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Saturday, December 20, 2008

Abba Eban, December 21, 1973

In the wake of the Yom Kippur War, the UN held the Geneva Peace Conference on December 21, 1973, exactly 35 years ago.

Here is a portion of Abba Eban's speech:
Mr. Secretary-General, distinguished Prime Minister, Foreign Ministers, Gentlemen. There has never been an Arab-Israel peace conference before. Instead there have been many wars, for which the price has been paid in thousands of lives and in a region's long agony. Today at last a new opportunity is born. No wonder that this Conference opens under the burden of an immense expectation. Millions of people across the world are hoping that we shall somehow succeed to break the cycle of violence, to give a new purpose and direction to Middle East history, and to bring a halt to the spreading contagion of force.

We have no way of knowing whether this opportunity will be fulfilled or wasted. The answer lies in the intentions of many governments and peoples in the Middle East -- and beyond. Israel for its part is resolved to seize the chance.

Now, the agreed purpose of this Conference is to negotiate peace between States whose relations until now have been scarred by a fierce enmity which has exploded again and again into war. The assault launched against us by Egyptian and Syrian armies on 6 October was only the most recent link in a chain of violence extending with tragic results across the entire life of Israel as a modem State. To achieve its aim, therefore, this Conference must reverse the whole tide of recent history. It is not going to be an easy task, nor at best can its fulfilment be rapid. We shall have to reconcile a sense of urgency with a capacity for patience. And yet, when all the calculations of prudence and caution and realism are duly made, our heart and imagination inspire a positive hope. We cannot ignore experience but nor are we committed to its endless reiteration. So Israel comes to Geneva in the conviction that there is room for innovation, initiative and choice.

We must be well aware of the particular complexity of our task. There is nothing in any degree similar to the Arab-Israel conflict. The crisis of the Middle East has many consequences, but only one cause. Israel's right to peace, security, sovereignty, commerce, international friendship, economic development, maritime freedom, indeed its very right to live, has been forcibly denied and constantly attacked. All the other elements of the conflict are consequences of this single cause. In no other dispute has there ever been such a total denial, not only of the sovereign rights of a State but even of its legitimate personality. And the emotional assault on Israel has gone much beyond the political context. It sweeps all human solidarities aside. It is nourished by a copious literature with official endorsement that gives support to Nazi anti-Jewish myths. It nourishes a conspiratorial theory of Jewish history. It explodes into the mutilation of Israeli soldiers in the field, the murder and torture of Israeli prisoners, and it has culminated most recently in Syria's sadistic refusal to carry out the Geneva Convention on the treatment of prisoners of war. Out of this kind of ferocious hatred springs the kind of assault on humane values that was enacted in Munich last year, in Rome airport five days ago and with weary regularity in other places between, before and since. When sportsmen in the shelter of the Olympic flag are bound hand and foot and calmly shot in the head, one by one, when passengers in a civil aircraft are methodically blown up and burned, to fragments, do we not come face to face with the mentality and ideology which produced the gas chambers and the gallows of Auschwitz?

It is from this tradition that we must seek to break away. The prospects for this Conference to succeed depends in the last analysis on whether the Arab nations and Israel want to reach an objective understanding of each other. Now, we have no trouble or reluctance in understanding what Arab nationalism is all about. It is the moving story of a people's liberation from external servitudes. It is an effort to build a bridge between past glories and future hopes. The success of the Arab nationalist enterprise is reflected in the existence of 19 States, occupying 12 million square kilometres, in which 100 million Arabs live under their sovereign flags, in command of vast resources. The world, including Israel, has come to terms with Arab nationalism. The unsolved question is whether Arab nationalism will frankly come to terms with the modest rights of another Middle Eastern nation to live securely in its original, and only, home.

For this to happen it will, I suggest, be necessary for political and intellectual leaders in the Arab world to reject the fallacy that Israel is alien to the Middle East. Israel is not alien to the Middle East: it is an organic part of its texture and memory. Take Israel and all that has flowed from Israel out of Middle Eastern history and you evacuate that history of its central experiences. Israel's historic, religious, national roots in the Land of Israel are a primary element of mankind's cultural history. Nothing - not even dispersion, exile, martyrdom, long separation - has ever disrupted this connexion. Modern Israel is the resumption of a primary current in the flow of universal history. We ask our neighbours to believe that it is an authentic reality from which most of the other elements in Middle Eastern history take their birth. Israel is no more or less than the Jewish people's resolve to be itself and to live, renewed, within its own frame of values, and thus to contribute its particular shape of mind to the universal human legacy.

