Hard Man on Shaky Ground


The only reason Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir attended the Ma-rid peace conference on he Middle East was because he was forced to by James Baker and George Bush. Even though, according to one newspaper poll, 91 per cent of Israelis were in favour of the conference, nothing else would have induced Shamir to sit down with what were, despite the Israeli government pretence, PLO supporters. But the middle ground of Israeli public opinion has long been volatile. When it became apparent that Israel really was going to confront its enemies around the table—and when Jewish settlers on their way to a demonstration were killed by Palestinian rejectionists, optimism for a positive outcome became more uncertain. A poll carried out by the daily Hadashot newspaper during the opening sessions showed that only 32.5 per cent of Israelis believed the conference would bring peace.

Because of this volatility, Shamir and his right-wing Likud party have been at pains to keep public opinion aligned with his “no land for peace” stance, even though polls have indicated for years that the electorate is evenly split on the issue. Shamir’s tactics at Madrid were designed to shore up his hardline position, while making it appear as if it represented the centre of Israeli political gravity.

Dropping the foreign minister, David Levy—the only cabinet minister to have questioned Ariel Sharon during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon—and stacking the delegation with Likud loyalists ensured ideological solidity The choice of Yossi Ben-Aharon as the Israeli delegate to face the hard-nosed Syrians was particularly symbolic.

Shamir also refused to accept a Labour Party representative at Madrid, and condemned the party’s suggestion of a moratorium on settlement during the proceedings. Yet a Smith Institute poll a few months previously indicated that 72 per cent of Israelis wanted a halt to the settlement drive.

Shamir’s opening speech, looking back on the grandeur of 4,000 years of Jewish endeavour, failed to impress the Palestinians. But it did permit him to wrap himself in the flag of Jewish history and present himself as a legitimate representative of Jewish concerns—and current Israeli opinion.

Shamir attempted to remove the issue of territorial compromise from its centrality at the Madrid deliberations. For the Palestinians and Arabs it was, of course, the raison d’être for the gathering. As the Jordanian foreign minister commented: “Israel can have land or peace, it cannot have both.”

This uncomfortable truth now faces the wide array of forces within Israel that has supported every Likud government since Menachem Begin’s victory in 1977. But the elements of this coalition exhibit interests decidedly different from Shamir’s purely nationalist concerns. If the Americans continue to apply leverage, and the Palestinians maintain a studiedly “reasonable” public face, 1992 may see that coalition start to crack. Many Israelis supported Likud’s demand to retain the territories for security reasons rather than for the honour of constructing Judaea and Samaria—the Biblical name for the West Bank.

A distinction is made between a political border, which involves Israeli sovereignty and control of Palestinians, and a security border, which maintains the defence integrity. An Israeli presence on the mountain ridges that link Jerusalem, Ramallah and Nablus would provide an early-warning system, as low-lying Israel is electronically blind. Indeed, in 1985, Arieh Shalev, a retired brigadier general, presented a plan under which Israeli deployment on the ridges and along the river Jordan required between 1-2 per cent of the West Bank to be under Israeli jurisdiction.

Moreover, many senior military figures have adopted an approach to the territories that is politically dovish, but cautious in respect of security. Before the 1988 elections, 240 generals and colonels established the “Israeli Council for Peace and Security”. They argued that “Nablus, Hebron and Gaza do not add to our security, they lessen it.” Former Israeli chief of staff Dan Shomron pointed out more than once that the intifada required a political, not a military solution.

Shamir’s strong support from the Sephardim (Jews from the East and Arab countries) may also change. The Sephardim felt insulted by their treatment by the Israeli Labour movement, which had little understanding of the importance of culture and religion in the lives of these new immigrants. Their children’s revenge came in a mass desertion from Labour. Yet the Sephardi honeymoon with Likud proved short-lived. Huge sums were invested in settlements, but there was little cash to improve their run-down neighbourhoods. Few Sephardim bothered to settle in the territories, and 100,000 Sephardim defected from Likud in 1984 to form their own party, Shas.

The mastermind behind the new party was former Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel, Ovadia Yosef, who often argued a dovish religious case for evacuating the territories. He suggested as far back as 1979 that Israel should negotiate with the PLO if the latter renounced its charter and accepted UN resolutions 242 and 338. Ovadia Yosef argued that retention of the territories endangered

If United States pressure becomes intense, Shamir may prefer retirement to compromise Jewish lives, and that less blood would be spilled if Israel left them. Through Shas’ holding the balance of power, he was able to dismember the government of national unity in March last year, because he regarded Shamir’s procrastination in accepting the Baker plan as an obstacle to peace. Yet he proved to be politically too weak at that time in persuading many Sephardim to back a government, led by the detested Labour Party—even for the sake of peace.

Although the thousands who attended the right-wing rally on the eve of Shamir’s departure sported kipot (skull-caps) and carried arms, the centrality of peace in Jewish tradition may achieve a higher profile. If public expectations are aroused, and a real choice between land or peace must be made, it would not be surprising if a large number of religious settlers, in the final analysis, was prepared to give up their Biblical dream.

Another area of diminishing returns for Shamir could be in the Jewish diaspora. The blind adherence of some major US Jewish organisations to the Shamir line over the recent loans guarantees showdown with the White House left them humiliated. Years of hard work winning friends and influencing people were thrown away. In private communications to the Israeli leadership, they complained bitterly, and declared an intention to distance themselves from the government’s position. A low-key statement from the Board of Deputies of British Jews, welcoming the peace conference, made no mention of settlements or retention of territory, but only a desire that all peoples of the region should live together in peace and security.

The only area where Shamir is assured of support is, of course, by the nationalist camp in domestic Israeli politics. Yet here, too, there are signs of uncertainty. After pledging eternal opposition to the peace conference, two far-right parties, Techiya and Moledet, retracted their threat to leave the government—especially when opinion polls showed only 7 per cent of the Israeli public agreed with them. Even within Likud, the coming generation of Likud ministers—”the crown princes”—exude a greater sense of pragmatism than their leader.

Much will depend on whether Israelis really believe the Palestinians are genuine in their proposals, and whether Israeli Jews are able to transcend their fear of the “other”. Jewish history has taught that paranoia can be justified. Many believe Shamir’s hardline approach is just a ploy—that he is hoarding his chips to give some away when real negotiations start

But Shamir may believe what he says: he may want the proceedings to be meaningless. If this perception becomes apparent in Israel, a new constellation of forces may emerge to conduct talks. Indeed, Likud must elect a leader before the 1992 election. If US pressure becomes intense, Shamir may prefer retirement to compromise. This would leave the way open for a pragmatic figure—possibly from the right—to secure a fair agreement with the Palestinians.

New Statesman 8 November 1991

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