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:
Anyone who reads Sharon correctly will understand that his objective in Lebanon is not another Operation Litani or simply the killing of several hundred terrorists. His statements reveal that his objective is to destroy the military and the political base of the PLO organisations, in such a way that they will find it difficult to re-establish themselves in Lebanon. What is more, he seeks to create a situation in which a new Lebanese government will be formed, claiming legitimacy, which will make peace with Israel. This objective requires that the Syrian army be removed from Lebanon, or from most of its territory, and perhaps also that Bashir Jemayel and his supporters be placed in power in Beirut ...
Israel will not wish to appear as the aggressor, and will lie in wait for a suitable provocation. It may even be very cautious in its initial reaction. The Israeli response to provocation need not be an immediate general attack. Israel can respond with a relatively limited action, and wait for the counter-reaction of the other side. Should the terrorist reaction include any attack against an Israeli settlement, the signal would be given to release Israel’s full force.
Timerman is therefore right to say: ‘Sharon’s war had begun with Sharon ... In the first months of 1982 we all knew that Sharon’s war would be an invasion of Lebanon.’ Sharon’s reasons for wanting to attack Lebanon remain shrouded in a fog of deliberate obfuscation. Naming the war ‘Peace for Galilee’ was a masterstroke of deceit, a half-lie with enough surface truth to ennoble the crusade and to enable the crusaders to mobilise domestic support. But the onion needs peeling, however many tears we shed in the process. Timerman’s cynicism notwithstanding, no Israeli government, no matter how forthcoming in its ‘foreign’ policies, would quietly accept the presence of PLO artillery in southern Lebanon, within range of the northern Israeli settlements. The PLO ‘mini-state’ was not aimed at protecting Lebanon from an Israeli invasion. To the extent that there existed a PLO ‘military option’, it was to use terror to provoke Israel into a series of responsive strikes which would, ultimately, bring the neighbouring Arab states into another general war. True enough, the mini-state was not the threat to Israel Sharon insisted it was: but if your child gets shot in a border kibbutz, the difference between a terrorist ‘nuisance’ and a dangerous threat might appear a bit specious. True enough, there were divisions within Israel as to what reaction to the mini-state would be most appropriate: but it is not the case, pace Timerman, that the majority of those who opposed the war were pacifists.
Last May, three former Chiefs of Staff, now Parliamentary leaders of the opposition Labour Party, all spoke up against the war they knew Sharon was planning. Yitzhak Rabin, Haim Barlev and Motta Gur maintained that as long as the PLO kept its end of the ten-month-old cease-fire (which ended the artillery duels of the summer of 1981), Israel should not break it. We now know, because Minister of Tourism Avraham Sharir has told us, that, just before the war, the PLO was proposing a non-belligerency pact with Israel. (The significance of this lies not in the pact itself – the PLO had been running scared ever since Sharon took office – but in the fact that such a proposal would represent a major step forward in the long, tortuous Miles Standish courtship dance by the PLO: one step towards the recognition of Israel, to be followed by, let’s say, two steps backwards.) Their rejection of the Sharon approach does not, however, mean that these three are ‘pacifists’. Timerman makes this type of mistake repeatedly. He dedicates the book to ‘Major Giora Harnick ... he was an active member of the Peace Now movement and ... was against the war in which he was killed ... I know that he was a pacifist.’ Harnick was a Peace Now sympathiser, like many other IDF officers. But, as his mother said, addressing her remarks to Timerman, ‘I don’t know what Jony thought about this war ... I do know ... that he was no pacifist ... I do thank you for the book, the dedication, the pain, and the attempt to console.’ Sharon’s critics took the threat of PLO terrorism seriously. They didn’t dismiss it, as Timerman does.
Sharon’s grand strategy called for the destruction of the PLO mini-state in Lebanon, the imposition of a ‘friendly’ government in Beirut, cutting the Syrians ‘down to size’, and – this is the key – pushing the Palestinians back to Jordan. Sharon has always clung to the view that ‘Jordan is Palestine’: i.e. that (trans-) Jordan was carved out of historic Palestine by Churchill; that the majority of the population is Palestinian anyway; and that the solution to the Palestinian problem therefore lies in encouraging a change of government in Amman – from Hashemite monarchy to a PLO ‘people’s’ dictatorship. Sharon favours ‘partition’ of Palestine between the Jews and the Palestinian Arabs: but his partition would run along the Jordan River and would leave the West Bank and Gaza districts wholly incorporated into a ‘greater Israel’. It is fear of this Sharon scenario which may have tipped the scales in Jordan in favour of entering the peace process.
Throughout the summer, Israelis were keenly aware of the role of the media in ‘selling’ the war to Western public opinion. They realised that the war they ‘bought’ was not the same one Western audiences were reading about in their newspapers or watching on their television screens. So Timerman’s book, which could not fail to ignite a fireball of interest in the West, was by the same token perceived by many Israelis as an unwarranted attack from the rear.
