By: Tom Segev
Ha’aretz (Hebrew daily, transl. by Prof. Israel Shahak), 8 March 1991
Every time they interview the [Israeli] Prime Minister on TV, he appears in front of a shelf of blue volumes, each of which has the emblem of the state engraved in gold on its spine. These are collections of the state of Israel’s foreign policy documents published by the state archive. This week, the sixth volume was published; it contains documents from 1951 and was edited by Yamima Rosental. Like all the previous volumes in the series, this one too contains a few hundred telegrams, memorandums, and position papers drawn up by the foreign ministry. For the past thirty years, they have been classified. Latest volume is also full of illuminating explanations and contains an excellent index. But in spite of its academic appearance, it is official historiography. The state archivist is Prof. Reuven Yaron, a member of Herut party [core of Likud].
In July 1949 David Ben Gurion noted in his diary: “Abba Evan arrived. He doesn’t see any need to be hasty about peace. As far as we are concerned, a ceasefire will suffice. If we get hasty about peace, the Arabs will demand a price from us. (Readjustment of) borders or (the return of) refugees or both. We will have to wait many years”
This was the line the State of Israel took even back in its third year of existence: its foreign policy was concentrated on consolidating the status quo. Forty years later, Yamima Rosental writes: “In 1951 Israel, it was impossible to relinquish anything to the Arabs, and certainly not the territory they demanded, something which would have threatened the basis of [Israel’s] security – (demands such as those calling on Israel to relinquish the southern Negev and half of the Lake of Galilee, or to allow the refugees to return)” This is a legitimate argument, and very much to be expected in a book published by the Prime Minister’s office. But the documents in the book reveal that this was an issue which, already back then, was open to debate. Rosental writes this herself: There were people, in particular Eliyahu Sasson, who criticized what they considered to be a mistaken attitude. Moshe Sharett, the foreign minister, argued that he had not given up the search for peace. Rosental claims that the foreign minister did actually work for peace, and was no less anxious about its absence than his subordinates, but she qualifies this by writing: “As a political person (Sharett) was even more aware of internal pressure than his subordinates, and the constraints under which the government, headed by his party, operated” Thus, we have a paradox: Was there no possibility of relinquishing anything, or was this prevented by the constraints under which the government operated Lacking the Arab documents, we can never know if Israel missed opportunities to make peace. But one thing that can be learned from the documents drawn up by Israel’s first diplomats is that practically none of them had an iota of understanding of the true nature of the Palestinian problem. They had realized the national dream of the Zionist movement after 2000 years of being refugees, but the exile of the Palestinian refugees appeared to them to be no more than an nuisance which would disappear of its own accord, like a pimple on a teenager’s forehead.
In January 1951 the ministry for Foreign Affairs received a letter from Abba Eban, then the Israeli ambassador in Washington. He classified the letter as “personal and confidential” Inter alia, Eban wrote about what he had learnt from his discussions with Ahmed Toukan, a Palestinian who served as a Jordanian diplomat, and who later became Jordanian minister for Foreign Affairs: “Following these discussions, I am convinced that if we found a way to pay reparations to the [Palestinianl members of the Jordanian government and Parliament for their abandoned property in the state of Israel, we would face a totally different attitude than that which now exists in these circles. Perhaps our tendency to consider political issues in a general context has led us astray. Arab statesmen tend to consider these matters in personal terms, paying more heed to the fate of individuals than the fate of the group. In any case, in my view, a peace agreement with this state would be so great an achievement – especially in light of our present crises – that I am not at all hesitant in recommending that an attempt be made in this direction: it is worth our while to cast our bread on these waters. It is clear that this mission is a very delicate one, and its execution requires considerable diplomatic skill, but you will surely find a way if you agree to it”
Some time later, Eban clarified that the payment made to the Palestinian members of the Jordanian government and Parliament should not be in place of reparations to the poorer Palestinians; rather, it is “a tactical action designed to facilitate the peace mission’ ” Eban wrote that Ahmed Toukan’s appointment as Jordanian minister of Foreign Affairs bolstered his view on the matter. This is followed by a few words which the state archivist, for some reason, decided to delete. It is possible, of course, that Toukan demanded money from Eban. But the decisive words were removed from the text and replaced with three discreet dots. There is no way of knowing if this was done in order to protect Toukan’s good name or to harm Eban’s reputation. Either way, the impression is that Eban believed it was possible to solve the Palestinian problem by buying off their leaders. The volume of documents published by the state archivist does not reveal if, in the end, payments were indeed made.
If Israel thought it was possible to buy off the Palestinian people’s national longings with money – it should have done its best to ensure that every Palestinian refugee received generous reparations for the property he left in the country and the deterioration in his living standards which ensued. But Israel wanted to economize. Thus it made its readiness to make reparations to the refugees contingent on a comprehensive peace agreement with the Arab states. At a certain stage it was decided that when the time Game to shell out the money, the value of Jewish property left in Iraq and confiscated by the government, would be deducted from the reparations. Walter Eitan, the then director general of the Foreign Ministry, told the American diplomat Ely Palmer as much – using the term “link up” This linkage was no more rational than the linkage Saddam Hussein tried to forge between the occupation of Kuwait and the liberation of the territories.
Most of the [Israeli] policy-makers emerge from this volume, and its predecessors, as wily tacticians, not statesmen making history. Moshe Sharett once revealed to David Ben Gurion that the Egyptians were anxious about an Israeli operation in the Gaza Strip and Sinai. His convoluted response was as follows: “In my opinion, we should take care that this anxiety remains constant, and I therefore propose – subject to your agreement – that orders be given for us to act in the outlying areas in a manner that will be interpreted, by any observer, as preparedness to take the initiative in any eventuality, of course, maintaining total control of our forces, so that they don’t overshoot the mark by launching a hasty action, and making it clear to the general staff that this is a political tactic and not real preperations for a military operation.” The above sentence is not simply semantically bewildering: it reveals a whole way of thinking – an inability to see past one’s nose.
What would have happened if they would have been more farsighted? There is no way of knowing. It is possible that their historical sins are not sins of omission – the opportunities they missed – but rather, the mindset they bequeathed to today’s policy-makers: tangled in webs of diplomatic deceit, lacking initiative and imagination, championing “hasbarah” [information/propaganda] rather than statesmanship, and all the while hoping either the nobleman or his dog rolls over and dies.