A sensible solution for the Israel– Palestine conflict has been known for years: Israeli withdrawal from enough of the territory occupied in 1967 to allow a workable, contiguous Palestinian state to be established. Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat won’t hear of it. Peace initiatives on this basis such as the recent “Geneva Accord” between liberal Israeli and Palestinian peace activists have been greeted by Sharon as acts of “treason” and by Arafat with icy silence. Sharon, for whom the very idea of Palestinian independence on the western side of the Jordan River has been anathema for years, is now ready to allow a Palestinian state to be established only in Gaza and a few small, disjointed enclaves on the West Bank surrounded by Israeli settlements and military installations. Sharon has been damaged politically by the reluctance of his own party to approve a planned “disengagement” from Gaza but he has been heartened by strong support from the United States—George Bush called him a man of peace. In a letter to Bush this May, Sharon promised only to “limit,” not stop, the growth of settlements on the West Bank. Before he made any concessions, he said, all terror would have to stop.
Arafat continues to maintain that the Palestinians already ceded 78 percent of Palestine in 1948; the absolute minimum must be a state within the pre-1967 borders. He also demands the right of return to Israel of the 1948 Palestinian refugees and their descendants. Of these, there are now some four million on the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNWRA) payrolls.
These positions are so far apart that it is difficult to see how they can be bridged during the political lifetimes of these two men. More than ever before, they keep each other in power. The bloodshed continues. In what has for years been a tribal war, violent attacks are followed by even more terrible attacks to “avenge” them. Revenge, as George Orwell once pointed out, is a sour, childish daydream born of impotence, not power. Recently a columnist for Haaretz bitterly deplored the “wretchedly sad state of affairs between these two infantile peoples” incapable after so many years “to take their fate into their own hands” and finally “make peace.”1 The toll only becomes more exorbitant, as was recently shown in the Gaza border town of Rafah, where Israeli troops avenging the death of thirteen Israeli soldiers killed dozens of Palestinians and made thousands homeless for the second time since 1948 by blowing up their houses. The victims weren’t even allowed to save their belongings.
On both sides, people now seem stoically reconciled with the situation, like islanders living on the edge of a live volcano that might pour fire and brimstone on their heads at any moment. The failure of negotiations three years ago allowed the extremes to rule on both sides. God-struck settlers squatting on another people’s land hold Israel at ransom. Among Palestinians there has never been a popular peace movement. In Israel, the Peace Now protesters are rarely heard from these days. On a Jerusalem street recently I saw an elderly lady in black pushed off the pavement and loudly told to “go fuck an Arab” for holding up a sign saying “End the Occupation Now!” It is one of the oddities of Israeli opinion polls that while 70 percent of those polled declare they support withdrawal from the Occupied Territories, if elections took place now an almost equal percentage is likely to vote Sharon back into office along with his coalition of radical right-wingers and fanatical religionists. The well-known peace activist Ury Avnery recently remarked that Israel must be the only country populated by 200 percent of its inhabitants.
Richard Ben Cramer’s How Israel Lost: The Four Questions expands on this situation and illustrates how the thirty-seven-year-old occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip corrupts and corrodes both Israeli and Palestinian society. It eats into the body politic like a monstrous disease. Cramer is hardly the first to show how this has happened, but few have done it so eloquently. The occupation, he claims, has swallowed Israel up.
It is widely recognized by now that the occupation is badly corrupting both societies. Israeli and Palestinian entrepreneurs seize any opportunity to make money from the occupation. Educators and psychologists have sounded warnings about this for years. Inexperienced teenage Israeli soldiers bear most of the burden of maintaining the occupation. They man checkpoints at which callousness and meanness to Palestinians, young and old, have become the norm. Palestinian men, women, and children are made to wait for hours in the rain or under the blazing sun. The young soldiers become immune to the weeping protests of women as they smash down doors and furniture, ransack private property, and blow up houses before the tenants have time to move out their possessions, sometimes in full view of television cameras. Cramer reports how they blindfold, kick, and beat suspects, and turn back or delay ambulances and pregnant women on their way to a hospital. The occupation has also driven a dangerously deep wedge between Jews and Israel’s Arab citizens.
