Challenges in the aftermath of peace

An interview with Abba Eban in the last months of 1993 after the Oslo Accords were signed reveals how little has changed since then.

Raising Israeli flag 1947 521 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Raising Israeli flag 1947 521
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Abba Eban was born in Cape Town in 1915, and grew up in England. He made his worldwide reputation as a diplomat, statesman, scholar and writer, having studied Oriental languages and classics at Cambridge, later becoming a lecturer on the Arabic language.
In 1946, he was appointed political information officer at the Jewish Agency in London. After Israel gained independence in 1948, he became its first representative at the UN. His brilliant performance and oratory there drew world attention.
From 1950 through 1958, he simultaneously served as Israel’s ambassador in the US and chief delegate to the UN.
In 1959, Eban was elected to the Knesset on behalf of Mapai.
He became education and culture minister, a post he held until 1963, when he was appointed deputy prime minister. In 1966 he assumed the post of foreign minister, serving until the Labor Party lost power in the 1977 elections. He died in 2002.
Eban was a prolific author; his books included The Voice of Israel, My People, My Country and The New Diplomacy. He also hosted a number of television series, including Heritage, which was broadcast on America’s Public Broadcasting Service and worldwide.
Eban considered it extremely difficult to assess how Israel’s global situation would change as a result of new peace agreements, beyond the strategic implications that such treaties would bring. This also applied to the resulting structural changes in Israeli society. Until the framework of any peace agreement has been formalized, he said, predicting what would follow is a very difficult game.
Nevertheless, he outlined certain general lines along which he expected Israel to develop in a post-peace treaty era, and forecasted what awaited the country – and the world – once the expected regional peace became a reality.
“The changes that would result from a peace settlement are so revolutionary that it is hard to describe them,” Eban said.
“We must remember that the attainment of peace has always been a central objective of Zionism.”
He stressed that Israel had never sought to destroy its Arab neighbors, adding that it couldn’t even if it wanted to. “The aim was to change their minds,” he said.
This was no easy task: “We developed an ambivalent strategy based on strong military resistance, together with keeping the door open for negotiations. This was in the hope that our strength, international relations and stability would convince the Arab world that they have no choice but coexistence. This was our policy for nearly all the decades of our existence.”
At the time, Israel faced a new dilemma: What would happen if the country got what it always wanted? While many Israelis and supporters abroad displayed total solidarity when Israel prepared for its wars, Eban said that in the preparation for peace, many supporters found themselves facing a new, unfamiliar paradox.
“When they see that we are exploring peace, they are gripped by a hysterical frenzy,” Eban said in a cool, analytical tone. “In some parts of the Jewish world, the fear of peace seems to be stronger than the fear of war – or, better said, the fear of concessions without which this peace would not be feasible.”
Eban noted that Israel’s persistence and tenacity over the years were motivated by a will to survive and the hope of changing the enemy’s mind-set. “If our strategy was not ridiculous,” he said, “there was always the chance that one day this change of mind was liable to happen. Now we are in one of the great revolutionary periods of the Jewish people, and of Israel’s relations in its region and in the world.
“Nothing that has happened in the 1990s has ever happened in our history,” he continued. “I would not have expected such a succession of events. Even those who support the peace process tend to underestimate its significance.”
To put things in perspective, Eban pointed to the situation a few years before the 1993 interview, as recently as 1990, when he said the notion of the Arab states abandoning their taboo against contact and discourse with Israel was unfathomable. In those days, he said, their refusal to recognize Israel was a cornerstone of Arab policy.
All that had changed, Eban said, noting Israel’s direct negotiations with Syria, Jordan and Lebanon, as well as what he termed the mainstream Palestinian movement. “We are desired guests in Morocco and in Tunisia,” he said, “and there are contacts with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. Moreover, the Arab boycott is now in the first stage of disintegration.”
Eban pointed to these developments as indicative of a total change in the Arab approach. “Never have Israelis and Arabs been meeting in so many ways in Washington, Tokyo, Moscow, Ottawa, Rome and our region. Militarily, the Arabs have been very unsuccessful against Israel. Now, they want to be free of the traumas of defeat. Before the collapse of Communism and the Gulf War, the two main developments of the last few years, nobody foresaw that this would happen.”
