The Other Approach
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Sharett expounded 'the other approach'

The Jerusalem Post

18/10/1966

 

The lecture reproduced-here, setting out an "alternative approach" to the Arab problem, was delivered by the late Moshe Sharett at Beit Berl, the Labor movement's' study centre, about a year after the Sinai Campaign, in November 1957.

 

The contents of the lecture have only now been made public, in the first issue of "Ot", the new quarterly published by the Alignment. Mr. Sharett here declares that we should have understood better the profound shock and confusion in the Arab world following the establishment of Israel, and that we should have pursued peace by creating a climate of "mutual advantage", rather than seek to demonstrate our strength in reprisal actions.

 

Mr. Sharett had resigned from office several months before the Sinai Campaign in 1956. In 1955, while Mr. Sharett was Prime Minister, Mr. Ben-Gurion had been brought back from his first retirement to Sde Boker, to serve as Defense Minister in Mr. Sharett's government. When a new government was formed in due course, Mr. Ben-Gurion was again Prime Minister, and Mr. Sharett remained for a short time as Foreign Minister. The Sinai Campaign took place while he was in India on a visit.

 

The first section of the lecture has been condensed owing to its length, and the second is given in full.

 

Mr. Sharett opens his lecture by saying that he would speak about the problem of the relationship between Israel and the Arab world, which he calls "the problem" The problem was as old as the return to Zion itself, and it could not be claimed that the Zionist Movement itself had not given it due thought. The people themselves, the new settlers, had long failed to understand its gravity, and he was not sure they had understood it even now. He did not wish to blame anyone, but just as this situation had causes, so it had consequences.

 

The movement had attempted to grapple with the question, and often courageously, but it had failed, he thought, to enter sufficiently into the psychological aspects of the matter. "We were so filled with the sense of the historical justice of our claim that we did not consider how this justice looked from the other side."... Nor did we realize the depth of national consciousness in the Arab world."

 

We said the Arab world was great and wide; it had many tens of millions of inhabitants; many hundreds of thousands of square miles of territory - it would make no difference to the Arab world as a whole if this small section of ours, one corner, were to lose its Arab character and acquire a totally Jewish character." But he answers that the question was not altogether applicable. Would one have asked France or Britain to yield a small corner of territory in order to solve an international problem? Would anyone have considered .their refusal unreasonable?

 

Economics and nationalism

And further. While Zionism was based entirely on national consciousness, and the construction of a new social system and economic balance were only its by-products, we offered the Arabs economic advantages and social progress, but with total disregard of the national question. After aII, we had never expected that two-thirds of the Arab population of this country would suddenly uproot itself and leave. We had expected to live together, and promised them a higher standard of living, a better future for their children. "We offered them a mess of economic and social pottage... and expected them to sell their national birthright. When I say this I am looking at it with Arab eyes... the suggestion that the Arabs lived on a very low standard and would therefore be responsive to material advantages was repeated in many publications." This had been a misleading attitude, the Arabs had been insulted, and anyone who studied the problem from a broader point of view realized that it had been harmful, had roused hostility resulting from injured pride, and resentment of our view that they were lower orders without national feeling and interested only in bread and medical services.

 

Mr. Sharett goes on to analyze that while for the Jews economic progress ran parallel with national progress, an Arab knew that he would benefit by selling a part of his land to Jews, but that by doing so, he betrayed his nation. The advantages were always linked with injury to self-respect, and the result was a national and individual confusion that grew into a complex. The Arab was bound to ask himself what the future of this country would be, what its character would be, its government, and whether he would feel at home here. They saw that parts of this country were already no longer in their hands, and when they entered these parts they felt strangers.

 

Next he reviews the territorial divisions proposed before the State. The U.N.S.C.O.P. proposal would have given us 62 percent of Palestine, but that was later reduced by the U.N. to 55 per cent in three separate areas each linked to the next only at a single point, and with 45 per cent of their population Arab. (Jerusalem was excluded) "And this was the decision which the Jewish people acclaimed and over which it went out of its mind with joy" in 1947. But the Armistice Agreements formally signed with the Arab nations after the War of Independence had left us with 80 per cent of the land, and an Arab population of barely 15 per cent. "That was important... but far more significant still was that the Arab States signed this revolutionary agreement with the State of Israel, explicitly, in the name of their countries, and that this agreement was understood as an intermediate stage to peace. We thought the Arabs had accepted it... even if it might take a few years still. We all thought it, without any exception... we thought the Arab world was ready for peace, and this became our greatest disappointment."