Corruption is even more rampant among Palestinians. The top Palestinian leaders stay in power through a mixture of patronage and thuggery. French police were recently reported to be concerned about regular multimillion-dollar transfers from Switzerland into Mrs. Arafat’s private Paris bank. Arafat personally signs many of the most important checks, some drawn on a secret account he keeps at a Tel Aviv branch of Bank Leumi. When relations with Palestinians are relatively calm, the Israeli government refunds custom duties paid by Palestinian importers into this account; when they are not, the payments are stopped. Large secret transfers of money, says Cramer, keep Arafat’s Palestinian Authority in business. Anyone with even a little power in the Palestinian Authority has grown rich—sometimes very rich—while the poor can no longer make a living.
All imports to Gaza and the West Bank must flow through Israel. Convenient monopolies held by high Palestinian Authority officials maintain prices for imported goods on the West Bank and Gaza that are considerably higher than those in Israel. Cramer shows how Palestinian big shots—jointly with a number of former Israeli security officials—control the monopolies on gasoline, lumber, cement, cigarettes, and frozen foods. Notwithstanding frequent curfews, the supplies invariably go through. Cramer writes:
It doesn’t matter what level of [border] “closure” has been announced, or who has “declared war” on whom. The petrol tankers must get through—and they do. In fact, at a main crossing between Israel and Gaza, there’s a nice army-guarded petroleum depot… [that] has never been hit [by terrorists], or even interrupted in its operations—go figure! An-other amazement: the Palestinian tankers [delivering gasoline throughout the West Bank] never have a problem [going through checkpoints and] delivering in safety…. It turns out, one stakeholder in the PA oil monopoly is Muhammad Dahlan, the Gazan chief of Preventative Security.
Cramer is not a historian or a conflict theorist. He is a former reporter and the author of several well-received books, including What It Takes: The Way to the White House, a report on the uses of money in presidential campaigns. His new book is a powerful polemic that deserves to be read. It has a grim, cynical, no-nonsense quality with a near-total absence—rare in writing about Israel—of pious clichés. Cramer tries to cut through the clutter of myth that obscures much of what is written about Israelis and Palestini-ans. His theme is the tragic predicament of both peoples—both nowadays governed by ruthless leaders. Cramer writes with verve, in a style at once funny and bitterly sad, shrewd and down-to-earth. He captures events by describing their impact on the people he’s talked to. His tone, as a New York publisher recently put it, is that of a highly informed Jew holding forth on the Arab–Israeli problem over bagels and lox at a West Side delicatessen.
Cramer was an Israel and Middle East correspondent for the Philadelphia Inquirer between 1977 and 1983 and won a Pulitzer Prize for his dispatches. When he first arrived in Israel he liked the “bare-knuckle brawl that is their public life. …The soldiers… were wry, clever, brave, cocky, whiny about soldier-life and amazingly candid.” He would have called it “a nice little socialist country” with one big problem: its relations with the Arabs in Israel and abroad. “The socialist bit—that’s gone altogether. When Israel became America’s little buddy, she also changed over—not coincidentally, during the Reagan years—to a hard-edged capitalistic economy.” From being one of the most egalitarian countries on earth it is now, probably, the least so in the Western world.
Cramer’s prose can be funny and also show humane understanding as he tries to expose Israel’s blind spots, particularly the hopelessness of what is still called a “peace process” and the reality of moral and political corruption on both sides. He exaggerates here and there, and errs on one or two minor details. But his main argument is solid and irrefutable. In substance, he maintains, 1967 was the great turning point. A great victory can be almost as harmful as a defeat. In the hubris of Israel’s stunning success in defeating Egypt, Syria, and Jordan in a war ominously named after the Six Days of Creation, it became a victim of its victory no less than the Palestinians were. Relieved to be rid of a repressive Jordanian regime, the Palestinians at first greeted the Israeli occupiers with cries of “Welcome! Welcome!” and cups of steaming hot Turkish coffee. It is often forgotten that almost all the fighting in the West Bank was done by Jordanian regulars, not by Palestinians.
