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Israelis & Palestinians: What Went Wrong?


In a letter he wrote shortly before his death in 1904, at the early age of forty-four, Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, admonished his successor: “Macht keine Dummheiten während ich tot bin.” (Don’t make any stupid mistakes while I’m dead.) It was a tongue-in-cheek remark and I am citing it only because of all other nineteenth-century attempts to found new nation-states, Herzl’s was undoubtedly the most unusual and certainly one of the most difficult. If there was ever a national project which because of its complexity and uncertainty of success could ill-afford Dummheiten, it was Herzl’s.

Zionism was a national project unlike any other in Europe or overseas. It involved colonizing without a mother country and without the support of state power. A difficult task, to say the least, in an arid country without natural resources, without financial attractions. One of Herzl’s friends asked Cecil Rhodes, the great British imperialist, for his advice. Rhodes answered: “Tell Dr. Herzl to put money in his pocket.” Herzl scarcely had any money. “The secret I keep from everybody,” he wrote, “is the fact that I am at the head only of a movement of beggars and fools” (Schnorrer und Narren). The rich, with very few exceptions, opposed his scheme. The early settlers were mostly penniless idealists, social anarchists, Narodniks, practicing a bizarre “religion of hard labor.” Ninety percent of those who arrived in Palestine between 1904 and 1914 returned to Europe or wandered on to America.

Other nationalisms aimed at liberating subjugated peoples who spoke the same language and lived in the same territory. The Zionists, by contrast, called on Jews living in dozens of countries, speaking dozens of different languages, to settle far away in a remote, neglected province of the Ottoman Empire, where their ancestors had lived thousands of years before but which was now inhabited by another people with their own language and religion, a people—moreover—in the first throes of their own national revival and, for this reason, opposed to the Jewish project as a dangerous intrusion.

One of Herzl’s closest associates is said to have come running to him one day, exclaiming: “But there are Arabs in Palestine! I didn’t know that!” The story may well be apocryphal but it sums up, as such stories often do, the central facts of the case. In his answer, if there was any, Herzl would not have made an appeal to “historical rights,” as many others did and still do to this day. He didn’t believe in “historical rights” and he was too well informed not to know the damage that had been done by the quest for such rights during the nineteenth century by Germans, French, and Austrians, as well as in the Balkans, to name only a few examples. But he had an almost uncanny premonition of the dark period ahead. He was sure there were powerful historical currents that would justify the Zionist cause, a confidence that was fully vindicated by later events.

With so many seemingly insurmountable difficulties, it is remarkable how few stupid errors the Zionist leaders made. Fifty years after Herzl’s death in 1904 they were still rare and the damage they caused was not fatal or irreparable. The Zionist project was led by sober men, experienced in the ways of Europe and the world, unwilling to take undue risks; with the exception of a handful, whom Chaim Weizmann, the eminently rational Zionist leader in the interwar years, called disparagingly “our own D’Annunzios,” they were reluctant to overplay their hand. They realized that they were conducting an unusual enterprise which in some ways ran counter to the basic trend of world events. Confronted with a mainly hostile Arab population, they wracked their brains to come up with compromises, binational solutions, and partition plans, even when they were damaging to the Zionists, as with several proposals for partition mooted over the years, which they accepted but the Arabs declined.

When you look at the maps outlining these partition plans in the 1930s and 1940s, with their contorted borderlines, narrow corridors, and British or international enclaves—the last was the UN partition resolution of 1947—you get the impression of two antagonists locked in a deadly embrace. By 1948, the British threw up their hands and quit the scene. But when, on the day they finally sailed away, the Jews declared an independent state in their part of the country, it was readily recognized by most nations, after a while even by Britain. Israel was admired for successfully defeating a combined attack by the regular armies of three neighboring Arab states.

The new state was still led by the same cautious leaders, though they were getting older. Their practical frame of mind made these men recognize their limits. They were not easily intoxicated by the recent victory of their ragged army. They usually knew the difference between force and power. The then prime minister David Ben-Gurion has since been accused of further exacerbating the Palestinian tragedy during the war—with fateful consequences later on—by authorizing his generals to expel perhaps 100,000 innocent villagers and townspeople, in addition to the approximately 500,000 who had fled the battle zones earlier during the war to seek refuge in the West Bank and the neighboring Arab countries.

