The Longest War: Israel in Lebanon. By Jacobo Timerman. Knopf, 167 pages, $11.95.

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In “Notes on Nationalism,” George Orwell wrote: “The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not ever hearing about them.” Orwell’s observation applies not only to patriots, but to partisans of every sort. Shaw, Sartre, I.F. Stone, and many others gave various dictators the benefit of various doubts for an embarrassingly long time. Political objectivity is rare and difficult; so one listens with respect when a partisan struggles to tell hard truths about an object of longstanding allegiance, as Jacobo Timerman does in “The Longest War: Israel in Lebanon (Knopf, 167 pages, $11.95).

The former editor of the Buenos Aires liberal daily “La Opinión”, Timerman is a lifelong Zionist who was a victim of anti-Semitic persecution, including torture, by the Argentine military. Following an international outcry, he was released from prison in 1979 and exiled. He then moved to Israel, where he wrote “Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number” (1981), a memoir of overwhelming power and vividness. That book brought Timerman worldwide fame, but it also stirred a harsh, sometimes ugly controversy in the United States. Irving Kristol, William Buckley, and “Commentary” magazine questioned Timerman’s assertion that anti-Semitism is an especially virulent strain in the pathology of Argentine subfascism. They suggested that circumstances (the left-wing associations of one of the owners of Timerman’s newspaper) and the generals’ excessive anticommunist zeal fully accounted for Timerman’s misfortunes. They ‘warned that premature condemnations for anti-Semitism might undermine a dependable (though, alas, authoritarian) American ally. And they sometimes hinted that this undermining was actually Timerman’s purpose, or at least the purpose of some of his supporters.

That episode may be just an unpleasant squall compared with the storm that will likely break over “The Longest War.” From hi refuge in the Jewish homeland, scarcely a year after composing “one of the classics of Zionism” (Leon Wieseltier in “Dissent”), Timerman found himself watching the Jewish state embark on what seemed to him a brutal aggression. The experience has drawn from him a fierce, anguished protest. Like “Prisoner Without a Name”, “The Longest War” will strike some as exaggerated and irresponsible, others as incisive and courageous. Even more than the Cold War, the Middle East has turned too many intellectuals into partisans. And Timerman’s book will leave no partisan indifferent.

That, at least, is its intention. Timerman has set out to state the obvious at a time when temptations to ignore the obvious are frequently irresistible. Unfortunately, much American discussion of the Middle East has succumbed to such temptations. Hardliners refer to their own support for Israeli state policy as simply “support for Israel”: they are “friends of Israel,” whereas their opponents are “anti-Israel.” Even liberal reaction has been anxious and restrained, often limited in focus to the widely unpopular Begin and Sharon, and always mindful of Israel’s diplomatic and financial dependence on the United States. Timerman, desperate to mobilize American opinion against the present drift of Israeli policy, has pitted the whole of his immense prestige against these crude or subtle resistances. There are already signs that his prestige will not survive the attempt, even among his defenders; within a year, Wieseltier’s praise in “Dissent” turned into caustic criticism in a recent “Harper’s.”

But even Timerman’s critics won’t deny his eloquence. Considered solely as a literary performance, “The Longest War” is impressive. It is not exactly historical analysis and not quite political polemic: it is by turns ____ and lament, meditation and jeremiad. Timerman’s voice is confused, indignant, urbane, ironic. Here is Tin in Tyre:

“I regard the ruins and, summoning all I can remember about human beings, I try to imagine how they attempted to survive the night bright with fires. How were their tears and their cries? I look up at the high windows that seem like empty eve sockets, and I try to conceive of the faces of the mothers as they hurled their children from burning homes — perhaps they ran down those now-vanished stairs, or did they cover themselves under blankets and mattresses? I try to think what I would have done if I had been in one of those burned-out rooms. I pick one, to one side, whose curtains miraculously re main, and I’m there with my family. We must decide quickly whether to flee together or break up, and how to break up, and where do we go.” And again: “Is it possible that the human heart cannot stop beating and can endure, in a single day, the televised sunbathers of Juniye [Beach] and the faces of Tyre’s inhabitants going through their burned, destroyed and disemboweled streets in the company of the armed official escort assigned to me by the Israeli Army? Yes, our hearts are doing it, and nobody has yet died of anguish.” And finally, bewildered and ashamed, listening to the explanations and excuses of his official escort: “I add and subtract, I multiply and divide, and I compare; but still I cannot arrive at anything that would give an Israeli citizen the right to be standing here, secure, protected by his own army observing what his army has wrought.”

A strain of wry, bitter commentary forms a counterpoint to these splendid outbursts. After Begin’s acolytes ha proclaimed that the Israelis are doing in Lebanon what the Czechs did not dare do in 1938 when they failed to face up to Hitler’s panzer divisions, Timerman reflects: “After such a pronouncement, lucid debate is a hard task. Slowly, in one conversation after another . . . it becomes evident that the Palestinians in Lebanon had no panzer divisions and that the columns of tanks were Israeli; that in 1938, England and France denied the Czechs the planes that the United Sates has so generously pro to Israel, along with communications systems, artillery, missiles, rifles, ammunition, the cannon on the Merkava tanks, and the broad diplomatic support. Would the Jews have fought if they had been abandoned like the Czechs? It’s a painful question and Israelis would have be happier if Begin had never raised it.”

