Maxime Rodinson


On the General Nature
of the Conflict

(Part 3)


From the description of the conflict given above follows the whole dynamic of the reactions and policies applied by the two sides. It is of no use to be surprised at them or to become indignant about them, in detail. They are the logical consequence of the fundamental theme of the conflict.

The Arabs have always recoiled as far as possible from accepting the fait accompli carried out at their expense and without their agreement by Israeli power, backed up by the support of the European and American world. At every Israeli victory, the most conciliatory of them have resigned themselves to accepting the previous victory but have attempted to reject all the consequences of the latest one. They have always been one war behind, because their protests against the encroachments on what they believe to be their rights have been continuous.

Until 1948 they refused to countenance the seizure of Palestine territory to form a Jewish state. They therefore fought against the Balfour Declaration, which was apparently intended to bring this about (a unilateral act on the part of Great Britain, be it once more noted). At least, this was the interpretation of the Balfour Declaration to which they objected. They directed their efforts towards limiting Jewish immigration, either by appealing to the British, or, as some of them did, by negotiating directly with the Zionists. The object was to prevent immigration from resulting in the formation of a Jewish majority in Palestine, or even a population numerous enough to provide a basis for the creation of a Jewish state. Their failure to achieve this end was sealed by the UN partition plan of November 1947. The international community, dominated by the American and Soviet super-powers, wanted to impose on them a dismemberment of Arab territory. They refused to accept this Diktat, and embarked on the guerrilla war of 1947-8, and the war of 1948. They were defeated in the field, and obliged to sign armistice agreements (all except Iraq). From that time on, the Arab states bordering on Palestine recognized Israel’s existence, in practice. They still rejected the new boundaries, and refused to accept the Israeli conquests which went beyond the territory granted to Israel by the UN. They were also outraged at the expulsion of the Palestinians from Israeli territory. They were supported by the UN on these two points, but Israel ignored the UN decisions and refused to implement them. The general Arab claim was still maintained, and found expression in the competitive militancy of the various states and national movements. This prevented the Arab governments, who were on the whole disposed to do so, from bluntly expressing de facto recognition of Israel within the frontiers laid down by the UN plan, let alone establishing diplomatic relations with Israel. The Israelis, for their part, provided them with excellent grounds for non-recognition, by refusing to accept the principle of a return to the UN plan or to implement the Organization’s decisions on the refugees and on Jerusalem.

The same process has repeated itself after the conquests of June 1967. Some of the Arab states were now ready to accord de facto recognition to the Jewish state within its frontiers of 1948-67, but refused to endorse its latest conquests. The general Arab claim prevented them from going any further than this.

It was only in November 1977 that Anwar El-Sadat thought he could take the decisive step of recognizing the legitimacy of the Israeli state while continuing to dispute the legitimacy of its authority over its conquests of 1967. By so doing he was able, in 1980, to establish diplomatic relations with Israel. This was possible only through a convergence of exceptional factors: Egypt’s limited success in the war of October 1973 and the prestige this gave to Sadat; the strength of a specific Egyptian patriotism weary of suffering to the utmost from the consequences of a conflict of only partial concern to Egypt, engaged in out of love for the other Arabs; and the existence of a region of Egypt, the Sinai Peninsula, which had been conquered by Israel but did not form part of the territory claimed by mainstream Zionist ideology, and which it was therefore relatively easy for the Israelis to give back, thus endowing Sadat with a gain of which he could boast. We must not, of course, forget Sadat’s personality, his inclinations, his psychology and the whole conjuncture which had given him power. The hesitations of the other’ Arab leaders, including those of the PLO, when Sadat made his amazing trip to Jerusalem, show that a road was then opened, perhaps, towards a wider acceptance of part of the accomplished fact. But Israel’s refusal, in practice, to make any concessions of substance to’ the demands of the Palestinians meant that this opening was closed. The general condemnation of the Egyptian leader as a traitor, a deserter from the common struggle, ensued. If that tendency is to be overcome, spectacular gestures (whether spontaneous or induced by coercion) will be needed from Israel, such as would justify Sadat a posteriori – if, that is, Sadat stays in power and if he continues to follow his present line. In mid 1980 it is hard to see such a development taking place.

