Obituary: Professor Yehoshafat Harkabi

Avi Shlaim
Tuesday 13 September 1994 23:02

Yehoshafat Harkabi, strategist: born Haifa 21 September 1921; served IDF 1948-59, Deputy and Chief of IDF Intelligence Branch 1950-59; Deputy Director General, Prime Minister's Office 1962; Head of Strategic Research, Ministry of Defence 1963-68; Senior Lecturer, Hebrew University of Jerusalem 1968-73, Associate Professor 1973-78, Professor of International Relations and Middle Eastern Studies 1978-89 (Emeritus), Director, Leonard Davis Institute for International Relations 1983-89; married (one son and one daughter); died Jerusalem 26 August 1994.

YEHOSHAFAT HARKABI was a distinguished strategist and one of the world's foremost authorities on the Arab-Israeli conflict. His career as a soldier and a scholar spanned the first four and a half decades in Israel's history and his writings illuminate the existential dilemma of Jewish survival in an uncommonly harsh and hostile regional environment.

Yehoshafat Harkabi was born in Haifa in 1921 and studied Philosophy, Arabic Literature and Modern History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. As a student he was active in the Haganah, in 1943 he volunteered for the Jewish Brigade in the British Army, and during the 1948 war of independence he commanded a company of students in Jerusalem. After the war he served as a liaison officer between the Foreign Ministry and the Ministry of Defence and as a young major he participated in the Rhodes armistice negotiations and in the secret talks with King Abdullah of Jordan.

For nearly a year Harkabi was private secretary to the Foreign Minister, Moshe Sharett, but the army claimed him back. He was appointed Deputy Director of Military Intelligence in charge of research in 1950 and in 1955 he became the Director and was promoted to the rank of major- general. In this capacity he helped to forge the alliance with France which culminated in the Suez war against Egypt. In 1959 Harkabi left the army in the wake of a mismanaged mobilisation exercise and went to Harvard University where he gained a Masters in public administration. On his return he was appointed deputy director of the Prime Minister's office and later given charge of strategic research in the Ministry of Defence. During this period he wrote his book Nuclear War and Nuclear Peace (1966) and submitted a doctoral thesis on the Arab position in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

In 1968 Harkabi joined the Hebrew University of Jerusalem where he climbed the academic ladder to become in 1978 Professor and head of the Department of International Relations and Director of the Leonard Davis Institute of International Relations. In 1975 he was seconded to serve as Assistant for Strategic Policy to the Minister of Defence and in 1977, after the Likud's rise to power, he became Intelligence Adviser to the Prime Minister, Menachem Begin. In his first memorandum to Begin, Harkabi wrote that Israeli control over the West Bank could not be maintained indefinitely. Not surprisingly, the association between the two men proved short-lived.

A prolific writer, Harkabi was also in great demand as a lecturer in Israel and abroad. He retired from the Hebrew University in 1989 but continued to teach a course on war and strategy in the National Defence College where he was widely regarded as the Israeli equivalent to Carl von Clausewitz. In 1993 Harkabi was awarded the highly prestigious Israel Prize in Political Science.

In the course of his distinguished academic career, Harkabi published over 20 books and pamphlets and countless articles in the field of strategic studies in general and the Arab-Israeli conflict in particular. He made a significant contribution to teaching and research on strategic studies in Israel and published an important treatise on War and Strategy (1990) which was based on his lectures in the National Defence College. But his most original and most important contribution was to the study of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

On the Arab-Israeli conflict Harkabi's views underwent a remarkable transformation from the hawkish to the dovish end of the spectrum. The book that established his reputation as a leading hawk was Arab Attitudes to Israel (1971). In this book Harkabi explored the emotional, cultural, ideological and religious sources of Arab hatred for the Jews and Israel. Arab hostility towards Israel, he claimed, was implacable and unalterable, giving rise to two principal aims: genocide and the destruction of the Israeli polity. Since the Arab position in the conflict was totally intransigent, Israel had no choice but to stand up and fight. Harkabi's reputation as a hawk was buttressed by later publications such as Arab Strategies and Israel's Response (1977) and The Palestinian Covenant and its Meaning (1979).

Anwar Sadat's visit to Jerusalem in 1977 took Harkabi by complete surprise. But he had the intellectual honesty to admit that this manifestation of Arab flexibility could not be accounted for in terms of his earlier analysis. Moreover, since the Arab position in the conflict was beginning to soften, Israel had to respond in kind. Lest he be seen as going soft, the former general took to describing himself as a Machiavellian dove. In other words, he advocated territorial compromise not in order to appear reasonable but because such a position would best serve Israel's own interests.

Ironically, as Harkabi observed, just as the Arab position was becoming more moderate, the Israeli position under the right-wing Likud government was becoming more intransigent, at least as far as the West Bank was concerned. Viewing the Palestinian problem as the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict, he became increasingly frustrated with the Likud's refusal to concede any political rights to the other party. In Israel's Fateful Decisions (1988) Harkabi launched a blistering attack on the ideological mindset of the proponents of Greater Israel and on the expansionist policies of the Begin and Shamir governments. Instead of the policy of not yielding an inch, and waiting for the Palestinians to surrender, he advocated negotiations with the PLO to establish an independent Palestinian state. The book aroused considerable interest and made a modest contribution to the changing climate of opinion which culminated in Labour's victory over the Likud in the 1992 elections.

Yehoshafat Harkabi, affectionately known as 'Fati', was diminutive in physical stature but had a powerful and some found intimidating presence. He was an intensely serious man, with a lively and fertile mind, who grappled ceaselessly with big issues. But behind the forbidding exterior there was an unassuming, thoughtful and charming individual with many endearing qualities, including a dry sense of humour and the ability to laugh at himself.

The loss of a friend and colleague is always sad, but the loss of a scholar of Harkabi's stature has a further dimension. Scholars take many years to accumulate knowledge, to mature and to distil wisdom from their learning. Harkabi was an unusual scholar because he moved so freely and continuously between the world of action and the world of ideas, and because he had the courage to speak truth to power. His death thus represents a national loss to the country which he served with such dedication and unswerving loyalty both as a soldier and as a scholar.

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