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Israel and the Arabs: The Myths that Block Peace
Tanks and planes are visible weapons of war in the Middle East, but not the only ones. A peaceful settlement requires that both sides disarm themselves of righteous arguments with the realities, says Mr. Yost, a former American ambassador to Syria and Morocco and deputy representative at the United Nations

by Charles Yost

On November 22, 1967, six months after the Six-Day War, the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution which incorporated the essential principles of a just settlement in the Middle East and for the first time since 1948 seemed to offer a reasonable prospect of a lasting peace. The fact that the resolution was approved by both the United States and the Soviet Union, after months of rigorous debate and negotiation, made clear that each thought that the terms were impartial and fair to its friends in the area.

Nevertheless, a year later, the resolution has not been implemented in any respect. Israel remains in occupation of all the territory it held at the end of the war. There has been an epidemic of Arab terrorism inside Israel and of massive Israeli military responses against Jordan. The exchange of raids and shellfire along the Suez Canal is never long interrupted. The buildup of armaments supplied by the Great Powers continues on both sides. Ambassador Jarring, the UN's emissary, shuttles patiently from capital to capital; each party presents to him equivocal proposals which are rejected by the other as deceptive and one-sided.
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Yet an innocent outsider might have supposed that the resolution of November, 1967, contained almost all that both sides wanted. It provided, for example, for "termination of all states or claims of belligerency," "respect for and acknowledgment of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of every State in the area," "their right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force," "the necessity for guaranteeing the territorial inviolability and political independence of every State in the area," "withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict," "freedom of navigation through international waterways in the area," "a just settlement of the refugee problem."

Even more remarkable, the principal Arab states concerned, the United Arab Republic and Jordan, accepted this resolution without reservation, thus for the first time reversing their traditional refusal to acknowledge "the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence" of Israel. Israel, in Foreign Minister Eban's words, "accepted the Security Council resolution for the establishment of a just and lasting peace," a subtle but not unimportant qualification. Israel has recently, however, dropped its immediate insistence on face-to-face negotiations with the Arabs, and a new round of what might be called "sparring through Jarring" has followed.

However, despite the tragic lessons and the hopeful prospects of last year, the situation in the Middle East still trembles on the brink of disaster, the great opportunity for a settlement is slipping away, only exhaustion prevents a new war from breaking out, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. once again risk being drawn, against their will and interest, into a new confrontation. Why has this happened, and can the process be reversed?

There has, for outsiders, been no more discouraging and exasperating international issue during the past two decades than that between Arabs and Israelis in the Middle East. No parties to any other conflict anywhere have seemed more deaf to counsels of reason and moderation and to the requirements of world order and peace. Yet in their own eyes the struggle has seemed inescapable, a matter of life and death, of national existence, of historical necessity, of honor, of justice, of human dignity and compassion.

There is no need to restate here the well-known claims and convictions of both sides. The purpose of this article is to suggest that both contain elements of reality and elements of myth, that there will be no settlement until the two are identified and distinguished, and that dispassionate observers may perform some service in helping to do so. Any outsider, however, who wishes to concern himself usefully with the problem must recognize that the two convictions are sincerely held, that whether or not they have equal logical content they do have equal political weight, and that he would be doing a disservice to peace, and hence in the long run to both parties, if he subscribes to the myths of either side without taking account of those of the other.

What most needs recognition is of course the realities. There are many international situations in this day and age which are of debatable justice: partitioned Germany, Korea, and Vietnam, the status of Kashmir, Okinawa, or Sakhalin, the Oder-Neisse Line, and so on. It is clear, however, that it would be the height of folly, indeed a catastrophe to the peoples concerned, to attempt to change any of these situations by war, or in some cases to change them at all.

One of the inescapable realities in the Middle East is the presence there of two and half million Israelis who have established a state which for two decades has clearly demonstrated its political, economic, and military viability. Another reality is that this Israeli state is surrounded by much more populous and potentially powerful Arab neighbors, and that therefore, until it comes to some amicable understanding with them, it can survive only as an armed camp. A third reality is the existence of a million homeless Palestinian refugees, as well as a million Arabs more recently under Israeli military occupation. A fourth reality is that the present situation, despite either Israeli military preponderance or Arab rearmament, is far from ensuring the long-term security of any of the inhabitants of the area; on the contrary, it ensures that a substantial part of their insufficient resources will be wasted, that overdue economic, social, and political development will be needlessly retarded, and that a substantial part of their insufficient resources will be wasted, that overdue economic, social, and political development will be needlessly retarded, and that another war, contrary to the wishes of all the governments involved, may break out at any time.

