Commentary Magazine

Sands of Sorrow, by Milton Viorst

Blaming Israel

Sands of Sorrow.
by Milton Viorst.
Harper & Row. 328 pp.$19.95.

Milton Viorst, a journalist and one of a number of former liberal supporters of Israel who in recent years have turned on the Jewish state and now regularly excoriate its policies, sets out to prove that the fault (dear Brutus) lies not in the twists of contemporary liberal politics but in the metamorphosis of Israel itself. To that end he reconstructs history as a morality play: the sorry story of how Israel—as the current cliché has it—“lost its soul,” or, more accurately, sold it to the devil of militarism, expansionism, and oppression.

In the beginning (so runs the indictment) Zionism was good. It was in the hands of “mainstream Zionists,” Ashkenazi Jews with “ideas of democracy, secularism, and socialism.” But lurking in ambush were Vladimir Jabotinsky, “contemptuous of socialism,” and his band of Revisionists, who, “scoffing at democracy, adopted much of fascism’s style and doctrine.” After Jabotinsky’s death, the Revisionists, now led by Menachem Begin, set out to undermine the democratic and liberal values of the “mainstream,” a pursuit which gained considerable momentum with the arrival in Israel of the Sephardi Jews from around the Mediterranean who, “despite centuries of relative tranquility in the Arab world,” came to the Jewish state with an inordinate hatred of Arabs.

Shaped by “the Islamic tradition of patriarchal rule and the Koranic view,” these violence-prone Sephardim, in Viorst’s recounting, looked upon the Western ways of “mainstream” Israel and, saying unto themselves, “why democracy?,” joined Begin’s mobs. After 1967 they found allies in yet another anti-democratic force—the Orthodox—who, discerning the hand of God in Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War, switched from pious detachment to active participation in politics.

With such forces in tow, Begin’s powers became awesome indeed. While still in opposition, he and his followers (“violent Likud mobs”) had brought the country to “near revolt” and to the “edge of civil war.” The state “seemed to totter.” As early as the 50’s they had pressured General Moshe Dayan to launch a “massive retaliation” policy against Arab terrorism and caused David Ben-Gurion to reject Egyptian President Nasser’s “peace overtures” and thus precipitate the 1956 Suez war. In the 60’s and 70’s Begin corrupted Golda Meir, converted Yitzhak Rabin from a socialist to a militarist who put “his trust in arms,” and even succeeded in influencing the peaceable Abba Eban. Once in power in 1977, he made Egypt’s Sadat “betray peace,” caused President Carter to “fail in the quest for a comprehensive peace,” and sanctioned “violence throughout Israeli society.”



Even leaving aside the outright falsifications and distortions of historical fact in this narrative reconstruction, too numerous and too pervasive to rebut in detail, a visitor from Mars might be forgiven for wondering what country and which leader Viorst is describing. Can this violent place be Israel, whose homicide rate per capita—including all terrorist acts—is less than one-fifteenth that of any major American city? Where 80-90 percent of the Jewish and Arab electorate vote with monotonous regularity in exemplary, peaceful elections? Where the most disorderly incident in the last, and historically most contentious, election involved a woman, not immediately identified as a Begin follower, who insisted on voting bare-breasted? Could Viorst’s Begin be the same ineffectual, meticulously loyal opposition leader who for almost thirty years could not win an election? Who, once elected, was forever dependent on precarious coalitions? Who enticed Sadat to come to Jerusalem by promising in advance to surrender the whole of Sinai? Who conceded the “legitimate rights of the Palestinian people,” offered Arab autonomy within the borders of Israel, and abandoned sixteen towns for a peace treaty with Egypt? Who repeatedly succumbed to American pressure before and during the Lebanon war? Who resigned from office rather than face the antiwar vigil outside his home?

Viorst’s post-1967 Arab world is even less recognizable. According to his scenario, while Israel has pursued its devious, war-mongering ways, the Arabs have sought nothing but peace, self-determination for the Palestinians, and recognition for the PLO. Israel’s call for peace talks in which “everything is negotiable” immediately following the 1967 war—an unprecedented instance of the victor suing for peace—is derided by Viorst as disingenuous and false. The Arab response, the “three nos” of Khartoum (no peace, no recognition, no negotiation), is hailed by him as a monumental breakthrough because it did not specifically call for “destroying Israel itself.” (Actually it did, by stating the need to recover “all occupied Arab territory”—not just territories lost in 1967—a clear reference to all of Palestine.) The incessant terrorist war against Israel, sponsored by states whose combined military might approaches NATO’s, is explained away by this author as the last resort of the weak against the powerful. The Yom Kippur War launched by Egypt and Syria, which succeeded in overrunning Israel’s lines of defense and nearly swept to victory, is described as a limited-objective exercise, not threatening to “Israel itself or to the people.” And as for the 1982 war in Lebanon, Viorst describes it as an unprovoked Israeli invasion launched despite the PLO’s faithful adherence to a year-long ceasefire (during which, as it happens, the PLO made over 150 incursions into Israel, albeit not across the Lebanese border, killing 26 Israelis and injuring 264).

