Malise Ruthven discusses the Beirut massacre
In discussing the cruelty of the Inquisition, the great historian of rationalism, Lecky, noted the intimate connection between the Medieval Church’s constant contemplation of martyrdom and the willingness to inflict it upon others. The monks and friars who excelled in the persecution of heretics, he suggested, had been brutalised by constant exposure to agonising pictures which they associated with the truth of the Christian faith. Several modern writers have interpreted this paradoxical inversion, in which the persecutor sees himself as victim, as a collective version of paranoid projection: just as the paranoiac murderer can feel terrified of his harmless victims, so a dominant social group can perceive itself as threatened by the people whom it exploits and persecutes. As Norman Cohn has written in his masterly study of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Warrant for Genocide, ‘what these people see as the enemy is in fact the destructiveness and cruelty in their own psyches, externalised. And the greater the unconscious sense of guilt, the more fearsome the imaginary enemy.’
In Medieval Europe, Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany, group paranoia was carefully fostered by official propaganda. Heretics, Trotskyists and Jews genuinely existed and many of them, for good reasons, were bitterly hosile to official doctrines or policies. But in each case the real hostility was magnified and endowed with preternatural capabilities. Since Israel’s foundation in 1948, some of these features have characterised the attitudes of Israel and its supporters towards the Palestinian victims of the Jewish state. Rather than seeing them simply as a people displaced – necessarily or otherwise – to make room for themselves, and therefore entitled at least to be generously compensated for the loss of their homes and territories, the extreme Zionists have projected onto the Palestinians their own repressed sense of guilt and aggressiveness. This reaction has been nurtured by two additional factors: the sense of insecurity felt by survivors of the Holocaust and the empty threatenings of Arab and Palestinian leaders who have tended to compensate for their impotence towards Israel by violent words and sometimes spectacular terrorist outrages. The memory of the Holocaust is enshrined in many Israeli public rituals and instilled into every Israeli school-child. The Arab preference for talk over action is liable to be misunderstood by people with experience of the Nazis. The Nazis meant what they said.
There is abundant evidence that since 1948 Zionist leaders have knowingly exploited and exacerbated feelings of paranoia among ordinary Israelis and their foreign supporters in order to increase Israel’s military power and the territory it holds. Zionist manipulation usually takes one of two forms: provocation against Arab governments, whose cosmetic and largely verbal responses can then be invoked to mobilise support for Israeli expansion on grounds of security, and the standard accusation that anyone hostile to Israel or critical of its policies must be motivated by anti-semitism. The most devastating evidence that Zionist leaders deliberately provoked Arab hostility in order to blackmail the West into supporting Israeli expansionism comes from the Diaries of the late Moshe Sharret, Foreign Minister under David Ben-Gurion and Prime Minister in 1954 and 1955. The Diaries, eight volumes covering the years 1953 to 1957, detail a number of incidents, including the slaughter of 60 Jordanian villagers by Ariel Sharon’s notorious Unit 101, and the Gaza raid of 1955, in which 39 Egyptians died, a direct cause of the escalation which led to the 1956 Suez War. Sharret’s diaries also give details of Israeli plans to take over Gaza and the West Bank in the early 1950s, and to establish a Maronite puppet-state in Lebanon at least fifteen years before the Palestinians became a political factor in that country. In May 1955 Sharret confided his feelings in these words: ‘I have been meditating on the long chain of false incidents and hostilities we have invented, on the many clashes we have provoked which cost us so much blood, and on the violations of the law by our men – all of which brought grave disasters and determined the whole course of events and contributed to the security crisis.’
