Can Israel Withdraw? Yes
The riots in Gaza and other areas occupied by Israel have refocused attention on the immediacy of what is generally referred to as the “Palestinian problem.” The riots should have made it clear, however, that the problem is really not so much a Palestinian or Arab one as it is an Israeli one. The Israelis, moreover, are in a position to accept the responsibility for solving this problem, because, contrary to conventional wisdom, it is in their power to do so without sacrificing legitimate security concerns.
Defenders of Israel may immediately respond to such a suggestion with a litany of familiar, and true, historical facts. The Jewish people have a biblical claim to the land. Jews lived on the land uninterruptedly for centuries. There has never been a Palestinian state. In the decades before the establishment of Israel in 1948 the Arabs violently opposed Jewish settlement while at the same time selling the land which made settlement possible. The Arabs rejected the 1947 UN partition scheme and attempted to drive the Jews of Palestine into the sea. In the ensuing 1948-49 war for Israel’s independence, more than half-a-million Palestinian Arabs became refugees, as did a similar number of Jews from Arab lands. The Palestinians are virtually the only refugees in the world who have not been resettled; they could have been resettled at any time, if the Arab states had the slightest interest in ameliorating their plight. During the nineteen years of Jordanian rule over the West Bank (1948-67), no one called for a Palestinian state despite the fact that Jordan had no legal claim to the land. If King Hussein of Jordan had heeded Israel’s warning in June 1967 not to join in the general Arab assault, Israel would not be occupying the West Bank today. That occupation has been the most enlightened in history. No Arab leader except Anwar Sadat has been prepared to negotiate peace with Israel.
Given such historical facts, why should responsibility nevertheless rest with Israel? To answer that question, one first has to ask a series of other questions:
How long can Israel expect to control a population of over one million hostile Arabs?
What happens when the Arabs in Israel and the occupied territories outnumber the Jews, as demographers predict will occur in the not-too-distant future?
How long can Israel resist the pressure of international opinion opposing its actions?
How long will it be before the United States begins to use aid and arms as a lever to force Israeli concessions?
How long can Israel expect its own Arab citizens to remain loyal if it continues to repress Palestinians?
How long will it take before the numbers of young Israelis refusing to serve in the occupied territories become large enough to represent a threat to the integrity of the military?
How long can Israelis go on carrying out the distasteful and sometimes abhorrent tasks required for continued occupation before the democratic and Jewish values they cherish are destroyed?
It is certainly true that Israel did not ask for the problems with which it is faced; they were forced upon the Jewish state by its hostile neighbors. But this does not make the problems go away. In the end there is nothing Israel can do to eliminate Arab hostility, just as there is nothing Jews can do to eradicate anti-Semitism. There is something Israel can do, however, to rid itself of the cancer eating away at the Zionist soul.
Israel is usually said to have three options which are so familiar that one need mention them only briefly. Israel can annex the territories. It can maintain the status quo. Or it can negotiate a settlement with Jordan and the Palestinians that will include territorial compromises.
First, annexation. There is no question that Israel has a legitimate historical claim to Judea, Samaria, and Gaza. But annexation would require the integration of over one million Palestinians into Israeli society. If these Arabs become full citizens, Israel will cease to be a Jewish state. If, as the far Right proposes, they are denied voting rights, Israel will cease to be a democracy.
A position once confined to the fringe represented by Meir Kahane has recently been voiced by more mainstream Israeli politicians: the Arabs should be expelled, or, as it is euphemistically put, transferred. I have never heard the proponents of this solution face two critical issues: Would the Arabs willingly board deportation trains and buses? Would Jews be prepared to carry out the deportation orders?
Even if we ignore the moral issues raised by such a policy, how would Israel go about removing one million people from their homes? And what would the United States do?
The second option is to maintain the status quo. But the self-evident answers to the series of questions I posed above make it clear that the status quo is intolerable. Even if Israel were able to control indefinitely a hostile Palestinian population, the need to patrol Arab cities, impose curfews on areas under military administration, chase Palestinian schoolchildren throwing rocks, and shoot demonstrators would cause immeasurable damage to the Israelis themselves. As one Israeli remarked about his government’s policy of “force, power, and beatings” in the territories, “Whom do the blows hurt more—the young Arabs hit or the young soldiers doing the hitting? The blows of those hit will go away in a few days. I don’t know if the blows to the heart of those who do the hitting will ever go away.”
Indeed, it is because Israel recognizes that the situation is intolerable that it continues to pursue the third option, the effort to engage in negotiations with King Hussein or any other Arab leader willing to recognize Israel’s right to exist. Israel has always been prepared to make concessions for peace, but has been unable to find a partner other than Anwar Sadat.
As for Hussein, as much as he might like to regain the West Bank—his sovereignty over this territory, incidentally, has never been acknowledged by the other Arab states—doing so would most likely cause him more trouble than it would be worth. For he would then have the burden of dealing with the “Palestinian problem.” Moreover, by adding over one million Palestinians, most of whom despise him, to the nearly two million Palestinians who now make up the majority of Jordan’s population, Hussein would endanger his own regime.
Because they have no partners for peace negotiations, many Israelis have argued that there is nothing they can do but wait. This, however, is not correct. Israel can take unilateral action—specifically, it can decide to withdraw from the territories almost overnight. Such a decision would give Israel total control over the outcome. There would be no need to compromise, no threat of coercion from outside powers, no reliance on American or international guarantees, no ambiguities.
A number of objections may immediately be raised to such a suggestion, and I will address them in turn.
Israel would be giving up something for nothing. The goal of diplomatic negotiations of the kind favored by successive Israeli governments is not only to arrive at a satisfactory disposition of the territories but to bring about a normalization of relations between Israel and its neighbors. By acting unilaterally—it might be argued—Israel would sacrifice its one bargaining chip for inducing the Arabs to make peace.