A final, and for outsiders a most disquieting, reality is that while the conflict has hitherto been more or less successfully encapsulated in its own region, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. have gradually allowed themselves to be so committed to opposite sides that any serious aggravation of the conflict could involve them in a direct and perilous confrontation. This last remark requires a little elaboration.

The Middle East has not been entirely autonomous since long before the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1918. Between the two world wars it was dominated by Britain and France, but since 1945, and particularly since 1956, they have largely withdrawn. After World War II a threatened Soviet intrusion into the "northern tier," Greece, Turkey, and Iran, brought the United States for the first time into the area in a substantial way. The United States thereafter, through the Sixth Fleet, the Tripartite Declaration, and the Eisenhower Doctrine, installed itself in the eastern Mediterranean with the triple objective of excluding the Soviets, protecting Israel, and cultivating the Arabs. While its support of Israel was effective, it was less successful in achieving its other objectives below the northern tier, because some of the Arab states feared U.S. more than Soviet intervention, and some sought Soviet aid when they could find no other means of arming against Israel. As so often elsewhere in the world, the intrusion of one superpower provoked and aggravated rather than reduced the intrusion of the other.

What the objectives of the Soviets were and are in the Middle East below the northern tier is far from clear to others and may not be to themselves. In the sense that they wish the whole world Communist they would no doubt like to see Communist governments throughout the Middle East, but all their clients there have been ardent nationalists and Muslims who have in most cases vigorously suppressed their local Communists. The Soviets may cherish the illusion that they can eventually dominate friendly nationalist governments on the Mediterranean, the Red Sea, or the Persian Gulf, but if so, they underestimate the xenophobia and overestimate the consistency of most Arab elites; during the past quarter century, Arabs, even more than other Afro-Asians, have proved remarkably unamenable to foreign domination. The Soviets may fancy that they could eventually control the flow of Arab oil and thus put pressure on Western Europe and the United States, but they cannot absorb the oil themselves, and its uninterrupted export is at least as vital to the Arabs as is its import to the Western Europeans.

It might be more plausibly argued that the Soviets intervene in the Middle East "because it is there," because it is close to them and yet has in the past been pre-empted by their chief rivals, because perturbations south of the northern tier weaken the NATO-CENTO military stronghold confronting them, because the Middle East seems almost the only place where their efforts to set up a "sphere of influence" appropriate to a Great Power seem to have been even partially successful, and because the Soviet military perhaps think they need some arena where they can, without too much risk, exercise the new capabilities they have copied from the ubiquitous Americans.

Yet neither of these sets of real or presumed interests in the Middle East on the part of the two superpowers is conceived by either to require or justify a direct military confrontation between them. Their common reluctance to risk such a confrontation was demonstrated during the June war last year, and continues to be exhibited by the prudence of their naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean. Yet, as noted above, one of the tragic realities of the current Middle Eastern scene is that reckless behavior in Cairo, Jerusalem, or Damascus, or even by uncontrolled "Palestine liberation" groups, could in very short order produce a wholly unwanted confrontation between the superpowers.

A heartening, somewhat surprising feature of the current scene in the Middle East is the extent to which there are moderate men on both sides genuinely desirous of a sensible settlement. Whether such men will prevail is quite another matter, but the fact is that the differences of substance between them are considerably less than meets the eye, perhaps less than at any time since the establishment of Israel. The basic elements of a settlement are at hand and could be accepted by both sides without humiliation or undue risk, though not of course without cost and concession. As a realistic Arab has remarked: "The Arabs are going to have to pay the price of defeat and the Israelis the price of coexistence."

On the Israeli side there is in some influential quarters a growing realization that the price of coexistence is worth paying and may not be excessive. Certainly the Israeli people remain ready for great sacrifices, are prepared to stand indefinitely armed to the teeth along frontiers or cease-fire lines, even to fight two or three more wars if necessary. Still this is not an agreeable or profitable prospect, and if there were any reasonably secure alternative, many would be happy to take it. Even David Ben-Gurion has recently said (in an interview with Cyrus Sulzberger) that he would be prepared to accept the 1967 frontiers of Israel if that would bring permanent peace and cooperation with the Arabs (although he of course does not believe it would do so).

