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Geoffrey Wheatcroft
Excerpts from The Controversy of Zion
(Addison-Wesley, 1996)

From Chapter Sixteen

Fractured friendships

IN 1992, President Bush lost the presidential election. This had little to do with Israel and the Levant, or any other foreign question, although Jewish support for Bush did fall, despite his forlornly inviting Rabin to visit him at his Maine summer home. It fell to the newly elected President William Clinton finally to broke a settlement between Israel and the PLO which had been so long in the broking. As hands were shaken on the White House lawn in September 1993, the world applauded, but Israel was apprehensive and divided. So was Dispersion Jewry. Some American Jews who had not long before ranked Arafat with Haman and Hitler now competed for 'face time' with him. Others shared the apprehension of Israelis who saw the looming and dread form of a Palestinian state in the very limited scheme of local autonomy. For his part, Arafat was reviled by some Palestinians as a traitor who had sold out for less than he should; familiar accusations, on either side, in comparable compromises like the partition of Ireland.

What was also curiously familiar from other national conflicts, from Ireland to Bosnia to South Africa, was that not only did either side see itself in the right, but each side saw itself as the victim. This sense was skillfully and even ruthlessly played upon by those Israelis who disliked the settlement. It had previously been a loose convention that the Israeli government of the day would be supported abroad -- or at least not undermined -- by its Israeli opponents. This convention was now broken by Likud under its new leader Benjamin Netanyahu, a capable and plausible man, who looked good on television, spoke fluent American, and enjoyed the reflected glory of the Entebbe raid in which his brother Jonathan had died heroically. In England, the argument was chewed over at length in the columns of the Jewish Chronicle, where Chaim Bermant was a voice of gently mocking, ironic dissent from the move towards regressive Jewish chauvinism.

But Jewish-American opinion remained more important than the rest of the Dispersion put together, because of its size and social and economic weight, and because it exerted that weight in a country whose policy was crucial to Israel. Many American Jews backed Rabin, instinctively sharing his own appreciation of the case in which Israel found itself. Curiously enough, this was understood by all sides, whatever conclusions they drew. The truth was that by the 1990s Israel was in Zugzwang. That is the name in chess for the point where a player has no good move. Though not checkmated or in check, or even with a piece under threat, he finds that every possible move must lead to a deterioration of his position. Zugzwang is literally 'compulsion to move' under the rules of chess. Under no such formal compulsion, Israeli governments tried to do nothing and postpone the evil day, but doing nothing was in its own way a bad move: the Arab population increased and became more intractable, while the question of whether Israel could remain both Jewish and democratic became ever more acute. And that applied to Likud as much as to Labour. Rabin himself was no dove by nature, as his record showed. He had been a fierce fighter of Arab armies, and a brutal suppressor of the Intifada. But he knew that something now had to be done. What he agreed to had perhaps the makings of the Jewish-Arab binational state which Magnes and others had so forlornly advocated half a century before. Or it might have been an amalgam of Jabotinsky's spirit and Magnes's: force, and then compromise. It certainly followed what Hannah Arendt had said, that a binational state was no answer in itself, since in itself it was a solution which could only be achieved as part of a solution.

Above all, the agreement of 1993 was a rejection of the spirit which had imbued Zionism and Israel for so long, indeed more and more since 1967. Even well-disposed observers had noticed the change coming over Israel in those decades, a new hardening and intransigence. . . .

Rabin was now acting on that precept: mastery is knowing when to stop, the very lesson Israel had for so long unconsciously ignored -- or even consciously. In a hallowed Israeli story, Moshe Dayan used to instruct classes at the staff college where, after outlining a problem, he should add, 'And I want no Jewish solutions here.' What he meant was that he wanted his battles, in the field or on the sand table, won through daring, dash and ferocity, rather than through the traditional Jewish virtues of subtlety, cunning and patience. Nearly a century after Herzl had adumbrated it, and nearly fifty years after its creation, the Jewish state found itself groping towards a Jewish solution.

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    Copyright © 1996 by Geoffrey Wheatcroft. All rights reserved.