'We acted as they would have done to us'

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

LovaEliav (photo credit: .)
(photo credit: .)
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 venturewhen he established the Lachish district, aimed at developing the hugeexpanses between the Jerusalem corridor and the Gaza Strip. It was aland that had been ethnically cleansed of Palestinians who left behindmore than 45 empty villages.
Throughout history, the conqueror has settled on top of thevanquished, yet here, the Jewish state decided not to build on top ofthese villages and cities. Except in a few cases, you built next tothem. What were you thinking? That one day the Palestinian inhabitantswould come back?
We said we would set up 30 more moshavim and kibbutzim, mainlyimmigrant moshavim, without regard to whether there had been an Arabvillage there or not.
Without regard?
We set them up according to our logic. The village Iraq Suedan, forexample. We found it in ruins, so we made a forest there to cover itup. Our vision was for villages averaging about 4,000 dunams each, laidout entirely different from the Arab villages. We laid out pipes fromthe Yarkon River through the centers for new and intensive agriculture.The Arab villages were not suitable for this vision. They were [filledwith] 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’tneed 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. IfI had left it, there would have been diseases and rats and snakes andmore. We didn’t think then about the justice of the peasants who oncelived there. Only a few years before it was either us or them.
You wanted to close the gap. Did you have the fears thatbecause there had been a lot of Arab villages in this area that theywould return?
Oh come on! The moment that the 1949 armistice lines were drawn therewas no concern that suddenly the Arabs of Iraq al-Mansheye or Faluja orelsewhere would get up and return there. No way. There was a border.The problem was that we needed to have a continuous Jewish settlementbetween 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’sadopt a one-state solution and return”? Did you not destroy thevillages because of this?
It never crossed our minds. This is still relevant today. You know I ama peacenik. According to my conception, they don’t have any right ofreturn and they never will. One of my proteges is Yossi Beilin, withhis Geneva initiative. He put in some kind of clause that perhaps insome way a few refugees would be allowed to return. But I added mysignature to Ami Ayalon and Sari Nusseibeh, who say simply that thePalestinians will not return to the State of Israel. Period. Fiftyyears 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 settlethem. Remember this wasn’t the same state that absorbed 1 millionRussian immigrants and had cities like Ashdod and Ashkelon and UpperNazareth. We were a small and poor country. We had to absorb hundredsof thousands of refugees from Morocco and Iraq and Poland and Hungary.
Look, we had just gone through a terrible war [the War ofIndependence]. Where they won, like in Gush Etzion and the Old City andAtarot, they won. They killed soldiers, destroyed the houses and tookthe women and children and residents and made them into refugees. TheArabs were victorious in about 20 places. In that war it was eitherthem or us. It was a zero sum war. That is the context. There was awar, and wherever they won, they turned us into refugees.
To our good fortune, we were victorious in over 400 places. And I don’tneed [historian] Benny Morris to tell me what we did. We acted as theywould have done to us. We did to them what all victors throughouthistory and for all generations and through all the miserable historyof mankind did. The victor conquers, kills in battle and those whoremain 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 eitherkilled 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 ofrefugees. We are 5 million Jewish refugees and they are 5 millionPalestinian refugees. They need to solve this humanitarian problem oftheir refugees in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It is my position thatnot one refugee will return. Not one.
The Palestinians in the refugee camps say that no one isliving today on the rubble where their villages once were. They claimthey can come back and rebuild them and not put out anyIsraeli.
This is feigning simplicity. It’s disingenuous. They’ll say thingslike, “I’ll return to Jaffa. I promise I’ll be in favor of the State ofIsrael. If you want, I’ll be a member of the World ZionistOrganization.” The moment you start with the right of return, there isno longer a State of Israel. In post-World War II Europe, the defeatedunderstood that they had to rehabilitate themselves. This is somethingthat the Palestinians and the Arabs have not understood. For over 50years, they could have rehabilitated their refugee camps withoutdifficulty. After the Six Day War, I was a deputy minister and I told[then premier Levi] Eshkol, “Let us help them solve the refugeeproblem. Let’s not start with the settlements. Let us invest our greatknowledge and raise a lot of money around the world, demolish thecamps, toss out UNRWA and build a super Nablus, a super Jericho, asuper Jenin.”
