by insiders to have discussed with Austrian Chancellor Kreisky the possibility of contact with Fatah officials last year.* The newer problem seems to be that Labour has picked up the scent of power, and Peres (along with Chaim Bar-Lev, Yigal Allon, Chaim Tzadok, and the other leaders) does not want to provoke potential coalition partners in the National Religious Party, or, for that matter, the hawks in his own party—those, like Amos Hadar, who favor West Bank settlements and whom Amos Elon neatly called the “agrarian reaction.” The presence of Labour doves at New Outlook’s conference would be all the more provocative to them since Sarid and Baram will be active in running Labour’s election, and Yehoshua has accepted the job of writing the party platform in elegant Hebrew.
Peres and his brains-trust may be correct in estimating they can return to power in 1980 or 1981, and shrewd to show concern for saving appearances. Begin was seriously embarrassed in October when Foreign Minister Dayan’s resignation was followed by the Supreme Court’s ruling against some of the government’s plans for new settlements. Dayan, for all the admirers he disappointed in the 1973 war, has continued to be a model of political “realism” in Israel. This reputation is partly owing to his own history—his childhood in Labour Zionism’s first moshav, or farming cooperative, his youthful association with Ben-Gurion and the new army, his presentation of himself as the Israeli who is most at home in his land and, unlike the old-style Jews, in his skin. All this has combined to create an image of Dayan as the man who can tell his generation what is and is not naïve for them to believe.
When he abandoned the rest of Begin’s feuding ministers, Dayan carried with him no faction, only his own vote. But he has denied the Mandate of Heaven to their annexationist designs on the West Bank. The Supreme Court’s condemnation of the government’s expropriations of private Arab land only reconfirmed this to the Israeli public, over 60 percent of which (according to a Ha’aretz poll) had, even before Dayan’s resignation, declared themselves ready to forgo the West Bank to solve the Palestinian problem, and negotiate to that end with any authoritative Palestinian group which is prepared to renounce terrorism.
Defense Minister Ezer Weizman is openly sympathetic to such sentiments. He has himself threatened to resign if the government defies the order of the Supreme Court to evacuate the illegal settlement at Elon Moreh—a defiance shockingly advocated by Agricultural Minister Sharon—or gives its approval to Sharon’s newest blueprint for Greater Israel. Like the ailing Yigael Yadin, whose lame-duck Democratic Movement is necessary for a government majority, Weizman could sink the Likud and have much popular support in doing it, particularly in view of the government’s mismanagement of the economy it was elected to save. (Meanwhile members of the ultra-Orthodox Aguda bloc, for whom the borders of Israel are Jehovah’s business, are currently pressing the weakened government for still more concessions to ritual laws. If they continue to be frustrated—as they were on November 11 when their bill to restrict abortion failed in the Knesset—they may save Weizman and Yadin the trouble of bringing the government down.)
Begin has tried to restore his government’s internal cohesion and strengthen its waning support among the poor, mainly Sephardic, “second Israel,” which is the hardest hit by the 100 percent inflation rate. He has sacked his cantankerous finance minister, Simcha Ehrlich, and replaced him with Yigal Horowitz, a passionate, brilliant, and intolerant industrialist—the brother of Amos Hadar—who is best known for having been the only minister in Begin’s first government to resign over the return of the Sinai settlements and the other terms of the Camp David accords. Horowitz’s prestige as an economic czar—he is bragging that he will trim the government bureaucracy down to its “live flesh”—and hawkish views on settlements may firm up the cabinet majority just enough to let it ride out its term beyond the American elections. Neither Weizman nor Yadin seems eager for noble retirement. But should Peres soon be fighting an election, he knows that however open-minded Israelis may appear to be regarding the Palestinian question, the PLO still conjures up for them and their daily press all the blood-thirsty goys who they fear would kill the Jews as a matter of principle.
