In his new book Noam Chomsky claims to describe and to assess the relations between the United States, Israel, and the Palestinians. But Chomsky’s “fateful triangle” has a rather bizarre shape: it is really a triangle with only one clearly visible side, the Israeli side. Most of his long book is about Israel’s behavior toward the Palestinians, which was literally highlighted by the Israeli flares over the Sabra and the Shatila camps. Indeed, Israel’s war in Lebanon, dubbed in Begin’s newspeak “Peace for Galilee,” is a main concern.
When he discusses the American side, Chomsky confines himself largely to Israel’s liberal “fellow travelers” in the US. Thus Alexander Haig is mentioned three times, whereas Irving Howe is mentioned thirteen times. The book in any case is not a political tract on a triad of relationships, but a fierce moral indictment of Israel, which is charged with grossly mistreating the Palestinians, while at the same time presenting itself through its American propagandists as an enlightened democracy. These propagandists are, for Chomsky, the kind of people that give hypocrisy a bad name.
Painful as it is for me to acknowledge it, we Israelis should, I believe, plead guilty to many of Chomsky’s charges. Not to the charges as he states them, but to something not altogether unlike them.
Take the case of the massacre at Khan Yunis in the Gaza Strip during the war of 1956, one of many unpublicized cases of Israeli brutality that Chomsky mentions. Israel was involved, according to the UN chief inspector, General E.L.M. Burns, in the massacre of at least 275 people. This number is cited by Chomsky although knowledgable Israeli sources I have talked to believe it is too high. What is missing from this account, however, is the fact that each of the persons who were shot was identified as a fedayeen (or terrorist, in Israel’s current jargon) according to lists compiled by Israeli intelligence before the killings. Execution without trial is evil, as is the mindless slaughter of innocents by Israelis at Deir-Yassin or by Phalangists at Sabra and Shatila. But it is a different sort of evil. Moreover, the military governor of Gaza at the time was Mattityahu Peled, and the battalion commander of Khan Yunis was Meir Pa’il, both prominent doves since the 1960s. Not that these two men had anything to do with the executions, but I suspect that had they been on Chomsky’s list of bad guys he would not have failed to mention their names. Fortunately they are, rightly I believe, on his list of good guys.
Chomsky’s indictment is highly detailed. Virtually no felony is missing, no misdeed left unaccounted for. And yet, though he finds Israel a sinful state, the clash between Israel and the Palestinians is in Chomsky’s eyes a conflict of “right against right.” He recalls that he has long held that the success of the official PLO rejectionist program would be “intolerable to civilized opinion.” He correctly observes that the Palestinians do not like the idea of the Jews having any rights in Palestine. Indeed, in a review of Chomsky’s book, Edward Said accuses him of “some inconsistency at the level of principle.”1 In Said’s account the inconsistency lies in his stating, on the one hand, that “Zionism has always excluded and discriminated against Arabs” and, on the other hand, that “Jews do have a communal right to settlement from abroad in Palestine.” To me there is no more contradiction here than in saying that a neighbor who is a bully has a right to a room of his own in the building, without of course having the right to bully his neighbors.
Said has another point to make concerning the rights of the Jews: “How can you formulate the right to move people into Palestine despite the wishes of all the already present native Palestinians, without at the same time implying and repeating the tragic cycle of violence and counter violence between the Palestinians and Jews?” This question has a nasty ring to it. Substitute “Britains” for “Palestinians” and “colored people” for “Jews” and you get just the kind of rhetorical question associated with Enoch Powell’s brand of racism.
Chomsky, however, obscures his own view of “right against right.” The resolution of the conflict, he claims, does not require a Palestinian recognition of Israel’s “legitimate right to exist.” This formula, he says, is not couched in the idiom of international relations and international law. Thus the US, for example, does not recognize “the legitimate right to exist” of the Soviet Union, especially not its conquest of the Baltic countries. Yet this does not prevent the US from recognizing the USSR in the only pertinent sense, namely that it is alive and kicking, or, in Chomsky’s terms, that it “exists and functions.” I find it surprising that Chomsky of all people should resort to such Realpolitik in his view of international relations. After all, this is exactly the position of many Israelis when they argue that Jordan “exists and functions” as a state, while “Palestine” does not have such status; so only Jordan is worthy of recognition. The language of “legitimate rights” is thus as important for the Palestinians as it is for the Israelis.
