Choosing between Bad and Worse

THE forthcoming Jewish New Year, 5748, falls appropriately between two other days of celebration—the twentieth anniversary of the Israeli victory in the Six Day War and the fortieth Yom Ha’atzmaut next summer. And indeed, in contrast to the tumultuous and divisive Begin years, the present is a sea of tranquillity. Inflation has dropped from 450 per cent to a mere 20 per cent and the Histadrut plans to introduce a five-day week. Jewish settlement on the West Bank has slowed dramatically, virtually no Israeli troops remain in Lebanon and peace in the shape of the proposed international conference is loudly trumpeted from the mountain tops. These are, of course, undoubted achievements but only relative to the failure of past Likud governments. Mr Peres will certainly utilize them to good effect in the election campaign which will probably take place before the next Rosh Ha’shona is upon us.

Even so, smooth diplomacy and self-congratulation cannot conceal the fundamental problem—one that existed in 1948 and in 1967: the absence of a durable peace with the Arabs and, today, the Palestinians. Arab incomprehension of the Zionist experiment is in large part responsible for the turn of events; but it must be said that traditional Zionism has been virtually blind to the need to come to grips with Palestinian nationalism. This myopia has been an ingredient shaping the conditions which Mr Peres has laid down for Palestinian representation at the international peace conference.

Palestinian national aspirations on the West Bank form, unavoidably, the core of the problem. The 60,000 Jewish settlers are less than 5 per cent of the West Bank’s population. Few can be regarded as chalutzic pioneers in the old-fashioned sense, employed in agriculture and industry, since most are housed in dormitory settlements close to the Green Line and commute to Israel. Boundary adjustments or, at worse, rehousing in equivalent conditions in Israel, possibly at American expense, would not be out of the question as part of a future agreement.

The continuing occupation, with its full quota of double standards for Israelis and Palestinians, is a corrosive influence upon the youth of both nations. Young Palestinians, who have no memory of the harsh and corrupt Jordanian occupation before 1967, become radicalized over the years and sometimes turn to terrorism. On the  other hand, an opinion poll earlier this year suggested that a majority of young Jewish Israelis favour divesting Arabs of their civil rights, 30 per cent considered the right of dissent to be unimportant whilst 45 per cent had reservations about freedom of the press.

These developments, when linked to the demographic problems do not bode well for the future. By the year 2,000, there will be as many twenty-year-old Arabs as Jews in “Greater Israel”. In 1985, there were 81,000 Arab births compared to 75,000 Jewish ones. Professor Yehoshafat Harkabi recently summarized the dilemma that a democratic Israel faces:

Israelis are reluctant to consider that the real choice before them is either that Israel will withdraw and the West Bank will become a Palestinian state, probably confederated with Jordan, or that Israel itself will become a Palestinian state. No doubt withdrawal will produce great strategic problems. It will produce a state which will have to defend its existence in difficult conditions. Annexation would create better borders—but it is doubtful that, with the resulting internal convulsions, there will be a state to defend them. To devise a strategy to defend a smaller Israel is difficult, but possible, especially with the so-called emerging technologies. To defend a country whose inner fabric crumbles is impossible. (lecture to Keck Center, Claremont McKenna College)

Fear of the future has sharpened the minds of a growing number of Israelis and Palestinians who have accepted the need for a compromise of their ideals. Professor Harkabi—a hard-line analyst of PLO positions and the distinguished dismemberer of its Covenant—now believes that the PLO has changed and that there arc sections of its leadership who are well aware of the need to reach agreement with Israel. In his recent controversial book, Fateful Decisions, he argues that elements within the PLO have begun to separate their grand design from pragmatic policy-making, that their acceptance of a West Bank state is genuine and not simply a tactic in a strategic process which culminates in the devouring of the State of Israel. Without glossing over the ambiguity of their official stand or his moral disgust at their past actions, Harkabi believes that a section of the PLO’s leadership is Israel’s negotiating partner. This is a view which is gaining credibility in liberal circles in Israel. Aharon Yariv, Ezer Weizmann and even Shas’s Rabbi Yitzhak Peretz have spoken, albeit conditionally, in similar terms. Moreover, Abba Eban recently commented that “our interlocutors will not always be such nice people. I don’t think we have an chance of reaching Palestinians who do not have a disturbing past. We shall not find Palestinians who are members of the Zionist Executive!”

