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As originally published in
The Atlantic Monthly

October 1985

Why Israel Can't Take
"Bold Steps" for Peace

Political reality in the Middle East.

by Conor Cruise O'Brien

After the Israeli elections of July, 1984, had resulted in a "hung" Knesset, a spokesman in Washington commented that the results were regrettable, because they did not show good prospects for the kind of "bold steps" that would be necessary to advance the "peace process."

As far as it concerned the immediate situation, the spokesman's comment was well founded. The government that eventually emerged from that hung Knesset--the Government of National Unity, with Shimon Peres as prime minister and Yitzhak Shamir (Menachem Begin's successor as Likud's leader) as deputy prime minister and foreign minister--is inherently incapable of taking the kind of bold steps the spokesman had in mind; it would disintegrate if it tried to take such steps, and perhaps even if it seemed to want to move in that general direction. But what is questionable is the implicit assumption that there must be some kind of electoral results possible in Israel that could lead to the taking of the desired bold steps: that is, to Israel's withdrawal from all or almost all of the West Bank, and the creation of some kind of Palestinian political entity there, perhaps in association with Jordan, linked to Israel by treaty.

Return to The Middle East: Peace in Jeopardy?

Return to A Century of Zionism

Consider the electoral result that is most favorable in terms of the "territory for peace" idea (and that is at all likely). The most favorable result would be one that would lead to a coalition government formed by the Labour alignment with the two dovish parties to the left of it--Shinui and the Citizens' Rights Movement--as its partners.

What kind of bold steps could a government of that kind take? It could offer to Jordan some of the West Bank in exchange for a peace treaty. That is Labour's famous--and by now somewhat decrepit--Jordanian option. But it is a heavily hedged option as Labour has explained it in successive elections, including that of 1984. Jordan would not get back East Jerusalem: Jerusalem would remain a united city and the capital of Israel. Israel would also retain its defensive line and the line of Jewish settlements all along the western bank of the River Jordan, with all the concomitant rights of military access across the general territory of the West Bank.

Labour's Jordanian option is in fact no more than the old Allon Plan, which was originally prepared by Yigal Allon (the deputy prime minister in Levi Eshkol's government in the aftermath of the Six-Day War) and which has been frequently revised since then. Now, the Allon Plan, in all versions and aspects, and under all labels, has been consistently and scornfully rejected by Jordan over more than fifteen years. (It has never been endorsed by the United States. ) King Hussein, or any successor of Hussein's, would be running very serious risks if he concluded any peace treaty with Israel, even one that gave him back all Jordan's lost territory. But if he were to sign a treaty that left Israel in possession of all Jerusalem, and of the line along the western bank of the river, he would probably be committing suicide for himself and his dynasty--which he is unlikely to do.

It seems to be generally assumed, however, that a Labour coalition could be persuaded, or pressured, by the United States to "raise the ante" on its Jordanian option, to such an extent as to make it attractive to the Jordanians, as well as to most of the Arab population of the West Bank.

This, too, seems to me exceedingly unlikely. A Labour coalition would immediately be in dire trouble if the Jordanian option--even in its traditional form--were to enter the domain of practical politics and the actual handing over of parts of the West Bank to Arab control had to be debated in the Knesset and in the country. Likud and its allies of the even harder nationalist right and of the religious right would raise the flag of Masada. Labour and its allies would be branded as traitors for their willingness to abandon any part of the sacred soil of Judea and Samaria. The debate would become superheated and envenomed, with incidents of violence and at least some of the overtones of incipient civil war.

Facing this tremendous emotional assault from the right, the Labour alignment--whatever may be true of its allies--would not be able to count on unity within its own ranks. Recent polls show that 30 percent of Labour supporters are now against giving up any part of Judea and Samaria. Thus the effort to implement the Jordanian option would precipitate not only a major political crisis in Israel generally but also an agonizing crisis within the Labour alignment.

Can it be seriously imagined that in those conditions any Labour-led coalition would take the bold step of improving on the Jordanian option from an Arab point of view? Would Labour and its allies offer to dismantle the defence line along the River Jordan, contrary to Labour's own repeated pledges, thus bringing down against the Labour coalition the weight of the Israel Defense Force establishment? Or would they offer to abandon East Jerusalem, with the Western Wall--the main remains of the Second Temple, sacred to all religious Jews and the prime focus of the national sentiment of secular Zionists also? Or to widen the Jordanian option so as to include the Palestine Liberation Organization?

It is rather clear that if Labour attempted any of those things, it (like Hussein) would be committing political suicide. The Jordanian option is really safe for Labour only as long as the Jordanians refuse to touch it. So the practical and cautious politicians who make up the Labour leadership seem likely to emphasize, as they have in the past, precisely those aspects of their Jordanian option that are most unpalatable to the Jordanians--thus prolonging an impasse that to Labour is vastly preferable, in terms of the internal politics of Israel, to the agonizing attempt at a negotiated solution.