In truth, however, the only Arab leader directly affected would be King Hussein and, though Israel might prefer to have a settlement with Jordan codified in a peace treaty, there is already a de-facto peace agreement between Jordan and Israel. Moreover, once Israel withdrew from “occupied Arab land,” those other Arab states that have no territorial dispute with Israel would no longer be able to justify their belligerence. In reality, one knows that Arab hostility, based as it is not on Israel’s occupation but on its very existence, would not abate. With regard to the Arab states, then, nothing would be lost or gained.
But it is inaccurate to say that Israel would receive nothing by giving up the territories. Israel would be ridding itself of the need to rule over another people, with all the degenerative effects that such a policy entails.
The territories are part of biblical Israel. They are, indeed—but that does not mean the Israeli government has to exercise its claim to the land. The territory will still be biblical Israel, only under the control of another power, just as it has been for centuries. The boundaries of nations often shift according to the exigencies of security, politics, war, or economics. The Zionists were willing to accept the first partition of Palestine—that is, the creation of Trans-Jordan in 1922—because they recognized that their own interests were also served by this arrangement. In 1947, the Zionists were even willing to accept the internationalization of Jerusalem in order to secure support for the second partition of Palestine—the one that established the Jewish state. By giving up the territories, Israel would in that sense be returning to borders (with modifications to be discussed below) that Zionist leaders previously accepted.
Israel’s security would be endangered. On the contrary: by acting unilaterally, Israel could establish what its leaders considered secure, defensible borders; it is doubtful that those same borders could be won through negotiations. Worth bearing in mind in addition is that Israel was able to survive during the nineteen years that Jordan controlled the West Bank. This is not to say there would be no danger, but Israel would remain strong enough to counter any threat.
If Israel withdrew, the territories would become an irredentist Palestinian state controlled by the PLO. This is probably the most serious and often-heard objection to withdrawal. It is, indeed, very possible that a Palestinian state would emerge in the relinquished territories, but such an outcome would not necessarily be so threatening as is generally thought.
Let me emphasize at the outset that I have no illusions about the PLO. Its objective is to “liberate” all of Palestine, and its policy of destroying Israel in stages would not suddenly be abandoned after the establishment of a state on the West Bank and Gaza Strip. A number of factors, however, would minimize this threat.
For years the Israelis have been saying that the PLO does not really represent the Palestinians in the occupied territories. If this is true, then it is at least possible that the future leaders of a Palestinian state would not be members of the PLO. There is no question that many West Bank Palestinians see the PLO as outsiders who have accomplished nothing while they have remained in Palestine fighting the Israelis every day. The Palestinians in the territories—that is, the ones who would immediately benefit from an Israeli withdrawal—should also be reluctant to endanger their new-found freedom by permitting the PLO to carry on its armed struggle. They might thus act as a deterrent to the PLO strategy of “liberating” Palestine in stages.
But what if I am wrong and the “moderates” were unable to restrain the radicals? This is a possibility, but it need not be considered an unmanageable threat to Israeli security. It is true that the state’s pre-1967 borders were dangerously narrow, and it is also true that many infiltrators succeeded in committing terrorist atrocities in Israel. But this time around there would be several differences.
First, the borders need not be the same as the 1949 armistice lines; they would be the “secure, defensible borders” advocated by every Israeli leader for the past two decades.
Secondly, in 1967 Israel, attacked on three fronts, nevertheless scored a resounding victory that humiliated the Arabs; today, Israel is at peace with its most formidable adversary, Egypt, and enjoys a de-facto peace on two of its three other frontiers. Hussein learned his lesson in 1967; not only did he refrain from joining the 1973 Yom Kippur War, but since losing the West Bank he has effectively accepted the fact of Israel. To the north, Israel controls a “security zone” in Lebanon, thereby ensuring relative tranquility on that border. Only Syria remains a belligerent neighbor, but Hafez Assad’s forces are bogged down in Lebanon and are otherwise inferior to the Israel Defense Forces (though Assad has made no secret of his desire to achieve military parity).
Thirdly, Israel is many times more powerful in 1988 than it was in 1967. The United States, a friend twenty years ago, is today an ally. If American policy was once aimed at maintaining a military balance in the Middle East, today it is aimed at guaranteeing Israel’s military superiority. The PLO was no match for the IDF in Lebanon in 1982, and would remain no match in a Palestinian state.
The economic ties between the territories and Israel would also minimize the danger. Over 70,000 Palestinians now work in Israel, representing more than one-third the labor force in the territories and a contribution of approximately one-sixth the areas’ GNP. If there were a large inmigration of Palestinians to the new state the internal job market would shrink, and those with jobs in Israel would therefore be more committed than ever to maintaining good relations with Israel—especially since the threat of closing the borders would give Israel the means to strangle the new state economically.
If sealing the borders would be Israel’s stick, the carrot would be financial aid to help minimize disruptions in the area after withdrawal. The Arab world, in the meantime, would once again have an opportunity to prove by its assistance to the new state that it is really concerned with the Palestinians as people rather than as pawns in the conflict with Israel.
Both Jordan and Syria would also have an interest in constraining Palestinian radicalism. Syria has proved in Lebanon its readiness to take action against the Palestinians when they threaten Syrian interests. King Hussein learned first-hand in 1970 the threat posed by the PLO to his regime, and would be particularly wary of expansionist tendencies. Thus, even an irredentist PLO state would be squeezed on each of its borders by superior military forces.
A Palestinian state would be able to build an army and import arms that would threaten Israel. Israel would have to make it clear that it would not tolerate the introduction of large amounts of arms into the territories, and that massive retaliation would follow if this warning were ignored. Since the Palestinians are already familiar with Israel’s willingness to retaliate with force, presumably they would avoid provocation.
Critics may point out that the PLO would now be closer to Israel’s population centers. But that means Israel’s army would also be closer to the PLO. Moreover, the Israelis would now know exactly where the terrorists were. At worst, Israel would have to retake the territories by force. Such an operation would be costly, but easily within Israel’s power. It is hard to believe, however, that the Palestinians would wish to provoke such an extreme response.
King Hussein, too, would be anxious to prevent the Palestinians from importing large amounts of arms, since he would undoubtedly see the Palestinian state as no less a threat to his own regime than to Israel. (It has been said that if an armed Yasir Arafat were in the same room with King Hussein and Menachem Begin, he would shoot Hussein first.)
