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The Day the General Came

In August 1997, while a research associate at the Watson Institute of International Studies, Brown University (Providence, RI), I was asked whether I would be willing to host an Israeli general named Baruch Spiegel who was coming to the United States on an official propaganda tour. As my views were well known, I was surprised to be asked and the colleague who asked me was surprised that I said yes. I was curious. I wanted to see what an Israeli general was like, and hoped to learn something from observing such a creature at close quarters.

The visit was scheduled for September 18. Spiegel was to give a lunchtime talk entitled “The Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations: Problems and Prospects.” Eynat Shlein-Michael, the Israeli consul to New England, would be driving Spiegel and his wife from Boston to Providence. I wondered whether the consul might be a distant relative of mine (the original maiden name of my mother being Shlein), but never got round to raising the matter with her. 

Spiegel was born in a Displaced Persons camp in Italy. He was one of those officers selected to hold responsible high-level positions following a period in academia. Here are his biographical data for the period 1986—1997:

1986—1988: head of IDF School for Non-Commissioned Officers

1988—1990: commander of Golani Infantry Brigade during the intifada (this unit had a reputation for brutality)

1991: B.A. in Political Science and Civil Management, University of Haifa

1992: M.A. in International Relations and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Haifa

1992—1995: as head of IDF Liaison Unit to Foreign Forces, led negotiations that resulted in signing of Peace Agreement between Israel and Jordan

1995—1997: as Deputy Coordinator of Government Activities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, led committees dealing with civilian, economic, and security negotiations with the Palestinians.

Spiegel was later to become an assistant to the defense minister and to supervise unpublished studies of the true extent of settler land grabs in the West Bank and the humanitarian impact of the Separation Wall. He retired in 2006.

Lunchtime discussion

An unusually large audience of 50—60 people gathered in our conference room. About half were university faculty and students, about half from the local community, mostly the local Jewish community. But there was no sign of the general. Then we received a call from the consul: she had got lost in the tangle of motorways around Boston (it really is very easy to get lost there) and promised to be with us soon. Suspecting that “soon” might not be all that soon, I decided to initiate a discussion among those present – partly in order to hold their interest and prevent them from drifting off, partly also for the value of the exercise itself.

I started by giving my own overview of the state of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Then I reverted to the role of chairman, concentrating on ensuring that everyone got a fair chance to speak. After half an hour there was another call from the consul, and I was able to pass on the good news that our guests were now confident they were headed in the right direction.

I was surprised that most contributions were so heated in their criticism of Israel. On reflection, I believe this was so not despite but because of the fact that those present were mostly Jewish, so critics did not feel they were “washing dirty linen in public.” I recall one speaker who said in reference to the latest Israeli invasion of Lebanon that “people who do such terrible things” had forfeited the right to be called Jews. 

One striking exchange was to have repercussions. Two of our students were discussing the character of the State of Israel. One argued that Israel was basically a theocratic state, while the other strongly disagreed and held that Israel was basically a racist state. Both had lived in Israel and were speaking from bitter experience. As most if not all of those who wanted to speak had already spoken, I let these two go back and forth for a while. I noticed that a man sitting alongside them – a columnist for Jewish Voice, the local Jewish newspaper – was getting agitated and kept looking in my direction. But he was not asking to speak; as I was to realize later, he wanted me to say something. Eventually he lost patience and told the two students that they didn’t know what they were talking about. “Well,” asked one, “what sort of state do you think Israel is?” “Israel is a democracy!” he expostulated.

Preliminary chat

The general finally arrived with his wife and the consul at about the time the meeting was scheduled to end. He and I were photographed shaking hands for the institute’s bulletin. At the same time, almost all of those who had come for the talk left. Later a few others, mostly students, were to wander in. I felt a sense of anticlimax. Spiegel announced that however small the audience he intended to give his talk as planned. But first they would have a snack.

During the intermission General Spiegel and Consul Shlein-Michael chatted. The consul noticed the dossier on the table in front of me. It contained reports that I had collected on human rights violations in the occupied territories. She asked to see it and I handed it to her. As she leafed through it, every now and then she frowned and drew the general’s attention to something in it. The expression on her face as she did so said: “Surely not?” and Spiegel replied with gestures that said: “Well, it’s possible.”

