'We acted as they would have done to us'

An interview with Arie Lova Eliav (1921-2010).

June 1, 2010 10:59

LovaEliav. (photo credit: .)


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There is something nostalgic about entering one of the few remaining stately Mandate-era buildings left on Tel Aviv’s Rehov Netter, where the 82-year-old Arie Lova Eliav lives.

Like a modern-day Ulysses, Eliav returned to the house his father built after his sojourns had taken him elsewhere. Wrinkled yet spry, Eliav refuses to answer even one question until he has heard my entire life story, urging me to drink the tea his wife Tania serves. In some respects, Eliav was a man ahead of his time. His mind and sparkling eyes look straight ahead, and he gets a bewildered, almost annoyed look when I tell him I have come to ask him about the past.

Eliav was one of the granddaddies of the Israeli Left. He was a one-time Mapai kingpin, a secretary-general of the Labor Party and even a presidential candidate in 1993.

Always a complicated public figure, he was one of the first to say Israel should return the territories and help set up a Palestinian state (albeit as a confederation with Jordan). Eliav made his mark as a wunderkind of settlement in the nascent state, but he was ousted from his party when he opposed Jewish settlement in the territories.

Exactly 50 years ago, Eliav headed a challenging and romantic venture when he established the Lachish district, aimed at developing the huge expanses between the Jerusalem corridor and the Gaza Strip. It was a land that had been ethnically cleansed of Palestinians who left behind more than 45 empty villages.

Throughout history, the conqueror has settled on top of the vanquished, yet here, the Jewish state decided not to build on top of these villages and cities. Except in a few cases, you built next to them. What were you thinking? That one day the Palestinian inhabitants would come back?

We said we would set up 30 more moshavim and kibbutzim, mainly immigrant moshavim, without regard to whether there had been an Arab village there or not.

Without regard?

We set them up according to our logic. The village Iraq Suedan, for example. We found it in ruins, so we made a forest there to cover it up. Our vision was for villages averaging about 4,000 dunams each, laid out entirely different from the Arab villages. We laid out pipes from the Yarkon River through the centers for new and intensive agriculture. The Arab villages were not suitable for this vision. They were [filled with] peasant farmers raising simple field crops.

You didn’t think of putting them inside the Arab villages and using the houses?

Were we crazy? We weren’t exactly thinking of a new Jew, but everything was new.
All there was, was mud huts. They weren’t worth anything. We didn’t need them and made forests out of the areas and built new houses.

Did you feel bad about that? About planting a forest where an Arab village once stood?

I felt great. I made a grove, not a forest. There were ruins there. If I had left it, there would have been diseases and rats and snakes and more. We didn’t think then about the justice of the peasants who once lived there. Only a few years before it was either us or them.

You wanted to close the gap. Did you have the fears that because there had been a lot of Arab villages in this area that they would return?

Oh come on! The moment that the 1949 armistice lines were drawn there was no concern that suddenly the Arabs of Iraq al-Mansheye or Faluja or elsewhere would get up and return there. No way. There was a border. The problem was that we needed to have a continuous Jewish settlement between southern Judea and the Negev, that there not be a gap. Then, the right of return wasn’t even on the agenda.

But did you think that perhaps one day they would say, “Let’s adopt a one-state solution and return”? Did you not destroy the villages because of this?

It never crossed our minds. This is still relevant today. You know I am a peacenik. According to my conception, they don’t have any right of return and they never will. One of my proteges is Yossi Beilin, with his Geneva initiative. He put in some kind of clause that perhaps in some way a few refugees would be allowed to return. But I added my signature to Ami Ayalon and Sari Nusseibeh, who say simply that the Palestinians will not return to the State of Israel. Period. Fifty years ago it never even crossed my mind.

Did others think of this prospect then?

No way. First of all, 1,000 [Jewish] refugees were arriving daily. Every day another thousand. One day, one thousand. And we had to settle them. Remember this wasn’t the same state that absorbed 1 million Russian immigrants and had cities like Ashdod and Ashkelon and Upper Nazareth. We were a small and poor country. We had to absorb hundreds of thousands of refugees from Morocco and Iraq and Poland and Hungary.

Look, we had just gone through a terrible war [the War of Independence]. Where they won, like in Gush Etzion and the Old City and Atarot, they won. They killed soldiers, destroyed the houses and took the women and children and residents and made them into refugees. The Arabs were victorious in about 20 places. In that war it was either them or us. It was a zero sum war. That is the context. There was a war, and wherever they won, they turned us into refugees.

To our good fortune, we were victorious in over 400 places. And I don’t need [historian] Benny Morris to tell me what we did. We acted as they would have done to us. We did to them what all victors throughout history and for all generations and through all the miserable history of mankind did. The victor conquers, kills in battle and those who remain are banished.

They won in 20 places, and if they had won in 400 or 300 or 100 places, then I wouldn’t be sitting with you today. They would have either killed me or made me into a refugee. This was the horrible war of 1948. The result of this awful war was the creation of two groups of refugees. We are 5 million Jewish refugees and they are 5 million Palestinian refugees. They need to solve this humanitarian problem of their refugees in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It is my position that not one refugee will return. Not one.

The Palestinians in the refugee camps say that no one is living today on the rubble where their villages once were. They claim they can come back and rebuild them and not put out any Israeli.

