Israel and the Gulf

Avi Shlaim

Two major security challenges confronted the Israeli government headed by Yitzhak Shamir in the second half of 1990: the Palestinian uprising, now in its third year, against Israeli rule in the occupied territories, and the crisis triggered by Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait on 2 August last year. To begin with, the Gulf crisis overshadowed the intifada, but within a short time it also contributed to a serious escalation of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, pushing it to the brink of an inter-communal war. Increasingly, the solution to the Gulf crisis became linked in the public debate with a solution to the Palestinian problem, giving rise to a new buzz word – linkage.

At the helm in Israel during this turbulent period has been the most hawkish right-wing government in the country’s 42-year history. Shamir’s Cabinet is more purely right-wing in its composition than the Menachem Begin Cabinet of 1977 which achieved the peace treaty with Egypt, or even Begin’s second Cabinet, which took the decision to bomb the Iraqi nuclear reactor, formally annexed the Golan Heights and launched the ill-fated invasion of Lebanon. Between 1984 and 1988, Israel was ruled by a Labour-Likud government with Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Shamir rotating as Prime Minister and Foreign Minister. This curious situation gave each party a power of veto over the more extreme policies of the other. Following the draw between the Likud and the Labour Party in the 1 November 1988 General Election, the two parties formed a national coalition government, with Shamir as Prime Minister: but Labour broke up the coalition in March 1990 because of irreconcilable differences over foreign policy. In June Shamir eventually succeeded in cobbling together a narrow coalition government, with the support of the religious parties and three small secular ultra-nationalist parties.

The key portfolios in the new government went to the members of Shamir’s Likud Party. David Levy, a populist of Moroccan origins, became Foreign Minister. Mr Levy does not speak English. But since little more than a dialogue of the deaf with the United States was likely on the peace process, this was not considered a severe handicap. Moshe Arens, an engineering professor of American origins whose reasonable manner masks unyielding nationalist convictions, moved from the Foreign Ministry to the Ministry of Defence. Ariel Sharon, chief architect of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, was back at the centre of government as Minister of Housing.

On the fringes of the government, but helping to set the tone, were two renowned hardliners representing tiny but highly vocal Arab-spurning parties with only two or three seats each in the 120-member Knesset. Professor Yuval Neeman of the Tehia or Renaissance Party was appointed Minister of Science, Technology and Energy, reinforcing his popular image as an Israeli Dr Strangelove. The agriculture portfolio was given to Rafael Eitan, the IDF Chief of Staff during the Lebanon War who once likened the Palestinians of the West Bank to drugged cockroaches. His party is called Tomet, which means ‘crossroads’ in Hebrew, though it advocates a straightforward policy of building Greater Israel. The Government as a whole is so fiercely nationalistic that Begin’s first government seems by comparison a model of tolerance and flexibility.

Mr Shamir himself appears to want to go down in history, not as the man who extended Begin’s peace with Egypt to Israel’s other neighbours, but as someone who stood firm and refused to yield any part of the ancestral land, Eretz Yisrael. Having abstained in the Knesset vote on the Camp David agreements, he maintains that the conditions that made possible the peace with Egypt do not obtain in relation to the Palestinians (‘the Arabs of the Land of Israel’, as he prefers to call them) or to any Arab state. He dislikes and distrusts the Arabs, and does not believe in the possibility of peaceful co-existence with them, at least not in the foreseeable future. Seeing the Arabs as primitive, volatile and blindly hostile to the State of Israel and its Jewish population, he questions the power of any diplomatic agreement to bring genuine peace and stability to the region. Personal experience of the Holocaust goes a long way to explain this deeply pessimistic outlook. Although Shamir rarely invokes the Holocaust, he is acutely conscious of his people’s vulnerability, and would expect the rest of the world to remain indifferent in the event of a real threat to Israel’s existence. For all these reasons, Shamir is an apostle not of peace but of self-reliance, of a consolidated Israeli presence on the West Bank, of a build-up in Israel’s military strength, and of steadfastness in relation to international pressures.

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