During the spring of 1948, as the war between Jews and Arabs in Palestine was becoming even bloodier, the American ambassador to the United Nations, Warren Austin, is reported to have asked: “Why can’t the Jews and the Moslems learn to practice Christian charity?” Like Warren Austin, the columnists and commentators who have been writing and speaking about the recent unrest that has spread from Gaza to all of Israel have been preaching at Jews and Arabs, asking them to behave reasonably. Many are calling for the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza; others are backing the “Jordanian option,” that is, the redividing of the West Bank between Israel and Jordan. All have talked about the need for flexibility and a change of heart on both sides.

Moderate, reasonable people, including many Israeli writers and intellectuals, have been advising a peace of mutual recognition for more than twenty years, since June 1967 when Israel conquered the West Bank and Gaza. Why is that old advice being repeated now? Many commentators seem to think that the recent outbreaks, and the harsh methods that the Israelis have used to contain them, have caused such a strong reaction in Israel that after two decades of stasis, it will begin to detach itself from Gaza and the West Bank. The Palestinians, it is claimed, are ready to compromise their ideology, which requires the return to them of all of Palestine, on the day that Israel offers to negotiate with them.

That the recent riots and protests are likely to have such an effect is a foolish illusion. There was, however, something new about them. The Arabs of pre-1967 Israel never joined in mass demonstrations against the government, and until this December there had not been an Arab general strike, not even for a day, since Israel was founded in 1948. But Israelis have long memories. Before the state was created, during the 1920s and 1930s and into the 1940s, there were long periods of guerrilla warfare in Palestine, and the Arabs called many general strikes. The price that the Arabs demanded for ending the war between the communities was agreement by the Jews to stop Jewish immigration. The Jews found war preferable, especially since they had the military force to contain the other side. The Arabs in Israel were able to mount a brief general strike in December but they are far less threatening than their predecessors, who assailed a far weaker Jewish community before 1948—and the Jews now control the apparatus of the state.

There is another new element in the present outbreaks. Until the mid-1980s the most dramatic terrorist attacks were made by PLO teams from outside Israel’s borders, while the Arabs under Israel’s control have been relatively quiescent. In recent years there have been few PLO incursions but the number of violent incidents within the borders of the undivided Israel has grown dramatically. The protests of mid-December, started by angry young people within the territories, were the strongest expression so far of homegrown Arab violence against the Israelis. According to the most reliable reports, the outbreaks were spontaneous; help from the PLO came only after young Arabs in Gaza set the demonstrations in motion. The thousand or so political prisoners who are rapidly being tried by Israeli political authorities are almost all young men between their mid-teens and mid-twenties. These demonstrators have grown up under the Israeli occupation, as have their sisters and younger brothers who were with them when the rocks and Molotov cocktails were thrown.

During the first outbreak, when television cameras were turned on, it looked disgraceful for armed soldiers to be firing at teen-agers and women. A day or two later, the government made it clear that it was rounding up young people who were easy to find, and who could be jailed or deported across the Jordan River. Israeli military authorities were, in fact, visibly pleased by the lack of expertise among the rioters they have in custody. The Israeli press and recent polls suggested that the Israeli public was not only much relieved that the riots were contained but confident that future outbreaks are likely to be contained more professionally, that is, with less deadly force, and therefore with less embarrassment to themselves. A poll in the conservative daily Yedioth Aharonoth on December 25, however, showed that 69 percent of the Israelis surveyed favored harsher security measures in the territories and 47 percent said that since the riots they took a harder line toward the Arabs.

This is not the mood of a country about to change its fundamental policies. The current disorder tends to push the moderates, or many of them, closer to the hard-line nationalist camp, if not into it. The familiar cry is heard that one cannot make concessions or negotiate while terrorists are attacking the forces of law and order. This is precisely what the leaders of the Labor party in Israel, Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres and Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, have been saying. They are clearly afraid that, if they were to be perceived as “giving in to terrorism,” the Likud party could defeat them in an election. Menachem Begin won in 1981 by appropriating the slogan “national camp” for his party and thus forcing the Labor party to “prove” that its more moderate policies were not anti-national. “Giving in to terrorism” is a slur that would instantly be applied to Labor if its leaders sounded in the least bit daunted by the task of quelling the disturbances.


Once Israel returns to “normal,” i.e., to a situation in which scattered acts of violence are the accepted norm, it is highly unlikely that the more moderate Israeli political leaders will move any more boldly than they have before. Why risk domestic political turmoil—which any serious concessions would create—when the situation is quiet? This is the Catch-22 of the moderate Israeli politicians: they are trapped into “national unity” by Arab violence but they also prefer not to fight both the Likud and each other (for there are both hawks and doves in the Labor leadership) when the pressure is off.