If The Longest War has one central error, it is its elastic approach to the facts. Timerman is known as a journalist: but he wants to be a philosopher/prophet, hurling poetic missiles at a society distorted and misdirected by a leadership he cannot stomach. (For that matter, neither can I.) But many readers of The Longest War will take Timerman’s metaphors for hard fact; his reflective images for the story itself. Like the syndicated columnist Dewey Spangler in Saul Bellow’s The Dean’s December, Timerman aims to reach above the clouds where Walter Lippmann sat, to the rarefied stratosphere of a Malraux reviewing ‘the whole history of mankind’. So he discusses how to stop the war, ‘three months before the invasion’ was launched, ‘with Professor Michael Walzer at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton’, walks hand in hand with Borges, quotes Neruda musing on the ruins of a ‘dead city’. Asked, in an interview in the new Israeli weekly Koteret Rashit, why he insists that Tyre and Sidon were ‘two destroyed cities’, he replied:
Do you really think this is important if we keep in mind the general picture? ... OK, let’s assume only 80 per cent of the cities were destroyed, or even 40 per cent. It doesn’t matter to me at all. This isn’t a statistical problem ... There are people in Europe who insist that six million Jews weren’t killed, only four million.
Of course, it might make a difference to the two million Jews, or to the 60 per cent of Tyre and Sidon which survives.
Smitten with his Argentinian experience, Timerman utterly misunderstands the Israeli Army and the role of the Opposition. Sharon sends ‘his missile experts, his airmen, his sailors’ into Lebanon (the italics are mine). Perhaps soldiers ‘belong’ to their general in Argentina. In Israel, where Deputy Chief of Staff Moshe Levy (a Sharon confidant) lives on a left-wing kibbutz, it is not so. The present Chief of Staff is to be replaced: the two most likely contenders are both associated with the Labour Party. Whatever psychiatrist Timerman may say, the IDF is not commanded by ‘paranoid criminals’ and ‘crazy reactionary generals’: Raful Eitan and Sharon (the latter is no longer ‘a general of our army’) are quite reactionary, to be sure, but I wouldn’t like to comment on their mental stability. Timerman also rushes to commit Begin to a political psychiatric ward: ‘I studied the gestures, the looks, the tilting of the head, the vocal changes, the silences and pauses of our prime minister ... it is my belief that he is unbalanced.’ Why? Because anyone who ‘finds reasons for acting today against the crimes committed by the Nazis forty years ago is acting on the basis of hallucinations’. Begin is in error. He abuses the Holocaust. But he is not crazy. He is, rather, ‘an intuitive politician who is in perfect harmony with the mood of his natural audience – the Israeli voter’, as Timerman notes elsewhere in his book. Should we take that to mean that the Israeli voter is ‘unbalanced’ and experiencing ‘hallucinations’?
I would suggest a different explanation. The Jewish collective memory is very long and is filled with images of the Jew as victim. The archetype for this is the Biblical story of the Amalekite desert bandits who attacked the Israelites and thus became the symbol of a jackal-race. King Saul, a few centuries down, returns to settle accounts, and wipes the Amalekites out, down to the last woman and child, sparing only their king for a later, royal execution. According to Jewish legend taught to millennia of yeshiva students like myself, the king survived long enough to perpetuate his line, which lay low for a few centuries until it could strike back at the Jews. Haman, of the Purim saga, is a direct descendant of the Amalekite king (as his chief protagonist, Mordechai, is of King Saul): an executioner-with-a-thousand-faces v. an eternal victim. It is to this central core of Jewish thinking that Begin appeals. It is easy to dismiss this mode of perception as sorely inadequate: but it is not ‘crazy’. The history of anti-semitism is not a paranoid invention: it is a vital link in the dialectical chain leading to Zionism and the creation of the State of Israel. And if the war was a tragic mistake, it was not based on ‘reasons made up outside the context of reality by the feverish mind of a restless general’.
Pursuing the analogy with Argentina, Timerman compares Begin with Peron – a comparison which has enough merit to catch all but the hardest-working reader unawares. ‘The dynamics’ of Peron’s government, he says, ‘smothered democratic life and undermined democratic institutions’. Israel, too, he says, ‘has lost many of its democratic qualities’. There is truth in this charge, but there is no support for it to be found in this book. Timerman cites the growth of the Stock Market – ‘speculation’ as against ‘productive investment’: a real cause for concern, but hardly proof of the charge that we are less democratic ‘since the Lebanon invasion’. The ‘concessions to religious groups’ are – unhappily – a constant feature of Israeli coalition politics and will be as long as the religious parties hold the crucial swing votes in Parliament, and as long as Israel has no constitution. True, Begin has allowed them dangerously to up the ante: indeed, it is on a constant inflationary rise. But this has been part of our politics since 1948, and however disagreeable one finds it all, it cannot be held responsible for this war. Next he cites budget increases, a swollen bureaucracy, the politicisation of the civil service – at last, a charge both correct and to the point. The Likud is fighting a rearguard action against independent voices and Labour-appointed holdovers throughout the civil service. There has also been an attempt to create an atmosphere in which the legal right to freedom of speech is preserved but no one is in a rush to exercise it. Charging the Opposition with ‘treason’ and with ‘stabbing our boys in the back’ is not conducive to a free exchange of views.
