Israel & Palestine: Eternal Enmity?

In June 1948 a British official, blaming the United States for the creation of Israel, described the new nation as a “gangster state.” Over sixty years later the Oxford historian Avi Shlaim writes: “I used to think that this judgment was too harsh, but Israel’s vicious assault on the people of Gaza, and the Bush Administration’s complicity in this assault, have reopened the question.”

Shlaim wrote these words several months before a UN fact-finding mission headed by former South African judge Richard Goldstone concluded that some of Israel’s actions in Gaza during its attack on the Hamas-controlled territory in December 2008 and January 2009 amount to war crimes and possibly crimes against humanity. The Goldstone report is over five hundred pages long, and outlines a number of carefully researched cases that seem to justify its horrific conclusions. The report also describes war crimes committed by Palestinians against Israeli civilians, hardly mentioned by Shlaim: he is not only less well informed than the UN investigator, as was to be expected; his judgment is less balanced.

Born in 1945 in Baghdad, Shlaim grew up in Israel and in the mid-1960s “served loyally in the Israeli army,” as he writes. For most of his life though he has been living in England where he is a fellow of St. Antony’s College, a professor of international relations at the University of Oxford, and a fellow of the British Academy. He is the author of numerous books on the Middle East, among them the best comprehensive history of the Arab–Israeli conflict—The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World.1

His new book, however, containing mostly book reviews and essays published during the past fifteen years, is disappointing. Much of it consists of moralizing prose rather than scholarly research, with platitudes such as “it would make sense to update the biblical image of David and Goliath: a Palestinian David facing an Israeli Goliath.” A long-standing critic of Israel, Shlaim likes to use provocative epigrams such as “American Jews admire Israel for her body, while Israelis are attracted to American Jews for their money.” Shlaim’s collected essays recall the wrath of scholars who twenty-five years ago made up the group of angry young men—I was one of them—called Israel’s “New Historians.” Rereading these essays today shows how conventional Israel’s “New History” has become.

Writing a different version of Israel’s history was an exuberant and challenging experience. The new work appeared at the beginning of the 1980s when the Israeli government began declassifying official documents that made it possible, for the first time, to free the study of Israel’s early days from the constraints of Zionist ideology, mythology, and fiction. The emerging picture was naturally less heroic and less noble than the official textbooks had it, with many gray areas that justified doubt and generated numerous heated debates.

Thus for instance it emerged that in 1949 the Syrian president, Husni Zaim, had asked to negotiate peace with Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion. As part of the deal Zaim offered to absorb into Syria 300,000 Palestinian refugees. Ben-Gurion refused to see Zaim, noting in his diary that in exchange for peace the Syrians were demanding “half the Sea of Galilee,” i.e., the part bordering on Syria.

Zaim was assassinated soon afterward and so it cannot be said that Israel missed a historic opportunity for peace with Syria, as Shlaim seems to believe. For Israelis, however, the accepted truth had always been that Israel did everything to pursue negotiations with its Arab neighbors while they refused to talk to Israel. The Zaim episode proved that we were not told the truth.

The Israeli government concealed the truth in other ways as well. In 1949 Polish Jews who survived the war were allowed to emigrate to Israel, which required a decision where to house them once they arrived. In those days, tens of thousands of Jewish immigrants from Arab countries were living in tent cities and transit camps, but the newcomers from Poland were to be put up in hotels. This decision was never carried out but it had been kept secret for almost thirty years; when it first became public many Israelis were shocked. They had always been assured that there was no deliberate discrimination against Jews from the Arab world.

The New Historians had grown up in a country that was still seeking to justify its very existence through ideological indoctrination, and for many Israelis of that generation the “New History” was part of a formative political experience. Now Israel was beginning to become mature enough to rid itself of nation-building mythology. Rethinking the past led to new definitions of patriotism and brought many Israelis to conclude that giving up a large part of the Palestinian territories occupied in 1967 would be in their country’s own interest.