The accusation that anti-semitism motivates any condemnation of Jewish or Israeli terrorism has been the stock-in-trade of Zionist leaders ever since Menahem Begin’s Irgun killers slaughtered the whole village of Deir Yassin, near Jerusalem, in 1948. Though well-documented by independent witnesses and denounced by the official Zionist leadership, Begin continued to deny that the massacre ever took place, stating in his book The Revolt (1951) that the ‘ “Dir Yassin Massacre” lie is still propagated by Jew-haters all over the world’. Anti-semitism was also invoked during the so-called ‘Lavon Affair’ in 1954, when Israeli agents planted bombs in US and British installations in Egypt in order to sabotage negotiations for Britain’s withdrawal from the Canal Zone and possible US arms sales to Egypt. When Egypt arrested the agents after a bomb had exploded in the pocket of one of them, the Israeli Government, including Sharret, who knew the truth, publicly accused the Egyptians of having inflicted ‘medieval’ tortures upon them in order to extract bogus confessions. Accusations that Palestinian prisoners were systematically and routinely tortured by the Israeli authorities after the 1967 war were dismissed as hostile propaganda inspired by anti-semitic feelings.
The reflex that any accusation against Israel must ipso facto be inspired by anti-semitism is not just a defence mechanism: it is the logical outcome of an ideology which postulates anti-semitism as a permanent and ineradicable fact of human nature. Zionism, in the extremist versions represented by Begin and Sharon and their mentor Vladimir Jabotinsky, is the obverse of the anti-semitism which it may serve to perpetuate. As Hannah Arendt observed: ‘European Zionists ... have often thought and said that the evil of anti-semitism was necessary for the good of the Jewish people. In the words of a well-known Zionist in a letter to me discussing the original Zionist argumentation: “the anti-Semites want to get rid of the Jews, the Jewish state wants to receive them, a perfect match.” The notion that we can use our enemies for our own salvation has always been the “original sin” of Zionism.’
In this context, the international outrage provoked by the Beirut massacre seemed at first to suit the extreme Zionist book. In their initial statements, both the Cabinet in Jerusalem and Israel’s representative at the United Nations declared that anyone accusing Israel of complicity in the affair was guilty of ‘blood-libel’. Nothing would appear to make Begin happier than that the whole world should hate Israel, for this would serve to confirm his belief that Jews are destined to be eternal pariahs and therefore, in a sense, morally superior to other people. If those making the charges are seen to be motivated by anti-semitism, the substance of the charges need not be examined. The facts about the massacre that had already come to light, however, have forced the Begin Government to shift its ground. It could no longer be denied, in view of the presence of foreign journalists and television crews, that Israeli military commanders, with the full knowledge of Begin and Sharon, arranged for the Christian militias to enter the camps. When the Kahan Inquiry eventually reports, the area of dispute is likely to centre on the question of which militias were responsible. Survivors, interviewed by foreign reporters, were convinced that the leading part was played by Major Saad Haddad’s men, whom they recognised by their southern accents. Reports from Jerusalem tended to back Sharon’s claims that his Phalangist allies were primarily responsible. While the truth may never be fully known, even if there is an independent, UN-sponsored inquiry, it is clear that the Israelis have an interest in blaming the Phalangist militias nominally under the control of Amin Gemayel, who are allies, rather than Haddad’s southern militiamen who are no more than auxiliaries, having never had any existence beyond their role as an extra arm of the Israeli Defence Forces. The newly-elected Lebanese President has the backing of most of the Arab states: attributing responsibility to his men implicates them, however indirectly, in the massacre. Haddad, on the other hand, has long been a renegade in Arab eyes, ever since he was cashiered from the Lebanese Army. What is more, every Israeli knows that Ukrainian, Slovakian, Hungarian and Rumanian auxiliaries assisted the Nazis in the Final Solution.
Apart from the question of direct responsibility for the massacre (Israel’s overall moral responsibility is not in doubt), there remains the question of motive, and of how the massacre fits into Israeli strategic plans for the region. The argument that the militiamen ‘betrayed’ their Israeli allies, having promised to confine themselves to ‘cleaning up’ the camps of their remaining Muslim and Palestinian fighters, is unlikely to convince anyone who has studied the reports carefully and who is familiar with both Begin’s and Sharon’s records. In view of the well-known hatred felt by the Phalangists towards the Palestinians, manifested in previous Beirut atrocities at Karantina and Tel el Zatir, the Israeli commanders cannot have been ignorant of what would happen when the militias were let loose in the camps; moreover, it is clear that they actively assisted them by sealing off the access routes, putting up signs and sending up flares to illuminate their task after dark. As Mr Begin’s own account of the massacre of Deir Yassin makes plain, he understands that atrocities, ‘mythical’ or otherwise, have their uses. After dismissing accounts of the massacre as ‘Arab greuel propaganda’ which his political rivals seized upon for party advantage, he virtually gives the game away by adding: ‘Out of evil, however, good came. This Arab propaganda spread a legend of terror amongst Arabs and Arab troops, who were seized with panic at the mention of Irgun soldiers. The legend was worth half a dozen battalions to the forces of Israel.’