Shlomo Hillel, the speaker of the Knesset, is the leader of the Labor hawks, who, in his calculations, make up about half (twenty-two) of all the Labor members of the Knesset. Hillel was quoted in the Israeli papers on January I as demanding that Peres not go beyond the official platform of the party, which rules out the return of much more than half of the West Bank and insists on Israeli military control of all the territory west of the Jordan. Hillel left no doubt that in the view of the Labor hard-liners, Peres had been speaking much too broadly in his various calls for negotiations.

In view of these political pressures Shimon Peres’s recent calls for an “international conference” to consider a peace settlement were heard in Israel as a message to the superpowers, and especially to the Americans, to bring pressure on the Arab nations to consider moderate solutions, and thus help him prove that “moderation pays.” He hoped that the Americans would thus dislodge enough marginal votes to make him prime minister in his own right. The Americans refused, and Peres never had the votes in the Knesset, or in the country, to support a serious shift in the Israeli position. It was and remains the accepted wisdom among practically all Israeli political observers that a new election would produce the same political stalemate that exists today, with the possible exception that Labor might lose a few seats if some of its own more hawkish members decided to join the right. It would take someone with the appeal and authority of De Gaulle or Ben-Gurion, i.e., someone who does not now exist, to bring Israel to a détente with the Arabs, or at least with some of them.

The Palestinians are no more united than the Israelis. The Jordanians do not want a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza since it would be a threat to the monarchy. Over 60 percent of Jordanians are Palestinians, whose loyalty to the king is likely to be diminished by a Palestinian government in Ramallah, on the West Bank. The more militant factions of the PLO will continue to be at war with both Israelis and other Palestinians, in pursuit of an undivided Palestine under their control. The groups of angry young people who have been making themselves visible on the West Bank have carried the Palestinian flag in their demonstrations; but according to recent reports they have not for the most part been close to the PLO, even as many have continued to say, in a kind of incantation, that it is “the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.”

In addition to the young Palestinians who have been rioting, a more sophisticated leadership has appeared. Hanna Siniora, the editor of Al Fajr in East Jerusalem, and Mubarak Awad, an Arab-American who heads an institute in the West Bank to study nonviolent politics, have called on Palestinians to engage in nonviolent civil disobedience by refusing, for example, to pay taxes or to buy Israeli products. The leader of the moderate Israeli Peace Now group, Tzaly Reshef, has said, “We need to hear moderate voices on the other side that will give us, the doves, the feeling that our minimum demands for security and survival will be met.” This plea may perhaps be answered by Siniora and Awad and their supporters. But Arab moderates remain a minority, an endangered one, and Peace Now has yet to show it can become more than a marginal force in Israeli politics.


The PLO leadership has also explored new positions. There were rumors of a meeting somewhere in Europe during the last days of December between representatives of the PLO and leaders of the riots in Gaza and the West Bank. The PLO apparently offered help so that it might claim a share in the “victory.” On the international scene, moreover, Arafat has suddenly become more visible and more forthcoming. According to Ma’ariv of January 1, Arafat told a Kuwait newspaper that the Palestinians must remember that “there are Jews in the land.” In a separate interview in The Washington Post of January 4, he talked optimistically of setting up a Palestinian government in exile to negotiate a Palestinian state with “the presence of UN forces for any period” that Israel required on the Palestinian side of the border. Such actions and statements by Arafat serve to remind the maximalists among the Palestinians, who want the undivided land of Israel, that there is no hope of achieving Palestinian aims except through compromises with the Israelis; but no political program that he can announce will have even the grudging assent of all the various Palestinian factions. Palestinian unity exists so long as they are at war with Israel; it falls apart the closer they get even to talk of a political solution. The more formidable obstacle to a Palestinian state is that it is opposed by the Israelis and the Jordanians, both of which feel threatened by it, and by the Americans, who remain unconvinced that such a state would be peaceful and that it would stay out of the Soviet orbit.

The tragic truth is that both Israel and the Palestinians have fewer problems with violence than they have with peace. The inner politics of both camps have been conditioned by at least two generations of resisting and fighting. The cycle of violent protest followed by repression may become more frequent. A continuous, unrelenting civil war is not yet in view; even if it were, there is the example of Belfast to suggest that communities can live with horror, even for centuries, without undergoing the revulsion that would lead both sides to sanity and peace.

Why, then, don’t the superpowers try to stop this growing tragedy, for only they have the power to do so? The reason is that they prefer not to pay the price that it would cost them to apply convincing pressure for peacemaking in the Middle East. The last serious initiative to come from Washington was announced in September 1982, when President Reagan endorsed the goal of Arab autonomy on the West Bank. That proposal soon died and American policy since then has been dominated by one recurrent concern: to keep the Russians out of the Middle East. When Peres first called for an international conference, his friend George Shultz refused to support him; such a conference could not possibly take place, even if the superpowers were present formally only at the ceremonial opening, without the kind of parity and connection between the Russians and the Americans that Shultz did not want.