Even if the Palestinians did import arms, their potential ability to inflict damage on Israel would be restricted primarily to sporadic terrorism (again at the risk of retaliation). Except in the unlikely eventuality that they acquired nuclear weapons (an eventuality Israel would do anything to prevent), no amount of weaponry in Palestinian hands could shift the balance of power between Israel and what would be a tiny, densely populated state. Thus, even a militarized Palestinian state would not necessarily be any more threatening to Israel than the present national movement; actually, such a state would in several respects be more vulnerable.
A Palestinian state would become a Soviet outpost on Israel’s border. Israel already lives with one Soviet outpost on its border—namely, Syria—so there would be nothing qualitatively different about such a threat on the West Bank. Moreover, it is very possible that the Soviet Union would not become significantly involved with a Palestinian State.
There are several reasons for this. First, the Soviet Union (which supported the creation of a Jewish state in 1947) has refused to endorse the PLO’s program even though it has sponsored PLO terrorism. Secondly, the Soviets have consistently affirmed United Nations Resolution 242, and recognize Israel’s right to exist within the pre-1967 borders. The Soviets, like other critics of Israel, might protest a unilateral Israeli action, but withdrawal per se would hardly conflict with the Soviet position on the Middle East.
Even if the Soviets were inclined to intervene in some way, the United States could be counted on to deter them. In addition, the United States would probably provide aid to Israel to compensate for its territorial sacrifices, as Congress has already done in the case of the Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai.
The possibility of Soviet involvement would likewise be minimized by the active concern of Jordan—Hussein, after all, has kept the Soviets from establishing a presence in his country. Also, the population of the new Palestinian state, predominantly Muslim, would have its own reasons for not wishing too close a connection with the atheists in the Kremlin.
A Palestinian state would be flooded by immigrants who would strain the region’s absorptive capacity and stimulate expansionist tendencies. Replace the word “Palestinian” with “Jewish” in this sentence and you have the argument made by the Arabs against the Zionists in the 20′s and 30′s. To be sure, the fact that the argument proved wrong in the case of Jewish Palestine does not mean it would be wrong in the case of an Arab Palestinian state, with its relatively limited area of settlement. But even so, this does not necessarily mean that the state would be expansionist.
Israel could not reasonably expect to limit Arab immigration into the territories (as is envisioned in the autonomy scheme). The one non-negotiable issue for the Zionists was always unrestrained immigration, and the Palestinians cannot be expected to behave any differently. Yet such immigration would not necessarily be a negative development.
For one thing, it would reduce the Palestinian presence in other Arab countries, and with it the Palestinians’ ability to compel support from weak governments like Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. Furthermore, since the Palestinians would be unable to return to their former physical homes, most of which have long since been destroyed, many would have little desire to return at all. By and large, only the poor, lower-class Palestinians, primarily refugees in Lebanon, would be likely to immigrate. The rest—and especially the intellectuals and upper-class Palestinians, the ones who talk the most fiercely about Palestinian nationalism—would most likely prefer to stay where they are rather than move to such a small, economically unviable area. It may turn out, in other words, that the Palestinians’ attachment to their homeland will be as tenuous as the Israelis have claimed.
Jewish settlers would not leave the territories. Israelis remember well the unpleasant scene of soldiers forcibly removing settlers from the town of Yamit when Israel returned the Sinai to Egypt, and do not relish the prospect of a replay with the more militant and far more numerous settlers on the West Bank. In fact, now that the Jewish population of the territories has reached somewhere between 50,000 and 70,000, it is no longer possible to force the settlers to leave.
By acting unilaterally, Israel could establish boundaries which would incorporate as many settlers as possible. As for the many still outside the state, they could be given a choice of moving back within the borders of Israel and receiving compensation, or remaining where they are and retaining Israeli citizenship. If they were to choose the latter course, however, they would also have to be told that they were now on their own and could not expect to be rescued at the first sign of trouble.
From Israel’s perspective, it would be advisable to do whatever possible to prevent any Jews from remaining in the former territories. The reason is that Jewish settlements would offer little or no strategic value, would be vulnerable to Arab attack, and could become hostages to Palestinian demands on other issues. If most settlers moved back to Israel, as they no doubt would do, there would be that much less provocation of the Arabs, which should further reduce the threat of violence. By eliminating most of the settlements, Israel could also eliminate an unnecessary drain on its troubled economy.
For their part, the Palestinians, by allowing settlers to remain in peace, could prove that they have no animus toward Jews and are the peace-loving people they have claimed to be. They could also permit settlers to remain subject to Israeli law.
The Arabs would not accept a state without Jerusalem. As noted above, one of the principal advantages of unilateral action is that it would allow Israel to define its own borders without any need to compromise (though some concessions would be prudent) or sacrifice security concerns. One need not go into specifics, but those borders would surely reflect modifications of the lines established in the 1949 armistice agreements: essentially, something resembling the boundaries envisaged in the Allon Plan. In other words, the policy advocated here would combine a partial annexation of the kind desired by Israel’s Right with the withdrawal insisted upon by the Left, the latter taking precedence.
The most important modification of the 1949 lines would be that Jerusalem would remain the undivided capital of Israel. That is perhaps the one territorial issue that everyone in Israel agrees upon. No doubt a refusal to make concessions on Jerusalem would provide the Arabs with an ongoing justification for hostility, but that would be so even in a negotiated settlement.
Nevertheless, some sort of accommodation would have to be struck with regard to Jerusalem because the eastern half of the city is the largest Arab urban center in the area, because the city links the two main regions of the West Bank, and because the Old City contains the Muslim holy places. Muslims already control their own shrines, and there is no danger of Israel limiting access to the city; therefore, the primary change would have to concern the terms of political affiliation. Israel could allow the Palestinians in Jerusalem to choose between Israeli and Palestinian citizenship, without detriment to their participation in the administration of the city. Palestinians could also be given greater representation in city government and greater control over their own neighborhoods.
