The Makings of History / On a Mission to Save Israel

Ya'akov Arnon, former director general of the Finance Ministry, came from a well-off family of diamond dealers in the Netherlands. He devoted himself to Zionist activity; during World War II, his Jewish identity was concealed and thus he was saved. After the war he settled in Israel.

One day at the end of December 1980, a passenger sat in first class on an Air Maroc plane traveling from Paris to Rabat. His documents identified him as Dr. Ahmad Sabar, born in 1917 in Meknes, Morocco. His papers were not examined upon his arrival. Rather, he and three other passengers were taken to a luxurious limousine, which took them to Rabat's Hilton Hotel. There they were lodged in rooms kept for guests of King Hassan II.

Dr. Sabar was very excited; he and his companions were about to meet the king. While he waited, he went to the market to buy a dress for his wife, lest she have doubts that he had indeed spent time in an Arab capital for the first time in his life. He later kept his travel documents as a souvenir.

The man identified as Dr. Sabar was actually not born in 1917 in Meknes, but rather in 1913 in Amsterdam. As a boy, he was called Jaap van Amerongen. Ahmad Sabar was the cover name given to van Amerongen - or, as he called himself in Israel, Ya'akov Arnon, former director general of the Finance Ministry. Arnon had been invited, unexpectedly, to Morocco, along with Uri Avnery, editor of the magazine Haolam Hazeh, and retired Israel Defense Forces Maj.-Gen. Matti Peled, in the context of their effort to arrange a peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians. Issam Sartawi, a liaison on behalf of the Palestine Liberation Organization, accompanied the men from Paris.

The false identities were provided to the travelers by the Moroccan authorities, and at the orders of King Hassan, who had agreed to help in forging the contacts. On the way back Arnon, who had been involved in such efforts since 1970, said, "Either this was just an adventure that will have no sequel, or we've made history." Both of these are true.

In the history of diplomatic contacts between Israel and the Palestinians this amateur and almost hallucinatory activity by Arnon and his friends deserves at least a footnote. It is possible to defend the thesis that their activity persuaded the PLO to content itself with a state that would arise alongside Israel, rather than in its stead. That was the basis upon which, many years later, the Oslo agreements were signed.

Arnon came from a well-off family of diamond dealers in the Netherlands. He devoted himself to Zionist activity; during World War II, his Jewish identity was concealed and thus he was saved. After the war he settled in Israel. He found his way to Levi Eshkol's Finance Ministry and remained in his post there after Eshkol was elected prime minister, in 1963. In 1965 he initiated the economic policy that led to Israel's recession. There was nothing that weakened Israeli society more than that recession, and in June 1967 its weakness led Israel to be alarmed by Egypt's threats and to go to war. Thus it is correct to number Arnon among those responsible for the Six-Day War.

After the war Arnon coordinated a committee of directors general that tried to implement the principles of an "enlightened occupation," and in effect laid the foundations for Israel's permanent presence in the West Bank.

Thus, later on, Uri Avnery and other peace activists could appreciate Arnon's willingness to join them. As with Matti Peled and others, Arnon's participation in the initiative was intended to demonstrate that it wasn't just a matter that involved marginal people, but rather people from the heart of the establishment.

Arnon's Hebrew-language biography, "They Called Him Jaap: Jacob Arnon from Amsterdam to Jerusalem," was published recently by Hakibbutz Hameuchad. Yitzhak Rabin biographer Yossi Goldstein wrote its first section, and Aryeh Dayan, author of a book about the history of Shas, wrote the part documenting Arnon's political activity with people from the radical left. This is a fascinating book about pathetic protagonists. There is something captivating about their belief that their initiative would save the State of Israel from itself.

In retrospect, it is apparent that Israel did not want to be saved. Nor did the Palestinians. Yitzhak Rabin dismissed the alternative diplomacy of Arnon and his friends, and when in the end he followed their path, he was assassinated because of it. Issam Sartawi was murdered by a Palestinian fanatic in 1983. Sartawi had dreamed that Arnon and his friends would capture 15 seats in the Knesset. And, in fact, the group's members quarreled among themselves as though they really were about to take power in the country. Time after time, they fragmented into ever tinier splinters, however, and almost every one was burdened with an oversized ego. Ya'akov Arnon comes across as the responsible adult among them, who knew how to cool the heat of their ambitions.

At one point his wisdom was needed to prevent a historic earthquake, when Ran Cohen threatened to split from a party called the "Sheli Camp," of which Arnon was a founder, because his name was only seventh on its list of candidates for the Knesset. He wanted sixth place. Arnon succeeded in persuading Ruth Dayan to swap with Cohen. The party won two seats and split up a while later.

Arnon died in 1995. A few years later, a street was named for him in Jerusalem. Ehud Olmert, then mayor said at the ceremony that Arnon was worthy of respect not despite his contacts with the PLO, but rather because of them. Seventeen years earlier, Olmert had described Arnon and his friends as "small propagandists for Arafat."

That group launched a move that has not succeeded to this day. It can be said of them that they did not succeed because they were naive romantics. This cannot be said of Rabin, President Shimon Peres, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, former prime minister Ariel Sharon and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. And they have not been any more successful.