Is the Reagan plan dead? On April 10, King Hussein announced that Jordan would neither act “separately nor in lieu of anybody else in Middle East peace negotiations.” This has seriously undermined hopes that President Reagan’s call on September 1 for Palestinian self-rule in association with Jordan would revive the “peace process.” The king’s statement also releases Reagan from the promise he made to Hussein in December that if Jordan were willing to enter talks, he would confront the Israeli government over its settlement policies in advance of any negotiations. As if to underscore the threat of that promise being made again, the World Zionist Organization (which does what the Israeli cabinet wants) revealed in early April a plan for fifty-seven new settlements in the West Bank to be completed by 1987. Some would be added to those in the heart of Arab-populated areas, between Nablus and Jenin. Also planned are 250 miles of new roads and up to 125 acres a year for industrial projects “to encourage private initiative.”1
This looks like a formula for settler colonialism, and also for expelling those Arabs who actively oppose it. Yet a senior State Department official told me a week after Hussein’s announcement what had, he said, always been made clear to Jordan: “America cannot force any issue on Israel in the absence of an Arab peace partner.” He denied that Hussein’s statement foreclosed further action in support of the Reagan proposals; but he conceded that there was nothing left for the administration to do except “more of the same.” Can that be enough? Or, having outlasted this last show of Arab disharmony, does Prime Minister Begin now have a free hand to annex the West Bank?
The State Department’s insistence that such a question is premature may be more than a brave front. If the alternative to the Reagan proposals is oppressive Israeli rule of a million Palestinians, then Jordan still has strong reasons to negotiate. There has been some confusion in the press about this because few commentators have been willing to distinguish between the Reagan plan in principle, and the “initiative” regarding possible talks with Israel which Reagan and Hussein seemed to agree on last December in Washington. Hussein has announced that he is unable to participate in the initiative. But he cannot repudiate the Reagan plan.
In fact, careful readers of his statement will see that Hussein not only did not “reject” the Reagan plan—as the New York Times headline put it—but strongly endorsed it: “We believe and continue to believe,” the king said, “in the establishment of a confederal relationship that would govern and regulate the future of the Jordanian and Palestinian peoples.” Jordan and the PLO, he said, should come to an agreement about confederation in advance—a clear contradiction of the resolution of the Palestine National Council at Algiers, which called for an independent Palestinian state in advance of confederation. “A confederal relationship would be sought if only…in recognition of the bonds which have linked the people of Jordan and Palestine throughout history.”
In the current situation, which Hussein characterized in his statement as “no war-no peace,” the Jordanians are potentially the most vulnerable side. Hussein as much as conceded this: “Israel forges ahead…with a systematic policy of evacuating the West Bank to change the demographic composition of the occupied Arab territories…. We strive to confront this program, which stands to affect Jordan more than any other country and which threatens Jordan’s identity and national security.” Palestinians make up a majority on the East Bank, and some 300,000 have come from the West Bank in the last ten years. An independent Palestinian state on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip—such as the one demanded by the Palestine National Council at Algiers—would undermine the legitimacy of Hashemites in Amman more directly than it would threaten Israelis in Tel Aviv.2
So the administration intends to redouble its effort to reassure Hussein that he alone is America’s choice to make a settlement for the Palestinians; and that Arafat can have a part only if he will lead Fatah to a Jordanian confederation. The administration might have been clearer about this all along. A State Department official told me that Hussein decided not to “make his move” now partly because of the mixed message Arafat kept getting from President Reagan, via the Saudis, that Hussein’s failure to achieve an agreement with Arafat might lead to de factor American recognition of the PLO.3
The king, it must be said, showed none of this ambiguity in his statement. Rather, he openly mocked Arafat’s political pretensions: “We leave it to the PLO and the Palestinian people to choose the ways and means for the salvation of themselves and their land, and for the realization of their declared aims in the manner they see fit.” He ended with a warning: “As for us in Jordan, we find ourselves more concerned than anybody else to confront the de facto annexation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which forces us to take all measures to secure our national security in all its dimensions.”