Sheik J’abri, the aged Palestinian mayor of Hebron, welcomed Dayan into the town where Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are said to be buried, with the remark: We’ve seen the Ottomans, the British, and the Jordanians leave; inshallah (with God’s help) we’ll see you leave too. In the years immediately following, all went fairly well. Gradually—indeed surprisingly late—almost twenty years after the war—the mood began to change. The first intifada broke out in December 1987, spontaneously it seems, to everybody’s surprise, including the PLO leaders in Tunis. It was a children’s crusade, in which thousands of boys and girls, some of them very young, attacked occupying troops with stones, slingshots, and occasional Molotov cocktails. Yitzhak Rabin, the defense minister, thought they could easily be pacified by breaking a few bones. But the intifada went on and led indirectly to the secret Oslo talks in 1993.
Cramer tries to answer the four questions posed in the subtitle of his book:
- Why do we care about Israel? Not because of what God and Abraham discussed in the Bronze Age but because once upon a time Israel had been a nice place. Its establishment by the United Nations as a haven for persecuted Jews was just. The Zionist leaders accepted a partitioned Palestine and the Israelis would have lived in a much smaller space if the Arab nations had not refused partition and then attacked. “We all belonged to this place,” Cramer writes. “This sparked a loyalty that needed no reason.”
- Why don’t the Palestinians have a state? Mostly because, he suggests, until now, Palestinians never learned how to take control of their own national movement and use it to accomplish nationalist aims without antagonizing much of the outside world. But there was also Israel’s dogmatic opposition to a Palestinian state. Prime Minister Golda Meir famously asked: “Who are the Palestinians? I am a Palestinian!” Shortly after the Six-Day War, leading Palestinian notables proposed to establish a demilitarized state on the West Bank that would sign a separate peace with Israel, even if other Arab states adhered to the famous three “no’s”—no negotiation, no recognition, no peace with Israel. There was no response from the Israeli side.
Israel might have agreed at this stage to hand back to Jordan between half and two thirds of the West Bank (but not East Jerusalem) in return for a peace treaty. In secret negotiations, King Hussein insisted on having everything back, including East Jerusalem. For the concessions they had in mind, the King advised his Israeli interlocutors, they must turn to the Palestinians. The talks broke down over this. Israel’s opposition to a Palestinian state now only became more vehement—the very idea became a taboo also among supporters of Is-rael in Europe and America. Yitzhak Rabin, when he shook hands with Arafat in 1993 on the White House lawn, was the first to break it, and was assassinated for his courage by a religious fanatic.
Zionist feelings about the people who inhabited the land they desired had always been a curious mix of self-righteousness and veiled guilt. Con-trary to legend, mainstream Zionists never claimed that Palestine was “a land without people” and therefore well suited for the “people without a land.” For over half a century before the 1967 war, the more moderate Zionist leaders were in control; they justified both their settlements in Mandate Palestine and their later conquest of the country by claiming that the Palestinians could assert their national identity as Arabs in a dozen already established Arab countries. The Jews, they said, had only this one. It was only reasonable, they argued, for the Palestinians to “move a little aside” and make room, in part of the country, for a people that had been persecuted because it had been homeless for so long. They had little if any empathy for the Palestinians who were made homeless in the aftermath of the 1948 war. They expected them to be absorbed in the Arab countries much as the millions of Germans expelled by the Poles from the East in 1945 were absorbed by West Germany.
- What is a Jewish state? It was relatively easier to answer this question before the 1967 war. Today, as Cramer argues, things are quite different. Before the war a Jewish state was a place where Jews could come to live and not be seen as guests and foreigners to be tolerated, as Cramer puts it, until the next pogrom. That’s why the UN voted Israel into being and the world looked the other way while the new State of Israel forced hundreds of thousands of Arabs out of the partitioned territory it held. The world also looked away because it was simpler if the Palestinians paid for European anti-Semitism.
