For the first time, an administration in Washington has linked further American generosity toward Israel to Israel’s willingness to stop further settlements on the West Bank. The government in Israel and officials of American Jewish organizations have reacted by denouncing President Bush for using a humanitarian cause, the need to finance the settlement of hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews, as a weapon in his battle against Yitzhak Shamir’s expansionist policies. But these denunciations fail to conceal the real issue, which is whether American-backed aid is to finance the absorption of the West Bank into Israel, thus making an eventual exchange of territory for peace impossible. Both the Israeli government and the leaders of American Jewish organizations know that, whether a peace conference soon takes place or not, the long-predicted fight over the future of the territories that Israel acquired in the war of June 1967 has finally begun.

For months signals from Washington have made it clear that the Bush administration has lost patience with the policies of the Shamir government. Israel’s ambassador in Washington, Zalman Shoval, a political appointee who was formerly a Likud member of the Knesset, said bluntly in June, in an interview on Israeli radio, that the government would have to choose between more West Bank settlements and American aid. Several cabinet ministers bitterly denounced him, although he was simply reporting on the Bush administration’s policies, and his warning was only one of several signs in recent months of growing disaffection in Washington. Why did the administration harden its position, and why did the Israelis and the American Jewish organizations disregard the signals and head into confrontation?

The administration, for its part, came to the conclusion that the present government, the most right wing in Israel’s history, intends to hold on to the West Bank and Gaza, and the Golan Heights, at any cost. During the last fifteen years some US officials were drawn to theories that “only the Likud can make peace,” that only the right wing could lead Israel to territorial compromise. These have turned out to be false, as did the notion that supposedly moderate right-wingers—Yitzhak Shamir is sometimes cast in this role—would strike a deal if they did not have to depend for a majority in the Knesset on the extremists—such as Geula Cohen and Rechavam Zeevi—who oppose the slightest concession to the Palestinians. The Labor party has said it would support Shamir against any vote of no confidence if he were to move toward a policy of “territories for peace.” Shamir has ignored this offer. In 1979, when he was speaker of the Knesset, he voted against the Camp David agreement because he thought its provisions for autonomy for Palestinians on the West Bank would lead inexorably to the creation of a Palestinian state. He has made clear his belief that Jewish failure to settle the West Bank will lead to the same result.

Mr. Shamir was warned recently in private by several leaders of American Jewish organizations and by some friendly congressmen that defying Mr. Bush’s appeal for a delay in considering loan guarantees would risk a confrontation with the US. Instead he persisted in encouraging his supporters in the US to make an issue of the guarantees now, and pressed his allies in Congress to introduce legislation to stop any delay. Yosef Harif, the journalist whom Shamir uses to leak some of his views, wrote in Ma’ariv on September 13 that Shamir would not be upset if the confrontation stopped the peace conference from taking place at all. The leak had at least two implications: Shamir was trying to warn the Americans that the loan guarantees were part of his price for attending the conference, and he made it clear in Israel that he had not modified his intransigence over the territories. The idea of “territories for peace,” which Shamir has always rejected, was for many years the policy backed by the Israeli government and by most moderate Jewish leaders in the US. In demanding that the American Jewish establishment not only accept Shamir’s position but directly challenge the US government over it, the right-wing Israeli leaders are depending on longstanding feelings of inferiority and deference on the part of Diaspora Jews toward the Holy Land that are little acknowledged but are very deep nonetheless.

The sense that Diaspora Jews are in some sense lesser Jews than those living in Zion is explicit in prayer books and in the whole structure of traditional Jewish law. Those who dwell in Zion are, by definition, the more godly. The secular Israelis of today have translated this notion into the view that the Diaspora owes deference to the Israelis because they and their children have fought the wars of Israel, while those in the Diaspora have merely provided money and political support. Very soon after the state of Israel was created, its first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, insisted that true Zionists were those who lived in Israel or were planning to do so, and that all other Jews were a lesser breed, “friends of Israel,” who could earn Jerusalem’s approval by the intensity of their support. Throughout the centuries, those who provided the money for the Jews in the Holy Land were seldom given an accounting of how it was spent there. Such inquisitiveness was held to be an impertinence, for the authorities in the Holy Land knew best.


This attitude, in its contemporary, secular, version, dominates the financial and even the political relationship between Israelis and Jews living elsewhere. The centuries-old archetypes that govern the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora are even echoed in the rhetoric with which Israel defines its connection to the United States. Israel expects a “special relationship” because it is the sole and reliable representative of American-style democracy in the Middle East. If democracy is the secular religion of the West, then Israel is the unique representative of the faith in a highly sensitive region, and it is entitled to special deference. Any attempt to treat Israel as one of many other American concerns is bitterly resented. Among American Jewish leaders it has become a kind of folk wisdom that the Diaspora should accommodate to the prevailing government in Israel, and try to persuade the US to follow suit. The Jewish establishment in America wants to remain in good standing with the rulers in Jerusalem, who, in the last fifteen years, have been the men and women of Israel’s right wing. If the Labor party were in power today, most American Jewish leaders would be backing an exchange of territories for a peaceful settlement.

