• Email
  • Print

The Road to Nowhere’: An Exchange

To the Editors:
Pontius Pilate? As a card-carrying member of what Tony Judt calls in his “The Road to Nowhere” [NYR, May 9] Israel’s “liberal intelligentsia, who, Pilate-like, have washed their hands of responsibility,” I was deeply saddened by his piece. Not because I disagree with what he writes about the terrible consequences of Sharon’s current policies, but because for a historian of his stature, his article is totally decontextualized.

A Martian landing on Planet Earth and reading Judt’s article would imagine that Israel has attacked the Palestinians totally out of the blue. Yes, he makes the obligatory reference to suicide bombers: but what Judt never mentions, and our Martian would never learn from him, is that there was, in the summer and autumn of 2000, a unique opportunity at Camp David for Arafat to achieve Palestinian statehood, sovereignty, and independence. But like the mufti of Jerusalem, faced in 1947 with the UN partition plan, Arafat missed a historical opportunity of achieving what would have been a decent compromise. Obviously, such a compromise would not satisfy all of the Palestinians’ demands: but it would put an end to most of the consequences of 1967.

There are obvious disagreements about the details of what happened at Camp David. But even the Palestinians’ best friends are at a loss to explain why the only counterproposal Arafat could come up with was the insistence on the right of 1948 Palestinian refugees to return to Israel. Practically for all Israelis, including the left, this was analogous to what the response would be if in 1990 a German chancellor would make normalization of relations of a reunified Germany with Poland and Czechoslovakia dependent on the right of return of 12 million ethnic Germans expelled from these countries after 1945.

It was because of Arafat’s nyet that Barak lost the February 2001 election; and it was Arafat’s call for a jihad and his at best ambivalent attitude to terror and suicide bombings that Sharon now enjoys something like a 70 percent approval rate in Israel—including from people who will never vote for him. It is really to Arafat and the present policies of the Palestinian Authority that Sharon owes his position as prime minister and his current popularity. When suicide bombers receive official state burial by the Palestinian Authority, with a Palestinian police guard of honor, are declared national heroes and their biographies are taught in Palestinian schools as role models—what exactly should the liberal intelligentsia’s politically correct response be?

All this does not justify many aspects of Israel’s actions. But to represent the Israeli incursions into the West Bank, brutal as they are, without this context is tantamount to criticizing Bush and the US for bombing and invading Afghanistan—without mentioning September 11. Some unreconstructed old-style anti-imperialists may still do this, but I would have expected higher historical—and moral—standards from a scholar of Tony Judt’s stature.

Shlomo Avineri
Herbert Samuel Professor of Political Science
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

To the Editors:

It would be hard to believe the insanities of Judt’s latest article if one were not already familiar with them. It’s just another rehash of the endless anti-Israel and anti-Jewish propaganda of the European left (and some of the American left). Instead of offering your readers such analyses as this, would it not be simpler just to use the press releases helpfully supplied by the PLO propaganda office? We hear again that Israel is a “colonial” power (a particularly mindless perversion of well-known historical facts). Sharon is responsible for the “impasse” in the “peace process,” for the terrorist campaigns, for the murder of moderate Palestinians by the PLO, and even (for God’s sake) for creating anti-Jewish sentiment in the Arab world.

The real problem is Sharon’s “obsession” with Arafat, which is like saying the real problem in World War II was Churchill’s obsession with Hitler. Sharon’s demands that Palestinians, as a prerequisite for negotiations, stop blowing up Jewish civilians for a while are all “cynical” because we all know Palestinians have the right to kill and maim as many Jewish children as they wish and while the bombs are exploding the Jews must be forced to give the murderers whatever they want and never, ever, under any circumstances defend themselves, because that’s what a peace process is. What’s wrong with the fool Sharon that he can’t see that? We all know the Jews are responsible for the wrecking of the peace plan (in reality it was the Jews who offered it and Arafat who wrecked it, but that doesn’t matter, Judt’s “icy clarity” can see right through such facile appearances). We all know there is no such thing as “terrorism”—there is no moral difference between those who maim children and those who try to stop it. It follows, of course, that there is no difference between al-Qaeda and the United States. I quite agree with that. If we have a right to defend ourselves against what happened on 9/11, then Israel has a right to defend itself against Palestinian terrorists. I think it is clear whose side Judt is on.

