Toward the end of last year, events in the Middle East seemed to be escalating in a pattern dangerously close to that which preceded the Suez War a decade before.
Egypt and Syria signed a mutual defense treaty, and an Arab Defense Council was formed to coordinate military plans against Israel. From Cairo, an Arab firebrand, Ahmed Shukairy, heading a phantom “Palestine Liberation Organization,” nightly lashed the Arab world with exhortations of violence against Israel. Finally, in mid-November the Israelis struck back. After more than seventy incidents of shooting, sabotage, mining of roads, and planting of booby traps by infiltrators from across the Syrian and Jordanian borders, Israel mounted a retaliatory raid against the Jordanian town of Es Samu, the biggest military action in the Middle East since Suez in 1956.
At stake in the dispute has been a small patch of demilitarized territory on the shores of the Sea of Galilee where Israelis are allowed to farm, but not arm, and have operated their tractors directly beneath a line of hills where Syrian guns have been mounted. It is on this frontier that the United Nations has concentrated its efforts to keep the dispute about land cultivation rights from escalating, and by the end of January an armistice was at least under discussion.
Fortunately, the parallels between 1956 and 1966 were more superficial than real. The crisis is never really over in the Middle East. Despite the noise and gunfire, the Arab nations are also involved in familiar internecine squabbling — though never ceasing for an instant their efforts to outdo one another in breast-beating about throwing Israel back into the sea.
President Nasser stepped up his feud with King Faisal of Saudi Arabia by providing hospitality in Cairo for Faisal’s deposed father, ex-King Ibn Saud, and his vast entourage of wives, concubines, children, slaves, and advisers. Meanwhile, Nasser is keeping 50,000 Egyptian troops in the Yemen, hoping for a new opportunity for expansion south after the British move out of Aden and southern Arabia.
Syria, the chief troublemaker, turned its attention from harassing Israel to harassing King Hussein of Jordan. Then, to complicate things still further, the Syrians nationalized the Iraq Petroleum Company’s trans-Syrian pipeline, in a classic case of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face. Their aim was to force an increase in revenues from oil flowing through the pipe. But now no oil is moving at all, and the losers include Syria as well as its neighbor Iraq.
The realities of power
For the state of Israel, the chief difference between the days of 1956 and today is the fact that what is going on along Israel’s borders really does not threaten the security of the state, and the Israelis know it. The Arabs are not going to overrun Israel and throw the Israelis back into the sea, and the more intelligent and responsible Arabs know that, no matter what they have to say in their propaganda. On both sides, the power realities and the political realities are entirely different today.
In 1956 it was Egypt which was directing the infiltration and sabotage gangs against Israel, and Egypt was backed up by a large army in the Sinai Desert, equipped with Russian arms. Today it is Syria which is the leading firebrand, and Syria does not possess anything like the army which Egypt had a decade ago and does not remotely resemble the same kind of military or strategic threat to Israel.
Whatever the rights and wrongs about the Suez War, it consolidated the security of the State of Israel much as the war of 1812 consolidated the independence of the young United States. It enabled the Israelis to turn the focus of their energies to the internal problems of the state and the building of a national economy. The ingathering of Zionists was emphasized, and consequently the decade since Suez has been a period of high-pressure development effort in Israel. The achievement has been enormous.
The population has leaped from 1.8 to 2.7 million since 1956, and up until 1966 the Israeli economy had been expanding at the highest sustained rate in the world, an average of better than 10 percent every year. Everything has expanded with population. Citrus production, for example, up from around 100,000 tons at the time of Suez to nearly 300,000 tons today; exports up from $106 million to nearly $500 million; electricity output up from 246 million kwh in 1948 when the state was founded to well over 3000 million kwh today.
Zeal is not enough
But in 1966, coinciding with the rising tensions between Israel and the Arab world, the Israeli economy hit the skids. The blush is off the bloom, and problems have closed in from many directions. The growth rate plummeted to a mere 3 percent last year, unemployment is rising, the trade gap is wide, and an economic squeeze is under way. The Israeli national debt now costs 17 percent of the total budget to finance (more than is spent on education or development), and the flow of loans, gifts, and grants from abroad is tightening up. The uninhibited drive and enthusiasm which typified the Jewish state since its birth in 1948 have given way to uncertainty and frustration. Zeal, like patriotism, is proving to be insufficient.
