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SOME MONTHS before the outbreak of the Six-Day War, I met a high-ranking member of the Egyptian regime. The meeting took place in Paris through the auspices of a mutual friend. Throughout the years, I have met many leaders of the different Arab states, exchanging opinions and trading ideas for a settlement. But this meeting was different.
At the outset, I said to my new-found friend: "Let's make a list of all possible solutions to the Israeli-Arab conflict. Let's analyze every solution in turn and see where we get."
Taking a pen, we wrote the following list on the paper cloth on our table in the Paris restaurant:
(A) Annihilation by war
(B) The destruction of Israel by political and economic isolation
(C) Status quo
(D) A Semitic federation.
The easiest solution of the problem would have been, of course, a decisive military victory by either side. If Israel could achieve a military victory big enough to compel the Arabs to accept an Israeli diktat, this would be one answer. But Israel would have to conquer the whole Arab world, an impossible feat even with the unquestioned superiority of the Israeli Army; the brilliant victory in the Six-Day War has now proved that one cannot dictate peace by military means. As General Dayan said four months after the war, "If anyone thought the Arabs had learned a lesson, he was mistaken." If the Arabs could conquer and annihilate Israel, that certainly would be a clear-cut solution. But my Arab partner at the dinner table readily agreed that no such possibility exists. The military superiority of Israel will remain for a long time, and new weapons systems eventually will be introduced in the Middle East which will make it virtually certain that the destruction of Israel will be accompanied by the destruction of the Arab centers of population, thus setting the Region back at least two thousand years (and probably causing a thermonuclear holocaust all over the world). Both of us agreed that we must discount a military solution. (I assume that my partner realized how right he was a few months later, when the Six-Day War proved the point.)
The second proposal is dear to the Arab heart. Drawing an interesting&http://eagle.orgfree.com/alabasters_archive/#151;but, as we have seen, incomplete&http://eagle.orgfree.com/alabasters_archive/#151;analogy with the history of the Crusaders, Arabs tend to delude themselves that Israel can be wished away by not recognizing its existence. An economic and political boycott, they believe, can go on for so long that Israel will eventually wither away.
"We waited two hundred years for the Crusader State to disappear," Arabs will often say, "and we shall wait another two hundred years for the disappearance of Israel."
I asked my partner quite frankly, "Do you really want to hold up the march of Arab nationalism for two hundred years, just waiting for us to disappear? As long as we are here, and there is no solution to our conflict, you will not get anywhere in the fulfillment of your real aspirations. The conflict opens the Region for foreign intervention, both Western and Soviet, turning us all into pawns of a foreign game. No Arab unity can be achieved as long as a hostile Israel cuts the southern part of the Arab world off from the northern part. And the money you need for industrialization and reform, in order to create a modern and developed Arab society, you now must spend on arms which will become more expensive from year to year.
"Furthermore," I asked, "do you know of one single instance, in modern times, in which a sovereign state has just disappeared because of an economic or political boycott? During the last twenty years, in spite of the boycott, Israel has expanded both politically and economically in many parts of the world." After some discussion, we agreed that no such solution is practical.
Continuing the status quo cannot be considered a solution even in theory. Things will not right themselves automatically. Time is not the great healer in such a situation, with mutual hatred and fear intensifying from generation to generation. Indeed, this attitude is dangerous, taking into account the probable introduction of nuclear weapons into the region in the not-far-distant future. Such introduction seems inevitable. As long as the vicious circle continues to dominate the scene, with Israel fearing attack at any minute, no one can seriously expect the Israeli leadership to abstain for long from producing the ultimate weapon, a feat which Israel could attain, many experts believe, in a matter of months. On the other hand, in the same circumstances, the Arab leadership, fearing Israeli expansion, cannot tolerate a situation in which Israel has the bomb and the Arabs don't. If Israel produces the bomb, one can expect Egypt or Syria, at least, to pay any price, including a part of national independence, to get the bomb from Soviet Russia or China. One must also consider the possibilities inherent in a French-Arab alliance. It was at the height of the French-Israeli alliance that Israel started to develop its nuclear potential. Some people believe that the possession of nuclear bombs by Israel and the Arabs would ensure peace as does the balance of terror between the United States and the Soviet Union. This is an extremely dangerous fallacy. If anything, the 1967 war has proved that in the explosive Middle Eastern situation, a war can break out any time without anyone wanting it. Moreover, in any Middle Eastern state, power may be usurped by a reckless adventurer who, one hopes, could not come to power in Washington or Moscow. The status quo in our Region is a very fragile thing indeed.