It is true that future governments of Israel--of whatever complexion, but especially Labour--are likely to come under pressure, whether real or ostensible, from the United States to take those bold steps necessary for the pursuit of the peace process. The Reagan Plan, announced on September 1, 1982, envisioned "self-government by the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza, in association with Jordan." That plan was immediately rejected by the Begin government, but the backers of the plan seem still to hope that it may yet be accepted by a successor Israeli government, under a suitable degree of pressure. No government with Likud in it could give in to such pressure without making nonsense of Likud's whole tradition and deepest commitment. But even a Labour government is likely to prefer resistance to such U.S. pressure--resistance with the backing of a great majority in Israel--to the grisly internal consequences likely to follow the taking of those bold steps.

Neither the Jordanian option nor the Reagan Plan nor any variant of these has the capacity for coming to fruition. (Some cynical observers of the internal political situation in Israel believe, however, that Mr. Peres may, perhaps before the end of this year, make a high-profile move in the ostensible direction of "territory for peace," in order to force the resignation of his Likud colleagues from government, thus annulling the consequences of the agreement to allow Likud to accede to the premiership two years after the formation of the Government of National Unity. That seems a rather startling hypothesis, but even if well founded, it does not invalidate the analysis above. Those who attribute such an intent to Mr. Peres do not suppose that he would seriously persist with "territory for peace"--certainly not beyond Allon Plan limits--once he had attained his internal political purpose. Yet even a feint in that direction would be an exceptionally high-risk exercise in Machiavellianism. And then again, perhaps Mr. Peres is not like that at all. )

But suppose--per impossibile--that some variant of the Reagan Plan did come to pass. Let us take one of the rosiest possible hypotheses where the peace process is concerned. Let us suppose that the rather flickering rapprochement of 1983 between Hussein and Yasser Arafat consolidates itself, as appeared to be happening in the first half of 1985. On February 23 the text of a settlement between Hussein and Arafat was released in Amman. This agreement could scarcely be the basis for an agreement between the parties and Israel. It demands (among other things) "termination of Israeli occupation of the occupied Arab territories, including Jerusalem," and "total withdrawal from the territories occupied in 1967 for comprehensive peace as established in United Nations and Security Council resolutions." It contains no reference to recognition of Israel within its pre-June, 1967, boundaries, and uses language that seems incompatible with such recognition: "Palestinians will exercise their inalienable right of self-determination...." The document also calls for the inclusion in any peace conference (along with the five permanent members of the Security Council and "the parties to the conflict") of "the Palestine Liberation Organization, the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people."

On the face of it, this is not a very promising peace overture. However, President Hosni Mubarak's follow-up call for direct negotiations, in the United States, between Israel and a "joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation" (without naming the PLO as a participant) was distinctly more interesting to Israel, and met with a cautiously positive response from Shimon Peres. In the first half of 1985 Secretary of State Shultz appeared moderately hopeful about the possibilities for negotiation, especially in the light of various encouraging statements from Hussein. Potential Palestinian negotiators were being designated and were under consideration by the State Department.

Let us suppose that the Hussein-Arafat rapprochement, as followed up by Mubarak, leads to the most favorable of possible results: Arafat publicly and explicitly announces his willingness to recognize Israel within its pre-June, 1967, limits (subject to a few minor variations), and Israel then accepts Arafat's PLO as a partner, along with Jordan, in direct negotiations. Hussein and Arafat are ready to cooperate on the basis of the Reagan Plan, which thus has the backing of the present leader of "the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people." Israel is ready to withdraw to its pre-June, 1967, frontiers (with minor variations) in exchange for recognition, within these frontiers, by the PLO and Jordan.

We are piling improbability on staggering improbability here, but not any more than certain respected editorial writers are doing all the time.

On this basis Israel hands over almost the whole of the West Bank to some kind of Hashemite-Arafat federation or confederation (we will consider the alternative of a full-fledged Palestinian state later). By this time Israel has given up a lot of territory in exchange for peace. How much peace will Israel actually have gotten in exchange for that territory?

Peace, presumably, with Arafat and Hussein. But how much peace will Arafat and Hussein get, or have in their gift? Can anyone suppose that all, or almost all, of the PLO would go along with that deal, or any deal? The deal would likely be denounced, with the usual vehemence, both by the left-wing factions of the PLO and by the Syrian-controlled factions, and all those factions might well gain new adherents, through further defections from Arafat's Fatah. Syria, orchestrating its PLO factions with its usual ruthless skill, would be likely to make life very hot (by the methods it has successfully used in Lebanon) on the West Bank, and perhaps also in Jordan, for Arafat, Hussein, and their friends--even if their combined friends were in a majority in the territory as they might well be. (Majorities and minorities are not such important concepts in this context as some Western commentators tend to assume.) In these conditions the territories formerly occupied by Israel--and evacuated in exchange for peace--would likely become a happy hunting ground for fedayeen (Arab guerrilla) activity directed against all the parties to the detested treaty. The chief Arab parties might well not survive, and the treaty might perish with them. Nor would the ensuing conditions be at all preferable, from the point of view of West Bank Arabs, to conditions under Israeli rule.