Israel today is having to reassess its economy and long-term outlook and even its tactics in dealing with its Arab neighbors. Changed Middle Eastern power realities in turn mean an entirely different atmosphere in which Israel has to operate to meet new border tensions. Before Suez, Israel was keyed up and ready to go, and with each retaliatory action against Egypt, which was the great strategic threat of that time, excitement and expectations mounted. But today, the prospect of another dreary round of frontier incidents and retaliatory raids has aroused little enthusiasm in a people as preoccupied with economic and domestic problems as the Israelis presently are.
No enthusiasm for conquest
The Suez War and the subsequent years of economic development had the effect of cooling completely any latent Israeli desires for conquest or territorial expansion. The 1948 armistice borders certainly make little geographical or political sense, and before Suez, there had been a strong underground feeling in the Jewish state that Israel had gotten a raw deal and that the borders ought to be redrawn, by force if necessary.
But when the Israeli Army dashed across the Sinai Desert and engulfed the Gaza Strip on the Mediterranean Coast, the country suddenly woke up to the fact that Israel had acquired the responsibility for another 300,000 Arabs. This would have completely upset the ethnic and economic balance of the Jewish state. And so Israeli forces withdrew to the old borders, with a greatly moderated enthusiasm for conquest. It remains a simple fact of Israeli life that to acquire territory means acquiring Arabs, and thus acquiring trouble. Moreover, within their crazy-quilt pattern of frontiers, Israel has grown and prospered so much that border clashes no longer constitute the national preoccupation, or source of frustration, which they did ten years ago.
Today, in the face of Arab raiding and sabotage, the reaction of the average Israeli is “Why can’t they leave us alone? — we don’t want to go through this business all over again.” At the same time, after more than seventy acts of sabotage in two years, resulting in eleven Israeli dead and another fifty-eight wounded, there is pressure for some kind of action. But there was an unprecedented amount of public and private questioning of the practicality and wisdom of the “retaliation policy” following the big Israeli raid against the Jordanian town of Es Samu last November.
The Es Samu raid, biggest affair of its kind since Suez, followed by barely twenty-four hours an incident on the Jordanian border in which an Israeli Army jeep was blown up by a mine and three soldiers killed and six wounded. Israeli forces then crossed the Hebron hills to the town of Es Samu, evacuated those Arab citizens who had not fled, and methodically blew up forty buildings. But the action escalated beyond anything the Israelis expected, owing to the fact that the Arab Legion moved up and gave battle even though they were only in trucks and light armored cars facing Israeli tanks.
Why Jordan? Why not Syria? That was the universal question in Israel in the wake of the raid. The Israelis know perfectly well that the Syrians have been trying to deflect Israeli retaliation against Syria, by financing and directing the saboteurs who operate across the Jordanian frontiers to the south. But the Israeli government explanation was that the Jordanian border incidents had gone on long enough, yet that there had been no recent incident serious enough to justify reprisal against Syria.
Nevertheless, the newspaper Shearim of the Poalei Agudat Israel Party, which supports the government, subsequently editorialized: “Israel has customarily resorted to reprisal raids as a deterrent, but the changes in Syria’s position and that of Jordan from a pan-Arab viewpoint present very serious difficulties and complications for the reprisal method. We must not ignore the serious dangers from a security as well as a political viewpoint inherent in reprisal raids against Jordan, even if they appear most necessary. The raid gave an exceptional opportunity to the extremists to intensify incitement to a people’s war against Israel.”
In 1956, the retaliation which escalated into the Suez War decisively ended the threat to Israel’s security from Egypt. But Israeli retaliation in 1966 threatened to set off a flock of Arab firebrands, and hit hardest at the Arab leaders who were doing their best to exercise restraint under politically complicated, emotional circumstances. In short, along with its other troubles these days, Israel’s version of the old British policy of “having a bash at the wogs” has backfired — not completely, but enough so that the Israeli government is going to have to wait and think the situation through carefully and cautiously before having another bash. The hope now, of course, is that it will never be necessary even to think of a future retaliatory raid. In any event, there is much else to preoccupy Israel.
Paying the piper
The familiar problem on the economic front is easier to state than solve. Israel is a victim of its own success: it is consuming more than it produces and more than it can pay for. The cost of the expansion has been covered by bond drives, gifts, aid grants, German reparations, and inflation. Now there has to be a period of reorganization and redirection.