 

Peace illusion.

Mr. Sharett goes on to say that there was still no understanding of the Arab point of view then, and that at the time of his lecture, in 1957, there was renewed illusion. He had not been here at the time of the Sinai Campaign itself, but judging by the press and radio people had again the illusion that peace was within reach. "... as though our decisive victory in Sinai had prepared the ground for peace." It had not been so much the government itself as the people who believed that the heavy blow Nasser had suffered would cause the Arab world to understand that it had no choice but to make peace. "I pondered how it was that we had not learnt enough from the first disappointment which followed upon the Armistice Agreements... The question of peace will not be solved either by material arguments or by logic… It is ultimately a matter of willingness… whether we create an atmosphere conducive to peace or at least remove mental obstacles to peace."

 

Before the establishment of the State, he continues, the Arabs underestimated the serious nature of our movement, despised it as the peculiar dream of a small group of fanatics, of people lacking all sense of realism. The measure of their earlier ill judgment became the measure of their shock when the State became a reality which imposed itself upon them. They could not forgive themselves for their earlier lack of perception, but this anger was turned not against themselves, but against us and had become the force behind their refusal to come to terms "even if defeat after defeat demonstrated that no military solution was possible."

 

Mr. Sharett comes to the conclusion that it may take, not years but decades to achieve peace, explaining that he said this not simply because he was unwilling to accept our present defeat in this respect as permanent and impossible to change but because there seemed to him no prospect of the intellectual and spiritual readjustment necessary for peace on the part of the Arab world as long as their leaders belonged to the generation which had experienced the establishment of the State as a personal shock This did not mean that we should sit back with folded hands and await a new generation, or that it made no difference what we did: it depended on us whether we brought peace nearer or whether we caused it to be still further delayed.

 

The following is a verbatim translation of the rest of the lecture:

 

A course of conduct

The course of conduct which Israel should best adopt in the face of Arab opposition and enmity, permits of approaches which are diametrically opposed. At the same time, there are a number of basic elements, upon which responsible public opinion within the parties and between them - has reached common consensus.

 

The first basic element is security. The territorial integrity of the .State of Israel, the lives of its citizens, their property, freedom of movement, work and development - these must be defended at all costs. In this sphere, there can be no compromise and no withdrawal, since the very soul of the State and the existence of its people are at stake.

 

The second basic element is the Arab refugee problem. Here, perhaps, one cannot speak in quite the same overall and absolute terms as with security. None the less, I feel one can safely say that the point of view in this country generally opposes the return of the refugees; and this view is justified, in the short as well as the long term. I do not want to treat the problem in detail, since that deserves an entire lecture in itself. But I want to say that in our analysis of the issue, we at no time declared that not a single Arab refugee must return, under any circumstances. We did state that the return of the Arab refugees to this country cannot constitute a solution to their problem. By that we implied, that if there existed a programme to reunite families; its scope could be broadened. Instead of bringing back children up to the age of 15, we could also admit them up to 18; or we could allow in sisters, aunts, etc. This would be a response to the sufferings of the individual and the family. Arab families resident in Israel would be responsible for the absorption of their children and relatives. This is a question of human consideration, but not political right. The State does not acknowledge the absolute right of any refugee to return, nor is it prepared to shoulder the burden of concern for their absorption and integration into the economic and social fabric of Israeli life.

 

There is a third basic element on which all are agreed, including "Herut": Israel's Vision, and her eventual political objective, are not eternal warfare, but peace with the neighboring Arab peoples.

 

The fact that the nation shares a common view on these three basic elements, does not suffice to solve the problems of day-to-day policy. There is still room for two approaches, and I believe that these two approaches indeed exist. The one approach says that the only language the Arabs understand is force. The State of Israel is so tiny and so isolated; it may perhaps be so weak (in terms of relative area, population and potential); that if it does not increase its actual strength by a very high coefficient of demonstrated action, it will run into trouble. From time to take, the State of Israel might give unmistakable proof of its strength, and show that it is able and ready to use force in a crushing and highly effective manner. If it does not give such proof, it will be engulfed and may even disappear from the face of the earth.