It is true that the moderate Arab states--Egypt and Saudi Arabia--would be likely to approve the "territory for peace" arrangements described, but on one condition: that the territories transferred by Israel to Arab rule included East Jerusalem. Failing that, the deal would be denounced by virtually the whole Arab and Moslem world. And it is as certain as anything can be that the state of Israel will not give up any part of its capital, Jerusalem, in exchange for anything at all, even peace.

The option of a Palestinian state on the West Bank has also to be considered. Since this option is firmly rejected by both main parties in Israel, as well as by most of the smaller parties and by the great majority of the population of Israel, the Palestinian state is even less likely, if that is possible, to come to fruition than the Jordanian option.

Still, the idea of the Palestinian state has to be considered, since it has the backing, or apparent backing, of the Arab states, even the moderate ones. It is central to the revised Fahd plan, as endorsed by the second Fez summit, in September, 1982, after the expulsion of the PLO from Beirut, and by many resolutions of the General Assembly.

The Palestinian state is expected--both by its advocates and by its opponents--to be under some form of control by the PLO, "the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people," as the PLO was defined by the Arab summit at Rabat in 1974 and in every major communique from the Arab states since then. Almost all Israelis would regard such a state as an immediate threat to the security of their own state and a longer-term threat to its existence. They believe that the PLO would accept the mini-state or the West Bank as a step in the direction of its real objective, which remains all of Palestine. They also believe that the PLO would use that mini-state as a base for the destabilization of both Jordan and Israel, with Jordan first on the list. On that last point King Hussein is known to be in agreement. However, a number of distinguished and influential outside observers believe that Israeli fears on the point are illusory and that a Palestinian state could peacefully and happily coexist with an Israel withdrawn to the frontiers it had before June, 1967. They point--as Noam Chomsky does repeatedly in The Fateful Triangle--to a number of statements permitting that inference, made by Arafat and some of his associates, generally in Western contexts. As against all that, Israelis point to at least an equal number of PLO statements to a contrary effect--usually in Arabic and some also by Arafat--and to the PLO's constitution, the Palestinian National Covenant, which is clearly incompatible with the existence of the Jewish state.

It is probably unnecessary to pay much attention to either set of statements. It is fairly obvious that in the highly unlikely event of a deal between Israel and the PLO over the West Bank, the PLO would be hopelessly split. Indeed, it is split already. The left-wing factions and the Syrian-controlled factions would launch murderous attacks on the "traitors" (as in the Hussein-Arafat scenario). The Palestinian state, long before it could destabilize others, would be likely to lose all stability itself. The Palestinian state, if ever founded, would be apt to collapse almost immediately. But it is altogether unlikely ever to be founded.

It seems to follow that exchanging territory for peace--attractive as that concept is--is not a feasible option for the West Bank. It looks as if Israel will remain in control of the West Bank for a long time. Many Israelis--and others--view that prospect with deep misgivings, and they are quite right to do so. But, misgivings or not, that seems to be the prospect that is actually there.

The really pressing questions now concern not the future of the territories but the future of their Arab inhabitants. In the ten years after June of 1967 the Open Bridges policy and Israel's little-heralded "adversarial partnership" with Jordan (in Ian Lustick's phrase) led to a kind of working arrangement on the West Bank whereby the Arab inhabitants were left as far as possible to their own devices and allowed to continue to feel part of the Arab world. This arrangement--inspired mainly by Moshe Dayan--allowed the Arab population to develop peacefully and to attain a considerable degree of prosperity. Civil administration and Arab education on the West Bank remained generally under Jordanian control, and the Jordanian dinar remained legal tender on the West Bank.

In the following years, especially from 1980 on, the Likud pressure for augmenting Jewish settlements (often close to densely populated Arab areas), combined with the manipulations of Begin-style autonomy, made for increased Arab unrest and some violence. The old working arrangement, amounting to a kind of tacit condominium between Israel and Jordan over the West Bank, was strained by these developments but did not collapse.

There was, moreover, an evident and apparently growing tendency on the far right of the Israeli political spectrum to deliberately provoke the West Bank Arabs, in the apparent hope of inflaming violence, which would have to be met by Israeli repression, in a cycle that could eventually force the Arab population out.

Currently, the living symbol of this tendency is the right-wing fanatic Rabbi Meir Kahane, whose election to the Knesset in July of 1984 horrified many Israelis (including some rabbis) and alarmed the Arabs, both of the West Bank and of Israel itself. Rabbi Kahane is the author of a work called They Must Go, and he has vowed to go on making trouble until they do. Although Rabbi Kahane was the only member of his group, Kach, to be elected, support for his approach is almost certainly wider than the 20,000 or so citizens whose votes are needed to elect or return a member of the Knesset. At least some among the ultra-nationalist right, on the religious right, and on the right wing of Likud itself approve of his aims, if not of his style and all his methods. And voting results in July of 1984 seemed to show that there is more support for such ideas among serving Israeli soldiers than among the population at large.

