Abba Eban visits the US in 1957
Abba Eban quite famously said “The Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity” in 1974 after the Geneva peace conference ended without progress toward a comprehensive Israeli-Arab peace. Eban spoke eloquently at that conference, including this:
Now, we have no trouble or reluctance in understanding what Arab nationalism is all about. It is the moving story of a people’s liberation from external servitudes. It is an effort to build a bridge between past glories and future hopes. The success of the Arab nationalist enterprise is reflected in the existence of 19 States, occupying 12 million square kilometres, in which 100 million Arabs live under their sovereign flags, in command of vast resources. The world, including Israel, has come to terms with Arab nationalism. The unsolved question is whether Arab nationalism will frankly come to terms with the modest rights of another Middle Eastern nation to live securely in its original, and only, home.
For this to happen it will, I suggest, be necessary for political and intellectual leaders in the Arab world to reject the fallacy that Israel is alien to the Middle East. Israel is not alien to the Middle East: it is an organic part of its texture and memory. Take Israel and all that has flowed from Israel out of Middle Eastern history and you evacuate that history of its central experiences. Israel’s historic, religious, national roots in the Land of Israel are a primary element of mankind’s cultural history. Nothing – not even dispersion, exile, martyrdom, long separation – has ever disrupted this connexion. Modern Israel is the resumption of a primary current in the flow of universal history. We ask our neighbours to believe that it is an authentic reality from which most of the other elements in Middle Eastern history take their birth. Israel is no more or less than the Jewish people’s resolve to be itself and to live, renewed, within its own frame of values, and thus to contribute its particular shape of mind to the universal human legacy.
In the 35 years since then, progress in this direction has been non-existent or even negative. Eban argued that peace was in the clear practical interest of both sides. He called for defensible borders, “an end to hostility, boycott and blockade”, a formal end to the conflict, what we would call a ‘warm peace’, and a just solution to the refugee problem — for both Jewish and Arab refugees. How hard could it be? He said,
The attainment of peace will make it possible to resolve the problem of refugees by co-operative regional action with international aid. We find it astonishing that States whose revenues from oil exports surpass 15,000 million dollars a year were not able to solve this problem in a spirit of kinship and human solidarity. In the very years when the Arab refugee problem was created by the assault on Israel in 1947 and 1948, 700,000 Jewish refugees from Arab and Moslem lands and from the debris of Hitler’s Europe were received by Israel and integrated in full citizenship and economic dignity. There have been other such solutions in Europe, in the Indian sub-continent, in Africa. The Arab refugee problem is not basically intractable: it has been perpetuated by a conscious decision to perpetuate it. But surely a peace settlement will remove any political incentive which has prevented a solution in the past. At the appropriate stage Israel will define its contribution to an international and regional effort for refugees resettlement. We shall propose compensation for abandoned lands in the context of a general discussion on property abandoned by those who have left countries in the Middle East to seek a new life.
Today his words sound remarkably naive. The combination of the empowerment of the most vicious part of the Palestinian nationalist movement, Arafat’s PLO, by a world — and an Israel — imbued with the New Left ideology of the 1960’s, along with the rise of radical Islamism exemplified by Hamas, has pushed the ideal of peace based on rational interests even farther away, almost to the vanishing point.
Support for extremist movements used to come from the Soviet Union and to some extent Saudi Arabia, but now Iran has been added, introducing an element of radical theology to the mix. One almost misses the pragmatic Soviets.
From the point of view of the Palestinians today — both the nationalists and the Islamists — the Arabs did not miss any opportunities, because the kind of peace envisioned by Eban would not have been a desired outcome. Certainly his view of Israel as an “organic part” of the Middle East would be greeted with fury by those whose opinion is that Jewish Israel is a cancerous growth in the Arab Middle East.
Today there are few opportunities for peace because the Palestinian leadership, smelling potential victory and encouraged by rejectionists in the Arab and Iranian world, will not move in that direction. For example, the PLO, in the form of the Palestinian Authority (PA) categorically refuses to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.
Thanks to the effective indoctrination campaign paid for by such disparate sources as Saudi and Iranian oil money and the European Union, the rejectionist narrative — both historically and of current events — is accepted as the true account of the conflict everywhere in the Arab world, in Europe and in left-wing and academic circles in the US. So it is not even possible to try to go over the heads of the leadership to the people.
Unfortunately, today opportunities are regularly missed by Israel, not the Arabs. And they are not opportunities to make peace, but rather opportunities to destroy the enemies of peace. So, for example, Israel allowed Yasser Arafat to leave Beirut alive in 1982; failed to destroy the fighting and resupply abilities of Hezbollah in 2006; and of course failed to crush the Hamas army and leadership in 2008-9.
Israel is in a particularly tough spot today because it seems that the Obama Administration has also more or less accepted at least part of the rejectionist narrative, although it nevertheless maintains that it is committed to Israel’s security. This is not a happy situation, because the logical consequence of this pernicious narrative is just what the rejectionists say: that there should not be a Jewish state of Israel.
Supporters of Israel in the US should understand the tension faced by the administration, the tension between its distorted view of history — which Barack Obama expressed clearly in his Cairo speech when he obscenely equated the Holocaust to the Palestinian “pursuit of a homeland” — and the administration’s concern for American public opinion, which still tends to favor Israel.