After a round of visits to the four Arab countries on Israel’s borders, I found myself asking Israelis, “Why is it that when at last the Arabs are learning to be afraid of war, you are becoming afraid of peace?”
“Not afraid,” Israelis would reply reproachfully. “It’s that we can’t take risks.” The official formula for the desired certainty that Israelis mean by peace is not just the absence of battle, but “secure and defensible borders.” Haim Herzog, a lively and witty man who has retired as Chief of Intelligence and become a leading entrepreneur, military commentator, and oracle says, “We don’t want to go back to the ghetto we were living in.” That is the essence of it. Things have changed in the Middle East, more than anyone dreamed possible a year ago. The milestones are: the fighting in Jordan. King Hussein’s victory over the Palestinian commandos, the death of Nasser, and the coup in Syria. Israelis aren’t allowed in Arab states and so have little chance to find out at firsthand what is going on within the Arab countries. They are aware that something has happened across the military lines, and they are eager to know the real flavor of it.
It is easier, of course, for Israelis to perceive the changes in themselves. They have found some breathing room in expanded territory, although it does not give them peace or firm security for any stretch of time. The fear of being trapped remains, but there is no longer the sense of being locked in stifling pressure. When they conquered the added territories in the 1967 war, Israelis felt sheer relief at survival. They did not boast that they had conquered, just that “we live.” That was enough, and there is little doubt that Israel would have been glad then to give back all but the ramparts (the division of Jerusalem, the Golan Heights) in return for Arab confirmation of their right to go on saying it. Many Israelis would have preferred to shed responsibility for the new captive Arab population rather than fortify new frontiers.
Two years later, President Nasser launched his war of attrition. It was comforting for Egyptians to respond once again to Nasser’s trumpet of glory, and for Palestinians to stir to the fanfare of the fedayeen. Few felt doubts that the noise would clear the heavens. But already Israel had discovered that it could preserve its victory, and that new problems were feathers compared to the old leaden fears. Egypt lost the war of attrition, and both sides know it. Three hundred thirty-seven Israeli and some 8000 to 10,000 Egyptian soldiers were killed in the two years of that strange standpat war across the Suez Canal. Independent military observers in Cairo estimate that 3000 Egyptian troops were killed and 12,000 wounded in the final three and a half months alone. This was the period of the “missile-site war,” stretching from the end of the Israeli air raids deep into Egypt in mid-April, 1970, to the August 7 cease-fire.
It is notable, in terms of psychological effect, that these Egyptian casualties were taken by an army sitting still in a strip of desert, an army that never charged, never moved, but conducted its offensive by lobbing shells and erecting missiles. Only after the shooting stopped, in what both the United States and Israel considered violation of cease-fire terms, was the Soviet missile project completed.
The first cease-fire lasted six months. It produced no political movement, but it did awaken an appetite for life without battlefield communiqués. Nerves were jittery as its deadline approached in January, a little less so as the thirty-day extension of the deadline neared in February, and even less in March, though Egypt’s new President Anwar clSadat refused further extension of the agreement. This apparent paradox between mounting threat and calmer reaction has. I think, more meaning than all the elaborate analyses of ploys and strategies by which the Middle Eastern conflict is usually described. There are going to be more ups and downs, more verbal offensives and subtle retreats, more diplomatic assaults—such as the intended union of Egypt, Libya, and Syria on September 1, with its promise “never to negotiate with Israel” and “never to cede one inch of Arab territory.” But the proper measure of how the situation is evolving is whether expectation on both sides of “another round” of war is growing or diminishing.
On the Arab side, my impression is that the thirst for battle is receding, and the desire to work and to build is gradually mounting to the point where it may dominate. But this is an impression based on many little signs: the way officials talk in private, the sounds of the populace, the way that energy is summoned, and the notions of how it should be spent. The Israelis have no direct way to sample these signs, and they note that the formal concessions pronounced by Sadat are censored or counterbalanced in the Egyptian press and radio with renewed threats and belligerent old slogans. Israelis still don’t dare to believe that the Arabs are ready for peace, and the crucial argument among them is whether they should even try to test the current of history at this stage, or whether they should dig in and wait.
The argument among Israelis does not stretch across the aviary from hawks to doves. Only a tiny fraction on the extreme left could be compared with the passionate antiwar movement in America. The only important figure who says the government should take a chance for peace is the founding Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion. “We should give it all back except Jerusalem and the Golan Heights,” he says. “Peace is too important not to try, even if it turns out that they break the agreement once again.” Ben-Gurion is eighty-five, revered but no longer followed even by those who were closest to him. “What else can he say?” his most devoted admirers comment with sad indulgence. “He has a personal historical stake in withdrawal. Otherwise, he must bear the blame for pulling back in 1957.” (Then Israel gave up its conquest of the Sinai in return for promises which Egypt broke.)
