‘Transfer’ Notion Gets Public Debate : Talk of Moving Arabs Out No Longer Taboo in Israel

Times Staff Writer

Despite uncomfortable parallels to tragic episodes in Jewish history, proposals to somehow remove the Arab population from land occupied by Israel are creeping from the fringes of Israeli political discourse into mainstream arenas of public debate.

In Israel, the notion of Arab deportation is known as “transfer.” The idea has become current in the wake of the nine-month Arab uprising against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The prolonged clash has convinced more than a few Israelis that coexisting with Palestinians in the occupied lands is impossible.

Neither Labor nor Likud, the two major parties competing in forthcoming Israeli elections, embraces “transfer.” But the once unmentionable--and still often harshly criticized--proposal is no longer taboo.

Also, some politicians and political movements that never use the word “transfer” seem to take positions that point toward it as a solution: worries expressed over a rapid increase in the Arab population and calls for mass deportation of Arabs engaged in the uprising.


“It is far from certain that the proponents of ‘transfer’ will get a lot of votes in the elections. But the idea is certainly getting a lot of comment,” said Shaul Ramati, a former Israeli diplomat.

In Washington earlier this month, the concept of “transfer” attracted a rare expression of American concern. During a speech, Secretary of State George P. Shultz said that the United States would “oppose vigorously” the transfer of Arabs from occupied lands.

A year ago, the idea of “transfer” was espoused mainly by Meir Kahane, an American-born rabbi whose Kach movement is widely dismissed in Israel as racist.

But as the Arab uprising continues, even an occasional mainstream politician has proposed the idea. Not long ago Michael Dekel, the deputy defense minister and a senior member of the Likud, spoke in favor of “transfer,” while Yosef Shapira, an official of the National Religious Party and a minister without portfolio in the government, called for a payment of $20,000 to any Arab who would voluntarily leave the West Bank or Gaza Strip.


The guru of “transfer” is Rehavim Zeevi, a flamboyant retired Israeli army general who has formed a splinter movement called the Faithful of the Israeli Homeland. He says that for Israel to be sound, Palestinians must be persuaded to leave the occupied lands and Arab governments must be persuaded to accept them.

‘Homogenous Country’

“We must define our national Zionist goal to arrive at Greater Israel, clean, with Jews--erase ‘clean,’ it’s not a good word--a homogenous country, a Jewish country, so we won’t have a big minority in our rear,” he explained.

Zeevi was a senior military commander for 20 years, and from 1974 to 1977 he was an adviser to then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. He asserts that by rejecting “transfer,” the major parties are ignoring reality.


Likud favors holding onto the land while retaining its inhabitants. Labor suggests that at least some of the land must be returned to Arab control in return for peace and to reduce the growing Arab population under Israel’s control.

Zeevi counters that “peace between Israel and the Arab world will be achieved by a separation of the two peoples. The people of Israel in the land of Israel and the Arabs in Arab countries. In a word, ‘transfer.’ ”

During an interview at his home in Ramat Hasharon, a town of neat ranch-style homes north of Tel Aviv, Zeevi argued that a peace treaty between Israel and Arab countries or even the Palestine Liberation Organization will fail to bring calm unless the Arabs are removed from the occupied territories. “There still would remain many radical factions . . . (that) will keep stabbing at us with acts of terror.”

Zeevi, 62, compares the idea of “transfer” to an Israeli changing his place of work inside Israel for economic reasons. He also characterized the program as humane. “We are not saying that we have to take (the Arabs) and put them on trucks and tell them to go,” Zeevi said. “We say that we must make an arrangement between governments. Where are we sending them? To a country where their religion is the same, where the language is the same, where the culture is the same. It upsets me when they present the subject of ‘transfer’ on (Israeli) television and mention trucks. Why trucks? Maybe they’ll leave in Cadillacs or Boeings.”


Zeevi has attempted to bolster his arguments by claiming that “transfer” had been a position of Jewish leaders from the early days of the Zionist movement.

His contentions have set off something of a historical debate in Israel. Shabtai Teveth, author of an important biography of David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, accuses Zeevi of selectively recalling history.

The expulsion of Arabs during warfare, Teveth argued, was a byproduct of violence, not the effect of a deliberate policy. “One cannot compare what happened during war with (a policy of) transfer,” he said.

“Transfer” has been attacked by many who consider it an echo of Nazi treatment of Jews in Germany before and during World War II. Indeed, critics point out, Jews have been victims of “transfer” policies for hundreds of years, from the time of the Babylonian Captivity (the exile of the Jews in 597 BC) through the Spanish Inquisition to the Holocaust.


“Things have changed rapidly during this year,” lamented Haim Baram, a columnist in the Jerusalem Post, a pro-Labor English language newspaper. “A mere 12 months ago, the neo-Nazi idea of forcibly deporting thousands of Palestinians from their homeland seemed monstrous to most reasonable Israelis.”

The Nov. 1 general elections will show how much weight Zeevi--or for that matter, Kahane--carry with Israel’s population. Polls seem inconclusive; one found that 41% of the population favored “transfer,” but the same survey said that half the respondents were willing to accept talks with the hated PLO if it only renounced terror and recognized Israel.