That is what Israel is all about, and all this is much too deep and old and strong to be swept away. I ask Arab leaders and thinkers when they reflect on Israel, to ponder a French historian's definition of nationhood: "A nation is a soul, a spiritual principle. To share a common glory in the past, a common will in the present; to have done great things together; to want to do them again - these are the essential conditions of being a nation."

When to all this memory you add the special tragedy of Jewish homelessness, you will understand why Israel faces the other Middle Eastern nations in the perfect consciousness of its own legitimacy. It will neither disappear nor apologize for itself, nor compromise its sovereign destiny nor surrender its name and image, nor be swallowed up in something else. Within the framework of its own legitimate existence it seeks reconciliation and peace.

It seems to me that the effort to resist the existential truth about Israel as inseparable from Middle Eastern destiny lies at the root of every other discord. We ought to remember that the war against Israel is a little older than the State of Israel itself. If we want to know the authentic answer to the question "How did it all begin?", we could go to the library downstairs and look up the documents and find the report of the United Nations Partition Commission of 20 April 1948. I quote:

"Arab opposition to the plan of the General Assembly has taken the form of organized efforts by strong Arab elements both inside and outside Palestine, to prevent its implementation and thwart its objectives by threats and acts of violence.... Powerful Arab interests, both inside and outside Palestine, are defying the resolution of the General Assembly, and are engaged in a deliberate effort to alter by force the settlement envisaged therein."

That is the report.

How little has changed since then. Can we not describe today's condition in these sentences without changing many words? The pendulum of military advantage swings this way and that. The tide of political struggle ebbs and flows. One thing alone has been constant - the volcanic atmosphere in which the Middle East lives, with only a few years between each eruption and each succeeding lull. And so in the twenty-sixth year, as in the first, we woke up one morning to find the Arab forces moving against us from south and north. Nobody believes that if those massive armoured thrusts had gone forward as their commanders wished, they would have come to a voluntary halt, at any particular line. The distinguished Egyptian writer, Muhammad Hasainein Heikal, has put it very clearly in "Al-Ahram" of 19 October:

"If the Arabs succeeded by force of arms in liberating the lands conquered in June 1967, what is to prevent them in the next stage from liberating the whole of Palestine itself by force of arms?"

What indeed? And so in October 1973, as in May 1948, the issue for Israel became no less than the survival of life and home, of national future, of personal destiny, of all that had been built and cherished and defended, in common action, for 25 years.

Let us all atone for 25 years of separation by working towards a co-operative relationship similar to that which European States created after centuries of conflict and war. It may take time to achieve that full objective. But does not every serious architect design a vision of the finished structure before anybody begins to face the prosaic difficulties of construction? At any rate, our vision must be one of sovereign States, the Arab States and Israel, each pursuing its national life within its own particularity while co-operating with its neighbours in a broader regional devotion.

The peace treaties that we want to negotiate and conclude should provide for the permanent elimination of all forms of hostility, boycott and blockade. The peace settlement must be the product of mutual agreement and not of external pressure, or of intimidation of one party by the other. It is only by freely accepting national and international responsibility for the peace that the signatory Governments can ensure its stability. Our peace agreements should of course provide for the renunciation of the use of force in our relations with each other. They should contain specific and unequivocal recognition of each other's political independence, integrity and sovereignty.

They should prohibit any hostile action, including terrorist action, conducted from the territory of one of the signatories against the territory and population of the other. They should formally proclaim the permanent end of the conflict and the renunciation of all claims or acts arising from belligerency. They should ensure that all international conventions which each of the signatories has signed should be applicable to the other signatory without any of the reservations entered by Arab Governments in the past into such international obligations. Nations at peace with each other do not seek to impede the movement of each other's ships or aircraft, or forbid them the normal civilities of air transit and maritime passage. Governments establishing peaceful relations after long years of conflict invariably define their intentions with respect to formal relations with each other in the economic, commercial, cultural and political domains. With the establishment of peace it would become normal for Israel and the Arab States to take their places jointly in regional development organizations.

There is also need for attitudinal change. Bertrand Russell wrote that "all wars originate in classrooms". Long years of conflict have given successive generations of our people a distorted vision of each other. The transition to peace should have its effects in educational systems, expelling all the images and stereotypes which nations at war invoke both as causes and consequences of their hostility. A peace settlement should unlock the arteries of our region's communications.