Was there a similar terrorist motive behind Israel’s ‘setting-up’ of the Beirut massacre? Arabs, including most Palestinians and Lebanese who consider that Israeli Intelligence was behind the murder of Bashir Gemayel, see the massacre as fitting into the same pattern of deliberate de-stabilisation. Bashir, according to this argument, was not playing the puppet role expected of him by the Israelis, but rather seemed set to achieve what the Americans wanted: a united, pro-Western Lebanese state on its way towards mending its fences with the Arab camp. Although some Israeli statements have paid lip-service to the idea of a ‘strong, united Lebanon’ at peace with its southern neighbour, such a possibility did not apparently suit the hard-liners in Jerusalem. According to this analysis, Begin and Sharon would prefer to have a much weaker Lebanese state, or even two or more separate Lebanese states, which would be obliged to remain dependent on Israeli protection. If there were to be two mini-states, one would be controlled by the Maronites based in Beirut, the other by Haddad or possibly the Shi’a militias in the south. By allowing the Christian militias to commit atrocities in the camps the Israelis hoped to sabotage any rapprochement between Amin Gemayel and the Arab states.
There have been several suggestions in the Israeli press recently that Begin and Sharon would like to see a return to something approaching the old Ottoman millet system in the region around Israel. The millet system was based on the autonomy of the various religious communities which made up the empire under their traditional religious and family leaderships. As well as the two mini-states he would like to see in Lebanon, it has been suggested that Begin would look favourably on an Alawite state in north-west Syria and a Druze state in the Golan region – even separate Muslim and Coptic states in Egypt. The idea is pure fantasy: the new national states established in the region after the First World War have generally managed, despite set-backs, to create new allegiances which transcend the old ones based on religious affiliation and kinship. However, no one would deny that the Arab-Muslim national state is still a fragile species. The absence of corporate institutions and functional loyalties of the kind which prevail in Western societies has made it vulnerable to manipulation by power-groups based on sectarian or family solidarities. In Syria, the Muslim Brotherhood’s war against the ‘Alawite clique’ around President Hafez el Assad has only been won by Assad, if it has been won, at enormous cost. Most competent observers place the number of those killed in the Hama rebellion last February at 10, 000. Sectarian resentments are thinly concealed throughout the region. Massacres such as Beirut and Hama are quite likely to increase communal tensions generally, a factor which could be manipulated to Israel’s advantage in the short term, since she is so much the strongest military power. But such a policy would be fraught with dangerous and unforseeable consequences. The national state, though no panacea, is the only kind of polity capable of guaranteeing equality of treatment to all its subjects. The destruction of Lebanon, the weakest national state in the region, is already far advanced. To allow a similar process to spread to Syria and beyond would simply add to the general instability without improving Israel’s prospects for survival. An increase in sectarian feeling must add to the wave of Islamic sentiment currently sweeping the region, a wave whose utopian aspirations are in constant conflict with the realities of the national state. Zionist provocation and ‘fundamentalist’ reaction could prove a combination devastating enough to undermine the existing national governments, with disastrous consequences for the area as a whole, including, ultimately, Israel.
