An interview by Dr.Manfred Gerstenfeld with Abba Eban soon after the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993.
This interview was first published in Dr.Manfred Gerstenfeld’s book Israel’s New Future. This book has recently been republished by RVP Press with a new introduction titled Israel’s New Future Revisited.
Challenges in the Aftermath of Peace
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. He studied oriental languages and classics at Cambridge, and later became a lecturer in 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 United Nations. His brilliant performance and oratory there drew world attention. From 1950 through 1958, he served simultaneously as Israel’s ambassador in the United States and chief delegate to the United Nations.
In 1959, Eban was elected to the Knesset on behalf of Mapai. He became Minister of Education and Culture, a post he held until 1963, when he became Deputy Prime Minister. In 1966, he assumed the post of Foreign Minister until the Labor Party lost power in the 1977 elections.
Eban is a prolific author. His books include The Voice of Israel, My People, My Country and The New Diplomacy. He has also hosted a number of television series, including Heritage, which was broadcast on the US Public Broadcasting Service and worldwide.
Eban considers it extremely difficult to assess how Israel’s global situation will change as a result of new peace agreements, beyond the strategic implications that such treaties would bring. The same goes for the structural changes that would occur in Israeli society. Until the framework of any peace agreement has been formalized, he says, predicting what will follow it is a very difficult game.
Nevertheless, he outlines certain general lines along which he expects Israel to develop in a post-peace treaty era, and forecasts what awaits the country – and the world – once regional peace is reality.
“The changes that would result from a peace settlement are so revolutionary that it is hard to describe them,” Eban says. “We must remember that the attainment of peace has always been a central objective of Zionism.”
He stresses that Israel has 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 says, but this was no easy task. “We developed an ambivalent strategy based on strong military resistance together with keeping the door open for negotiations. This 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.”
Today, Israel faces a new dilemma: what happens if the country gets what it has always wanted? While many Israelis and supporters abroad display total solidarity when Israel is preparing for war, Eban says that when the preparation is for peace, many supporters find themselves facing a new, unfamiliar paradox.
“When they see that we are exploring peace, they are gripped by a hysterical frenzy,” Eban says 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 notes that Israel’s persistence and tenacity over the years were motivated by a will to survive and the hope of changing the enemy’s mindset. “If our strategy was not ridiculous,” he says, “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 continues. “I would not have expected such a succession of events. Even those who support the peace process tend to underestimate its significance.”
To gain perspective, Eban points to the situation as recently as 1990, when he says the notion of the Arab states abandoning their taboo against contact and discourse with Israel was unfathomable. In those days, he says, their refusal to recognize Israel was a cornerstone of Arab policy.
Today, all that has changed. Eban notes that Israel is engaged in direct negotiations with Syria, Jordan and Lebanon, as well as what he terms the mainstream Palestinian movement. “We are desired guests in Morocco and in Tunisia,” he says, “and there are contacts with Saudia Arabia and the Gulf States. Moreover, the Arab boycott is now in the first stage of disintegration.”
Eban says these developments point to a total change in the Arabs’ 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 says the change in Syria’s approach has been especially surprising. Who 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 stresses. “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 Eshkol, Begin and Dayan proposed on June 19, 1967.”
The reasons for these changes are clear to Eban: first, he says, Syria lost its alliance with Egypt, and then the Soviet Union collapsed. He notes 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 to stop the Israelis in the event that they approached Damascus. “Let us be quite frank,” he says. “Only the Soviets prevented Israel from going to Damascus.”
Eban says that 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 lies at the heart of the Camp David accords. While the Palestinians are prepared to accept it now, he says the Israelis are 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 continues. “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 cannot ignore the fact that in 1992, Israel’s government returned to the hands of his own Labor Party. Noting that the government’s positions have changed, he stresses, “Israel is now proposing what it has not done for more than ten years: territories for peace, in accordance with UN Resolution 242.”
