Commentary Magazine


Breakthrough, by Moshe Dayan; The Battle for Peace, by Ezer Weizman; Destination Peace, by Gideon Rafael

The Peace Process: I Israel

Breakthrough.
by Moshe Dayan.
Knopf. 359 pp. $15.00.

The Battle for Peace.
by Ezer Weizman.
Bantam. 395 pp. $15.95.

Destination Peace: Three Decades of Israeli Foreign Policy.
by Gideon Rafael.
Stein & Day. 403 pp. $16.95.

Despite the great differences of personality between them, the late Moshe Dayan and Ezer Weizman had much in common. Both were Palestinian-born, came of age toward the end of the period of the British Mandate, and received their first military training under the British. Both rose quickly to the top of the Israeli army (Dayan as Chief-of-Staff, Weizman as Commander of the Air Force), and subsequently, on the basis of their military reputations, were “parachuted” into high political positions (Dayan as Minister of Agriculture under Ben-Gurion in the late 1950’s, Weizman as second-in-command of Begin’s Likud in the early 1970’s). Both were for a time the darlings of the Israeli press and public (Dayan after the 1967 war, Weizman after the 1977 elections), both held the powerful post of Minister of Defense, and both were looked upon as likely candidates for the Prime Ministry.

Neither got that far—and for similar reasons. Both were too individualistic, too outspoken, too impatient with the give-and-take of the political process and too openly contemptuous of their fellow politicians who practiced it, and each lacked the application, or perhaps simply the desire, to build himself a personal power base. More than once each erred by assuming that his popularity with the public could offset his lack of organized party support, and more than once each paid dearly for his error (Weizman most damagingly when he greatly overestimated the impact of his quitting Begin’s cabinet in May 1980, Dayan most tragically when, shortly before his death last year, he disastrously headed an independent list of his own in the 1981 elections).

Both Dayan and Weizman were also of course key figures in the lengthy negotiations between Israel and Egypt that culminated in the Camp David peace treaty, both later resigned from office in protest over their own government’s implementation of that agreement, and both wrote books about their role in achieving it. And while both of these books concentrate on the negotiations themselves, and deal only perfunctorily with the personal crises that followed, each comprises in its way a detailed, if sometimes veiled, indictment of the Begin government and of the manner in which it conducted the peace talks.

This is not to say that Breakthrough and The Battle for Peace always agree in their account of the dramatic period of half-conspiratorial, half-theatrical diplomacy that began before Sadat’s bold visit to Jerusalem in November 1977 and ended festively on the lawn of the White House in March 1979. There are differences of emphasis between Dayan and Weizman, and even some muted, although always respectful, criticism of one by the other. Thus, Weizman, according to Dayan, although a valuable asset to the peace process by virtue of his optimism and ebullient bonhomie, was not a skilled negotiator and had little of practical substance to contribute to the actual nitty-gritty of the talks; while Dayan, Weizman writes, underestimated the human factor in dealing with the Egyptians, to whose feelings and aspirations he was not always sufficiently sensitive. In addition, the two men were at odds over at least one fundamental issue of policy, for whereas Dayan sought from the outset to maximize American involvement in the negotiations, which he did not believe could succeed without outside arbitration and guarantees, Weizman was for exclusively bilateral talks, and felt that the more Israel and Egypt dealt with each other directly, the more quickly they might find common ground.

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For the most part, however, Breakthrough and The Battle for Peace tell mutually corroboratory stories, and the picture presented in them of Prime Minister Begin and his government is not a flattering one. Both Dayan and Weizman (the former more guardedly, the latter with at times scathing anger) portray their Prime Minister as a moody, vain, and rigid leader who reacted to Sadat’s peace overture with a series of hasty improvisations, made costly blunders—often in an impulsive and impromptu manner—from which he later tried unsuccessfully to backtrack (most notably, his opening concession to the Egyptians of all of Sinai), based his negotiating stance on a West Bank autonomy plan whose implications were never seriously thought through, nearly torpedoed the peace talks several times over relatively trivial issues, and exasperated not only Presidents Carter and Sadat but his own closest associates with his sermonizing. As for his cabinet, both men dismiss it as a quarrelsome cabal of petty politicians who had little faith in the prospect of peace to begin with, preferred bickering among themselves to reaching an agreement with the Egyptians, and let their personal animosities toward the negotiators imperil the whole delicate process. Indeed, the two points that Dayan and Weizman are most agreed upon are, first, that if not for the two of them peace would not have been achieved, and second, that had their advice been listened to more often, it could have been achieved more quickly, on better terms for Israel, and with fewer recriminations all around.