The true irony emerging from the current turmoil is not so much that the Jews are appearing in the role of oppressors, but that the Jewish state has come to represent the communal, rather than the territorial, version of nationalism. In the emerging pattern of territorial national development in the Middle East Israel was always something of an anomaly. Although the Founding Fathers of Zionism believed passionately that the Jews must have a territory of their own in order to be like other peoples, the Ottoman background of Palestine and the inconvenient presence of the Arabs meant that, from the first, the state was built around people rather than territory. The principle is enshrined in Israel’s Law of Return, which allows any ‘Jew’ to settle in preference to any one of the area’s displaced inhabitants. From the time of Israel’s foundation in 1948, a substantial minority of Arabs could not be accorded full equality of citizenship, and was obliged to live under Emergency Decrees inherited from the British (and bitterly denounced by the Zionists during their campaign for independence). Israel’s anomalous character was further increased after the acquisition of Gaza and the West Bank in 1967, and especially after 1978, when the Likud Government made it clear that these territories were non-negotiable. In Begin’s eyes, the Arabs of ‘Judea and Samaria’ are to be condemned to perpetual second-class citizenship. According to his interpretation of the Camp David agreements, such autonomy as they are to be allowed will apply to ‘people’ rather than ‘territory’.
Only a settlement for the region which guarantees the existing national states behind secure and recognised frontiers can be sure of avoiding the catastrophe of inter-communal violence and neo-tribalism. For Israel and Lebanon this must mean exemplary punishments for the murderers of Beirut and their accomplices, lest the victims’ communities take it upon themselves to seek collective revenge (and in the present circumstances, this would place Christians rather than Jews at risk). It must also mean the removal of the Likud Government, as a prelude to a complete withdrawal from the occupied territories. The Arab governments have already indicated that they will recognise Israel’s existence on these terms – if only because they, too, have a vested interest in the territorial principle. The alternatives are too grim to contemplate.
Vol. 5 No. 1 · 10 January 1983
SIR: I suppose this is a somewhat intemperate letter, but I am getting fed up. Malise Ruthven’s essay on ‘the Beirut massacre’ (LRB, 4 November 1982) is only the latest piece of mendacious anti-Israel propaganda to appear recently in your pages. There have been a whole series of such attacks over the last few years, and they have a curiously similar ring. Since the authors are unwilling to admit to their hatred of Israel and their contempt for Israel’s interest, but wish to pose as reasonable friends of peace and of humane values, they all fall back on a characteristic blend of hypocrisy, distortion and intellectual gymnastics. In particular, they are obliged to ignore or conceal the central reality of Arab-Israeli conflict, which is the refusal of the Arab states with the sole exception of Egypt, to accept Israel’s right to exist. If the Arabs were willing to make serious peace with Israel, the plight of the Palestinians would be soluble, and historical experience makes it plausible that most Israelis would be willing to make sacrifices and take risks to solve it. Given the present situation, the Palestinians simply play the role of the Sudeten Germans in the propaganda of the Arab states – who have demonstrated repeatedly that they do not give a damn about the Palestinians’ welfare – and of their Western sycophants, such Mr Ruthven. This is an important part of the context in which Begin’s demagogy and militarism can command the level of support that they do.
Mr Ruthven’s essay ignores or dismisses all of this, but focuses minutely on the alleged paranoia, deceitfulness and reactionary immorality of Zionist policies. Like most pieces of skilful propaganda, this account is not entirely devoid of facts, but it is curious that the Jews seem to be the only ones in the Middle East who are oppressive, militaristic or xenophobic. Furthermore, it always turns out that any tendencies in the Islamic world of which Mr Ruthven or the other authors might disapprove – such as the narrowness and instability of the regimes, the shakiness of the concept of the secular territorial state, or the pull toward religious or national loyalties rather than purely political ones – are all the fault of (guess who?) Israel. The sheer preposterousness of this notion makes it difficult to know how to respond. Next Mr Ruthven will want us to believe that Theodore Herzl founded Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, that the Ayatollah Khomeini got the concept of jihad from Moshe Dayan, and that Mossad was behind the pan-Arab nationalism of Nasser and the Ba’ath party. (The Palestinian National Covenant, by the way, states very clearly that Palestine will be a ‘secular, democratic’ Arab state.) When the wildly one-sided bias of these authors is pointed out to them, they deflect the question by attacking a straw man, and deny that criticism of Israel is necessarily anti-semitic. Fine. I think it is true that such arguments often proceed merely from an obsessive antagonism to Israel and an irresponsible indifference to the Israelis’ very rational concern about their national existence and security, so that they are anti-semitic in effect but not in intention. But his sort of anti-Zionism is morally despicable enough to deserve condemnation on its own terms, even if some of the authors’ best friends are Jews – or even if they are Jews themselves.
