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American Diplomacy
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March 2002

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Israel: An Insoluble Problem

The author of this commentary, a retired senior diplomat, was born in Austria in 1925 and lived under German rule there from 1938 to 1940. He then managed to escape with his immediate family to the United States. Mr. Heichler served in the U. S. Army during World War II, becoming a U. S. citizen in 1944. He entered the Foreign Service in 1954 and retired in 1986 after serving at seven posts abroad, in addition to Washington.Ed.

A Jewish View of the Jewish State
As a Jewish refugee from the Nazis who narrowly escaped the Holocaust, I feel free to express negative views of the Zionist experiment, Israel’s policies, and one-sided U. S. support of Israel without fear of being instantly branded a Jew-hater. Jewishness, I insist, does not require jingoistic, uncritical support of Israel, especially not of the policies of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his Likud-led governing coalition.

As an American, I am deeply concerned about the huge cost of U. S. support of Israel—not only in terms of the astronomical sums of money we spend annually on Israel’s survival—but, far more importantly, in terms of our deeply strained relations with the Islamic world. Our lopsided support of Israel over the past half century has precluded our pursuit of a balanced, realistic, flexible and potentially successful policy vis-á-vis the Arab and/or Muslim world. While there are obvious additional reasons for the virulent, violent antagonism we face, I consider knee-jerk support of Israel as the primary cause of the unprecedented terrorist attacks on America. While we have achieved remarkably rapid successes against the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan, I submit that the unabating bloodshed in Palestine will increasingly hamper our war on terrorism.

I may belong to a minority, but I count myself among the Jews who oppose the Zionist movement. Perhaps it was in part because of Nazi insistence on defining me as a member of a different, "non-Aryan" race that already as a boy I came to regard Judaism as first and foremost a religious faith and community. As a young teenager in Nazi-occupied Austria, I was offended by what struck me as parallels between Nazi and Zionist definitions of the Jews as an ethnic group.

When I first read The Jewish State, the "bible" of the Zionist movement written by founder Theodor Herzl (comparable in its political influence to Uncle Tom’s Cabin), I came across the naive, romantic slogan coined by this Austrian Jewish journalist, "People without land, come to the land without people!" That sentence alone persuaded me to regard the Zionist experiment in Palestine as based on a hopelessly unrealistic premise, doomed to create the tragic, insoluble problem which now confronts us daily in newspaper headlines and television news footage.

Even allowing that as a poor backwater of the dying Ottoman Empire 19th century Palestine seemed far removed from Vienna, how could Herzl believe that this land was empty of people, that after two thousand years it patiently awaited the return of the Jews from the Diaspora? How could the Zionist movement simply ignore the existence of a Palestinian population, or expect the inhabitants of Palestine to move quietly aside and make room for the establishment of a Jewish homeland?

From its beginnings Israel has faced an insoluble dilemma: In order to survive, it cannot allow the Palestinian population to become a majority within its borders. While many Palestinians fled after the creation of the Jewish state in 1948, many more remained. The neighboring Arab countries have cynically refused to admit and absorb the Palestinians, condemning hundreds of thousands of them—generations of them—to live out their lives in execrable refugee camps, in order to keep the issue alive as a weapon to use against Israel. Today the population of the territories occupied since 1967 is growing much faster than that of Israel, and there is no obvious solution to that equation.

If I could envisage a reasonably quick and comprehensive solution to the crisis in Israel/Palestine, I would not have entitled this piece "The Insoluble Problem." I do believe that certain steps are possible to mitigate the crisis, but here, too, I am pessimistic that moderate or even drastic changes in American policy will improve our relations with the region, at least over the short term.

