Israel and the Arabs - War and Peace
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                                   Israel and the Arabs - War and Peace

Some Reflections on the Years 1947-1957

by Moshe Sharett

Extracts from an address at Beit Berl delivered in October 1957.

I intend devoting this talk to the most outstanding problem in Israel's foreign policy: that of our relations with the surrounding Arab world.


This problem is older than the State itself. Its age corresponds to the length of time which has ensued since we returned to this land and attempted to take root once again. One cannot say that the Zionist movement has not given this problem its attention. But I think one can say with a certain degree of assurance that for a long time the Zionists, the Zionist Movement in general and the masses of immigrants and settlers in the country have not managed (and I am not sure whether they have yet managed) to understand this complex and difficult problem. This is not an accusation nor an indictment against anyone. I am indicating an agonising and inevitable situation that can be explained. But just as there are certain reasons for this situation so, too, it produces certain consequences.


I have already mentioned that the Zionist Movement has given this problem its attention. From time to time, certain concepts have come to fruition within Zionist policy on methods of solving the problem and achieving a modus vivendi between ourselves and the Arab world. Although these concepts bore within them the seeds of some bold and far-sighted ideas, I am afraid that the psychological aspect of the problem was not given sufficient attention. We were so absolutely certain of our own historic right from our point of view, that we did not consider how this would appear from the Arab point of view. We were also deficient in our psychological understanding of the problem, for we did not pay sufficient attention to the profound national susceptibilities of the Arab.


There is no need for one to point out the factors justifying our cause: our history, our oppression in Exile, our right to be gathered together and independent. Since we knew from experience that these matters could be explained to non-Jews, we supposed that they could also be explained to the Arabs. We said, inter alia, that the Arab world is immense and vast: it has a populace of millions and it covers an area of hundreds of thousands of square miles. What harm would be caused to the Arab world as a corporate unit, if a tiny strip or one corner or it was deprived of its absolute Arab character and were to take on an absolute Jewish character? How could this tiny bit removed from the scales of history affect the future of the Arab world? But this argument made no impression.


It is hard to imagine somebody approaching a country such as France, or Britain, or the Scandinavian countries, and informing them that in order to solve an international problem, they must sacrifice a tiny slice of their territory; that a small province in South France should cease to be French and become Spanish in order to solve an international problem; and this request was justified. How would the French react? It is difficult to imagine anybody regarding France's refusal as reactionary, unenlightened and unreasonable.


Secondly, we did not pay regard to Arab national consciousness. Here one gets a strange impression. Zionism is founded absolutely on national consciousness. It is not based on the economic benefits it may provide for the Jewish people, not on their aspirations for radical social change. These are secondary issues. If the Zionist aim is realised, if a solution to the national problem of the Jewish people is found, then mutatis mutandis this would of its own account bring about a healthy economy and provide the setting for a thorough going social change. However, neither of these two are the roots of the Zionist Movement. They are not the ultimate goal. They do not provide the motive. Yet when the Zionist Movement approached the Arabs in this country, why did it expect the Arabs here to express their gratitude for economic benefits derived and for the prospect of social progress, whilst the national problem was completely ignored.


What was our outlook during all those years before the existence of the State? We did not envisage a situation whereby two-thirds of the Arab community in the country would suddenly pack up and uproot themselves. For us fate had decreed that we should live together. We pointed out that our coming had benefited them. Jewish settlement meant a rise in their standard of living; all the assets flowing into the country enabled better and more public services; they were becoming a more advanced community, provided with the most modern of medical care; their children had better prospects; the status of women had improved. That is to say, we pointedly demonstrated to the Arabs all the existing benefits we had contributed economically and socially. We expected that they would sell their national "birthright for a mess of pottage" economically and socially speaking. When I say these things to you, I say them from an Arab point of view in regard to these problems. Arab dignity was really hurt. In much of our publicity work, explicitly or implicitly, there prevails the idea that since the Arabs are on a lower economic, social and cultural level - subsistence Ievel so to speak - they have no understanding of national values. Just as if the Arab's existence as a son of an Arab nation did not play an important part in his life. No! It has been clear for a long time to people who have examined the matter profoundly and who are in a position to observe the situation from a viewpoint which includes the Arab sector, how defective is this outlook. The accepted arguments with which we strike miss rather than hit the mark; they are more harmful than useful, they arouse undesirable passions, because of the implied insult that we regard them as an inferior species without nationalistic sentiments who are completely absorbed in earning their bread and receiving medical care.


