Commentary Magazine

Israel's Dilemma

The problems facing Israel’s policymakers have not changed with the coming into power of the Likud-led government, and they will remain the same whether or not a Geneva peace conference is convened within the next months. In trying to formulate policy toward its Arab neighbors, Israel is faced, just as it has always been since 1948, with two sets of factors, which for simplicity’s sake may be labeled the constants and the variables; it is the agonizing choice between these two which has bedeviled Israeli foreign policy for almost thirty years.

The first set of factors, the constants in the situation, may be summed up simply as the basic unwillingness of the Arab countries to accept the legitimate existence of Israel as a sovereign Jewish state. In the political philosophy of modern Arab nationalism, there is no place in the Middle East (which, incidentally, the Arabs call “the Arab region”) for a body politic which is not Arab-Muslim in its basic political structure; no Kurdish, or Maronite, or Jewish commonwealth can be fitted into this exclusivist and hegemonial philosophy of Arab nationalism.

The Arab unwillingness to accept Israel’s legitimacy has not undergone any change since 1948. It may be expressed in more strident or less strident terms—there has, for instance, certainly been a change in the tonality of Arab expressions since the days of Nasser to the present, and even Yasir Arafat speaks a language different from that of the old Mufti of Jerusalem—but even those Israelis who (like myself) have looked high and low for the merest glimpse of Arab willingness to accept Israel’s legitimacy have been thoroughly disappointed. President Sadat of Egypt may admit that Israel “is, of course, a fact”—but never has he ventured to assert, either publicly or privately, that Israel is a legitimate fact. In the Arab political mind, the fight against Zionism (the ideological justification of Israel’s existence) equals the fight against imperialism, colonialism, and racism, and the Arab insistence on coupling Zionism with racism is aimed precisely at the delegitimization of the former in world opinion.

Nowhere has Sadat, who is the most moderate, urbane, and sophisticated Arab leader, even said that in return for the full acceptance by Israel of his demands for a settlement, he would be ready to accept Israel’s legitimacy: this, at best, he would relegate to “future generations.” In internal Arab speeches and documents, Israel continues to be likened to a Crusader state—ultimately doomed to disappear. Thus, even if Israel withdrew to the pre-1967 borders, and a Palestinian state were established on the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip, not even then would Egypt be ready to recognize Israel, enter into diplomatic relations with it, or maintain a frontier open to the exchange of goods and people. The Egyptian interpretation of what should be accomplished at Geneva is an Israeli retreat to the 1967 frontiers, with no change in the relationship across those new-old frontiers from what was the case prior to 1967 or what is the case today in Sinai. Nowhere and never has any Arab leader, including Sadat, stated that in return for Israeli concessions his country would be willing to embark on a true normalization of relations with Israel, premised on an acceptance of Israel’s legitimacy, sovereignty, and independent existence as a nation-state. The best Israel has been offered for total withdrawal is another armed truce.

Yet this, somber as it is, nevertheless represents only one side of the complex relation between the Arab states and Israel. To stop here—at the intransigent Arab refusal to accept Israel’s legitimacy as a permanent element in the Middle East—is to be left without an adequate explanation of the fact that despite this refusal and this non-acceptance, there have been ups and downs in the level of actual warfare in the area over the past thirty years. Although in that time the Middle East has not known a single moment of full or true peace, there have been periods of relative calm as well as of acute conflagration. Obviously, then, the Arab willingness to go to war against Israel has depended on considerations other than the fundamental factor of non-acceptance.

Any attempt to understand both the conflict and its possible resolution must take into account those variable factors which sometimes goad the Arab countries into war and sometimes restrain them. For even if the constant factor is for the time being impossible to change, there may be ways of controlling or affecting the variable factors which may in turn hold the key to future policy-making in the area.

Consider, in this light, the years between 1957 and 1967, the longest period of relative tranquility between Israel and its Arab neighbors. There is no evidence that in this decade between the Sinai campaign and the Six-Day War any change occurred in the basic Arab unwillingness to accept the state of Israel. It is impossible to find even a single statement by Gamal Abdul Nasser, then president of Egypt, containing any hint that he was prepared to acknowledge the legitimacy of the state of Israel, in any form or under any conditions. At the same time, however, no serious attempt (except for one unsuccessful incident) was made to initiate a war against Israel during that decade. This was, therefore, a period characterized by a delicate combination of Arab non-acceptance of Israel’s existence and Arab unwillingness to launch an immediate war.