  1. I advocate that we adopt a much tougher stance, using our massive assistance program much more effectively as leverage to insist on Israeli compliance with UN resolutions and our long- standing demands that settlement construction cease. Already existing settlements in the occupied territories should be dismantled. As for our dealings with the Palestinian side, there the problem is aggravated by uncertainties about a meaningful, reliable interlocutor: How much power does Arafat really possess? We continue to demand that he put a stop to the almost daily acts of terrorism, but do we know to what extent he is in fact able to control and restrain the terrorist organizations like Hamas, Islamic Jihad et al.? And who will come after Arafat one day?
  2. Even while I support a harder, more even-handed approach, I do not believe that it is in the U. S. interest to abandon Israel—it is and should remain our ally—but for years I have felt strongly that we should use our massive aid as leverage to make the Israeli government abide by our wishes. We might achieve some amelioration of the situation by being a lot tougher and more hard-nosed than we have been in the past.
  3. I believe that Israel must withdraw from the territories it has occupied since the Six-Day War in 1967. What I see as a policy of half-measures pursued over the past 35 years has led to steady deterioration of Jewish-Palestinian relations and to a dead end. One could ask whether Israel might have done better to face the wrath of the world and openly annex the conquered lands back in 1967 rather than render their occupation irreversible through the back-door method of building all these settlements. Instead, Israel has succeeded only in creating three classes or, better yet, "castes" of people: Jewish citizens of Israel; Palestinians with citizenship rights in Israel proper; Palestinians living in the occupied territories without any apparent rights or protection against arbitrary measures taken against them by the Israeli authorities. Is it possible to imagine a surer recipe for anger, hatred and violence?
  4. In the event of withdrawal, Israel must repatriate the settlers, daunting though the size of the problem (200,000 people) makes this task.* But they cannot be left behind without facing almost certain slaughter.
  5. I am deeply skeptical that the "Palestinian Problem" (how eerily reminiscent of what the Nazis called "the Jewish Question") can be settled by the creation of two gerrymandered, barely viable mini-states sharing the soil of a very small country. Ideally, only the willingness of Jews and Arabs to live together in one secular state, in peace and mutual respect, holds out any hope for the future, and I see very little chance of such a vision ever becoming a reality.
  6. The United States is committed to fighting terrorism in every form, whether it is state terrorism or terrorism practiced by non-governmental organizations. Our efforts to combat terrorism should include the present situation in Palestine, which can only be described as mutual, self-defeating terrorism.

I define terrorism as cold-blooded murder of innocent people for the sake of gaining attention, making a point, promoting an objective—"collateral damage," as our home-grown terrorist Timothy McVeigh callously dismissed it. I find not only the PLO, Hamas, the Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah, al Qaeda, El Sendero Luminoso and so on and so forth, ad infinitum, guilty of terrorism, but equally so the government of Ariel Sharon with his brutal and futile efforts to impose "peace" on the Occupied Territories, equally guilty the increasingly brutal Israeli military which is harassing, maiming and killing innocent people, including women and children, wantonly razing civilian homes, tearing up their streets and roads, keeping people pent up and prevented from going where they need to go in order to earn a livelihood. Can there be a more cruel historical irony than Jews inflicting on Palestine’s native population forms of harassment, suffering and horrors reminiscent of what their forefathers were condemned to experience at the hands of the Nazis half a century ago? A plague on both their houses, I say—Arab and Israeli terrorists both in their pursuit of policies and actions which create no solutions but only more rage, more violence, more terror!

I deeply regret the way events have borne out my worst fears. Despite winning war after war against its Arab neighbors, Israel has never been able to live and develop in peace, without external help—and I fear that it never will be; it will continue to exist only as an armed camp surrounded by enemies on all sides. I am convinced that whatever lies, empty promises and apparent peace offers Arafat and the PLO may yet put on the table, the total destruction of Israel will remain the ultimate Palestinian objective, however unrealistic this objective may be. For this reason I believe that the so- called "peace process" is doomed to fail. After the murder of Rabin, after the failure of the Oslo Accords, after the collapse of the Camp David negotiations, I am more pessimistic than ever.

Postscript—An Appeal to the American Jewish Community:
As an American citizen of Jewish birth, I am deeply worried that many non-Jews may think that Jewish support of Israel is and must be automatic, even at the expense of American interests in the Middle East and around the world. I fear that the consistent U. S. "tilt" toward Israel, our unwavering support of Israeli policy, stems from fear by our elected officials of a specter called "the Jewish vote." I fervently hope that this "Jewish vote" is a political myth, that in reality there is no such bloc vote.

Having suffered Nazi hatred and persecution at first hand, I am like the child "once burned, twice careful," and I worry that, fed by blind support of Israeli policies and actions by many American Jews, and by powerful lobbies like AIPAC (the America-Israel Public Affairs Committee) and even the terrorist gang known as the Jewish Defense League, Anti-Semitism may increase rapidly in America.

I fear that blind Jewish support of Israel will sooner or later give rise to suspicions of divided loyalty. It may seem absurd (for now), but as a retired US Foreign Service officer, I have nightmarish visions of Jewish Americans being excluded from the Foreign Service and other sensitive government agencies because of doubts about the reliability of their support of American policy in the Middle East. And may Heaven preserve us from another Jonathan Pollard!

Hence I implore American Jews to recognize the danger confronting them and remember that the country to which they owe loyalty is the United States—only the United States—and that as American citizens it is their obligation to promote our interests and defend our institutions—and not those of any other country.


* Note: Some 200,000 Israelis additionally have settled in East Jerusalem since 1967.—Ed.

March 30, 2002


For reader reactions to Mr. Heichler's piece, click here.

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