Withdrawal from Gaza would mean a return to the situation that helped precipitate the Suez War. It is true that terrorist attacks launched from the Gaza Strip were one of the causes of the 1956 war, but it must be remembered that Nasser was responsible for ordering most of those attacks, not Palestinian nationalists. There is really no justification whatsoever for Israel to hold on to Gaza. One can cite no less an authority than David Ben-Gurion, who, though he certainly recognized the security threat, said after Israel’s conquest of the territory in 1956: “Gaza as part of Israel could be like a cancer. . . . To take a small territory with a vast Arab population would be the worst possible exchange.” Subsequently, of course, Israel withdrew. Since 1967, the cancer has returned—and grown. The only cure is excision.
Here, too, there might be some modifications in the borders to incorporate part of the area settled by Jews. But the majority of the Gaza Strip and its three-quarters of a million miserable refugees should be given their independence.
The Palestinians already have a state—Jordan. It is a historical fact that Jordan is Palestine. But it is a political reality that the Palestinians are not prepared to accept Jordan as a substitute for a state on the West Bank. Nor, consequently, would King Hussein be able to accept the territories even if Israel were to offer them to him. Many Palestinians may want to annex Jordan, but pursuit of that policy could only begin after independence in the territories.
Moreover, a Palestinian state established in Jordan would be a far greater danger to Israel than one on the West Bank. Instead of a small nation with limited economic and military potential, a Jordanian Palestine, with its larger population and its more vital economy, would have the capacity to develop a serious military threat.
This would especially be true if the essentially cautious Hussein, who appears content to live in peace with Israel, were replaced by Palestinians determined to destroy Israel. The Marxist-Leninists in the PLO, such as George Habash and Nayef Hawatmeh, could conceivably create a state in Jordan that would ally itself with Syria. And even without these Communists in power, Israel would face a combined force of Jordan/Palestine and Syria instead of the present situation in which Jordan acts as a brake on Syria’s bellicosity. The danger would be far more contained in the case of a tiny Palestinian state squeezed between Israel and Jordan.
From a practical standpoint, it is obvious that a unilateral solution to the Israeli problem is not likely in the immediate future. The divisions in Israel are currently too deep, and the sentiment to retain Judea and Samaria too widespread. As time passes, however, it will become increasingly clear that a proposal along the lines of the one offered here may be the best alternative to occupation. There are already signs of such recognition. For example, one prominent member of Likud, Shlomo Lahat, the mayor of Tel Aviv, publicly called this past January for Israeli withdrawal from the territories.
No one should expect the Palestinians, who have consistently been unwilling to settle for anything less than the whole loaf, to be overjoyed by such a magnanimous gesture on Israel’s part. Nevertheless, it is clear the Palestinians would be much better off. Theirs would be the self-determination they have been demanding, without any of the restrictions that might otherwise be imposed on them in negotiations by either Jordan or Israel. The only constraint would be on their ability to wage war, but to a people truly interested in peace, why should that be an impediment?
The Arab states can also be counted on to object to Israel’s actions; they prefer to see the Palestinians confined to refugee camps forever, where they can go on serving as pawns in the war against Israel. But the proposal advanced here is in any case not designed to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. That conflict will persist so long as there are Arabs unwilling to accept Israel’s right to exist. Although an Israeli withdrawal might help reduce regional instability created by the problems relating to Palestinian terrorism and refugees in Arab countries, as a whole the region would remain volatile if only because of inter-Arab rivalries which have nothing to do with Israel.
There should also be no illusions about the response of the international community to a unilateral Israeli action. Even though Israel would be satisfying the demands made on it for the last two decades, few, if any, nations would applaud this move. No matter how much of the territories Israel were to surrender, it would be criticized for not giving up enough. The territorial concessions would be ignored, the failure to negotiate stressed. It would be said that Israel had repudiated its obligation under international law to seek a diplomatic solution, and was acting irresponsibly by leaving the situation in chaos.
The cynical response to such a charge is that international law is something that “the righteous do not need and the wicked do not obey.” A more serious answer would be that Israel had tried the legal route for four decades, without success, and could no longer wait for a partner to join the negotiations. According to the United Nations Charter, a nation has the right to act in self-defense, and that is precisely what Israel would be doing. The Charter specifies that the “acquisition of territory by war” is “inadmissible.” It does not say the relinquishment of territory in the interests of peace is inadmissible.
The attitude of the United States, however, Israel’s principal ally, is important. It is difficult to predict how the United States would react. On the one hand, the Arabists in the State Department would surely protest that Israel had not given up enough, and that their own diplomatic role in resolving the conflict had been curtailed. But most Americans, including the Jewish community, would, I believe, applaud Israel’s courage and would be prepared to provide whatever assistance were required to ensure a peaceful transition.
Actually, one good reason for Israel to act this year would be that it has good friends in President Ronald Reagan and Secretary of State George Shultz. True, the current presidential candidates (with the exception of Jesse Jackson), are also pro-Israel, but inevitably there is a greater risk in waiting for a new American administration to take office.
In any case, Israel has learned from past experience that, once confronted with afait accompli, the United States and the rest of the world can do little. Besides, what in the end could the United Nations or anyone else do—pressure Israel to re-occupy the territories?
One last point. American Jews have traditionally been hesitant to call publicly on Israel to make territorial concessions or to advocate specific solutions to Israel’s problems. The reason is that they are thousands of miles away and do not live under the constant threat of attack. Nor are American Jews called upon to serve in the army that defends Israel, or to watch and wait anxiously as their children leave to fulfill their national military obligations.
That is all true, and one feels a certain anguish in breaking with a sound principle. There is a comfort to be had, however, in the thought that just as an American Jew concerned with the safety of Israel is free to speak out, Israelis remain equally free to ignore what he says.
“Think of the alternative,” Henry Kissinger used to say when pressing Israelis and Arabs to modify their positions in the days of his shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East. It is a salutary admonition, since we tend to forget that the alternative to badis not always good. It can be worse. It can be catastrophe.
