A Compassionate Peace: A Future for the Middle East. By Everett Mendelsohn and the Middle East Working Party of the American Friends Service Committee. Hill & Wang, $12.95 (paper. $6.95).
March 15, 1982        

It is generally agreed that the most likely setting for the outbreak of World War III is the Middle East. Conflicts in the region are peculiarly complex and intractable the stakes for all parties, including the superpowers, are extraordinarily high; the level of armaments is staggering; and resort to violence is, on all sides, habitual. To describe these problems fairly and offer useful suggestions for resolving them is, obviously, extremely urgent and unusually difficult, while any indulgence in mere rancor or special pleading is particularly futile and irresponsible. All these dangers and difficulties and make the achievements of “A Compassionate Peace”, by Everett Mendelsohn and associates, the more impressive.

The book deftly summarizes an enormous quantity of information, touching all aspects of the Arab-Israeli dispute, with additional chapters devoted to Iran, Afghanistan, Soviet and American policy, oil, and the regional arms race. At the center of this tangled skein of problems—as many, perhaps most, Israelis and Palestinians, and even the U.S. State Department now admit—is this one: how can the national aspirations of both Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews be satisfied within the territory of Mandate Palestine? The history of answers to, and evasions of, this question is inordinately complicated. A predecessor volume, the AFSC’s “Search for Peace in the Middle East”, examined much of this history up to its publication in 1970: the present book emphasizes developments since.

What emerges from this account is an ambiguous but perceptible softening of the Palestinian position on mutual recognition, and an all too perceptible hardening of the Israeli position. But even this circumspect assertion needs to be qualified at once by mentioning the historical background. At no point have the Israeli and Palestinian communities, or at least their leaders, simultaneously been willing to accept each other’s national existence. In 1948, when the military balance seemed to favor the Arabs, Jews—but not Arabs—were willing to accept separate states. Now that Israel’s military preponderance is overwhelming and the conservative nationalist Likud coalition has come to power, the Israeli political leadership is nearly united in its unwillingness even to discuss the possibility of a Palestinian state in the occupied territories. Has there been any movement from the Palestinian side? The popular impression in the United States is of monolithic, intransigent Palestinian rejectionism, symbolized by terrorist attacks and some fierce phrases from the PLO charter. The authors of “A Compassionate Peace” cite statements from PLO members and elected officials suggesting that the spectrum of opinion among Palestinians is wider than generally appreciated, and offer this surprising though cautious, conclusion: “Careful consideration of the changing political base and their altered sense of current realities strongly suggests that the newer conceptualizations—a limited Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip— are not merely tactical formulations. Basic shifts in the PLO stance have developed through time.”

Resolution of the Palestinian problem is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for lasting peace in the Middle East. There are a number of other sources of conflict in the region, which makes its headlong militarization extremely disturbing. Quakers have traditionally been prominent in British and American disarmament movements (most recently in the Committee for a Nuclear Freeze); the special attention paid in this book to the Middle East arms race probably rejects that history of activism. Middle Eastern countries currently spend more than $30 billion per year on defense (including $10 billion per year on arms purchases), the highest per capita military expenditure in the world. Israel is becoming one of the world’s leading arms exporters, and developing countries in the region are devoting an increasing fraction of their economies to military production. In part this has been encouraged by oil-importing nations, eager to correct trade deficits and recycle petrodollars, and by the superpowers, seeking clients. In part it is an indigenous response to chronic regional tensions. But militarization on this scale is itself destabilizing, both internally (hampering social-welfare expenditures, triggering disastrous inflation, vesting disproportionate political power in the armed forces) and internationally.

Most threatening of all is the momentum toward nuclearization in the region. Many, including the CIA, believe the Israelis already possess nuclear weapons, while the Pakistanis are widely suspected of intending to develop an “Islamic bomb.” Both nations have so far refused to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. As for Israel’s1981 “preventive” raid on a nuclear reactor in Iraq (which has signed the treaty), a Middle East expert wrote recently in the “London Review of Books” that “it’s man effect will have been to accelerate the process of nuclear proliferation in the region.”

The authors urge that supplier nations—among whom the United States ranks first by a substantial margin—reach an agreement to limit arms sales and the export of nuclear technology; that Israel and Pakistan sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty; and that the treaty’s safe guards, especially regarding inspection, be strengthened. These are all sensible recommendations. But unfortunately, barring unexpectedly humane and enlightened behavior on the part of the developed nations, demilitarization in the Middle East will probably have to wait for political accommodation.

Which brings us back to the heart of the matter. What would be a plausible and just solution to the Palestinian problem? After reviewing and criticizing virtually every current option and proposal from both Israelis and Arabs, including the Camp David accord, the authors tender their own. Its main features are: 1) the basic provisions of UN Security Council Resolution 242 should be carried out; 2) “Palestinian self-determination should set the terms for the ultimate decision about the West Bank and Gaza Strip and an independent state on these territories should be supported if that is the chosen option of the Palestinian people”; 3) “Palestinian recognition of Israel and its right to a secure and peaceful existence within the pre-1967 borders must be unequivocally given.” Immediate and obvious corollaries from these principles are, on the one hand, that Israel must either withdraw its settlements [in the occupied territories] or negotiate terms for the population to live under Palestinian sovereignty” (“sovereignty” to include control of land, water, and electricity): and on the other hand, that “discussion of any future reunification of all of Palestine, the ‘dream’ some Palestinians talk of, must explicitly renounce the use of force and be cast in terms of mutual desires and negotiated agreements.” Also, crucially: “Just as Israel insists on its right to determine its national leadership, realism dictates that Israel will have to renegotiate agreements with the leadership whom the Palestinians and Arab states recognize—the PLO.” In addition, there are a few brief (too brief) hints at addressing the refugee problem and the future economic relations of neighboring Israeli and Palestinian societies, and an unflinchingly detailed discussion of perhaps the thorniest of cur rent issues, the status of Jerusalem.

In essence, these proposals are a combination and extension of the Eban and Fahd plans, both of which the authors praise as steps in the right direction. What might encourage further steps? “A Compassionate Peace” is suffused with the singular Quaker conviction that truth-telling, and especially telling difficult truths to those most in need of hearing them, is politically efficacious. In the book’s first sentence, the authors admit that it is “unashamedly visionary.” Accepting the report, the chairman of the American Friends Service Committee places it in the tradition of William Penn, who set out to achieve harmony in a multiracial territory by suggesting to his compatriots, “Let us try what love can do.”

Predictably, this approach has evoked condescension from the tough-minded. A reviewer in “The New Republic” observed sagely, “It is known what love can do. It can ruin.’’ This is a little like dismissing someone about to die of thirst with the admonition, “It is known what water can do. It can drown.” Fatuous “realism” of this sort is sufficiently answered by another of Penn’s maxims, at once shrewd and magnanimous: “Force may subdue, but love gains.”

“A Compassionate Peace” appeared on the eve of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Were its recommendations in effect, the Middle East would have been spared that tragedy, and also, perhaps, unimaginable future catastrophes. One can only guess at the judgment of the book’s authors about the events of last summer, but I suspect they would have endorsed this principle, enunciated by an early Zionist settler: “We have no right to harm a single Arab child, even if with this we could achieve all that we wish.” The speaker was David Ben-Gurion.