Peace for Galilee
- The Longest War by Jacobo Timerman
Chatto, 160 pp, £7.95, December 1982, ISBN 0 7011 3910 2
Jacobo Timerman believes that the Palestinians deserve a state of their own in the West Bank and Gaza. ‘We’re all Palestinians,’ he declares. And he also declares: ‘I have discovered in Jews a capacity for cruelty that I never believed possible ... I fear that in our collective subconscious we are not perhaps repelled by the possibility of a Palestinian genocide.’ The Begin-Sharon Government is ‘reactionary’, ‘anti-democratic’, crazy. The Israelis must become Palestinians in their imagination in order to make peace with them. Based on essays which appeared in the New Yorker this summer, The Longest War has the advantage of immediacy, of intimacy. The anguish it describes, an anguish located in the first-person plural employed almost throughout, has not been tempered by time. Written in the form of a journal, The Longest War means us to feel that we are listening to a major ‘voice’, and it is perfectly true that there was little room for doubt that a new book by Timerman would attract the attention of a serious audience in the Western world.
He is the former Argentinian newspaper editor who ran foul both of the ruling military junta (whose take-over he once supported as the only way to curb the growing civil war) and of the leftist guerrillas he denounced as ‘terrorists’. He was arrested, imprisoned and tortured by the Junta. A campaign for his release enlisted the American Jewish community, the Israeli Foreign Office (under Moshe Dayan) and some sympathetic State Department officials. His captors questioned him about a world-wide Jewish conspiracy aimed at an Israeli invasion of Argentina, at a territorial-imperative replay of the Eichmann kidnap. Ultimately, his freedom was obtained, and made conditional on his emigrating to Israel. The ex-prisoner and newspaper editor was also an ex- or dormant Zionist. He had been a member of the socialist-Zionist Hashomer Hatzair, a kibbutz-oriented (and, at that time, Stalinist-slanted) youth movement. Timerman had even worked in the agricultural training farm the movement operated in order to be a better kibbutznik on arrival in the Holy Land. Meanwhile his relations with the Jewish community in Argentina were strained by the book he wrote about his prison experience, Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number.
That book also caused a furore in North America. It had its supporters – among them, Anthony Lewis in the New York Times and Leon Wieseltier in Dissent (Wieseltier has written a rather different review of The Longest War in Harper’s). But, because Timerman rails against fascists of the right as well as those on the left, it had the misfortune to run headlong into Jeane Kirkpatrick’s new thesis about Latin America. Kirkpatrick’s distinctions between ‘authoritarian’ and ‘totalitarian’ dictatorships were part of a sophisticated attempt to undo the Carter ‘Human Rights’ policy and replace it with a new, pragmatic approach to the Latin dictators in the South: not content with ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend,’ Kirkpatrick sought, notably in her famous Commentary article, ‘Dictatorship and Double Standards’, to provide intellectual cover for a return to the Cold War policies of red-white-and-blue anti-Sovietism. Timerman became an almost mystical personification of the Carter policy, and his book evoked harsh counter-attacks by Kirkpatrick’s allies, in Commentary, in the Zionist magazine Midstream and elsewhere. Paradoxically the start of the war in Lebanon coincided with the tail end of the Falklands/Malvinas war, and the break-up of Kirkpatrick’s Commentary thesis on the sharp South Atlantic reefs.
