Winding Road to Nowhere

A senior diplomat's view of a half-century's fruitless search for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian impasse

"Bemisholay Hadiplomatia Hayisraelit: Mi Ben-Gurion Ad Barak" by Moshe Raviv, (Hebrew translation: Naomi Gal) Ministry of Defense-Laor Publishing, 357 pages, NIS 78 (English edition: "Israel at Fifty: Five Decades of Struggle for Peace" by Moshe Raviv, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1998)

No one has yet come out with a single-volume official history of Israeli foreign policy, Israeli positions on the Arab-Israeli and Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and the ups and downs of Israeli diplomacy. Historians and experts in international relations have just begun to explore various aspects of the pre-state Jewish community in Palestine. Thus a complete chronicle of the last 50 years is still a long way off.

There are several reasons for this. One is the fear that we are too close to the events to portray them properly: We lack the necessary perspective. Another is that government documents pertaining to the period after the Six-Day War are still classified, making it difficult to write a balanced account of Israeli defense and foreign policies from the early days until now. A third is the absence of a solid body of literature that would lend itself to summaries and generalizations.

Without books that offer a sweeping view of the historical developments, very few know, or remember, that possibly the most important turning point in Jewish-Arab relations in general, and between the Jews and Arabs of Palestine in particular, took place before the state came into being. This turning point was the respective response of the leaders of the Yishuv and the Zionist movement, and the leaders of the Palestinians and the Arab nations, to the partition plan proposed by the British Royal Commission under the chairmanship of Lord Peel.

After bitter wrangling, the Yishuv and the Zionist institutions, headed by the Labor Party, which then enjoyed hegemony, voted in favor of partition. This decision led to the secession of Jabotinsky and the Revisionists from the World Zionist Organization (WZO) and their establishment of the New Zionist Organization (NZO). Only after World War II did they rejoin the WZO. Outwardly, opposition to partition among the Revisionists and Menachem Begin's Herut Party continued from 1948 up until the Six-Day War. In practice, however, it was recognized. The approach of today's Likud leaders is probably much the same.

Since the Peel Commission in 1937, new ideas on how to resolve the conflict have been few and far between, and the quality of public and political discourse has badly declined - unsurprisingly so, considering the difference in stature between the leaders of old and the politicians of today.

The partition proposals of the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) and the UN General Assembly vote on November 29, 1947, briefly reviewed at the beginning of Raviv's book, were also accepted by the majority of Jewish and Zionist leaders - and by Israel's Mapai government after the 1948 war. It was largely due to the acceptance of this principle that the war ultimately ended in partition, with Transjordan (later Jordan) gaining control of some of the territory that had been promised to the Palestinians by various committees of inquiry.

The bulk of the Israeli leadership, right and left, thus recognized - explicitly or implicitly - the armistice agreements that determined the borders of Israel until the Six-Day War and were to become the so-called Green Line. Aside from the efforts of Israel's first foreign minister and second prime minister, Moshe Sharett, to explore the possibility of establishing an independent Palestinian state and furthering peace talks, especially with Egypt, the Israel administrations of the time supported the status quo, which recognized the principle of partition.

From a sober historical point of view, Israel-Arab relations have always hinged on formal recognition of the State of Israel (informally, the Arab countries recognized Israel back in 1949), and especially recognition of its international borders, which correspond with the armistice borders. With respect to Egypt and Jordan, the matter has been resolved through peace treaties, but as we all know, a similar arrangement with Syria and Lebanon has been hindered by the shortsightedness (not to mention foolishness) of the leadership on both sides.

In effect, the Palestinian problem became a burning issue only after the signing of the peace treaty with Egypt. Even when the PLO recognized the existence of the State of Israel in the 1980s, the border dispute was still infinitely more important than the existence of the settlements, which has since become one of the major, if not the major bone of contention.