At the end of the article there comes the characteristic never-never-land touch. The solution, Mr Ruthven asserts, is ‘a settlement for the region which guarantees the existing national states behind secure and recognised frontiers … ’ I agree, and this is precisely what the Israelis have been saying for some thirty years. Why doesn’t he mention this excellent idea to the Arabs? ‘The Arab governments have already indicated they will recognise Israel’s existence on these terms …’ This is, of course, an outright lie. Why do you publish such pernicious rubbish?
The London Review of Books has run for three years and has published few pieces of any length on this subject: so Jeff Weintraub’s alleged long-running torrent of mendacity is a mirage. He is one of those who take themselves to be contributing to the defence of Israel – a cause with which this journal fully sympathises – when they search their vocabularies for words of abuse to direct at writers with whom they disagree. He is against both Begin and the ‘anti-Zionists’. But he appears to have something in common with publicists and polemicists who suggest that Begin’s policies are necessary for the survival of Israel and that it is ‘objectively’ anti-semitic to deny it, and who are unable to understand, or admit, that it may precisely be a concern for Israel which dictates a rejection of Begin. There can now be defences of Israel which defend – very often, by omitting to mention the matter – the organised killing of women and children. Malise Ruthven will reply to this letter in the next issue.
Editor, ‘London Review’
Vol. 5 No. 2 · 3 February 1983
SIR: Jeff Weintraub’s attack on me (Letters, 10 January) is so blunderingly abusive that I have had as much difficulty in finding a coherent line of criticism to answer as he claims to have had in responding to my article. In the first place, he misrepresents the essential point in my argument about the instability of Middle East regimes. I did not blame Israel exclusively, having made it clear that it was a consequence of the area’s Islamic-Ottoman background. I did argue – and repeat – that Begin and Sharon’s policies add to this inherent instability by encouraging sectarian conflict. Secondly, Mr Weintraub misrepresents my view of the consequences of such deliberate destabilisation. I am not asking him to believe that the religious militancy affecting the whole area is of Israel’s making, merely that Begin’s policies are contributing to this fanatical upsurge. Jewish messianic fundamentalism has its mirror-image in Islamic fundamentalism. Both movements are inimical to the ideals of the secular national state.
Finally, Mr Weintraub claims that Arab refusal to recognise Israel’s right to exist is the ‘central reality’ of the conflict. What of Israel’s repeated refusal to recognise the rights of the Palestinians, its illegal annexation of parts of the occupied territories (including East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights) and its policy (which long pre-dates the coming to power of Begin’s ‘demagogic and militarist’ government) of expropriating Arab water and land and planting Jewish settlements? Are these simple consequences of Arab non-recognition (or punishments for it, perhaps, like the blowing-up of villages), or has Arab non-recognition been a consequence of Israel’s refusal to implement UN resolutions concerning Palestinian rights and territory in 1948, 1967 and 1973 and so on?
Rightly or wrongly, the Arab states except Egypt have not seen why they should recognise any a priori right of Israel to exist until the dispute over territory has been settled: no state in the world exists by right, independently of the territory it occupies. The indication that recognition would be forthcoming in the event of an Israeli withdrawal is implicit in UN Resolutions 242 and 338, accepted by Egypt, Jordan and later by Syria, and more recently in the declaration by the Arab League governments at Fez.
Vol. 5 No. 3 · 17 February 1983
SIR: Mr Ruthven (LRB, 4 November 1982) appears to be remarkably prone to oversimplification. Take the term ‘Zionism’, for instance. Mr Ruthven, it seems, has never heard of the historic and unceasing conflict between Labour Zionism and Revisionism, let alone other trends. For him the blanket pejorative ‘Zionism’ will do. One is reminded of that devoted student of Henry James who, when the master paused in the course of a conversation in search of an exact epithet, said encouragingly: ‘Never mind, Mr James. Any old word will do.’ It is certainly true, alas, that Mr Begin’s policies are giving Zionism a bad name, but whether this should excuse stereotypical thinking of quite so gross a character is another matter.