Bush must resume “serious efforts to find peace” like Clinton did. (Translation: Bush must resume the fraudulent “peace process,” or the attempt to force Israel into acts of abject appeasement, which will again be taken as a sign of weakness and inspire the Palestinians to more bloodletting.) The biggest lie is the way Judt covers up totally the visceral Islamic anti-Semitism which is the real root of the trouble. No one could guess from this article that Palestinian and Arab leadership is controlled by murderous anti-Semites who aim at a Second Holocaust, and will never give up that dream so long as they think there is any hope of success. The real message of journalists like Judt, whatever their conscious intentions were, is “Keep that hope alive.”

I think all reasonable observers have come to the conclusion that there is no hope for peace until the Palestinians have been dealt a crushing military defeat. Sharon appears to be doing that quite well so far. Israel is united again, knows that America will back it (Bush’s recent vacillations can be discounted, even if they were real), knows that Arabs cannot be trusted and that Europeans can be ignored. That’s grounds for hope.

Doyne Dawson
Professor of International Affairs
Sejong University
Seoul, South Korea

To the Editors:

I can fully endorse virtually every point of Tony Judt’s elegantly argued essay, “The Road to Nowhere,” except one. Unfortunately that one point explains much of why the current absurd emphasis on brute military force against Palestinians continues. To begin with the Algerian analogy, which is apt, De Gaulle did not get out of Algeria with relative ease, as Judt writes. Not only did one million settlers flee independent Algeria, but De Gaulle had to face down two military rebellions and deal with an orgy of settler terrorism aimed at derailing the peace agreements that took a terrible toll of innocent lives, French and Muslim alike. This is not to mention his continued prosecution of the war for four long years in the hope of winning it, with the concomitant policy of herding two million Muslims into “regrouping” camps, some of which reminded visitors of Nazi tactics during the Second World War.

The problem in Israel’s case is that nobody is willing to deal with the potential opposition of the settlers on the West Bank to the dismantling of settlements that has to accompany any peace agreement, and that similarly threatens to pit Jews against Jews in an orgy of violence. The problem is all the more dangerous because it runs roughly along a fault line between religious and secular Jews in Israeli society. Tom Friedman may well have been right when he wrote in one of his columns that neither Barak nor Arafat after Taba was willing or able to face down the oppositions to the agreement in their own camps. With Sharon the opposition to Oslo is now making policy. And if De Gaulle, as a politician of the right, was able finally to take France out of Algeria after a belated recognition of the necessity of doing so, Sharon, quite obviously, is no De Gaulle.

Irwin Wall
Professor of History University of California, Riverside
Riverside, California

Tony Judt replies:

Shlomo Avineri takes me to task for neglecting the “context” of Israel’s recent actions; he blames these on Arafat and the Palestinians, who missed a historic chance to make peace at Camp David. There certainly was a lost opportunity in the last part of 2000, the latest of many such missed occasions in the Middle East since 1947. But responsibility for this does not rest with one side alone. The initial US/Israeli offering at Camp David was unacceptable to the Palestinians—as the Israelis well understood, which is why Clinton made a revised proposal in December and the Israelis came back with a much-improved version at Taba. By the end of January 2001 both sides were closer to agreement than ever before, as the Israeli negotiators themselves acknowledged; at which point the Israeli electorate replaced Ehud Barak with Ariel Sharon and the talks could not be resumed.1
(Many correspondents, like Shlomo Avineri, seemed confused about this sequence, writing as though the Palestinians, presented with a handsome offer, simply broke off negotiations.)

But every context has a context, as Professor Avineri, a former director-general of Israel’s Foreign Office, knows very well. Before the elections Arafat could have done a lot more to help Barak convince Israelis that peace really was at hand; but then throughout the negotiations Barak himself insisted on pursuing the construction of settlements. Many Palestinians concluded from this that Israel was negotiating in bad faith. Conversely, Arafat’s insistence on a “right of return” for Palestinians sounded like destructive grandstanding to frustrated Israeli negotiators; but to a Palestinian public that still remembers “the 1948 shattering and exile of a whole society” (in the words of Benny Morris, NYR, June 27) it was rhetorically nonnegotiable, however unrealistic. Contexts come in multiple forms.