Not all of our findings and interpretations have been accepted; in fact some of them have convincingly been proven wrong. But in spite of the mistakes, Israel’s New Historians have succeeded in giving the reexamination of national myths a legitimate place in Israel’s public discourse. Among those myths was the claim that with the outbreak of the 1948 war the Palestinian inhabitants left their homes voluntarily, at the request of Arab leaders, intending to return with a victorious Arab army. Documents showed that many were in fact driven out and not allowed to return. Israeli historians hardly ever shock their readers anymore, regardless of how “new” their findings are.

Although he is fluent in Hebrew, Avi Shlaim has looked at Israel from the outside, living and working in England. Most of what he knows about the country’s history he learned after 1967 and at least some of his views have been shaped by Israel’s oppression of Palestinians, including the systematic violation of their human rights. Although admittedly inclined to take sides with the Palestinians “because they are the underdogs,” Shlaim cautions himself not to lose sight of Israel’s “undeniable right” to exist: “The Jews are a people and, like any other people, they have a natural right to national self-determination,” he writes, adding:

In the circumstances of 1948, after the hideous suffering inflicted on the Jews of Europe by Nazi Germany, it was an inescapable fact that something on a titanic scale had to be done for them and there was nothing titanic enough except Palestine.

He states his own position as follows: “I believe that the creation of the State of Israel involved a terrible injustice to the Palestinians. But I fully accept the legitimacy of the State of Israel in its pre-1967 borders.” In a subsequent footnote he writes: “The Israel-Palestinian conflict is not a clash between right and wrong but between two rights.”

There is very little in his new book to substantiate that statement; in fact most of what Shlaim has chosen to reprint here leads to the conclusion that Israel was born in sin and has been living in sin ever since. It all began, in his view, with the 1917 Balfour Declaration, which stated in part that the British government viewed with favor the establishment in Palestine of a “national home” for the Jewish people. For Shlaim, that was “the original sin,” as he puts it. Britain had no moral right to promise a national home for a tiny Jewish minority in a predominantly Arab country, he writes, and the Zionist leaders achieved their goal through “shrewd and nimble…tactics.”

To add force to his argument Shlaim quotes an Arab saying: “Something that starts crooked, remains crooked.” Indeed for more than thirty years following the Balfour Declaration the British allowed the Zionist movement to bring into Palestine hundreds of thousands of Jews. The Zionists prepared the political, military, economic, and cultural infrastructure of the future state of Israel. If it was all sinful as Shlaim implies, then Israel should have never been created at all, regardless in what borders.

The Balfour Declaration gained international legitimacy when in 1922 the League of Nations included it in the mandate it gave the British to rule Palestine. But legality is not everything. Referring to the UN resolution of November 29, 1947, to divide Palestine into two states, Shlaim states that a resolution passed by the UN General Assembly by a large majority “cannot be illegal,” but he adds: “What is legal is not necessarily just.” The clear implication is that the partition resolution, which was accepted by the Jews and rejected by the Palestinians, resulted in no more justice than that original British sin. It was followed by the uprooting and dispersal of over 700,000 Palestinians.

Shlaim’s account of Israel in the 1950s depicts an uninterrupted chain of further sins, including cruel attacks on Palestinian villages leading in 1956 to the Suez war with the complicity of France and Great Britain. “Israel’s dirty little war thus culminated in a very big war, which involved two big colonial powers,” Shlaim writes, adding that the war’s undeclared aim was “territorial expansion” and the overthrow of Egypt’s President Nasser.

Eleven years later, in 1967, came the Six-Day War and Israel, according to Shlaim, now turned into a colonial power itself and “lost the moral high ground.” This is a rather surprising statement, for if it were the offspring of that “original sin,” a “gangster state” as early as 1948, and a longtime aggressor, how could Israel have possessed a “moral high ground” even before the Six-Day War? The year 1967 then can hardly be construed as a watershed between legitimacy and evil, but that is the basic thesis that runs throughout these essays and serves Shlaim to justify his “full acceptance” of Israel’s legitimacy in its pre-1967 borders.