Hussein may yet try some dramatic move, such as a plebescite on the East Bank, to demonstrate the support of Jordan’s Palestinians and gain more support on the West. (“I can’t talk about that,” the senior State Department official told me.) But Hussein cannot go ahead with much of anything without Saudi backing. And the Saudis let him down. They became anxious about the pace of Syrian rearmament—there are more than four thousand Soviet advisers in Syria—and about the power of pro-Syrian Palestinian radicals to commit acts of violence in the Gulf. The Abu Nidal group’s assassination of Isam as-Sartawi in Portugal was a clear enough sign of that power. Harvard professor Nadav Safran put it this way: “The Americans did not move fast enough. Now the Saudis fear Syrian threats more than they are encouraged by American blandishments. Hussein—whom the Saudis have long viewed as an ally—now feels that he cannot depend on their support even for a first step.”
Hussein has an obvious stake in the administration’s promise to get a moratorium on Israeli settlements. The Saudis seem to feel they have a greater stake in maintaining a show of Arab unity that will obscure their weakness. In spite of the administration’s controversial campaign to sell them AWACS and other advanced weapons—perhaps because of it—the Saudis are skeptical about US promises to apply economic sanctions to Israel. Moreover, Saudi oil revenues are declining and the Saudi budget has a deficit of $10 billion. King Fahd is in a cautious mood. While the administration has suspended deliveries of F-16s to Israel until Begin comes to terms on the Lebanon negotiations, Israel continues to command the skies without the new planes. And the Egyptian government is contributing to the Saudis’ paralyzing show of solidarity with the PLO. President Mubarak, though he has encouraged Arafat to join the “initiative,” has openly disagreed with Secretary of State Shultz’s view that the PLO should lose its mandate to represent the Palestinians. Egyptians were deeply embarrassed by their peace treaty with Israel during the Lebanese war. The Mubarak regime has something to prove. So does Shultz, whose intervention in the Lebanon negotiations may be the prelude to an effort to rid the Saudi regime of its doubts about US “resolve” to freeze Israeli settlements.
That resolve is certainly in question. Some of the administration officials I talked to openly confessed their doubts about the power of the US to prevent Begin from annexing the West Bank. An American diplomat in Tel Aviv assured me that overt American pressure on Israel would only reinforce Begin’s proven electoral majority. More recently, a White House official told me he was concerned about President Reagan’s standing among American Jews as the presidential election draws closer. And one can never be sure how Congress will react, even if Reagan should want to get tougher with Begin. A State Department official complained: “In September Begin rejected the Reagan plan outright, and then, in December, the lame-duck Congress turned around and increased the appropriation for Israel by $475 million.” As if to rub that in, the American Jewish Committee sent to American newspaper editors the results of a new Gallup poll in February, claiming that “pro-Israel sympathies of Americans have returned to levels comparable to the period before the ‘Lebanese crisis….’Half of all Americans (49 percent) now continue to support Israel as against 12 percent supporting Arab nations.” Is there nothing the American government can do but make its case to the Israeli public and hope for the best?
Just how much leverage on Israel, in any case, does the US now have? Do the actions of Begin’s government imply that it is less now than, say, during the Camp David negotiations when President Carter’s warnings to Begin were decisive in getting Israel to withdraw the north Sinai settlements? It is true that Israel is now building more of its own aircraft, missiles, tanks, and small weapons. But in fact, US power over the Israeli economy is far greater than ever before and is growing every month. And Israel’s unprecedented dependence on American aid partly derives, ironically, from the Begin government’s extravagant investment in the West Bank. Israel is using about $200 million a year to build housing, shopping centers, and industry there—much of which would not otherwise have been spent within the old borders. But the government is spending many times that sum to produce an illusion of social prosperity so that the Likud’s major electoral constituencies—the young, the least educated, and North African Jews resentful of the old Labor aristocracy—will continue to go along with Begin’s paternalist style and triumphalist ideology. Begin, to be blunt, is using American money to create a fait accompli that will make it impossible to carry out the American government’s policy.