In any case, intransigence is a theme too easy to use in inter-Arab political struggles for anyone to believe that there can be universal acquiescence in a compromise solution. The only question is: will the number and importance of the unshakable opponents of such a solution be such as to weigh heavily on the political decisions taken and so, in one way or another, prolong the conflict? It is clear that, broadly speaking, the strength of the opposition will be the less in proportion to the magnitude of the concessions made by Israel to the most essential Arab demands (first and foremost on the Palestinian problem).

On the other side, Israel’s consistent policy has been to make the Arabs recognize her existence, first of all – itself established by conquest – and secondly the conquests of 1948. These seem to the more moderate Israelis to provide the minimum guarantee for the survival of their state. At the same time, the departure of the refugees, for whatever reasons, seems to them essential if the Jewish character of the state is to be preserved, this being the prime aim and postulate of Zionist ideology. Only a very limited return would be acceptable. The Arab refusal results in a feeling of insecurity which makes any concession extremely difficult. The refusal means that the war is still on, and in no war will either side let go of any part of the advantage it has won.

The activist policy of Ben Gurion and his school was designed to obtain Arab recognition by terror, by the deployment of force. Whatever the judgement to be passed on its results, the fact is that nobody was able to devise any coherent alternative policy in Israel. Neither Sharett nor Eshkol and Eban have been able to make any substantial concession on the frontiers or the refugees, given the state of Israeli public opinion. Sharett, who in 1950 went furthest in this direction, met with violent internal opposition. The Israeli Left was just as intransigent on this point as the Right. At most, some were prepared to envisage a conditional return of some of the refugees, which was very far from satisfying the Arabs. Moreover no Israeli was able to point to any clearly stated Arab concession on the formal recognition of the state, or on the renunciation of part, at least, of the Arab claim. They were reduced to making oblique manoeuvres which may, at most and only after a long interval, create a climate more favourable to mutual concessions. But they have not got the time.

The causes of the 1967 crisis seem to lie on the one hand in the weakness of the moderate sector of Israeli public opinion and its representatives in the government, and on the other hand in the internal contradictions which prevented the Arabs from presenting a united front, able to choose a coherent policy and stick to it, and, above all, to offer to Israelis of good will any other programme than their destruction. The pacific intentions of some Arab leaders have in practice been nullified in any effect that they might have had on the Israelis by the fact that these leaders did not dare to give clear and public expression to them. This has enabled the Israeli activists to persuade the masses that no faith could be placed in them. Moreover, the divisions within the Arab world have meant that some rulers have been in a position to commit acts of war against Israel while others had to take the consequences. Combinations of circumstances like this occurred on several occasions. It was a rather special chain of events which, on this occasion, led to war, and to its manifold and grave consequences.


After 1967 there was more doubt in Israel regarding the necessity of clinging to the new conquests. The territory won was inhabited overwhelmingly by Arabs. Their integration in Israel presented problems, if it was desired to preserve the Jewish character of the state: demographic evolution, taken together with the drying-up of Jewish immigration, must eventually confront Israel with the choice between a policy of apartheid and an Arab majority. While many Israelis were ready to take the most extreme measures to avoid giving back these territories, others (whose numbers fluctuated according to circumstances) agreed to accept that they might have to be given back, but only on condition that, in return, this or that was obtained. Many were disposed to demand a great deal. For ally however, the minimum was, of course, recognition of the state of Israel. In any case, the triumph that reigned in Israel after the glaring defeat suffered by the Arabs in June 1967 seemed, falsely, to make it possible to put off till later, much later, the solution of the problem, anticipating an eventual complete submission of the Arabs to all the accomplished facts.

The conquests of 1967 had at least provided the Israelis with means of barter (Sinai, the West Bank, Gaza and Golan) which a larger number of Israelis were prepared to give up, or which they could be led to give up if the Arabs agreed to recognize the fait accompli on the territory Israel had acquired prior to that date. This exchange of concessions proved feasible – with Egypt alone and affecting Sinai alone – when Sadat’s semi-success in 1973 and his spectacular appearance in the Knesset in November 1977 had convinced the Israelis that something had to be conceded. But this does not solve the problem as long as the other Arab states persist in refusing to recognize Israel, and as long as Israel persists in maintaining a de facto sovereignty over the West Bank, Gaza and Golan, the legitimacy of which is denied by everyone, including Egypt.



While the profound cause of the conflict, the encroachment of a new population on an Arab territory, explains by itself the attitudes of the two parties, we also find in this the underlying explanation of the particular alliances sought and obtained by them.