The war in the Lebanon was intended, inter alia, to make it clear that this Israeli government did not see the Sinai withdrawal which had only just been completed as setting a precedent for future concessions on other fronts. Six months earlier, in December 1981, Begin had rushed a Bill annexing the Golan Heights through three Parliamentary readings in one day. This was the first (over-wrought and ill-considered) reaction against the generous concessions made to Egypt at Camp David: the war in the Lebanon was the second. Arik Sharon, who dates the start of his planning the war from the day he took office as Minister of Defence in July 1981, spelled out his views in a (Jewish) New Year issue of the muck-raking weekly Ha’olam Hazeh. In a ‘not for attribution’ talk with the editor, Uri Avneri (who later drew fire for his interview with Arafat while the siege of Beirut was on), Sharon made his goals clear. In the spring of 1982, as the final withdrawal from Sinai approached, tempers flared among both West Bank Arabs and the hard-core Jewish Right. (It is one of the enduring mysteries of Israeli politics that this Right, the ‘foreign policy Right’, includes a sprinkling of ‘socialists’.) In Yamit came violent confrontations between settlers and soldiers, but no one was killed there: several Arabs were shot in the West Bank. By 7 April it was evident that Sharon was actively looking for a way to get into a war in Lebanon. On that day, Zev Schiff, the military correspondent of the daily newspaper Ha’aretz, wrote a prescient column sketching the scenario of what might, and actually did, happen. The significance of the Schiff column lies not only in its accurate forecast of the tragic events of the war, but in the very fact of its publication. Schiff’s contacts are excellent: he is the recognised dean of Israeli military correspondents. It was Schiff, alerted to the Sabra and Shatilla massacres, who went to the Communications Minister Mordechai Zippori. Zippori phoned the Foreign Minister, Yitzhak Shamir. What Zippori said to Shamir is a question of some interest, as the two Ministers rendered very different accounts of the talk in their respective testimonies to the Kahan Commission – which believed Zippori.
The critical issue here is not that the war was planned well in advance, which Sharon admits, or that the attempted assassination of Ambassador Argov merely provided a pretext for Israel to act: but that someone in the senior echelons of the IDF was interested in arresting the entire process and for that reason decided to speak to Schiff. This is what Schiff wrote:
Vol. 5 No. 9 · 19 May 1983
SIR: David Twersky did well to give an independent account of Israel’s politics in the Lebanon war when reviewing Timerman’s book The Longest War (LRB, 21 April). ‘If The Longest War has one central error, it is its elastic approach to the facts,’ he writes. Twersky’s review does not suffer from this error: he states a number of the crucial facts boldly and without sentimentality. His treatment of Israeli politics is clear and incisive, in admirable contrast to the book he reviews. It is when it comes to the Palestinians, and the PLO in particular, that a sudden elastic approach emerges, not so much to the ‘facts’ as to the rhetorical rigour with which these are presented. ‘PLO artillery in southern Lebanon’ becomes the ‘PLO “mini-state” ’ in the next sentence, becomes a ‘PLO “military option” ’ in the third, only to revert to the PLO ‘mini-state’ again which Sharon set out to destroy. The detour includes the obligatory reference to ‘your child’ who ‘gets shot in a border kibbutz’. Now Twersky had just told us that ‘the onion needs peeling, however many tears we shed in the process.’ While he peels the Begin-Sharon onion fearlessly, he doesn’t begin to touch the Palestinian one, which he wraps instead in an additional layer of cling-foil. PLO artillery in the south, with a range to include border kibbutzim, is one thing: a small position of the military wing of the PLO which, moreover, we know to have kept a ceasefire for over ten months. The PLO mini-state in Lebanon is quite another thing and included, as we know, the administration of numerous refugee camps all over Lebanon, a Research Centre in Beirut, a comprehensive health service, the Red Crescent Society, giving free medical treatment to Palestinians and Lebanese in the absence of a viable Lebanese health system. A PLO military option is yet something else, located not so much on the geographical map as on the edge of international politics and diplomacy. ‘The PLO “mini-state” was not aimed at protecting Lebanon from an Israeli invasion,’ says Twersky before turning it into a ‘military option’. Quite right. It was aimed at providing a minimal ‘state’ for the stateless Palestinians, at providing the barest essentials for the dispossessed in the refugee camps and a semblance of cohesion for the dispersed. It was, above all, the non-military option.
While Twersky’s semantics are over-elastic, his viewpoint lacks flexibility. He shares this with Timerman, and with most of the discussions in the Western press: they are all essentially engaged in an intra-Jewish discourse, a dialogue with the Jewish conscience, a searching of the Israeli heart, a national or Jewish self-analysis. As such, it never quite stretches to a political analysis of the whole Middle East, an international perspective, a review of both sides of the problem. And ‘the Palestinians’ remain a counter in the Jewish/Israeli scenario. ‘Annexing the West Bank and Gaza into Israel is not a democratic act, and not only because it denies the Palestinians the right to choose their own, separate, national identity: it will alter the basic features of the Israeli polity for ever.’ The Palestinians’ right to self-determination and statehood is subordinated in a dependent clause: the main thrust of the argument is the Israeli polity. The viewpoint is unambiguously Israeli-interested. A danger of the annexation of the West Bank and Gaza, says Twersky, is the reproduction of ‘South Africa’s equivalent fiction’, the Bantustan tribal homelands – ‘though without the odious underlying racist ideology’. Without? (And what of Begin’s ‘two-legged animals’?) Isn’t this what the South Africans themselves would say, if they were making the analysis? They don’t describe themselves as ‘racist’. They are simply in favour of Apartheid.