The justification for the demand of Israelis that the Palestinians recognize the legitimacy of the State of Israel is grounded in the fear of strong irredentist tendencies among the Palestinians. The Israelis worry that any solution based solely on recognition of Israel as an “existing and functioning” state, and not as an entity with a legitimate right to exist, would not be a stable solution. As soon as Israel were seen to have difficulties in “functioning,” its existence would become threatened. This precisely is what happened in May and June 1967, when an economic recession and a seemingly weak leadership combined to create a temptation for Nasser to undermine Israel’s existence.
Israel’s annexationists of course claim that Palestinian recognition of Israel’s right to exist would have no more than a ritualistic significance anyway. It would, they believe, be given for tactical purposes, and once its immediate aim—a Palestinian state—was achieved, Israel’s existence would be threatened again, with a vengeance. Those Israelis, on the other hand, who do value Palestinian recognition of Israel’s right to exist, argue that for a national movement to take the step of recognizing the “legitimacy” of the enemy is a cardinal ideological concession that cannot be given for tactical purposes only. According to them, precisely because it is so difficult for the Palestinians to recognize Israel it is important to insist upon it: therein lies the chance for a stable solution.
I don’t believe myself that the demand for the Palestinian recognition of Israel is “irrelevant.” I believe at the same time that there is a kernel of truth in Chomsky’s claim that the road toward solving the problems of the Middle East should begin with a political settlement and that real psychological and ideological conciliation could be expected only after such a settlement was worked out. Making psychological and ideological conciliation a necessary condition for any political settlement is tantamount to making the conflict all but irresolvable. The reparation agreement between Israel and Germany is perhaps pertinent here. In 1953 Begin led a stone-throwing demonstration when the Knesset ratified that agreement; in 1983, as head of government, he agreed to receive the German chancellor (although Begin resigned shortly before Kohl arrived).
According to Chomsky, the Palestinians, as represented by the PLO, are ready to recognize Israel. Recognize it, that is, in the sense he considers “relevant” to international relations. It is Israel, whether headed by the Labor Alignment or by a Likud government, that, together with the US, presents in his view a rejection front blocking a solution based on mutual recognition. Moreover, to Chomsky, the Palestinians’ readiness for recognition is evident. The evidence, for him, is the unanimous decision in April 1981 by the PLO National Council to adopt Brezhnev’s explicit proposal that “it is essential to ensure the security and sovereignty of all states of the region including those of Israel.” Brave words, no doubt. However, adopting someone else’s formula may be a tricky affair. You could uphold the “Brezhnev proposal” without specifying its content, and you could then choose from it the items that you like. In the meantime you ensure the support of the proposal’s sponsor. This is precisely the method adopted by Begin when he endorsed UN Resolution 242, which, in effect, calls for Israeli withdrawal from “[the] territories” on all fronts, including the eastern front (the West Bank) and the northern front (the Golan Heights). It was never Begin’s intention to withdraw from either one.
Another piece of evidence that Chomsky considers is the open pronouncement by the Palestinian leader Issam Sartawi that the PLO’s readiness for recognition of Israel “crystal clear.” I remember a press conference in Israel in 1976, at the time of the siege of the Tel al-Zaatar camp in Beirut, when I sat close to Matty Peled, who had just returned with a document he had written with Sartawi. Peled read out the document that called for Palestinian–Israeli coexistence. The journalists asked which PLO representative had signed the document, but Peled would not reveal his name. All he could do was give his word that there was such a Palestinian. The reporters became insistent and angry: an anonymously signed document was not what they had bargained for. The room was hot, the atmosphere tense.
Leaving the building, I asked one of the reporters, a tough and experienced journalist, whether he really doubted Peled’s account, for Peled is an honorable man. “That’s not the issue,” replied my friend. “The issue is that by tomorrow morning there will be a denial from Beirut.” And so there was. Farouk Kadoumi of the PLO promptly denied the content of the document, though not that a meeting had taken place. Peled and his associates then issued a statement under the title “Who Are You, Farouk Kadoumi?” The embarrassing answer to this question, however, was that Kadoumi was the PLO’s “foreign minister,” while Sartawi was, one might say, its Nahum Goldmann. Kadoumi, incidentally, in a Newsweek interview in the fall of 1976, said the Israelis will eventually have to accept the PLO plan for a secular democratic state even if they have to crawl all the way from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in the process. This statement does not appear in Chomsky’s book.