America’s role in all this, according to Viorst, has been to provide a rubber stamp for Israel’s actions. A series of understandings between Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and then-Premier Yitzhak Rabin, culminating in the Sinai II agreement of September 1975, “all but exclud[ed] American judgment from Middle East issues. [Sinai II] attached Washington’s endorsement to almost any military action an Israeli government might choose to take, while it bound the U.S. to pick up the costs. . . .” This may come as a surprise to anyone who remembers the almost fatal delay in resupplying Israel during the 1973 war; Israel’s desperate isolation during the Ford-Kissinger “reassessment” and the decade-long oil crisis; Israel’s lack of success in stopping massive U.S. sales of arms to Egypt before Camp David and to the Saudis after; the sanctions on Israel for bombing the Iraqi reactor and the PLO infrastructure in Beirut in 1981; and, above all, the two rescues of the PLO by the Reagan administration during the Lebanon war. Clearly, the Zionist-tail-wagging-the-American-dog canard brooks no interference from facts.

Unlike Israel and the U.S., Viorst’s Syria is a model of trustworthiness and responsibility. Such minor transgressions as Syria’s invasion of Israel in 1973; Syria’s abrogation of an agreement with the U.S. and Saudi Arabia to evacuate Lebanon in return for an American-engineered cease-fire in 1982; Syria’s direct involvement in the most heinous acts of international terrorism—most recently the attempt to plant a bomb on an El Al plane in London and the massacre of worshippers in Istanbul—bother him not a bit.

Nor is he bothered by the PLO charter, which calls for the destruction of Israel and is never mentioned in the book, or by any incident which may impugn PLO credibility, such as the insistence of its “foreign minister” that Mrs. Leon Klinghoffer, rather than the PLO terrorists on the Achille Lauro, killed her husband and tossed him into the sea.

As all this suggests, Viorst is very much at home with such staples of argument as the double standard and the false symmetry; his book as a whole offers countless instances of both. Thus, to reinforce the image of Jewish settlers in the administered territories as fanatics, Viorst falsely avers that the late Rabbi Kook, the spiritual leader of some of them, advocated an Arabenrein Israel and a “Jewish jihad.” Viorst does not mention that Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait, and Iraq are already Judenrein, and that the handful of Jews in Syria live in fear for their lives. Crudely and baselessly, he states that “Begin expected Arab penance for Nazi sins.” He does not mention that Arafat’s spiritual mentor, the Mufti of Jerusalem, was a confidant and collaborator of Hitler’s. To establish a moral equivalence between Israel and Syria he refers to “hawks on both sides.” One wonders where the Syrian doves have been hiding, or if the press has failed to report massive peace demonstrations in Syria and other Arab lands. He accuses Begin of “not considering any compromise of Israel’s claim to the West Bank”—the Camp David accords belie that—and interprets Begin’s attachment to Judea and Samaria as a cynical preference for territories over peace. But Sadat’s insistence on every inch of the Sinai seems to Viorst not only understandable but admirable, and likewise Sadat’s refusal to forfeit the war option in the event of hostilities between Israel and other Arab countries. In describing the importance of Jerusalem to both Islam and Judaism Viorst writes, “Arabs feel the same attachment to the Dome of the Rock that the Jews feel for the Wailing Wall.” The sight of Arabs praying on the Temple Mount, heads bowed toward Mecca and backs to the Dome, tells a different story.



In proposing a solution to the conflict, Viorst pays lip-service to “territorial compromise,” but it is clear he believes Israel’s very existence, within the 1949 borders, to be itself a territorial compromise on the part of the Arabs. Needless to say, he never entertains the idea that the Arabs, who possess land almost twice the size of the U.S. and who, even by his count, have launched three wars of aggression against Israel, should relinquish their claim to a barren area of 2,000 square miles for the sake of peace.

What he really proposes is not a territorial compromise but “territories for peace”: total Israeli withdrawal to the 1949 armistice lines and a PLO state in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza with parts of Jerusalem, but not with Jerusalem as capital. (How he means to prevent a sovereign state from designating its own capital is not explained.) Like all formulas in which peace is the only sine qua non, however, “territories for peace” is extortionate. As long as there is more territorial ransom available, there will be no reason to stop. Western Galilee, for example, an area outside the United Nations’ 1947 partition plan and gained by force in Israel’s War of Independence, is vulnerable to arguments now made about Judea and Samaria. Even the demographic consideration applies to Western Galilee, for there too the Arabs constitute a majority. And, indeed, the Soviets as well as some Arab leaders are already intoning that only the borders of the original partition plan will bring permanent peace.

Viorst concedes that a PLO state could not absorb the Palestinian refugees, and would have to be demilitarized. But only the hopelessly pollyannish can expect countries that consistently rejected Palestinian refugees when they were stateless to accept them when they become citizens of a new state; and only the hopelessly gullible can believe that if Arafat truly agreed to a demilitarized ministate he would not be branded a traitor by Qaddafi, Habash, Jibril, Hawatmeh, Abu Musa, Abu Nidal, and other terrorist chieftains, and meet the fate of King Abdullah, Sadat, Bashir Gemayel, Sartawi, Al Masri, and thousands of others, big and small, who have been assassinated for advocating coexistence with Israel. The only certain result of a Viorst solution would be the ensconcing of irredentist terrorists within katyusha range of downtown Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.



If it is impossible to take Sands of Sorrow seriously as a work of analysis—it is, rather, an Arabian Nights fairy tale masquerading as history, capped with solutions that even by journalistic standards are superficial and half-baked—the book does retain a certain significance as a bellwether of at least one segment of contemporary liberal opinion. In the manner of anti-defense activists everywhere in the West, and oblivious to every bitter lesson of the 20th century, Milton Viorst locates the source of a conflict between a democracy and a totalitarian aggressor in the alleged militarism of the democracy; to end the conflict, he recommends appeasement and unilateral concessions. Like the compulsion to negotiate with those who deny one’s right to exist, this is the kind of convoluted thinking that would in the end probably benefit more from psychological than from political criticism.



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