Warning to the West: Don’t Arm the Arabs
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Warning to the West: Don’t Arm the Arabs

Interview with Israel's Prime Minister

U.S. News & World Report, Sept.17, 1954


EDITOR'S NOTE: Is a new war about to break out in the Holy Land between Israeli and Arab?

What should the U. S. do about it? Is there any way to keep both Israel and the Arab world friendly to the West?

For Israel's views, Joseph Fromm, Regional Editor for "U.S. News & World Report", interviewed Prime Minister Moshe Sharett in Jerusalem. An Arab view was given by Egypt's Prime Minister Gamal Abdel Nasser in the September 3 issue of this magazine.

Each statesman gave his views without knowledge of the other's answers.


Q Mr. Prime Minister, since arriving in Israel, I have heard constant denunciation of the American plan to supply arms aid to Iraq. What's the reason for the tempest?

A If the Arab states realize, as they are now in the process of doing, that, peace or no peace, they can get arms, why should they make peace? The giving of arms to Arab states which refuse to make peace becomes a premium upon their policy of permanent warfare against Israel. The arms themselves enhance their capacity for mischief. That is certainly not a step in the direction of peace. It is a step away from peace.

Q If we don't provide arms to the Arab states, how do we build up Middle East defense against Russia?

A There is, first of all, the question of whether the Arab states can at all be relied upon to play an effective part in any war on the side of the Western powers or, for that matter, on the side of anyone.

The Arab states have a time-honored tradition of sitting on the fence. They did very little to fight Turkey in the First World War; although they achieved their independence as a result of it. It was just a windfall to them. They did nothing to help the Allies in the Second World War They firmly sat on the fence and jumped off the fence only at the very last moment when Germany lay prostrate and fatally bleeding. They formally declared war just to be able to share in the spoils or to figure as founding members of the United Nations. But during the war, in so far as they were active, they were active by rebellion in the rear. In so far as they took initiative, it was to stab the Allies in the back. They did that in Iraq and in Egypt.

You see, their reasoning is fairly simple. They say, "There are two sides to the conflict - one must be strong, and the other weak. The strong party does not need our help; the weak party does not deserve our help. It is only at the very end of the conflict that we can ascertain which party is stronger and which weaker. Therefore, let us bide our time . . ." There is no democratic idealism whatsoever throughout these countries. Democracy is not something that they would feel so precious as to be worth fighting for.

So, from the point of view of defending democracy, I think the Western powers should be warned against squandering their resources on the arming of Arab states.


Q What's the alternative?

A On that, opinions may differ. But as far as Israel is concerned, there is a more crucial point, and that is that arms given to Arab states are arms directed against Israel - potentially today, actually tomorrow or the day after. So, we watch with profound dismay and mounting anxiety the policy of the American Government to arm the Arab states - Iraq today, Egypt maybe tomorrow, and Syria the day after tomorrow.

This creates an armed preponderance in the Middle East which is violently hostile to us. It forces us to increase our armaments by hook or by crook, to devote even a larger share of our meager resources to self-defense, feeling all the time that American potentiality to provide arms will exceed our capacity for buying them in such markets as are open to us. We, therefore, foresee a state of very grave peril for our security if this goes on.

We are at a loss to understand how the U. S. can reconcile that policy with her declared policy and concern to see Israel prosperous and secure.

Q Mr. Prime Minister, I've also heard considerable opposition here to the Anglo-Egyptian agreement for withdrawal of British troops from the Suez. How does that concern Israel?

A I think we are justified to feel apprehensive because, first of all, the accord as such is bound to strengthen Egypt enormously, both politically and strategically. We have always said that we do not want to stand in the way of the attainment by Egypt of the fulfillment of her legitimate national aspirations, provided that consummation does not encourage aggression against us. To see a peaceful Egypt come into its own is one thing. To contemplate an Egypt pledged to a state of war against Israel achieve greater strength with which to pursue it is quite another.

The whole issue depends upon whether the occupation of the Suez base by Egypt will generate more peaceful counsels within its ruling group, or whether it will entice them to embark upon a new aggressive adventure. That is the whole point. And the danger to Israel and to Middle Eastern peace of Egypt's aggressive orientation will become even greater if the accord with Britain is followed by an American policy of supplying arms to Egypt.

Q Couldn't the danger to Israel of American arms aid to the Arab states be offset by a corollary program of arms aid for Israel?

A The question is whether it would be corollary.