Over the years it has become clear that there have been much activity and internal disputes amongst the Arabs. Among ourselves, harmony between national aspirations and sentiments on the one hand, material and cultural benefits on the other, prevailed. Both were dependent on the success of the Zionist enterprise; but among the Arabs some kind of contradiction was apparent. 1he Arab recognised that he derived benefit from the sale of land to Jews; however, he knew that the sale of land to Jews was an act of national treachery and he could neither derive benefit nor respect from the prosperity the Jews brought him. This benefit was always bound up with loss of his self-respect. 1n this setting a complex developed among the whole community and within the psychology of each individual Arab. Every Arab, whether old or young, wrestled with the national question on the simplest possible terms; what will the character of the country be? What will be its fate and future? Will it remain or cease to be an Arab country? Will the atmosphere of this country, its way of life, character, regime and culture be such that the Arabs will feel at home? Will they shape its development and destiny or will another people do this and they just conform? They witnessed the growth and consolidation of Jewish settlement in the country. There was a time when the Arabs were 100% of the population. Afterwards, they became 90%, 80%, 70% … If this process went on, the country would slip through their fingers. They had already seen parts of the country slip away from their control in this way and when they happened to be entrenched in these particular areas, they felt like foreigners in their own land This perturbed them greatly.


And that was how things happened. The State was created. Then came the War of Independence and its consequences. There were armistice agreements. We regarded the signing of these agreements as a great event. Our position was not at all bad. At one time UNSCOP suggested that we receive 62% of the area of the country and the Arabs 38%. In the UN debate on the basis of this suggestion, the proportion was changed in the Arabs' favour after a very hard fight. We succeeded in guarding a number of key positions in this struggle during a very sharp clash with the United States and other elements; but we were forced under global pressure to make territorial concessions, mainly in the Negev. According to the UN decision, we were accorded 55% of the area of the country and the Arabs 45% - an area divided into three triangular parts connected at one point. In our 55% of the land the Arab inhabitants would have amounted to 45% of the populace. That was the UN decision, which the whole Jewish people so loudly acclaimed and about which they almost went crazy with joy on November 29, 1947. By the end of the War of Independence the position was as follows: 20% belonged to the Arabs, 80% (of the country) to us - a contiguous area not parcelled up, so that the Arab population within it barely formed 15%. This was the outcome of the War of Independence. Consequently, the armistice agreement, which confirmed this situation, was an enormous international achievement for the State of Israel. It was an absolute revolution. But not this alone; it was also a meaningful political fact: the Arab states in the full power of their sovereignty signed an agreement with the State of Israel, an agreement explicitly formulated and revolutionary; and this agreement was seen as an intermediary stage towards a full peace settlement - eventually.


All of us believed that peace was just around the corner; that the Arab world had accepted the fait accompli, and that indeed, it was only a question of time, but not a long period; a few years perhaps. I will not pick out any of those who doubted. We all thought that the spiritual climate for peace had been created in the Arab world; that the whole idea of peace was more and more likely to become a reality. On this point, our policy suffered its gravest set-back. Our hopes were not fulfilled. It became evident that we had not envisaged the future correctly. Today, we are still facing this same question, as if no progress at all had been made; indeed as though the whole matter had deteriorated.


