As chairman of the Knesset’s key foreign affairs committee, Israel’s Abba Eban, 70, is a particularly well-placed observer of the entire spectrum of Middle Eastern affairs. A member of the Labour Party, Eban was foreign minister under Golda Meir and before that he served as Israel’s envoy to the United Nations. During a private visit to Toronto late last month he was interviewed by Maclean’s Foreign Editor Michael Posner:
Maclean’s: What are the consequences of the Achille Lauro hijacking?
Eban: Well, the significance lies chiefly in the success of the American operation: although there is always room for an antiterrorist success, there is a special need for an American antiterrorist success. The United States in its combat with terrorism was surrounded by an air of failure and fiasco and impotence —from the humiliation of Tehran five years ago to the disaster in Beirut, where 240 U.S. Marines were killed by a terrorist in a truck bomb. This had international significance, because the United States has such a central place in
the stability of the international order. It appeared to give an impression of weakness, a vast gulf between Washington’s rhetoric and its implementation. It created a kind of disequilibrium on the East-West level. From that point of view the symbolic and psychological results of this success are important beyond the immediate context.
Maclean’s: Does the American action not perpetuate the cycle of terrorism? Is it a setback to the entire peace process? Eban: Everything must be compared to the alternative, and if the alternative to resistance to terrorism is nonresistance to terrorism, the latter could be catastrophic. The terrorists have their way much too often. And if they were to go on getting their way in the sense of their operations not being resisted, they would think that they could get their way in terms of their political demands. The fact is that the PLO also failed in the image sense. People are seeing PLO chairman Yasser Arafat, this man Abúl Abbas, the alleged ringleader of the hijacking operation, and other people in a more derogatory way than a few weeks ago. And that strengthens the position of moderate Arab leaders—Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Jordan’s King Hussein—and might make them a little more concerned about going on with negotiations with Israel. The most illogical conclusion is that because of all
this, we cannot negotiate. My opinion is that we can: the intensity of the illness equals the urgency of the remedy. Maclean’s: Was Mubarak in collusion with the Americans? Was his orchestration of anger designed to distance himself publicly from them ?
Eban: I do not believe that is the case. I think that the United States decided for security reasons to act alone. People who weigh up the pros and cons must have said there would be a flurry if Egypt’s flag were violated. On the other hand, Egypt has not earned much credit with Mubarak’s really undistinguished appearance on television, when he said that he did not know where the hijackers were. Also, before that, there was the morally disturbing episode in Sinai in which seven Israelis were killed, and doctors said that if they had had prompt medical attention four or five of them would be alive. Unlike what our own governments would have done, in Egypt, there has been no kind of inquiry or disciplinary action—or even an explanation to the injured parties. Mubarak may be carrying deference to his radical militant opinion rather further than is objectively necessary.
Maclean’s: But if the hijacking has left the PLO discredited as a potential negotiating partner, does that free King Hussein of the 197Jf pan-Arab decision that the PLO is the sole legitimate spokesman for Palestinians?
Eban: Well, that is the great question, because during this past year Hussein has really entered the picture very dynamically, saying indirectly that this is the last chance to try to negotiate a settlement which will lead to some disengagement of Israel from the West Bank and Gaza; that options which are open now might not be open a year from now; that in the absence of movement there will be radicalization on the Arab side, which means terrorism, and on the Israeli side, religious and political fundamentalism on the outer fringe of Israeli politics. Hussein has made very big efforts to bring Arafat into the negotiating environment. He got him to agree that the Palestine problem must be solved in a Jordanian context. But Hussein gives the impression now that if Arafat will not move beyond that agreement and talk with Israel, then he will find some West Bankers who will—because one has to move.
Maclean’s: Assuming Arafat’s participation, what are other obstacles to sitting down at the peace table?
Eban: The idea of negotiation has been accepted. The unresolved questions were: who represents the international interests? And what about Palestinian representation? The first one is not insoluble because [Israeli Prime Minister] Shimon Peres has said that if the Soviet Union wants an active role, it should
renew diplomatie relations with Israel so as to put itself in equality with the protagonists. I think the Soviets would probably not have done that, would have acquiesced in their own exclusion, as they have in the past. But we will have made the gesture. It is important to point out that we do not exclude, they exclude themselves. And then perhaps the permanent members of the UN Security Council would pass a resolution advocating direct negotiations and then leave the field to the parties.
Maclean’s: And who represents the Palestinians?
Eban: That is more difficult. At one stage, Hussein came up with a list of Palestinian representatives, and two of them were authenticated by Peres. My feeling is that was the time to move quickly, because if two are eligible there must be four and if four then eight. How many do you need, anyway? In other words, find out if they are personally eligible by reason of not having been active terrorists.
Maclean’s: Were you—and was Hussein—convinced of the PLO'S sincerity? Eban: The PLO undercut Hussein all the time. U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz put it very well when he said the Palestinians must decide how they want to achieve their interests—by revolutionary violence or by negotiation. Arafat gave a rather original answer. He said: ‘Both. Simultaneously.’ That’s a little outrageous. Because while he was involved with Hussein and Mubarak in negotiating, he became enamored personally of these terrorist actions. The Larnaca incident, in Cyprus [in which three Israeli tourists were shot on Sept. 25] was quite clearly the work of the PLO’s Force 17 [elite commando squad]. As well, the appearance of Abul Abbas in the Achille Lauro hijacking leads very squarely to Arafat; Syrian hostility to Abbas proves that they regard him as an Arafat man.
Maclean’s: Why then did the hijackers take the ship to Syria?
Eban: It is very hard to say. I think they lost their nerve. But the significant factor is that the Syrians did not acknowledge these people were theirs. The second failure is this episode in London with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to try to form a JordanianPalestinian delegation. The deal was that before they were received in London these two PLO members were to agree to make a statement about the legitimacy of Israel.
Maclean’s: What is the next step in the peace process?
Eban: Well, we must see what will happen. If you’re a Palestinian pragmatist, you must say, this has gone on for 18 years. Is it to endure another 18 years? Life expectancy doesn’t consist of an indefinite number of 18 years.
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