Q Not necessarily gun for gun, but enough to preserve a safe balance of power between the Arabs and Israel -

A I think it would be safer if no arms were given to Egypt.

Q And Iraq?

A No arms to Egypt or Iraq, even if it means no arms to Israel. It would be much safer.

Q But, Mr. Prime Minister, can the United States postpone any program of military aid or build-up of defenses in the Middle East until there is a settlement between the Arabs and Israel - a settlement which, you concede, may be indefinitely delayed?

A I did not suggest that. I simply do not see what America is gaining by arming the Arab states for the sake of her defenses in the Middle East, because I do not think the Arab states can be relied upon to use those arms in the defense of America - or democracy. They have no democracy and, therefore, no interest to defend it.

Q Perhaps it's necessary for America to take a calculated risk in this matter -

A A calculated risk is justified, perhaps, when there is no past experience to prove that it is not justified. But we have a concrete experience to go upon. We know exactly how the Arab states behaved on such occasions in the past.

Q What is the practicality of the Turkish-Pakistan pact if we do not bring countries like Iraq and Syria into it?

A I don't see the practicality of bringing them in - that's all. I don't see the advantage or usefulness of it. I don't think it is going to yield the expected fruit. I think it will end in a fiasco. Arms given to states inherently unstable will not make for consolidation but serve to intensify internal strife and conflict. The arms will not help to defend the Middle East against outside aggression. They wilI undermine peace inside the region. For Israel they spell a grave peril.

Q You contend, Mr. Prime Minister, that we could not count on the Arabs to be on the side of the West in the event of war. Could we count on Israel?

A It is not so much the question of your counting on Israel. The main point is that Israel counts on herself - if possible, with your help. Democracy means to Israel as much as it means to you. It is our precious asset and a deeply rooted tradition. It represents a set of social and spiritual values which are an organic part of Israeli civilization. And what is most important to point out is that with us democracy is the very breath of the social and political life of the common man.

I think it is true to say that from Gibraltar to Japan there isn't a country where democracy means so much to so high a proportion of the people as it does in Israel. One of the reasons is that in Israel we have undergone an historic evolution which has created a powerful working-class movement, militantly democratic, which grew up and consolidated its positions long before Communism became a menacing alternative.

Q In that case, why isn't there more active collaboration between Israel and the United States on the problems of security?

A I believe that question should be put to the United States.

Q Israel, then, is ready to enter into alliance with the United States to strengthen the defense of the Middle East?

A Israel has repeatedly declared her readiness to do her share in the defense of democracy - of her own democracy and of democracy generally. Israel stands by that declaration. It is for the United States to say whether she wants an alliance with Israel. We want to be friends with the United States and we do not want to cause them embarrassment.

Q In your opinion, what is the Russian game in the Middle East right now?

A I am not in the confidence of the Soviet Government. I can only judge by the outward symptoms of Soviet policy. You know that of late they have very nearly paralyzed the United Nations Security Council in Middle Eastern affairs by the use of the veto. The use of the veto had a very clear purpose and that was to court the friendship of the Arab states, at the expense of Israel, if need be.

But I am afraid the United States Government is, to some extent - again judging by outward symptoms - pursuing the same policy. It is ready to woo the friendship of the Arab states, maybe not intentionally against Israel, but, in the actual result of it, to Israel's detriment.

Q What was the reaction here in Israel to the anti-Semitic purges in the satellite countries and evidence of anti-Semitism in Russia?

A There was a very violent revulsion of feeling. We condemned that trend in the strongest terms. It was our condemnation which caused a rupture of our relations with the Soviet Union. But our reaction was completely vindicated when the Soviet rulers themselves denounced the charges leveled against the Jewish physicians.



Q Are the Communists making much headway in this part of the world?

A Naturally, there is a certain amount of propoganda. There are small Communist parties - legal in Israel and illegal in Arab countries. I do not envisage any self-propelled eruption or upsurge of militant Communism in any of the neighboring Arab countries. I do not think there is that dynamism in the Arab masses now. As for Israel, which is a dynamic country, there is the tremendous bulwark of the passionately democratic labor movement against it.

Q The Communists here in Israel concentrate mainly on the Arab minority, don't they?

A They are proportionately stronger among the Arabs than among the Jews. You have 2 Communist members of the Knesset [Israel’s parliament] out of 8 Arab members, and you have 3 out of 112 Jews.

Q What's the reason for that disparity?

A The chief explanation is that Communism in Israel has always been anti-Zionist. Arabs are largely anti-Zionist, but I think the Commmunist influence among the Arabs is on the decline.