Eban said the change in Syria’s approach had been especially surprising. Who would have imagined that Syria would join the US-led coalition against Iraq, or come to Washington to discuss full peace with Israel in return for a full withdrawal? “This proposal is not only based on the abolition of belligerence,” Eban emphasized. “It is based on full peace with the exchange of ambassadors. The Syrians are very late in proposing this. They are now suggesting an agreement identical to what the Israeli government of [Levi] Eshkol, [Menachem] Begin and [Moshe] Dayan proposed on June 19, 1967.”
The reasons for these changes were clear to Eban: First, he said, Syria lost its alliance with Egypt, and then the Soviet Union collapsed.
He noted that Syria never considered attacking Israel unless two conditions were met: First, Egypt had to be attacking simultaneously, and second, the Soviet Union had to provide a safety net, guaranteeing it would stop the Israelis in the event they approached Damascus. “Let us be quite frank,” he said. “Only the Soviets prevented Israel from going to Damascus.”
Eban said he never really expected what he terms the “mainstream Palestinian movement” to discuss “the very same proposals which they threw in the wastebasket seven, eight years ago when they were originally proposed by Israel – namely self-government, which is short of statehood, without, of course, their closing the door to the dream of statehood.”
This approach lay at the heart of the Camp David Accords in 1978. While the Palestinians were finally prepared to accept it, he said the Israelis were more cautious.
“Another change I would not have expected is that the United States, with Israel’s welcome, does not simply provide meeting rooms, paper and pencils, but has become a full partner in the negotiations. It is carrying out a very active mediatory role, at the request of Israel and all the Arab sides.
“One more thing I would not have imagined is that Russia has not only given up the role of the great spoiler, but has become one of the architects of the peace process. We have to understand that the existential threat to Israel was always essentially a Soviet one. It was never so much an Arab threat, especially after 1967.
“There are still more unexpected things,” he continued. “Because of the peace process and the image that Israel projects, Third World isolation of Israel has collapsed, in particular that of the giants, China and India. Israel now has diplomatic relations with 120 nations, making those who do not recognize Israel the isolated ones. This is an irreversible change.”
Eban's analysis could not ignore the fact that in 1992, the reins of Israeli government returned to the hands of his own Labor Party. Noting that the government’s positions had changed, he stressed, “Israel is now proposing what it has not done for more than 10 years: territories for peace, in accordance with UN Resolution 242.”
All of these new developments combined to create a totally new environment, Eban said, one that fostered the possibility of a broad peace agreement that seemed impossible just a few years earlier.
“Once we have a [Anwar] Sadat-type process going on [reminiscent of that which culminated in Israel’s 1979 peace treaty with Egypt], peace will not be inevitable, but it will be much more realistic than it ever was,” he said. “I would say that the absence of peace is an unrealistic expectation. I expect that soon we will be discussing in great detail the complex, painful but pragmatic problems of ‘what is peace worth,’ the ideological and structural changes necessary and, of course, the territorial aspects. ‘Territories for peace’ has been tried only once, and with success. The issues at stake are thus more or less exemplified by the Egyptian treaty relationship.”
The treaty with Egypt reinforced Israel’s logistic superiority, Eban said. It made Israel a safer place, both for the individual and as a nation. He stressed that Israelis were no longer dying on the southern border.
“Surprise attack is impossible,” he maintained. “The possibility of war with Egypt is so remote that both sides are probably not even making contingency plans for it.”
Had there been no peace treaty with Egypt, Eban said, Israel would have had to station 100,000 soldiers in Sinai at that moment, along with thousands of tanks and massive amounts of other equipment. He recalled that during the period when he chaired the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in the mid- 1980s, then-defense minister Yitzhak Rabin said that if Israel had not reached a peace agreement with Egypt, it would have had no choice but to beg the US to defend it.
“The current developments are things which have never happened before,” he said. “They are so swift that they have not yet been fully absorbed. We need pragmatic diplomatic thinking about the whole idea. What was frankly a fantasy is now a diplomatic possibility and reality, which is much more likely to happen than not.”