Now, these aims may seem very remote and visionary today, but they do not go beyond what Governments have usually accomplished in their transition from hostility to peace. In fact, I have never come across any peace agreement which does not include everything that I have listed here. The three Governments represented at this Conference all accepted these aims when they endorsed Security Council resolution 242, of which the main provisions are the establishment of a just and lasting peace, the mutual acknowledgement by all States in the area of each other's sovereignty, integrity, independence and right to security. Another provision of that resolution is the elimination of all forms of belligerency, agreement on secure and recognized boundaries to which forces would be withdrawn in the context of a peace settlement. Israel adheres to what it said on this subject in its communications to you, Mr. Secretary-General, in August 1970.

We shall seek to know from the Arab participants in this Conference whether they share our understanding of the obligations, rights and prohibitions involved in a peace agreement. If we can reach a harmonious understanding on this point, we shall still face many complexities but there will be a stronger probability, than otherwise, of agreement and compromise.

Of course, the peace treaty to be negotiated with each neighbouring State should contain an agreement on boundaries. The decisive test for Israel will be the defensibility of its new boundaries against the contingency of attacks and blockades, such as those threatened and carried out in 1967 and 1973. The experience of October 1973 confirmed our view that the permanent boundaries must be negotiated with the utmost precision and care. If those armoured thrusts had begun from EI Arish or northern Gaza, or from the Golan Heights itself, then the first assault might well have been the last. Peace-makers do not reconstruct vulnerable, inflammatory situations. They try to correct them. Therefore there cannot be a return to the former armistice lines of 1949-1967, which proved to be inherently fragile and which served as a temptation to an aggressive design of encirclement and blockade, from which Israel broke out in 1967 after weeks of solitude and peril.

In this matter as in others there must be a basic readiness on all sides to make such concessions as do not threaten vital security interests. Israel does not seek acceptance of any of its positions as a prior condition of the negotiation, just as we should not be asked to seek acceptance of any prior condition as a condition of negotiation. Having heard Arab positions and stated our own, we should at an appropriate stage seek to bring our policies into compromise. Security arrangements and demilitarized areas can supplement the negotiated boundary agreement, without, of course, replacing it.

But for Israel the overriding element in the peace discussion is that of security. It is true that we have again come out successfully from a military assault, this time with every conceivable advantage on the other side - advantage in numbers, in quantity of weapons, in initiative and total surprise. But despite this success the mood in Israel is sombre, for we come up again and again against the predicament of human vulnerability. The losses sustained in 1973 compound the sacrifices of 1948 and 1956 and 1967 and all the attritions and infiltrations in between. And Israelis always contemplate these losses against the cruel background of the European holocaust, which took millions of our kinsmen away to their deaths. Now there is no other national experience even remotely similar to this. Too much of Jewish history is occupied by the simple ambition of being Jewish and yet staying alive, and usually this reconciliation has not been achieved. The only people to suffer such massive annihilation of its human resources and the only sovereign State to live for 25 years without a single month of peace - how does anyone expect such a people and such a State not to claim respect for a particularly intense concern for individual and collective survival.

The attainment of peace will make it possible to resolve the problem of refugees by co-operative regional action with international aid. We find it astonishing that States whose revenues from oil exports surpass 15,000 million dollars a year were not able to solve this problem in a spirit of kinship and human solidarity. In the very years when the Arab refugee problem was created by the assault on Israel in 1947 and 1948, 700,000 Jewish refugees from Arab and Moslem lands and from the debris of Hitler's Europe were received by Israel and integrated in full citizenship and economic dignity. There have been other such solutions in Europe, in the Indian sub-continent, in Africa. The Arab refugee problem is not basically intractable: it has been perpetuated by a conscious decision to perpetuate it. But surely a peace settlement will remove any political incentive which has prevented a solution in the past. At the appropriate stage Israel will define its contribution to an international and regional effort for refugees resettlement. We shall propose compensation for abandoned lands in the context of a general discussion on property abandoned by those who have left countries in the Middle East to seek a new life.

We declare our opposition to any explosive fragmentation of the area between three States in the region between the desert and the sea, where there are after all two nations, two languages, two cultures, and not three.

Israel's inability to state its case as clearly, boldly and unapologetically as Abba Eban did is one if its main deficiencies.