Q In IsraeI?

A Yes, in Israel. It will be very interesting to watch the next election from that viewpoint.

Q When will that be?

A About a year from now.

Q Mr. Prime Minister, what is the cause of the increasing tension on Israel's frontiers with its Arab neighbors?

A You see, precarious situations very seldom stay put. They either show signs of improvement and of progress toward a normal state of affairs or they deteriorate still further. Unfortunately, in our case, the latter has been happening. If you ask me for the root reason of it, it all goes back to the persistent refusal of the Arab states to make peace with Israel and to establish or restore normal relations of peace and stability within the Middle East.

Q Do you see any danger of this deterioration leading to a renewal of hostilities?

A Not immediately, because Israel does not want war and the Arab states are not ready for it. This unstable state of things, with occasional eruptions of minor or major violence, can continue for a long time, enervating the people concerned and causing much headache to the governments. It is, of course, a terrible pity, because it is a handicap to peaceful development and progress.

But if this state of "no peace" continues while the Arab states are armed or arming themselves and enhancing their military might, a time may come when they will feel possessed of sufficient superiority of armed strength to try again their luck with a war of invasion and aggression against Israel. I said for the time being they are not ready for it, and the memories of their defeat are still too much alive.

Q But what about demands you hear in Israel for stronger action to force an immediate showdown with the Arabs - a military showdown?

A Naturally, people get impatient, but it is not the policy of Israel, certainly not of its Government, to force the issue in the military sense. Of course, we stand ready to react to any provocation, but we are not bent upon war, nor upon any expansion. Our desire is for stability and development. We hear all sorts of fantastic rumors about preparations on our part to launch a major attack. Dates are mentioned and deadlines fixed. These evil and foolish forecasts never materialize, yet they recur from time to time. They are the results of malice or sheer ignorance, or a product of morbid imagination.

Q Is this no-peace-no-war policy of the Arabs interfering with your development here in Israel?

A Of course, it is a handicap. We have to devote a considerable portion of our resources to the upkeep and constant improvement of our defense forces. In the border zone, you find settlers taxed very heavily by their watch duties. The Arab economic warfare that takes the form of boycott and blockade is causing us certain losses. We don't enjoy the markets of the neighboring countries, nor do we benefit from the nearby sources of supply. We have to bring our oil over long distances from oversea sources, instead of having it flow through the pipeline from Iraq direct to Haifa or of shipping it from the Persian Gulf via the Suez Canal. We must pay more for the oil and pay more for its transportation. But this is only one side of the picture. There are two other sides of this picture.

Q What are they?

A Well, the second side of the picture is the way all this affects the Arab countries. Financially, they lose more than we because we have always, in years gone by, been buying more from them than we used to sell them.



Q What sorts of things?

A Particularly agricultural produce to feed our growing population; also certain raw materials. Our own food production has not in all fields kept pace with the rapid and steep increase of our population in recent years. Had the Arab countries been open to trade with Israel they would have benefited a great deal from the expansion of our market for their agricultural produce.

You see, instead of buying meat in Iraq, we buy meat in Argentina. Instead of buying grain from Syria, we buy grain from America. The same is true of the Egyptian cotton. So, they lose customers all the time.

Take another thing: the tourist traffic. That is very much handicapped, not only for us, but also for Egypt and Syria, because of people's inability to make through bookings and co-ordinate traveling plans. If conditions were normal, there would have been a great deal of commercial intercourse between us and the Arab countries to their benefit as much as to ours.

Take Jordan as a case in point. It is a landlocked state. They have got just one narrow outlet to the sea, but they have no port there We would have been ready to grant them free port facilities in Haifa, and that would have been much more convenient for them.

Q Would you still be willing to grant Jordan free port facilities at Haifa as part of a general peace settlement?

A Definitely. As soon as they would stop the boycott and open their country to trade with Israel.

Q Even short of a formal peace settlement?

A That's right. As soon as they stop their economic warfare and establish relations of economic reciprocity - not by way of an unrequited present from us, of course. Now they use the port of Beirut, which is far off and forces them to resort to a roundabout route.



Q You said there were two other sides to that picture of the effects of the Arabs' no-war-no-peace policy. What's the third side, Mr. Prime Minister?

A Now, what you have called the "third side" of the picture is the way we react to this challenge. It is the test of the health of a system - whether it succumbs when hit, or whether it resists and overcomes the threat. If it is healthy enough to overcome the danger, it gets stronger in the process. It emerges stronger from that trial than it was before, and that is, I think, exactly what is happening in our case.