But though the fact that Breakthrough and The Battle for Peace are self-justifying documents need not in itself impugn their veracity—on the contrary, more objective studies of the Israel-Egyptian negotiations, such as a recent book in Hebrew by the Israeli journalist Uzi Binyamin, have tended to confirm the essentials of their accounts—both books do strike one at times as being disingenuously less than candid. Both Dayan and Weizman concur, for example, that if any one person was Begin’s confidant in the crucial months before and after Sadat’s Jerusalem visit, that person was Dayan; yet the latter, though voluble about other matters, is curiously silent when it comes to relating whom Begin consulted before making his decision to concede all of Sinai, or with whose help he drew up his autonomy plan. Weizman, for his part, is critical of both these gambits, which he considers to have been grave mistakes; nowhere, however, does he suggest what a realistic alternative to them might have been, or what else the Egyptians might have settled for.

In fact, despite the flexibility, imaginativeness, and willingness to gamble that distinguished them from their fellow cabinet members and enabled them to deal successfully with the Egyptians, neither Dayan nor Weizman seems to have entered the peace negotiations, or for that matter to have emerged from them, with a more coherent strategy for an overall Arab-Israeli settlement than did Begin himself. This is particularly true with regard to the West Bank, which was the thorniest issue in the original Israeli-Egyptian talks, and continues to be an unresolved, and to all appearances unresolvable, problem today. Writing in Breakthrough, Dayan expressed the belief, consistently held by him since 1967, that Arabs and Jews must learn to coexist on the West Bank without either of them being sovereign over it; yet his opinions on the subject fail to extend beyond generalities, and it is far from clear by what mututally acceptable mechanism he envisaged such an arrangement taking place. Weizman in turn speaks equally strongly about the right to a Jewish presence on the West Bank, while implying that this could be realized under Arab sovereignty, but he too rejects the idea of a Palestinian state and does not appear to take the “Jordanian option” seriously. What future he sees for the area remains, at least in The Battle for Peace, a mystery.

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Still, though Dayan is now dead, and Weizman has retired to his villa in Caesaria for what promises to be a long and possibly permanent separation from politics, it would be unfair to regard either man’s book as a political last will and testament that should then be criticized for being a poor one. Both Breakthrough and The Battle for Peace were written under the fresh impact of momentous events, both belong to that category of instant history that has the advantage of timeliness and the drawback of superficiality and haste, and both often tell us more about their authors as men than about them as political animals. Indeed, some of the most interesting, not to say moving, passages in both books involve the sort of personal confessions not often found in political memoirs, as when Dayan poignantly relates a dream about struggling up a hillside above his native village of Nahalal so that he might find rest in a cave by the cemetery there, or when Weizman humorously describes his inner conflict over whether or not to doff his overcoat as a gesture of identification with a freezing honor guard mustered to welcome him at Washington airport on a sleety winter day. At such moments it is easy to see why, in a country that is generally apathetic toward its politicians, these two men were considered such refreshing exceptions.