Which brings us back to the New Outlook conference. By refusing to allow the West Bank mayors to come to Washington the PLO deliberately missed an opportunity to allay just such fears in the Israeli public. It is true that Sharabi and Tawil came to the symposium endorsing the two-state solution. But all the higher Fatah spokesmen—Faruk Kaddumi, Abu Iyad, Shafik al-Hout—have publicly, though inconsistently, supported roughly the same approach since 1975, and it has not led to a relaxation of the terror directed at Israelis, or to any manifest demonstration on the part of the Fatah leaders that they would hope to live with the Jewish state in peace—a hope some of the West Bank and Gaza mayors would likely have expressed if they had come. (More recently, all of the mayors resigned in response to the military government’s decision—sanctioned by Begin’s Ministerial Defense Committee—to deport Bassam Shakha, the mayor of Nablus, who had, it was charged, expressed views sympathetic to PLO terrorist attacks. But the mayors’ collective resignation was in protest against such unwarranted curbing of their political activities, not a show of support for Shakha’s hardline views.)
This reluctance to deal with the Israelis politically seems the more inexcusable since, as Professor Sharabi admitted to me after his smooth speech, the letter of the Camp David agreements plainly favors the emergence of a Palestinian state from some stage of transitional autonomy. But it is America’s and Egypt’s attempt to negotiate over the heads of the PLO leadership as such—not General Sharon’s shaky settlements on the West Bank—that makes the PLO so opposed to the prospect of a transitional stage. Of course, Sharabi stressed that suspending the West Bank settlements would be “helpful” to PLO moderates. And surely the settlements should be stopped for the sake of Israeli democracy, if for nothing else. But Sharabi would not even state flatly that an end to the settlements would bring a corresponding end to “armed struggle.” That, apparently, would be missing the point.
The point, Sharabi left me to infer but would not himself acknowledge, is that the PLO leaders in Beirut intend to “take power” in the West Bank and Gaza as a group. They are not interested in winning out through some democratic or transitional exercise in which potential rivals—say, Anwar Nusseibeh of Jerusalem’s electric power corporation—can emerge. The Fatah leaders make up a tightly disciplined authoritarian group which has for ten years suffered and acted daringly together, and now is winning one diplomatic victory after another. They have fought off bloody challenges from rival groups and from Arab states that see them as excessively independent. For all their carping at the “Camp David process,” they clearly believe themselves to be on the verge of winning recognition from the American government. Their actions on behalf of the American hostages in Iran, their courting of American black leaders, and so on, show their confidence.
Moreover Arafat seems to prefer the prospect that his personal organization—the Fatah cadres loyal to him—would become the Palestinian representative in any settlement imposed by the super-powers: he does not want to see this network of cadres deteriorate during a drawn-out transitional regime or during the negotiations over Palestinian autonomy. The Fatah leaders are not going to be kept from their places in the promised land if they can help it.
To the PLO, this approach may seem dictated by its needs for internal discipline and its chain of command. It seems to me a formula for deadlock. Arafat may prefer this deadlock and the machinations of high diplomacy to the responsibilities of running the schools and collecting the garbage in the West Bank towns. That he is indispensable to peace seems clear enough since the West Bank has lined up behind him. What is not clear is whether he is willing to risk the uncertainties of political negotiations, on and off the West Bank, with the same determination that he risks death from Iraqi, Syrian, and PFLP assassins.
The New Outlook conference was probably too minor an occasion to take such risks, but there may well be more propitious ones in the next several months. Professor Sharabi hinted broadly to me that a more suitable chance for PLO diplomacy would be created by an amendment, or clarification, of UN Resolution 242 to the effect that the Palestinians are a nation with rights and not merely a “refugee problem.” Such a change would open the way for the PLO’s implicit recognition of Israel. Since the resolution already endorses security and recognition for “all states in the area,” PLO acceptance of the amendment would also open the way for American mediation.
Andrew Young, we recall, resigned after meeting the PLO representative to ask for a delay in amending 242 because he knew its importance but thought the attempt premature. The efforts to amend the resolution will, however, likely continue this winter. For even if Sharabi is wrong to expect the PLO to support an amended version of 242, the new version will be seen as an opportunity to call the Palestinians’ bluff. And, although the Israeli government has opposed any tampering with 242 since Rabin extracted a promise from Kissinger to leave it intact in 1975, fair-minded Israelis will point out that the clauses of the Camp David accords devoted to Palestinian “legitimate rights” go well beyond anything envisioned by the Security Council in 1967.