Q You mean, in the long run, the Arabs' policy may make Israel stronger rather than weaker?

A Precisely. Don't you see, faced with this attempt to strangle us economically, we have had to exert ourselves to the utmost to attain the maximum degree of economic independence, to intensify our drive for self-sufficiency in food, ;Also to foster economic and trade relations with countries farther afield. When we found the nearby markets closed to our industrial products, we had to look for markets elsewhere. We now export goods to Scandinavian countries, Finland, a great deal to Turkey, also to France. It is exactly this state of economic blockade to which we have been subjected that has provided an impetus for the expansion of our export trade and for the successful quest of more distant markets.

Q Haven't you also been compelled to build your own merchant fleet as a result of the blockade?

A Exactly. We had very rapidly to develop our merchant fleet so as not to depend on the ships of countries which might be bullied by Arab threats into avoiding our ports. So, we have built up a merchant marine which is quite sizable for a country of our dimensions.

     In 1948, we had a total tonnage of 6,000 tons; today, we have over 120,000 tons. It is an increase of twentyfold, and I think we have a Iarger merchant fleet than the combined fleets of Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, to say nothing of Jordan.

Q Mr. Prime Minister, do you see a possibility that these economic consequences of the blockade - the adverse consequences to the Arab states, that is - may in time induce them to make peace?

A We think that in the end, sooner or later, the long-term economic interests of aII these countries are bound to prevail There will be a pulling down of barriers, kept up only by political prejudice, and a triumph of social and economic interests - the day-to-day interests of the masses of people, who are anxious to raise their standards of living and to earn their bread in greater comfort. I say sooner or later that logic, which is inexorable, is bound to prevail. We shall then have the benefit of direct intercourse with the neighboring countries, but we shalI by this time have built up positions and relations of trade with more distant climes, which, we hope, will always remain ours. At the end of the process, we shall have won and not lost by the blockade. Of course, this is no reason for wishing it to continue.

Q What, in your opinion, are the prospects of an early peace settlement - an over-all settlement?

A I do not see the possibility of a compIete settlement at an early stage. I do see some possible progress toward it, but that depends a great deal - maybe to a decisive extent - on the major world powers, and particularly on the United States.

Q How does the United States come into it?

A First, the most profitable direction in which progress could be made is the resettlement of the Arab refugees. In that, the United States could use its capacity for economic aid to encourage and foster projects for their permanent absorption and integration.

Q But America has tried to do this for several years. We've offered to contribute a considerable amount of money to a United Nations fund to settle refugees, but the Arab states have so far refused to permit resettlement -

A I think there has been some unfreezing of that attitude.



Q Do you consider the Eric Johnston plan for developing the waters of the Jordan Valley as a step in that direction?

A Definitely. I would not associate myself with the Johnston Plan in all its features, but I would say that the Johnston mission was certainly a step in the right direction. I also think Mr. Eric Johnston as an individual is the right man for the mission, if I may say so, judging from my experience with him.

     The idea of negotiating by American mediation an aIl-round water settlement is eminently sound, both for its own sake – that is, for the sake of the water settlement – and as a means of getting the parties concerned to realize that they can only achieve something worth while if they pull together and not apart. So, from both those standpoints it is the right approach.

Q Is Israel ready to accept the basic proposals Mr. Johnston has submitted for utilizing the Jordan River?

A As far as we are concerned, everything depends on the details of the actual plan. That means primarily on the allocation of the waters. If water is going to be used as a political bribe, no agreement will be possible. But if the water will be allocated on the principle of how much water each state actually needs and how much water it can put to beneficial use, that is another thing.

Q That's a tricky question to decide. Who's to make the decision?

A It is a matter of give and take. As things stand at present, Mr. Johnston goes around and consults each party. Let us hope that in the end he will sort of hammer out something which may prove acceptable to all parties. .To Israel, water for irrigation is of paramount importance. There isn't a country in the area to which water is so vital as it is to Israel. We must, therefore, insist on our due share. Our whole future depends on it.

     I would like to make one more point on this matter of resettlement of the refugees. For the time being, what is being discussed is resettlement in the Jordan Valley. It is not an ideal place. The soil in the southern part of the Valley is poor and saline. We are not against as many people being resettled there as is possible, but unless the much wider, more fertile, and climatically much easier areas of Northern Syria and Iraq are made available, we do not think that any large-scale resettlement of Arab refugees could be envisaged.

Q But isn't this merely a first step?

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