In contrast to Shlaim’s view, many Palestinians refused to recognize Israel’s legitimacy before the Six-Day War and began to do so only after 1967. The major conflict both before and since the Six-Day War has been over the inherent difficulty of reaching peace. At one point Shlaim characterizes the conflict as an inferno of mutual carnage and self-destruction—not a particularly original observation, but one that lends itself to a quest for the deeper origins of this never-ending enmity.

By holding on to the occupied territories, Israel is moving away from the Zionist vision and has indeed been pursuing a self-destructive policy. Instead of a Jewish and democratic state, it is rapidly turning itself into a binational state in which the Arabs occupy an inferior position. The question is why, and it is not easy to answer. Shlaim may be expected to provide some cultural, religious, and psychological insights here but instead he simply states: “Israel’s real aim is not peaceful coexistence with its Palestinian neighbours but military domination.” Shlaim is an eminent historian but this does not sound like scholarly analysis.

One of the major issues in the Middle East conflict has always been Israel’s prevailing state of mind. The wishes of ordinary Israelis, their hopes and illusions, self-deception, shortsightedness, and mostly their collective and individual fears have determined their country’s actions to no lesser degree than the official decisions by the government. Crucial to the attack on Egypt in June 1967 was a pervasive sense of panic and despair that had its origins in the memory of the Holocaust. The messianic elation over the brisk destruction of Egypt’s air force led to the subsequent occupation of Arab Jerusalem and the West Bank. Less dramatic events in the following decades, including the latest assault on Gaza, have also made it clear that Israel cannot be fully understood unless one takes into account the mood and emotional reactions of Israelis. Shlaim is reluctant to do that; he concentrates almost exclusively on national leaders and their policies, as well as on diplomatic maneuvers and military operations.

At no time did Israelis and Palestinians seem to come closer to an agreement than during the 1990s, following the Oslo peace process; but this ended in failure. The breakdown of the Oslo process suggests one general conclusion about international relations in the Middle East, Shlaim writes, namely the importance of external intervention for the resolution of regional conflicts. In the final analysis, he believes, only the United States could push Israel into a settlement. America’s failure to exert sufficient pressure on Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories was, he concludes, one of the causes of the breakdown of the Oslo process. Concerning the recent battles between Hamas and Fatah, he states: “Aggressive US neoconservatives participated in the sinister plot to instigate a Palestinian civil war.”

The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, however, is not to be explained by sinister plots. Unlike the conflict with Syria it is not principally about territory or water or security, or even about politics. It is and always has been about religion, history, and identity, and the main difficulty in solving it derives from its irrational nature. Many on both sides define their identity by the Holy Land: all of it, as they conceive it. Hence every compromise would require each side to give up some components of their respective identities. Obviously neither side has attained the degree of maturity that such a concession would require. Hence neither Israel nor the Palestinians can simply be pushed into a settlement, not even by the United States.

The last essay in the book relates to the rather tiresome and repetitive road show starring Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard professor, who attacks the highly critical views of Israel put forward by Norman Finkelstein. Shlaim defends Finkelstein, but unlike some of Finkelstein’s sympathizers in England does not support his call for an academic boycott of Israel. “An academic boycott is an oxymoron,” he writes. “You do not have a boycott on dialogue, debate or the free circulation of ideas. In fact, I am strongly opposed to a selective boycott precisely because it would violate the freedom of Israeli academics.”

The Israeli professor Neve Gordon, who teaches politics at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba, recently published an article in the Los Angeles Times calling on foreign governments, regional authorities, international social movements, faith-based organizations, unions, and citizens to suspend cooperation with Israel. “I am convinced that it is the only way that Israel can be saved from itself,” Gordon wrote. Obviously few Israelis share this conviction, and few of them even take notice of it. Most Israelis show little interest in such matters these days, although they have always been known for their political alertness and passionate polemics. Today they seem tired of front-page news; most of them no longer believe in politics or in peace. The opening in August of Israel’s first Gap store as well as concerts by Madonna and Leonard Cohen have attracted far more people than any political rally could.