President Chaim Herzog's personal ostracism of Kahane, and his appeals for toleration and against racism, have the support of most of the press and of that part of the political spectrum which runs from the left through the center to what have been called the "moderate hawks," well represented on this matter by the leader of Likud, Yitzhak Shamir. That is a majority of Israeli society. But the minority that remains--to the right of the right-of-center--is both significant in numbers and formidable in its determination and dynamism. If that minority cannot be adequately controlled by the state, there is a serious danger that it may progress in the direction it desires. The interaction of Jewish and Arab extremists could endanger the continuing presence on the West Bank of its Arab population.

By a kind of paradox the main effect of the unremitting international efforts to bring about the withdrawal of Israel from the West Bank is probably to speed up that sinister interaction and to increase the danger to the territory's Arab population. Israel's extremists are long conditioned to respond to such pressure by the creation of new facts, while Arab resistance to any such new facts is likely to be encouraged by the thought that, after all, on this matter the Arabs have world opinion on their side. In the event of a catastrophe, sympathetic world opinion--though it will be copious--is likely to be of no more use to the losers than it has been in any of the long series of Palestinian disasters.

Those in the West who argue that the effort to rule over large numbers of Arabs may eventually destroy Israel itself might do well to note that Meir Kahane is making the same point, while drawing from it an inference radically different from what the Western critics have in mind.

Unease in Zion seems, from the perspective of 1985, destined to be the condition of Israelis for some considerable time to come. The idea that Israel can withdraw to its pre-June, 1967, territory and live there behind secure and recognized frontiers, in peace with all its neighbors, is an agreeable international pipe dream. The reality is that Israel will stay on the West Bank, where its presence will continue to be challenged, from within and from without. And Israel's contested presence, the various forms of challenge to it, and responses to the challenges are likely to deepen, at least for a time, the divisions already obvious in Israeli society. (The 1984 elections are ominous in that regard. Labour had hoped to capture disillusioned Likud voters, but failed. There WERE disillusioned Likud voters, but they went everywhere except to Labour and its allies. The aversion of Oriental--or Sephardic--voters to Labour now seems quasi-permanent.)

There are those who will agree with much of my analysis regarding what is likely to happen but who would want me to add some kind of condemnation of Israel, for its perversity and folly in failing to take the necessary bold steps in pursuit of the peace process.

I can't do that, because I don't see how I can condemn people for failing to do things that I think they actually CAN'T do.

The reasons for Israel's incapacity to abandon all the territory acquired in the 1967 war are bound up with the two great raisons d'etre of Zionism: the Jewish state and the Return.

Basic to the idea of the Jewish state was the need for Jews to ensure the security of Jews, Gentiles having proved, at so many times and in so many places, that they could not be trusted in that matter. So secure frontiers are a basic requirement of the Jewish state. The pre-June, 1967, frontier--coming to within a few miles of the coast and Tel Aviv--was felt by almost all Israelis to be highly insecure. In contrast, the line of the Jordan, with the escarpment to the west of it, was judged ideal for defensive purposes by the planners of the Israel Defense Force.

Outsiders advised that Israel did not need such strong defence against the weak Arab threat, and that in any case Israel would do better to trust to Arab good will, which it would acquire by the surrender of all the occupied territories. On such a matter Israelis generally preferred the advice of their own soldiers to that of outsiders. This preference followed inescapably from the whole ideology of the Jewish state, of Zionism, and of the history of Israel. And Israelis knew that Arab good will was not procurable for the Jewish state. In their more conciliatory utterances--especially to Western audiences--Arab spokesmen rejected the idea of driving the Jews into the sea and allowed them (ostensibly at least) some kind of role in the future "secular and democratic Palestine" of the Palestinian National Covenant. But the Jewish state, that "racist" entity was anathema, whatever its boundaries. So those responsible for the security of the Jewish state were governed by military considerations alone, and not by the vain pursuit of unattainable good will.

As for the Return, the idea of a Jewish state elsewhere than in Palestine was considered many times in the earlier history of Zionism. It was attractive to some Westernized, secular Jews. But it was decisively rejected, in 1903-1905, by Zionists of the Russian Empire who, though mostly of secular consciousness, were deeply influenced by the Jewish religious tradition. For them--and for Zionists generally henceforward--the only goal was Palestine. The Bible was the mandate, as the "secular" Ben-Gurion told the Peel Commission in 1937, and Jerusalem was the magnet. If that was so in a complex and deep-down way for the secularized and partly Westernized Russians, it was so in a quite simple and down-to-earth way for most of the non-secularized and non-Western immigrants from the Moslem lands. For them, this land was their inheritance, by right of Revelation, and Jerusalem was its predestined capital.

The Jews had recovered Jerusalem, after nearly two thousand years, through a train of efforts and events so strange and unprecedented as to appear to some almost miraculous and to others literally miraculous. To expect the Jews, having thus again come into possession of Jerusalem, to hand over the Old City, with the Western Wall, to an Arab power, or to an international authority, is to expect what cannot be. To ask Israel to give up all or most of Judea and Samaria is to ask for the unlikely; to ask Israel to hand over the heart of Jerusalem is to ask for the impossible.

So the felt needs of the Jewish state and the animating concept of the Return pose what seem to be impenetrable barriers to Israel's voluntarily accepting the kind of settlement that international opinion almost universally calls for on the West Bank.