Then came June 1967, and the balance was suddenly upset. But one should understand what happened: it is not that, in May 1967, Nasser made a sudden decision to destroy the state of Israel, as if a month earlier he had had other aims; rather, the ideological goal, which had all along remained constant and unwavering, suddenly became operational and of overriding importance.

Since 1967 and until the present day, Israel’s relationship with the Arabs has not reverted to that complex balance of non-acceptance on the one hand, and unwillingness to translate non-acceptance into warfare on the other, which characterized the years between 1957 and 1967; as a consequence, the decade between 1967 and 1977 has been characterized by acute instability.

What then should be Israel’s political objectives? I would say that, lacking the ability to achieve a full-fledged peace—that is, the ability to change the constant factor—Israel should strive to recreate a balance similar to that which existed during the period between the Sinai campaign and the Six-Day War. Clearly, the components of such a balance will be different from what they were then, but it is the balance itself that must be maintained. Israel would be gravely remiss if it ignored the constant factor, which is the Arab refusal to recognize its existence, but there is no need to deny that this non-acceptance has been expressed with varying degrees of intensity at different times. If, at present, the final objective of peace cannot be achieved, policy should aim at affecting the components of the system so that those factors which impel the Arabs to immediate war may be reduced in intensity, while those which impel them to accept, even temporarily, a stable situation may be enhanced.



How might such a situation be created? It would depend on a number of major components, which can be listed.

The deterrent power of Israel’s military strength. If the Arab states feel they can express their non-acceptance of Israel in an immediate war which they have a good chance of winning, or whose military cost will not be too high for them, then, clearly, their readiness to engage in such a war will increase. On the other hand, should they think their chances of victory in the battlefield are slight, their willingness to risk war will decrease.

This is a central element of traditional Israeli military doctrine, and there is no doubt that it has prevented, and continues to prevent, the Arab states from immediate actualization of their plans for the annihilation of Israel. What it means in practice is that Israel must maintain military supremacy as a preventive measure.

Yet Israel’s deterrent power, much as it influences the variable factor, does not have (or at least has not had, up to the present) any effect on the constant factor. Israel’s entire military might, both potential and real, put together with all the defeats suffered by the Arabs in their wars with Israel, has not in any way led to Arab acceptance of the existence of the state of Israel. Force alone has not until now brought the Arabs one inch nearer to accepting Israel.

Nevertheless, even though the influence of the deterrent power is limited by and large to the variable factor, its influence there is large indeed, and for that reason alone it is a main and indispensable element in the balance.

Defensible borders. A second component—which is, in a sense, a function of the first—is defensible borders for Israel. One need not go into exact details to see that, for Israel, territorial depth is of decisive significance in reducing Arab readiness to risk war. Whether defensible borders would grant Israel merely a strategic margin or a fully deterrent one, their importance is clear; there is no need to expand on this matter, even though there may be legitimate differences over the scope and range of such borders.

Arab interest in maintaining the status quo. The greater the interest of all or any of the Arab states in maintaining the present situation, even if the present situation does not satisfy their final political aspirations, the less chance there is that they will try to upset it by initiating a war. There are abundant illustrations of this:

  1. The open bridges over the Jordan River. It would be utterly wrong to suppose that the open-bridges policy can be construed as evidence of Arab acceptance of Israel’s existence, or as a real normalization of the relationship between Jordan and Israel; yet at the same time it is clear that the existence of the open bridges strengthens the Jordanian interest in preserving the status quo and influences any Jordanian decision to go to war or not to go to war. This was evident in 1973: if Jordan had joined the war, the bridges would have been closed, the Arabs of the West Bank would have been cut off from the Hashemite Kingdom, the Jordanian economy would have suffered, and Jordan’s political system would have been undermined. Though the status quo is not accepted by Jordan as a formula for the solution of the overall problem, still a continuation of the status quo is preferable to its non-continuation.
  2. The Suez Canal and the Canal Zone cities. Here, too, it would be a mistake to regard Egypt’s rebuilding of the Canal Zone cities as evidence of a willingness to forgo its final goal regarding Israel. But it is also clear that the resources invested by Egypt in the rebuilding and development of the Canal Zone reduce its readiness and desire for an immediate war. Egypt has a strong interest in maintaining the new status quo which resulted from the second Interim Agreement with Israel—and again, this is so despite the fact that the agreement is not a final settlement.
  3. Syria’s involvement in Lebanon. The deeper Syria’s involvement in the Lebanese civil war, the less Syria has been interested in undermining the situation on the Golan Heights. Because of that involvement in Lebanon, Syria has been more willing than in the past to extend the mandate of the UN Disengagement Observer Force—even though, once again, its interest in maintaining the relative stability on the Golan has not induced Syria to change the objectives of its overall policy.