This manipulation of American aid has its origins in Israel’s electoral politics. During the first three years of the Likud government—from 1977 to 1980—Israel suffered badly from a combination of the government’s more liberal investment policy, rampant tax evasion, enormous military expenditure, and inflationary trends in the Western nations. The austerity budgets of the first two Likud finance ministers, Simcha Ehrlich and Yigael Hurwitz, provoked labor unrest and social resentment but still did not bring down the inflation rate below 100 percent. What was worse for the Likud as the election year approached was that this hyperinflation produced a fall in industrial production, though the worst effects of this were mitigated by the new American aid grants linked to the Camp David accords. Likud governments set up wage controls and cut subsidies of essential commodities such as food and gasoline, but these policies did little to reverse the decline in real income that soon began to alienate poorer voters from among the young and the Sephardic communities.
In fact, at the beginning of 1981 Labor was leading the polls by a wide margin. Some 35 percent of the electorate—mainly potential Likud voters—were declaring themselves to be undecided. This came as a shock to Likud leaders who demanded that something be done about the economic situation. Of course, Begin’s populist and revisionist Zionist rhetoric appealed to more than consumer anxieties. But Likud’s leaders knew that their party’s majority was largely owing to its promise to run the country more efficiently and fairly than the Labor Alignment had done.
Begin’s much-discussed popularity among Sephardic Jews particularly depended on that promise. Even in 1981, only about a quarter of managers and administrators, and about 15 percent of scientific and academic workers, were Sephardic Jews—though such Jews accounted for well over half of the population.4 And most of these highly placed Sephardim were immigrants from Iraq and Egypt, people who often voted for Labor; they were better off than the more numerous Moroccans, whose families came in the late Fifties and now lived in the dense slums of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem or in dreary development towns. Most voters from Moroccan families were born in Israel but were not yet of it; they had religious fathers and illiterate mothers. They were not the children of the Zionist revolution, and they looked to the Likud to give them a share in the national identity.
The Likud, like the American Democratic Party earlier in this century, organized the interests of less well-educated immigrants, the victims of prejudice, the poor, and the young and ambitious against entrenched elites. When, during the Twenties and Thirties, Republicans spoke of “free enterprise,” many Democrats took this to mean “freedom for the bankers, the trusts, the WASPs.” Similarly, when Israeli WASPs (White Ashkenazi Sabras with Proteksia) spoke of socialist Zionism, Likud voters thought of established Histadrut corporations, of patronage jobs for the nephews of European Zionists, of snobbish agricultural collectives that claimed to be models of national virtue yet would not share classrooms with the newcomers. In 1981, moreover, 87 percent of those in the top tenth income group were Israeli Jews of European origin, while Sephardic Jews and Arabs together made up some 70 percent of the lowest tenth. There was a considerable movement toward equality in the middle-income groups, but it was just this that was being put at risk by industrial stagnation.
Begin’s third finance minister, Yoram Aridor, decided on a new policy that would disguise that risk. Before the 1981 election, he cut tariffs on cars and other much sought-after goods, linked salaries to 100 percent of the cost-of-living index, and raised subsidies. These measures set off a buying spree such as the country had never seen. Since most people were buying goods that were actually falling in price—e.g., cars with a reduced tariff—the rate of inflation dropped for a few months. Government revenues also increased as a result of consumer buying, and salaries of government workers, now 35 percent of the labor force, did not rise as quickly as before.
Aridor claimed success, though his policies greatly increased the balance-of-payments deficit for 1981, and exacerbated the decline in Israel’s industrial production.5 Still, he reassured voters who quickly returned to the Likud. Of some 830,000 people who were added to the electorate between 1973 and 1981, some 650,000 voted for the Likud and the other parties of the right in 1981. They included not only young and Sephardic voters but also Russian immigrants and religious zealots impressed by the Likud’s ability to unify its constituency around what they perceived as prosperity, and by the hard-line policy calling for “unity of the land.” The Begin government, moreover, has not much changed its ways since the narrow victory of 1981. While rates of inflation in other Western democracies have fallen substantially with the fall in off prices and the general recession, Israel still suffers from 150 percent inflation, even with substantial cuts in the defense budget. Moreover, by the government’s own projections, the Israeli economy will show no growth at all in 1983, for the first time since 1966.