Much has happened since those days. Before he was assassinated in April 1983, Sartawi spoke out openly, sometimes with the covert blessing of Arafat, in favor of mutual recognition. There were various Palestinian signals seeming to suggest that with a modicum of good will an Israeli government could embark upon a process leading to negotiations. I believe that indeed there were such signals, but that they were accompanied by too much surrounding noise, whether in the form of contradictory statements or differing proposals, or Palestinian violence. Chomsky hears only the signals; most Israelis believe there has always been only noise and no meaningful signals whatever.
In making the Palestinian case, as in many other matters, Chomsky tends to present his views not just as true, but as obviously true. The implication of this is that whoever contests these views can only be a fool, or else a villain. Unlike many others, I find many of Chomsky’s beliefs true. But not one of them do I hold as obviously true. I certainly do not regard the PLO’s decision to set up a “national entity” in any territory evacuated by Israel as a clear signal that the Palestinians are prepared to create a Palestinian state alongside Israel. I do believe, though, that this might be the intention behind that noisy signal. Perhaps it is a way of bypassing the resolution in the Palestinian covenant calling for the creation of a Palestinian state in the entire territory of Palestine. But whether or not this is the Palestinian intention, it is not a clear signal.
Moreover, I. believe that the noise accompanying this signal is not accidental. The PLO is torn between two alternatives. On the one hand, recognizing Israel seems sure to lead to an American recognition of the PLO as a partner for negotiations. On the other hand, recognizing Israel might well create another severe split within the PLO, and possibly in the Palestinian diaspora as well. In order to bridge these two conflicting tendencies, the PLO may find it convenient to signal its readiness for recognition of Israel while at the same time surrounding this signal with a sufficient amount of noise to satisfy the Palestinians who oppose it. (Recently, in fact, after the split in the PLO following the Lebanon war, Arafat’s pronouncements in favor of mutual recognition of “the two states”—Israel and Palestine—have become explicit. See Le Nouvel Observateur, May 4, 1984.)
According to Chomsky Israel presents a solid front to the Palestinians, who seek an accommodation, while Israel responds with total rejection. He believes that both the Labor Alignment and the Likud are parties to this front, the only difference between them being that the Alignment is more hypocritical, and better able to camouflage its real intentions. The other dovish groups in Israel, like Peace Now, also seem to Chomsky to be vague and hesitant on the basic issue of the Palestinians; at any rate Chomsky takes the position of Peace Now to be less “accommodative” and more “rejectionist” than that of the PLO. consequently the fashionable question of what is the Palestinian counterpart to Israel’s Peace Now seems to Chomsky false and hollow.
Is this how matters really stand today? In my view there are distinct differences between the positions of the Likud, the Alignment, and Peace Now. These can be shown by way of a hypothetical questionnaire put to typical representatives of the three groups, each of whom would be asked to rank in order the following three possibilities. First, continuation of the status quo. Second, returning most of the West Bank territory, except for minor areas, to Jordan. Third, the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The typical member of Likud would undoubtedly prefer the first option over the second: he would not even consider the third. The typical member of the Alignment would prefer the Jordanian option over the first, and would have no hesitation in preferring the first to a Palestinian state.
The typical Peace Now supporter regards the continuation of the status quo as the worst of all three options. As for the other two options, there is a division of opinion. Many of the tens of thousands of people associated with Peace Now, mainly those who are also affiliated with the labor movement, prefer the Jordanian option; many others prefer the Palestinian option. A sizable majority, however, regards the dichotomy between these two options as fictitious. For them the solution is in the form of some combination of Jordanian and Palestinian authority—call it a federation or a confederation or whatever—where the degree of cooperation between them will reflect their relative strength at the time when the arrangement is reached. For such members of Peace Now the obsessive preoccupation with the Palestinian and the Jordanian solutions as being exhaustive and mutually exclusive is more theological than political.
Be that as it may, Peace Now’s opposition to the continuation of the status quo is resolute. As for those within the Peace Now movement who are divided between the Jordanian and the Palestinian options, their feeling is that this difference of opinion does not preclude political cooperation. The Peace Now members assume that when they come to the bridge, if there is a bridge, they’ll cross it, together, one way or another. The government’s position is that when the Israelis come to the bridge of negotiations, they will double-cross it, one way or another.