The economic burdens on the state and the personal burdens on individuals repeatedly called up for military duty are tolerable but more and more uncomfortable. The prospect of trying to govern indefinitely, not to mention assimilate, an additional million Arabs on the West Bank of the Jordan and in Gaza is not attractive or perhaps even acceptable. While El Fatah raids are now no more than pinpricks, they could burgeon into substantial guerrilla warfare. Even if this is prevented, the greater birthrate of the Arabs and the dim prospects for further large-scale Jewish immigration would risk transforming Israel, if it continues to embrace the territories it now occupies, from a Jewish into an Arab or at least a binational state. No frontiers, not even the Nile and the Euphrates as some Israeli expansionists are alleged to dream, could be secure over the long run against a perpetually hostile 20- or 30-to-one preponderance.

Israel's principal desiderata for a political settlement are threefold: (1) recognition of its sovereignty, territorial integrity, and political independence by its Arab neighbors; (2) secure and recognized boundaries guaranteed in some reliable way by the international community; (3) freedom of access for its vessels and commerce through the Strait of Tiran and the Suez Canal. All these desiderata are incidentally, embodied in one form or another in the UN Security Council resolution of November 22, 1967. There is some inconsistency in the vehemence with which the Israelis on the one hand, express the strongest mistrust of Arab good faith, and on the other, demand an Arab recognition of their status and frontiers. Nevertheless, this demand is justified by the fact that, no matter what the rest of the world may say, their state cannot truly enjoy the blessings of legitimacy until it is recognized by its immediate neighbors. Whatever guarantees can be obtained from the United Nations and/or the Great Powers would no doubt be welcome, but after the impotence of both in May-June last year either to maintain United Nations forces in place or to reopen the Strait of Tiran, there is considerable skepticism as to the efficacy and durability of such guarantees.

If, however, the three main Israeli desiderata were granted in acceptable form -- and one can imagine a number of different formulas short of bilateral peace treaties which might satisfy the Israelis -- there is some reason to believe that Israel might be willing to withdraw from most of the territory occupied during the June war, both because it would have obtained a sufficient assurance of security and because it does not want to be saddled with a million additional Arabs. The Israelis might well require the demilitarization of the Sinai Peninsula and the West Bank of the Jordan. They might seek some form of international administration of the Gaza Strip and some international presence at the Strait of Tiran. They would probably want to negotiate some boundary adjustments with Jordan. They would doubtless hold on to the Golan Heights until Syria is willing to take part in a peaceful settlement. Most difficult of all for even moderate Israelis would be the disposition of Jerusalem, the most holy of all Holy Places, the most indivisible of divided cities. Even here, however, it should not be beyond the ingenuity of statesmen to devise a formula which would give adequate recognition and substance to the four key objectives: (1) unrestricted access to the Holy Places of all *three* religions, (2) a single administration for the whole city, (3) self-determination as to nationality for all its citizens, (4) open frontiers around the city.

Moderate Arabs in three out of four of Israel's neighbors are likewise by no means unaware of the burdens and folly of a posture of eternal belligerence, which stunts the development and modernization of their nations, which perpetrates their dependence on foreigners, which poisons and unsettles their domestic political life, and which compromises the future of their region. They too would be ready to accept the existence of Israel within fixed and recognized boundaries if they thought that (1) this would set a firm limit to Israel's territorial claims, (2) the problem of Palestinian refugees would be resolved in a manner tolerable to the refugees, and (3) the leaders accepting such a settlement could survive politically after doing so.

There is reason to believe that terms of settlement along the lines suggested above as likely to be tolerable to moderate Israeli opinion would also be tolerable, under existing circumstances, to moderate opinion in the U.A.R. and Jordan, the two Arab states which have unreservedly accepted the November, 1967, resolution and which are most concerned because their territory is most substantially occupied. They would not insist on Syrian participation in a settlement, but it is most unlikely that either of these two would feel politically secure enough to settle with Israel without the participation of the other.

An indispensable element of settlement from their point of view would be its acceptability to the Palestinians most concerned -- that is, the refugees. The irreducible minimum for the refugees would probably be (1) acceptance by Israel of the repatriation of a small number, (2) generous compensation for the remainder, to which both Israel and the interested international community would contribute, (3) permanent resettlement in Arab countries of those not repatriated in Israel under economically viable arrangements to which the international community would also contribute. Israelis who now argue that they can absorb all the Arabs on the West Bank of Jordan could hardly claim that they could not take back a small number of refugees, nor could they decently refuse, as part of a general settlement, to contribute from the large sums they collect abroad to compensate, and thus to reconcile, the great body of impoverished refugees.