There is a frenetic side to the new economic atmosphere. Salaries are linked to the cost of living, but one must scramble incessantly to protect one’s savings; consumer credit is difficult to get, and ordinary mortgages are impossible. Some 700,000 investors—including high school students and kibbutz secretaries—were speculating in the shaky Israeli stock market when it crashed last January. Yet few in the country are feeling the pinch just now. Real incomes have risen about 15 percent under Aridor (although the number of Israeli Jews who live below the official poverty line has doubled). Subsidies for essential commodities, never more than 3 percent of the GNP under Labor, now run at 5 to 6 percent. Aridor has made the Bank of Israel sell off foreign exchange reserves to keep the Israeli shekel about 20 percent above its value so that consumers can continue to import durable goods from Europe.
One Treasury official, a professional economist who is appalled—like most of Israel’s economists—by what Aridor is doing, told me that, by the Treasury’s own estimates, Israelis imported 17 percent more consumer goods in 1982 than in 1981. Civilian imports for 1983 are expected to rise to $8.5 billion from $7.8 billion in 1982.6 (A friend of mine, an importer, told me that Israelis imported some 100,000 video recorders in 1982.) Such artificial support for Israeli currency put Israeli exporters at a serious disadvantage, which the Treasury is trying to make up for with costly export subsidies, though not enough to reverse the decline in Israeli agriculture. Nor are the actual costs of West Bank settlement small ones. Loans to settlers, the cost of roads, utilities, and military encampments, and other expenditures—all amounting to more than $200 million—are hidden within the overall development budget of the government and the Jewish Agency.
Where does all this money come from? The simple fact is that Aridor covers the government’s expenses with American aid, or else sells off accumulated foreign currency reserves that are essential for future economic development. Israel’s balance-of-payments deficit in 1982 was an astonishing $4.9 billion—only $2 billion of which was for military procurement—and the payments deficit promises to be about the same in 1983. The American government covers about 45 percent of this deficit by grants in aid amounting to about $2.3 billion. Approximately 25 percent comes from American Jewish organizations, German reparations, and other sources. The remaining balance-of-payments deficit is covered by gold and other hard reserves, of which, according to the Treasury official I spoke to, perhaps $3 billion to $4 billion remain. “Israel today is operating as if it can expect optimal conditions of aid from the United States, without any cuts or interruptions,” he told me. “But any serious cut, even a few hundred million dollars, would come as a great blow.” In fact, nearly all of the American aid not spent for military procurement, about $900 million, is used to service Israel’s accumulated debt to the United States.
Some Israelis are doing very well in the new economy. The banks—which act as brokers, agents, and major investors in the stock exchange—have record profits. Contractors who build new West Bank settlements or military installations—many from the “second Israel”—are making fortunes. Israel’s rising industries, the high-tech corporations of Tel Aviv and Haifa, continue to prosper and raise capital from as far away as the New York capital markets. But the government’s fiscal policies have made credit for older industries difficult to come by, and these are where a great many Israelis, especially Sephardim, earn their livings. Today Israel’s agricultural exporters, and many of its electronics and textile firms, borrow some $650 million from US banks. The banks are willing to extend short-term credit at excellent rates so long as they see the American government guaranteeing the solvency of the Israeli Treasury—as Congress did in December.
Even a small diminution of government aid, however, would affect Israel’s credit rating for the worse. The Hebrew University economist Eitan Sheshinsky told me: “If Washington sends signals to the American business community that the US will not underwrite shortterm credit with aid, it could have an immediate impact.” Unemployment would rise dramatically, and not only among the Arab workers who tend to be employed in construction.