Quite a few NYR readers shared Doyne Dawson’s irritation at my criticism of Ariel Sharon. But he, too, is part of the local context. Long before Jenin, before his innocent stroll on the Temple Mount, before the invasion of Lebanon and the massacres at Sabra and Shatila (for which Israel’s Kahan Commission found he bore indirect responsibility), “Arik” Sharon was commander of “Unit 101,” an Israeli special forces outfit. On October 14, 1953, in retaliation for the killing of two Israeli civilians, Unit 101 executed sixty Arab men, women, and children in the border village of Qibya. Sharon’s past is no secret in the Middle East. He initially opposed Israel’s 1979 peace treaty with Egypt. He opposed the Madrid peace conference of 1991 and the Oslo accords of 1993. He even objected to the peace treaty with Jordan two years later.2 It says something about the state of public life in Israel that such a man should now be prime minister. Even his most fervent supporters would not join President Bush in calling Sharon “a man of peace”—if he were, they wouldn’t have voted for him.

Professor Dawson reminds us that the background to Israeli intransigence today is the murderous Palestinian campaign of suicide bombings, and he sarcastically suggests that I can’t distinguish between terror directed at civilians and violence aimed at ending it. I propose no such moral equivalence. The suicide bombings are indeed an unprecedented and particularly terrible form of terrorism. But even terrorism has a historical context. In 1937–1938 Jewish terrorists bombed Arab buses and markets in Haifa and Jaffa, killing dozens of women and children, a tactic renewed to murderous effect in the period preceding Israel’s War of Independence and culminating on April 9, 1948, in the deliberate massacre of over one hundred civilians in the Arab village of Deir Yassin by Menachem Begin’s Irgun. David Ben-Gurion tolerated and even condoned the Jewish terrorist organizations until Israel became a state; then, as Israel’s first prime minister, he moved swiftly to disarm and disband them. A legitimate Palestinian state could be expected to try to do likewise—even if it were initially only half successful, this would still be an improvement on the current situation. Meanwhile the echoes of certain pre-state Zionist tactics in contemporary Palestinian speech and acts merit reflection.

I did not discuss in my essay the long list of crimes committed by Arab terrorists any more than I itemized the acts of Jewish terrorists. The claims on both sides are familiar. Israelis will remember the latest cycle of massacres; Arabs remember Baruch Goldstein, who killed sixty worshipers in the mosque at Hebron in 1994 (today his grave is a pilgrimage site for Jewish extremists). Arab demagogues used to promise to drive the Jews into the sea, to “send them back” to Europe and America. Jewish demagogues (including members of Israel’s current governing majority) demand the “ethnic cleansing” of the West Bank, its Arab inhabitants to be thrown on the mercy of the Arab world.3 Many Arab commentators still take seriously the bogus Protocols of the Elders of Zion, first published in Arabic in Cairo in 1927 and widely available today. But what is one to make of a former Israeli prime minister who believes that, unlike “Judeo-Christians,” Arabs (Muslims?) can’t distinguish between lies and truth?4 Neither side has a monopoly of knaves or fools.

Professor Dawson, like many of my correspondents, elides certain elementary distinctions. To take issue with Sharon, he suggests, is to criticize Israel; to criticize Israel is perforce to be anti-Israel; to be anti-Israel is to be anti-Jewish—a prejudice he believes is now widespread on the left and in Europe. I wouldn’t stoop to engage this absurd sequence of non sequiturs were it not widely echoed on the editorial pages of American newspapers. Thomas Friedman wrote in The New York Times (May 15, 2002) that Europeans actually want a massacre on the West Bank so they can “finally get the guilt of the Holocaust off their backs,” and even Benny Morris and Ehud Barak find “political correctness…varied economic interests and anti-Semitism” behind European sympathy for the Palestinians (NYR, June 27).

Beneath every reference to the rights of Palestinians, it seems, there lurks perforce the specter of Auschwitz. In the course of a clumsy effort to expose the “Freudian” subtext of my essay, Paul Berman condescendingly chides me—a mere historian “lacking training and experience in journalism”—for deploying similes and “Christian” allusions (“Pilate-like”) that might unwittingly fuel the rekindled flames of contemporary anti-Semitism.5 In The New Republic Leon Wieseltier has elegantly dissected these frissons of existential angst in which some in the American Jewish community are wont to indulge themselves, and I have nothing to add to his timely remarks.6

