The conversation between the Americans and the Israelis over the past few weeks has been marked by silences and outbursts. This has also been true of the conversation among Americans themselves on the subjects of Israel's activity in Lebanon and on the West Bank--resentful, frustrated, expedient silences interrupted by outraged, emotional condemnations of what Israel is doing. Something pent up has broken loose. It is terrible to listen to. It is also a good thing.
I am speaking of a kind of boiling-point discourse we have not heard before. Menachem Begin, coming out of a White House meeting with Ronald Reagan, shouts at waiting reporters that he is tired of hearing the Israeli invasion of Lebanon referred to as an invasion. Later he is to rebuke a group of important and worried senators in angry tones, telling them, according to their reports, that he doesn't need either their lectures or their appropriated funds and will do as he damn pleases. For their part, a number of senators and other politicians are heard to say they will not be intimidated by the Israeli lobby, but will vote and act as they damn please. The papers and the magazines are full of no-holds-barred attacks on the Israeli action; living rooms and lunch places resound with argument about it. I am not coming out for the political equivalent of primal- scream therapy--exactly. But I do sense in all this a turning point in the way we think about Israel, and it is a turn for the better, the healthier, the more normal.
Some of the reaction to the Israeli invasion--the comparison to Nazi policy, for instance--has been as disproportionate in its way as the military violence it complains of. There is an explosive quality to it, but this, I think, is because it comes from people who for so long have said so little when they objected to any particular Israeli government behavior. That they were silent was but one aspect of an unnatural relationship with Israel and all things Israeli that developed over the years.
This unnatural state of things has natural causes. They begin with the condition of the country itself and the emotions and responses this inevitably generates for some: Israel is a small, lonely, embattled survivor state. For its citizens the country is both a fulfillment of history and a haven from it, a haven from a past as brutal as any people have ever known. From this flows everything else, including both the single-minded, "never again" willingness of its people to do anything required to stay alive and ahead and the reluctance of its friends along with many who are actually indifferent to its concerns to criticize, quarrel or resist.
These have been the controlling features of the American relationship with Israel. As much as admiration, other elements--remorse, anxiety, coercion and guilt--have all been allowed to become the basis of policy and attitude. And these last have produced, in turn, growing resentment. From the mid-1970s you could feel its growth in Washington. More than the advent of Begin was involved. The Israelis pressured the American government against taking steps it wanted to take for the protection of its interests and the interests of its Arab allies in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf region.
At the heart of the tension was a fundamental disagreement between the two governments--or large factions of the two governments, anyway--over where Israeli and Western security really lay, over the degree to which Israel must or even could try to reach an accommodation with its Arab neighbors and Palestinian subjects. The fight, in 1978, over the sale of jet planes to Saudi Arabia was a landmark: the first time you really heard a lot of people saying they objected to the ferocity of the "Jewish lobby" effort to thwart the government and confiding that they couldn't say anything themselves, but wished that someone would. Some of those who did took an awful verbal drubbing when things got ugly, as they were bound to, among various American Jewish groups and politicians. A comparable though somewhat more strained situation was created when in 1981 even Israel's most committed friend, Ronald Reagan, endorsed and decided to fight through the sale of AWACS aircraft to the Saudis.
All this, it seems to me, has intensfied in the years since: the prodigious lobbying, the assertions--or suggestions, anyway-- that to dispute Mr. Begin is not merely to be taking issue with the position of a political figure, but actually to be "anti-Israel" or even "anti-Semitic" and the growing resistance to and discomfort with both approaches. Because the Israelis live among such desperate enemies, the precariousness of their situation has added yet another pressure to accept without complaint their actions and their decisions: every element of their government policy seems to be transformed (in argument) into an essential feature of their national survival, those that don't fit this category at all, as well as those that do. Thus, who argues is, in the unhappy logic that follows, someone willing to put Israel's very existence at risk.
The recent actions of the Israeli government have broken more than just certain constraints in discussing Israel that are felt by some people in this country--politicians, American Jews and others who are especially mindful of the dangers Israel faces. It has broken, too, the unrealistic, even cloying, insistence on the part of many that Israel was and must remain morally a kind of superhuman state, one that exists on a plane outside of nature and normality--a country too good (and too goody-goody) to be true. It's not. We should honor, respect and support it for its real strengths and virtues and for its democratic values and howl like crazy when we believe these are being perverted or misused. We should treat the Israelis, think of them, as real people, in other words. Too often in history they have been regarded as something else.
And we should thank Begin. His utterly outrageous, go-to-hell behavior in Washington was nothing if not human and normal and wanted nothing so much as a kick in the pants or at least a good shout back. I think he got the latter from the assembled senators. The Israelis and the Americans could see each other as they were and hear each other plain for once. This is the way it ought to be.