Israel was believed to be a democratic state, not only for its Jewish citizens but for all its citizens. And yet, during the first twenty years of the new state, Arab citizens were confined to closed reservations, which they could leave only with permits issued by the military governors. They voted for the Knesset but remained second-class citizens. They remain second-class citizens to this day, actively discriminated against in the state budget as well as by open or implied pro-Jewish laws governing the use of land, including its expropriation for development purposes and immigration. Today, right-wing and religious Knesset members propose to exclude Arab Knesset members from voting on issues affecting the future of settlements on the West Bank.
- Why is there no peace? This is by far the most important question raised by Cramer. The roots of the conflict are not religious, he thinks; at the root is a conflict about land. He is right about the land and wrong about the religion. It is, of course, also a religious conflict, as shown daily by sermons preached in mosques throughout the world, including Gaza and the West Bank. What some of the ultranationalist rabbis in the settlements (and two former Israeli chief rabbis) have been saying in recent years has been less bloodthirsty than the message of Hamas but bad and repellent enough. Like Islam, Orthodox Judaism is a very old culture proclaiming its own superiority.
Devastating Israeli strikes, in retaliation for attacks by Palestinian suicide bombers, have long ago turned Arafat’s ostensibly “secular” Palestinian Authority into a shadow of its former self. Hamas now seems to control the masses. It formally calls for expelling all Jews and setting up an Islamic state. (Ironically, Hamas first came into being as a social welfare organization in the Gaza Strip in 1970 with the tacit support of the then military commander Ariel Sharon. Hamas was ostensibly unpolitical at the time, concentrating on education and social welfare; Sharon expected it to counter the growing influence of Arafat’s PLO.) Hamas and Islamic Jihad now actively promote a culture of death based on a version of Koranic teachings celebrating suicide, martyrdom, mass murder, and death as a supreme quasi-erotic experience. At their urging, young men, and recently women of all classes, conceal explosives under their shirts and blow themselves up for, as they put it, “love” of the homeland: “The body of the exploding martyr has the fine odor of musk,” a Hamas functionary in Gaza recently pronounced, citing an alleged verse in the Koran.
After the 1967 war, Israel, which in Isaiah Berlin’s words had always had more history than geography, sud-denly had both. As defense minister, Moshe Dayan talked eloquently about Israel having returned to “the cradle of its history,” resolved “never to part from it again.” The heart of the Jewish homeland, he suggested, was not Tel Aviv, or the coastal plain (the ancient land of the Philistines), but the historical precincts of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, located in Jericho, Hebron, and Jerusalem and along the banks of the river Jordan. The “dream of a nation has come true,” Dayan announced. He admitted that a million Palestinian Arabs lived there now who did not want to be under Israeli rule but added that Israel was not here “because the Arabs wanted it.” If what they wanted had come true, he said, Palestinians would now be sitting in Tel Aviv and Israel’s cities would lie in ruins.
After 1967, Israel recklessly ignored the basic fact that it was not alone in this little country. Israeli leaders could not accept that there was another people there, with legitimate national aspirations; a people, moreover, who felt that they had already paid a heavy human and territorial price in 1948 for Israel’s creation as an independent state.
Dayan was a cult figure in his time—the darling of most Israelis and of celebrity interviewers. Neither he nor his idolizing biographers had ever made it clear how he expected to continue ruling the Palestinians against their will. In politics timing can be everything: perhaps a never-to-return opportunity was missed in 1967 for a peaceful resolution of the Israeli– Palestinian conflict. Instead, Israel, in effect, expected the Palestinians to surrender not only physically but morally as well. Cramer describes what resulted from this recklessness, showing in detail how the occupation endured for thirty-seven years and how it corrupted and corroded both Israeli and Palestinian societies.