Pressure within Israel for concessions does not seem to exist where it might be expected—among students, intellectuals, women, people tired to the marrow by the strain. It is true that Israeli youth is beginning to show some of the urges of young people in the West, but only in domestic concerns. A group of young Oriental Jews in Jerusalem call themselves Black Panthers. They are rebellious, sometimes delinquent and violent, but their grievances are about bad housing, poverty, a lack of good jobs—in short, they embody a reaction against slum conditions, not a challenge to national policy. An attitude typical of the young is: “On these things about war and peace, we think the government knows what it is doing.”
There is lively criticism of the government in the intellectual community; there always has been in Israel. But it is about personalities, style, not the question the rest of the world is putting to Israel. I spent two evenings, one in Jerusalem and one in Rehoboth, near Tel Aviv, with about a score of university people each time. Although they argued among themselves, without exception the tenor of what they had to say was: “If the Arabs are changing, so much the better for them as well as for us. It means we have been on the right track. But it hasn’t gone very far yet. Let it go further, let it become irreversible. If they get all they want now by just saying a word, who knows what they’ll want next?”
Looking still for the silent hopers, I went to see an old friend, a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps, a woman with a deep yearning for tranquillity. She is not interested in prestige or national pride or biblical vindication, just a quiet and reasonably civilized life. Her husband told me that she had been having fits of depression in the last two years, but was better now. “It’s Auschwitz and Belsen paying off,”he said. They have no children because of her treatment as a girl in Auschwitz, and she did not recite the popular Israeli phrases about making sure “our children and grandchildren don’t have to fight the Arabs back again and again.” She just kept saying, with an expression that was fearful and grave, “How can we know they mean peace now? Why gamble?”
One way and another, that is the opinion of the great majority. It shows up clearly in polls, and in the composition of the Knesset, elected by proportional representation. The vocal minority, the effective opposition to the government, accuses Prime Minister Golda Meir of being too soft, too susceptible to American pressures, and not stern enough in asserting Israel’s long-term interest. The influence of the right wing, led by Menahem Begin, a one-time terrorist, reaches across all party lines through the “Land of Israel” movement. Religious groups, uninterested in mundane political issues, are attracted by the notion of restoring biblical Israel—Israel not as it was in just any biblical period, but specifically in Solomon’s time, when the kingdom was at its peak and occupied all Palestine.
Government supporters try to contest such notions. “We tell them, ‘You were willing to settle for the partition in 1947, and for the existing borders in 1967,’ ” a leader in Mrs. Meir’s Labor Party complained. “But it’s one thing to get people to do without something that isn’t there, another to make them renounce what they have.” The hard government estimate now is that a settlement on “reasonable terms” (which means terms that would satisfy Mrs. Meir’s hawkish cabinet) would be supported by the country, though some 20 percent would oppose projected terms with Egypt, and 40 to 45 percent would object to what might be offered Jordan.
There is still no fixed government position on borders. This is partly because it is an explosive issue which the leaders don’t want to face until chances for agreement look good enough to make decision unavoidable. But there is a general official idea of what is wanted, and it is very tough. On the Egyptian front it is a line running across the desert below the Gaza Strip with a corridor running down the Gulf of Aqaba to include Sharm el Sheik. It would leave the Gaza Strip within Israel, not as a floating adjunct of Jordan, or a truncated Arab Palestine, as has been proposed. On the “central front,”it would return major population centers to the Arabs. But Israel would hold the West Bank of the Jordan River up to the hills, and an Israeli corridor would connect that fortified line with the rest of the country. On the Syrian front, it would hold not only the Golan Heights but a small portion of the plain above the crest, so that Israeli troops would not have to fight on the edge of the hill. On Jerusalem, it would return sovereignty over Muslim and Christian shrines (though one group of religious militants objects even to the idea of an Arab flag on the Dome of the Rock, since the great mosque is built on the site of the biblical Temple). Some arrangement for Arab participation or autonomy in municipal affairs is contemplated, but scarcely anyone in Israel now considers it possible to relinquish any part of Jerusalem except the holy places.
Together, this makes for a map in almost total contradiction to the U.S. plan for “insubstantial border changes.” There is no imaginable way to reconcile the Israeli and American maps in existing circumstances, nor to expect the Arabs to agree to Israel’s maps. This raises a question about the wisdom of the United States and the United Nations in pressing Israel for any map at this time, rather than setting aside territorial specifics until a better climate for bargaining might be achieved.