Such an account of the various shadings of mood in Israel underscores the drawbacks of Chomsky’s method. I refer particularly to his method of viewing the world through newspaper clippings. Chomky has not been to Israel since the early 1950s. Moreover, he seems to lack any kind of anthropological curiosity about the people involved. His interest in the conflict cannot even be accurately described as purely political. It is fundamentally moral, based on a reading of printed sources. I regard this as a limitation on his work, because behind the written formulas there is a changing reality. Thus, for example, according to Chomsky’s description there is virtually no difference between the position of the Labor party in Golda Meir’s time and its position today. Both then and now the position of Labor for him is more or less accurately summarized by the Allon Plan, which calls for the annexation by Israel of the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, the Jordan Valley, and Greater Jerusalem. But this is not quite true. There is a difference that is hard to detect in the official formulas. Whereas in the past the Allon Plan laid out, for the overriding majority in the Labor party, the shape of the final settlement, I believe that for the majority today it represents the opening move in future negotiations. And this is a distinction that makes a difference.
Kant never visited England, yet he described with amazing precision London’s bridges over the Thames. Karl May was never in America, and his accounts of the relations between American Indians and white settlers were pure fantasy. Chomsky is certainly not as fantaisiste as Karl May but he is also not Immanuel Kant. It may be fair to add, though, that the situation in the Middle East is less like those solid bridges over the Thames and more like the ebb and flow of its water.
A central concern of The Fateful Triangle is to tear the ideological mask off the face of Israel. The mask is that of an enlightened social democracy, a model to the world. Those contributing to this image, he charges, are social democrats and liberals the world over, but mainly in the US, and particularly in such publications as The New Republic. (Chomsky does not deal with all of Israel’s American propagandists, noting that he is not interested in discussing Norman Podhoretz’s views.) In these attacks Chomsky acknowledges that some of Israel’s bad deeds, including its part in the Sabra and Shatila massacre, are not unheard of in the US and Europe. But his point is that other countries who behave similarly do not pretend to set a moral standard, as Israel does. It is, he maintains, Israel’s fellow travelers in the US, aided by the liberal press of the establishment, who are responsible for this hypocritical image of Israel. The expression “fellow travelers” is not Chomsky’s, but it captures well to my mind the analogy underlying much of the book between the supporters of Stalin’s Russia in the West and the supporters of Israel in the West.
I believe that any kind of analogy between Stalin’s Russia and present-day Israel is false. But I would concede that some analogy can be drawn between the behavior of the supporters of both countries. Both hold the conviction that an ideology—communist in one case, Zionist in the other—is actually and successfully being realized. And when gaps appear between reality and ideology, the tendency in both cases is to continue to conceal them, the argument being that to reveal them would be tantamount to betraying the beleaguered country and to arming its enemies. Those who particularly infuriate Chomsky are Irving Howe, Michael Walzer, and Martin Peretz. I do not at all like what he has to say about the first two, but one thing is clear: they should be highly flattered by the political importance Chomsky seems to attribute to them. Indeed, I wish they had half as much political and ideological influence as Chomsky apparently thinks they have from the attention he gives them. It is not just Israel’s image that would have been better as a result, but Israel itself.
In contrast to the scorn he heaps on the hypocritical American press, especially The New York Times, Chomsky is full of praise for the Israeli press for revealing the truth about Israel’s behavior in Lebanon and in the occupied territories. The praise is certainly justified. But it is important to emphasize that it is not underground journalism that is in question here. Chomsky has drawn on the work of the best-known and most respected Israeli journalists, who write for the best and most respected newspapers. The personal price they pay for writing as they do is nominal—nothing more than the recurrent talk from the right about the “leftist Mafia” controlling the Israeli media. The point is that journalism is not an isolated phenomenon in the Israeli democracy. Israel’s record concerning freedom of the press during the Lebanon war is impressive, particularly compared, for example, to the record of the British press during the Falkland campaign. True, Israeli democracy stops at the Green Line, and its norms do not apply to the occupied territories. But it would be well to remember the praise of the enlightened world for the democracy and welfare-state laws of England during the postwar years—the same England that still held one-fifth of the world under colonial rule. One can be impressed with Israel’s democracy while rejecting its colonialism, much as it was possible to be impressed with toleration in Holland while rejecting its behavior in Indonesia. That is not hypocrisy.
However, the issue of Israel’s image in the US, with which Chomsky is so deeply concerned, is indeed a central political and moral issue for Israel, and not just a problem of public relations. The issue is posed by the controversy between those who would promote the image of Israel based upon its democratic virtues, its “beautiful eyes,” in the Israeli phrase, and those who would have Israel act as a huge pro-American “aircraft carrier” in the Middle East.