But their human charms could also be their political weaknesses—which is precisely why, for Israelis who did admire both Dayan and Weizman and pinned hopes on their ability to find novel solutions beyond the ken of their more conventional colleagues, it is hard to forgive them the political misjudgments that, springing from the same sources as their flamboyance and flair, cost them influence and power. One can only speculate, of course, but who is to say that, after Camp David, had Dayan accepted Begin’s offer that he head the Israeli negotiating team in the autonomy talks with the Egyptians, rather than piquedly declining it because of his dislike for the cabinet members it meant working with, the talks themselves might not have gone more successfully? And how many Israelis who applauded Weizman’s courage in resigning his cabinet post over disapproval of Begin’s policies would not feel better about their country’s future today had he grinned and borne it instead, so that he, rather than Ariel Sharon, would now be Begin’s heir apparent? Personal independence and esprit are an asset to a politician, but so is the ability to restrain them when necessary, and it was their country’s loss that neither Weizman nor Dayan always found the ideal balance between the two.

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That the lack of a coherent approach toward the Arab world in general, and specifically, toward the territories occupied in the Six-Day War, ‘has been a failing not only of the Begin regime but also of every Israeli government that preceded it since 1967, is amply documented by Gideon Rafael’s Destination Peace, an autobiographical record of thirty years spent in the Israeli diplomatic corps, where the author served for extended periods with the Israeli mission to the United Nations, as an ambassador to several European countries, and occasionally as a free-ranging troubleshooter.

Troubles there were in abundance. Yet although ambassadors are not strictly required by law to hold only the opinions officially espoused by their governments, they are expected to behave as though they were, and as Rafael has observed this rule in his book no less than he did in his career, readers hoping to find in it an independent-minded critique of Israeli foreign policy are in for a disappointment. What they will encounter is an entertaining, wittily anecdotal, but by no means deeply reflective account of one diplomat’s attempt to represent his country abroad with grace and good humor while dodging the brickbats of an increasingly unfriendly world. On the evidence of his book this is a job that Gideon Rafael performed well, and after three trying decades of it his retirement was well-earned.

Rafael lays no blame on his own government for any of its difficulties and certainly merits none himself. Yet as one reads his tale of intricate diplomatic maneuvers designed to forestall confrontation after confrontation and avert crisis after crisis, one has the recurrent sense of an Israeli foreign policy that is all tactics and no strategy—or, to put it differenty, of a series of Israeli governments that know very well what they do not want in the short run but have little conception of what they do want in the long run, so that they are nearly always reacting defensively to the moves of others and rarely taking meaningful initiatives themselves. Perhaps Ben-Gurion was the one Israeli leader to have had a clear sense of where he was steering his country and of how he intended to get there—but then Ben-Gurion stepped down before the victory of the Six-Day War, that Pandora’s box whose dilemmas he was one of the first to foresee.

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Of course, knowing what one wants is not the same as getting it, in diplomacy any more than in private life, especially when one’s position is as difficult and vulnerable as Israel’s. But it is a step in the right direction. In the years since the Six-Day War, most of which are covered in Rafael’s book, the issue of the West Bank has effectively paralyzed one Israeli government after another, despite the frenetic activity often conducted in the area itself. Inclined to absorb Judea and Samaria yet unable to digest them, alternately liberal and repressive toward their Arab inhabitants, craving security while fearing demography, caught between historical-religious feelings and political realities, eager for a settlement with the Arabs and deeply skeptical of its possibility, sincere in the desire for peace yet fearful of what peace may cost, the governments of Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, and Yitzhak Rabin preferred to let things drift indecisively wherever possible, were pulled and pushed about by conflicting internal and external forces, and left it to professional diplomats like Gideon Rafael to try and explain their behavior to the world.

If anything, in his attitude toward the occupied territories Menahem Begin has been more consistent than his predecessors, though hardly to the point of seeming to know where he is heading. Most discouragingly, nowhere on the current Israeli political scene can one discern a single figure of stature who seems capable of making the hard decisions that must eventually be made and winning a mandate from the public to make them. Of all Israeli politicians in recent years, Moshe Dayan and Ezer Weizman alone seemed to possess the character needed to fill such a role, and both are now gone from the stage.

About the Author

Hillel Halkin is a columnist for the New York Sun and a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY. Portions of the present essay were delivered at Northwestern University in March as the Klutznick Lecture in Jewish Civilization.




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