Fatigue and skepticism toward all proposals for settlement with the Palestinians have moved Israel to the right, bringing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to power. He fulfills what seems to be most people’s strongest wish at the moment: to be left alone. With a former president, Moshe Katsav, on trial for rape, a former prime minister, Ehud Olmert, on trial for corruption, and two former cabinet ministers in jail, it is not surprising that people don’t want to hear much about politics. The so-called road map for peace has led nowhere; negotiations with the Palestinians have failed to bring any progress. Hence the widespread feeling that the conflict can, at best, be managed for a limited period of time, making life somewhat more livable; but it cannot be definitively solved. So far, at least, even President Obama seems to have accepted such a conclusion.

At the end of Netanyahu’s first six months in office there is a widespread feeling in Israel that he has practically everything, including Obama, under control. Obama seeks to revive the dormant peace process and most Israelis don’t object; he demands that no new houses be built for Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank but, with Netanyahu’s support, they continue to be built anyway, and most Israelis don’t really seem to care.

Netanyahu’s major achievement so far is to maintain this indifferent attitude on the part of Israelis; it gives him plenty of freedom of action, perhaps including progress toward peace with Syria. This seems to justify Shlaim’s preoccupation with the leader and government but Israel’s mood has always been erratic and quick to change.

Shlaim would not be expected to offer a solution to the conflict, yet throughout this book he persistently mentions the so-called two-state solution. “The Palestinian people,” he writes,

are a normal people with normal aspirations. They are no better but they are no worse than any other national group. What they aspire to, above all, is a piece of land to call their own on which to live in freedom and dignity.

In reality the Palestinian aspiration for independence is not “above all,” just as Israel would not be in favor of peace “at any price.” The Palestinians will not be satisfied simply by any land but demand at least some land that many Israelis call their own. Shlaim never questions whether a Palestinian state in the West Bank would be economically and politically workable, even if by some sudden outburst of wisdom Israel would give it up.

The two-state solution is a widely accepted principle, but by no means the only possible or necessarily the best way to guarantee the Palestinians a better future. They might be better off if they lived in internationally administered areas, a solution that might be particularly appropriate for Gaza. Alternatively the West Bank and its Arab inhabitants could become part of Jordan, where, as Shlaim points out, Palestinians already form a majority of the population. Notwithstanding the complex internal problems of Palestinian representation in an enlarged Jordan, there is no reason not to reconsider the possibility that Jordan would become a free and democratic Palestinian state, including the West Bank, perhaps also Gaza. As part of Jordan, the Palestinians may find it easier to give up some of the relatively small parts of the West Bank now inhabited by Israeli settlers, who are most likely to stay where they are.

Shlaim is a strong supporter of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. The late King Hussein granted him a fascinating interview about his secret contacts with the Israelis, which was published in these pages and is included in this volume, and Shlaim wrote a biography of the king.2 About five years before he died in 1999, Hussein made peace with Israel, giving up the West Bank and East Jerusalem; and Shlaim lists the many possibilities for a settlement that Israel has neglected to pursue, but the major one he never mentions: that as a condition for peace, Hussein should have taken back the West Bank and its Palestinian inhabitants, just as Egypt should have taken back Gaza as part of the 1978 peace agreement with Israel. Instead Israel decided to continue the occupation of those territories with their hostile populations.

There is one glimpse of hope in Shlaim’s rather grimly judgmental book: with the emergence of a Palestinian state, the Israeli–Palestinian conflict may, he speculates, eventually become just another boring interstate dispute, conducted by conventional diplomats using the elusive vocabulary of interstate relations. That would be nice indeed.

  1. 1

    Norton, 2000.

  2. 2

    His Royal Shyness: King Hussein and Israel,” The New York Review, July 15, 1999; Lion of Jordan: The Life of King Hussein in Peace and War (Knopf, 2008), reviewed in these pages by Colin Thubron, November 20, 2008.