The “beautiful eyes” rationale is that Israel should be an enlightened democracy which the American public can wholeheartedly admire. This is held to be the best, if not the only, long-run guarantee for continued US support of Israel. True, the US backs some of the most obnoxious dictatorial regimes in the world. But it has always attempted to cover this with some ideological camouflage. From this point of view, for Israel to be moral and enlightened is not only virtuous but also prudent.
The opposing thesis is that Israel can be the largest and best aircraft carrier for the US in the Middle East. The US would then have to support Israel, much as it supports its Sixth Fleet. From this point of view, Israel is bound to lose its beautiful eyes, owing, among other things, to the fact that more than a fifth of its work force is employed by its industrial-military complex, which forces it to become increasingly dependent on arms sales, often to the leper regimes of this earth. In the long run, therefore, Israel should cater to the Moral Majority in the US, rather than try to meet the standards of I.F. Stone.
Most Israelis do not like this dichotomy. They would like Israel to be an aircraft carrier and have beautiful eyes. The gap between these images becomes an unbearable strain, made more acute by the prospect that the West Bank will be annexed and Israel transformed into an undemocratic apartheid state.
On this issue, Chomsky seems to adopt the “seventh-month” thesis of Meron Benvenisti, according to which the trend toward complete annexation of the West Bank and Gaza is now irreversible—or rather, it is reversible only in the sense that a seven-month pregnancy is still reversible.2 Since Benvenisti holds that the process of annexation is now in its seventh month, so to speak, one of his suggestions (not Chomsky’s) is to declare a formal, de jure, annexation right away so that at least the civil rights of the population in the territories will be safeguarded. He maintains that it is easier and more practical to fight for the rights of the occupied Arab population than to fight against the annexation.
But the belief that once annexation finally takes place the Arabs will be assured civil rights seems to me hopelessly naive. Nothing will prevent the government from accompanying the act of annexation with revived “defense regulations” that will, for all practical purposes, deprive the West Bank Arabs of their rights. An official annexation, as far as I can see, will make Israel an official apartheid state.
Nor do I believe that the facts created on the West Bank preclude a reversal of the present annexationist process. The key issue determining the reversibility of the situation is to my mind the number of Jewish settlers in the West Bank. And this number, excluding those in Jerusalem, is only 25,000. The grand plan to settle 100,000 Jews in a short time seems unrealistic. One hundred thousand permanent settlers in the West Bank would have confirmed Benvenisti’s thesis. Paradoxically, it is Gush Emunim (“The Block of the Faithful”) that stands in the way of a large-scale Jewish settlement of the West Bank, and for two reasons. First, such extensive settlement can take place only in large Jewish suburbs, and by settlers who seek a place to live, not to fulfill the ideology of “Greater Israel.” But Gush Emunim insists on settling in many smaller places that are unattractive to such nonideological settlers. Luckily, then, the huge expenditure for the West Bank settlement policy of the present government is being invested in a large number of Potemkin villages rather than in a small number of large townships.
Second, Gush Emunim has made such a fuss over the dangers of the West Bank roads as a result of Arab stone-throwing that nonideological potential settlers have been put off. So in spite of the tempting conditions offered settlers in the West Bank, the Likud government has not really succeeded in its ambitious settlement policy. There are many settlements, but relatively few settlers, a fact that Chomsky does not give serious attention to.
Another factor supposedly strengthens the seventh-month thesis—the transfer of much of the Arab work force to jobs in Israel, which might have been thought to lead inevitably to the creation of one indivisible economy. But the economic transformation of the West Bank, which impels Palestinians to leave their villages to work inside the old borders, has in fact weakened the local ties of these villagers and made them conscious of their Palestinian identity.
Even Begin and Rafael (“Raful”) Eitan, the former army chief of staff, did not believe that the situation in the West Bank is irreversible. For them the war for Eretz Israel had not been settled: it still had to pass through Beirut, the PLO stronghold in Lebanon, which was perceived as a potential competitor for control of the West Bank, and thus had to be eradicated. Chomsky rightly accepts the analysis of Yehoshua Porath, a noted Orientalist, and of Danny Rubinstein, a well-known journalist, according to which Israel resorted to a war against the PLO in Lebanon not because of the terror it inflicted on the northern border of Israel but because of the terror it did not inflict there. That is, it was the PLO’s restraint, and the fear that it would gradually begin to be perceived by the world as a political rather than a military organization—and as such as a potential partner for negotiations over the future of the West Bank—that drove the Israeli government to action. The PLO’s ability to control its forces and prevent skirmishes and incursions on the northern border, thereby honoring the cease-fire agreement of July 1981, was a principal reason for Begin’s and Eitan’s decision to wage war.
