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Saving Israel From Suicide : ISRAEL'S FATEFUL HOUR by Yehoshafat Harkabi (Harper & Row: $22.50; 256 pp.)

January 01, 1989|Marvin Seid | Seid is a Times editorial writer. and

Here is a book that calls on Israel to end its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, negotiate with the Palestine Liberation Organization, and accept the establishment of a Palestinian state. What gives the arguments behind these familiar ideas exceptional force and cogency is the background of their author. Yehoshafat Harkabi is a former major general who served as head of Israel's military intelligence for nine years. He is an internationally recognized student of Arab politics and the author of the standard Israeli work analyzing the PLO's National Covenant, which calls for the destruction of the Israeli state. He has been an assistant to a minister of defense and an adviser to a prime minister. He is not, in short, anyone's naive and sentimental peacenik. He is a tough-minded pragmatist who has come to believe that without a change in its policies, Israel could be heading for "national suicide." Israelis, he says, have a democratic right to choose such a course. His duty, along with others, is to warn against what may be coming.

The choice facing Israel, Harkabi believes, is not between good and bad but between bad and worse. Giving up the strategic depth that the West Bank provides will be bad. Trying to keep military control over an increasingly restive population will be worse. The civil strife of the last year, Harkabi writes, is producing the "Belfastization" of the area, a situation of endless confrontations and deepening hatreds. Israeli settlement activity, by reinforcing the ethnic component of a struggle over land, further erodes the chances of a compromise and threatens to transform the conflict into an "existential" fight to the death.

While Israel was justified in occupying the West Bank in the 1967 war, Harkabi says, it is not justified in trying to annex it, either by unilateral acts that the world would never recognize or \o7 de facto\f7 , as many in Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's Likud Party and other right-wingers want. Annexation, in fact, would contain the seeds of Zionism's destruction. If Israel tried to absorb 1.7 million Arabs while denying them political rights, it would lose its democratic character. If it gave them normal civil rights, it would pave the way for the ultimate disappearance of the Jewish state. Extremist Israeli proposals to deal with this demographic reality by "transferring" West Bankers--a euphemism for expelling them--would be a moral outrage certain to provoke universal condemnation and unite the Arab world, including Egypt, in unremitting war against Israel.

Harkabi has no illusions about what the PLO and radical Arabs would do if they had the power to enforce their darkest wishes: They would destroy Israel. But he believes that time and experience have convinced an increasing number of Arabs that this grand design is unachievable. Harkabi sees much of the Arab world, including key elements in the PLO, lurching toward greater political moderation. He believes Israel can encourage this movement with its own moderate responses, including a willingness to talk with leaders the Palestinians say represent them. "To deprive the Palestinians of a political course of action is inevitably to drive them to resort to violent protest in all its forms." What should be talked about? The terms of a political solution he leaves to the negotiators, though he makes clear that the "acid test of the Arabs' peaceful intentions will be their readiness to meet Israel's security needs at the negotiating table."

There was a time when most Israelis would have seized the chance to negotiate peaceful coexistence with the Palestinians. But over the last two decades, responding both to Arab intransigence and their own sense of national power, an increasing number of Israelis have come to think that political and territorial compromise may not be desirable after all. Harkabi's analysis of internal Israeli political developments since the Six Day War--first the growth of what he calls nationalistic Judaism with its strong elements of religious intolerance and xenophobia, later, with the rise to power of Menachem Begin, the ascendancy of an absolutist ideology that claims hegemony over all of Palestine--provide some of the most instructive and disturbing pages in the book.

The occupation's morally corrosive and politically self-destructive effects have long worried many Israelis. Some--Amos Oz and Meron Benvenisti particularly come to mind--have been especially eloquent in describing them. Harkabi's great strength as an analyst and even--since the first edition of this book appeared in Israel in 1986 the word has become appropriate--a prophet derive from his close familiarity with political developments in both Israel and the Arab world. His clear and forceful views are not proposed as the final word but as a contribution to an essential national debate, one he believes that leaders of the Diaspora and the U.S. government, Israel's closest ally, must also participate in. Self-criticism is never easy; often it is imperative. Harkabi recalls some words from the sages: "Jerusalem was destroyed only because they did not reprove one another." Here, with cool logic and passionate conviction, is a major contribution to that vital debate.

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