If the Palestinians are not reconciled, through the restoration of most of the West Bank to Jordan and the adequate compensation and permanent resettlement of the refugees, it will almost certainly be impossible for any Arab government to accept or implement any general solution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Indeed, if this long-overdue reconciliation does not soon occur, the current political activation of the Palestinians may be carried so far that they will create a separate government and eventually a separate state, not one associated with Israel as some Israelis have hoped, but one even more implacably hostile than its present Arab neighbors have been.

The keys to settlement may therefore be, if our estimate of the temper of moderate opinion among both Arabs and Israelis is correct: (1) a realistic but generous arrangement for the resettlement and reconciliation of the refugees, and (2) a formula embodying in contractual form the status and guarantees for Israel which the U.A.R. and Jordan have accepted in principle by subscribing to the November, 1967, resolution. Once again, it should not be beyond the ingenuity of statesmen to devise such an arrangement and such a formula.

The real obstacles to settlement are the myths long cherished and passionately held on both sides and the governments and leaders who perpetuate these myths.

The principal myths on the Israeli side are (1) the belief that places holy to Jews must be under exclusive Israeli administration, regardless of whether or not they are also holy to Muslims and Christians; (2) the feeling that superior political, technological, and commercial competence on the part of the Israelis (at least those of European origin) confers upon them innate superiority and preponderant rights over the inferior Arabs; (3) the claim that Israel has no responsibility for Arabs who have chosen to flee from Israeli territory and whose lands and property have been taken over by Israel or by Israeli citizens; (4) the belief that "strategic" boundaries and military strength can provide to a nation of less than 3 million people, confronted by 20 times that many adversaries, more permanent security than could an agreed settlement and international guarantees; (5) the belief that massive retaliation against Arab villages for terrorist raids into Israel will check those raids and promote Israeli security; (6) the belief that there will be substantial further Jewish immigration into Israel, which will justify occupying additional territory.

The principal myths on the Arabs side are (1) the belief that places holy to Muslims must be under exclusive Arab administration, regardless of whether or not they are also holy to Jews and Christians; (2) the claim that Israel is illegitimate and must be destroyed; (3) the claim that, after defeat in three wars, Arab dignity and manhood can be restored only by more bloodshed and by eventual military victory; (4) the illusion that this victory can be achieved by acquiring sophisticated arms which their technically untrained populations are unable to use effectively; (5) the claim that all Palestinians who have fled from Israel and all their descendants have the right to return to Israel and to recover the properties they lost; (6) the claim that, until this right is recognized and enforced, Palestinians are justified in carrying our acts of terrorism against innocent Israelis, and that such acts of terrorism will shake Israeli resolution and strengthen the Arab cause.

It would be unprofitable to debate each of these myths *in extenso,* but it may be pointed out that many of them are in direct contradiction to the United Nations Charter, which all of the governments involved have signed, that most of them are wildly quixotic and contrary to the genuine welfare and interests of the mass of the people of the Middle East, whether Syrian, Iraqi, Jordanian, Israeli, Lebanese, Saudi, or Egyptian.

Nevertheless, whenever a moderate leader or spokesman on either side ventures the most modest proposal in the direction of realism and compromise, he is overwhelmed with abuse, the appropriate myths are self-righteously thrown in his face, and the influence and authority on which his future usefulness depends are undermined. Needless to say, whenever moderates are abused and disavowed by extremists on one side, those on the other note the fact with unctuous satisfaction and cite it as justification for their own equally enlightened extremism. The situation is indeed so frustrating as recently to have caused a longtime American friend of the Middle East to express doubts whether *any* of its people are capable of governing themselves, in the sense of being able to decide where their true interests lie and to act in accordance with them.

Hence the fact that the substantive difference between the two sides is no longer great and could at last be bridged with a modicum of ingenuity and goodwill seems almost irrelevant. No one has yet proved strong or courageous enough to break the vicious circle of myth and violence. The war goes on. How could the circle be broken? It might be broken in one of two ways, or by a combination of the two.