In all these cases, the distinction between the constant and variable factors is clear; there is no evidence of a spillover from the variable factors to the constant factor. From this it may be concluded that Israel should concern itself with the creation of many more grounds for maintaining Arab interest in the status quo. Although neither the open-bridges policy nor the sophisticated and tacit understanding between Israel and Syria during and after the Lebanese war was consciously initiated by Israel, in both cases Israel showed skill in taking advantage of an emergent situation and guiding it toward a stabilizing goal.



Territories. I have said that the territorial dimension, within the context of defensible borders, is a factor which reduces Arab readiness to risk a war with Israel. It would be missing the mark, however, to ignore the fact that from the point of view of the Arabs there is another aspect to this matter. Moshe Dayan once expressed this aspect trenchantly when he remarked that Israel was wrong to think that Egypt would stand for an Israeli presence on the banks of the Suez Canal for any length of time.

This calls for a brief look at the circumstances that led to the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War. The fact is that this was the only time since 1948 that the Arabs consciously attacked Israel directly. The 1956 strike in Sinai was launched by Israel when it felt it could no longer bear the pressure of fedayeen raids, the blockade of the Gulf of Eilat, and the closure of the Suez Canal. In 1967, Nasser upset the delicate balance I have described above and attempted to achieve large political results by pressure, by violating existing agreements, and by terrorizing the world—in such a way that Israel had no choice but to take up arms. Nasser had incorrectly assessed Israel’s power and ability to go to war, he was mistaken in his estimate of Israel’s reaction to his aggressive moves, and he miscalculated international reaction to his unilateral abrogation of previous agreements upon which the relative calm in the area had rested since 1957. Because of his miscalculations, Nasser found himself in a war, but not one which he had wanted or planned for, or whose opening moves he had prepared. The results of the war, for Nasser and for the other Arab countries which became involved, only proved the point.

The Yom Kippur War was an entirely different affair. In this case, the Arabs undertook a war which they planned, which they wanted, and for which they had trained their armies and carefully coordinated their military, political, and economic moves. It broke out on the day, hour, and moment decided by them, and the opening moves were carried out according to their plan. This had not been the case in 1967, and certainly not in 1956.

What, then, was the difference between the 1973 war and the wars of 1967 and 1956? Had Israel’s deterrent power diminished since 1967? This is doubtful. Can one say that Israel’s strategic depth had been reduced? The very opposite is true: its troops were sitting on the banks of the Canal and not at the outskirts of Gaza, on the road to Damascus and not at the foot of the Golan Heights.

One approach to an answer is by means of evidence gathered from the interrogation of prisoners captured by Israel in 1967 and in 1973. In 1967, when captured Egyptian officers were asked what motivated them to go to war against Israel, their responses ran generally along the following lines: “We are fighting to restore the rights of the Palestinians.” Or, “The war against Zionism is a continuation of the war against imperialism.” In 1973, their responses were more focused and less abstract: “You are occupying Egyptian territory.” “We went to war to liberate parts of our homeland.” “As long as the Israeli flag flies over Egyptian territory, we are not free men.”

The difference between Nasser, who got caught in a war, and Sadat, who initiated one, is not that Nasser’s attitude to Israel was more moderate, and Sadat’s more extreme. The opposite is true, at least with regard to public statements. For Nasser, however, the motivation to undertake an immediate war existed on an abstract level (“rights of the Palestinians,” “Zionist imperialism”), whereas for Sadat, the issue was far more specific and concrete: Israeli control of Egyptian territory and the blocking of the Canal.

One should be aware of these points not because they justify, or fail to justify, Arab territorial claims, but because the territorial dimension is likely to be most problematic for Israel when hard political decisions have to be made. On the one hand, territorial extension certainly gives Israel strategic depth and additional security; but on the other hand, long-term Israeli control of all the territories is likely to stimulate Arab willingness to embark on an immediate war. Neither of these two conditions in itself constitutes absolute truth; Israel will have to navigate between them. Yet to ignore either of them would be dangerous.