There was something astonishing in the provincialism, historical ignorance, and sheer thoughtlessness of nearly all Israeli politicians, a thoughtlessness that only a handful of powerless academics deplored at the time. Not surprisingly, the most prominent of these academics was the Hebrew University historian Jacob Talmon, author of The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy (1952) and Political Messianism (1960). Dayan publicly mocked Talmon for his “cowardice.” His blind hubris played into the hands of fanatic right-wing Israeli ideologists and religious extremists. Some of them had demanded a Greater Israel (“on both sides of the Jordan”) even before 1967, when it had still seemed a pipe dream and they were widely considered dreamers and eccentrics. Soon after the war, some of them tried to force the issue by squatting illegally in various parts of the West Bank. Now and then the army moved them out. Mostly, it ignored them. The squatters found willing allies within the cabinet.
Thus it happened that the first settlements (on confiscated Palestinian land) were established under three Labor-controlled governments between 1968 and 1977. In 1977, the right wing, under Prime Minister Menahem Begin, won power. What had been a hesitant, still relatively modest effort to settle Israelis in the Occupied Territories and in East Jerusalem now became a high-powered national project led and financed by the government. The declared purpose was to “establish irrevocable facts on the ground.” Once again, the few voices warning against this policy came mainly from a handful of academics and columnists.
After the fall of Likud in 1993 the extreme settlement project continued under the Labor-controlled governments of Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak. The number of settlers on the West Bank nearly doubled between 1993 when Rabin signed the Oslo Agreement and the end of 2000 when the agreement collapsed under Barak. Conservative estimates of the costs (excluding enormous military expenses) so far exceed $20 billion.2
The United States at first expressed concern about the settlements but then stayed quiet about them. This was seen, not without reason, as tacit American consent. Consistent with the sympathy that ethnic groups in America often have for nationalist ultras in the “old country,” parts of the American Orthodox Jewish community actively supported the settlements, along with evangelical Christians who believe that Jews settling in the Holy Land would hasten the Second Coming of Christ. Some 400,000 Israelis now live beyond the old demarcation line, in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. This is 7 percent of Israel’s population, perhaps 3 percent of voters. Together with their supporters in Israel proper they are a powerful minority. Three percent is a significant number in a country where coalitions often depend on smaller numbers. The settlers’ lobby is said to be the most powerful in the Knesset. The power of the settlers is augmented by their readiness to undermine democracy and ignore Knesset majorities.
In past years, the governments of Begin, Rabin, Peres, and Barak never seemed to worry about demographic calculations predicting a Palestinian majority in Greater Israel by 2010 or 2020. Begin had no intention of granting Palestinians equal political rights anyway; at most he spoke of offering them “autonomy” as individuals, not as a nation. Nor, if offered equal political rights, would most Palestinians have accepted them. In 1980 the Palestinian professor Sari Nusseibeh campaigned in the principal Israeli cities for equal Palestinian rights, hoping that by sheer numbers Palestinians would soon be able to have an impact on the Knesset. For this he was beaten up by his own students at Bir Zeit University. He never repeated his demand and has since advocated the establishment of a separate Palestinian state, without the right of return. Even though more than a million Russian immigrants have since settled in Israel, and withdrawal from Gaza would subtract over a million Palestinians from Israeli rule, a Palestinian majority by 2020 remains very likely.
The attitude of the Israeli military and security establishment has changed over the years, and not for the better. When the first intifada broke out in 1987, military leaders still believed on the whole that however hard they would hit, there was no “military solution” to the Palestinian uprising. They so advised the government. Judging from what current generals and army intelligence experts are now saying, the military and security establishment no longer believes in the possibility of a political solution and so advises the government.
While a small number of elderly retired generals and intelligence officers took part in writing the Geneva Accords, most of those now on active service share a grim, pessimistic view, allegedly based on firm intelligence information. Uzi Benziman, a widely esteemed, veteran Haaretz reporter, recently wrote that while “Israeli society” has largely accepted the need to repartition the country into two states, the considered view of the military is that “Palestinian society” (including Israeli Arabs) is increasingly reluctant to do so. “The leading figures within the army and the security services are convinced,” Beziman wrote, “that in their opposition to Israel as a Jewish state there is little difference between Israeli Arabs and Palestinians in the occupied territories.” Egypt and Jordan may have reconciled themselves with living next to a “Jewish” state; the Palestinians have not. Benziman cites officers at the “heart of the military and security establishment” as being opposed to the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza since such a state will not be “viable” and will strive to encompass all of historic Palestine.