Despite this optimistic prognosis, Eban issued a stern warning: Israel faced grave risks if peace did not evolve. “If it does not happen, we are not back in the status quo,” he said. “Our position will be much worse than before. The idea of peace will be so discredited that nobody will think about it for 10 years.”
Indeed, Eban doubted that Israel would ever enjoy such an optimal convergence of circumstances again. After all, he said, Israel did not cause the fall of Communism, nor did it bring about the Gulf War, but these two events created a window of opportunity that would not last forever.
“The psychological change after peace will parallel the one with Egypt,” he said. “We will have to rearrange our relationships. The neighboring world will be cautiously open. More remote countries such as Pakistan also will open up. We are thus dealing with a far-reaching change of horizon, not with another simple disengagement treaty.”
Asked what other changes will result from a peace treaty, Eban turned to the economic front.
“We are basically a small trading nation,” he said. “The first president of Israel, Chaim Weizmann, spoke of the country in terms of Switzerland, the Netherlands and Denmark. These are countries which, though small in territory, can have high economic and cultural standards.
“Israel is undoubtedly the most powerful small community that exists,” he said. “There has never been a small country with such defensive and deterrent power. Deterrence requires four conditions: power, willingness to use it, clear drawing of red lines, and the consciousness of these things in the mind of your adversary.
If he does not believe that you have that power, it is as if you do not have it.”
When peace comes, Eban said, Israel’s military structure will change. The chief of staff was working to make the IDF a leaner army, with fewer soldiers in the reserves, he noted. Deterrence would be based on technology as well as the topographical arrangement of forces.
In describing the future treaty he envisioned, Eban continually returned to the Egyptian example. The areas to be evacuated would have to be demilitarized, as was much of Sinai.
“Militarily, we did not give back the whole of Sinai,” he said.
“One-third of it is totally without Egyptian forces, another third has limited forces, and only in one-third can they do what they like.”
Eban emphasized  that the world had changed, and that these changes affected Israel.
“We seem to live in an era of great power passivity and non-intervention,” he said. In the past, the Communist threat had a certain energizing effect. The Americans were willing to go in with military might if they saw a nation that might go to the other side.
“Nowadays, passivity seems the policy rule. Previous American regimes were basically interventionist. Not only the Nixon one. [President Jimmy] Carter was willing to risk sending some military people to Iran, which was a fiasco. In the past, there was a general feeling that small countries had to be careful. One never knew what the United States might do.”
In 1993, he said, the US had changed its approach. Without a Soviet superpower, and with no other power filling the void, America was allowing itself to turn inward – at least somewhat.
“In such a situation of passivity, Israel has to be much more rigorous about a security setup. Before, there was always the feeling that America would come in.”
“Today, there are far-reaching contingency plans if Israel is existentially threatened,” Eban said. “It would not be necessary to have another [president Richard] Nixon-[US secretary of state Henry] Kissinger airlift [that aided Israel in the Yom Kippur War]. That was a very precarious way to live.”
“The [Bill] Clinton administration does not seem to care very much about foreign relations,” he said. “One does not really know what America will do if Israel gets into serious trouble.”
In light of the world political situation and probability of peace at the time, Eban said, “On the military side, there will be an enormous release of energy. We do not have to apologize that for many years, military equipment has been a major Israeli export item.
“In the future, we will face a problem the US already faces – namely, how can we put military technologies to work on the consumer side? Since the fall of Communism, we have lost many customers for our military goods, so peace is in the first place a dislocation.”
Eban was unsure whether Israel’s international trade patterns would change much as a result of peace. Israel had developed what he termed “a marvelous, eccentric international commercial structure,” because the Arabs did not open their markets to it, “so it had to go across the world to look for export markets. “Some people think that this has done Israel a lot of good,” Eban said. “By exporting cheap plastic toys or oranges to Egypt and buying their cotton, we would have had a Third World economy. The development of high technology and high-priced exports came about as a result of the Arab boycott.”
“Some people believe that it is helpful for a country to be under siege,” he added. “We had to make the best of it. This has created bonds of solidarity and a certain background of international and Jewish concern. Now, some of these people are worried that we will become a little lax.
“A large part of Jewish solidarity derives from a feeling of vulnerability.
This vulnerability is a key of Jewish history. For Israel to be vulnerable means two things. It is not attractive, but it does mean that people care more about Israel. They express this caring through a much greater solidarity than any other group abroad.