Begin and his top ministers understand the nature of Israel’s economic dependence as well as do the economists who criticize them for it. So does Shultz, an economist who was once a colleague of Sheshinsky’s at the University of Chicago. No serious discussion of prospects for the Reagan peace initiative should ignore how much damage the Reagan administration can do to Begin’s standing by even a small shift in economic policy, a shift in its signals to American banks, for example, that would not affect military aid at all. Again, Begin’s popularity runs deeper than his ability to make consumer goods available. But it is also less than meets the eye of the many journalists, who—like the American diplomat I talked to in Tel Aviv—suppose Begin’s majority to be permanent whatever happens. The Sephardic middle class and the young voters who have thrown their support to the Likud have been impressed by Begin’s ability to deliver what he promises. But these are swing voters who, while inclining toward the Likud, would have once voted for David Ben-Gurion. They now give Begin credit for intimidating the Arabs, “standing up to the Americans,” and making them feel better off.
Political memories are shorter in Israel than they used to be. That is why so many are susceptible to demagogy. It is true that the most susceptible, the hard core of Begin’s young Moroccan supporters, revere him and still have hopes for Sharon. Many express the fear of being relegated to menial jobs now held by Arabs should Israel leave the West Bank—a concern that is widespread even if it is groundless. But there are equivocal feelings among them too, especially about the great expense of settling the West Bank while the housing density among Sephardic families is double that among Ashkenazi families. The polls continue to show that a majority of Israelis—if only a narrow one—favor trading large parts of the West Bank for peace.
Not that the polls show declining support for Begin among the young—whether Sephardic or European. The war in Lebanon has coarsened political debate, and one hears more and more talk of expelling Palestinians to Jordan and worse. There is, after all, satisfaction in using force to get one’s way, in dominating people after living in fear of being dominated. The Jewish settlers in the West Bank have set the tone: some have complained in their newspapers that Arabs have been sitting on buses while Jews stand. The young soldiers who spend a month or two a year patrolling the sullen Arab towns become hardened, sometimes brutal; indeed they have been ordered to act brutally.7 And there is disdain for Jews as well. Some of Begin’s supporters showed an ugly and threatening contempt for Peace Now demonstrators who were demanding Sharon’s resignation from the cabinet after the Kahan Commission report held him indirectly responsible for the Beirut massacres. Not many of Begin’s supporters, it is true, would have thrown the grenade that killed the Peace Now activist Emile Greensweig—whose last graduate paper was devoted to the need for political tolerance. But many people turned out to shout curses and warnings at his mourners. General Sharon did much to encourage such bullying chauvinism to flourish in Israel, as did General Rafael Eitan, the outgoing chief of staff, who suggested before retiring that West Bank Palestinians should be made to feel like “drugged bugs in a bottle.” If only for their influence on the young, it is a relief that both are now out of the limelight.
The new defense minister, Moshe Arens, has shown himself more pragmatic than Sharon, as well as more restrained. He appointed a moderate professional, Moshe Levi, to replace Eitan. “Arens got something of a political education in Washington,” a well-connected Likud member of the Knesset told me. “He is steely in his quiet way on the West Bank question, but he knows what a fight with America would mean, and that the American Jews could not prevent it or even be united behind Israel’s policy.” Arens is far more likely than Sharon to lead Israel to a settlement in Lebanon. Arens will not endorse the Reagan proposals, but would he favor a settlements freeze if Hussein were persuaded to come forward?
“It depends how this is done,” the same Likud politician told me. “If Reagan threatens Begin openly, the Israeli government will announce a hundred new settlements the following morning. But if a strategy is coordinated in advance, if the policy is ‘no settlements for the period of the negotiations’ as it was in Camp David, not only Arens but Begin too may have to accept it.” (A veteran cabinet minister who joined us agreed with this.) Begin has said that he is willing to talk peace with Hussein with no preconditions. Could he allow himself to be seen, at home and in the American Congress, as someone who would slam the door on the peace talks by refusing to halt settlements? Could a Likud government withstand the kind of economic retaliation that the Reagan administration could then undertake—without cutting military aid? The head of the Liberal Party faction of the Likud has already said that he “prefers a government crisis to a break with Washington.” And there must be some in the National Religious Party—with six seats in Begin’s coalition—who now share that sentiment. When the Knesset elected Labor’s Chaim Herzog as president by secret ballot last March, most political observers believed that he had some NRP votes.