What happened?
The government was stupid. Eshkol died and Golda Meir didn’t want totouch it. I went to [Robert] McNamara, who was then head of the WorldBank, in 1970. He told us money would not be a problem, he told us tojust 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 andwrote to them. Nothing was built. I wanted to do for them like we didin Lachish. The world would have given us millions of dollars.
The Palestinians wanted to maintain the refugee camps so nationalismand hatred would simmer, so that they could say, “Look, that is wherewe lived and the Jews live there now.” Instead of accepting the rule ofwar – 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 abinational state where we can live together in coexistence.” You wereone of the first to identify that there was a Palestinian identity. Ifthere is, then what do they want to live with us for?
There is cunning in this approach. They say a two-state solution won’twork now because we have put in a quarter of million Jews into thesettlements, and we can’t separate anymore. The moment they say that,tomorrow there will be one state, where there will be 5.5 million Jewsand some 4.5 million Palestinians – a million inside the State ofIsrael 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 MKsand 59 Jews. The first law they pass will be that from now on the nameof the state will be Palestine. The second law will be to cancel theLaw of Return for the Jews. The third law will be to resettle hereanother half a million Palestinian refugees in south Lebanon. That isthe 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 butrealists, people who know that Palestine is all of the West Bank andGaza Strip. I know the names of the people, but it will only harm themif I tell you. Dr. Issam Sartawi was like this. He was the smartest andbravest Palestinian I ever met. He understood that there could never bea 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 Landof the Hart, they dream that we will grow lazy and fat likethe Crusaders and a Saladin will come and reach a gentleman’s agreementwith Richard the Lionhearted, who returned to England.
This is inconceivable now. Two gentlemen will not battle it out withheavy and light cavalry. This time it is with jets and tanks andmissiles and nonconventional weapons. This won’t be settled in onebattle. There is no return to Crusadership. There is just the dangerthat the whole region would end up in a conflagration.
The leaders of some Arab states understand that the price for “erasingIsrael” is that the entire Middle East will no longer exist and that itwill turn into radioactive dust. In the future, I see Iran of theayatollahs collapsing. I won’t be alive, but you will see it. ModerateArab nations will reconcile with us.
I don’t believe what Samuel Huntington believes, that this is a war todeath between Western civilization and Islam. Our world of 7 billionpeople wants to live with a Western standard of living. India and Chinawant this. There is no place for [Osama] bin Ladens.
Is the best we can hope for reconciliation of our existencerather than peace with the Arab world, or are you pessimistic likeBenny Morris, who has a more apocalyptical outlook?
I don’t ask the Arabs to be members of Peace Now. And I don’t speak asBenny Morris does of putting Palestinians in cages. Hatred for us amongthe Palestinians is almost ubiquitous. But I don’t say we should putthem into cages. Rather, we need to be strong and give them hope for aPalestinian state.
We both missed the chance in 1967. We missed it because we never saideven one word that we were prepared to divvy it up with them. WhatDavid Ben-Gurion understood, Golda and her buddies did not. Ben-Gurionunderstood from the Peel Committee in 1937 until the 1948 war thatthere was no alternative other than partition. If, after 1967, thegovernment had declared that we were holding the territories as adeposit for the day they make peace, then we would have had two statesfor two peoples.
Ariel Sharon is the first prime minister to officially endorsethe idea of a Palestinian state and declare an intention to get out ofterritories. Isn’t it ironic that his positions are similar to yoursthat were so heretical a generation ago?
It has taken 30 years, but today Sharon understands this. [The Likudleadership] has come full circle and is approaching The Landof the Hart. It’s awful to say what price we had to pay forthis. 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 youwant me to, but I won’t say I told you so.