Once on this track, Twersky continues to slip into the old and familiar clichés: that Begin has managed to sell his West Bank policies, ‘not through the manipulation of national and religious totems, but because of a widespread feeling that the Arabs cannot be trusted to live in peace with Israel.’ How does he suppose that widespread feelings come about, and manage to persist in the face of the evidence that the Arabs can indeed be trusted not to come to the aid of invaded Lebanon, its besieged capital, or the hapless Palestinians, while indeed Israel cannot be trusted not to invade Lebanon, possibly overthrow the Hashemite kingdom, and annex territories it faithfully swore it had no intention of keeping? While Timerman with all his elastic approach does advance to the question ‘whether Israel will be able to accept the Palestinians’ rights’, Twersky continues, in line with international diplomacy, to blame ‘the Arabs’ historical inability to “mouth the essential yes” to Israel’s existence’, and to assert ‘it is an Arab peace initiative that is required.’ Despite the fact that the Reagan plan shares this perspective, it has nevertheless made it clear to the world that the Arabs indeed are considering peace initiatives, are even making their own (Fez, Saudi Arabia), while Israel rejects them out of hand, and has not yet come up with any of its own, let alone with any willingness to ‘mouth the essential yes’ to the Palestinian state. And yet Twersky maintains that ‘a more generous share of the blame needs to be given to the Arabs.’ If we are talking about the Palestinians, they certainly have had an over-generous share of destruction and persecution: do we really need to insist on the victims taking the blame as well – is it really a question of blame-sharing? Is it not the peculiar luxury of this democratic, principled, philosophical, victorious people to indulge in the self-allocation of a little bit of the blame (the Kahan inquiry!) and then a generous redistribution of it? Would the unequal power-balance not require a temporary shift of perspective to the victims, not the ‘60 per cent which survives’, but the 40 who don’t, the 12-15,000 killed, twice that number injured, and hundreds of thousands dispersed, homeless and unable even to return to the bulldozed rubble heaps of their camps? Perhaps Timerman’s ‘reflective images’, his passion and humanist naivety are less inappropriate than Twersky’s arithmetic of blame conducted firmly from the one side of the problem. Or if we want to look at the facts and figures, the human cost, the dollar cost of the ammunition, the economic cost and profit, could we allocate a double page to a review of Michael Jansen’s The Battle of Beirut, Nassib and Tisdall’s Beirut Frontline Story, or the MacBride Commission’s Report, Israel into Lebanon?
Vol. 5 No. 11 · 16 June 1983
SIR: I would like to thank Ms Kappeler (Letters, 19 May) for her partial praise of my review of Jacobo Timerman’s The Longest War and for the insight she demonstrates in her observation that I am ‘essentially engaged in an intra-Jewish discourse’. This is a valid point, but hardly as damning as I suspect she intends. True enough, I am Jewish by birth and Israeli by choice. This helps to set the terms for my discussion of the current problems facing Israel, the Palestinians et al. I am an interested party whose life is on the line, rather than an interested party sitting far away in some academic tower whose ‘political analysis of the whole Middle East’ with an ‘international perspective’ and a ‘review of both sides of the problem’ provides cover for a bias different from mine but no more valid for all that. One can also miss the trees for the forest.
Ms Kappeler faults me for the ‘obligatory reference’ to a kibbutz child killed by the PLO. She later goes on to incant the by now familial litany of Palestinian suffering, including the disproved canard about ‘hundreds of thousands of dispersed homeless’ refugees who cannot return to the ‘rubble of their camps’. Why should I be jaded to the murder of my own people – and is Ms Kappeler, proud owner of an ‘international perspective’, jaded to the atrocities committed by the one side, and sensitive only to those committed against the other?