And we still exhibit a lack of understanding, psychologically, of the Arab point of view, as the following testimony may show. When the fighting in the Sinai peninsula ended (I was not in the country and I judge according to the newspapers which reached me and what I heard over Kol Israel) I gained the impression that the country once more harboured the illusion that peace was close at hand; as though our decisive victory in Sinai had created the setting for peace. I do not censure the government for this, but this was the tone of leading articles and of the speeches of Knesset members, if not of cabinet ministers; it was also evident in the broadcasts of Kol Israel. People believed that precisely because of the crushing and devastating blow dealt by us to Nasser's forces, the amazed and shocked Arab world would conclude that there was no other choice but immediate peace. Thus my own feelings were not happy ones. I reflected: why did we not learn from the experience of our first disappointment, after the Armistice agreements. We did nothing to our people so that they would understand the problem and the situation in their true perspective. I saw that we had actually failed to grasp the essential problem in its psychological sense. Neither interests nor logic will solve the problem of peace. It is first and last a question of good will. It is a question of creating an atmosphere conducive to peace, or at least, the removal of obstacles to peace. It does not necessarily have to be such an absolutely positive process; but at least all those negative psychological factors which hinder peace should be silenced or eradicated.


Arab susceptibilities were much more severely shaken by the establishment of the State of Israel than we ever supposed. To a certain extent, Arab political education is also at fault. Another community's reaction might have been much milder. We are faced with a particular community temperament and standard of development and we have to accept these facts for what they are. This community did not grasp the full import of our Movement, at the right time. They tended to minimise and even scorn it. They regarded it as the sort of vision which a small sect of fanatics might conjure up or as a passing phase of imperialistic bombast. They looked on it as the eccentricity of foolish youngsters devoid of any sense of reality. The impact of the tremendous shock they received when our Movement became a forceful political reality to them can be estimated as being in inverse proportion to their former reaction of scorn and negligence. Now they cannot forgive themselves for not having anticipated events. But coming face to face with this new reality does not urge them toward compromise. For all that the Arabs may castigate themselves, they continue more and more to fan the flames of hatred and become increasingly obdurate against compromise. It matters not at all if defeat should follow defeat and it be manifestly proved that military victory is impossible. Nor if experience should prove that this state despite all its crises nevertheless bolds its ground; that the Jewish people is not tired of supporting it, and that America does not halt its assistance. All this has not yet created an atmosphere conducive to compromise. Though it may be a deterrent to war at one stage or another, as in Sinai, when Syria and Jordan kept out of the campaign, yet it does not create the desire for compromise and peace.


We are dealing here with an evolutionary phenomenon that must be reckoned in decades not in terms of a year or two. I say this not because we do not wish to despair of ever achieving peace and hence postpone it for another generation, but out of practical logic which takes into account the national psychology of the Arab community.


I maintain that as long as the actual generation, which experienced this shock lives, acts, determines events and has influence, there is almost no prospect, or only a very slight prospect of a compromise without which peace is not possible.


In saying this, I do not thereby intend to reject two possibilities: (A) I do not reject the promotion of peace, and I say this in the same way about the future, as I said it in the past. (B) I do not reject a further postponement of peace. On all accounts, I do not conclude that we can do nothing, or it makes no difference what we do. I do not mean that we could and should sit with folded hands until that whole generation has died away. I believe that what we do can have a considerable impact insofar as it may, positively or adversely affect the achievement of peace.


How should we confront Arab opposition and hostility? There are many sides and facets. But one can say that there are many fundamental proposals on which there is unanimous and absolute agreement on the part of public opinion, and inside and between the political parties.


The first concerns security. Security for the State of Israel in its entirety, guaranteeing the lives of its citizens, their property, their freedom of movement, and development of work possibilities, all these must be guaranteed at all costs. Here there can be no concession, for the very existence of the country and the people are at stake.