This is feigning simplicity. It’s disingenuous. They’ll say things like, “I’ll return to Jaffa. I promise I’ll be in favor of the State of Israel. If you want, I’ll be a member of the World Zionist Organization.” The moment you start with the right of return, there is no longer a State of Israel. In post-World War II Europe, the defeated understood that they had to rehabilitate themselves. This is something that the Palestinians and the Arabs have not understood. For over 50 years, they could have rehabilitated their refugee camps without difficulty. After the Six Day War, I was a deputy minister and I told [then premier Levi] Eshkol, “Let us help them solve the refugee problem. Let’s not start with the settlements. Let us invest our great knowledge and raise a lot of money around the world, demolish the camps, toss out UNRWA and build a super Nablus, a super Jericho, a super Jenin.”

What happened?

The government was stupid. Eshkol died and Golda Meir didn’t want to touch it. I went to [Robert] McNamara, who was then head of the World Bank, in 1970. He told us money would not be a problem, he told us to just draw up a plan. The stupid and blind government then of Golda, [Yisrael] Galili and company didn’t want to touch it. I begged them and wrote to them. Nothing was built. I wanted to do for them like we did in Lachish. The world would have given us millions of dollars.

The Palestinians wanted to maintain the refugee camps so nationalism and hatred would simmer, so that they could say, “Look, that is where we lived and the Jews live there now.” Instead of accepting the rule of war – the horrible rule, but it is the rule of all wars for all peoples – and starting to solve the problem of the refugees in a humane way, their extreme leadership let the camps fester like an open wound.

But that is history. Today, they are saying, “Let’s build a binational state where we can live together in coexistence.” You were one of the first to identify that there was a Palestinian identity. If there is, then what do they want to live with us for?
There is cunning in this approach. They say a two-state solution won’t work now because we have put in a quarter of million Jews into the settlements, and we can’t separate anymore. The moment they say that, tomorrow there will be one state, where there will be 5.5 million Jews and some 4.5 million Palestinians – a million inside the State of Israel and another 3.5 million in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Then there will be one man, one vote. Before you can say Jack Robinson, it will be 50-50. Then, soon after, the Knesset will have 61 Arab MKs and 59 Jews. The first law they pass will be that from now on the name of the state will be Palestine. The second law will be to cancel the Law of Return for the Jews. The third law will be to resettle here another half a million Palestinian refugees in south Lebanon. That is the story.

Then how do you see the solution?
Yasser Arafat is their evil wind. We need to find among them a leader. There are people in the second generation, not lovers of Zion but realists, people who know that Palestine is all of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. I know the names of the people, but it will only harm them if I tell you. Dr. Issam Sartawi was like this. He was the smartest and bravest Palestinian I ever met. He understood that there could never be a right of return and he spoke of this. And he was a refugee from Acre.

[Sartawi was murdered by the Iraqi-supported Palestinian arch-terrorist Abu Nidal in 1983.]

Looking at us from a bird’s eye view, perhaps our experiment has played itself out and we are at its end?

Eliav laughs.

They live on the Crusader concept. I wrote in my book The Land of the Hart, they dream that we will grow lazy and fat like the Crusaders and a Saladin will come and reach a gentleman’s agreement with Richard the Lionhearted, who returned to England.

This is inconceivable now. Two gentlemen will not battle it out with heavy and light cavalry. This time it is with jets and tanks and missiles and nonconventional weapons. This won’t be settled in one battle. There is no return to Crusadership. There is just the danger that the whole region would end up in a conflagration.

The leaders of some Arab states understand that the price for “erasing Israel” is that the entire Middle East will no longer exist and that it will turn into radioactive dust. In the future, I see Iran of the ayatollahs collapsing. I won’t be alive, but you will see it. Moderate Arab nations will reconcile with us.

I don’t believe what Samuel Huntington believes, that this is a war to death between Western civilization and Islam. Our world of 7 billion people wants to live with a Western standard of living. India and China want this. There is no place for [Osama] bin Ladens.

Is the best we can hope for reconciliation of our existence rather than peace with the Arab world, or are you pessimistic like Benny Morris, who has a more apocalyptical outlook?

I don’t ask the Arabs to be members of Peace Now. And I don’t speak as Benny Morris does of putting Palestinians in cages. Hatred for us among the Palestinians is almost ubiquitous. But I don’t say we should put them into cages. Rather, we need to be strong and give them hope for a Palestinian state.

We both missed the chance in 1967. We missed it because we never said even one word that we were prepared to divvy it up with them. What David Ben-Gurion understood, Golda and her buddies did not. Ben-Gurion understood from the Peel Committee in 1937 until the 1948 war that there was no alternative other than partition. If, after 1967, the government had declared that we were holding the territories as a deposit for the day they make peace, then we would have had two states for two peoples.

Ariel Sharon is the first prime minister to officially endorse the idea of a Palestinian state and declare an intention to get out of territories. Isn’t it ironic that his positions are similar to yours that were so heretical a generation ago?

It has taken 30 years, but today Sharon understands this. [The Likud leadership] has come full circle and is approaching The Land of the Hart. It’s awful to say what price we had to pay for this. We wasted $100 billion on the settlements instead of in Israel. So here we are, starting to get out of this March of Folly. I know you want me to, but I won’t say I told you so.

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