The fact that Ms Kappeler describes the ‘non-military’ aspect of the PLO mini (welfare) state in no way contradicts my point that no Israeli government, no matter how forthcoming on the Palestinian issue, would have looked with equanimity on the presence of PLO artillery in the southern region of Lebanon. I went to some lengths in the review to try to establish that had the Labour Party been in power, it is unlikely that last summer’s war would have occurred, as Mota Gur made clear during a recent visit to England. But the PLO ‘military option’, however much Ms Kappeler desires to banish it to ‘the edge of international politics and diplomacy’, was real and in place in Southern Lebanon. She is confusing the ‘military’ with the ‘political’ options – a mistake comon both to the Palestinian and to the (current) Israeli leaderships.
It is not obvious that the Palestinians must have their own state: that is one possible solution among several. Most Israeli moderates favour the Jordanian-West Bank confederation scenario for reasons that are not ‘racist’. Unfortunately, given the history of violence, irredentist extremism, and inability to compromise, Israelis want to square their own security requirements with Palestinian national rights. The latter do not exist in a vacuum, however much some people would like to pretent that ‘the Palestinian right to self-determination and statehood’ is an absolute value and the core of the Israeli-Arab conflict. Most Israeli moderates, fearful that an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank will be militarised and irredentist, do not concur. But this is hardly ‘racism’. This Palestinian right is not the issue that the Jewish right to self-determination and statehood remains. The Zionist majority accepted Palestinian rights in 1947: Palestinians rejected Jewish rights. That remains the core, though hardly the only issue. Israeli statehood does not revolve around a charter which denies Palestinian rights: the PLO charter denies Jewish rights absolutely. Those Jewish irredentist extremists who gained power in 1977 because part of the Israeli public could not believe in the need to pursue peace initiatives with an unresponsive Arab world continue to depend on Arab extremists for their bread and butter ‘there is no one to talk to’ approach. Finally, there is no major PLO internal opposition quite as compromise-minded as the Labour Movement, Peace Now, et al., in Israel.
Ms Kappeler asserts that, ‘in line with international diplomacy’, I blame the Arabs for refusing to recognise Israel. I do not know if that is supposed to make me a CIA agent, but I can assure you that any similarities between my own views and those of ‘international diplomacy’ are purely coincidental. I do continue to insist that it is an Arab peace initiative, à la Sadat, which is required, though I would also like to see an Israeli government capable of inviting and responding to such an initiative. Ms Kappeler’s calm assurance that ‘the Arabs indeed are considering peace initiatives’ does not square with Karen Elliot House’s description in the Wall Street Journal of how the PLO blocked Jordan’s entry into the negotiations – surely the only way to get the peace process moving. ‘If [the] opportunity is lost,’ Hussein told Walid Khalidi of Harvard and the PLO, ‘Arafat must take the historic responsibility for what happens to the Palestinians on the West Bank and Gaza.’ I agree that there is a tendency in the Arab world towards negotiation, reconciliation and peace – but it should be encouraged with intelligent and forthright criticism rather than killed off with sentimental, patronising kindness. The Arabs are unlikely to continue to progress in the right direction if the international community allows them to think they can have ‘peace’ on the cheap. Thus the blame for the diplomatic impasse cannot be laid exclusively at Begin’s door.
As to the ‘unequal power balance’ – her term for the military superiority of the IDF – I would like to point out that the IDF not only shares co-responsibility (with the PLO) for the statistics of Palestinian suffering listed in her letter, but is also the single most important factor in the emerging Arab consensus that ‘Israel is here to stay.’ Israeli military force is being illegitimately projected in Lebanon, and Ms Kappeler is right that the Begin Government initiated a march on one Arab capital and issued an implied threat against another. But that same force, correctly used, is precisely what is needed to establish the equilibrium necessary to a peace process. Ms Kappeler is in error when she writes that the Israeli Government ‘faithfully swore it had no intention of keeping’ the territories it now proposes to annex. That undertaking was given by Labour governments. To bring it up as Ms kappeler does is rather like faulting Mrs Thatcher for failing to live up to Mr Foot’s pledge to ban nuclear weapons.
In speaking of apportioning blame, I was speaking of the PLO, but not ‘of the Palestinians’. As Jacobo Timerman said of the PLO and its Western apologists, ‘its strategy of terror did not advance the Palestinian cause,’ and ‘the professors’ in the West ‘who went along with them … institutionalised the political ignorance of the Palestinians, raising the PLO to the category of a national liberation movement despite its international chaos, its lack of coherent programme, its terrorist practices, its stupid brutality, and its negation of history … Why did they go along with the PLO’s political babble?’ Blame must be apportioned to the PLO, which Ms Kappeler seems intent on confusing with the Palestinians.