Even if the US government managed to bring the Begin government down, however, this would not necessarily be a victory. As the Likud politician put it, “You would have Begin in opposition, nearly forty thousand settlers in Judea and Samaria, and a hundred thousand supporters of the Gush Emunim in the streets.” Besides, he said, with most of the land under Israeli control, and scores of underpopulated settlements already under way, the “freeze” would be merely “symbolic.”
He could be right, but it seems smug to suppose that an Israeli freeze on settlements would remain merely symbolic for the Israeli families who are now putting down roots in occupied territory a good distance away from Hebrew towns and cities. Few now go to “Judea and Samaria” to fulfill Gush Emunim’s perverse idealism. Settlers go there because they see a bargain, for example a fiveroom apartment for the price of two rooms in Jerusalem. Who would want to move their families under a cloud of negotiations—particularly when they remember what happened to the settlers in the Sinai two years ago? Besides, we saw after the Sadat initiative how leaders become hostages as much to the hopes they inspire as to the hatreds.
The Likud member of the Knesset was not wrong to suspect that once negotiations get started, the Congress will not look with favor on Israeli actions that undermine them. Congressman Barney Frank of Massachusetts, one of the usually pro-Israeli liberal Democrats, told me that if “Hussein comes in” this could transform congressional attitudes: “The Congress is committed to Israel’s security,” he said, “but it is more willing than ever before to differ with the Israeli government about how to keep Israel secure.”
Nevertheless, it is the Israeli government, not the administration or the Congress, that must negotiate the kind of compromise that will satisfy elementary Jordanian and Palestinian demands. Begin will not disclaim Jewish sovereignty in “Judea and Samaria.” And when one looks for potential rivals to the Likud’s power, the fact is that Israel’s Labor Alignment remains a divided and feckless party and its leader, Shimon Peres, among the least respected politicians in the country.
Peres has been in the public eye for thirty years, and during that time—from his shady part in the infamous Lavon affair, to his current feud with Yitzhak Rabin—he has gained an ineradicable reputation for opportunism. Nor does he command the respect of many in the party caucus. Peres defends the Reagan proposals to sympathetic audiences. But he would not do so in the Knesset last January when he sensed the tide was running against him. The moderates in the caucus begged him, a Knesset member told me, to endorse the Reagan proposals again. Instead he condemned the government for cutting the military budget. Peres has come out against new settlements. But when the Histadrut debated whether its construction firm should accept contracts to build in occupied territory, Peres endorsed a compromise that pleased nobody: no factories near Arab populations, but the company could build services and housing.
In fairness to Peres, his views are not less confusing than those of most of the Labor politicians for whom he speaks. Like him, most Labor leaders want to make a deal with Jordan and yet seem unwilling to defend proposals—especially regarding Jordanian rights in Jerusalem—that would attract Hussein. But it still seems possible that a Labor government would be more flexible than Begin’s, that it would want Israel’s borders to conform with the concentrations of the Hebrew population, and that it would, in the course of negotiations, settle for less land for more peace. A change of leadership in the Labor Party therefore would be important.
The only man who can now give that leadership is the former president, Yitzhak Navon, a man of liberal, some say “dovish,” views and a descendant of one of Jerusalem’s distinguished Sephardic families—a promising combination of qualities. He has neither declared his intention to run nor proven his abilities as a political infighter. But an interview with him left me certain that he has at least come to be aware of himself as a unifying force. There is, he told me, no majority in the country for Begin’s foreign policy. The Labor Party has not recovered from the October 1973 war. “People want a paycheck and they want their soldiers to defend them. We failed them on both counts in the Seventies. Richard Crossman said: ‘Oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them.’ But the Labor Party is still divided along the old rifts. We have still not got over the Lavon affair. Thousands come through the president’s residence every month looking for leaders to tell them what they want. The party needs strong new leadership that people can trust.” He made no effort to discourage my conclusion that he hoped to provide it.