Timerman nonetheless credits the Government with more success than it has had. Like Max Frankel of the New York Times, he sees the Opposition as relatively impotent. While full of praise (and understanding) for the Labour Party leader, Shimon Peres (Timerman may be the unfortunate Peres’s last fan), and acknowledging the existence of a broad social opposition, he is too quick to dismiss it. ‘How is it possible,’ he asks, ‘that this country ... could not stop a war for which the preparations were known to all?’ The reason is that Begin is ‘reactionary and anti-democratic’. The Government’s policies should require ‘a broad debate leading up to a vote. But the way things are accomplished in Israel constitutes an anti-democratic exercise by circumstantial majority. Thus it is a dictatorial act, even though by the dictatorship of the majority; it is the expression of a totalitarian ideology.’ What is? The already-mentioned examples of Stock-Market speculation etc? This is a kind of gnostic political science. Timerman writes that Begin expanded his (wafer-thin) Knesset majority by bringing in the (accurately described) ‘right-wing nationalist Tehiya Party’, which is ‘opposed to the Camp David accords’, thus strengthening the annexationist wing in his Cabinet. When attacked on the grounds that annexation, or even perpetual autonomy, cannot be imposed ‘on the occupied territories’ by ‘a democratic nation, the Government, as always, will reply by evading the real issue, and, instead, will present the evidence of its enlarged Parliamentary majority.’ Which begs a few questions. First of all, a parliamentary majority is a matter of no small concern in a democratic system of government: the fact that for a complex combination of reasons the Israeli electorate narrowly favoured Likud over Labour, and that it was easier for Begin to form a coalition with the swing religious parties, does not invalidate the method or justify Timerman’s charge that it is ‘totalitarian’.
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 destiny: it will alter the basic features of the Israeli polity for ever. Tehiya’s platform proposes a ‘three-tiered’ plan whereby West Bank Arabs are offered the choice of citizenship, autonomy or ‘state-aided emigration’. If the Arabs opted for citizenship, we would experience the deterioration of our political life along the lines of the national communities. One need not be a Trotskyite preaching ‘Arab-Jewish worker alliance’ to prefer the politics of left and right to that of Jew v. Arab. Assuming, more realistically, that the West Bankers do not opt for Israeli citizenship, we shall be faced, willy nilly, with a large disenfranchised minority, separated from the mainstream by language, by historical memory and symbols, by class and by the rights and obligations of citizenship. We will not feed them Israeli citizenship intravenously: they will evolve into a political community not wholly unlike the Bantustan tribal homelands – South Africa’s equivalent fiction – though without the odious underlying racist ideology. The third option, ‘state-aided emigration’, is too gruesome to contemplate. I have little trouble in agreeing with Timerman about these dire consequences of current government policy. But he attacks the right targets for the wrong reasons and the wrong targets for failing to achieve the impossible.
It is true that the broad opposition ‘could not stop the war’. Could the British Labour Party have stopped the Falklands adventure, assuming it had even wanted to? Doesn’t the Israeli Labour Party have a right to be ambivalent about this war – the war was wrong, but removing the PLO mini-state was not? The anti-war groups, like Peace Now, which massed a hundred thousand supporters in July to demonstrate against the impending attack on Beirut, ‘are not changing society and have not created, meanwhile, any political fact’. What about the lack of excess in the occupation of Lebanon by comparison with the 1978 Litani operation, when officers were arrested for murder and a blind eye was turned to a little friendly looting? What about the trial now under way in the West Bank of army officers charged with brutality against Arabs, a proceeding set in motion by a Peace Now press conference last spring? What about the mass rally in September, jointly sponsored by the Labour Alignment and Peace Now, when four hundred thousand Israelis forced their prime minister to change his mind about appointing a Commission of Inquiry into the Sabra and Shatilla massacres? Has the Kahan Commission report, the result of that demonstration last September, not created a ‘political fact’? Labour’s big problem is that it isn’t making policy; it does not control the government; and Begin’s ‘circumstantial majority’ allows him to ignore Timerman’s advice.