Apart from these silent exchanges, what were they chatting about? I recall two topics. One was the strengths and weaknesses of possible successors to Arafat as Palestinian leader (see below).

The other topic was the problems of acquiring and handling Palestinian informers. I gathered that each high-level military or civilian official built up his own personal network of informers: they worked for individuals rather than institutions. Actually, I could have learned as much from Emile Habiby’s novel The Secret Life of Saeed: The Pessoptimist, whose hero is an informer for an Israeli general. I was struck by the curious emotional tone of their talk about informers: a combination of embarrassment and excitement that in the context of sex talk would be called prurience. I thought to myself: “This is moral corruption”; “These people do not see how corrupt they have become”; and “Hannah Arendt was wrong to say that evil is banal.”

Here are my notes of the general’s prepared talk and the question and answer session that followed.      

Talk by General Baruch Spiegel

I coordinate negotiations and relations with the Palestinians across the board. Safe passage, ports, roads, people to people, etc. Despite all difficulties, the basis of relations remains a shared commitment to the Oslo Agreements. And the basis of Oslo is security cooperation. Without it crucial problems will arise and halt the process. In the places which Israel leaves the Palestinian police must assume responsibility.

For the first eight or nine months it seemed to be working. Joint patrols and Coordination and Liaison Units were operating throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Commanders talked together and solved problems together. The intermixing of settlers and Palestinians on the West Bank makes for plenty of problems. In the Gaza Strip they are more separated from one another.

Then came the terror attacks. These led to the policy of closure – to separate the two peoples, reduce tension, and give Israelis a feeling of security. Without closure people can move into and out of the West Bank. The Gaza Strip can be controlled, but in the West Bank there is no fence to mark the border, it’s all open. It is not so difficult for a suicide bomber to penetrate. We understand that closure creates unemployment among the Palestinians, and that works against peace, but we have no alternative. If they are strongly motivated, if they make greater efforts, they can stop the terrorists.

The strongest man in the West Bank is Rajoub [head of one of the PA security agencies]. He deals with us on a daily basis, trying to solve security problems, sometimes other kinds of problems. He is absolutely committed to peace. His older brother is a Hamas leader. That’s how it often is – in the same family one brother in Hamas, another in the police. A very fragile society.

Hamas is not just a terror organization. It is accepted as a party in several countries. It collects money from rich Palestinian and Arab businessmen to use for welfare, healthcare, and education. It competes with Fatah for popular support. There are extremists inside it, but they are hard to locate. Its infrastructure is very secret, impenetrable to Israel. Channels to the extremist elements can be opened up only in cooperation with the Palestinian leadership.

It is hard to say where the movement stops and the terror starts. In the mosques the Moslem rabbis [sic] make political speeches. They speak in Islamic terms and attack all non-Islamists. We can’t stop them. We don’t want to set off a religious conflict. But Israeli public opinion will not tolerate another terror attack. If it occurs, it will lead to a bigger clash, to complete deadlock. It will weaken Arafat.

So Arafat is under pressure from both sides – from Israel and from Hamas. Yes, he may lose the support of his people, but we cannot accept terror attacks.

We tried to form a profile of the typical suicide bomber. Our original stereotype was a youngster, 16 or 17 years old, his brothers killed or injured by the occupation, his father unemployed. He wants revenge. He is an easy target for a radical leader. Later we realized that a suicide bomber may also be a married man, 34—36 years old. He has a similar motivation. In other words, we are unable to identify any particular type as a potential suicide bomber.

There is a new generation of young Palestinian leaders, commanders at street level. They were active in the intifada. They spent 6—14 years in Israeli jails, and there they studied and became fluent in Hebrew, they studied Jewish and Israeli history, they know a lot about Zionism – more than the average Israeli. They learned not from Arab but from Israeli and English books. They are more open. They know us very well. They were my counterparts – in the intifada, in Lebanon. My friends killed many of them. I myself killed them. They know we won’t give up. They are ready to fight, and they are also ready to sit down with us and find a practical way, because they understand that the two peoples are closely integrated with one another.

We need more than coordination. We need cooperation. But for their older generation cooperation is synonymous with collaboration. Of course, every [Israeli] security element uses collaborators, but we need to develop cooperation on a symmetric basis. That is a very long-term process, with obstacles to be overcome, with ups and downs. But with the new generation of flexible and knowledgeable leaders there is a chance.