Navon is an affable man, proud of his writing (which includes plays for the musical theater). He has been close to power for a long time—he was BenGurion’s private secretary—but he has never been tainted by political corruption. He has also shown some strength. As chairman of the Knesset Security and Foreign Affairs Committee, he was important in getting Israel to approve the interim agreement with Egypt in 1975. Like Ronald Reagan, moreover, he has a disarmingly common touch that works on television; he likes to think in aphorisms—“Jews came here to fight nature not human beings”—and is able to reduce social problems to homely phrases. Navon’s detractors call him inept, a softy, and point to his lack of executive experience. But he transformed the presidency into an active moral force, and he deserves much of the credit for bringing about the Kahan Commission. He has been able to bridge the ethnic divisions in Israel and, fluent in Arabic, is very popular with Israeli Arabs—who could be the key to a Labor majority. More important problems for him than his alleged softness are current rumors about his marriage breaking up and his lack of an obvious political base in the Labor Party.
Besides, would Peres and Rabin step aside? They may have no choice in view of Labor’s miserable showing in recent polls—ten seats down from 1981. Navon’s candidacy may seem irresistible to ordinary party members. One poll, in the new liberal Jerusalem weekly Koteret Rashit, shows Labor tied with the Likud if Navon were its leader. “There is a vacuum at the top,” Davar political correspondent Danny Rubenstein told me. “What is left of the party machine would suck Navon into the leadership if he were ready to fight.” If he fought, I asked the Israelis I talked to, and if he won, and if he proved strong and Labor won the election: would the new government deliver the country to the Reagan plan?
Nobody was very optimistic. The Reagan proposals assume that the West Bank is not yet lost to the Arab world. If we judge by demographic facts alone, this is true. There are still fewer than 40,000 settlers on the West Bank if one excludes the housing developments on the outskirts of greater Jerusalem. It is not clear that any leader can reverse the political momentum that Begin has established. Even if, as a high official of the Jewish Agency admitted to me, Israel does not have the resources to heavily populate the West Bank with Jews, Begin can implant enough colonies to obstruct “any settlement that a Labor government might want to negotiate.”
“The young people are impressed by facts,” Rubenstein lamented. Like most other Israeli moderates, he believes that external pressure on Israel is weak because US aid is part of the problem. “When are the Americans going to see what Begin is doing with their aid?” One hears this question from a remarkable number of people, including the country’s most distinguished writers, journalists, and scholars, and even from members of the Knesset. It suggests how demoralized the country’s democratic forces have become.
Begin, after all, is racing against them as well. True, 400,000 turned up for a demonstration to demand that the government conform to democratic standards. But most of those people today, as before, are counting heads, reading the papers, and losing heart. So Rubenstein may be right that it is no longer possible to advocate that aid to Israel continue as before, although, like many other Israeli liberals, he underestimates how bitter and divisive a fight over aid to Israel would become. Americans, and especially American Jews, should be thinking about how they support one Israeli future over another—support one group of Israelis over another. The Reagan plan presupposes democracy; its failure promises the colonial settler democracy that Zionist pioneers once tried so hard to avoid.
June 2, 1983
The Jerusalem Post, April 10. ↩
See my article, “Looking Over Jordan,” in The New York Review, April 28. ↩
Karen Elliot House confirms this point from the king’s side in The Wall Street Journal, April 14. ↩
This information was compiled by Arie Ben-Shachar of the University of Toronto from the data on Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews in The Israeli Government Yearbook for 1981 and 1982. ↩
See my report on the 1981 elections, “The Victory of the New Israel,” in The New York Review, August 13, 1981. ↩
This was confirmed in The National Budget: 1983 (Jerusalem: Bank of Israel Publications, January 1983). ↩
See Leonard Fein’s report in Moment, April 1983. ↩