The activities of Israeli doves and American Jews seem pertinent to just this question because their support for American politicians may be essential if the US is not to be intimidated by the anger of the Begin government. A change in Resolution 242 is in Israel’s interest, for it could present the PLO with a diplomatic challenge from which there is no return. On the other hand, there seems no reason why Israel’s friends should help the PLO win victories in America until that organization agrees to be bound by Resolution 242 as amended. A recent New York Times poll showing 42 percent of Americans willing to deal with the PLO now should be cautionary to those in Israel who, in their enthusiasm to oppose Begin and the legacy of Golda Meir’s Labour regime, inadvertently give the PLO more prestige in America than it has.
Which brings me to some final observations about the New Outlook symposium. Perhaps the most nerve-racking confrontation at the event took place not between Palestinians and Israelis, but between some of the members of Israel’s Sheli Party, Lova Eliav and Uri Avnery, and American Jews such as Irving Howe and Arthur Hertzberg—the former president of the American Jewish Congress—who support the more broadly based, and less strident, Peace Now movement. Eliav and his colleagues have, of course, been trying to promote a more forthcoming approach to the PLO in Israel for many years, and Eliav has himself recently shared a prize in Vienna with Isam Sartawi, a PLO intellectual who is often described as a moderate and with whom Eliav has had many contacts. For years now Eliav, Peled, Avnery, and the others in Sheli have been standing up to attacks for having met with the PLO and advocated a deal with it. But their dissident passion seemed overintense in Washington. From the start of the proceedings, the Eliav group did not hide its impatience with Peace Now and its American supporters, who were themselves openly annoyed to be facing, not West Bank mayors with a mandate from the PLO, but people who, on behalf of the PLO, were delivering blasts at Camp David, Sadat, the Carter administration, and the conference itself.
The bad feeling between Peace Now and the Eliav group came to a head in a session devoted to American Jews. Howe and Hertzberg debated testily with Eliav and Avnery over the propriety of appearing to credit the PLO as partners in future peacemaking efforts when, despite their growing power, that group has been so reluctant to pay more than lip service to peace. In fact, it was precisely the PLO’s growing power in America, along with anti-Jewish feeling, that seemed to put Howe and Hertzberg on guard, and make them more committed than before to the circumspect attitudes of the Peace Now group, whose influence has been growing rapidly. In Israel, Peace Now has recently been able to mount demonstrations of 80,000 people against new settlements and continues to get support from a remarkably wide range of people including retired generals, kibbutz members, business executives, and scholars such as Gershom Scholem. The leaders are now trying to make their case to American Jewish groups.
What was most troubling about this unresolved dispute was, however, that the specific disagreements reflected a more profound and rarely acknowledged difference between Israelis and American Jews. Eliav, for all his bitter dissent from Begin and the Israeli establishment, remains an Israeli, a Hebrew, the builder of the famous Lachish development, much as Peled remains the brigadier general who was quartermaster of the “Six-Day” War. Both men also know that they are a telephone call away from rejoining the same Labour Party they now oppose but once believed in all too earnestly. One may indeed have to be from a political establishment to know how to hate it, but Eliav cannot expect American Jews to join him without reservations in his crusades against it. His free-lance diplomacy, after all, can be seen as one of these crusades. By contrast, many American Jews live a Jewish life so attenuated, so barely strung together by vicarious political Zionism and pro-Israel institutions, that they view dissent from official Israeli policy on the Palestinians as a breaking of cultural and institutional vessels for which there are no replacements. Professor Sidney Morgenbesser of Columbia put the problem sharply when, appealing for unity, he cautioned the more activist Israelis that support for Israel has become the center of American Jews’ ethical sense.
Peled complained to me after the conference that he had never before understood how much the American Jews were an obstacle to peace. And the American Jewish leaders have been all too willing to be uncritical of Israel’s diplomacy, particularly since 1967. But Peled is wrong to assume that American Jews are an obstacle to peace just because they will not rally to Sheli’s political program the way they rallied to Golda Meir. In fact the pronouncements and performance of the Begin government have caused many American Jews to be more open to dissent from Israeli policies and more nervous about the effects of those policies on their lives—especially as they watch the PLO gaining ground and foresee the day when they may be blamed for the harsh economic consequences of a Middle East stalemate. According to a recent Harris poll almost two thirds of American Jews now favor an end to new Israeli settlements and a return of the West Bank as part of a general solution to the Palestinian problem. This majority could support the principles of Peace Now—as it could also support an amendment of Resolution 242 endorsing Palestinian national rights. It remains to be seen whether American Jewish leaders will ignore such opinions, as they ignored the New Outlook conference.
December 20, 1979