Middle Eastern Passions

Keith Kyle

  • The Palestinians by Jonathan Dimbleby
    Quartet, 256 pp, £12.50, September 1980, ISBN 0 7043 2205 6
  • The Rabin Memoirs by Yitzhak Rabin
    Weidenfeld, 272 pp, £10.00, November 1980, ISBN 0 297 77546 4

The Palestinians are the people who were living in Palestine when it was decided to build a Jewish homeland there and who fled from their homes in great numbers when the Jewish state was proclaimed. There has been fierce controversy about the exact circumstances in which the diaspora started, although spontaneously generated columns of civilian refugees have been a characteristic of all modern war, generally requiring no further explanation than the outbreak or rumour of fighting. It has been an important part of Israeli belief, supported by scarcely anything in the way of hard evidence, that the Arab states instructed the Palestinian Arab civilians to get out of the way so as to provide free-fire zones for the Arab armies. The Arabs, as Jonathan Dimbleby shows in his book, stick passionately by the contention tint they were either physically ejected by the Israelis or impelled to flee by Jewish psychological warfare.

In the original draft of his book Yitzhak Rabin, who in 1948 was a 26-year-old brigade commander in the Palmach (‘assault companies’), claimed that he was ordered to expel 50,000 Arab civilians from Lydda and Ranila, two towns that were inconviently close to Tel Aviv. Some of his men, he said, refused to take part in the expulsion: ‘Prolonged propaganda activities were required after the action, to remove the bitterness of these [men] and explain why we were obliged to undertake such a harsh and cruel action.’ But this passage no longer appears in the published volume, which, according to the New York Times, has been censored by a committee of the Israeli Cabinet.

Dimbleby’s was the second book last year – Rosemary Sayigh’s was the first[*] – to tell the Palestinians’ story largely in their own words. It is magnificently illustrated with photographs by Donald McCullin and emphasises the transition from the original refugees, beaten, humiliated, dwelling on their exceptionally sharpened memories and relying on someone else – the world community, the Arab states – to restore them to their homes, to the new generations, who have held that no one is going to liberate them but themselves. The relationship is the same in kind, though not in degree, as that between the young Israeli fighter and the parents who went, unresisting, into the concentration camps. The Six-Day War of 1967 represented a watershed: after it, reliance on Pan-Arabism was replaced by a flowering of Palestinian nationalism. Dimbleby supplies the necessary historical context, but is content, for the most part, to allow this nationalism to present itself through lengthy quotations.

‘If the PLO agrees to give up its policy of terrorism and recognise the State of Israel, would Israel consider holding any talks with the PLO leaders for the possible establishment of a Palestine State?’ Yitzhak Rabin was asked this at an international symposium in Jerusalem when he was Prime Minister. Rabin answered, ‘There is in Yiddish a famous saying that “If Grandma would have wheels, she would be a bus”… Israel will not negotiate with the so-called PLO,’ pronouncing ‘so-called’ with a grimace that contorted his features. This was the man who, though he does not say so in his book, came to the premiership as the great hope of the ‘doves’.

Unlike most of Israel’s leaders, Rabin is a sabra: that is to say, he was born in Palestine. He has held the three most important posts in war, diplomacy and politics – Chief of Staff, Ambassador in Washington, Prime Minister – and is still only 57. He writes well and with considerable candour, especially for a politician who apparently regards his future role as an active one. He appears at times to have total recall for historical dialogue.

Although the Ramla incident has been excised from his account of 1948, another episode of that time on which it is useful to have his testimony has not been. By the time of the second UN truce, the Israelis had occupied large segments of the ‘Arab State’ provided for in the UN partition but had not completed their conquest of Beersheba and the Negev, which had been allocated to the ‘Jewish State’. There remained the possibility of a rough-and-ready deal. ‘We believe,’ cabled the American Secretary of State on 12 August, ‘transfer Jaffa and all or portions of Western Galilee to Israel in exchange for transfer all or part of Negev good basis for informal Arab-Jewish negotiations.’ Rabin shows how the Israelis put paid to any such notion. The Egyptian Army, he recalls, showed little inclination to renew the war. ‘Having taken full advantage of the respite’ provided by the UN truce, the Israelis, on the other hand, ‘were ready and eager for action’. The ‘fact’ of the Egyptian presence in the southern triangle of the ‘Jewish State’ was to be abolished. There was only one problem: ‘we had to find some pretext for renewing the fighting.’ There seemed to be an obvious solution. The truce terms provided for the free passage of Israeli convoys to outlying settlements: if a convoy were sent through ‘as a deliberate act of provocation’, surely the Egyptians could be counted upon to open file. The deadline for the minutely-planned attack approached. Nothing happened: ‘Every additional mile the convoy covered unmolested the nearer our nerves stretched to breaking point. The excuse for our attack was slipping out of our grasp. In the end with the aid of a random shot here, another there, we had our pretext.’

Rabin describes himself as a loner, not given to small talk or easy confidences. To Henry Kissinger ‘he possessed few of the attributes commonly associated with diplomacy,’ and he sees in himself a ‘tendency towards withdrawal’. But his natural taciturnity sometimes conceals a build-up of high tensions. There is the episode of his nervous breakdown on the eve of victorious military leadership in the Six-Day War, which forced him to take 48 hours off at the height of the crisis; and there was the long, emotion-charged speech with which, as Israeli Ambassador, he acutely embarrassed Richard Nixon, who ‘sat mute with his eyes averted’.