If the Jewish state had been created on a desert island, or in a territory almost empty of previous inhabitants, it would have been able to choose its alliances more or less freely, except for what economic constraints might have dictated. But the Jewish colony, which later became a state, was established on the soil of Arab Palestine, which it fully intended to transform into Jewish territory. It is not certain that any policy whatsoever could have succeeded in disarming the natural hostility of the indigenous population towards this takeover, virtual at first and then actual. Efforts at conciliation were not lacking but, as we have seen, fears on the part of the Arabs that the plan clearly set forth by Herzl would be realized, and profound impulses on the part of the Jews towards realizing it indeed, meant that these attempts came to nothing; and the state of Israel was, in fact, created, consecrating the alienation of an Arab territory and the expulsion of nine tenths of its inhabitants, with subordination of the fraction that remained.

Thereafter, Arab opposition could no longer be disarmed. For a short time still, rulers could keep that tendency at a secondary level. Perhaps a more flexible and conciliatory policy by Israel, such as Sharett proposed, might have resulted in a viable compromise, but no opposition force in any Arab country could fail to utilize against established authority the advantages for its propaganda of an irredentist programme, and these opposition forces were quite soon to triumph almost everywhere.

The mobilizing ideology employed by their leaders could not fail to denounce, behind the elites in power whom they wished to bring down, the support that they relied on in the world system dominated by European and American capitalism. Their own allies could not but be the opposition movements of the same order which were active in the Third World. Consequently, Israel was bound to find support only among the enemies of its enemies, that is, in the group of dominant countries denounced in all those circles as forming the bloc of “Imperialism”. The fact of this support, this alliance, enabled the Arabs to denounce Israel as a member of that bloc. We have seen how they succeeded in convincing many of those movements and states in the Third World which were hesitant at first. In doing this they were greatly helped by such actions as the Suez expedition, which gave concrete, factual expression to an alliance between Israel, France and Britain.

Arab hostility to the Zionist encroachment on Palestine, an hostility to which some Arab rulers might, if pushed, show themselves disloyal in practice but which they could not repudiate, conditioned Israel’s alliance with the capitalist powers and principally with the most important of them, the USA, on which the substantial Jewish-American community gave Israel powerful means of pressure. This alliance, in turn, provoked or reinforced the hostility of the Soviet Union, America’s great rival in international politics. This hostility found expression only gradually, despite the impulsion given it by the Communists’ anti-Zionist doctrine, owing to the caution of Soviet policy and to a series of counter-factors. Nevertheless, it grew and grew. For the same reasons the Arab rulers were pressed to seek at least some degree of support from the Soviets, in so far as their masses, always in a state of virtual revolt, would hardly forgive them an orientation towards America.

Alliance with Israel thus became a symbol of alignment with the American bloc, and the enemies of one’s enemies being necessarily one’s friends, the Israelis were led to ally themselves with all the forces denounced by the Third World – for example, with another symbol of the resistance of the European “island”, namely South Africa. In the Muslim countries, where religious ideologists could make use of the anti-Jewish verses of the Koran, the alliance, or connivance, of Turkey and Iran with Israel, increasingly denounced, was bound to become impossible to maintain, as movements grew in strength in which hostility to the European and American system was coloured with Islamic fundamentalism.



At the time of writing (May 1980), what can be predicted? In the view of a very large section of opinion and of the political forces in Israel, Sadat has opened a breach in the Arab rejection of Israel, and, sooner or later, the other Arab leaders will take the same path. It will be enough, they think, to wait, while strengthening Israel’s military power and demonstrating it when necessary, and while discouraging foreign pressure for concessions by means of the pro-Israeli lobbies in the various states, especially in the USA. Some Israelis, however, are ready to make concessions in order to obtain Arab recognition. Many criticize the provocative policy of the religious Right, protected by Begin, which obviously aims at gradual Judaization of the occupied territories. But the majority of Israel’s political forces want to retain at least a certain degree of control over the occupied territories, lest a base for attacking Israel be established there. To justify this point of view, they can invoke yet again the absence of any clear and public undertaking by the Arabs (other than Sadat) to respect the Jewish state that would remain in being after all possible concessions had been made. For this Jewish state the great majority of Israelis are prepared, rightly or wrongly, to give their lives. Why concede something to an opponent who hints that he will use that something the better to attack you?

