Peace for Galilee

David Twersky

  • 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:

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