A tragic consequence of this relationship is that most Jews in the Diaspora remain ignorant of the different currents of thought in Israel itself. Throughout the present crisis the American Jewish press has hardly mentioned the divisions of opinion within Israel; it is too busy mounting defenses of Prime Minister Shamir and deploring President Bush’s hard-heartedness toward Soviet Jews. But on September 13, for example, Yedioth Ahronoth, the mass-circulation daily that is read by most Israelis, reported on its front page that 69 percent of the respondents to a recent poll, including half of those who voted for the Likud, were willing to trade territories for peace. Israeli opinion has often shifted on this question; but here was current evidence that the Shamir government’s policy on the territories represents only a minority of the country and, at most, half of its own party. These startling facts have not affected perceptions in the American Jewish community because the American Jewish press and organizations have not publicized them, and may not even be aware of them.

A large proportion of Israel’s high military and intelligence officials, moreover, and most of its intellectuals have been strongly opposed for years to Shamir’s annexationist policies; but their views, too, have been effectively obscured outside Israel, especially in the United States. Two years ago, Shamir called a conference in Jerusalem on “solidarity with Israel,” which was in reality a stage-managed affair intended to show that Jewish leaders throughout the world were loyal to the government’s policies. During the conference, the Israeli press carried a report that the prime minister had received an assessment by Israel’s combined intelligence services that holding on to the entire West Bank would, in fact, threaten Israel’s security, and that Israel would be better off retaining only several vantage points that would enable its forces to deter or destroy any possible attack.

A few hours after this news broke in the Hebrew press, I happened to meet the British press baron Robert Maxwell in a television studio where we and others were to debate the meaning of “solidarity” with Israel. He insisted that there was no such report since, at the closing session of the solidarity meeting, the prime minister had denied its existence. I said that if he repeated this view on the air, I would simply read from the newspapers in front of me, which quoted from the text of the intelligence report. He was silent. But it was soon clear to me that most of the American delegates to the conference would go home either not knowing of the intelligence assessment, or, if they did, thinking that the prime minister’s disagreements with his own intelligence experts, on ideological grounds, were none of their business. They felt it was their task to put the best face on whatever the government was doing.

Recently Ha’aretz, Israel’s most distinguished newspaper, has vehemently opposed Shamir’s policy of confrontation with the United States. Its senior columnist and chairman of the editorial board, Dr. Walter Gross, who uses the pen name Poles, wrote in early September that, despite the peace treaty with Egypt, the basic error of all Israeli governments since 1967 has been to hold on to the West Bank and Gaza. He wrote,


We must recognize that the world agreed to the creation of a Jewish state only on the condition of a partition of the land; he who holds fast to the slogan “not one foot shall be given back” is both strengthening our enemies and alienating friends.

Another editorial in Ha’aretz challenged the claim of Shamir and his coalition partners that the Americans had no right to stop Israel from using American money for measures which they believe are “contrary to the interests of the United States in the region.” In Ha’aretz’s view, Shamir would not have the support of a majority of Israelis if he persisted in his confrontation with the US. Ha’aretz warned that even if Shamir succeeds in obtaining the loan guarantees he wants without making any change in his policies on the West Bank and Gaza, those who support him should “remember that a Shamir victory means the founding of a bi-national state in place of a Jewish state, Israel.” That is, holding onto the territories means that Israel would have an Arab population of 40 percent, and nearly two million Arabs could not be held in permanent subjection and denied political rights without destroying Israel’s claims to be a democratic state.

The real extent and impact of Israel’s settlement policies have also been hidden from Diaspora opinion. Some of the most knowledgeable American officials who monitor the West Bank have, indeed, professed exasperated admiration for the skill with which the Israelis have concealed the reality of the settlements, both from their own people and from the Americans. The central fact is that, using various administrative formulas to do so, the state of Israel has now asserted control over more than half of the land of the West Bank. Less than half of this land is being used directly for settlements. A substantial part is used by the military, but much of the rest has simply been set aside for future use, above all for new settlements. This means that the Arab population of the West Bank—estimated by the Israeli army to be approximately 1.3 million people—is now contained within less land than the Israeli government has allocated to itself for both its own purposes and for the 100,000 current Jewish settlers, with hundreds of thousands more to come if the plans of General Sharon, the minister of housing, are carried out. As for the proportionate distribution of the water supply, reliable statistics are hard to find, but virtually every Israeli newspaper has published feature articles describing how Arab farms are drying up for lack of water, while Jewish settlements adjoining their land have full swimming pools.

