Conflicts and contradictions.
Meron Benvenisti. Villard Books, $15.95. Few Israelis are more qualified than Meron Benvenisti to offer insights into where Israel has come from and what it has become and its tortuous relationship with the Palestinian Arabs. A Palestine native whose relatives have lived in Jerusalem since the sixteenth century, Benvenisti served for years as the very visible Jerusalem deputy mayor in charge of Arab affairs.
A burly man with a shock of electric grey hair, he is known for his brilliant mind and his knack for offending all sides with controversial analyses, like his argument (made as a man of the socialist left) that Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip has become irreversible for the foreseeable future. Benvenisti now runs an institute funded by American foundations and dedicated to gathering and studying data on the West Bank that has become possibly the best source of hardcore and detailed facts on the impact of occupation.
Given this background, Conflicts and Contradictions is far less gripping than one might have hoped, although still peppered with interesting theses and fascinating, though too infrequent, anecdotes. The problem, as hinted at by the opaque and tractlike title, is that the author never quite decides whether his book is a memoir or a piece of political analysis explaining Israel's tortured relationship with the Palestinians. In the process it never quite fulfills the promise of either option.
Yet as food for fruther controversial thoughts, the book is well worth reading, reflecting the malaise felt at midlife by many members of Mr. Benvenisti's "lost generation,' the children of the founding fathers. Raised on a diet of utopian socialism, they believed that they were the elite born to build a new form of humanitarian society. But they have discovered painfully that the third generation of Israelis, many of them children of post-independence emigrants from Arab countries, neither understand their values nor fined them relevant.
Benvenisti describes the passionate search for rootedness in Palestine, undertaken by the secular socialist generation of his parents, summed up by the near worship of "moledet' or homeland. It was expressed in his generation by a passion to till the soil and to possess it through archeology, nature conservations, and emphasis on exploring the outdoors with the Bible as a guidebook.
But this secular passion for the homeland provided no adequate guidelines in 1967, when a whole new area of biblical Palestine came under Israeli control. The old ideology that revered "moledet' but saw it as the ground where a just society would be created was taken over by a new generation whose vision was to settle Greater Israel. And this generation's pioneers, who dress like and profess the idealism of the socialist pioneers 40 years earlier, are driven not by secular humanism, but by a religious conviction that settling greater Israel is a preordained milestone on the route to messianic redemption.
Benvenisti's passion and his pain in relating these changes and others wrought by occupation come most alive in the all too few instances when he lets the reader share his personal experiences. The most moving is the story of his Arab neighbor, coworker, and close personal friend, Mohammed, who was arrested on "preposterous' charges of contact with the Palestine Liberation Organization. The arrest apparently was meant as a warning to Mohammed, who managed a neighborhood sports club, to stay out of communal activities that could be infiltrated by the PLO. Its effect--besides breaking Mohammed psychologically and losing him his job--was to rub into Benvenisti's soul the bitter truth that under occupation, even in the case of friends, the occupier holds the power and the occupied are at the mercy of alien forces.
It's unfortunate that Mohammed, labeled "the elusive hero' of Benvenisti's narrative, gets only four pages. Such a story graphically illustrates the heart of Benvenisti's political analysis, that occupation threatens to turn Israel into a "herrenvolk democracy' where the minority (Arabs) is disenfranchised and deprived of basic civil rights.
Benvenisti has often been castigated by Israeli and American Jewish liberals, as well as by Palestinians, for his thesis that the clock has struck midnight and occupation is practically irreversible. He makes a convincing case in his final chapter, although the argument is complex and the novice reader might easily get lost.
His basic point is that there are three realities of the mid-eighties: the bulk of the Israeli Jewish populace (aided by past Arab intransigence) now perceives Israeli control of the whole of Mandate Palestine as a given. Those Palestinians who seek a two-state compromise are neither strong nor united enough to change this in the foreseeable future. And, given the collapse of OPEC and oil prices, no deus ex machina, like the United States, will rescue Israeli liberals or Palestinian moderates from this impasse.
Thus, says Benvenisti, the choice for Israel now is whether to have a democratic or a semi-democratic state within all Mandate Palestine. The Likud party, a member of the coalition, is comfortable with the vision of "herrenvolk democracy.' To opt for real democracy raises the nerve-wracking prospect of a binational state, a concept that has a record of failure elsewhere, and which neither Palestinians nor liberal Israelis want. The pain that filters through the most jargony of Benvenisti's pages reflects the fear of having to sit by helplessly while the Israel his generation fought to build fades before his eyes.
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Apr 1, 1986|
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