THIRTEEN PROMINENT Israelis met for a week last year in bucolic Bellagio, Italy, scheduled far from their telephones, offices, and the general clamor and bustle of Israeli life. They assembled at the invitation of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace to discuss, on a not-for-attribution basis, Israelis, Palestinians, and the chances for peace between them. At the week's end, the discussion had produced 800 pages of transcripts, all in English, the conference's working language. From this material, Larry Fabian, the director of the Endowment's Middle East program and Israeli journalist Ze'ev Schiff have distilled 250 pages of dialogue and reference material - appropriately entitled, Israelis Speak.
Each of the 13 participants - all mainstream Israelis - was assigned a fictitious name in the book. Because the views expressed in the work are well known in Israel, readers in Jerusalem will probably be preoccupied with linking the real faces to their pseudonyms. For an American audience, however, the content of the discussion is far more intriguing and significant than the identity of the speakers.
Israelis Speak is one of the most revealing portraits of the way in which Israelis of a wide variety of political stripe view themselves and the conflict in which they are seemingly inexorably enmeshed. It is not easy reading, and may not be particularly rewarding for those who lack some background or strong interest in the Arab-Israeli conflict. For those steeped in Middel East meshugas, however, the book is valuable addition to literature by and about Israelis.
The conversations reflect the richness and diversity of Israeli political thought - the Israeli fondness for political nuance, for intellectual "hair splitting," as one speaker put in.The dialogue is obviously the product, of the fiercely democratic, cantankerous political culture of the country.
Despite the diversity, however, there is a consensus among the dialogue's participants that may surprise American readers: all of the group believes, for every different reasons, that, as one speaker phrased it, "the Palestinian problem is the central problem in the conflict," and "without a solution of the Palestinian problem there will not be a soluton of the conflict in the Middle East." Nor did any one in the group disagree with the assumption that since 1973, the PLO has established itself as the preeminent representative of the Palestinian people and their nationalistic movement.
Because the participants are Israelis, and not Jews living in the Diaspora, they are forced to be rigidly pragmatic and realistic about the conditions with which they are confronted. This awareness als produced another sort of consensus: participants are, for the most part, profoundly pessimistic - almost cynical about American support for Israel, and certain of the Arab's eternal enmity for Israel.
"Most participants here do not refute one basic premises," says one speaker. "No peacis foreseeable, and no reconciliation is possible, at least according to the Arabs . . . the Arabs and the Palestinians are not going to rest until the state of Israel is abolished."
Given their agreement on the inalterability of Arab hostility, all changes or signs of "moderation" within the PLO since 1973 are seen by the Israelis as "tactical" maneuvers - efforts to gain through political means what the palestinians cannot win on the battlefield.
"The question," concludes speaker Oren, "is whether Israel can strive in spite of Arab hositility."
What divides the group are the conclusions each draws and the tactics each formulates for survival of the Jewish state in the turbulent sea of Islam. One argues that because Israel will not be able to continue its lead in the arms race, because there is a limit to U.S. support, and because of the combined forced of the Arab world will overpower Israel eventually, only a nuclear capability will deter the Arabs. "I don't say this happily," concludes one participant, "but I think really we are now reaching a position in which we would be fighting for the right, unlike Jews in the Second World War, to die with honor . . . If worse comes to worst, the whole Middle East will this time go to the grave together with us."
Other Israelis find comfort and salvation in th messiantic religious right, Gush Emunim, Israelis who are trying to build unauthorized settlements in the occupied territories, who believe in the reclaiming of all of Eretz Israel, the Land of Israel, for the Jews. "Even if they kill every single Jew in Israel, in a matter of a few years, we will start to immigrate to Israel again. There is no end to Jews in Israel."
Most of the participants, however, conclude the Palestinian national aspirations must be satisfied in some way if there is to be some breathing space within the "straitjacket" of Arab enmity towards Israel. Real peace may, indeed, be impossible; but a tactical solution, one that buys Israel temporary peace, must be sought. One of the speakers urges his colleagues to look for signs of moderation among the Arabs and Palestinians, to nourish those signals. "Have you a five per cent chance to see some way out of this kind of dommed situation? . . . I would say if there is a three per cent possibility - maybe we should really use our whole imaginative to see if there are cracks in the wall . . . In a framework of pessimism, one should really try to rely even on the least sign."
Many of the "solutions" are dissected at length: most of the group oppose the establishment of an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank, though they discuss a West Bank Jordanian federation, the replacement of King Hussein's Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan with a Palestinian entity, annexation of the territories.There are almost many solutions as participants.
The undercurrent of pessimism dominates the book, however. The Americans, panelists agree, will ultimately tire of the "nuisance" of Israel. While the group believes that America has a moral, ideological commitment to Israel, its members also agree that there is no serious strategic American interest in Israel, a distinction discussed with great candor. The group is skeptical, as well, about its own non-jewish Arab-Israeli citizens, who now constitute almost 13 percent of the Israeli population.
While much of the books is devoted to a search for solutions, cynicism about the outcome of the Israeli-Palestinian competition for historic palestine cannot be escaped. As one speaker remarks to a colleage who urges flexibility and accomodation with the PLO, "You did not prove your supposition that the alternative (to accomodation) is doom."
Nevertheless, perhaps because Israelis live daily with the Palestinian dilemma, the group is willing to confront such issues directly and frankly. In this sense, the discussion is much freer than the debate within the American Jewish community about Israel's future and the Palestinians. Too often here, the official Israeli government line must be repeated, almost mindlessly. Those groups which criticize certain aspects of Israeli policy, are ostracized; those who disagree with government policy are branded "anti-Semites." The Israelis who met at Bellagio can use the word "burden" to describe the American perception of Israel; they know that there is little room in their calculations for misperception or self-deception.