The financial costs of the settlement policy in the West Bank and Gaza are also concealed. In August, State Department Middle East experts wrote a “confidential” paper, which soon leaked, summarizing the main facts about the West Bank and Gaza for members of Congress. The department’s experts found that no more than eighty million dollars in Israel’s annual budget were overtly assigned to building more housing on the West Bank. But, as the report suggested, the real annual cost of West Bank settlement is many times the published figure. The road-building program in the West Bank is a case in point. Israel has the largest amount of traffic per kilometer of roads of any country in the world, as well as the highest accident rate per capita of population. Still, less money is being spent on road building to remove such congestion than is allocated for road construction on the West Bank. A master plan is being carried out under which it will be possible to drive to and among the settlements without ever passing through an Arab village. In part, this program is an answer to the intifada: it is far harder to throw rocks at a passing Jewish car from the side of an open road than from a village alley. But the network of roads also means that, in the long run, Jews will be able to live on the West Bank in a separate world of their own.

This summer, Sharon’s Ministry of Housing announced that during the next two years it plans to double the Jewish population on the West Bank to about two hundred thousand people. Together with the growing number of settlements in Gaza and especially in the Golan Heights, this means that a quarter of a million Jews will be living in the occupied territories. Sharon and the other officials who are backing the plan have not hidden their purpose: these increases in population are intended to make the “administered territories” non-negotiable. According to the Israeli papers the overall costs of the planned settlements would amount to at least a billion dollars.

The most authoritative criticism of the costs of the settlement policy has come most recently from an unexpected source, Yitzhak Modai, the minister of finance in Shamir’s cabinet, and the leading Liberal party member of the Likud government coalition. In an interview with Yedioth Ahronoth on Friday, September 20, Mr. Modai charged that Sharon’s

Ministry of Housing does not give us reliable information on the extent of its building activities in the territories. The increased pace of building in the region is beyond proportion. The disregard of the budget by the ministry of housing has eaten up whatever has been left over in the budget by the slowing of the pace of Russian immigration.

Mr. Modai made it clear that as finance minister he could no longer control the rate of settlement.

Jewish opinion in the United States has not, to my knowledge, been recently measured in a major poll, but I have heard of surveys by Jewish organizations in which a minority of about 20 percent in favor of the undivided land of Israel, even at the cost of a bitter fight with the administration in Washington. Virtually all American Jews want to help the Soviet Jews, and most are uneasy at the thought of being in the middle of a dispute between Washington and Jerusalem. A strong majority is for territorial compromise; but an equally strong majority is unhappy to see Israel’s government criticized by Bush and Baker for refusing even to consider territorial compromise.

There is a pathetic aspect to these contradictory attitudes, and to the way the Shamir government has been using them for its own purposes. The most devastating criticism I have seen of Shamir’s manipulation of American Jews was written by Haim Hefer, whose column in Yedioth Ahronoth is the most widely read in Israel. In an article entitled “Hostages” on September 20 he accused the Shamir government of using tactics of political adventurism to take the American Jewish community hostage. The American Jews responded, Hefer continued, even though what was requested of them “contradicted both reason and morality.” But Israel insisted that American Jews had to get into a conflict with President Bush, “to support the untruths that the Israeli government is throwing in his face.”

Shamir, Hefer continued, is even reminding American Jews that they did not do enough during the Nazi years, and therefore they have no right to ask any questions now. Hefer then recalled that Lehi, the ultra-right-wing group of which Shamir was deputy commander in the 1940s, had itself tried to make a pact with the Nazis against the British. Israel, in Hefer’s view, is sending the Jews of America, “our faithful brothers,” into a battle “in which most of them do not believe,” to build a few more Jewish settlements on the West Bank. Hefer concluded his indictment by calling on Jews in America not to listen to the Shamir government, which is “abusing their love” for Israel.

Hefer’s column was translated into English on the very day of its appearance by the American embassy in Tel Aviv, which produces texts or summaries for its own staff, and for Washington, of everything of any consequence in all of Israel’s dailies. Paradoxically, therefore, American government leaders are better informed about what Israelis are thinking than American Jewish leaders, who devote their energies to the cause of Israel, and who come to Washington to lobby for it. It seems highly doubtful that they really know what the right-wing government has been doing in the occupied territories and what many Israelis think of it. The Jewish leaders might have spared themselves some of their current anguish over the conflict with the American government if they had insisted on learning facts that are now becoming harder and harder to avoid. The confrontation between Bush and Shamir is forcing American Jews to face ignored realities and to make up their minds, at last, on Israel’s annexationist policy in the occupied territories.

September 26, 1991

This Issue

October 24, 1991