There is also a good deal of mordant humor in the book. Timerman quotes a current Israeli joke: “We Israelis have no more blood in our veins. Begin has spilled it all in his speeches.” During an interview a group of Israeli soldiers are asked how far the will have to advance. They reply: Well, there’s a vandalized synagogue in Ankara, so we will surely get there. Also there are Katyusha rockets in Moscow, so we will have to go take them out.” The Holocaust scholar Zeev Mankowitz, outraged by Begin’s continual demagogic references to the Holocaust, writes: “Whatever its final outcome, the epitaph to be placed upon the war in Lebanon will read: Here lies the international stature and moral integrity of a great people. Died of a false analogy.”

“The Longest War” is full of fine rhetorical flashes like these. But it is also full, as a book this urgent and impassioned is likely to he, of mistakes. These errors are randomly distributed across the political spectrum — they sometimes raise doubts about Timerman’s judgment, but not about his integrity. That complex, engaging voice is occasionally misleading, but never duplicitous.

Still, this embattled book needs some corrections. For example, in the course of exculpating the PLO for the 1982 war, Timerman remarks offhandedly that it “started the 1975 [Lebanese] civil war.” Not even the PLO’s harshest critics claim this; the PLO was drawn into that war at the behest of its Lebanese Moslem allies, and then only after several massacres of Palestinian civilians by Christian rightists.

Timerman also perpetuates a canard he may have picked up from American acquaintances with political scores to settle: he takes a slap at unnamed “Harvard, Princeton, and Columbia professors” for not “confronting Palestinian terrorism with a clear and convincing picture of the political reality,” but instead “preferring to feel import glorifying an obsolete and reactionary image, that of terrorist machismo.” There are no such professors. Ever prominent academic critic of Israeli state policy — Noam Chomsky, Edward Said, Eqbal Ahmad, Fouad Ajami, Walid Khalidi, Everett Mendelsohn— has publicly condemned terrorism.

Finally, the Beirut refugee-camp massacre goads Timerman into a grievous overstatement: “I fear that in our [Israel’s] collective subconscious, we may not be wholly repelled by the possibility of a Palestinian genocide.” Even allowing for Timerman’s distress, the Sabra/Shatila massacre no more justifies speculations about genocidal intent than did the My Lai massacre. (Radicals’ argument for the genocidal character of America’s war on Vietnam rests not on sporadic atrocities but on our decade-long slaughter of two million Indochinese, our physical and economic devastation of the region, and our polices of non-reparation, non recognition, and boycott since the war’s end). Despite the expropriation and repression of Palestinians (and Bedouins) in Israel and the occupied territories, and despite the enormous and indiscriminate carnage wrought by Israel’s invasions of Lebanon (1978’s “Operation Litani” and 1982’s “longest war”), Timerman’s use— however tentative and cautionary of the word “genocide” is indefensible.

In addition to these rhetorical excesses and careless sideswipes, Timerman commits a serious historical misjudgment. Like a great many people, he believes that the 1982’s invasion was Israel’s first not-purely-defensive war: “for the first time Israel had attacked a neighboring country without being attacked.” Matters are not so simple, as other people recognize: “[Some of] our other wars were not without an alternative. In November 1956 we had a choice. The reason for going to war then was the need to destroy the fedayeen, who did not represent a danger to the existence of the state. Thus we went off to the Sinai campaign… In June 1967, we again had a choice. The Egyptian Army concentrations in the Sinai approaches do not prove that Nasser was really about to attack us. We must be honest with ourselves. We decided to attack him (Menachem Begin, “Boston Globe”, August 24, 1982).

Among Israeli and American liberals, including Timerman, this belief in the unprecedented aggressiveness of the 1982 invasion often goes with an assumption, usua1 implicit, of Israel’s moral uniqueness. A single sad motif haunts “The Longest War”: Timerman’s despair over Israel’s fall from grace. Shortly after arriving in Israel, Timerman wrote a poignant essay called “Coming Home” (“New Republic”, December 1, 1979). He described the feelings of a victim of individual and ancestral persecution who was at last claiming his place in a community in which the suffering of ages had been redeemed. He was proud of Israel; it was “more than a refuge. It offers a unique possibility for the perfection of man: the development of his identity to its furthest and most profound conclusions.”

To the intensity of that pride corresponds the keenness of Timerman’s present outrage, the depth of his present bitterness. Israel, or at least the idea of Israel, had been a beacon to Timerman as he lay on an electrified table and listened to his Nazi-like torturers taunting him for his “clipped prick “ Now, his cherished county rains death from a distance on cities, villages, and refugee camps. Has the dream lost its promise, the victim become an executioner? Timerman cannot bear the thought.