Certainly, the U.S. government’s argument that international guarantees can provide Israel the confidence it seeks moves few Israelis. Israel is the country which would have invented the Nixon Doctrine of self-reliance if President Nixon had neglected to do so. The Israelis don’t want any Russian troops “protecting” them, and they don’t want Americans either. Their arguments are based on their own experience, but they merit closer examination from the viewpoint of American interests as well.
There is no evidence that the U.S. government has adequately considered the problems which would be likely to arise if American and Soviet troops were installed in the Middle East by formal international agreement. Since the UN Security Council would be the repository of legal responsibility. the Soviets would have a veto. The experiences of Berlin and Vienna, where the big powers installed themselves not as respective patrons of hostile rivals, but as allies of each other against the occupied people, should give a foretaste of the infinity of trivial, technical, unforeseeable details which can fuel global crisis when the prestige of superpowers is directly engaged. It is curious that an American President who held the second highest post in the country during much of the cold war and the Berlin crisis is not more sensitive to the potential booby trap built in to such a plan. Washington’s proposition is that the danger of the big powers’ being dragged into war by clients to whom they have unilateral commitments would be diminished, instead of increased, by international commitments establishing big-power rights to self-defense in the area.
Simple logic would suggest the opposite—that the more directly the big powers are involved, the greater the risk of their clashing; and the more they stand back, the better chance they have of avoiding confrontation.
Many people in Israel suspect that it is not sound policy but 1972 politics which underlies this part of the U.S. Administration’s stand. If Nixon requires a campaign hat of laurel leaves, the prospects are poor that he will find it in Vietnam. Therefore, some say, he is rushing to snatch the crown of peace in the Middle East, without watching out for thorns. An Israeli journalist, often a critic of his government and in sympathy with much that Palestinian Arabs have to say, told me, “If I were a cabinet minister, I would refuse to have anything to do with negotiating until after your 1972 elections. You’re trying to force our history into your campaign schedule.”
However they present it, Israelis now feel that time is on their side. Ironically, the waning of blood-thirst among the Arabs is an important factor in convincing Israel that the danger is not in delaying peace, but in being hasty to make it. In this regard the change in attitudes among the Arabs of the occupied West Bank is illuminating. Two years ago, which was two years after an Israeli military government took over the West Bank, I spent some time wandering about Ramallah, Nablus, and other West Bank towns, as well as East Jerusalem. The hatred was as heavy as the ancient hills, pungent as the cactus apple, hard as the desert sun.
“There’s never been an occupation like it,” people said again and again. “It’s worse than the Nazis.” That wasn’t true, of course, but it was a true reflection of the Palestinian Arabs’ mood. The fedayeen were the heroes, the hope. The dream was to liquidate the Jewish State.
This time a former journalist who lives on the road to Hebron said, “This occupation is a joke. I hate it, of course. I’m an Arab and I want to be with Arabs, with our own government. But I’ve read a lot. I’ve studied about the British and American occupation of Germany, and in comparison this one is a joke.”
He is thirty-one, which he asked me to note, “not one of the older generation. I know this is 1971, the year of man on the moon. It is time for Arabs to come out of the past.”His name is Jamil Hamad, which he also wanted noted, unlike many compatriots who consider prudence better served by anonymity. His family had been refugees in 1948, but since the occupation, they had been able to visit their old home. Their farm has become an aircraft factory. Hamad had no illusions about the likelihood of plowing it up and planting beans again, but he did badly want some kind of settlement and certainty “so we can go to work and get on with the future.”
There is no longer unemployment on the West Bank. In fact, there is coming to be a labor shortage. In constant prices, living standards have risen 25 percent in the four years since the war. There must be few, if any, West Bank Arabs who still think of Israel’s existence as a temporary misfortune. They have seen now that Israel is real, that it is rooted, and that it works—not just as a lifeless creation of some foreign power, as many Arabs outside still profess to believe, but as a nation which has grasped the secret of the modern age and knows how to run itself.
I asked a number of Palestinians in the occupied territories why their ideas had changed so much. “Because we were defeated,” they said. More important, they had come to understand why they were defeated and to yearn for their release from their old world into the new one.
The official statistics showing material improvement on the West Bank should not be cited in a vacuum, without reference to Palestinian houses destroyed, people deported, and various grievances, real or fancied; for, while true, they sound one-sided. It seems fairer, then, to report the feelings people express—the elderly notables really didn’t differ much from their children, despite Hamad’s claim to a special viewpoint on the part of his generation. These now are feelings of impatience for peace, eagerness for settlement, urgency to be done with the generation of belligerence and to build lives.
This shift in opinion by the only Arabs with whom the Israelis work and live, across open boundaries, has not only strengthened Israeli confidence; it has also steeled their conviction that they must deal with the Arabs themselves, not through intermediaries or buffers of foreign force.