Sharon wanted more than that. He was after a “New Order” in the Middle East, with Israel as a small superpower in its center. His intention was to push the Syrians out of Lebanon, as well as the PLO and the Palestinians in general, and create a Maronite state there, headed by Bashir Gemayel. The next stage in his plan envisaged the Palestinians uprooted from Lebanon overthrowing King Hussein of Jordan, or at least bringing about, with a little help from Israel, the division of Jordan between a PLO-controlled north and a Hussein-controlled south. During this intervention Israel was supposed to reach the Saudi border. Sharon was quite explicit about this “New Order” in his lecture at the Institute for Strategic Studies of Tel Aviv University in December 1981.
The war in Lebanon, then, was the outcome of a coalition between those who wanted to fight the Syrians (Sharon, General Drori) and those who wanted to fight the PLO (Eitan). Begin—according to a convincing report in the newspaper Ma’ariv in September 1983—wanted to fight both.
There is nothing like a failure to bring the truth to the surface. Two books recently published in Israel, Snow Ball by Shimon Shiffer and Israel’s Lebanon War by Ehud Ya’ari and Ze’ev Schiff, tell the full story of the Lebanon war.3 Unlike Chomsky, the authors rely on primary sources. But the picture they draw is not inconsistent with Chomsky’s, except that they concentrate on the behavior of Israeli leaders throughout the drama. The main thesis that emerges from these books is that a bull was in search of a china shop—the bull being Sharon. Both books convincingly claim that the invasion of Lebanon was directly encouraged by Alexander Haig. (I recall a conversation with a senior official in the Begin administration who told me: “Well, did you expect Begin to stop at the forty-kilometer line, when Haig himself was after more?”) It emerges, moreover, that Israel’s war tactics failed not so much because of Sharon’s and Eitan’s lack of talent as because they constantly had to disguise their aims both from the Israeli public and, more significantly, from the government.
Israel’s Lebanon War provides a detailed and brilliant analysis of the background of the war. The opposition to it appeared even before the fighting had begun. Peace Now held several demonstrations against the prospect of an invasion. A number of articles were published in the Israeli press, notably by Schiff himself in Ha’aretz, warning that war was imminent. One of the factors that contributed to the virtual ineffectiveness of this opposition is the change in the nature and structure of the Israeli army since the 1973 Yom Kippur war. Until then the regular army was relatively small, and the main military power was with the reserve troops. Afterward the regular army increased significantly, and this enabled Sharon and Eitan to maintain the army at high alert and to use it without undermining normal life in Israel, and without stirring up resistance among the reservists, who include most of the concerned citizens of Israel. This relative independence of the regular army was to my mind a central factor in neutralizing opposition to the war before it actually started.
Once the war began, the Labor party leaders were promptly dragged into it; their dubious excuse was that they were promised it would stop when the army had gone forty kilometers into Lebanon. I have little doubt that the Labor party acquiesced because its leaders felt that they had, the year before, misjudged the situation regarding the bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor, and believed that condemning that attack had cost them the 1981 elections.
Chomsky makes his own contribution to the history of the Lebanon war; the two Israeli books do not make his own redundant. Here he writes as the Devil’s accountant, specifying and describing in detail Israel’s mistreatment of Lebanese and Palestinian civilians. He relies heavily on the report by Dov Yirmiah, a noble and immaculately moral Israeli army colonel who was responsible for aid to Lebanese civilians. This is an atrocious story, which, to be sure, adds to the other atrocious stories that have accumulated during Lebanon’s long civil wars and for which we Israelis cannot be exonerated.
The center of Chomsky’s account of the war is the Sabra and Shatila massacre, in which every taboo was broken in the name of the Israeli totem. Chomsky is horrified not only by the massacre itself, but by what he sees as the attempt by Israel and its friends abroad to exonerate and to promote Israel by praising the commission of inquiry set up to investigate the events. Chomsky sees the Kahan Commission report as aiming to supply some sort of indulgence for Israeli society and to bring it back to the fold of the enlightened nations.
