The Breakfast Table

A Breathtaking Remark

Dear Anne,

That’s rather a breathtaking remark—that “full-scale war” in the Middle East may not, in your view, “be an entirely bad thing.” You say, if I understand you right, that violence has to be given its head in order to prove that it doesn’t solve anything. You conclude by saying that “tragically, a lot of people will die in the meantime—too many to count.” This is a counsel of despair, which is perfectly understandable under present circumstances, but very depressing all the same. I went to Israel in September the year before last to take part in a conference in Jerusalem of the Anglo-Israeli Association. I thought how much more confident the country had become in the years since my previous visit. There seemed to be less fear than I remembered and more hope for the future. In fact, Israel was beginning to seem more like an ordinary country than one living under permanent threat of obliteration. But I had hardly got back to London before Ariel Sharon decided to pay a visit to the Temple Mount and all hell broke loose again.

I don’t question his legal right to have done this, but it was such a calculatedly provocative act that I find it hard to forgive him for it. Politically, of course, it was a smart move. It revived the conditions of national insecurity that eventually brought him to power as prime minister. But I agree with an editorial in today’s Evening Standard that says that the Israelis “made a terrible mistake” when they elected him 18 months ago. “Security and safety from Palestinian terrorists is precisely what Mr. Sharon has not given them,” it says. “Instead, from the day he came to office, the cycle of atrocity and counter-atrocity has become more vicious.” Nobody can deny that, but is there a practical alternative to Sharon’s hard-line approach? There is the Saudi proposal, beguiling in its simplicity, for all members of the Arab League to recognize Israel in exchange for its withdrawal to its pre-1967 borders. Of course, the Saudis may not be sincere and may try to impose impossible conditions on Israel as part of a deal. But is that an argument for not discussing it?

Your approach to the Israeli-Palestinian struggle is to let them slog it out without foreign interference. “I have felt for a long time,” you say, “that outside intervention, whether American or European or Arab, has only had the effect of delaying and prolonging the inevitable.” By “the inevitable,” you seem to mean peace bought with much blood. But this outcome doesn’t seem to me inevitable at all. Would the United States, for example, be content to see thousands of Israelis die without doing anything about it? Could not the inevitable just as easily mean a terrifying extension of the Middle East conflict? I used to feel about Northern Ireland rather as you do about Israel: that we should let the Irish sort out their problems on their own, since there was nothing we could do to solve them. But now I have to admit that the slow and often disheartening efforts of Britain, Ireland, and the United States to patch together some sort of deal between the Loyalists and Republicans have calmed the situation and reduced the bloodshed, even if nobody finds the political arrangements completely satisfactory. That’s surely better than deaths “too many to count.”