“I am for a Palestinian state.”
With those words three weeks ago, Yehoshafat Harkabi, 58, sent a shock wave through the Middle East. No prominent Israeli had ever made such a statement, certainly none of the stature of this retired major general of hawkish reputation who had been former chief of military intelligence and a onetime adviser to Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Harkabi’s endorsement of the Palestinian movement brought cautious praise from his old adversaries—PLO leader Yasser Arafat called it “very important.” Many of Harkabi’s countrymen were angry and disbelieving.
Yet his credentials argue that his views should be taken seriously. A native-born Israeli and a member of his country’s first cadre of home-grown diplomats, Harkabi was a delegate to the Rhodes armistice talks in 1949 that established a fragile peace between Israel and her Arab neighbors. He then served as military intelligence chief under Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. Since 1959 he has been a professor of international relations at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, as well as an author and part-time statesman. He resigned as intelligence adviser to Begin in October 1977 because of his belief that it is “impossible ” for Israel to retain control of the West Bank of the Jordan River. Harkabi discussed his views with Robert Slater for PEOPLE.
How did it feel to find yourself being publicly supported by Yasser Arafat?
You must remember that Arafat only commented on what I have to say about a Palestinian state. Not the rest. He wouldn’t like the rest.
But you do support a Palestinian state?
I recognize that the Palestinians should have the right to national self-determination. It may mean statehood. I don’t see how we can exclude the Palestinians from this right. They’re not subhuman. They deserve a political expression of their own.
Wouldn’t a Palestinian state inevitably be threatening to Israel?
Certainly—because of the ugliness of the basic attitudes of the Palestinians. If a Palestinian state really threatens Israel, the Israelis might have to reoccupy the West Bank. I’m not against such a declaration by Israel in advance.
Where would the PLO fit in?
I still consider the PLO an ugly movement because it holds to an absolutist position, arrogating to themselves rights which they are not ready to concede to others. They start from an axiom—that Palestine belongs to the Palestinians—and leave no room for a compromise with Israel’s interests. The PLO position sees the West Bank as a first step, saying that Israel should withdraw and leaving the door open for a continuation of the conflict. To me, that is the lowest point of perversity. In politics, there should always be relativist positions. Israel should withdraw from the West Bank only if it means an end to the conflict.
Do you worry that a Palestinian state would be influenced by the Soviets?
I don’t belittle that danger, but I have other worries. If Israel insists on controlling the West Bank, Sadat’s position could become untenable. The nightmare I have is of Israel left without the Sinai, without U.S. support, without peace, and eventually without the West Bank. We have to choose not between the good and the bad but between the bad and the worse or impossible. To perpetuate Israel’s control over the West Bank is, to my mind, a forlorn hope. We should understand that we will have to withdraw and see that our security is not endangered.
Should the Jewish settlements remain on the West Bank?
I’m not against symmetry, that there should be Jews on their side as there are Arabs on ours. But I’m against extraterritoriality—for Jews there to demand that they be judged by Israeli law and Jewish judges. That would create havoc. The Jews living there now are a small minority and the settlements are only a source of nuisance and irritation, nothing more.
Who should control Jerusalem?
Self-determination applies to Jews as well. Where they now live in East Jerusalem, which formerly belonged to Jordan in the old barbed-wire, pre-1967 days, should remain under Israeli control. I don’t think we owe anything to the Arabs—when I say we should withdraw from the West Bank it’s not because I feel we have a debt to the Arabs, but because they are the majority.
Do you feel alienated from your colleagues in the Israeli establishment because of your stand?
I feel fine. The problem is not consensus. The problem is that many Israelis don’t consider reality—and to my mind, reality is the first consideration to be reckoned with.
Why is there such consensus in Israel against a Palestinian state?
Most Israelis believe that a Palestinian state can be prevented. I feel that it is inevitable.
Could you ever erase the enmity between Israelis and Palestinians?
I don’t believe peace starts with the grass roots. It always starts with political arrangements, then it percolates down. A political arrangement is the beginning.
Do you think tension and terrorism on the West Bank would disappear with apolitical arrangement?
With time, such things always disappear. History shows this.