I am not speaking politically. I am not a politician. But everything is based on security, and with this new generation the psychological barriers are fewer. The alternative without dialogue will be worse.

Questions and answers

Q: If Israel lets the Palestinians have more land, will there be fewer terrorists?

General Spiegel: Land is the most important thing in an Arab’s life. If you take his land away, you destroy him. Thus the traumas of 1948 and 1967. He is ready to fight for land. When Israeli politicians take decisions on Har Homa, Jerusalem, etc., they should take the Palestinian reaction into account. The Israeli presence in the West Bank must be minimized.

But we and the Palestinians don’t agree which comes first. We say: first stop the terror and then we’ll give back the land. They say: first give back the land and then we’ll stop the terror. What is needed is a political solution.

[Someone else repeats the same question. This time Spiegel gives a different answer.]

Giving back land won’t change the motivation of the fanatics, because they don’t accept Israel as a state or the presence of non-Moslems in the area. They aim at a total solution.

Q: Is there anything Israel could do that would make a difference?

General Spiegel: Thank you for that question. [Pause] A major point in my briefing [before coming to the US for his lecture tour] was that I should explain our steps to develop the economic potential of the Palestinian territories – the Industrial Parks. The Industrial Parks are a microcosm of a new closure-proof system. By the beginning of 1998, there will be 12 factories in operation along the border with Gaza, providing 25,000—40,000 jobs. Thousands of workers are building the new industrial zone, to secure us a better future. The neighboring kibbutzim are also building industry on adjacent land [on the Israeli side of the border] that will complement the industry on the Palestinian side. The system will be developed in the West Bank too. Despite deadlock elsewhere, both sides are fully committed to this project because it answers to a real need. [Note. These plans have not been abandoned, but progress has been much slower than Spiegel predicted.]

Shenfield: You avoided political questions. What difference has the Netanyahu government made to the situation? And isn’t there a problem of terror and provocations on the Israeli side as well?

General Spiegel: I see a chance with the new generation. Among the older generation there is no one who can replace Arafat. Should something happen to Arafat, there is no alternative leader available whom the Palestinians will accept. [Note. There were reports at the time that ruling US and Israeli circles were considering the possibility of assassinating Arafat.] It will be terrible for the Palestinians. The new young leaders are much more open and flexible, but they are not ready, we have to wait for them.

Shenfield: You were asked two questions and answered neither of them. First, about the Netanyahu government.

General Spiegel: No, I can’t comment.

Shenfield: And second, about terror on the Israeli side. There are numerous reports by human rights organizations about acts of brutality committed by Israeli soldiers, border police, and settlers against Palestinian civilians. Not only the famous cases, like Baruch Goldstein, but also lesser-known ones. Palestinian workers beaten up by the border police. Or this report of the beating and rape of a young boy in Hebron by two officers [I hold up a printout of an article by Mark Frey, “Israelis Beat and Rape Palestinian Youth in Hebron,” Mid-East Realities, 9/3/1997]

Consul Shlein-Michael: Can I see that please? We haven’t seen that one. [I pass her the report and she starts reading it immediately.]

Shenfield: And such cases are rarely prosecuted, and even when they are the courts are very lenient, the perpetrators are soon released.

General Spiegel: Yes. All you say is true. And I can’t tell you that tomorrow it will stop. This is the price of the long occupation. We deal with it very seriously, by legal means and at leadership level. We must overcome double standards and make the same effort against Jewish terrorists as we make against Palestinian terrorists. We have psychological difficulties because they are our own people. Arafat must have the same difficulties.

The new model – the industrial parks – will help. The main points of conflict and friction are the passages [between the two sides]. Remove the soldiers from the biggest passages, civilianize and privatize them.

[Someone asks a question about closure.]

General Spiegel: It’s a dilemma for us. If there is terror, you have to close, to prevent clashes between the tens of thousands of fanatics on each side. First we must separate the two peoples [for all the world as though the IDF were a neutral UN peacekeeping force!—SS].

Q: Speaking as a military commander, which security threat would you prefer to have to deal with – that posed by the present situation or the threat that would be posed by a Palestinian state?

