The Rabbi Writes: Lebanon

The Jewish Humanist, August 1982, Vol. XX, Number 1


Ten years ago it meant wealth, fun and peaceful frontiers. 

Today it is a synonym for war, death and devastation.  

In 1975 an insane civil war broke out between the two nations in Lebanon. The Christian Lebanese fought the Arab Muslims and their Palestinian allies. The neighboring Syrian Arabs – who have always coveted Lebanon – first supported the Palestinians and then bizarrely invaded to support the Christians. When a truce is finally emerged, Beirut was divided and desolate, the Palestinians had the south, the Christians had the north, and the Syrian army was somewhere in the middle. 

On June of this year – on the 15th anniversary of the opening of the Six Day War-the Israelis invaded Lebanon. The PLO and its Palestinian army was defeated. The PLO leadership and its remaining guerillas were surrounded and besieged in West Beirut. The Syrians were humiliated. And the Israeli Army established a physical link with the friendly Christians of the north. 

Why did the invasion take place? Was it justified? What should be done to resolve the war?  

The invasion took place for reasons different from the official ones. 

The attempted assassination of the Israeli ambassador to Britain and the shelling of the northern settlements were only pretexts. The invasion had been planned before both events. The army had already been mobilized. The injury to the ambassador (by pro – PLO assassins) allowed Israelis to bomb Beirut. And the bombing of Beirut forced the PLO to break the truce and to retaliate by shelling Galilee. 

The main reason was simple. A serious of circumstances had arisen that made the devastation and defeat of the PLO a real possibility. 

Ever since its expulsion from Jordan, the PLO had established its headquarters and army among the 400,000 Palestinians in Beirut and southern Lebanon. Because of the weakness of the Lebanese government and the strife between Christians and Muslims, Arafat became the leader of a state within a state. And the PLO began to function as an effective Palestinian government in exile – with increasing International recognition. The Lebanese border with Israel – once the most peaceful-became the most troubled. With the PLO vowing the destruction of the state of Israel its defeat became very important to the Israeli government. 

The circumstances of June 6th seemed perfect for the achievement of the goal. 

The Syrian allies of the PLO (they had changed sides again) were isolated from the rest of the Arab world. Moderate Arabs like the Egyptians, Jordanians and Saudis despised this government. Radical Arabs like the Iraqis had a long- run feud with its leadership. And frequently Arabs, like the Libyans and the Algerians, were too far to help. 

Egypt, the largest Arab country, was at peace with Israel. Without Egypt no Arab army could defeat Israel. 

The Arab nations were diverted by a threat to their stability more dangerous than Israel. The fanatic Iranian Persians had defeated Arab Iraq in a war the moderate Arabs believed they would win. Meeting the threat of Ayatollah Khomeini who is determined to overthrow the ‘secular’ regimes of the moderate Arabs seemed more pressing than helping the PLO – especially since the PLO expressed support for the Persians.  

The Russians were diverted by expensive troubles. Afghanistan, Poland and an ailing economy made active foreign intervention an unlikely possibility. 

The American government was supportive of Israeli hawkishness. Both Reagan and Haig viewed the PLO as agents of the Soviet Union. 

The Israeli public was aching for a reaffirmation of its military power. The withdrawal from Sinai has created public anxiety and a sense of insecurity. 

For Arik Sharon, Defense Minister and architect of the invasion, the time seemed ideal to use the war to create certain ‘positive’ realities for Israel. 

At ‘first’ best, the PLO, Syrians and Israelis would withdraw from Lebanon, a ‘neutral’ Lebanese government controlled by friendly Christians would be established, a peace treaty with Israel would be signed, and the despairing Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza would accept autonomy status in a Jewish State. 

At second best, Lebanon would be divided. The south and northwest would become a Christian client state of Israel. The northeast would become a Muslim client state of Syria. The PLO leadership would fall under the total control of the jealous Syrians. And a friendly buffer zone would emerge in the North. 

For Sharon and for most Israelis the justification for the invasion lay in the posture of the PLO. The PLO has declared war on Israel and refuses to recognize the right of the state of Israel to exist. If indeed there is war, then the behavior of the Israeli Army is appropriate to war. 

The PLO cannot have it both ways. They cannot, with moral credibility, preach war and plead victimization from the consequences of war at the same time. 