Israel is in a bad situation. Not because it won the 1967 war and, as a result, added a million hostile Arabs to the population under its control; not because it suffers universal calumny for allegedly mistreating them; not because the higher Arab birth rate poses a demographic threat; and not even because the territory of the land of Israel is also claimed by Ishmael. Difficult as these problems are, they can all yield to rational resolution. What defies resolution and what makes Israel’s situation truly bad is that 300 million Arabs consider the very existence of Israel an offense to their sense of history and destiny.
Once upon a time there were Arab leaders, like King Hussein’s great-uncle the Emir Feisal, who believed that the Jews should have a state on both sides of the Jordan, and that the Jewish and Arab national movements “complete one another” and should work together for a “reformed Middle East.” Those Arabs are dead, and any Arab leader today who expresses remotely similar sentiments is assured of joining them in short order. There are, however, Arab leaders who were convinced by their defeat in 1967 that Israel could not be destroyed, and that its existence had to be tolerated. Indeed, so convinced were they that nothing short of a total reversal of that defeat could reawaken their hopes of wiping Israel off the map. Yet such a reversal is precisely what the whole world now appears to want.
The one, and perhaps only, international consensus today, stretching from Israel’s best friend—the United States—to its worst enemies—the PLO, Syria, and the Soviet Union—is that Israel should return to the very borders which in 1967 encouraged the Arab attempt, in the words of the late Egyptian President Nasser, to “drive the Jews into the sea.” Not surprisingly, a large part of the American Jewish “leadership,” and a third of the Israeli population—if the public-opinion polls are to be believed—join in this consensus, feeling that nothing could be worse than the present situation.
There is no doubt that the status quo has little to recommend it. If the “uprising” in the territories is a true reflection of the popular mood there, Israel has on its hands 1.3 million Arabs whose hatred is boundless and unremitting. Moreover, the massive and, in places, violent “peace day” demonstration within the pre-’67 borders, held in solidarity with the “uprising,” may indicate that the hostility of the 700,000 Arab citizens of the state of Israel is, though better camouflaged, not less intense. So even if the demographers who predict that the Arabs of Israel and the territories will constitute 45 percent of the total population by the year 2000 are as wrong as demographers have been in the past, and even if the ratio of Arabs to Jews remains constant for the foreseeable future, a full one-third of the population will be chronically hostile, violent, and disruptive. Hardly a happy state of affairs.
It is, of course, impossible to tell if this hostility is actually all that pervasive among Palestinian Arabs—as impossible as it is to tell what the Soviet people really feel about their regime. The fear of the PLO in the territories is no less effective than the fear of the KGB in the Soviet Union, and while there is no penalty for bad-mouthing Israel before television cameras in Gaza, Judea, Samaria, or East Jerusalem, condemning the PLO is tantamount to suicide. This may be why during the riots only a few merchants, at the end of their tether, dared to complain on TV about anonymous callers who had threatened their lives if they defied the strike order, and of masked youths who had burned down a few stores just as a warning.
At any rate, Israelis working in the administration of the territories still believe there is an apolitical silent majority in the adult population that prefers the employment, freedom, civil rights (though no political rights for the time being), and security under Israeli rule to the kind of vicious tyranny the PLO imposed on its mini-state in Lebanon before it was broken up by the Israelis in 1982, or to the oppression, discrimination, poverty, and lack of opportunities most of them suffered during the nineteen years of Jordanian rule (1948-67). But even if the silent majority feels this way, its preferences are irrelevant. The dynamics of the Arab street are such that the moderation of the majority inevitably evaporates before the militant radicalism of the minority.
Faced with such hostility, some Israeli leaders on both sides of the political spectrum have recommended unilateral withdrawal from Arab population centers. “Let them stew in their own juice” is the common rejoinder to questions about the internal mayhem that would inevitably ensue. But the consequences of unilateral withdrawal would not be limited to internecine struggles. Unilateral Israeli action would be seen as surrender to riots, which could only lead to the conclusion that more riots would bring more retreat. It is not, after all, the pervasive presence of Israeli soldiers that creates disturbances. As anyone who knows the territories will attest, the Israeli presence is hardly in evidence there in times of calm, and the day-to-day administration has been steadily and rapidly transferred to Arab hands.
The simple truth is that incitement in the streets and the mosques is not against the Israeli army’s presence in the towns themselves, but against Jewish rule of “Arab lands.” If Israel forfeits its right to enter the towns and villages, they will be transformed from islands of occasional anarchy to bases of permanent terrorism: little Beiruts from which violence will radiate unhampered to the main roads, the Jewish settlements, and ultimately to the cities of Israel.
But if unilateral Israeli action is ruled out, what about a negotiated settlement?
In what has become a parody of the democracies-negotiating-with-themselves syndrome, most Israeli leaders have been gauging the viability of peace plans not according to Israel’s interests and needs but according to what the Arabs would accept. In December 1984, Hussein, counting on an agreement with the PLO’s Arafat, indicated that he would consent to direct talks with Israel on the condition that a PLO-approved delegation from the territories participated in the negotiations. At that point, Shimon Peres (who was then Prime Minister) rejected the alternative Soviet proposal for an international conference on the Middle East as a lethal trap intended to force Israel and the U.S. into untenable positions, and he passionately inveighed against it in his meetings with Reagan and Shultz. But when, a few months later, Hussein, under Syrian pressure, changed his position and insisted on an international conference as the only venue for talks, Peres became a passionate pursuer of the idea and tried to sell it to the same Reagan and Shultz.
Since an international conference in which all the participants, including the U.S., are unanimous in seeking an Israeli withdrawal from the territories cannot, unless Israel walks out, end with anything but a withdrawal, the slogan “international conference” has become a code for relinquishing the territories. Its only opponents are Israelis who object to withdrawal and the few in the American administration who still believe they can achieve Israeli withdrawal without Soviet help and thus get exclusive credit for it in the Arab world.
And, indeed, those who believe in “territorial compromise” and an “international conference”—they are invariably the same people—no longer argue how much territory Israel should exchange for peace, but whether the territories should be relinquished to Jordan or to the PLO.