Palestinian pressure on the Arab states. Whatever view one holds of the Palestinian question, it is clear that PLO terrorism, and the threat which the Palestinian organizations hold over the Arab countries, is one of the factors liable to incite the Arab states to an immediate war against Israel. Al-Fatah and its activities helped to undermine the status quo in 1967, and helped to push Nasser into his immediate confrontation with Israel. Similarly, when Sadat was negotiating with Israel for the second Interim Agreement in Sinai, he was under considerable heat from the Palestinians for entering into talks with Israel outside the context of the Palestinian question, as well as for moving toward an agreement which left the greater part of the Sinai in Israel’s hands. It is reasonable to assume that had it not been for this Palestinian pressure, Sadat might have been able to make an even greater territorial compromise in Sinai within the framework of the Interim Agreement, or that he would have been ready for a politically more far-reaching agreement than that which was finally signed.

Any weakening of the Palestinian element, such as with the PLO’s loss of military and political strength in Lebanon, is likely to reduce the Palestinian ability to undermine agreements or to threaten the whole system. Any lessening of Palestinian pressure on the Arab countries is likely to decrease the readiness of the Arabs to risk immediate war.

The political price in the international arena. There is no doubt that an additional factor influencing the readiness of the Arabs to undertake an immediate war with Israel is the price they are likely to pay for such a war in their foreign relations with the great powers, particularly with the United States (since Soviet support is guaranteed to them in any case). If Egypt, for instance, thinks that it can attack Israel without upsetting its relationship with the United States, then the possibility of its taking this course of action is greater; and vice versa. For Israel, this makes it all the more important to coordinate strategy with the United States. Any weakening of Israel-U.S. ties is likely to increase the danger of war by reducing, for the Arabs, the political cost of an attack on Israel—for this reason the Arab states are anxious to drive a wedge between Israel and the United States; conversely, if Israel-U.S. ties are marked by a basic understanding about political moves in the Middle East, the chances of war are likely to be reduced.



I have attempted to offer a number of considerations that are likely to influence the readiness of the Arab states to engage in an immediate war with Israel. Two cautions should be entered at this point: first, no one of these considerations should be seen as exclusive, or dominant; at different periods and under different circumstances, there are shifts in the weight of the various elements involved. Secondly, although some of these considerations are mutually complementary, others may be mutually contradictory.

The dilemma facing Israel is reflected in both the “hawkish” and “dovish” positions regarding the future boundaries of Israel; each of these positions has an element of truth in it, but only partial truth. The hawks are right to maintain that since no Arab country has yet accepted Israel’s legitimacy, since Israel may well be attacked again, and since strategic depth is of prime importance, for Israel to withdraw from the territories acquired in 1967 would be, under such circumstances, extremely perilous: imagine the Yom Kippur War starting not at the Suez Canal but somewhere around the Gaza Strip. The doves are right to suggest that it was precisely the retention of Arab territories which triggered the Yom Kippur War itself, and that so long as Israel appears to the Arabs to be interested primarily in those territories, the danger of another war is very great indeed. But then the hawks overlook the fact that the retention of the bulk of the occupied territories, while giving Israel strategic depth, also increases Arab willingness to go to war in the short range, while the doves appear to be oblivious to the fact that even if Israel went back to the 1967 boundaries, the Arab countries would still not accept its legitimacy.

The truth lies neither with the hawks nor with the doves, but with the owls. These in the future will be required to strike a balance between the constant factor and the variable factors in such a way that even if a full and real peace is not achievable, Israel’s security can be maintained while the Arab countries are enabled to lower their immediate hostility to Israel.

If a historical parallel may be permitted, the post-World War II situation in Europe offers a model of a system of checks and balances, based on partial agreements, which may have a greater chance of success in the Middle East than a drive for an overall solution which, precisely because it means to solve everything, may be unable to bridge the presently unbridgeable. If, therefore, the attempt to convene a Geneva conference now is not immediately successful, the alternative need not be a breakdown in the whole process of peacemaking in the Middle East, but a reversion to the much less ambitious but much more realistic attempt at a partial solution. While not resolving the overall problem of peace and war in the Middle East, such an attempt may nonetheless have a chance of minimizing the danger of immediate war and of laying the foundation for a comprehensive settlement in years to come.

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