But since justifications usually follow the facts, the practical question, right now, is not whether the Israeli army should have invaded Lebanon or having invaded should have pushed to the gates of Beirut. The practical issue is what should be done in the context of the events that have already taken place. Given the reality that the Israelis are in occupation of southern Lebanon, what are the pragmatic moral alternatives? 

The appropriate answer to this question requires us to recognize certain important facts. 

The PLO can be defeated.But the Palestinians remain. There are over four million of them-half within Israel and the occupied territories, half within surrounding Arab countries. They are unable to become either Israelis or unhyphenated Arabs. War and exile have given them a national identity. They want self – determination. They need a state of their own. 

The PLO is the only leadership the overwhelming majority the Palestinians recognize as legitimate. Even in defeat and dispersion they will remain the leaders. 

A Palestinian state already exists. Although its present name is Jordan, it was split off from historic Palestine and the majority of its people are Palestinians. From 1948 to 1967 the West Bank was part of Jordan. Federating Jordan with the Palestinian West Bank remains the only feasible solution to the Palestinian issue. Without Jordan the West Bank is not economically viable. With Jordan the Palestinians would have a real state to call their own. (Arik Sharon would love to rename Jordan Palestine. But he is unwilling to return the West Bank.) 

Moderate Arab nations, fearful of Khomeini and radical upheaval, are ready to recognize the right of the state of Israel to exist. The Saudis and Jordanians, like the Egyptians, fear the Persians more than the Jews. 

For the first time in Israeli history soldiers and civilians have publicly dissented from the war policy of the government during the progress of the war. However, The dissent should be viewed in the context of the polls which indicate that the overwhelming majority of the Israelis support the invasion decision of Begin and Sharon. 

The trauma of the invasion has focused the attention of the world on the Palestinian issue. International pressure may force peace negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians that Sharon never planned. 

Hopefully, the Israeli government will use its victory to negotiate with the representatives of the Palestinian people-including those leaders of the PLO who will now be willing to recognize the right of the state of Israel to exist.  

The danger is that Arik Sharon will not be restrained and the Palestinians will be offered no dignified alternatives to negotiate. It is also that Arafat and his colleagues will be too timid and the Israelis will receive no public acknowledgement of their legitimacy. 

The Lebanese Invasion may be a sobering turning point for both Palestinians and Israelis. With the help of American enemies may begin the conversation that ultimately has to take place.  

Palestine and Jordan

Humanistic Judaism, Vol 23, No 3-4 Summer_Autumn 1995 Palest Jordan

This summer I fulfilled a dream. I crossed over from Eilat to Aqaba and journeyed to Petra and Amman. Visiting Jordan is hardly new. But crossing over from Israel is the dramatic sign that peace is beginning to work in the Middle East. 

Two Arab states — one real and one emerging — lie to the east of Israel. Both are theoretically at peace with the Jewish state. Arafat’s Palestine is a reluctant neighbor. Hussein’s Jordan is more enthusiastic. Israel, Palestine, and Jordan were, at one time, all part of British Palestine. Like Gaul, Palestine has been divided into three parts. 

Jordan used to be Transjordan. It is an artificial state with artificial boundaries, a bureaucratic creation of British imperialism. The East Bank was separated from Palestine in 1992 as a gift to an Arab ally whom England had betrayed. It was a substitute for Syria, which Britain had promised both to Hussein ibn-Ali, the leader of the Arab revolt against the Turks, and to the French. Hussein’s son Faisal was given Iraq. His second son, Abdullah, was given Transjordan, then an unredeemed desert with a sprinkling of Bedouin and an isolated railroad to Mecca. Amman, the capital, was a sleepy village. 

Transjordan was transformed by the British and by the Zionist threat. Out of the remnants of Hussein’s Arab army the British fashioned the Arab Legion, the best-trained and best-disciplined Arab army in the Arab world. Most of the soldiers were Bedouin who despised and were despised by urban Arabs. In the Israeli War of Independence in 1948, this army alone prevailed against the Israelis.Their reward was the annexation of what today we call the West Bank, including Nablus, Hevron, Bethlehem, and East Jerusalem. Transjordan became Jordan. And hundreds of thousands of Palestinians and Palestinian refugees became Jordanians. 