The “Jordanian option,” favored by the Labor party, involves a trade-off of most but not all the territories for peace. The Allon Plan, still nominally part of the Labor-party platform, stipulates annexation by Israel of over one-fourth of Judea-Samaria (the “West Bank”) and Gaza, including East Jerusalem. But recent pronouncements by Peres (who is now Foreign Minister) have made it clear that the dovish majority of the Labor party is willing to settle for much less: specifically, a return to the status-quo-ante-June 1967 with minor border changes; Jordanian rule in the territories, which would be demilitarized; security arrangements in the Jordan valley, preferably leaving Israeli settlements there; and a compromise on Jerusalem which would keep it municipally united but would cede the eastern part of the Old City, with the exception of the Jewish quarter, to Jordan.
This scheme has several obvious advantages. The demilitarization of Judea, Samaria, and Gaza is still a sine qua non for even the most ardent doves in Israel, and it is more reasonable to demand the demilitarization of a border province than of a whole state. The question of Jerusalem too could become less thorny. It would not have to be the capital of the Arab entity in the territories, merely a “holy city” divided between two sovereignties. The Jordanians would also “know how to handle riots much better than we do,” as Peres has said in an obvious reference to the fact that while the picture of every Arab demonstrator struck by an Israeli soldier instantly enters living rooms throughout the world, the slaughter by the Jordanian army of anywhere between 2,000 and 7,000 PLO members during Black September 1970 caused hardly a ripple.
Peres has also maintained that Jordan would prevent terrorists from crossing the border into Israel, just as it is preventing incursions across the Jordan river today. This is not quite borne out by history. Jordan now tries, mostly successfully, to check terrorism for the same reason it refrained from joining the Syrian-Egyptian assault on Israel in 1973: when it was pushed from the Judea-Samaria mountain ridge and across the Jordan river in 1967, the kingdom’s position vis-à-vis Israel changed from near-invincibility to extreme vulnerability. But before 1967, when Jordan was in control of the Judea-Samaria ridges, 971 murder and sabotage missions were carried out by Arab terrorists crossing the armistice lines into Israel, and there were numerous incidents of shellings and other military attacks. In these attacks, 521 Israelis were killed and 1,487 seriously wounded, mostly with Jordanian acquiescence if not active help. Nor was the King Hussein of that time any less ruthless in his attitude to Israel than Nasser. His orders of the day in 1967 called for the annihilation of every Israeli man, woman, and child in the “liberated areas.”
Nevertheless, if one had to choose between Jordanian and PLO control of the territories, the former would undoubtedly be preferable.
There is, however, one problem with the Jordanian option. It does not exist. The reason is not only that Jordan agreed in Rabat in 1974, and has reaffirmed many times since, that the PLO is the sole representative of the Palestinian people; nor is it merely that adding to the kingdom 1.3 million citizens, among whom the pro-Hashemites are the weakest, would be a reckless gamble. Even more important is the drastic change since 1967 in the balance of power between Jordan and Syria.
What this means was made abundantly clear by the events of 1985. In February of that year, as already noted, Arafat, with his fortunes at their lowest and the hostility between him and Syrian President Assad at its most intense, signed an agreement with Hussein which permitted a Jordanian team, joined by a delegation from the territories approved by the PLO, to negotiate with Israel. Arafat thus forfeited the right to “sole representation” and allowed Hussein to make a separate peace with Israel under American sponsorship, on behalf of the Palestinians. To be sure, it is doubtful that Hussein would have wanted to keep the territories under his own rule if Israel had been persuaded to give them up. (Soon after the 1967 war, he expressed great relief at being rid of them.) But had he succeeded in “liberating” them, his prestige would have been catapulted to unprecedented heights in the Arab world. The United States would also have been handed a diplomatic coup in the Arab world—which is why the Reagan administration greeted the Arafat-Hussein agreement with great enthusiasm, and why the Soviet Union and Syria condemned it.
But American enthusiasm for proved no match for Syrian determination against. To assure the demise of the agreement, Assad launched a terror campaign against Jordan. On March 3, less than four weeks after the agreement was announced, a Jordanian airliner was attacked by Syrian agents in Dubai. Eight more attacks on Jordanian targets followed, in Rome, Ankara, Madrid, Athens, and Amman. The Jordanian ambassador to Turkey was assassinated, and Jordanian embassies, airliners, and airport facilities were bombed.
It did not take Hussein long to get the hint. After a failed attempt on his ambassador in Athens on August 30, he had the Saudis arrange a meeting between his prime minister and the Syrian prime minister in mid-September to discuss “rapprochement.” On December 30 he met with Assad himself, and then declared that there would be no “separate peace,” no negotiations without Syrian and Soviet participation in the talks, and no progress on Judea-Samaria and Gaza without Israeli agreement to return the Golan Heights to Syria. All this was reaffirmed at the Arab summit conference in Amman last November.
Syria’s actions should have served as a reminder that terrorism and assassination must always be factored into the Middle Eastern equation. King Hussein’s own grandfather, King Abdallah, was assassinated for talking with the Israelis, and the same fate has met thousands of others, big and small: from the clan of the Nashashibis, the opponents of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, who were almost wiped out by his henchmen in the 30′s, to Issam Sartawi of the PLO, Zafir al-Masri, the mayor of Nablus, Bashir Gemayel of Lebanon, and Anwar Sadat of Egypt. The very fact that Hussein needs the protection of an international conference just to negotiate with Israel means that it is foolhardy to expect him to act independently on anything. He can only parrot the most radical element at the conference, for as Israel’s Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir points out in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, anyone who is so afraid of the radicals that he dare not defy them on matters of procedure is not about to defy them on matters of substance.
It therefore follows not only that the Jordanian option is a chimera but that no final peace agreement can be reached unless Israel relinquishes the territories. No Arab ruler can accept less than Egypt’s Sadat did at Camp David in 1978—every inch of “occupied land”—or make a separate peace without Syria, and live. If, then, Israel signs a peace treaty, no matter with whom, it will have to withdraw from all the territories, including the Golan Heights, and there will be a Palestinian state in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza.