The problem lies in the helterskelter fashion in which the great expansion was pushed forward in the post-Suez years. Immigrants arrived by the boatload or planeload and off they went, most of them, to kibbutz farms, where there were living quarters in prefabricated cottages grouped around communal dining halls, with farm outbuildings, tools, water irrigation pipes, and land waiting to be farmed. Those who could not be farmers could provide for consumer needs. And so all kinds of small factories and workshops sprang into existence, producing goods like furniture, electrical fittings, carpets and curtains, pots and pans, dresses and other clothing, pipes, bricks, and building materials.
Immigrants became consumers, and with the expansion of the population, consumption has been steadily on the rise. But the cycle has left Israel with a small-business consumer-and-agriculture economy, and a visible trade gap that amounted to $500 million in 1966. Today, therefore, Israel is trying to figure out how to squeeze many of its small industries into larger manufacturing units which are aimed at supplying the export market instead of the home market so that the country can pay its way.
There is plenty of technical skill in Israel, but it is surprising how little of it has been harnessed or directed toward the country’s longterm manufacturing needs. In the time of all-out expansion, there was little real planning, except to put a plow or a saw or tools into the hands of new arrivals. Israel now needs such enterprises as a printing industry, or highly specialized products, such as optical equipment, medical and surgical instruments, electronic equipment, high-quality printed textiles, small electric components, special engineering fabrications, agricultural equipment, pumps, switches, motors, and control cabinets. The government is giving priority to some of these categories, and beginnings have been made, but they are just beginnings. In the meantime, the stagnation which began in 1966 seems almost certain to drag through most of 1967. Unemployment reached 30,000 at the end of 1966, or more than 4 percent of the total labor force, and this is a fairly grim prospect for a small country which had hoped to absorb another 20,000 to 30,000 immigrants each year.
When a country is in trouble economically, its government is usually in trouble politically. The five-party coalition headed by Premier Levi Eshkol is no exception. Eshkol is under constant fire for his lack of clear leadership, of ability to make decisions and take forceful action. But opposition in Israel adds up to not much more than the speeches and opinions of a few strong-minded individuals. There is no well-organized political group waiting in the wings to take over.
Proportional representation, designed originally to ensure that Israel’s many disparate political voices would be heard in the Knesset, has divided the country into ten or twelve factions and parties, which compete for 120 parliamentary seats, no one party ever gaining more than 46. Thus, by the time a coalition of the major parties is put together, the “opposition” consists of a mere scattering of leftovers. This leaves no real political power base for opposition leaders, and adds to the frustration of a lot of vigorously independent men in their prime who think that it is time that Eshkol and others of the founding fathers’ generation should move off the scene.
There is also a growing frustration of opportunity in Israel — not for the mass of the population, but for the highly qualified, intellectual class. There is, in fact, an Israeli brain drain. An Israeli father told, for example, how his son wanted to go to the United States to study to become an aeronautical engineer, but the father persuaded the son to stick to mechanical engineering, because there is no aeronautical industry in Israel.
There is a certain amount of highly skilled and productive research in Israel, at such places as the Weizmann Institute, but it is not enough to absorb the talents of all the bright young students who come out of the Hebrew University and want to be nuclear physicists or space technicians or cancer specialists or aeronautical engineers.
At the other end of the social scale, the Jewish state has found that assimilation of Jews from all over the world, with their wide range of ethnic and cultural backgrounds, has not been easy. The Jewish population is divided into two categories — European Jews, numbering about 35 percent of the population, and Oriental Jews, from Africa, the Middle East, and so on, who make up 65 percent but who are generally on the low end of the scale economically as well as in terms of political influence.
The two great “assimilators” of the Jewish state were supposed to be the army and the kibbutz collective farm system. But assimilation has been neither automatic nor permanent. After years of “mixed kibbutzim,” the policy now is simply to organize these collectives on a straight ethnic or national basis — Moroccan Jews, Iraqi Jews, Tunisian Jews, European Jews.
In the army, assimilation works well for two years, but when young men and women come out of the army, they naturally return to their homes, and a kind of automatic resegregation sets in. It also causes sociological problems within families, when young Oriental Jews suddenly have to give up the standards of military service and return to feudal family conditions.
The problem is serious enough to have attracted the attention of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in a recent two-day seminar of economists, psychologists, and sociologists, and the general conclusions were not encouraging. In the present economic squeeze, the gap between European and Oriental Jews seems to be widening, and it is likely to be several generations before assimilation takes hold.
Israel has a fair budget of problems, and a period of reassessment is at hand. “You might say that we created the State of Israel, which is a legal entity,” says one Israeli philosophically, “but now we have to face the problems of building an Israeli nation, which is something much more complex, solid, and mature.”