General Spiegel: It’s a dilemma for us. If I have to go into Nablus to make an arrest, I don’t want to be shot by a Palestinian policeman or soldier armed with a Kalashnikov. If it were to be a state with missiles, Katyushas and so on that would be a threat, but the agreement allows only light weapons. If we lose control, it could be a very big threat. It bothers us very much. [This is incomplete because as I was trying to take notes the consul kept whispering to me that it was time to bring the meeting to an end. Afterward I asked the questioner how he had understood the gist of the reply, but he couldn’t say.]  

Consul Shlein-Michael [handing back the MER report]: I don’t believe it. I know terrible things happen, but that two Israeli officers should take a boy... Israel isn’t a politically correct society. There is a strong stigma on homosexual relations. So I don’t find it credible.

Two calls

But it was time for the general and his companions to set out on the return trek to Boston. No sooner was I back in my office than I had a call from the Jewish Voice columnist. He was unhappy with how the lunchtime discussion had gone. There was an anti-Israel atmosphere that he and others found intimidating. It reminded him of the 1960s. “So that’s what the 1960s were like,” I thought to myself. (I went to a conformist college and so missed out on the campus protests of the 1960s.) He was particularly incensed by the two students who had called Israel a theocratic or racist state and by my failure, as the faculty member responsible for the event, to rebuke them.

It was apparently this incident that led the columnist and certain other local Zionists to conclude that I was not a suitable person to occupy a position on the university faculty and to set up a “secret” working group to get me fired. Not, at least initially, for anything I had said myself, but for failing to maintain proper ideological control over our students.

The phone rang again. It was the institute director asking me to come see him. He explained that unfortunately he had been unable to attend General Spiegel’s talk, but in view of the highly sensitive nature of the topic he had asked three individuals – a senior faculty colleague, a junior colleague, and a graduate student – to report back to him on what had transpired. (He too had his network of informers!) He had heard their reports and he was pleased to tell me that they were all most impressed with my efforts to hold the audience together. It was not clear to me whether any of the three spies had been among those who stayed on for the talk itself, but I saw no advantage in raising the question.

Should I have agreed to host General Spiegel?

An Egyptian friend who taught Arabic literature at the university was angry with me when he saw the photo of me shaking hands with Spiegel, though he changed his attitude following the intercession of mutual friends. So should I have agreed to host General Spiegel?

As propaganda Spiegel’s visit to Brown University was surely quite ineffective. For one thing, there was ample opportunity to challenge him. For another, he is a relatively honest and straightforward man and therefore a poor propagandist. If propaganda can be defeated as propaganda (that is, as manipulative pseudo-communication), thereby opening up a possibility of communication, it is surely worth a try. I am reluctant to close off even narrow channels of communication. That is why I am uneasy about academic (as distinct from economic) boycotts. 

Should we attribute any special political meaning to being willing to meet someone and shake hands? I think it depends on the cultural context. In cultures like the Arab or Chinese that shrink from face-to-face confrontation, meeting an opponent, especially a more powerful opponent, puts you on a slippery path leading ineluctably to capitulation. Under those circumstances refusing to meet is essential to preserving your dignity and integrity. But if you can steel yourself to be harsh, wary, and unfriendly, then meeting is not so dangerous.

Outcome of my case

I intended this piece as an account of what happened on one particular day, but perhaps I should satisfy the reader’s curiosity about the outcome of my case. A delegation of local Zionists, claiming to represent a concerned Jewish community (though one local Jewish woman assured me that they did not represent her), met with the institute director. Although the meeting was about me, I was not invited but only learned of it afterward when I received a copy of a memo about the matter from the director.

On the one hand, I was relieved to see that I was not being fired. On the other hand, I found various aspects of the memo disconcerting. The director made no reference to such principles as academic freedom or freedom of speech. (That I expected him to do so reflected my naivety at that time regarding American democracy and civil rights.) Instead of disputing the objective validity of the very concept of “extremism,” he defended me on the grounds that I was not really as “extremist” as they thought I was. It was all a misunderstanding. Moreover, I was to blame for the misunderstanding because I had not expressed myself in appropriate academic language. I was urged to correct this fault.

I have long taken the view that at least in the social sciences the technical jargon used by academics is superfluous. I have taken pride in explaining ideas in language that non-academics can understand. Now I was being told: say whatever you like, but don’t say it in a way that outsiders can understand because that only leads to trouble. As I see no point in addressing a narrow circle of like-minded academics, I stopped talking about Israel/Palestine and refocused on my main area of expertise (the post-Soviet region). 

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