American Italians or American Irish have nothing to compare with the solidarity of US Jews with Israel.
“Here, I see a cloud on the horizon, and we will have to work very hard to chase it away,” Eban said. “Jews in the United States are assimilating fast through intermarriage. American Jews merge easily into the general community. There is much less rejectionism on the part of the gentile population than in the past. Thus, we must fight very hard to keep the sense of the particularity of the Jews in the world.
“They will support us as long as they are Jews, but what will happen if they stop being Jews? Again we come up against a paradox. We want the countries in which Jews live to be liberal. The more liberal they are, the less incentives there are for Jews to preserve their identity.”
“There is something rather specific about the American-Israeli relationship,” he added. “The American political leadership wants domestic tranquility. This cannot be had if the Jewish community is very nervous. I think we made a mistake in stressing the strategic importance of Israel to the United States too much, and stressing the value system too little. We go back to the same Judeo- Christian values.”
One should not belittle these common values, Eban asserted. “If you don’t have these Judeo-Christian values, you tend to be excessive in your utilitarianism. This becomes clear if one considers that with the Japanese, for instance, we do not have a common spiritual-cultural background.”
How would peace impact anti-Semitism? Eban was not optimistic, calling anti-Semitism “an endemic disease of the gentiles. There seems to be something in human personality that rejects difference.”
“There may be more resistance in the world now specifically against anti-Semitism,” he opined. “In general, however, distrust of somebody who is foreign and intolerance towards him has not changed. We see this everywhere in the world.”
On the other hand, many people overestimate Israel’s capabilities, he said. “I do not understand why many Chinese believe that we can solve their problems, but why should I tell them or others that they are exaggerating our power?” He paused a moment, then corrected himself. Recalling the years before black Africa broke diplomatic ties with Israel, Eban said that on his visits to countries such as Ethiopia and Nigeria, he met hundreds of Israelis who were working on projects related to agriculture, water problems, health and many other local issues.
Israel may be a small country, he said, but even though it faces so many external threats, it has always found the wherewithal to help less fortunate countries. After peace, the possibilities could be even greater.
“Much of the help we gave to the Third World survived the breaking of diplomatic relations,” Eban said. “It is amazing how much you can do without having ambassadors. We had no official relations with Iran, yet we did many things together. We have a certain vitality. The question is: If there is peace, how can we be more selective in putting it to use?” Eban recounted his one and only meeting with the first prime minister of independent India, Pandit Nehru, in the 1950s. “He said to me, ‘Israel is very fortunate to be so small.’ I asked him why, and he said, ‘Because in my country, no man can live long enough to see the results of his work. In Israel, within a decade you can see results.’” The advent of peace would not change this, affirmed Eban. If anything, it would expand the horizons on which an individual can create change.
Eban saw one other important area of change. “We will have to give attention to maintaining our culture,” he said. “There are streets in Tel Aviv where on the signs and billboards, you hardly find a Hebrew word. We may have even less resistance against that after peace. Nobody shares our language, faith or historic experience.
“Our generation has had the traumatic experience of World War II and the Holocaust, and the ecstatic experience of the creation of Israel,” he said, intentionally referring to high and low points. “The uniqueness of our experience is difficult to transfer to the generation of our grandchildren.”
After peace, Eban said that Israel will have to rethink its approach to education. “Israel has given the world fundamental concepts such as peace, justice and conscience. In the Babylonian civilization, one will not find much about the need to choose good over evil. If you killed somebody, punishment depended on who you were. Somebody from the upper class paid compensation, those who belonged to the lower classes had their heads cut off. The Romans and Greeks valued war more than peace.”
Eban was preoccupied about the future of Israeli society. “There is too much hedonism and permissiveness about our society,” he said. “Educationally, Israel will be challenged very much by peace. When meeting young people in schools, I used to quote our founding fathers, who had rather utopian views. Weizmann and [David] Ben-Gurion spoke about am segula, a chosen people. The youngsters say, ‘What the hell, we want to be like everybody else.’“It might have been very pretentious to have this burden of being a light unto the nations,” he concluded, “but it will be quite a problem to search for a new identity.”