That those things are so, as a matter of fact, would be hard to deny, though no doubt the thing can be done. But some, who accept that these things are so--or more or less so--still passionately urge that they ought not to be so. The Jewish state and the Return may dominate the situation on the West Bank--and in Gaza and in Israel itself--for today and, perhaps, tomorrow. But they have no right (it is argued) to dominate it. Both are illegitimate concepts. The Jewish state is a racist concept. The Return is a mystical concept--that is to say, superstitious and false. These concepts, being illegitimate, have no right to prevail over a legitimate, rational, and humane principle: that of the consent of the governed.

I should like here to take a brief look at the three principles that argument opposes and embraces.

"The Jewish state is a racist concept." Yes, in a way. It is racist to the extent that all nationalism is racist, which is a large extent. Simone Weil held that racism and nationalism were essentially the same thing, racism being simply "a more romantic version of nationalism." The Jewish state is the embodiment and creation of Jewish nationalism. And modern Jewish nationalism was very largely a response to European nationalisms, which increasingly rejected Jews--increasingly on racist principles--as part of the nations concerned. The founders of Zionism were almost all rejected assimilationists. Their logic was clear-cut: Since the existing states say we don't belong to them, very well, we must have a state of our own.

All nationalism is exclusive, quietly so or noisily. Most nation-states preserve their national character by stringent immigration controls, according to criteria the most important of which (being of a nationalist, racist character) generally remain implicit. The Jewish state is like most other states in its determination to preserve its national character, as determined by itself, through exclusive processes. Where the Jewish state is unusual, and in part unique, is through the following elements:

(a) The Jewish state did not come into being, as the European states did, through a long and gradual process, on the same territory, involving slow exclusions, inclusions, and accretions. The Jewish state was created through an unprecedented convergence of scattered people on a former national territory, and it crystallized at an amazing speed: from a political dream to a state in less than seventy years.

(b) Since the creation of the Jewish state the criterion of nationality has become a specifically religious one. Now, insofar as racial characteristics are important to racism--and I think they are important--this criterion actually operates against racism. Before 1948 there were those in Israel's predominantly Ashkenazi population who would have liked to keep out the Oriental Jews, primarily on racial grounds. But the criterion of admission was in fact a religious one, and so the Oriental Jews qualified.

(c) All nationalisms exclude, but the people whom it was most important for the Jewish state to exclude, for the sake of its own survival, were its fated enemies, the bulk of the previous settled population in the land of Israel. The present state of Israel, for example, could not admit to citizenship the Arabs of the West Bank without preparing the destruction of the Jewish state, at least--which Israel, being (in all essentials) the Jewish state, is not likely to do.

I don't think you can reasonably say that the idea of the Jewish state is inherently racist, and therefore illegitimate, unless you also condemn all other nationalisms, including Arab nationalism, for their exclusivities: quite a reasonable proposition, but one that would stigmatize all states and most of the population of the globe.

The relation of the Jewish state to Palestine and to its Arab population I shall consider in relation to the two interrelated principles, that of the right of Return and the principle of consent of the governed.

The idea that the right of the Jews to return to Palestine transcends the will of the majority of the settled population of the area is certainly basically a religious one (or a religious-national one), whatever secular forms it may from time to time assume.

Does the fact that the right of Return is basically a religious idea make it ipso facto illegitimate?

Probably only the tougher-minded within the secularist tradition would answer that question with an unhesitating yes. But some kind of yes is implicit in the whole tradition of Western Europe and North America since the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. The post-Enlightenment tradition assumes the separation of religion from the political process. The notion that a religious attachment justifies a political claim is inherently repugnant to what has been the dominant intellectual tradition in the West for nearly a quarter of a millennium. The question is, however, whether the dominant intellectual tradition in the West also applies to the Middle East.

On the surface, it might seem to. The rhetoric of the Arab-Israeli debate has been almost entirely the rhetoric of the Western Enlightenment tradition. It is a rhetoric that has extremely high international prestige as rhetoric, largely owing to the phenomenal success of the three great Western revolutions inspired by it--English, American, and French--and to the mimicry of much of it by the Soviet Union (as in Stalin's 1936 constitution). The United Nations Charter is full of Enlightenment ideas, and United Nations debates are generally conducted in terms of an assumed consensus of commitment to these ideas.

The Arab case against Israel is most definitely expressed in terms of that tradition. For example, the Palestinian state envisioned in the Palestinian National Covenant of 1968 would be, in theory, "a secular and democratic state." Because the governing code of debate is based on the Western Enlightenment value system, this puts the Arab states (which support the principle of consent of the governed) permanently in the right, and Israel (with its archaic right of Return and its Jewish state) permanently in the wrong.