It is also a serious mistake to write off the Kahan Commission report as ‘the self-allocation of a little bit of the blame’. The report was narrowly defined as an attempt to pinpoint Israeli responsibility for the massacres by Phalangists of Palestinian refugees. In this narrow sense, the report was quite eloquent. Perhaps a larger debate on the conception and conduct of the entire war is required: but that is hardly a reason to dismiss the report so crudely. (Unhappy as I was that the Government, backed by its Attorney-General, chose to leave Arik Sharon in the Cabinet, I am infinitely grateful that he is no longer Minister of Defence, especially in these weeks of tense confrontation with Syria. I do not seek ‘a generous re-distribution of’ blame for the Sabra and Shatila massacres. I do see the PLO as largely, though not exclusively responsible for the general climate in the Middle East. If the PLO is an expression of past Palestinian suffering, it is also a cause of their present helplessness.
As to Ms Kappeler’s inability to believe that there remains in Israel a widespread fear of Arab intentions, I can only say she is in serious error. Whether or not the Soviet Union really conceives of its Eastern European clients as ‘protection’ against the ‘threat of Western invasion’, I cannot know. But that Israelis derive from their experience over the past few decades, amplified by the Holocaust and by the historical mode I described in my review, a need to take threats seriously – of this there can be no doubt. Threats against Israel’s very existence, rhetorical and actualised, are not a figment of our collective imagination. They also pre-date the capture of the ‘territories’ in 1967. And the PLO’s claim runs deeper than 1967, and relates to the UN Partition of 1947, to the UN Partition of 1947 and to the first principles of Jewish rights. Though polls confirm the readiness of a majority of Israelis, evidently including Begin supporters, to accept territorial compromise for the sake of peace, one would have to be deaf and blind to fail to perceive their anxiety about surrendering strategic territorial depth in exchange for a ‘peace’ that is fragile. That they are ready nevertheless to gamble, as with Sinai, is a testimony to this ‘democratic, principled, philosophical people’, to use Ms Kappeler’s words.
If Ms Kappeler wants to argue that Arabs, too, have cause to fear the Begin Government, I accept her point. But this does not deny my thesis that it is the Arabs who must make the decisive move now. I would also welcome an Israeli initiative. We are dealing with an extremely complicated process and not with classroom dogma.
Kibbutz Gezer, Israel
SIR: David Twersky’s backhanded apologia for Israel’s actions in Lebanon (LRB, 21 April) should not pass unremarked. He writes: ‘if your child gets shot in a border kibbutz, the difference between a terrorist “nuisance” and a dangerous threat might appear a bit specious.’ But in the next paragraph he acknowledges that it was Israel which broke a ten-month-old cease-fire in invading Lebanon. Mr Twersky castigates Jacobo Timerman for his ‘elastic approach to the facts’. An example he cites is Timerman’s reference to Sidon as a ‘destroyed’ city – Twersky claims ‘60 per cent’ of Sidon ‘survives’. This is the same David Twersky who wrote the article ‘With the Israeli Army in Lebanon’ (Partisan Review, Vol. 49, No 4). There he said: ‘As for Sidon … I can honestly say that the city is in better shape than most parts of the Bronx, where I come from.’ Clearly Mr Twersky has a one-sided view of factual elasticity.