Timerman completely fails to explain how Begin has managed to sell his West Bank policies – incredible as they may appear to be – to such a significant section of the population. It was 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. For Timerman the crucial question is whether Israel will be able to accept the Palestinians’ rights, withdraw to the old border of 1967 and allow a Palestinian state to be established in the West Bank and Gaza. But this version of our geopolitical reality simply doesn’t take into account the Arabs’ historical inability to ‘mouth the essential yes’ to Israel’s existence, their rejection of Israel, the war they waged against it before the West Bank and Gaza were ever occupied, and the fact that they have given the Israeli population reason to believe that they are not prepared to live in peace with Israel even now. If the West Bank were the only issue, why was there an Arab-instigated war in 1967, which resulted in the West Bank falling to Israel? If Palestinian rights was the core issue, why didn’t the Arab community accept the original UN Partition Plan in 1947? It is an Arab peace initiative that is required; and a more generous share of the blame for the present impasse needs to be given to the Arabs.
The Sadat initiative proved that most Israelis are not fanatically hard-line about the territories. But they are serious in their concern for their security and consequently reject the third-state solution which Timerman proposes. The majority of Israeli moderates approve of a West Bank-Jordanian confederation, with no Arab army being allowed west of the Jordan River: a return to the 1967 lines would be considered dangerous to Israel’s security. What they would like to see is a map redrawn along the lines of the Allon Plan. The more radical doves, like Timerman, who propose a total withdrawal and a Palestinian state, are neglecting the Palestinian Arab majority east of the river in Hussein’s (trans-) Jordan. Sharon’s ‘Jordan is Palestine’ scenario, which proposes a Palestinian solution at the expense of the Hashemite dynasty, neglects the 1.3 million Palestinian Arabs who live west, on the Israeli side, of the river.
What we have now is a clash between the desire of the Israeli community to let old wounds heal over, to accept the verdict of history in terms of the 1967 borders, and the desire of Begin and his supporters (on the one hand) and the Labour Opposition (on the other) to correct the mistakes of 1949. (The extreme Arab position embodied in the PLO Charter also wants to correct the mistake of 1947 – to erase Israel altogether.) Begin’s aim is to incorporate all of ‘historic western eretz yisrael’ into the sovereign state of Israel. Labour wants to use the territories to induce the Arabs to negotiate a political settlement which will provide for recognition of Israel, and at the same time to create more viable, ‘defensible’ borders which will discourage any peace-breaking by the Arab side. In both cases, the ‘verdict of history’ is perceived as not being in yet. Meanwhile there appears to be a growing tendency among the Arabs to come to terms with the reality of Israel’s existence. At stake is the magic of the nation-state – the central political myth of our century. What Israeli moderates fear is that the maximalists are undermining the best chance Israel has so far had to sign its name in the wet cement of history.
The settlers on the West Bank now feel that they have rendered impossible any solution that involves territorial compromise. But for Timerman, ‘the historical inevitability of a Palestinian state’ is, quite simply, ‘an idea shared by all progressive people’. ‘Historical inevitability’, however, is not so easily discerned. Timerman follows the ‘Anthony Lewis formula’ in making his case. On the face of it, so the formula runs, the existence of Israel is a legitimate premise, but the present Israeli Government is doing all kinds of wicked things. So far, so good. The door to a compromise, however, will open only if the Arabs decide to recognise Israel. If Arafat wants to save the recognition ‘card’, he may find himself, as Shimon Peres recently observed, with a full deck of cards and a West Bank paved over with Jewish settlements.
There are some wonderful passages in Timerman’s book, but these are lost in the muddle of confused politics and high moralising. Timerman has trouble with this Israeli Government’s aggressive braggadocio. So do I. But as I do not want to victimise, neither would I want to trade places with the victim. If the PLO had, somehow, marched south and surrounded Tev Aviv, we Jews would have been the darlings of the world again. We need to escape this cycle of extremism which is pushing us into the opposite corner (and which was mirrored in the passionate hostility which Timerman’s book elicited in Israel). The central goal of a moderate Israeli policy is the pursuit of peace with security as twin conditions for our survival. The Longest War fails to help in this task. If we have seen anything in these months of anguish, it is not that Israelis ‘are not ... repelled by the possibility of a Palestinian genocide’: the four hundred thousand demonstrators (reduced to a hundred thousand and translated to Jerusalem in this book) were most definitely ‘repelled’. To end his book with such a charge, written in the low days after the massacres, is a real injustice; and it does not serve the cause of the peace we all need so badly.
Israel will have to reject the annexationist dogma which now governs strategic thinking: the Arabs will have to accept Israel in their midst. Henry Kissinger, who fathered the Reagan Plan with his Washington Post article last June, saw ‘windows of opportunity’ open as a result of the war. Timerman hotly rejects this thesis, unwilling to concede that the war could have had any positive consequences: but, again, he fails to convince.