The ‘extreme Zionists’, Mr Ruthven says, ‘project upon the Palestinians their own repressed sense of guilt and aggressiveness’. Within a paragraph, however, he has dispensed altogether with adjectival constraints and proceeds happily with his presentation of Zionism plain and unadorned. The repressed guilt and aggressiveness of Zionism has been nurtured, Mr Ruthven tells us, by two added factors: ‘the sense of insecurity felt by survivors of the Holocaust (the memory of which is enshrined in many public rituals and instilled into every Israeli schoolchild) … and the empty threatenings of Arab and Palestinian leaders who have tended to compensate for their impotence towards Israel by violent words and sometimes spectacular terrorist outrages … The Arab preference for talk over action is liable to be misunderstood by people with experience of the Nazis. The Nazis meant what they said.’ This is a set of quite startling contentions. First of all, in a population of which at least one-third are Holocaust survivors or the children of Holocaust survivors, it would hardly seem to be necessary ‘to instil’ the memory of the Holocaust. In point of fact, the Holocaust as a subject for systematic historical study has only recently been introduced into the school syllabus for the final high-school year. And yes, there is an annual Remembrance Day for the six million in the Israeli calendar. I think Mr Ruthven will probably find that most people with a lot of dead to remember like to remember them.
‘Empty threatenings’ seems to be an odd way of describing the invasion by seven Arab nations of the State of Israel newly created in 1948 on the basis of the United Nations partition of British Mandated Palestine; the closing of the Straits of Tiran and the removal of the UN peacekeeping force in Sinai by Nasser in 1967; and the initially extremely successful Egyptian and Syrian surprise attacks of 1973. Arabs, unlike Nazis, Mr Ruthven implies, do not mean what they say. No? Not even when what they say is a vow of revenge, and hard evidence that they mean what they say is open and palpable to all eyes in Tel el Za’ater, Damur, Shatila, Tripoli? Or a promise to root out political opposition which leaves ten thousand (a conservative estimate) dead in the streets of Hama? A massacre which oddly enough does not appear to exercise Mr Ruthven’s righteous wrath overmuch. What does Mr Ruthven suggest? That Israel offer itself as a guinea pig for the testing of his theory of the Arab preference for talk over action? Would he? There have indeed been some ‘spectacular terrorist outrages’. There have also been some unspectacular ones – just a bomb in a bus. A great many, indeed most, fortunately, have failed. Action, at all events, rather than words, has been pretty constant over the last 35 years.
Mr Ruthven’s lack of objectivity shows up most conspicuously in his treatment of the Kahana Inquiry Commission. He himself, like Mr Begin, has no need for a Commission. ‘Israel’s overall moral responsibility,’ he says, ‘is not in doubt.’ And the only matters remaining to discuss are, in his view, the Israeli motivation for setting up the massacre, linked, in a grand super-conspiracy, to the Israeli murder of Bashir Gemayel (this he has, he tells us, straight from ‘most Palestinians and Lebanese’), and whether the killers were Phalangists or Major Haddad’s men. However, there is no dispute (or denial on Israel’s part) that it was the Phalangists who were sent into the camps. That some Phalangists were mistaken for Haddad’s men in the turmoil and terror of the massacre which followed is irrelevant. But it is precisely the question of moral responsibility which the Inquiry Commission was instituted to determine: who precisely knew what, and when; who planned what and when; who was warned, or worried ahead of time; who ignored or belittled the warnings; who informed whom of the disaster and when; and what was then done about it. These are the questions the Commission has probingly been asking and they are the key questions for any judicial ascription of blame. When innocent people are killed in incriminating but confused and uncertain circumstances, civilised custom demands inquiry into the facts of the matter before leaping to foregone conclusions. That civilised custom was demanded not, as Mr Ruthven claims, by ‘facts’ coming to light through foreign journalists and television crews – those facts were known when Mr Begin refused to set up a Commission – but by the demonstration of 400,000 Israeli citizens who, against their own government and in the middle of a war, took to the streets in anguish at what had been allowed to occur. That figure translates into five million Britons. Every one of those people was a Zionist, as it happens – that species of the human race which, according to Mr Ruthven, projects ‘upon an imaginary enemy the destructiveness and cruelty of their own psyches’, just as the fabricators of the infamous Protocols did.