We did not write down, on our tablecloth, another theoretical solution, alien to the Arabs but popular in Israel. This is the idea that the great powers would compel the Arabs to make peace&http://eagle.orgfree.com/alabasters_archive/#151;peace meaning, of course, a peace acceptable to the Israelis, obliging the Arabs to recognize the status quo. According to this wishful thinking often voiced by Ben-Gurion and most Israeli leaders, some day Americans and Russians will meet and decide that it is in their mutual interest to impose a peace in our Region. It is just a question of waiting for the two great powers to settle their little differences throughout the world. This is sheer nonsense. Not only is it highly unlikely for the two superpowers to put an end to their rivalry in the Middle East, but even if they did this would only change the character of the Israeli-Arab confrontation without ending it. The Arabs would get from China the weapons they now receive from the Soviet Union&http://eagle.orgfree.com/alabasters_archive/#151;and more dangerous ones.
Throughout the Middle East there persists the naive notion that the conflict was created in some devious way by British imperialism and American intervention, and that we otherwise would all have lived happily ever after. This is a superficial view; as we have seen, the vicious circle was created by the clash of two authentic historical movements. Foreign influences acted on this situation but did not create it. If these influences were removed tomorrow&http://eagle.orgfree.com/alabasters_archive/#151;by some Divine intervention&http://eagle.orgfree.com/alabasters_archive/#151;the confrontation between the two movements would still go on. The solution, then, has to be found between the two sides themselves.
The first part of the solution I propose is the setting up of a federation between Israel and a new Arab-Palestinian republic, as outlined earlier. This, together with the settlement of the refugees, can be done by Israel in cooperation with the Palestinian Arabs, independent of any official contact between Israel and the Arab states.
The second part of the solution is Semitic Union, a great confederacy of all the states in the Region.
The two parts are not contradictory. I do not view the Palestinian federation as a replacement for a general Israeli-Arab peace. On the contrary, such a peace will be much easier to achieve once the Palestinian problem is solved by common consent. The Palestinian problem is both the reason and the pretext for the belligerent attitude of the other Arab nations toward Israel. In all their statements, Arab leaders maintain that the only reason for their war against Israel is either to "liberate Palestine" or to "restore the rights of the Palestinian-Arab people." Once the Arabs of Palestine declare themselves liberated and agree that their rights have been restored, the main obstacle to peace will have been removed. Or, to put it another way, those Arab leaders who wish, deep in their hearts, to reach some settlement with Israel will be able to say so and act accordingly once the Palestinian problem has been solved. Before this, any such statement or action would be considered treason against the Palestinian Arabs. Thus, a solution in Palestine is almost a prerequisite to a general Semitic peace settlement, and at the same time, a Semitic peace is necessary to make the Palestinian solution meaningful and enduring.
I would like to explain here why I use the term Semitic. The reason has nothing to do with race; indeed, in the Middle East race is as uncertain as anywhere in the world. Both to Hebrews and to Arabs, race, today, means little. The term Semitic should, rather, be viewed as emphasizing an historical heritage, common to all peoples speaking languages of the Semitic family&http://eagle.orgfree.com/alabasters_archive/#151;Arabic, Hebrew, Amharic, and so forth. It also emphasizes the common cultural and spiritual background of all the peoples of our Region, so much influenced by their past. In this respect, the Semitic family of culture includes even the Turks, the Kurds, and the Persians, who are descended from different races and speak non-Semitic languages, but whose history is bound up with the culture of the Semitic world and the great religions of the Semites. Yet the main reason for the indispensability of this term is that it automatically includes Arabs and Hebrews, explains itself readily in the Region and throughout the world, and has the same meaning in all languages.
It is my deepest belief&http://eagle.orgfree.com/alabasters_archive/#151;and perhaps the point at which my friends and I differ from other people who aspire to peace in the Region&http://eagle.orgfree.com/alabasters_archive/#151;that such a peace cannot and must not contradict the national aspirations of both Hebrews and Arabs. Nationalism will reign supreme in our generation in all the countries of the Region, and nothing will stop it. Any idea, inspiring as it may be, which runs counter to the national feelings of the people concerned, will be by-passed by history.