All of these new developments combine to create a totally new environment, Eban says, one that fosters the possibility of a broad peace agreement that seemed impossible just a few years ago.
“Once we have a Sadat-type process going on, peace will not be inevitable, but it will be much more realistic than it ever was,” he says. “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 says. It made Israel a safer place, both for the individual and as a nation. He stresses that Israelis do not die on the southern border anymore.
“Surprise attack is impossible,” he says. “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 says, Israel would have had to station 100,000 soldiers in the Sinai today, along with thousands of tanks and massive amounts of other equipment. He recalls 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 no choice but to beg the US to defend it.
“The current developments are things which have never happened before,” he says. “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 has a stern warning: Israel faces grave risks if peace does not evolve. “If it does not happen, we are not back in the status quo,” he says. “Our position will be much worse than before. The idea of peace will be so discredited that nobody will think about it for ten years.”
Indeed, Eban doubts that Israel will ever enjoy such an optimal convergence of circumstances again. After all, he says, Israel did not cause the fall of communism, nor did it bring about the Gulf War, but these two events create a window of opportunity that will not last forever.
“The psychological change after peace will parallel the one with Egypt,” he says. “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 turns to the economic front.
“We are basically a small trading nation,” he says. “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.
“Our trading pattern will be different. Toynbee said, ‘History means response to challenge,’ and it was one of the few occasions he was right. Somebody who writes 20 volumes cannot be wrong all the time. Response to challenge explains why we became an important military power. From a military point of view, we are probably the fourth or fifth power in the world.
“Israel is undoubtedly the most powerful small community that exists,” he says. “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, he says, Israel’s military structure will change. The present Chief of Staff is working to make the Israel Defense Forces a leaner army with fewer soldiers in the reserves. Deterrence will be based on technology as well as the topographical arrangement of forces.
In describing the future treaty he envisions, Eban continually returns to the Egyptian example. The areas to be evacuated will have to be demilitarized, as is much of the Sinai.
“Militarily, we did not give back the whole of Sinai,” he says. “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 stresses that the world has changed, and that these changes affect Israel.
“We seem to live in an era of great power passivity and non-intervention,” he says. 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. 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.”
Today, he says, the US has changed its approach. Without a Soviet superpower, and with no other power filling the void, America is allowing itself to turn inward, at least somewhat.
“In such a situation of passivity, Israel has to be much more rigorous about a security set-up. Before, there was always the feeling that America would come in.
“Today, there are far-reaching contingency plans if Israel is existentially threatened,” Eban says. “It would not be necessary to have another Nixon-Kissinger airlift. That was a very precarious way to live.
“The Clinton administration does not seem to care very much about foreign relations,” he says. “One does not really know what America will do if Israel gets into serious trouble.”
In light of the current world political situation and the probability of peace, Eban says, “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 is unsure whether Israel’s international trade patterns will change much as a result of peace. Israel has developed what he terms, “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 says. “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 adds. “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 says. “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 adds. “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.”
Eban stresses that one should not belittle these common values. “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.”
What is peace going to do to anti-Semitism? Eban is not optimistic. He terms 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 notes. “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. “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 pauses a moment, and then corrects himself. Recalling the years before black Africa broke diplomatic ties with Israel, Eban says 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, but even though it faces so many external threats, it has always found the wherewithal to help less fortunate countries. After peace, he says, the possibilities could be even greater.
“Much of the help we gave to the Third World survived the breaking of diplomatic relations,” Eban says. “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 recalls his one and only meeting with 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 will not change this, Eban stresses. If anything, it will expand the horizons on which an individual can create change.
Eban sees one other important area of change. “We will have to give attention to maintaining our culture,” he says. “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 Two and the Holocaust, and the ecstatic experience of the creation of Israel,” he says, 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 says 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 is preoccupied about the future of Israeli society. “There is too much hedonism and permissiveness about our society,” he says. “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. Chaim Weizmann and 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 concludes, “but it will be quite a problem to search for a new identity.”