Chomsky is very critical of the commission which, he believes, was not really committed to exposing the truth. To me the commission to exposing the truth. To me the commission did remarkably well in this regard, but that is not the point. The commission’s real failing was that its recommendations were incongruous with its findings.4 Its members went to great lengths to exonerate Israel from “direct” responsibility for the massacre: that responsibility, for them, belonged solely to the Phalangists. In my view the commission gave the concept of direct responsibility an interpretation so narrow that it was incompatible even with Israeli law. Israel’s army had the responsibility for protecting the remaining Palestinian civilians in Beirut after the killing of Bashir Gemayel. In these circumstances, to have allowed the Phalange commander Elie Hobeika and his men—the Damour Battalion—to enter the camps was something like appointing Dr. Mengele as chief surgeon at the Hadassah Hospital. In view of Hobeika’s known record, notably in the massacre of Palestinians at Tel al-Zaatar, talk of indirect responsibility here is dubious. On the other hand, in its finding that the Israeli government and military were indirectly responsible for the massacre, the commission gave the concept of “indirect responsibility” a moral interpretation so broad that it bordered on a finding of direct responsibility. Jews, it has rightly been argued, have in their history suffered too many pogroms instigated by “indirectly responsible” agents to make too much of the distinction.
The Kahan Commission, it must be understood, was concerned not to follow the unfortunate example of the Agranat Commission, which was appointed to investigate the lack of preparedness for the Yom Kippur war in 1973. That commission went out of its way not to implicate Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan, among other political leaders, and it put the entire blame on the army. The Kahan Commission made a point of blaming politicians as well as military leaders. In varying degrees it indicted Begin and Shamir, but concentrated on Sharon. Had it come out strongly against Begin he would certainly have rejected the report, and most of the population would have backed him. Impeaching Sharon was as far as the commission could go, if it was to achieve direct political results. And in fact Sharon (together with Eitan) really was the high official most responsible for the massacres.
Removing Sharon from the ministry of defense following publication of the commission’s report was indeed an achievement, but it was also, as some of us have been horrified to find, a short-lived one. In April, Sharon came close to being elected the leader of the Likud for the coming elections, losing to Shamir by only about fifty votes out of 730. In the words of Arieh Na’or, the former secretary of Begin’s government, “Sharon’s ‘March’ has begun.” And in order to remove any doubts about what kind of march he was referring to, he was later quoted as saying that except for his baldness, Sharon reminds him of Mussolini. The announcements of Sharon’s political demise, therefore, are sadly premature.
Chomsky’s book ends with the eschatological title, “The Road to Armageddon.” I wish that the Lebanon war were indeed the war of Gog and Magog, after which the millennial redemption would be sure to come. But for the present, Israel is caught in a fateful triangle very different from the subject of Chomsky’s one-sided polemic, a triangle of three acute Israeli conflicts—between the religious and secular populations; between the Ashkenazi and the Oriental communities; and between Jews and Arabs. And the triangle is surrounded by a circle of 400 percent inflation. For one of these conflicts there exists a gradual solution. That 22 percent of marriages are now between Ashkenazim and Oriental Jews and that this proportion is increasing by one percent each year will in time soften the Jewish ethnic conflict. But the others remain, and threaten to explode.
Soon elections will take place in the shadow of a traumatic war whose memory the Israeli public seems anxious to repress. The Labor Alignment has a chance to return to power, a prospect that holds no joy for Chomsky. For him there is no real difference in policy between the Alignment and the Likud, only the difference between hypocrisy and brutality. Yet between the sane hypocrisies of the Alignment and the self-righteous brutality of the Likud, I would not hesitate to prefer the Alignment. Underlying the hypocrisy of Labor there is some recognition, at least, that humane values count, including the value of exchanging territory for peace. That, perhaps, is the way to avoid Armageddon.
June 28, 1984
Edward Said, “Permission to Narrate,” The London Review of Books, February 16, 1984, pp. 13–17. ↩
Commenting on Anthony Lewis’s column on Benvenisti’s study of the West Bank, Chomsky writes, “He is right to observe that there will soon be nothing to negotiate.” ↩
Israel’s Lebanon War will be published by Simon and Schuster in September. Shimon Shiffer, Snowball (Idanim, 1984). ↩
See the excellent analysis of the commission report, The Missing Crucial Point by Shimon Lehrer, a reserve paratroop major (Amit Publishing, in Hebrew). ↩