 

As far as peace is concerned - says this school of thought -- it is doubtful in any event; whatever happens, it is very remote. If peace comes, that will only be when the Arabs are convinced that this country cannot be brought to its knees. There are better prospects of peace coming because they are convinced of our strength, than through speeches about Israel's honest and genuine desire for peace. The problem of peace, therefore, need not hamper our considerations when it comes to deciding on some large-scale show of strength to solve a problem of everyday security. If such measures as reprisal raids or new campaigns fan the flame of hatred once again, that need cause no alarm; the flame is burning whatever we do. On the other hand, if we desist from vigorous reaction, for fear of stepping up enmity, we shall lose more than we gain.

 

If we add to these arguments the natural human inclination to react; If we add the special sensitivity characteristic of the Jew that people may perhaps suspect him of weakness; if we add the proximity in time to the Golden Age of our triumph in war; the laurels won by the Israel Defense Forces - we shall understand the factors behind the atmosphere fostering this approach, over and above the political and military considerations, which are very weighty in themselves.

 

The second school

According to the second school of thought, the question of peace must not be lost sight of for one single moment. This is not solely a political consideration; in the long view, it is decisive from a military point of view. Without diminishing the importance of considerations of day-to-day security, we must always bring the question of peace into our overall calculations. We have to curb our reactions. And the question always remains: has it really been proven that reprisals establish the security for which they were planned?

 

Let us assume that the first school of thought holds sway. Clearly, for every Arab assault, there must be a reaction. This reaction can only take a military form. Do people consider that when military reactions outstrip in their severity the events that caused them, grave processes are set in motion which widen the gulf and thrust our neighbors into the extremist camp? How can this deterioration be halted? Is the problem given due thought, or has military routine merely seized control of the situation?

 

Those who support the first approach say that the development of events was inevitable. Arab hatred of Israel is an immutable element of the situation The integration of the Arab-Israel dispute into the Cold War has become a part of world realities. The situation grew inexorably more and more complicated, and the danger to Israel inevitably increased. In the absence of a vigorous reaction, things would have been worse, the crises would have come sooner and matters would have been more grave. We only obtained arms, in France, for example, thanks to a certain course of action, and it was only thanks to the victories we won that our security was assured. We hoped that the impact of the blow we struck would bring peace closer too, since that is the only language our neighbors understand. If this prospect failed to come to fruition, that was because it never existed anyway. The situation is grave; we do not claim that everything is fine as it is; but in our grim circumstances, this approach has won us very considerable achievements.

 

It is difficult indeed, to query these achievements. None the less, it is possible to argue that if we had adopted a different approach, if we had sought to minimize incidents rather than play them up, if we had not taken the course of Kibya, Gaza and so forth, then the political deployment of the other side would have assumed a different pattern. Nasser might perhaps not have been forced into the Czech deal, and the Soviet Union might not have found such an easy opening for its penetration of the Middle East. We might have suffered a little more in the meantime, but our overall situation would have been less serious.

 

I present the two approaches, without the assurance that I am doing both of them justice in my summary. I am merely sketching, in very general terms, two schools of thought whose existence derives from the logic of our situation. I am not able to arrive at conclusions or decisions, nor do I know whether the historian of the future will be able to decide.

 

Who was right? It may be found that the two approaches should have been synthesized. It may be determined that such vacillation would have a harmful effect, and that we should have decided and acted consistently according to one approach. I do not know. As an academic lecturer who is expected to present well-formulated modes of conduct, I must disappoint you;

as a statesman, or a former statesman, I cannot overlook the organic complexity of the problem.

 

Was Sinai inevitable?

I have been asked whether the Sinai Campaign was worth while. It is obvious that with circumstances as they came to be, there is ample justification for the view that the Sinai Campaign saved us from disaster. Yet that is not an accurate summing-up of the historical and political issues at stake. First must come a more searching question: did the circumstances that rendered the Sinai Campaign inevitable have to come into being? There is need for a soul-searching analysis in this respect. I shall not pronounce negative judgment; but on no account will I accept a historical ruling that says these circumstances were inevitable. There is room for thorough study.

