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Behind the Headlines the Great Territories Debate; Causes and Consequences

December 22, 1972
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

The “great debate” in the Israel Labor Party seems likely to end inconclusively. After almost all the senior minister wad party ideologues have spelled out their varied and various views on the present and the future of the administered territories the party will probably adopt the same nebulous, all-things-to-all-men formulations as it did in the 1968 elections.

The “oral law” as it was then called, enabled Defense Minister Moshe Dayan and those even more hawkish than him on the one hand, and the Mapam leadership and those even more dovish than them on the other, to unite under the banner of the Labor Alignment and the leadership of Golda Meir and, if not sweep the country at least capture nearly half the Knesset seats.

At this time, too, it was known that the party embraced a wide divergence of views on this subject. Now these views have been aired in public–but nevertheless there is no real prospect of a new of more sharply delineated Labor line–unless developments in foreign affairs make this necessary. Why then did the party expend the time and effort to debate the subject? Three marathon sessions have already taken place, and there will probably be two more.

Party Secretary Aharon Yadlin has stated that he wants the closing session of the great debate and the summation speeches to be concerned solely with the comparatively innocuous subject of present economic policy in the territories, and not to touch upon the issue of long-term policy which has revealed such divisions.


Firstly, of course, there is much truth in Mrs. Meir’s explanation that what was intended as a clarification of present policy in the territories regrettably became a search for a long-term formulation of Israel’s intents. Mrs. Meir regrets this development because she thinks it was premature to draw maps or plan withdrawals. Peace is no more in the offing now than it has been since 1968. Why then tear down the frail fabric of the “oral law” and risk being unable to replace it by any more specific policy for the territories?

But the shift in the tense of the party discussion from present to future was inevitable. Dayan on the one hand was urging bolder and less makeshift policies for economic development in the territories. Particularly in the West Bank. He wanted the Knesset service the various government departments to concern themselves with the territories rather than leave everything to his own military administration. Dayan claimed that the territories pay their own way–what with the Sinai oil revenue.

Finance Minister Pinhas Sapir, on the other hand, was warning of the dire consequences of labor from the territories flooding Israel. Regarding the outlook on the future of the territories, especially of the West Bank. Dayan, with withering realism, points out that King Hussein is not prepared to accept the ideas of even the most dovish Israeli laborites–for one who is not willing to forego sovereignty over Jerusalem. Thus peace is a far-off prospect and mean while Israel must plan and implement long-term policies for the West Bank. Even when peace does come. Dayan is not afraid of keeping large areas of the West Bank.

Sapir and Foreign Minister Abba Eban and many others argue equally convincingly, that Israel must aim at returning the heavily populated West Bank because of the demographic danger its absorption would entail. We do not want to have to wake up each morning and count ourselves to see if we are still the majority, Eban says. For this reason Sapir opposes any policies or investments which smack of permanency. Eban argues furthermore that if Israel destroys the air of transience which she has carefully preserved until now on the West Bank, the local population will be driven by despair to armed revolt.


The debate was thus inevitable–but it is nonetheless harmful to the Labor Party and to Israeli democracy as a whole. It opened party wounds which have scarcely closed. All the ex-Rafi faithful. to a man, lined up behind Dayan. On the other side, the aim sometimes became not merely to persuade the party to adopt the Sapir-Eban line but to destroy Dayan. One example must suffice: when Dayan declared some weeks ago that Hebron was no less meaningful for the Jews than Affula, he was assailed savagely as a warmonger and colonialist.

But one commentator wryly pointed out that the attacks were inspired neither by ideology nor by zeal for peace–but by personal spite. Nobody, he argued, could deny that Hebron was, if anything, more meaningful than Affula. And nobody would advance the prospect of peace by renouncing the Jewish claim to Hebron–for if we had no claim we would be making no “concession” by returning it during negotiations. The motive for the attacks on Dayan, therefore, was personal and political vindictiveness.

This argument is perhaps a shade too clever but the point made is correct: Dayan’s enemies have used the debate on the territories to isolate him in the party leadership, while Dayan himself, sure of support in the rank and file, seeks to impose his views on the leadership, leaning on his grass roots support and popularity.

As the elections approach, the party will close its ranks–probably behind Mrs. Meir again, despite her current protestations that she will step down. This will be all to the bad for democracy in Israel. Labor voters will be voting for a party whose policy on the territories, and the succession issue intimately linked with it, is undecided.

One long-time party supporter wrote to the press this week that since the party did not appear to be deciding these questions, and since he was only prepared to vote for one of the four or five possible succession candidates but not for the others, he would vote for the opposition instead. This is the logical reaction of a politically refined voter in a democracy. If it becomes widespread, the great debate will have been more trouble than it was worth.

The National Conference on Soviet Jewry held its first meeting in Toronto this week and elected a special committee to deal with projects to aid Soviet Jews. Projects include inviting Soviet Jewish activists who have emigrated, to tour Canada, and finding ways to materially aid Soviet Jews to settle in Israel and elsewhere. Delegates from all Canadian provinces, the Canadian Zionist Federation and the Canadian Jewish Congress attended the conference.


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