And yet Ben-Gurion can hardly be faulted for his caution after the war. He firmly resisted the urgings of brash, young generals to seize the rest of the country, later known as the West Bank, which made up about 22 percent of the former Palestine, including the Old City of Jerusalem with its holy places. What is now the West Bank had been annexed by the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan according to a tacit agreement with the Jewish state. The prime minister had reason to hope at that time that a formal peace treaty would now become possible with Abdullah, the Jordanian king, with whom he had remained in discreet contact throughout the war. Ben-Gurion preferred legitimacy to real estate, even if that real estate included the Wailing Wall and other historical and sacred sites. It was a memorable decision, in the tradition of some of the wisest nineteenth-century European statesmen.

His caution did not lead to peace. The Jordanian king was assassinated by a religious fanatic. But nevertheless it paid off. Postwar Europe was guilt-ridden and contrite over the anti-Semitism of its past. For two decades, support for Israel became virtually a matter of piety in Europe. Except in Britain, the 1948 armistice lines were widely regarded in Europe and America as sacrosanct, much like the post-war partition of Europe between the Western powers and the Soviet Union. The Arabs, of course, rejected them. But it is instructive to compare attitudes in the West toward Israel’s post-1948 borders with attitudes thirty years later to Israel’s de facto borders following the 1967 war. Not even Stalin, during his last years of anti-Semitic paranoia, suggested that Israel withdraw from the 1949 armistice lines to the much narrower confines of the original UN partition plan. Nor did Stalin’s successors in the Kremlin.

The Fifties and Sixties were the age of decolonization. Stalin and his successors endorsed nearly all anticolonial movements (except, of course, within their own far-flung Asian and European empire). They denounced Israel as a lackey of American capitalism but not as a colonialist power. Many of the newly independent, former colonial peoples favored close relations with Israel even as they condemned other settler states like Kenya, South Africa, or Algeria. The far left in Italy and France was by and large free of the anti-Israel rhetoric that became familiar after 1967. Enrico Berlinguer, the Italian Communist leader, said that Israel was a special case. In a just and rational world, he said, it might have made more “sense” and would have even been more “just” if Israel had been established, say, in Bavaria, or in East Prussia, as Lord Moyne, the British war cabinet minister had suggested, mainly for the sake of argument. Alas, Berlinguer added, we are not living in a wholly rational world.

The establishment of Israel was widely recognized at the time as perhaps the inevitable, even legitimate, result of a war that the Jews had neither started nor provoked; above all it was seen as a legitimate haven for Holocaust survivors and DPs who, in most cases, refused to go back to Poland or Germany. Having been rejected in their former homelands, many of them wanted to go to Israel and only to Israel. The resettlement of more than 600,000 Palestinian refugees was seen as a primarily humanitarian task, not as a political strategy. (Some had been expelled by Israel; most had fled their villages, as villagers in battle zones often do, and had sought temporary refuge in the Arab countries.) Israel was expected to assume much of the responsibility for their future, physically and financially, in the event of peace, and rightly so; after all, the Palestinians were not responsible for the crimes of Europe, but in the end they were punished for these crimes.

The neighboring Arab countries were expected to help and to absorb Palestinian refugees. Many in the West held them at least partly responsible for the consequences of a war they had launched in 1948 to undo a UN resolution. Americans, Europeans—and even the Soviet Union—urged the Arab countries to make peace with Israel on the basis of the postwar territorial status quo. In the UN Security Council, the American delegate, Warren Austin, pounded the table, saying the American government believed that it was high time for the Jews and the Arabs to get together and finally resolve their problems in a truly Christian spirit.


The 1967 war was the great watershed. It interrupted a decade of gradual détente between Israel and Egypt, which had raised hopes that the conflict between Israel and the Arabs might be resolved, at least partially. Though the Suez Canal remained closed to Israeli ships, they could, after 1956, move freely through the Straits of Tiran. Trade with the Far East and oil from the Iranian oil fields flowed freely to the southernmost Israeli port of Elath. Israel was at first praised in the West for scoring a spectacular victory in a war largely provoked by the bizarre miscalculations of the Egyptian and Syrian rulers, partly also by a clumsy Soviet diplomat who encouraged Egypt and Syria to threaten Israel and who soon afterward disappeared, perhaps in the gulag. (I remember chatting with a German military attaché at a party who pressed my hand and barely let go of it, saying, “This was just as Field Marshal Rommel would have done if he had had his way….”) We now know that it was a Pyrrhic victory. The war changed not only Israel’s position in the region, but even more so its self-image. Israel, which, in Isaiah Berlin’s words, had always had “more history than geography,” now suddenly had both. For the first time, at least in theory, it had enough territory to exchange for peace.

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