I am a Hebrew nationalist, and I want to deal with Arab nationalists. I want to tell them: The last fifty years have shown that neither you nor we can achieve our national aspirations as long as we fight each other; Our two great national movements can neutralize each other, or they can be combined in one great regional movement of liberation and progress. This is what the Semitic idea means&http://eagle.orgfree.com/alabasters_archive/#151;an ideal combining the two nationalisms, an ideal with which nationalists on both sides can identify.
Joining a great Semitic confederacy would mean, for Israel, putting an end to the Zionist chapter in its history and starting a new one&http://eagle.orgfree.com/alabasters_archive/#151;the chapter of Israel as a state integrated in its Region, playing a part in the Region's struggle for progress and unity.
For the Arabs it would mean recognition of a post-Zionist Israel as a part of the Region, a part which could and should not be abolished because, in its new form, it is a factor in the struggle for the common good.
Let me be quite clear about this. A lot of nonsense has been written about solutions which do not recognize the existence of Israel as a sovereign state. Not one single Israeli, and certainly not I, would ever agree to any such solution. The existence of Israel as a sovereign state is the point of departure for any solution, as much as the rights and the aspirations of the Palestinian nation and any other Arab people.
Semitic Union not only provides a framework for mutual acceptance, but has many other advantages.
1. First, it would end mutual fear and suspicion, the most dangerous elements in the present situation. Providing for common defense and coordinating the military affairs of all member states, it would make possible a gradual general disarmament and de-nuclearization with mutual inspection. By abolishing military secrecy, it would safeguard everyone from surprise attacks and surprise concentrations of troops&http://eagle.orgfree.com/alabasters_archive/#151;such as the Egyptian one which triggered the 1967 war, or the imaginary Israeli one on the Syrian front which led up to it.
2. Union would also mean a pooling of political power. Joining the Union, Israel would, at long last, align itself with the prevalent trend in the Afro-Asian world and support those Arab struggles for liberation which are still unresolved. Israel's influence in the world would be put at the disposal of a Regional leadership, giving such leadership an impact which it lacked even at the height of Abd-el-Nasser's successes as a leader of the "Third World."
3. Economically, the potential advantages are enormous. For Israel, it would mean the end of Arab boycotts and the integration of its economy into the Region. For the Arabs it would mean the possibility of meaningful Regional planning, a Semitic common market which would harness the immense wealth of Arab oil to the cause of progress and industrialization of the Arab peoples, especially Egypt.
4. A united Region, liberated from fear and foreign exploitation, could start at long last a rapid march toward the modernization of the whole Region, restoring it to the place it held both in ancient and Islamic times.
5. It would mean breaking the vicious circle, which has embittered the lives of too many for too long, and starting a new cycle of mutual fertilization&http://eagle.orgfree.com/alabasters_archive/#151;a peaceful competition for the common good instead of a military competition, which can only end in mutual disaster.
All this sounds very optimistic. Indeed, it is.
I am an optimist. I believe that nothing in history is pre-determined. History in the making is composed of acts of human beings, their emotions and aspirations.
The depth of bitterness and hatred throughout our Semitic Region seems bottomless. Yet it is a comparatively new phenomenon, the outcome of the recent clash of our peoples. Nothing like European anti-Semitism ever existed in the Arab world prior to the events which created the vicious circle.
We have seen, in our times, Germans and Frenchmen cooperating, if not loving each other, after a war which lasted for many hundreds of years and whose bitter fruits are deeply embedded in both German and French culture. We are witnessing today the beginnings of an American-Soviet alliance which would have been unthinkable only a dozen years ago.
We are not dealing, therefore, with mystical phenomena, but with matters which can be changed by policy decisions, by new ideas, new leaders and new political forces&http://eagle.orgfree.com/alabasters_archive/#151;in short, by a new generation all over the Middle East disgusted with the mess their fathers have made and by the conventional lies of propaganda.
The first step has to be made by Israel. Throughout the last three generations, since the appearance of the first Zionist settlers in Palestine, it has been our side which has held the initiative, the Arabs reacting to our actions. It is up to us to change, by deliberate steps, the climate of hatred and suspicion in the Middle East.