The result is a vicious circle: the refusal by the Arabs to give the undertaking required strengthens the Israelis’ refusal to make concessions and vice versa. Most of the Arab states that wish to rid themselves of this problem maintain their refusal of recognition only because this is the attitude of the Palestinians. The Arab leaders fear the wrath that would be aroused if they were to dissociate themselves from the Palestinian demands. Political oppositions would unfailingly seize upon this and take strength from it. They do not hold such strong cards as Sadat holds, and the firmness of his position is open to question. The mighty wave raised throughout the Muslim world by the Iranian Revolution encourages no one to compromise himself too openly with elements linked with the West, and especially with the United States. With a view to escaping from this vicious circle, a mutual and simultaneous recognition by Israel and the PLO has been proposed. The word “recognition” may create misunderstandings. Let us say that what is meant is that the PLO should proclaim clearly that, once a Palestinian state has been established on the West Bank (after conditions for this have been negotiated), it will not challenge the legitimacy of a predominantly Jewish state in the rest of Palestine; and that, in return, Israel should recognize the PLO as the sole representative of the Palestinian people, to which would be retroceded the territory destined to form the Palestinian state.

The simultaneity of these recognitions is aimed at taking the sting out of the objection (in our view, rather an artificial one) that could be raised on both sides – “It’s for the other side to make the first move!” This would be an ideal process, indeed, for those who prefer peaceful solutions. For the moment, however, we are far from a conclusion such as this.

If, though, this road is not taken, the war can only continue and continue, with phases of semi-peaceful hostility and phases of real military operations, with their usual horrors and with their disastrous economic and political consequences. With or without simultaneity, the procedure of the two “recognitions” is the only procedure that can avoid perpetuating the war. This is a simple fact.

Otherwise, we are no longer engaged in a peace process, which assumes arrival at a compromise, but in a process leading to the absolute victory of one or other of the two camps. But in that process there is no symmetry. Will Israel’s temporary position of strength cause the majority of the Arab leaders involved to follow in Sadat’s wake and sign treaties of peace recognizing the full and entire legitimacy of the Jewish state as its exists? It is hard to suppose that this will happen without major concessions by Israel, including the creation of a Palestinian state. Sadat himself has been able to move in this direction only by allowing to be foreseen a process which is to culminate in that result. For the moment at least, though, there is no political force in Israel possessing real weight that is willing to make such a concession, and the USA, which alone might be able to compel Israel to make it, does not wish to do so and would find it difficult to exercise such pressure.

So, then: would another victorious war compel Israel’s Arab adversaries to accept peace treaties giving form to this absolute victory for the Jewish state? The experience of Israel’s past victories hardly obliges one to think so. Whatever the attitude of the rulers, the most likely effect would be to stimulate oppositional forces, intransigent counter-states which, one day, would take power. There can be no question of Israel being able to occupy such vast territories with its military forces. Already occupation of the little West Bank has created inextricable problems for Israel.

On the other hand, a total victory for the Arabs some day is not out of the question. Israel’s military superiority will not last for ever, or, at least, will not be absolute for ever. But we can be sure that the Israelis, with or without allies (and this means raising the question of a worldwide conflagration), will fight to the last man against this destruction of their state. Those, throughout the world, who, whether Jews or not, among the non-Arabs, have fought against the Zionist line of a Jewish state, those who have not attached capital importance to the existence of such a state, and those who have gradually become frightened at the price which has had to be paid for this state, would be able to imagine without horror a world without Israel – but not the human catastrophes that this military process would entail, the numberless tragedies that would descend upon families which have already suffered terribly. They will strive, to the poor extent of their resources, to promote a peaceful outcome, even if this does not give full satisfaction to the demands of either side.



A book such as this cannot be confined to a mere description of the conflict and the factors in it, a general characterization and analysis of future possibilities. It would be thought wrong if we avoided altogether considerations of a moral order. In cases of this kind opinion wishes strongly to distinguish between the innocent and the guilty, between the one who is in the wrong and the one who is in the right.