But rhetoric and reality are far apart here. Political practice based on Enlightenment values--the rule of law, freedom of expression, and political democracy--exceeds the boundaries of the West only in a few exceptional cases, and none of them are in the Middle East, with the ironic exception of Israel itself, in its internal political arrangements among Jews. If there were today a Palestinian state, and if it were indeed a democratic state, it would be unique in the Arab world (and unusual in the world outside the West). In practice the rulers of the region assume and enforce the consent of those they govern, as the rulers of the region have done from time immemorial, without curiosity as to the wishes of the governed. The rule of law and freedom of expression are unknown, as they have been in the past. Secularity is a matter for small elites--some of them, as religious minorities, justifying their own dominance, as the Alawis of Syria do, in terms of secular and progressive ideas. In any case, throughout the Islamic world the rise of Moslem fundamentalism since 1980 has increasingly challenged the secular elites.

Islam, even more than any other of the great religions, denies the existence of the dichotomy posited by the Western Enlightenment, between religious and political life. Those representing (or at any rate speaking on behalf of) Moslem populations who appeal to Enlightenment ideas are engaging in double-talk, masking the realities of what is fundamentally, on both sides, a religious-nationalist cultural conflict. It is a conflict, moreover, that is unlikely to be resolved by appeal to an umpire from the world of the Enlightenment.

The presiding symbol is that of Jerusalem. The Jewish claim to Jerusalem is not a matter of rational argument; nor is the Moslem claim; nor will the two claims be reconciled, or either side appeased, by arbitration; nor will either accept the counting of heads as decisive, unless it works in that side's own favor.

The Jews today rule in Jerusalem for the same MATERIAL reason as the British ruled before them, and the Ottoman Turks before them, and all the others before them, back to Caliph Omar and beyond--because they conquered the place. But the attachment of the Jews to the city is older and deeper than that of any of its previous conquerors.

It is argued that conquest as a claim to rule, though very widely acceptable up to 1914-1918, is no longer acceptable since the Fourteen Points, the Atlantic Charter, and the Charter of the United Nations. But the Jewish and the Moslem claims to Jerusalem are anterior to those documents by many centuries and will not be resolved by reference to the modern documents, vastly inferior as these are in authority and in emotional power and in other respects to the Bible and the Koran.

The right of Return is based on the Bible and contested (by implication) in the Koran. When the Koran is defeated--for the time being, at least--the appeal goes out to the post-Christian world, in terms of the post-Christian ideology of the Enlightenment, under the slogan of "consent of the governed." But any realities pertaining to that slogan belong to the world appealed to, not the world that appeals.

I know well that the line of thought traced above will be ill received by many Westerners--both friendly and unfriendly to Israel--and also by many people in Israel itself. The Jews of the Diaspora played a large part in the development and diffusion of Enlightenment ideas, gloried in them, and benefited from them, for a time. Israelis of European origin inherit a value system largely drawn from the European Enlightenment. Indeed, this inheritance is one of the sources of the great internal malaise of Israel. Most of the Oriental Jews have no such inheritance. They tend to find it more or less incomprehensible, and irrelevant or even noxious to Israel's needs in its actual besieged condition.

I'm afraid--and there are grounds for fear--that the Orientals have a point. The Western Enlightenment and the idea of the Return don't fit together; they only rub together uneasily. The idea of the Return comes out of that older world which the philosophes rejected, and the Return took shape under unimaginably harsher necessities than any that had ever impinged on the philosophes.

I believe that Israel cannot be other than what it is--in the basic sense that Israel is not free to be other than the Jewish state in Palestine, and that the Jewish state, once in possession of Jerusalem, is not capable of relinquishing that city.

The Moslem world is also not free to be other than what it is, and is certainly incapable of acquiescing, openly, fully, and voluntarily, in a Jewish state in Palestine with Arab subjects and its capital in Jerusalem.

It seems to follow that the siege of Israel will continue in some form, into an indefinite future. That is not necessarily or immediately as tragic a statement as it may sound. In certain conditions the siege could become--for a period, at least--a largely latent and almost metaphorical affair. Israel could find itself at peace, in one way or another, with all its neighbors. The peace with Egypt held during the 1982 war in Lebanon. There has been a de facto peace, with no fedayeen, between Jordan and Israel since 1973; this held even in 1982. Israel's greatest problem among its Arab neighbors is Syria, with its Soviet backing and its presence and proliferating influence in Lebanon.

Yet a tacit accommodation, even with Syria, is possible as was proved in 1976, over Lebanon. The later breakdown of that arrangement was partly owing to the overweening and baroque ambition of Ariel Sharon. But it was also owing, perhaps in larger part, to a stipulation introduced by Israel into the tacit agreement of 1976 between itself and Syria. This was the stipulation that Syrian authority should not extend to Lebanon's far south and the border with Israel. This stipulation led to the development of "Fatahland," in southern Lebanon, beyond Syria's control--and so to the conditions that provided the occasion, if not all the reasons, for Israel's intervention in 1982.

It appears that there was a school of thought in Israel in 1976 that opposed the stipulation as to the extent of Syria's authority in Lebanon. That school seems to have been vindicated by events. It seems, therefore, within the bounds of possibility that a new and less restrictive tacit arrangement could be reached with Syria over Lebanon, with a certain "territory for peace" content. One version of such an arrangement could include the following:

(a) Israel would withdraw its troops from all of Lebanon, without insisting--as once it did--on Syria's also withdrawing. Israel has now in fact withdrawn from Lebanon almost completely, the exception being Israel's continued support for the Christian-officered South Lebanon Army on Lebanon's border with Israel. The abandonment of that support is almost certainly a necessary pre-condition for any overall arrangement between Israel and Syria.