The second is the problem of the Arab refugees. Here, perhaps one cannot speak with the same degree of positiveness as one can on the issue of security. Nevertheless, it seems to me that one can maintain the general attitude to be, rationally speaking, one of opposition to the return of refugees and this attitude bas some justification both from a short and long term point of view. I do not want to touch on a problem to which a whole lecture could be devoted. I only want to say that in our formulations we did not state that we would under no circumstances return a single Arab refugee. We did say that the return of Arab refugees to the country cannot serve as a solution to their problem. But if there is family reunion scheme then it can be extended; instead of returning children up to the age of fifteen, children up to the age of eighteen can come here; or sisters, aunts, and the like. This is compassion for individual or family suffering. The Arab families living in Israel would be responsible for the successful absorption of their children and relatives. This is a humanitarian consideration and not a political right. The state does not recognise the absolute right of refugees to return and the state is not prepared to burden itself with smoothing their integration into the country's economic and social organisation.


There is a third fundamental proposal which is generally accepted, even amongst the Herut party: the ideal and aim of Israeli policy is not to wage perpetual war, but to achieve peace with the neighbouring Arab peoples.


However, the national consensus on these three items is insufficient to solve the problems of day-to-day policy. There is room for two courses of action and in my opinion these already exist. One is an outcome of the belief held by some people, that the Arabs only understand the language of force and this is the course they propose. They argue that the State of Israel is so small, so isolated and perhaps so weak (if we take the yardstick of territory, population and potential) that if she does not double her actual strength very rapidly for defensive purposes, the situation will deteriorate. The State of Israel must from time to time, clearly prove that she is strong and capable of using force decisively and efficiently. If she does not prove this, then she could be wiped off the face of the earth. As for peace, the latter says that this in any case is doubtful, or at least very remote. If peace should come about, this could only be after the Arabs have become convinced that it is impossible to vanquish our state. There are greater prospects of reaching peace through a convincing show of force than through talk of Israel's sincere desire for peace. The problem of peace should not be a pretext for restraint in the use of force on a large scale for defensive purposes as a solution to the day to day problems of security. One should not be alarmed if such operations, as retaliatory actions and new campaigns, fan the flames of hatred; hatred will be fanned in any case On the other hand, if we forbear from taking strong action, so as not to exacerbate the situation, we will be the losers. If we say further that it is a natural human inclination to react and that the Jewish people are especially sensitive at being considered weak, that the taste of our recent glorious victory is still with us and that heroes' laurels crown the heads of Israel soldiers, then shall we understand the factors which generate the atmosphere conducive to this course of action, to which must be also added political and security considerations which carry considerable weight.


What do others say who propose another course? They say that the question of peace should never be absent from our minds for one single moment. It is not only a political orientation; in the Iong run it is a crucial question of security. Without belittling the importance of day-to-day security we must always take into account the issue of peace. We must control our reactions. This is a constant problem. Has it really been proved that retaliatory actions are the answers to our security problem?


Let us suppose that the first course of action proposed is the most popular. Clearly every act of murder must have its reaction, and this can only be in military terms. Do our leaders take into account that punitive military action on a more massive scale than Arab murderous provocations set in motion serious repercussions that widen the breach between us and push our neighbours into an even more extremist camp? How can such deterioration be prevented? The question is whether sufficient thought is devoted to this aspect or whether the routine military answer is applied and that is the end of the matter. In view of recent developments, the adherents of the first proposal say everything that happened was inevitable; Arab hatred of Israel has an unshakeable foundation linking up the Arab-Israel dispute with the Cold War and has become a global reality; affairs had inevitably become more and more complex; the danger to Israel had inevitably increased; if vigorous retaliatory action had not been taken the situation would have been even more grave; only out of gratitude for a certain operation we may say, did we manage to get arms from France; only through those victories was our security assured. We had hoped that our strong action would also bring peace nearer, since our neighbours do not understand any other language. If this was not realised it would not have been realised in any case. The situation is grave; we do not deny it; but considering these circumstances, we can congratulate ourselves on some considerable achievements from this course of action.