So there you have the gist of the Israeli-Arab and Israeli-Palestinian conflict, albeit greatly abridged and simplified. As we have said, a broad and all-inclusive history of Israel's foreign policy has yet to be written - and that is where Raviv's book comes in. Despite the ambitious title, and the claims of the author, a former Israeli ambassador and deputy director of the Foreign Ministry, this volume does not offer a complete picture of the achievements and failures of Israeli diplomacy. Rather, it addresses the most important topic in that sphere: Israel's quest for peace with its neighbors. This relatively short book traces the development of Israeli foreign policy over the last five decades (the Hebrew edition contains an additional chapter on the Netanyahu and Barak administrations), but with a strong emphasis on a particular aspect of it: relations with the Arab countries and the Palestinians, and contacts initiated for the purpose of reaching a settlement.

As Raviv himself attests, this is not an objective academic-historical study (which is impossible to write at this stage of the game), but the observations and analysis of a seasoned senior diplomat who participated in the events described for close to 40 years. From this standpoint, Raviv is continuing the tradition begun by other top Israeli diplomats, among them Eliyahu Elath, Walter Eytan and Gideon Raphael, who have also written books on Israeli foreign policy, but addressed shorter periods of time. The difference is that Raviv explores one critical aspect of foreign policy over the entire period. Owing to the fact that there is no one book that covers the subject, "Israel at Fifty" is a timely addition to the Israeli as well as the general bookshelf.

As the book is based on personal experience, and Raviv joined the foreign service in 1956, the first chapters - on the Jewish community in pre-state Palestine, the transition to statehood, and the first decade of the state - are relatively short and schematic. A separate chapter is also devoted to Israel's relations with Germany and the reparations agreements. These were defining experiences for Raviv as a Holocaust survivor, and he comes back to them at various points in the book. The chapters on the following three decades, during which he was appointed to increasingly important diplomatic posts, are more detailed.

The brevity and focused character of the book are not without a price: Very little is written about the impact of Israeli domestic politics on the twists and turns of its foreign policy. Raviv cites Henry Kissinger's observation that "Israel has no foreign policy, only domestic policy," but he does not elaborate. As a veteran diplomat, Raviv offers a balanced account of diplomatic procedure. Apart from his comments on the influence of the Holocaust, he does not reveal much about his own life and political alignment. At the same time, it is quite obvious that his opinions evolved over the years, from approval of reprisal raids in the 1950s and full support for the Six-Day War (he puts the full blame on Nasser), to moderate centrist views and harsh criticism of the "contribution" of Israel's governments to the failure of the peace process.

The book is full of categorical statements that sound all the more ominous coming from the mouth of a level-headed diplomat like Raviv. "I was then, and remain to the present day, concerned about the role that Israeli policy played in wasting an opportunity for peace," he writes on one occasion. "In recognizing and probing an opportunity for peace, flexibility and speed can be a greater virtue than `legendary toughness,'" he writes on another, referring to the uncompromising stance of Golda Meir in the early 1970s, backed up by Haim Bar-Lev and David Elazar.

For Raviv, as for many others in Israel, the Yom Kippur War was the start of a sobering process. Thus we find him bitterly critical of the "military euphoria," the misinformation disseminated by Israeli military intelligence and the policies of Benjamin Netanyahu, on the one hand, and full of praise for the Oslo accords, on the other. This is important because other members of the Israeli diplomatic corps and the public at large underwent a similar process.

Although the book relies on secondary sources for obvious reasons, it seems a pity that Raviv did not make more use of inside information and personal knowledge. In writing about Moshe Dayan's meetings with Dr. Hassan el-Tuhami, for example, in the course of which we now know that Israel agreed to withdraw entirely from Sinai, Raviv sticks to the official account. The same holds true when he reports on Netanyahu's willingness to surrender all of the Golan Heights. A more gutsy presentation and analysis of the facts would have done this book no harm.

Raviv is cautious in his phrasing and offers little in the way of shocking new revelations - apart, perhaps, from the fact that Golda Meir originally accepted Resolution 242 and only later changed her mind, or the fact that Israeli policymakers were already aware in 1971 that Sadat's strategic approach had changed, but failed to draw the necessary conclusions. Nevertheless, the book is a worthy addition to the attempts to summarize Israeli foreign policy, and especially the winding, convoluted, almost insurmountable path toward peace.

Prof. Gabi Sheffer's book "At Home Abroad" will be published in early 2002 by Cambridge University Press.