There has recently been some change in American foreign policy thinking. The Middle East was discussed in the many talks that led up to the summit meeting between Gorbachev and Reagan, and the Americans now say they are ready to accept the Russians as a party to negotiation if, as a State Department official said to me some weeks ago, “they promise to be helpful and constructive.” This formula seems to mean that the United States would be delighted to have the Russians’ blessing for what they are likely to perceive as continuing American dominance in most of the region.

Recent statements by the American government about the riots in Israel contain no signs whatever that the United States has a new policy. The White House and the State Department have urged the Israelis to be more circumspect and sophisticated in containing the demonstrations; the US voted in the Security Council to condemn Israel’s decision to deport Palestinians. But these seem no more than gestures to save face with America’s friends in the Arab world. America’s formal position remains, as it has for years, that there must be a political solution giving separate status to the West Bank and Gaza, which the US continues to call “occupied territories.” Beyond this the Americans have taken no diplomatic initiatives, and there are no signs that they are willing to do more than invoke the long-rejected Reagan plan of 1982, which called for autonomy on the West Bank without being specific about its political character or future.

The Russians, too, have been largely silent. They have repeated their usual criticisms of the Israeli occupation and their support of the Palestinians, but so far they have not used the occasion to make any new proposals. It is surely not beyond the imagining of the toughminded Soviet experts on the Middle East to make some suggestions of their own—for example, in favor of the “government in exile” that Arafat has recently discussed. The Soviet Union is the principal international supporter of the PLO, but it has not seemed in any hurry to raise the flag in support of Palestinian statehood, which would reduce its own room for maneuver.

The truth is that Moscow wants to continue to buy time in the Middle East, and it is not yet ready to participate in a settlement. Reagan and Shamir are not the only major obstacles to an “international conference”: Gorbachev is an obstacle as well. His closest advisers know that the Soviet position in the Middle East is anchored in the Syrian regime and the PLO; they also know that, short of revolution, the Americans cannot be dislodged from most of the rest of the Middle East (excepting Iran, in which neither of the superpowers has much influence). A settlement in the Middle East, even in a meeting at which the Americans and the Soviets participate as equals, would inevitably cost the Russians more than the Americans. Never mind that Shamir’s government does not want it. The result of such a conference would be that, in one form or another, the dream of “the undivided Land of Israel” would end. Even so, angry Israeli leaders would have nowhere to go but to the Americans. The “moderate Arabs” would be able to say that their faith in America has finally been justified by its consent to join in putting pressure on Israel.

Thus Moscow fears that at an “international conference” the American position in the Middle East would actually be strengthened or, at the least, it would not be weakened, and that the Soviet Union would not do so well. In a serious negotiation over a Middle East settlement, the Syrians will likely drift toward the US. They owe the Russians many billions of dollars and their credit is drying up. They have received large credits from the Saudis as well. If Syria is to find a new patron, the United States is the most plausible candidate. An international conference could provide an occasion for the Syrians to save face: since their “Palestinian brothers” would be somehow taken care of, Syria would no longer have a reason to keep its distance from the American protectors of Israel. The US and Israel, moreover, could accommodate Syria’s ambitions in Lebanon if Assad were willing to be helpful in bringing about an agreement on the West Bank. More seriously still, there is no way that the PLO can get all it wants—even all that its supposed moderates want—at an international conference. The Russians even at their most committed and tough could not get them all of the West Bank and Gaza, with a symbolic capital in East Jerusalem. The Soviet Union would thus risk losing face with the PLO, and might be left with a dilemma: Should it support the angry Palestinian splinter groups who would make terrorist war against a compromise settlement, or should it help the Americans enforce the new peace?

Such questions help to explain the Soviets’ current aloofness. They know the price that a Middle East settlement would cost them in the region, and they are not willing to pay it. The Soviets will be ready to talk about the Middle East when the discussion is part of a package in which they get, in return, some benefits from the Americans elsewhere in the world. What happened in Gaza is of interest to the USSR only to the degree that these events are an embarrassment to Israel and the US.

But can the Americans do anything constructive during the present crisis? I doubt that they will undertake a comprehensive negotiation with Gorbachev linking a Middle East agreement to settlement of such issues as Afghanistan, Nicaragua, and Angola. There is too little time left in Reagan’s last year in office, and in any case he is politically tied to the contras and reluctant to betray the Israeli hard-liners who have been among his most secure allies in his crusade against Communism.