“If you want to make love, real love,” a cabinet minister told me, “you can’t do it by kissing a handkerchief.” However negotiations may be launched, there is still a deep and widespread belief in Israel that no talks can be real peace talks until they are held directly with the Arab governments concerned. It isn’t petulance that makes the Israelis unwilling to accept Secretary of State William Rogers’ modern homily that security is not to be found in borders (though he does seem to hold to the old adage that good fences—tended by international forces—make good neighbors).
Nor is peace to be found in statements by Sadat, argue the Israelis. Mrs. Meir says tartly that “we won’t commit suicide if they don’t want to send an ambassador. If they want low-level peace, we’ll agree. But,” and she puts it firmly, “it must be with borders that won’t tempt Sadat’s successor, or the one after that, to think the chances of defeating Israel are better than in 1967.”
Just as the Arab countries are finding to their fury that it isn’t 1967 in Israel anymore and that the clock isn’t running backwards, so the Israelis may find a few years hence that the chances of 1971 have disappeared. The influence of the Russians or the Chinese, a United States turning away from world involvement, could outweigh and even reverse the nascent Arab interest in cultivating their own gardens and shedding the burden of Palestine.
It is a real risk, and Israel should not take it. But at the same time, it seems futile to press for rapid agreement in terms of territory. The Israelis are often too shrill, too condescending, too righteous; but it isn’t their tone or their stubbornness which denies concessions. It is what they perceive as fundamental needs to safeguard national survival, and they won’t be browbeaten out of it.
They might be persuaded, but only by a tangible, irreversible change in atmosphere. Egyptian threats only boomerang. American strictures only unsettle and strain, when it will take soothing to relax the fears.
Still, it is essential to keep the hopes for movement toward a settlement alive. One way is an interim arrangement to reopen the Suez Canal, and bargaining for that is beginning. Another, of special human value, would be to reopen the question of the refugees. The UN’s Gunnar Jarring started first with Egypt and the border because that seemed easiest, and the refugee issue has been at total impasse all these years.
But the other changes among the Arabs, and the fact of negotiation itself, have created a new audience and a new interest in the problem of human lives, which was the source of the Arab-Israeli conflict in the first place. It could be helpful to start now to find how many refugees do want to return to old homes, in the clear understanding that, if they do so, they will be living in a Jewish state. Repatriation will almost certainly not turn out to be just a matter of how many refugees Israel would accept. The evidence is that few would choose to go if they were certain that they couldn’t take up where they left off, but rather had to accept the existence of the life which has developed in their absence.
And it is most likely now that there would be response to some concrete talk about resettlement plans with World Bank help, and Israeli compensation to Palestinians. The latter has been mentioned for years, but never discussed realistically enough to jingle a coin purse. Is it only the property owners, relatively few, who could expect some money? Could every genuine refugee anticipate a stake, perhaps so much per person or per family, for a new future? Disillusion with the commandos, who thrilled Palestinians for three years and brought them nothing, has made room for attention to these questions. Certainly, the creation of a vested interest in peace among the Palestinians would change things drastically for the better. It is sprouting among Arabs on the West Bank, who feel themselves best entitled to speak for their dispersed brethren; and the more it can be encouraged, the better the prospects.
Gaza is a particular disgrace which can be tended to without waiting for agreed terms and treaties. There are 300,000 bitter people who have been cooped in that narrow strip for twenty-three years, sustained only by UN handouts. Whatever the eventual agreement on sovereignty over Gaza, most of the Arabs there will have to resettle elsewhere. A majority will probably choose the West Bank, where they have relatives and where life is familiar. It can accommodate them and take them now.
If continued formal status as refugees were pledged, so that they need not fear for the right to share in future benefits, it is possible that substantial numbers of camp inmates in Gaza would be glad to move to permanent homes on the West Bank. The commando movement would, of course, oppose such a plan, carrying as it does the implication of abandoning the struggle to destroy the Jewish State. But though the fedayeen oppose Gaza residents going to work in Israel—a stand enforced with grenades tossed into workers’ buses and at the lines of women collecting their husbands’ paychecks at the post—some 10,000 to 15,000 men from Gaza do go every day. International observers estimate that half the families in the camps have at least one member on an Israeli payroll. There is reason to think that the time has come when the sore of Gaza can be treated, if not healed, and at least some people launched on decent lives.
The unexpected, unlikely word of peace is now heard in the Holy Land. War remains quite possible. But for the first time since the birth of Israel in 1948, it is no longer the only long-term possibility. The changes which have begun need to be cultivated with care and without too much resentment of delays. It will take some imagination, some innovation, some subtlety on the part of outsiders—principally Washington, which has been largely responsible for the advance so far—to help the two sides grope toward greater confidence and find, as the scene shifts, the most fruitful points of emphasis at different moments. Still, at last, the chance for peace exists.