To some Israelis, mainly on the Left but also among Likud members, a Palestinian state is preferable to the “Jordanian option.” They contend that only by satisfying the national aspirations of the Palestinians can peace be achieved, and that these aspirations can only be satisfied by allowing the Palestinians a state of their own in the territories.
But the assumption that a Palestinian state would lead to peace ignores the nature, dynamics, and goals of the various Palestinian groups that would be vying for power there. After all, vicious internal struggles generally follow revolutions, “wars of liberation,” and national upheavals even when national identity and cohesion are mature and deep-rooted. But while Arab nationalism goes back to the 19th century, the particularization of Palestinian nationalism began only about two decades ago. (Thus, between 1948 and 1967, when Jordan ruled Judea and Samaria and Egypt ruled Gaza, no talk was heard of a separate Palestinian state there.)
It is, of course, possible to develop passionate nationalistic feelings even in the short span of twenty years. Yet it is unrealistic to expect that the loyalties to the various sponsoring regimes of Palestinian nationalism, or the intensely antagonistic ideologies and grandiose ambitions within the movement itself, can be superseded by unity, national patriotism, and peaceableness. The murderous struggle for power between the Abu Musa and the Arafat factions of the PLO following the organization’s departure from Beirut is but a foretaste of what could be expected once the spoils of sovereignty were at stake.
The most powerful groups among the Palestinians today are the PLO faction loyal to Arafat, the Marxists (most of whom are under the overall PLO umbrella), the Islamic fundamentalists, and the pro-Hashemites, each of which is subdivided into mutually hostile factions. Intelligence reports, reinforced by student elections in the universities, indicate that the first three have the largest following among the youth, while the pro-Hashemites, mostly “establishment” businessmen and professionals courted by the Israelis, have lost credibility.
If numbers, international support, organization, and popularity were to determine the outcome, the PLO would win the bloody civil war that would erupt once the Israelis were gone. But one should never underestimate the power of fundamentalist fanaticism. The Iranian practice of giving plastic keys-to-heaven to teen-agers who are then ordered to run over minefields has served as an inspiration for the leaders of the Islamic Jihad and the other fundamentalist sects which thrive in the Gaza district. Sending teen-agers armed with axes, stones, gasoline bombs, and knives against Israeli soldiers was their idea, and the rioters received daily stipends from Iranian agents. Although the Gazan fundamentalists are Sunni, not Shia, Muslims, they say the Ayatollah has “shown the way,” and claim to have created a “combination of the two beliefs.”
What militates against fundamentalist victory, however, is that it would so threaten Egypt, Syria, and the Soviet Union that they would throw all their very considerable weight behind the PLO. Even so, a victory for the PLO would not mean the end of the struggle. The rival PLO factions led by Arafat, Habash, Jibril, Abu Musa, and Abu Nidal would now turn on one another in a struggle for dominance.
Whichever of these leaders prevailed, it would certainly not be one who declared that the goal of the revolution had been achieved with the establishment of a Palestinian state in the 2,400 square miles of Judea, Samaria, and Gaza. On the contrary, Israeli withdrawal would more likely be accompanied by shellings and incursions across the border, through which each faction would try to prove its zeal and courage, and its right to leadership, by fighting the common enemy.
The whole Lebanon condition would thus be shifted to the new Palestinian state, with Israel a much readier target. Lebanon borders on the sparsely populated rural north of Israel and has a Christian and Shi’ite population on its southern frontier which accommodates an Israeli security belt. But a Palestinian state in Judea-Samaria and Gaza would cut through Jerusalem and flank the city on three sides, touch on Tel Aviv’s suburbs, and have a long border, nine to fifteen miles from the sea, with Israel’s most thickly populated areas. Palestinian militias, now armed not with gasoline bombs and stones but helicopters, missiles, artillery, and automatic weapons, all quickly imported through ports in Gaza and airfields elsewhere, would have Israeli pedestrians within rifle range, 80 percent of Israel’s population and two-thirds of its industry within Katyusha range, and Zion square in Jerusalem and Ben-Gurion airport within mortar range. Israel would be reduced to responding with retaliatory ground raids, the way it did against Jordanian-held territories in the 50′s and 60′s—or with air raids, as it does in Lebanon today.
Nor would security arrangements similar to those made with Egypt be effective under these conditions. Multinational forces, joint patrols, listening posts, satellite and aerial inspection can all work when 300 miles of desert separate the combatants. They would be as useless in keeping the peace in populated areas as UNIFIL, the UN force, is in southern Lebanon.
In the meantime, if the history of other “wars of national liberation” is any guide, the winners of the internal PLO struggle would be those with Soviet sponsorship or, in this case, the backing of the Soviet proxy, Syria. In other words, the most radical forces within the PLO would come to the fore. And once such a faction established its power base, Syria would be invited to bring stability to the area, which it considers as much a part of “Greater Syria” as it does Lebanon. (The PLO version of the resolutions at the recent Amman conference refers to “the struggle of the Palestinian people.” In the Syrian version, it is the struggle of “our people.”)
Without the Golan Heights, Israel would not be able to prevent a Syrian invasion through the Galilee and northern Jordan. To meet the Syrians, who would by then have achieved strategic parity with Israel, the Israelis would have to fight their way up the mountains of Samaria through the by-now well-armed Palestinian forces, replenished by airborne Syrian divisions landed in Palestinian airfields. Israeli Arabs, swept up in the excitement of Palestinian nationalism, armed with weapons easily smuggled from the independent Palestinian state next door, and convinced—not baselessly—of an Arab victory, could ambush Israelis going to the front line.
At that point, some might remember the warning of the United States chiefs of staff in a secret report of August 1967, and of virtually every Israeli combat general, that Israel without the Golan Heights and the Judea-Samaria mountain ridge is undefendable. Churchill’s warning about the strategic consequences to Czechoslovakia of awarding self-determination to the Sudetenland might also come to mind.