Vol. 5 No. 13 · 21 July 1983
SIR: David Twersky is wrong in suspecting (Letters, 16 June) that my intention was ‘damning’ when I called his review part of an intra-Jewish discourse. My point was that most of what we read in the Western press on the Israeli-Palestinian issue is written as part of an intra-Jewish discourse, and that the ‘Palestinian problem’ (as it is called in that discourse) gets virtually no articulation except in that mode. The intra-Jewish discourse has practically become a received discourse. It was this received discourse that I addressed, rather than Twersky’s facts. None of us will get down to all the facts, but it matters what is selected and what is left out. It is not that I am ‘jaded to the atrocities committed by one side, and sensitive only to those committed by the other’. I am sensitive to the fact that the child who gets shot in a border kibbutz is part of the narrative, while the 40 per cent of Tyre and Sidon killed and destroyed is getting suppressed in a preferred emphasis on the 60 per cent which survives. Mine is an argument about historical and ideological discourse, and the responsibility of those participating in it, however far away they are sitting. I am sensitive to the fact that the Palestinian story needs to be told almost from the beginning because that story enjoys no received status. That it is necessary to distinguish first of all Palestinian from PLO from terrorist and from Arab (Mr Twersky misremembers himself: in ‘apportioning blame’ he was precisely not speaking of the PLO, but of ‘the Arabs’). The difference between the received and the non-received status of the respective stories is that Twersky’s side of it is a ‘discussion of the current problems’, while the other side is an incantation of ‘the now familiar litany of Palestinian suffering’.
I do not think that Mr Twersky is a CIA agent. My point is that statements like ‘the PLO charter denies Jewish rights absolutely’ belong to the discourse of international diplomacy, while Twersky juxtaposes them to his and others’ voices of Israeli dissent. ‘There is no major PLO internal opposition quite as compromise-minded as the Labour Movement, Peace Now, et al., in Israel.’ There is no comparability between ‘in Israel’ and ‘within the PLO’. If the Palestinians had a state of their own, perhaps they would also have the chance of establishing an opposition to or within the PLO or their own government. This is what I mean by ‘unequal power balance’: not just, as Twersky surmises, the military superiority of the IDF, but the relationship between the nation Israel and the Palestinians with no status other than that of a ‘problem’.
Twersky expects that the IDF, if correctly used, will bring about the ‘equilibrium necessary for the peace process’. As used, it certainly has not brought equilibrium to the region, as he himself admits. One would hope that discussion and political analysis will bring about an equilibrium of understanding that is even more vital for the peace process than the military superiority of one side. But Twersky seems to underestimate the power and influence of such discussion on the climate of opinion, and its influence on events such as the election of governments and the sanction of, or protest against, the launching of wars. One need not be Palestinian, Arab, Israeli or Jewish to be an interested party with regard to the wars of the world, and not only because these may become the spark for another world war. The ‘classroom’, the ‘academic tower’ or an intellectual paper such as the London Review of Books are not as removed from the arena of war as Twersky seems to think. The telling and retelling of the histories of wars have helped to stop them (US-Vietnam) and have a crucial role to play in the prevention of future wars as well as in preparing the peace process – which, incidentally, is not synonymous with the Reagan peace plan, even if this has become received usage. But it will hardly become a real peace process so long as one side dictates to the other ‘the right direction’ in which to move, from a position of military supremacy and discursive dominance.
Vol. 5 No. 14 · 4 August 1983
SIR: Susanne Kappeler (Letters, 21 July) is involved in an attempt to transform the ‘received discourse’ of the Middle East debate. So was Jacobo Timerman in his book. I believe that Timerman failed, but not for the reasons cited by Ms Kappeler. The ‘Palestinian story’ may need to be fashioned ab initio, but this will not change the fundamental premises upon which any solution to our regional conflict must be based. Neither will the retelling of the tale, if authentic, alter the need for the Arab world in general, and the Palestinian people in particular, through whatever agency they choose, to come to grips at long last with Israel’s right to exist. This was attempted by the martyred Dr Issam Sartawi.
Susanne Kappeler’s apologetics for the lack of a Palestinian Peace Now equivalent are unconvincing to say the least. The Zionist movement possessed a vital, at times pre-eminent, ‘dovish’ wing in its pre-state phase. What on earth are Palestinian moderates waiting for? I am well aware that ‘intellectual paper[s] such as the London Review of Books are not … removed from the arena of war’ – that is why I was pleased to attempt a contribution to peace-making, or at least to the ‘received discourse’ of how we think about it, in the pages of the London Review. Finally, I never argued that Israeli military strength alone could establish a peaceful region: only that the perception of Israeli vulnerability is a sure recipe for ongoing strife. Our ‘telling and retelling of the histories of war’ will not, alas, influence ‘the election of governments’ in Arab countries, where there are no elections, nor in Israel, where what is awaited is not Susanne Kappeler’s version of events but the appearance of Jordanian and Palestinian moderation, à la Sadat.
Kibbutz Gezer, Israel