When his term as Chief of Staff was up, Rabin asked for the Washington Embassy, to the acute surprise of those who found it difficult to visualise him as a diplomat and despite the pain it must have caused Abba Eban, the Foreign Minister, who ‘was not one of my greatest admirers and in all fairness I should say the feeling was mutual.’ Henry Kissinger, in The White House Years, wrote of him that he ‘had many extraordinary qualities, but the gift of human relations was not one of them. If he had been handed the entire United States Strategic Air Command as a free gift he would have affected the attitude that at last Israel was getting its due, and found some technical shortcoming in the airplanes that made his accepting them a reluctant concession to us.’ Rabin decided from the start to play American politics for the sake of Israel. In 1968 he negotiated the deal which made the United States a major supplier of arms to Israel – the sale of 50 Phantom planes. When he was told at the Pentagon exactly how much detailed American supervision of Israeli defence establishments would be required, ‘I sat there stupefied, feeling the blood rising to my face.’ He disposed of that difficulty, however, by playing off the incoming Republican Administration against the dying Democratic one and got what he wanted from Lyndon Johnson in his last few days.

Under the new Nixon Administration, he had to fight against Secretary of State Rogers’s determination to bring peace to the Middle East with the help of the Soviet Union, on the basis of total Israeli withdrawal from the territory gained in the 1967 war in return for recognition of Israeli sovereignty and other conditions. Rabin stormed at Kissinger: ‘I personally shall do everything within the bounds of American law to arouse public opinion against the administration’s moves.’ Rabin flatters himself that he had ‘penetrated through Kissinger’s sang-froid’. In fact, Kissinger himself was wanting to sink the Rogers Plan on the grounds that continued stalemate in the Middle East was to America’s advantage because it proved that the Soviet Union was failing to deliver to its clients. He confined himself, however, to advising the Ambassador not to direct his public campaign against Nixon personally: ‘The President has not spoken about the documents yet… What you say to Rogers or against him is for you to decide. But I advise you again. Don’t attack the President!’

In later negotiations Rabin came to deplore the endless negativism and meaningless verbalisms of Golda Meir’s administration. In the summer of 1970 the Egyptians unexpectedly accepted a cease-fire along the Suez Canal and a new ‘Rogers initiative’ to get talks started under the auspices of the Swedish Ambassador to the UN, Gunnar Jarring. Had Israel accepted? No one knew. Neither the Americans nor the Israeli Ambassador could get a clear answer out of Tel Aviv: ‘Everything was in confusion. Violent accusations were flung about on both sides of the ocean. The relationship between Israel and the United States was in total disarray’. Rabin gives a blow-by-blow account of these events. But he confesses: ‘Although I, who was right in the middle, can describe it, I’m not at all sure that I can explain it.’ He could no longer understand what Golda Meir was so angry about: ‘“Dictate precisely what you want me to tell Kissinger,” I begged her. “Word for word. I’ll tell him exactly what you say.” But she dictated nothing and said nothing.’

No one should ever underestimate the elements of passion and even fury that go into Israeli politics. Public life is carried on at the top of many voices. The Cabinet reaches decisions only by voting – Rabin describes a vote of nine votes to nine on 28 May 1967 on whether Israel should go to war. In April 1971, when before the Yom Kippur War the Egyptians formulated proposals for the opening of the Suez Canal and partial settlement in Sinai, Rabin was so exasperated, he says, that it was ‘one of the rare occasions when I could stale without reservation that I agreed with Abba Eban,’ who had remarked that no one could possibly know ‘whether we want to hold on to 70 per cent of Sinai or 7 per cent’.

Henry Kissinger had an acute instinct for failure. ‘In every sphere of my activity… I have developed a reputation for achieving my goals,’ he told Rabin. ‘I won’t handle any matter that looks hopeless to me.” When Kissinger did take on the Sinai negotiation, the Yom Kippur War had had to be fought and Rabin was Prime Minister of Israel. His account of the premiership is less intimate than what has gone before, but it is not lacking in interest and is particularly good on the handling of the Entebbe raid, the enormously exhausting shuttle talks with Kissinger when five hours might be spent at a stretch discussing a hundred metres of sand; it is good, too, on the ill-starred visit to President Carter.

A pantaloon figure is to be found breaking into Rabin’s account, making ‘ludicrous’ suggestions for American and Russian forces to be stationed in parts of Sinai, delivering ‘exaggerated and pretentious’ lists to the Americans of wanted military equipment, and, 53 hours into the Entebbe crisis, uttering the ‘deplorable truth’ that as Minister of Defence he had not yet spoken to the Chief of Staff. There was just nothing, it seemed, that the man could do right. He is the present leader of Yitzhak Rabin’s party and the likely future prime minister, Shimon Peres. Yitzhak Rabin has gone one better than Edward Heath – he has brought out his book on politics.

[*] Palestinians: From Peasants to Revolutionaries. Zed Press, 216 pp., £8.95 and £2.95. April 1979. 0 905762 24 X.