The Americans, however, could also return to the only existing peace treaty between Israel and an Arab state, the Camp David agreement of 1979, which Menachem Begin signed with Anwar Sadat. Israel then agreed to hold talks on “sovereignty” after a five-year interval of autonomy for the West Bank and Gaza. There never was a period of autonomy, the five years are long past, and even the first talks were never held. The Egyptians have not insisted on them but have contented themselves with getting the Sinai Peninsula back. The Palestinians denounced the Camp David scheme as being too narrow, because it did not mention the possibility of an independent state. The Jordanians refused to cooperate because they had been left out of the Camp David negotiations. The US, following the Reagan initiative of 1982, made several unsuccessful attempts to construct a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation to negotiate with Israel. The Americans should try again, and much more vigorously, emphasizing that autonomy talks are still called for by the agreement at Camp David. This would be the only diplomatic initiative that the Israeli right-wingers cannot veto. Begin himself agreed to autonomy talks, and Prime Minister Shamir has said repeatedly that this is the only path to a settlement he is willing to take.

Do Israel’s right-wingers mean what they say? Begin essentially undermined his own agreement to autonomy talks by acting against the spirit, and probably even the letter (that is still subject to dispute), of the Camp David accords when he planted Jewish settlements throughout the West Bank. In the minds of Israel’s right wing, autonomy means hardly more than the right of Arab municipalities to control their firemen and garbage collectors. Israel meanwhile decides on land and water policy and continues to change the character of the administered territories. But if autonomy talks ever begin, with the Americans acting in their capacity of guarantors of the Camp David agreement, could such negotiations be confined to the Likud’s version of their limits?

Yitzhak Shamir and his advisers are well aware of this question. As a member of the Knesset in 1979 Shamir voted against ratifying the Camp David agreement. He saw it as the beginning of the end of Israeli rule over the West Bank and Gaza. We can imagine that Shamir, notwithstanding his public statements, is today far from enthusiastic about the kind of negotiations with the Arabs that the Camp David agreement calls for.

We can also imagine that recent events have not made King Hussein more eager to get the West Bank back. If it were returned to his rule Gaza would come with it. He would thus be faced in both regions with a new generation of Arab activists, the very people who took part in the riots, who do not much like him, and who certainly do not regard him as the leader of Palestinian nationalism. Gaza is even more intractable than the West Bank. Under Egyptian rule, it was kept in quarantine; the Egyptians did not permit residents of Gaza to cross into Egypt except with rare special permission, and they made it clear that Gaza was not part of Egypt. The Israelis have been more open; they have made use of tens of thousands of workers from Gaza, and they do considerable business across the border. Gaza remains more and more densely populated with angry Palestinians who are without hope. It is widely, and reliably, rumored that the Israelis several times sounded out the Egyptians about taking Gaza back, and were refused. This festering territory, which neither Egypt nor Israel can digest or keep quiet, is hardly likely to appeal to jordan.*

Even in the face of the recent riots in Israel, all the parties concerned are calculating that their short-run interest is to do nothing. Reviving the Camp David talks is certainly worth trying but no one should have high hopes that the opposing sides will bring to them the qualities necessary for a compromise. Meanwhile people are being killed and untold other lives, both Israeli and Arab, have been distorted by the occupation. It is painful to think of Arab young people growing up with little hope and of the young Israeli conscripts patrolling the sullen cities of the West Bank and Gaza. One hundred and sixty reserve officers and men recently announced, according to the Jerusalem Post international edition of January 9, that they would “refuse to take part in suppressing the uprising and insurrection in the occupied territories.”

Meanwhile, as the short-run calculations of all the invoked parties persuade them, one by one, to do nothing, there are more awful terrors that are imaginable, just over the horizon. As the situation hardens, rocks and stones will not necessarily be replaced only by revolvers. During the last few weeks I have several times heard officials in the US and Israel talk about sophisticated devices of terror, including atom bombs miniaturized into suitcases, being introduced before long. I hope they are exaggerating; but it is hard to see what would prevent such developments if current trends continue.

The conflict between Israel and the PLO was once a quarrel between two Western-style nationalisms, both of which considered themselves expressions of secular ideologies. Both Jews and Arabs are increasingly being pushed into the embrace of religious extremists who see themselves as prophets armed. What could be more dangerous—as we can see from the behavior of Iran in its war with Iraq—than the willingness of young people to be slaughtered in battle for the sake of the Jewish or the Muslim God? It is not for nothing that some rabbis of the Talmud, as they contemplated the prediction that the Messianic Era would be preceded by murderous war, cried out: “Let the Messiah come but I will not welcome Him.”

Everyone with whom I have talked in the past few years about the Middle East—and, at various times, I have met with leaders of all the different camps—agrees that stalemate leads to disaster, but no one seems to have summoned up the political will to say that a settlement can no longer be postponed. After each visit to the Middle East, I return more pessimistic. Prophets of gloom rarely like the words they utter: they feel compelled to describe a despairing vision in the hope that someone will act to prove them wrong.

January 7, 1988

This Issue

February 4, 1988