The army is said to be more hawkish today than ever before. High-ranking officers are no longer reticent about talking politics in public. A good many of them are said to be right-wingers. More than a few ranking officers grew up in West Bank settlements themselves and still live there with their families. Their rapport with cabinet ministers has become more intimate. The new camaraderie is made possible also because of the number of ex-army officers in the cabinet is now higher than ever before.
Cramer describes at some length the ubiquity of former generals in Israel’s public life. They include the present prime minister, four prominent cabinet ministers, the leaders of some of the main parties, including the National Religious Party, numerous parliamentarians, big-city mayors, and heads of major public and private corporations. No other Western democracy, Cramer says, has a former general as prime minister. Sharon is the third general heading an Israeli government in recent years, while Benjamin Netanyahu, another Likud prime minister, had been a colonel and the commander of a top special forces unit. Having former generals as prime minister was a practice that began only after 1967. It was, Cramer writes, “coincident with the occupation,” when generals began to be celebrated as supermen and no elegant dinner party was complete without a victorious general. The problem with military men in high places, Cramer writes, is their tendency to be narrowly tactical thinkers. For the most part they are practical men who like to get a job done. Many have been through American schools of engineering and business administration.
For such people history may indeed be bunk. A little history—what happened elsewhere to countries who tried to rule others against their will—might have been a more useful education. Sharon once told an interviewer that he keeps A Savage War of Peace by Alistair Horne, a book on the Algerian war, by his bedside. If indeed he does and actually reads it, he cannot get much rest nowadays. “There is,” Cramer writes,
no country with any pretension to civilian control over the military that would move a serving general directly from the top army job (Chief of the General Staff) into the cabinet as Minister of Defense. [The present defense minister] Shaul Mofaz had just enough time to take off his uniform and buy a necktie.
For this and many other reasons, Cramer fears that peace may be a chimera.
Itamar Rabinovich’s new book, Waging Peace, is everything that Cramer’s book is not. It is calm, dispassionate, impersonal, unusually well-informed. It comes highly recommended by Henry Kissinger for combining “the firsthand insight of a diplomat with the analytical rigor of a scholar.” In discussing the various efforts of peacemaking since the state was created, Waging Peace also brings in the wider regional setting involving the Arab world and the nearby Arab states. Rabinovich is not a polemicist given to flourishes of rhetoric. A former Israeli ambassador to the United States, he played a central part in the aborted peace negotiations with Syria, which he carefully describes. Commenting on the negotiations between Rabin and Hafez Assad in 1994 and 1995, he writes:
Most of the principles important to Assad were quite acceptable to Israel, as it happened, but for more than four months Assad’s insistence that Israel agree to so-called equality as an underlying principle proved to be an insurmountable obstacle: Rabin held that, though most security arrangements could be implemented on an equal basis, their territorial dimensions could not be equal, because of the two countries’ differences in size and topography. In May 1995, a compromise formula was finally worked out, which led to the drafting of a “nonpaper” on “the aims and principles of the security arrangements.”
After this, the Syrian and Israeli chiefs of staff met again—in Washington in June. A genuine give-and-take developed in the course of that meeting, but afterward misunderstanding and disagreement recurred. Assad now wanted Israel to give up its own demand for a manned early-warning station on the Golan Heights before any further discussions ensued. Rabin refused to comply with this negotiating style and insisted that the sequence agreed on in May be kept. On this sticking point the negotiation was stalled, and it was renewed only after Rabin’s assassination.
A keen strategic mind, Rabinovich outlines in a similarly thorough manner one phase of the “peace process” after another. What is remarkable is that he comes essentially to the same conclusion as Cramer does, that there is a growing and seemingly unbreakable impasse. The collapse thus far of all attempts to promote peace with Syria and the Palestinians, he writes, underscores his concern that the parties are “treading in a vicious cycle and that the prospect of a two-state solution [is] becoming dimmer.”
July 15, 2004