Commentary Magazine

Arab Strategies and Israel's Response, by Yehoshafat Harkabi


Arab Strategies and Israel’s Response.
by Yehoshafat Harkabi.
The Free Press. 194 pp. $10.00.

Two complaints have become traditional when considering the writings of Yehoshafat Harkabi, probably Israel’s most famous, possibly its most influential, commentator on the everlasting conflict with the Arabs. First, it is said, he finds what he is looking for. Second, he doesn’t keep up with the times. These would be very serious criticisms if they could be substantiated, for Harkabi is not only a professor with a duty to describe reality truthfully (albeit in academic jargon). He is also a former chief of military intelligence whose advice was sought and sometimes followed by the Rabin government. Harkabi’s latest book, in which he tries to distinguish what has changed in the ideological terms of the conflict recently from what has stayed the same, provides a chance to reexamine the old complaints against him and to decide to what extent one hopes that his ideas are also getting a hearing from the new Prime Minister, Menachem Begin.

Harkabi finds that in the speeches, books, articles, and debates of Arab intellectuals and politicians since the Six-Day War, conceptions about Israel have been “refined,” and the vituperative language which he catalogued in his big work, Arab Attitudes to Israel (1968), has been moderated. This more subtle conceptualization and moderate language may or may not accompany a change in strategic goals. Whereas before 1967 the Arabs argued over whether they should start the all-out war to destroy the Jewish state immediately or wait for the most propitious moment, since the Six-Day War and especially the Yom Kippur War the goal of “politicide” (Harkabi’s coinage) has now come to be thought of as attainable in stages taking various paths besides military and guerrilla violence. In particular the Arabs’ economic clout and public-relations skills should be mobilized and Israel’s weakness should be studied and exploited. The goal may take many years to arrive at. Indeed, according to the second of the three Arab “schools of thought” that Harkabi detects, it might even be better if the Arabs were to postpone directly planning for Israel’s demise for the time being and content themselves with an Israeli evacuation of the occupied territories and some arrangement for the Palestinians.

The first Arab school of thought holds that Israel will be eaten away from inside by its well-known internal contradictions. In this view, Arab strategy should be to keep the pressure up, never making agreements that symbolize an end to the conflict or normalizing relations across borders. In this strategy, wars may be useful, but only if the fighting can be presented to the world as a last resort to retrieve Arab land, rather than as an effort to wipe out a nation-state.

Harkabi’s third school, which favors “continuous strife,” also proposes to reach the goal “incrementally,” but it rules out even interim arrangements and truces, out of fear that if both sides get respites from violence, the conflict, not Israel, will be smothered by stages. To this school belong the “Rejectionists” of the PLO, whom Harkabi believes set the tone in that organization.

But Harkabi is intrigued most by the second school. Here the focus is on reducing Israel to its “natural dimensions.” “This school,” he writes, “shows a willingness to coexist with Israel in the 1949-1967 boundaries.” Many of its exponents are Egyptians. They seem more “pragmatic,” alive to the fact that the endless warfare keeps at least some of the Arabs in bondage. Yet it isn’t clear how important or reliable Harkabi believes this trend of thought to be; he is worried that the studied vagueness of its advocates about the peace or non-war that will follow the end of the shooting may actually mean that they have the same goal in mind as the first school—to wear Israel down, not to live with it. First Harkabi says that the ideas of this “more pragmatic, more humane” school now constitute “the center of gravity in the Arab alignment.” But later he imputes these ideas to a few intellectuals who timidly articulate them with questionable influence on the men who make policy. For example, Muhammad Sid-Ahmad, the journalist at Al-Ahram, has written about the liberating benefits that the Arabs could enjoy by accepting Israel. But then, perhaps knuckling under, he has explained that, anyhow, the Jewish state won’t “assimilate” into the Middle East, so the struggle must go on.

There is a “baffling ambivalence” about this new trend, and if Harkabi isn’t absolutely perplexed by it, he is wary. “The thinking in all these schools,” he declares, “is of incomparably higher quality than previous Arab thinking on the conflict.” This is a change that obliges Israelis both to be on their guard and to change some of their own ways of reacting—for it is one of Harkabi’s basic assumptions that the Arabs can have a strategy, while Israel can only “react” and “respond.”



What should be the Israeli response to these strategic lines? Before turning to Harkabi’s summary of choices and recommendations, it is worth mentioning that he thinks the chance for negotiations may be greater now than it has ever been, and this for reasons that he is not the first to point out: some Arabs seem to realize that Israel cannot be destroyed without the whole Middle East being devastated, and even if that kind of war could be avoided, they fear the radicalizing effect of the conflict in its present form (see Lebanon). Therefore the great task for Israel, Harkabi writes, must be to take advantage of these negotiations to insist on conditions so close to peace and normal relations that the Arabs will find it very hard not to “forgo further pressures” once a treaty has been signed, or, failing that, at least to cast the Arabs as the guilty party in the eyes of the world, because they haven’t given up the “dream” of politicide.