Like all fighters and those closely linked with them, the first to react in this way are, of course, on one side, the Arabs, and, on the other, the Israelis – and, with the latter, today, most Jews. For them the choice presents no difficulty, and the adjectives they use are unmitigated. For most of the Arabs “the Zionist aggression” is a crime, and those who participate in it or who support it are criminals. For the Zionist Jews and their innumerable sympathizers, it was, on the contrary, criminal on the Arabs’ part not to agree to the establishment of a persecuted people in their region – this being, moreover, the solution willed by God and by the UNO. To these fundamental “crimes” are added, of course, the countless particular crimes (much less debatable) which are committed every day by the participants in a war or a conflict of this kind. The infamous and atrocious character of these crimes (often, unfortunately, quite true) is ceaselessly denounced – that is, of course, when they are the work of the other side.

In contradiction with themselves, those committed to support of one side or the other, who deny the very notion of objectivity, clamour for a universally valid moral judgement which shall condemn their adversary. By desiring that this judgement be universally valid, they implicitly accept that it can be impartial and objective. So, then, being both importuned and repudiated in advance if our conclusions are displeasing, let us undertake as best we can this perilous exercise. He who has done undeserved harm to another is, it would appear, an object of universal condemnation. However, mitigating circumstances may be found for him, such as need, ignorance or social conditioning, if he has blindly followed the custom of his milieu. The Zionists have quite clearly done harm to the Arabs and, more particularly, to the Arabs of Palestine. This needs to be reiterated all the time, because the tendency to deny it is so widespread. Those who deny this obvious fact, or pass over it in silence, put themselves by so doing in the category of biased judges, and are consequently to be repudiated. One may reprove the Arabs, calling upon them not to carry their resentment to extremes. But one’s right to do that is lost if one begins by denying the wrong that has been done to them, or by justifying it. Imagine that you have injured someone through clumsiness. You may ask him to excuse you, to understand your own situation, to accept some compensation; but what will his reaction be if you begin by telling everyone that you have done him no harm, or that he deserved to be harmed in this way?

The Zionists have inflicted undeserved harm upon the Arabs, harm that was programmed in advance when, before the Arabs even had the slightest knowledge of what was being planned (and consequently had not the slightest reaction to it), they decided to make of Arab Palestine a Jewish state. On their behalf it may be pleaded that there were mitigating circumstances. Those concerned were driven by persecutions to seek a way out; but let us not forget that persecutions were much less severe in the period in which the plan in question was conceived than they became later on, and also that, in the same period, there were other ways out available. Those concerned were utterly ignorant of conditions in Palestine. They were strengthened in that ignorance and encouraged to preserve it by the ideas prevalent in their period. One may blame them for not having been able to transcend this ignorance of theirs and the ideas of their time, and for not having sought more difficult ways out of the situation that was constraining them. But who can cast the first stone? It is clear that few communities and few individuals – among the Arabs as among the rest of us – could or can boast of showing such virtue.

The Arabs experienced an infliction of harm that they had not deserved. One can, at most, reproach them with the way they reacted. But, again, who can pride himself on reacting any better in comparable circumstances? Nor can it be forgotten that they were the ones attacked. Only those communities and those individuals who strictly apply the prescriptions of Jesus of Nazareth about forgiveness of trespasses are in a position to blame the Arabs on that score. Where are such people to be found?

In any case, the harm was done. The conflict, with all its vicissitudes, is going on before our eyes. How can it now be ended? It is for the man of peace and goodwill to advocate compromise. An honourable compromise is now possible for both sides, and the broad lines of such a compromise have been indicated by the international organizations. This would leave to Israel all the territory that it held between 1948 and 1967, a period when Israel proclaimed that it .had no further territorial demands. It would call upon the Palestinians to resign themselves to the loss of part of their national territory, but would give them an independent state of their own.

The future alone will tell us if this compromise is going to be accepted. Much will depend on the international situation at the most general level, the relation of strength between the superpowers, the bargaining they will undertake on behalf or to the detriment of their respective protégés. We do not know how these circumstances will evolve – and they greatly transcend the regional setting to which we have confined ourselves. One thing, however, is certain: namely, that the situation cannot be perpetuated in its present form. The West has created the term “destabilization” as a bogey, but hundreds of millions of individuals throughout the world look towards this destabilization hopefully, because the existing situation signifies for them oppression, exploitation and, often, death. It is futile to hope to maintain against wind and weather all established situations. Compromises are still possible. Those who reject them – especially when they are the ones who originated the injustices being challenged – will bear the responsibility for terrible disasters.


Last updated on 4.8.2001