First, courageous leaders on both sides, particularly in Israel, the U.A.R., and Jordan, at last convinced that the welfare of their peoples requires a peaceful settlement rather than chronic insecurity and finally willing to subordinate myths to realities, could grasp the nettle, make the necessary concessions, and conclude the peace, even at grave risk to their lives and fortunes. But this will not be easy. It may even be impossible.

While Israel has a coalition government embracing the main parties, that government is far from united on these critical issues. There are many in and out of it who are convinced that Israel's security depends almost wholly on military strength and that military necessity requires that all the territory now occupied be held. When Foreign Minister Eban made a relatively conciliatory speech to the UN Assembly in October, an opposition deputy in the Knesset traveled all the way to New York to denounce him.

On the Arab side, Nasser is clearly less secure than he was. King Hussein of Jordan, representing a population more than half composed of Palestinians and refugees, has never been an entirely free agent and has several times barely escaped coup d'etat or assassination. Both are subject to the blackmail of the ungovernable Syrians and of other more distant Arab governments like the Algerians, the Sudanese, and the Iraqis, who, having no responsibilities and suffering no damage, can afford the luxury of total inflexibility.

So both sides are tightly circumscribed by the political consequences of the myths so long drummed into their peoples. They may not be able to recapture the necessary freedom of movement, no matter how much both common sense and national interest may counsel them to do so.

If this proves to be the case, the necessary initiative can come only from outside. The natural place to look for it would be the United Nations, which has been, with all its shortcomings, the chief instrument for limiting violence in the Middle East. The United Nations has, it is true, almost never been granted by its members authority to impose a settlement. It may reason, exhort, cajole, reproach, on rare occasions even condemn, but no matter how dangerous the conflict to the peace of the world, it can never lay down the law. However, when the permanent members of the Security Council, the Great Powers, particularly the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., are in agreement, the influence of the United Nations becomes very great indeed, and it has on occasion under these circumstances been able, as in the India-Pakistan war of 1965, to restore and to maintain peace.

It may be argued that the conflicting interests and ambitions of the U.S. and U.S.S.R. in the Middle East make concerted action between them most improbable. It may very well be that such action will not be taken. If this proves to be the case, however, the reason will not be that there is a vital conflict of interest between them in the area but that their conception of which interests are primary and which secondary is a false one, that they, like Arabs and Israelis, are more swayed by myths than realities. Certainly the latest events in Czechoslovakia do not make cooperation between them in the Middle East or anywhere else easier.

Nevertheless, they may, before it is too late, awaken to the fact that their really vital interest in the area is to control and remove the grave threat to their own security. They might decide, first, that there is no reason or hope for either to dominate the region, and second, that their conflicting interests there can be more safely pursued in a less explosive environment. In that case they might agree to use their great influence to demilitarize the conflict. If it is true that the substantive differences between the two sides are at last modest and bridgeable, that there are substantial elements on both sides which see the folly and hazard of perpetual conflict, then an initiative formulated by the UN authorities in close consultation with the U.S., the U.S.S.R., the U.K., and France, based upon the November resolution, which has been accepted in principle by both sides, embodying the practical arrangements tolerable to moderates on both sides outlined above, might be just what is needed to break the logjam.

It would of course be necessary that the Great Powers use their influence vigorously, impartially, and constructively. The United States has rightly proposed an end to the arms race in the area, but it can hardly expect the Arabs, and hence the Soviets, to agree while substantial Arab territories are under Israeli occupation. An agreement strictly to limit the supply of arms can come, and probably can only come, after or as a party of a general settlement. Until that time the Powers would, however, be well advised firmly to resist pressures to supply to their friends aircraft or other weapons, Phantoms, MIG's, or missiles, which the latter do not *now* need for genuine self-defense.

Contrary to another myth, however, time does not work in anyone's favor, that of Israel or the Arabs, that of the U.S.S.R. or the U.S. A settlement during coming months on the basis of the November resolution may still be feasible. Later it may not be. Provocation and counterprovocation, terror and counterterror, continue to occur almost daily. Sooner or later the violence may become so shocking and intolerable that compromise will be politically out of the question. If the parties cannot themselves very soon come to a settlement, it will be high time for the UN, with Great Power backing, to take the initiative we have described. After twenty years, so many dead, so much waste and suffering, world peace more and more threatened, there is not time to be lost.


Copyright © 1969 by Charles Yost. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; January, 1969; "Israel and the Arabs: the Myths that Block Peace"; Volume 223, No. 1; page 80-85.

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