Mr Ruthven’s ‘most devastating evidence that Zionist leaders deliberately provoked Arab hostility in order to blackmail the West into supporting Israeli expansionism’ comes, he says, from the Diaries of the late Moshe Sharett. The Diary entry he quotes, however, is quoted out of context. The context, it will be recalled, was the Suez War of 1956, in which Britain and France, in pursuance of their own imperialist policies, engaged the services of the Israeli Army against Nasser in Sinai. That the then Government of Israel allowed itself to be used in this way, even sought and engineered the collusion, hoping in this way to pre-empt the (undeniable) Egyptian threat in the south, has been the subject of corrosive criticism not only by Sharett but by considerable numbers of Labour supporters ever since. There is good reason to think that Ben Gurion, and the Labour Party since his day, learned the lesson. But these fine distinctions are not for Mr Ruthven. The Israeli political scene, no less complex than the British, is scarcely amenable to exhaustive analysis in terms of his model of paranoid projections. There are nine political parties in the Israeli Parliament, stretching from the extreme left to the extreme right. The five Coalition parties muster about 52 per cent of the electorate. The remainder are in opposition to the policies of the present government. All these parties, save the Communists, whose ideology is internationalist, and the Aguda, whose ideology is providemialist, are Zionist. They subscribe, that is to say, despite bitter dispute on almost every other topic, including their conception of the Zionist enterprise and including the objectives, justification and conduct of the Lebanese war itself, to a belief in the necessity for a territorial homeland and refuge for the scattered Jewish people in some of the area that was once British Mandated Palestine, itself situated upon some of the area, or areas, of the ancient Jewish commonwealth. Upon just which area and how much of it, Coalition and Opposition split with intense passion. The Labour Opposition advocates (and has done, consistently, through the 34 years of the State’s existence) territorial compromise – a partition of the area from the Jordan to the Mediterranean between the two claimant peoples, Jew and Arab. Mr Begin’s Likud claims sovereignty over the whole of the area in question on grounds of Biblical precept and precedent, and a physical-presence concept of defence, and aims at the quasi-annexation or limited autonomy of the West Bank. ‘Creeping’ annexation by settlement proceeds apace at present, a process made possible, be it noted, by the Arab refusal, for the last 34 years (half of that period being before the occupation of the West Bank) to recognise, let alone compromise with or negotiate with, the State of Israel. This refusal (except in Egypt since the Camp David accords) is still extant, though there may be some hopeful signs of a possible change of mind.
Should Mr Begin’s Government be replaced – a consummation, in my own long-standing view, most devoutly to be wished – what does Mr Ruthven imagine will replace it? Or ‘remove’ it, as he puts it? Since he has only one category – a demonically manipulative and fiendishly expansionist ‘Zionism’, one wonders. The Middle East is riven by tensions and wars, internecine and labyrinthine. Whoever presents one side in any of its disputes as being inalienably in possession of total justice, and its opponent as totally in the wrong, does ill service to the cause of sanity, reason and moderation in the region.