When he evaluates the three Israeli “schools,” Harkabi asks what their perceptions are of Arab strategy, and how effective the response of each school is apt to be in serving these aims of Israeli diplomacy.

The first “school” Harkabi discovers among his countrymen is the one he labels “dovish-dovish.” That is, its members are persuaded that the actual or potential desire and direction of Arab strategy is to make peace with Israel. The barrier to peace, they argue, is Israel’s hawkish policy. If Israel’s policy were to become dovish, Arab policy would become even more so, and peace would break out. Partisans of this school, Harkabi says, are the heirs of the old liberal and pacifist Brit Shalom and Ihud groups, which tried to find like-minded Arabs and held out against a Jewish state. For Harkabi, the “flaw” in this view remains its “facile assumption of Arab dovishness.” A misperception of reality, be it sincere or willful, must result in mistaken behavior, inappropriate, dangerous policies. The flaw is glaring, so this school is justly condemned to rest as a small, if sometimes distinguished, minority.

The second, or “hawkish-hawkish,” school enjoys much more popular support in Israel. It perceives all the Arabs as sworn in their hearts to have done with Israel; hence Israeli policy, by way of reaction, must be hawkish, hard, inflexible. Above all, the West Bank should be settled and annexed, no matter that so-called “moderate” Arabs warn that this would make negotiations impossible and another war inevitable, and no matter, too, that the American President would frown on it. As exemplified in what it would have Israel do on the West Bank, the thinking of this school is not only responsive, but “ideological,” mystic. Harkabi calls it a “vindictive type of Zionism,” nursing an attitude toward war of “heroic fatalism.” He admits that support for this position is widespread in Israel and that its activists, in their enthusiasm to settle more of the historic Erelz Yisrael, “represent a streak of national vitality.” Without naming him, Harkabi would seem to consider Menachem Begin this school’s unrivaled leader.

Harkabi doesn’t dismiss the “hawkish-hawkish” school as abruptly as he does the “dovish-dovish.” Its ingrained skepticism about Arab intentions earns high marks. Nevertheless, in Harkabi’s view, it has great drawbacks: it gives the Arabs no incentive to bargain, and it ignores world public opinion and “international realities.”

The best policy, Harkabi thinks, would be the one that combines a perception of the Arab strategy as in all likelihood fundamentally unchanged and hawkish, with a response to it that has dovish aspects but doesn’t give anything away free. This “hawkish-dovish” response “tries to be stringently reality-oriented . . . recognizing both the harshness of the Arab position and the exigencies of international reality.” It is sufficiently paradoxical to harmonize with the Jewish state’s “existential predicament.” Among its drawbacks is that it seems inconsistent, and would be hard to explain to the Israeli public. It might also be taken for feebleness by the Arab side, triggering more demands. Nevertheless, Harkabi claims that it would steer Israeli policy back to the “Zionist mainstream,” which, until after the Six-Day War, proved itself in practice.

An Israeli government that fixed on such a response would prominently reaffirm the principle of the partition of the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan, and would declare its willingness to withdraw from the West Bank in exchange for peace (something some ministers in the former Labor governments did periodically but not vehemently); it would also announce that it was prepared to negotiate with the PLO if the Palestinian National Covenant were scrapped (something only a few Labor renegades, like Aharon Yariv, have ever suggested).

At the very least, Harkabi says, such declarations would “improve Israel’s international stance”; they would probably force the Arabs to face squarely the question of whether they really want a PLO regime to replace the Hashemite monarchy of Jordan, for Harkabi thinks it is obvious that a West Bank-Gaza Strip state must expand at the expense of its weakest neighbor. At the most, such a “hawkish-dovish” policy might draw out the Arabs’ second school to make its position clearer and maybe even foster dovish tendencies—though Harkabi doubts this. The main benefits he foresees are the relief such a “conciliatory position” would give Israel in the international arena, and, no less important, the confidence it could restore to the Israelis, “. . . especially . . . the younger generation. Perseverance in the face of the ordeals awaiting them is dependent on the conviction that everything has been done by Israel to prevent war.”



The morale of the Israelis concerns Harkabi more than a first reading of his book, with its political-science abstractions and emphasis on reconverting public opinion in the world, might indicate. It troubles him that some Israelis (his students at the university?) are less sure than they used to be what they are risking their lives for. Nagging questions about the West Bank and the Palestinians can often be uncovered near the bottom of this uncertainty. To these, Harkabi takes a commonsense approach. He wrote before the Six-Day War: “I realize that Zionism aspired to take a piece of territory from another people.” Now he adds: “The Palestinians are a competent, active group. . . . Practically, it is immaterial whether [they] have historical roots or not. What is important is that many of them by now have a strong feeling of identification and affiliation.”