(b) Israel would agree secretly to Syria's hegemony over all Lebanon, to be assured by means of Syria's own Machiavellian devising.

(c) Syria would undertake to see that there would be no PLO activity in Lebanon other than by forces of that name under complete Syrian control, and that those forces would not take part in any fedayeen activity.

(d) Syria would guarantee the safety of the Maronite Christians in their own areas as well as the safety of those elements on Israel's border who have cooperated with Israel.

And finally:

(e) If these arrangements held and peace prevailed over a stipulated period, Syria would get back the Golan Heights, demilitarized.

If some such arrangement could eventually be worked out with Syria--building on the 1976 precedent--Israel would then at last have peace with all its neighboring states: peace by treaty with Egypt, peace by tacit understanding with Jordan (as discussed below) and Syria and, through Syria, with Lebanon.

That seems the nearest thing to a comprehensive Middle Eastern settlement that is actually available in the real world.

Even so, the problem of the West Bank and of Israel's incapacity to get out of it will remain. There, the best that can realistically be hoped for--and even this cannot be taken for granted--is a return to the noninterventionist attitudes of the Dayan years. That step is made more difficult by the existence of the Begin settlements, which are not going to be uprooted. But at least there could be a return to the policy of no new settlements near centers of Arab population, and even an enhancement of the famous adversarial partnership with Jordan. There could be--as there was under Dayan, and was not under Begin--a regime based on the principles of minimal interference and the avoidance of provocation. Teddy Kollek as mayor of Jerusalem has shown that even under siege conditions a potentially hostile population can be treated with consideration and respect, and that this policy can be rewarding for all concerned. Unfortunately, there are not many like Teddy Kollek around, inside or outside Israel. But the example is there, and Shimon Peres is known to admire the Kollek achievement.

"There is no Jordanian option," a Jordanian minister has said, "but there is a Jordanian ROLE." That sounds like a hint. It seems possible that some kind of TACIT agreement could be reached (or, rather, enhanced) with Jordan over certain areas of the West Bank, resembling in some respects the Allon Plan--and indeed the Reagan Plan--but reached without fanfare or the signature of any treaty.

Both the situation and the mood of Israel in the wake of the Lebanon war and the retreat from Lebanon seem fairly propitious for such a tacit agreement. With a grave economic crisis and inflation of around 400 percent, Shimon Peres can and does inform his Likud colleagues that there is simply no money for more settlements on the West Bank. Both Likud and the country seem to accept that. This situation could lead to an abandonment--again a tacit one--of the attempt to make Judea and Samaria Jewish, and a return to the old Dayan policy of minimal interference with the Arab population. Such a policy shift could open the way to closer, if unavowed, cooperation between Israel and Jordan, with both parties encouraging the West Bank's residents to put up with their anomalous but not necessarily intolerable status as Jordanian subjects in civil matters living in a territory under Israel's military control. And--despite the verbal deference accorded by Hussein and the West Bank mayors to the PLO--deep down Israel, the West Bank population, and Jordan share an interest in continuing to prohibit the fedayeen from implanting themselves in the West Bank. (The effort to implant them after 1967 did not receive the general support of the West Bank population, or of Jordan. )

Arrangements of this type seem about the best available, within the bounds of realistic assessment. But all such arrangements would remain precarious and vulnerable. That is obvious in the case of the tacit understandings: the actual (and improvable) one with Jordan, and the possible one with Syria. But even the formal peace treaty between Israel and Egypt could be denounced--in the event of, for example, a seizure of power in Cairo by a group of extreme nationalist or Moslem fundamentalist officers. In that case Israel would have surrendered territory, in Sinai, without securing lasting peace.

For ordinary Israelis, the siege remains a fact of daily life. On March 21, 1985, in Jerusalem, I watched a group of schoolchildren coming down the steps of Yemin Moshe Street to take a look at one of Jerusalem's jollier landmarks, the Montefiore Windmill. Just behind the children were two men in civilian clothes carrying submachine guns. Since Israeli schools and children have become targets of fedayeen attack, Israeli parents have begun, as a matter of routine, taking turns at maintaining guard over the schools and the children.

Outsiders often refer to Israel's "siege mentality." The phrase is quite accurate except when it is used to imply that the siege exists in the mind alone. The siege is a reality now in the Middle East, as it was in the past in Europe. The fusion of the two sieges into one--a fusion that was at the core of Menachem Begin's vision of the world--is indeed a historically formed phenomenon of the mind. But it is so powerful and so haunting a phenomenon of the mind that it is now also a large part of the political reality of the Middle East.

It has become commonplace to call Israel a militaristic state, a new Prussia or a new Sparta. But Israel is not at all like that. Spartan and Prussian militarism, and others--Napoleon's, for example--were based on a sustained willingness to accept high casualties. Israel's policies are shaped, to an extent unparalleled in the history of any other major military power, by a desire to avoid loss of life among its soldiers. Anyone who has been in Israel during a period of war culminating in victory--as I was, in June of 1982--knows that there is at such times nothing remotely resembling a "Mafeking" spirit, only a universal apprehension and sorrow about Israeli casualties.