Harkabi believes that the West Bankers overwhelmingly regard the PLO as the legitimate representative of the Palestine National Movement. He further suggests that this should not be interpreted as acceptance or approval of all PLO actions and policies. Mr Peres has also noted the difference between PLO terrorists and PLO supporters. And despite his declaration that the PLO would not be represented at the international conference, earlier this year Mr Peres met Hanna Siniora, the editor of Al Fajr, and other prominent West Bankers who support the PLO.

The stumbling block for most Jews who wish to see an Israeli-Palestinian rapprochement is the unreliability of the PLO’s word and the chameleon-like figure of Arafat himself. Many would agree with Amos Oz that the PLO is one of the “most blind and cruel national movements in modern history… both towards her enemies and towards her own people”. Indeed, despairing moderates in Israel have long prayed for the emergence of a Martin Luther King figure from within the Palestinian movement. Some have even purchased the film Ghandi for West Bank audiences in the hope that civil disobedience would eventually replace acts of terror as a political weapon. Even so, there have, of course, been discussions, publicized and private, between liberal and left-wing Israelis and the PLO for over a decade. Israeli leaders, while condemning such contacts, have nevertheless always been eager to secure impressions from the Israeli participants. The recent law which makes Israelis liable to prosecution for meeting PLO representatives will certainly not eliminate such contacts; indeed such ill-inspired legislation may concentrate the minds of many on the central issue of Israeli-Palestinian dialogue.

Despite the establishment, within the PLO, of a high-powered committee to organize meetings with Israelis, Arafat’s desire to attain consensus has led to the return of the rejectionists Habash, Hawatmeh and their followers. This will act against the agents of compromise and conciliation and is likely to lead to internal instability and lack of direction. Every act of terror in the so-called armed struggle committed by Palestinians against Israelis will be yet another obstacle to the construction of a peaceful future. Against this, it must be acknowledged that it is often convenient, for political purposes, to blame the PLO, even though Palestinian terrorism in the recent past has often been committed by groups outside the PLO. When Abu Nidal’s assassins shot Ambassador Argov in London, General Sharon attacked the PLO in Lebanon. Diaspora leaders always repeat the line that the PLO does not represent the Palestinians; yet they are quick to credit the PLO for all Palestinian terrorism. Terrorism is certainly painful for all Jews, but to what extent is it a factor in the realpolitik of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations? Professor Harkabi argues that viewing terrorism as the major feature of the Arab-Israeli conflict has been detrimental to Israeli understanding.

The conflict is skewed as if it is only a struggle against terrorism. Presenting it as such makes Israeli public relations easier, but it distorts the situation. Terrorism has to be combatted vigorously; however, the Palestinians are not only terrorists, but a national movement. Excessive preoccupation with terrorism benumbs Israelis’ perception of the much greater threats of the demographic factor and war.

In the coming year, much hot air will rise from the fury of the election campaign. If there is a victory for moderation and realism, then the incoming government will have the possibility, and perhaps also the mandate, to take some hard decisions. But would it also have the political will to confront the sensitive question of Palestinian aspirations in the midst of furious opposition and, indeed, the threat of civil war from the religio-nationalist camp? If Mr Peres has a majority in the Knesset, would he abandon the politics of consensus for the politics of conviction? Clearly, there are no iron-clad guarantees for the future. But, in Professor Harkabi’s words, “we have to choose, not between good and bad, which a child can do, but between bad and worse, which demands maturity”.

The demographic problem will not go away. As each year passes, it will assume greater significance. Short-sighted temporary gains should not be permitted to obscure the fundamental problems nor delay the search for true peace and security for the Jewish people in Eretz Israel.

Jewish Quarterly Autumn 1987



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