The consequence is not that the Israelis must accede to the PLO’s wish to replace the Jewish state with an Arab state. The consequence, for Harkabi, is that Israel, including its policy-makers, should accept without anxiety the idea that someday the Palestinians will form a state east of Israel, on territory including most of the West Bank, which is, after all, 99 percent Arab by population. This will be the Palestinian state, even if, as Harkabi would prefer, the PLO as it is now known will have little part in running it, and it will continue for a time to be called the kingdom of Jordan.



Some of this will sound familiar to anyone who remembers the official policy lines of the old Israeli government; but some of it—especially Harkabi’s thoughts on the Palestinians and sitting with the PLO—reads like heresy and belies Harkabi’s reputation among detractors as one of those experts devoted to apologizing for Israeli inertia. And though he never quite makes up his mind whether there has been a change in Arab ideological purposes, Harkabi, in his tour de l’horizon, cannot be accused of incompleteness, according to his lights. He is interested in the thinking of Arabs with power. Thus he ignores the notion of King Hassan of Morocco, who has publicly dreamed of a Greater Semitic Co-Prosperity Sphere which would include Israel, and he slights such West Bank intellectuals as Aziz Shihadeh and Mahmoud Abu Shilbaya, who write that the Jews have made a state that cannot and should not be undone. King Hassan is far from the conflict, and the West Bankers, very near, can’t do much—they aren’t “political factors.”

The PLO does rate as a factor for Harkabi, though not a major or a helpful one. Almost alone among the Arabs who count, the PLO hasn’t so much as moderated its language. It would be fair to ask, then, whether Harkabi, when he proposes that the Israelis steal a march and announce their readiness to talk with the PLO on condition that it effectively junks its covenant, is thinking in terms of a ploy, or whether he really means that interlocutors should be searched for in that quarter. His indecision on whether politically powerful Arabs have really altered their plans for Israel is tolerable, indeed valuable; his vagueness when it comes to policy recommendations—are these declarations intended only to recoup propaganda points, or could there be more to them?—is not so fortunate.

In principle, Harkabi’s “hawkish-dovish” policy has great attractions. It looks flexible, and a wise policy is almost always flexible. One wonders, however, whether his book wasn’t originally addressed to the Labor government, and therefore whether it hasn’t been outdated. The book was finished before the Likud unseated the Labor party, before Jimmy Carter staked his reputation on an early Middle East settlement, before President Sadat and King Hussein said they were ready to sign peace treaties with Israel, and before the American administration, desirous of seeing the PLO at the negotiating table, climbed down from its earlier condition that the covenant would have to be abrogated—now it seems that the PLO’s accepting UN Resolution 242 will be enough for Washington. Does this mean Harkabi’s analysis and recommendations have been superseded by events?

Possibly but not necessarily. No earthquake has transformed the ideological ground he has charted. The Arab and Israeli “schools,” these ideal, dialectically convenient groupings, still roughly comprise most of the important ideas on both sides of the conflict, and can be expected to continue to do so, although of course the “center of gravity” may shift. Has it shifted in Israel? Hindsight and opinion polls say probably not. The Likud’s victory came because Labor showed signs of senility that alarmed and disgusted many voters. The Likud’s campaign played down the subject of the territories. The vote didn’t signify that the debate over the West Bank had been won by the annexationists, or that the new government could act as if it had an outright mandate, in our infinitely cynical era, to flout the opinions of mankind. Everything will be negotiable at Geneva, everything except the PLO, the Prime Minister has said, and the Arabs will be surprised what Israel has to offer. At the same time, fresh Jewish settlements are going to be planted beyond the old armistice lines. It is a mixed picture. Maybe it portends some tactical flexibility. But after a lifetime of purist opposition, it may be doubted whether Begin can change his principles.

Yet “international realities,” as Harkabi calls them, constrain Be gin’s choices as Prime Minister. His hand-picked partner, Foreign Minister Dayan, has, in years past, displayed alertness to the limits of Israeli power during wars and between them, and fitful brilliance in utilizing, or at least exploring, what room there was for maneuver or innovation.

Perhaps it is true, as Harkabi assumes, that even with the greatest wisdom, Israel’s policy in the long run can only be responsive, tactical, and not strategic, because of the other side’s preponderance of territory, population, money, and friends, and the metaphysically unequal demands each side puts to the other. Imagination rebels against the implication that Israel can only win the wars and lose the intervals. And experience shows that it hasn’t always wasted its chances (see the “Open Bridges” across the Jordan, and the “Good Fence” policy to the Christian enclaves in South Lebanon). To tell the new Israeli government that Israel’s hands need not be tied as if by fate is like preaching to converted troops. Harkabi’s book has an additional message, however, and that is that when “creating facts,” the better part of courage is to do so with your eyes open.

About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.