It is the very intensity of this concern about the need to save Jewish lives, a concern that has the Holocaust at the back of it, that produces the pattern of military behavior so shocking to outside observers. Israel refuses to accept a conflict of attrition--"one for one"--which it must inevitably lose, because of its inferiority in numbers. Israel has therefore consistently applied the doctrine of "asymmetrical response"--hitting back with far greater force at the quarter from which it was attacked.

Israel withdrew from most of Lebanon last spring because of the unacceptably high casualties--more than 650 Israelis had been killed since June of 1982--that remaining in Lebanon involved. And when Shiite militia inflicted further casualties on the retreating Israeli forces, those forces hit back with their accustomed increment of violence. It was the level of Israeli casualties that determined both the retreat and the reprisals.

For some outside observers, the reprisals tended to obscure the fact of the retreat and the mood that dictated that retreat. That mood, in my belief, remains the one described by Eric Silver in the immediate aftermath of Begin's retirement:

"The Israel Menachem Begin created in his own image was more narrowly Jewish, more aggressive and more isolated. Social and religious tensions were closer to the surface. But as the Kahan Commission demonstrated, government was still accountable to the people, democracy and the rule of law were alive and kicking. The press was not silenced by appeals to patriotism. In the autumn of 1983, the disengagement from the problems of Lebanon showed Israelis soberly aware of their limitations as well as their strengths. That was not the legacy the sixth Prime Minister had meant to leave his people, but it was one worth cherishing."

Shimon Peres's style as prime minister reflects that mood. He seems today modest and judicious, and free--as is Shamir--from the contagious and intoxicating shrillness of Begin. The Government of National Unity has done a little better than most people thought it might, and Peres's own stature has risen accordingly. There are chances of greater accommodations and relaxing of tensions. But neither the Government of National Unity nor any probable successor is likely to be able to lift the siege altogether.

Israel is obliged, by the very nature of its predicament, to remain forever on its guard and to be the ultimate judge of its own security. And those who condemn Israel should reflect that its predicament is not the creation of Israelis only but is also the creation of all the rest of us: those who attacked and destroyed the Jews in Europe, and those in Europe and America who just quietly closed our doors.

Against that background Western statesmen might have the grace to be more sparing in their admonitions addressed to Israel, keeping in mind that many of the peoples those statesmen represent did much, over many years, and in many ways, to impress upon Jews the necessity of creating the Jewish state.

The Palestinian Arabs have every right to say that they are the indirect and innocent victims of what happened to the Jews in Europe. They are. They are also the victims of the vanity and fantasies of their own leaders; victims also of the Machiavellian Arab rulers--who use them as stalking-horses in the pursuit of their own ends--and of illusions promoted by the hollow and far-from-disinterested sympathy of European leaders. The best hope of the West Bank residents is in ceasing to rely on Palestinian emigres or professions of sympathy whose cruel unreliability has been demonstrated on countless occasions. They have to face Israel, on their own, with nothing serious going for them except their lifeline to Jordan. Their best hope for the future lies not in the illusory and ever-receding perspective of "territory for peace" but in the strengthening of the "adversarial partnership" or tacit condominium between Israel and Jordan. In practice West Bank residents have shown a willingness to support that condominium, over the years, to the extent that it was available. Events in Lebanon from 1982 to 1985 have surely been of a nature to suggest to West Bank residents that the people who are most clamorous about the absolute need to secure "full Palestinian rights" are no friends of the Palestinians'. It was not only Christian Arabs, allied with Israel, who massacred Palestinian Arabs, at Sabra and Shatila (in 1982); it was also Moslem Arabs, allied with Syria, who carried out such massacres (in 1985). There was a world outcry about the first massacres; remarkable little was heard about the second. But Palestinians were equally victims in both cases.

Israeli leaders, as Eric Silver suggests, have been at least to some extent sobered and chastened by some of the results for Israel of Sharon's hubris over Lebanon. It may be that a similar process is going on among Palestinian leaders, where it matters most: on the West Bank itself. If so, the illusory and highly publicized pursuit of "territory for peace" is likely to be paralleled by quieter talks about how to make the sharing of the territory somewhat less uncomfortable and less dangerous for Israelis and Palestinians alike--as well as for the Jordanians. If so--and on the other relatively optimistic hypotheses discussed above--we will witness a considerable abatement of the siege of Israel as the century draws to a close. But the possible abatement depends on Arab recognition of superior Israeli military strength and adjustment to that fact, which is not likely to be accepted as a permanent fact. And so "abatement" implies suspension, not necessarily an approaching termination. What is not in sight is an end to the siege.

Return to The Middle East: Peace in Jeopardy?

Return to A Century of Zionism

Copyright © 1985 by Conor Cruise O'Brien. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; October, 1985; "Why Israel Can't Take 'Bold Steps' for Peace"; Volume 256, No. 4; pages 45-55.

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