Commentary Magazine


Israel Between the Wars

To the Editor:

Theodore Draper [“From 1967 to 1973: The Arab-Israeli Wars,” December 1973, and “The Road to Geneva,” February] provides a cogent account of Arab policies and of the contribution of the United Nations to the Middle East stalemate. The question that comes to mind is whether it is possible to understand what happened during these six years without considering the input of Israel, too. In this respect, Mr. Draper’s statements are not very informative; and yet, his aside about “General Hubris changing sides” after 1967 seems to indicate that he does recognize the problem.

The picture of Egypt’s policy that emerges from the account is that of a straight kind of track, leading from one war to another almost with a predetermined certainty. The issue was, of course, never as simple as that, either under Nasser or under Sadat. Were the peace signals that were emanating from time to time from Egyptian quarters genuine, or was this only a camouflage before a new assault? What were the chances for translating them into an authentic exchange without jeopardizing the viability of the Jewish state? It is unlikely that anybody can provide a definite answer—mainly because Egypt’s intentions have never been given a serious test. On the other hand, it can be conjectured with reasonable certainty that Israel would have been in a better position to enter negotiations in 1968, in 1969, or, for that matter, in 1972, than it is now. It is this perception particularly that defines the issue.

Hindsight provides perhaps some unfair advantages to the critic, but this should not allow us to ignore its lesson. And from the vantage of 1974, Mr. Draper’s explanation of the failure of the Jarring mission does not strike me as convincing: if indeed there was a chance for an effective disengagement on the Egyptian border through Jarring’s intervention (and Mr. Draper’s argument does not seem to exclude this possibility), was the cost of withdrawal to the old boundaries of British Palestine too high for Israel to pay? Of course, quite possibly the Jarring mission was doomed to failure for other reasons too; but the question is nagging because it touches so directly upon the broad pattern of quiescence that came to dominate Israeli policy after 1967.

If one were forced to capsulize in a single phrase the attitudes which impinged most heavily upon Israel’s conduct during the six-year stretch, the words ein brera could well serve the purpose. Originally, ein brera—“no alternative”—was used in a somewhat waggish manner to explain the remarkable performance of Israeli soldiers in battle; with time, it became a way of conveying a peculiar perception of Israel’s reality as a nation for which “normal” conditions of existence are unattainable (Robert Alter’s reflections on “The Masada Complex” [COMMENTARY, July 1973] come to mind here). In terms of the ein brera syndrome, Israel resigned itself to a test of endurance of quite unrealistic dimensions. There was an obvious miscalculation when Israel assumed that it could stand pat in its position, secure in its extended borders, and that in this way it would force its adversaries to accept its terms. The major fallacy of the Israeli approach was perhaps the notion that a conflict such as the Middle Eastern one, which involved so many global interests, was resolvable through a victory, or even a series of victories, in what was essentially a local war. When Mr. Draper asks: “But when has a [defeated] country sought to dictate the terms of peace negotiations to the victor?,” he seems merely to voice a frustration that grew out of faulty premises.

S. J. Rawin
Sir George Williams University
Montreal, Canada

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To the Editor:

Theodore Draper cites the Middle East Record, 1967 for a passage from the testimony at his trial (in 1968) of Egyptian War Minister Badran. Badran told the court that, in May 1967, General Fawzi spoke of the Soviets having “hallucinations” with regard to Israeli troop concentrations along the Syrian border. Mr. Draper adds that he could not find these words in the sources given by the Middle East Record.

To put the record, and the Record, straight, allow me to point out that the paragraph describing Badran’s evidence was put together by drawing on reports from al-Ahram and al-Hayat of February 24 and 25, 1968.

Unfortunately, as a result of a printing or proofreading error, the word al-Hayat was omitted from the source reference. It is in al-Hayat of February 25, 1968 that the “hallucinations” are mentioned.

Daniel Dishon
Middle East Record
Tel Aviv, Israel

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Theodore Draper writes:

S. J. Rawin seems to have misinterpreted my allusion to “General Hubris.” The latter undoubtedly contributed to the Israelis’ underestimation of Arab military capabilities. But that is quite another matter from assuming that, hubris or no hubris, Israel could have induced the Arab nations to enter into meaningful negotiations, short of unconditionally giving in to Arab demands—a response which needed and needs no negotiations at all.

We are told about “peace signals that were emanating from time to time from Egyptian quarters,” but we are not told what those peace signals were. Let us take an extreme example. Of course Israel could have “peace” with Syria if Israel agreed that all of Palestine was really “a basic part of southern Syria,” as Syrian President Hafez al-Assad maintained as late as March 8 of this year. The Egyptian “peace signals” were more ambiguous, but they always implied that after Egypt got what it wanted, it would support the demands of its “Arab brethren,” the Syrians and the Palestinians. Perhaps that has changed, but we will have to live a bit longer to find out to what extent and for how long. I would be more impressed by the complaint that “Egypt’s intentions have never been given a serious test,” if Mr. Rawin had bothered to tell us what Egypt’s intentions had been before October 1973. I suspect that if he could have made a more concrete case, he would not have been satisfied to instruct us with such enigmatic and exasperating vagueness. Of course, Israel “would have been in a better position to enter negotiations in 1968, in 1969, or, for that matter, in 1972, than it is now.” In fact, Israel tried to take advantage of its better position to get some kind of negotiation, especially in the months immediately after the 1967 war. But the Arabs knew that, too, and that is precisely why they did not want to “negotiate.” The assumption that all Israel had to do in 1968, in 1969, or in 1972 was to want to negotiate in order to get negotiations going—at least, anything worthy of the name—is really too farfetched to be taken seriously.

In his third paragraph, Mr. Rawin seems to suggest that Israel could have had “an effective disengagement on the Egyptian border” if only she had agreed to withdraw “to the old boundaries of British Palestine.” I am not sure whether he means all the old boundaries of British Palestine or only the Egyptian part, as Ambassador Jarring intended. If he means all the old boundaries of British Palestine, that would have left Israel in possession of the entire West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and the Egyptian reply to Jarring specifically demanded Israeli withdrawal not only from Sinai but from the Gaza Strip. In effect, Egypt did not accept Jarring’s basic proposal any more than Israel did. More important, the Egyptians ended their reply of February 15, 1971 with a general and sweeping demand for “the withdrawal of the Israeli armed forces from all the territories occupied since June 5, 1967,” which was a very different matter from withdrawing to “the old boundaries of British Palestine.” It is a mistake to make the post-October 1973 conditions retroactive to 1971, as if what was done after October 1973 could have been done just as readily two years before. In 1971, both sides were still maneuvering for tactical advantage from familiarly fixed positions; that is what made the Jarring mission an exercise in futility.

There was a symbiotic relationship between Arab intransigence and Israeli maximalism, making it difficult for both sides to escape from a head-on collision. We might agree on that, but first we would have to get rid of the fantasy of Arabs yearning to negotiate if only the Israelis had given them the chance.

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