Official justifications bring no comfort. For Timerman, the government’s explanations are a fraud: “Peace in Galilee” was exactly what had prevailed from the July, 1981, ceasefire until the Israeli air raids on Beirut 11 months later, For Timerman, this is “the first war in which the objectives were political”: the invasion occurred when it did not because the PLO was about to resort to violence, but because it was resorting with increasing international success to diplomacy, a development that panicked Begin and Sharon. Six weeks into the invasion, the Israeli chief of staff admits that the war is a war for Greater Israel— that is, for sovereignty over the West Bank and Gaza Strip. By then Timerman is almost beyond indignation, and can only shrug: “What other explanation could he give?”

Timerman is also appalled at the degradation of Israeli politics: more and more the government lies, misinforms, covers up, stonewalls. The barest of parliamentary majorities is held to justify the boldest of departures from democratic practice. To an American, it sounds like the Vietnam era, though Timerman has a more troubling and less plausible parallel in mind: Peronism, which he observed at close range over several decades in Argentina. He pushes this parallel too far to the point of asking whether Israel remains a democracy or only a “parliamentary republic.” Still, he’s right to be disillusioned.

But is he disillusioned enough? Timerman’s criticism of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon sometimes sounds disquietingly similar to criticism of the American invasion of Vietnam. One of the most exasperating features of American intellectual life in the ‘60s and ‘70s the frequent lament that the Vietnam war was a regrettable departure from the uniquely moral tradition of American foreign policy. According to this illusion, the international behavior of the United States, unlike that of all other great powers in history, has been motivated not by the perceived needs and interests of its domestic rulers but by our dedication to fostering self-determination, democratic freedoms, and human rights throughout the world. This complacent consensus about American “exceptionalism” persists, making it impossible even to begin to break the lethal grip of Cold War ideology.

Timerman’s dirge over Israel’s over Israel’s soul reflects similar “exceptionalist” illusions; and these, too, must be dispelled if the impasse in the Middle East is ever to be resolved. It is true that, despite Likud machinations, Israeli democracy is lively and robust. It is also true that debate among Israelis on the Middle East is more diverse and more intelligent than among Americans. Nonetheless, Israel was not, before it invaded Lebanon, “a unique possibility for the perfection of man” (“Coming Home”) nor did it “represent the universality of the victim” (“The Longest War”). Israel is a nation-state like any other, dominated by opportunistic politicians (quick to arouse or appease national chauvinism), security obsessed generals (with a huge military-industrial complex to feed and care for), capitalists (eager to retain access to the cheap Arab labor, controlled market, and water resources of the occupied territories), and geopolitical intellectuals (some of whom advocate the breakup or “Ottomanization” of neighboring states, with Israel as regional gendarme for the US). Timerman and a minority of Israelis may he willing to face the hard question: how can Jewish and Palestinian national aspirations he reconciled within the same land? But no one with real power is.

Certainly the Labor Party isn’t. Able to bear only so much reality, Timerman must find some hope ‘somewhere, so he hopes, without much conviction, that Shimon Peres will set the country on the road to lasting peace. But Labor’s record is not promising. After rejecting the 1976 UN resolution, which proposed a two-state solution, Yitzhak Rabin vowed that his government would never negotiate with Palestinians, whether or not they recognized Israel. And Labor’s current “Jordanian option” is considered by General Matti Peled (formerly of the Israeli General Staff) and other Israeli doves to be even more cynical than outright annexation. Jordanian administration of the West Bank population — the Jordanian option — does not allow national self-determination for Palestinians or effective indigenous control of the area’s natural resources. The ultimate liberal illusion, to which even Timerman is vulnerable, is that a more enlightened set of politicians will finally address the society’s fundamental problems, will finally restore the nation’s soul.

But nation-states have no soul. Not even Jewish nation-states. Eighteen years ago, in a prophetic meditation on the fate of the Jews (“A Kind of Survivor”), George Steiner put that awkward truth with great delicacy: “Sprung of inhumanity and the imminence of massacre, Israel has had to make of itself a closed fist. No one is more tense with national feeling than an Israeli. He must be if his strip of home is to survive the wolfpack at its doors. Chauvinism is almost the requisite condition of life. But although the strength of Israel reaches deep into the awareness of every Jew, though the survival of the Jewish people may depend on it, the nation-state bristling with arms, is a bitter relic, an absurdity in the century of crowded men. And it is alien to some of the most radical, most humane elements in the Jewish spirit.”

Nationalism has a lot to answer for in this bloody century; and as nuclear weapons proliferate in the Middle East, nationalism may yet doom Jewish and Palestinian aspirations alike. Along with all other aspirations. Many commentators, liberal and conservative, have suggested that last summer’s invasion may force a political accommodation. Timerman objects: “To say that every war has a positive aspect — in this case, a growing realization that in the Middle East there is no military solution —is an obscenity when one thinks of Lebanon’s demolished cities, of the dead, of the mutilated; in brief, of the consequences we’ll have to live with for years.” One of these consequences is an indefinite future of frustrated and inflamed nationalist grievances. “The “longest war” will almost certainly not he the last.


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George Scialabba