 

What led to the Sinai Campaign? The build-up of Egyptian strength in the Sinai Peninsula and the role it fulfilled as a base for fedayun activities. Such is the essential thesis. Nobody denies that this situation had come about; but the question is what led to the build-up of forces, what led to the Egyptians assuming this stance? This was a development, the privilege and the honor of participating in which - in all modesty - I would not deny Israel. We were an active factor in this development, from Gaza and Khan Yunis, to the trial In Egypt.

 

There is, of course, great value in Israel being a strong country, with an international reputation as a small but powerful State, a tough nut to crack. (I do not present this as my own opinion, but it is one which may exist). There is undoubtedly great value in Israel gaining glory as a land of heroes. But someone may well ask: is it to our advantage or disadvantage for Israel to earn a reputation as a country of its word? Is that an asset or not? It could be argued that it was of no importance; that it is preferable for Israel not to fence herself in behind the legacy of prophecy, the vision of justice, righteousness and truth. But if the State of Israel upholds these virtues, she owes something to their observance, even if this means a sacrifice. If not, she is maneuvering herself into an impasse from which there is no way out, morally or, in the long run, politically either.

 

I utterly reject the approach that it is permissible to ask Israel for any concessions whatsoever for the sake of peace. I refute the thesis that the peace can be purchased at the price of concessions. Peace can be bought at the price of mutual advantages. Mutual advantages are not the same as concessions. If we offer Jordan, for instance, which is land locked at present and has but one sea outlet at Akaba, a corridor through to the Mediterranean, that is no concession. If I give a right-of-way to people and goods and set up a free port area in Haifa (not the same as transforming Haifa into a free port) and goods are loaded and offloaded through an enclave controlled by the Israel Police, but no customs dues are levied, I do not curtail Israeli sovereignty thereby. I wield Israeli sovereignty in order to establish satisfactory mutual relations with a neighboring country to the advantage of both sides. If a passenger boards a train in Cairo, and travels through Israel to Beirut to spend a holiday in Lebanon - does this constitute a concession? A concession implies the renunciation of an area, or of sovereignty. It would be a concession if we curtailed immigration for the sake of peace. Suggestions like that are not open for discussion. They will not bring peace any closer. If we start adopting that course, the Arabs will say: we were stubborn for ten years - now they are beginning to falter; let us be stubborn just a little longer, and they will give way more and more.

 

Role for Israel

This is a question of the political climate surrounding the problem. In a certain political climate, peace is attainable even without concessions. In the climate of the Middle East, we constitute a factor. We are not the sole or the decisive factor – but we are one worthy of consideration. Let us not belittle the climate, and the role we fulfill in creating that climate.

 

The big powers, understandably, play a major role in this field. During Mandatory times, when we made attempts to get together with the Arabs for talks, they had grounds for assuming that by putting pressure on Britain, they would be able to achieve more than by coming to terms with the Jewish community. Why should they compromise with Israel – as long as they could put pressure on Britain?

 

In my last conversation with Nuri Said, in 1945 in Haifa, close to the end of the Second World War, I said, "look. The war will soon be over; the world leaders will get together to decide about the fate of these countries. Why should we let them deicide? Why should we ourselves not decide? If we are split – they will decide: if we are not divided – they have no room left to decide."

 

But Nuri Said answered: "No. We are powerless to stop them. We had better wait and see what they resolve; then we shall see if we can adapt ourselves to the framework they have set up." He expressed himself diplomatically. He thought they would get more from England and America at our expense. Now the Soviet Union is present in the area, and plays a similar role. If the Arabs have that sort of support, why should they proceed towards a compromise with Israel?

 

I certainly agree with the Prime Minister's statement that only the powers are in a position to alleviate the tension now. But I do not believe we can clear Israeli policy from all responsibility. We had better not rule ourselves out entirely. What we do is worth something. Even what we say is worth something.

 

The matter is complex, I understand. My intention is not to make accusations wholesale. Heaven forbid. But we shall not escape from a complicated situation by ignoring the fact that it is complicated.

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