Indeed, it is difficult to question the value of these achievements. Nevertheless, we adopted a different policy; let us say if we had mounted a "minor" rather than a "major" action at Qibya, Gaza, etc., then perhaps the other side might have taken a different line. Nasser may not have been precipitated into the Czech arms deal; the Soviet Union would not have discovered such a "yawning gap" through which to penetrate into the Middle East. Perhaps, in the meantime, we would have suffered a little more; but our overall situation would have been less grave.


I merely indicate these two courses of action and I am not sure that I have explored them thoroughly and done them justice. I am only outlining two trends issuing from the logic of our situation. I am unable to reach any evaluation or decision. I do not know whether a future historian will be able to decide which course was the right one. Perhaps a conclusion will be reached that it was necessary to combine them both. Perhaps it will be decided that all these vacillating activities were essentially bad and that only one consistent and steady course should have been followed. I do not know whether as a lecturer, requested to quote chapter and verse, I have proved to be a disappointment; but as a politician, or former politician, I cannot ignore the intrinsic complexity of the problem.


I have been asked whether the Sinai Campaign was worthwhile. Clearly in the light of the situation that had been created there were strong reasons for the view that the Sinai Campaign was a campaign for survival. However, this does not clarify the issue historically and politically. A more incisive question has to be posed a priori: were the circumstances which gave rise to the Sinai Campaign inevitable? There is room for appraisal. I will not deliver an adverse judgement; but I will in no sense accept an arbitrary ruling which says that the circumstances were inevitable. The case needs to be thoroughly clarified. What caused the Sinai Campaign? The massing of Egyptian troops in the Sinai Peninsula which served as a basis for fedayeen operations constitutes the main thesis. Nobody denies that such a situation existed; but the question is what caused the massing of forces and the Egyptian disposition? A development occurred which in all modesty cannot refute that the state of Israel had the right and was honour bound to play an active role. We constituted an active factor in this development, from Gaza and Khan Yunis to the Egyptian trials (the young Jews who were tried for Zionist activity).


It is, of course, of great importance (I am not expressing my own opinion, but such an opinion can be expressed) that the State of Israel be strong; that she should enjoy the reputation in the world of being a small but strong state. A perplexing situation! Undoubtedly, there is great value in the State of Israel having a glorious reputation of being a country of heroes. But can somebody be mistaken in thinking that it might be worthwhile (or not) for the State of Israel to have a reputation as an honest country? Is this an asset or not? There may be an opinion that it is not important; that it is better for the State of Israel not to be defined too much as the heir to prophetic wisdom, lovers of justice, mercy and truth; but if the State of Israel professes these ideals, then it is committed to upholding them in some degree even at the cost of sacrifices. Otherwise, it is caught in a moral impasse which in a wider periphery will become a political one.


I completely reject the attitude that any sort of concessions can be demanded from Israel for the sake of peace; I rule out the supposition that peace can be purchased at the price of concessions. Perhaps peace can be purchased at the price of mutual interests, but mutual interests are not concessions. For example, if we would propose to Jordan, which has no outlet to the sea apart from Aqaba, that we would give them an outlet to the Mediterranean, this is in no way a concession; if I grant the possibility of transit to travellers-and goods and create a "free dock" in the port Of Haifa (I am not turning Haifa into a free port) a custom-free dock for the entry and exit supervised by Israeli police, I am not reducing Israel's sovereignty. I make use of Israel's sovereignty in order to promote mutual, good, neighbourly relations beneficial to both countries. If a man sits in a train in Cairo and travels via Israel to Beirut to spend his holiday in Lebanon, is this a concession? The meaning of concession is to relinquish territory or sovereignty. It would be a concession if we restricted immigration for the sake of peace. Such things cannot be considered. They would not bring peace closer. For, should we begin to veer in that direction, the Arabs might say: we have held out stubbornly for ten years and now they are beginning to "come down"; if we hold out a little longer, then they will come down more and more.


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