The annexation was followed by more dramatic change. King Abdullah was assassinated in 1951 because he wanted to make peace with Israel. His grandson Hussein ibn Talal, who became king in 1952, was a young and inexperienced teenager. The Cold War between America and Russia was becoming hot. Gamal Abdel Nasser took over in Egypt and proclaimed his desire to unite the Arab world under his leadership. Radical military regimes, imitating Nasser, seized power in Syria and Iraq. Jordan faced overwhelming internal and external Arab enemies. In 1967 the West Bank was lost to Israel in the Six Day War. Thousands of new Palestinian refugees poured into the remaining East Bank. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was established and chose Jordan as its base of operations. By 19970 PLO leader Yasser Arafat threatened to take over Jordan and to turn it into Palestine. 

What saved Hussein and Jordan was the intervention of the Arab Legion. It is this army and this army alone that prevents Jordan from being taken over either by the internal enemy, the Palestinians, or by the external enemy, the Syrians. Ironically, Israel has always been a friendly power, preferring a moderate Hussein to the radical alternatives. But Hussein could not make peace so long as the Palestianian issue was unresolved. 

Along the way Hussein made an almost fatal mistake. Driven by internal public opinion and by the powerful economic ties of Jordan to Iraq, he chose to support Iraq’s ruler, Saddam Hussein, in the Gulf War. His reward for this act of stupidity was the alienation of moderate Arabs, the loss of American alliance, and the sudden return of thousands of disgruntled Palestianians fleeing Kuwait. In the midst of all this trouble the fundamentalists threw down the gauntlet and threatened to win control of Parliament. 

The man who rescued Husseim was, ironically, his enemy, Arafat. By making peace with Israel in 1993, Arafat made it possible for Hussein to offer peace in 1994. The American alliance was restored. The Israelis, for their part, were eager to take what they had been waiting for since 1948. Peace with Jordan, unlike peace with Palestine, was overwhelmingly popular with all Israelis, since no territory had been surrendered. 

Husseins’s Jordan has many problems. It is an artificial country with no fundamental national identity. It is filled with militant Palestinians who hate Hussein and who would prefer to unite the West Bank and the East Bank into a large Palestinian state. It suffers from a rising Muslim fundamentalist movement with connections to fundamentalist movements outside of Jordan. It is experiencing inflation and unemployment, triggered by all the consequences of choosing the wrong side in the Gulf War. 

But good things are happening also. The visitor can see them. Impressive economic development is taking place. Amman has replaced troubled Beirut as the banking center of the Arab world. The Palestinians have developed a prosperous middle class. Now Jewish tourism is stimulating the emergence of striking facilities including kosher hotels for Israeli travelers. The chemical riches of the Dead Sea are being jointly developed by Israel and Jordan. 

What is most striking about Jordan is the emergence of an expanding bourgeoisie committed to business and trade rather than war and reinforced by an educated professional class that is generally wary of religious and political extremism. Some of the best medical facilities in the Arab world are now to be found in once-sleepy Amman. The middle class is Westernized. Women appear bolder in urban Jordan than they do in most other Mulim countries. All of this development supports Hussein and moderation. 

Jordan’s new role as a tourist mecca will accelerate the Westernization process. The land is extraordinarily beautiful, with high mountains and unusual archeological sites such as Petra and Jerash. The ancient trade route that passed through Jordan from Yemen to Damascus was coveted by many conquerors. Canaanites, Greeks, Romans and Nabatean Arabs have left their marks. 

As I crossed back to Israel via the Allenby Bridge, I saw both Israel and Palestinian flags shimmering in the heat of the West Bank. In a few years, travelers will pass through Palestine on their way to Israel. In the interim the Likud opposition to the Rabin government will huff and puff, the Jewish settlers in the West Bank will conduct a thousand violent demonstrations, the terrorists will provide their exploded martyrs, and the Israeli public will express its deep ambivalence. But the withdrawal from the West Bank will continue. An irreversible reality is being created. Between Israel and Jordan, little Palestine is emerging. Neither Israel nor Hussein really wants it. But they will have to learn to live with it and with Arafat. 

Great changes are taking place in the political landscape of the Middle East. Even touristy Bethlehem flies its Palestinian flag, a few miles from Jerusalem. Three years ago peace seemed an illusory hope, and Jordan seemed as far away from Israel as the moon. Today, Israel, Palestine, and Jordan have become neighbors. Their destinies are tied together. Sharing peace will mean sharing water and economic development. Some Israelis will turn to Europe to import foreign, non-Arab workers. But others will see that, in the end, there is no alternative to intimate cooperation. 

The Jordan venture was more than sightseeing. It was an invitation to hope.