However, insofar as these distinctively American fears are fueled by the rise of the far right in Europe and by recent attacks on Jews and Jewish property in Belgium, France, and elsewhere, it is worth noting that outside of the Arab communities in these countries, angered by events in the Middle East, there is scant evidence of any increase in anti-Jewish sentiment among Europeans in general. The extreme right in Germany and France has always been anti-Semitic; and its supporters may even be responsible for some of the synagogue bombings and neo-Nazi graffiti of recent months. But this hardly justifies talk of a return to Europe’s haunted past. Racism and xenophobia in Europe today are a real and present danger, yes. But their primary target is Muslims, not Jews. Americans who are quick to charge the French in particular with deep-rooted anti-Semitism might pause to reflect on the outbreak of self-congratulation that accompanied Al Gore’s “path-breaking” choice of a Jew (Joe Lieberman) as his vice-presidential running mate—and recall that France has already had five Jewish prime ministers since World War II.

I am grateful to Irwin Wall for the reminder that De Gaulle did not get the French out of Algeria quite so tidily as I suggested. The colonial allusion seems to have annoyed many readers for whom it is a point of honor that Israel does not colonize. But the Jewish settlers whose housing, roads, water supply, and much else are supported by US-funded Israeli government subsidies certainly see themselves as colonists. And like colonists of old their privileged position is a standing provocation to the indigenous population and a burden upon their own government. They don’t even provide additional security for Israel proper—quite the contrary.

The situation in the Occupied Territories is probably even worse than Professor Wall suggests. Many in the settler community practice what the late Moshe Dayan, back in 1968, disparagingly dismissed as “idolatry”: the worship of land and ancestors. They believe that God, or History, ordained that they “reoccupy” these lands, and it will take great political courage, and probably the use of considerable force, for any Israeli government to remove them. Some of the more extreme settlers, well-armed and well-financed, even look forward to a coming catastrophe with eager anticipation. Meanwhile Sharon and his colleagues have no intention of confronting this dilemma of their own making; on the contrary, they have much to gain in the short run from fueling the settlers’ obstinacy in the name of Israeli patriotism.

My essay was addressed to American readers because I don’t believe the Israeli and Palestinian protagonists themselves appreciate the scale of the risk they pose to the rest of the world. As Professor Avineri’s letter and the recent Morris/Barak– Malley/Agha exchanges in these pages sadly confirm, Israeli liberals have largely lost their way.7 But peace is still quite a good idea, and I can only reemphasize what I wrote before: that the central point is not who committed the first act of terror or the last, who has shown more restraint, and so forth. The point is to end it. As Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol patiently explained to General Ariel Sharon back in 1967 (when Sharon swaggeringly offered to “wipe out the Egyptian army” for a generation): “Nothing will be settled by a military victory. The Arabs will still be here.”8 There is only one possible peaceful outcome, everyone involved knows what it entails, and it is going to have to be imposed from the outside, the sooner the better.

—June 20, 2002

  1. 1

    The Israeli negotiators at Taba agreed to the following statement: “The sides declare that they have never been closer to reaching an agreement and it is thus our shared belief that the remaining gaps could be bridged with the resumption of negotiations following the Israeli election.”

  2. 2

    On Sharon’s record of opposition to moves toward peace in the region, see Henry Siegman, “Sharon Rewrites the Peace Script,” International Herald Tribune, June 12, 2002.

  3. 3

    According to Effi Eitam, ex-general and National Religious Party leader, even the Arabs of Israel proper (20 percent of the population) are a “cancer” awaiting removal. See Avi Machlis, “Israeli Rightwingers to Join Coalition,” The Financial Times, April 6, 2002.

  4. 4

    See Ehud Barak, The New York Review, June 13, 2002, and the subsequent exchange between, on the one hand, Barak and Benny Morris, and, on the other, Robert Malley and Hussein Agha, The New York Review, June 27, 2002.

  5. 5

    Paul Berman, “Bigotry in Print. Crowds Chant Murder. Something’s Changed,” Forward, May 24, 2002.

  6. 6

    Leon Wieseltier, “Hitler Is Dead,” The New Republic, May 27, 2002.

  7. 7

    Since I first wrote there has been some sign of movement, however. Shlomo Ben-Ami, a former Israeli foreign minister who led the negotiations at Taba, has publicly advocated immediate international moves to implement a peace agreement, address the refugee problem, and dismantle the settlements. (See The Financial Times, June 6, 2002.) Now more than ever, the initiative rests with the Bush administration.

  8. 8

    The Eshkol–Sharon exchange can be found in Michael B. Oren, Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East (Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 152.

  • Email
  • Print