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Vol. 5 No. 5 · 17 March 1983
SIR: Ruth Nevo (Letters, 17 February) accuses me of ignoring the ‘historic and unceasing conflict’ between Labour Zionism and Revisionism and of using the single term ‘Zionism’ without any qualifying distinctions except at the beginning of my article. Had she read the piece more carefully, she would have noted the reference to Jabotinsky as Begin’s mentor, along with references to extremist versions of Zionism. Unfortunately, the distinction between Labour Zionism and Revisionism has not always been as clear as Ruth Nevo would have it. Far from being consistent advocates of territorial compromise and Palestinian national rights, Labour governments have cashed in their bargaining counters almost as recklessly as Likud. It was a Labour government that annexed East Jerusalem; it was a Labour government which, between 1967 and 1977, permitted or assisted in the planting of more than thirty settlements in the Occupied Territories, including several by Revisionist-inspired or other right-wing groups. Nor have Zionist bodies outside Israel made a habit (until very recently) of distinguishing between Labour Zionism and Revisionism. For them, what is good for Israel – Greater or Lesser – is good for the Jewish people who must therefore be manipulated, blackmailed or bullied into supporting all of its policies.
The use of Holocaust rhetoric by Zionist officials and Israeli politicians to this end has been the subject of an important article by Boaz Evron in the Hebrew journal Yiton 77 (May-June 1980). Evron argues that ‘Jewish monopolisation’ of the Holocaust (in which three million Poles and Gypsies also died) has tended to prevent rational discussion of the Arab-Israel conflict. By constantly warning of the danger of a ‘Second Holocaust’ Israelis and their foreign supporters have been induced to equate Arabs with Nazis, making Arab hostility seem irrational and efforts at peace-making consequently futile. An instance of this vilifying propaganda may be found in Begin’s famous letter to Reagan last summer, comparing Arafat in Beirut to Hitler in his bunker. As Evron points out, Holocaust rhetoric has continually been used to sustain the feeling of a threat to Israel’s existence, although objectively speaking any such danger ceased after ‘the first cease-fire during the War of Independence of 1948’.
The recently published report of the Kahan Commission bears out many of the points I made in my article, although, as was to be expected, it minimises Israel’s responsibility for the massacres as far as can be done without departing from the fact, known from the first, that Christian militias entered the Sabra and Chatila camps on the orders, and with the assistance, of Sharon and his military commanders. The Commission has made the best of a difficult job in trying to vindicate Israel’s international reputation. However, like the Franks Report on the Falklands War, not all of its conclusions follow from the evidence. While accusing Sharon, Eitan and other senior commanders of culpable negligence in not foreseeing that the dispatch of Phalangist militias into the camps would almost inevitably lead to massacre, it nevertheless exonerates the Israeli military and political leadership of ‘any intention to harm the noncombatant population’. This is, to put it mildly, an unjustifiably lenient conclusion to draw from the catalogue of ‘misunderstandings’, failed communications, ‘lapses of memory’ and unheeded warnings which the report details. Without any additions, the facts admitted in the report can be adduced to allow the much harsher verdict that the senior IDF commanders, acting under Sharon’s orders, deliberately engineered the slaughter in the camps, and resisted all efforts by junior officers to have it stopped.
The line between culpable negligence and active complicity (between omission and commission) is not always easy to draw. But the tendentious character of the Kahan report’s conclusions ought to be readily apparent to anyone who examines the complete text in conjunction with other, more widely-known facts. The report’s most glaring contradiction is its acceptance of the argument that Israel’s attack on West Beirut after Bashir Gemayal’s murder was necessary in order to prevent the very atrocities it engendered: at no point does the report draw the obvious conclusion that the massacres were only made possible by the prior decision of the whole Israeli Government to take over West Beirut, in flagrant violation of the Habib agreement. This fact alone places a much fuller responsibility on the Israeli Government than any admitted in the report.
Having absolved Israel of its major part in setting up the massacres, the report makes a magnanimous admission, in line, as it says, with the highest democratic and Talmudic traditions, of the Government’s ‘indirect responsibility’. However commendable, the moral sensitivity displayed in this area (which certainly contrasts very favourably with the attitudes of any Arab government) is really a red herring: the learned references to the case of the ‘beheaded heifer’ have little to do with the question, for while the motes are meticulously examined, the beam is left virtually untouched. Perhaps this is not entirely the Commission’s fault, since Begin framed its terms of reference as narrowly as possible. But it does leave the impression that the report is a clever exercise in public relations rather than an effort to attribute blame where it truly belongs.