But Israel is not Czechoslovakia. Fighting for its very survival, it would probably be able to stop the Syrians. Yet those who blithely talk of Israel’s ability to defeat all the Arab armies, let alone one or two, and who believe that the miracle of the 1967 war could be easily repeated, are ignorant of the changes that have taken place in the balance of power in the region, particularly in the case of Syria. They also ignore the fact that Egypt regards its defense pact with the Arab countries “against Israeli aggression” as taking precedence over its peace treaty with Israel. And what would be a more clear-cut case of “aggression” than Israel’s attacking the budding Palestinian state just because it invited Syrian troops to help bring stability to the area?
If Israel were to lose, the Arabs would finally have achieved their hope of “wiping the Jewish state off the map.” But even if Israel won, the human cost would be staggering. No one seems to remember now that Israel prepared for 40,000 dead in the 1967 war. It was a reasonable expectation, obviated by a combination of extraordinary circumstances which no longer exist. Even if no chemical weapons were used, Syria’s state-of-the-art short- and medium-range missiles; its huge air force, larger than Israel’s, with Mig 29s; its 4,500 tanks—a larger force than the U.S. has in Europe; its anti-aircraft command-and-control system connected directly to Moscow; and the “cover” of the Soviet navy based in its port of Tartus—all this would make tens if not hundreds of thousands of Israeli casualties inevitable.
Whatever the outcome of the war with Syria, Israel would not be able to deter, as it did in 1970 and in 1980, a Syrian occupation of Jordan. Even if stopped by the Israelis, the Syrians could overwhelm the Jordanians, particularly as they would be aided by radical, anti-Hashemite Palestinians. When the riots began in Judea and Samaria last December, a few score of these Palestinians were arrested in Jordan for agitating against the King—and this, at a time of cooperation and friendship between Syria and Jordan. The victory of a pro-Syrian, radical faction across the river in the new Palestinian state would create a “go-with-the-winner” psychology that might well sweep the Palestinians in Jordan. Whether Hussein would be permitted to stay on as a puppet would make little difference: a Syrian takeover would bring Soviet advisers to Aqaba on the Red Sea on the border of Saudi Arabia.
The advocates of a Palestinian state in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza maintain that once given respectability and recognition, and saddled with problems of education and sewage, the PLO would eschew terrorism and act like a civilized government. They cite the example of Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta as an analogy. There are four factors that invalidate the comparison.
First: Kenyatta got what he fought for—not one-third of Kenya but all of it. What the Palestinians want is, at least, all of Western Palestine—that is Judea, Samaria, and Gaza as well as Israel.
Second: the Palestinians have succeeded in appearing like a David fighting the Israeli Goliath, but in fact they do not constitute a helpless force that would be no match for Israel. The PLO was formed—before the territories fell under Israeli rule—as a terrorist arm of Arab governments for the purpose of spearheading a war against Israel. It represents not merely the national aspirations of a tiny people, but Arab power and its ambition to eliminate Israel.
Third: the Kenyans and others fought against truly colonial entities. The British in Africa, like the French in Algeria, could give up and go home. The Jews of Israel are in the only home they have, and have nowhere else to go.
Fourth: while some national-liberation movements have used local terrorism as a temporary measure to achieve independence, terrorism and violence in the Islamic world can be considered neither temporary nor localized. From the western edge of the Arab world, where Morocco has been fighting an endless war against the Algerian-backed Polisario, through bloodsoaked Libya, the Sudan, the Yemens, and Lebanon, to the eastern border of the Arab world on the Persian Gulf, where Iraq has been fighting an endless war with Iran, violence, terrorism, and unending feuds are endemic and ubiquitous. As an Egyptian journalist recently put it, Lebanon is the microcosm of the Arab world.
Thus, to state that “peace, not territory, is Israel’s security”; to suggest that peace requires only that the Israelis act with courage, wisdom, and generosity, and respond to Arab violence as if it were a misunderstanding in Scandinavia East; to expect that a reformed Arafat or a born-again Abu Nidal will preside over the one and only sanctuary of coexistence and cooperation in the Arab world—is to insult history and to mock common sense.
Is there, then, no hope for peace? A wiser administration of the territories, on the pattern established under Menahem Milson in the early 80′s, might still restore a peaceful, if fragile, modus vivendi. Much could also be done about the 350,000 refugees still living in camps in the territories, who provide the main cannon-fodder for unrest. A cynical world has for forty years shed crocodile tears over them, but has forbidden Israel to “change their status” by moving them into decent housing. A rehabilitation project might succeed even now in countering the agitation and incitement.
Many Israelis believe that since these refugees originate in pre-’67 Israel and must anyway resettle away from their original homes, they should be relocated in the vast Arab oil-producing countries. Both their economic conditions and the stability of the territories would thereby benefit. But the Arab states, more interested in Israel’s discomfiture than in the refugees’ welfare, will not cooperate.
Other Israelis, a small minority, believe that only the transfer of a substantial part of the Arab population across the borders would bring permanent peace. They rationalize their idea by citing the relocation of millions of Poles and Germans after World War II, and by the fact that close to a million Jews were forced to leave the Arab countries, three-quarters of whom were resettled in Israel. But a mass transfer is a childish fantasy. Israel is politically and morally incapable of such extreme measures.
Real peace can come only in the event, now not very likely, that a very large number of Jews from the Soviet Union, South and North America, and Europe immigrate to Israel. A massive settling of Judea and Samaria would then make Israel’s presence there irreversible, eliminate the current feeling of uncertainty (as abhorrent to political stability as a vacuum is to nature), reconcile the local population to autonomous life under Israeli rule, and finally convince the Arab states to resign themselves to the existence and indestructibility of Israel and give up the war they have been waging against it since the day of its birth.
Another, even less likely, development which might bring peace would be the rise of democratic governments in Jordan and Syria. As in the case of Germany and France, governments truly reflecing the will of the people can bury age-old enmities and render borders a secondary consideration.
Failing such eventualities, the world will have to get used to the idea that the Israel-Arab conflict, like the conflicts in Northern Ireland, the Basque region, Cyprus, Sri Lanka, the Punjab, and others, is insoluble for the foreseeable future. Bad as this is, the only real alternative is worse.