We can start this by helping the Palestinian Arabs to set up their state and by settling the refugees. We can assume a completely new stance in the Region by supporting Arab nationalist aims in spirit and action, with a hundred small gestures, each insignificant by itself but contributing, in sum, to a gradual change in the atmosphere. By truly integrating the Israeli Arabs into the framework of our state and turning it into a pluralistic society, we can show the Arab world a new face&http://eagle.orgfree.com/alabasters_archive/#151;Israeli Arabs representing Israel, side by side with Hebrew Israelis, in all fields of endeavor, from the General Assembly of the United Nations to the playground of international soccer.
Nothing will change overnight. Each of our acts will be suspect in the beginning. Each will be denounced as a new Zionist plot. But slowly, by concerted action, suspicion will be dispelled and confidence gained, providing the psychological framework for new Arab policies.
Yet time is important.
An uneasy cease-fire prevails along the frozen fronts of the recent war, a cease-fire fraught with dangers, broken by intermittent shots.
The armies confronting each other across the ceasefire lines are arming quickly. A new war is assumed by all of them as a virtual certainty, with only the exact timing still in doubt. But the next war, or the one after it, will be quite different from the recent one, so different, in fact, that the blitzkrieg of June 1967, will look, in comparison, like a humanitarian exercise.
Nuclear weapons, missiles of all types, are nearing the Semitic scene. Their advent is inevitable. If the vicious circle is not broken, and broken soon, it will lead, with the preordained certainty of a Greek tragedy, toward a holocaust that will bury Tel Aviv and Cairo, Damascus and Jerusalem.
Semitic suicide is the only alternative to Semitic peace.
A different kind of tragedy is brewing in Palestine itself. If no just solution is found soon, the guerrilla war of organizations like al-Fatah will start a vicious circle of its own, a steep spiral of terror and counter-terror, killing and retaliation, sabotage and mass deportation, which will bring undreamt of miseries to the Palestinian people. It will poison the atmosphere and generate a nightmare that will make peace impossible in our 1ifetime, turning Israel into an armed and beleaguered camp forever, bringing the Arab march toward progress to a complete standstill, and perhaps spelling the end of the Palestinian-Arab people as a nation&http://eagle.orgfree.com/alabasters_archive/#151;the very people for whose freedom al-Fatah fights in vain.
Cease fire&http://eagle.orgfree.com/alabasters_archive/#151;this is not a passive imperative. In order to cease fire, acts of peace must be done. Peace must be waged&http://eagle.orgfree.com/alabasters_archive/#151;actively, imaginatively, incessantly. In the words of the psalmist: "Seek peace and pursue it." The search can be passive&http://eagle.orgfree.com/alabasters_archive/#151;the pursuit cannot.
One of the most beautiful books of the Bible, Ecclesiastes, contains a passage which has often disturbed me: " A time to kill, and a time to heal."
Did the Preacher really mean that there is a time to kill? Did he mean to advocate killing at any time?
I don't think so. I see the Preacher as a man full of wisdom and experience, who knew all human follies. He knew that, people being what they are, there are times when war cannot be averted. He wanted to say that after such a war, people must set about to build peace, to wage peace as they have waged war.
In these pages I have passed harsh judgment on both Zionists and Arabs, about their foolishness and shortsightedness. In theory, they could have acted differently, and thereby avoided untold suffering. But movements like theirs are children of their age, victims of its illusions and limitations; thus, Zionist and Arab could not really have behaved differently. Understanding this, we of a later time must set a new course.
It is thus that I understand the words of Ecclesiastes:
A time to be born, and a time to die;
A time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal;
A time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
A time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to seek, and a time to lose;
A time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew;
A time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate;
A time for war, and a time for peace.
This chapter of Ecclesiastes starts with the sentence:
"For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven."
The time for peace is now.
Uri Avnery (sometimes "Avneri") was one of the early theorists of Hebrew Canaanism and a contemporary of that movement's founder, Yanotan Ratosh. Although once a celebratory advocate of anti-Arab political violence, he has become devoted over time to the cause of peace between Arabs and Jews, founding the popular peace movement, Gush Shalom.