Saturday, December 21, 2013

Willful Blindness, Conscious Disregard, and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

The question sometimes comes up, how can the Ari Shavits of Israel and the United States-- people in a position to know the real history of the conflict or who can hardly fail to know it--disregard or not know about it?

In the January 9, 2014 issue of the New York Review, Judge Jed S. Rakoff discusses the issue of whether the top officials of banks whose underlings were engaged in criminal fraud,  but who claim no knowledge about it, should be prosecuted.  Here is his answer:

"This, of course, is what is known in the law as “willful blindness” or “conscious disregard.” It is a well-established basis on which federal prosecutors have asked juries to infer intent.... And while some federal courts have occasionally expressed qualifications about the use of the willful blindness approach to prove intent, the Supreme Court has consistently approved it. As that Court stated most recently:


The doctrine of willful blindness is well established in criminal law. Many criminal statutes require proof that a defendant acted knowingly or willfully, and courts applying the doctrine of willful blindness hold that defendants cannot escape the reach of these statutes by deliberately shielding themselves from clear evidence of critical facts that are strongly suggested by the circumstances"

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Unforgivable: Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land and Its Acclaim in the United States

Some prefatory remarks: When I first started blogging at the end of 2010, I wrote that while there were a number of excellent blogs and web sites that focus or regularly comment on the A-I and I-P conflicts, there were few if any that regularly posted extended analyses of the kind that might appear either in professional journals or elite media outlets like the New Yorker, the Sunday Times Magazine, Harpers or the Atlantic, but were unlikely ever to be published because of time constraints, length or, especially, the unpopular nature of the subject and arguments.

This by way of background to this blog, which focuses on the new book by Ari Shavit, My Promised Land.  My view of it seems to be in a very small minority, so for that reason as well as because the book is likely to be very influential--and more for the wrong reasons than the right ones--I thought I needed a lot of space in order to review the relevant history and evidence and to point out the numerous flaws in the book, especially in its central themes. 

Consequently, the blog is quite long (9400 words). I can only hope that the subject is important enough to justify it being read. However, an alternative would be to read the introductory section (down to the beginning of Part I) and the conclusion (“The Damage”), and skim the main body.

Here is the essay:

It is hard to think of another long-standing conflict in which the irrefutable facts, long well-known to anyone who has seriously studied the issue, seem to matter less than in the Arab-Israeli conflict. The latest, and in a number of ways the most frustrating, example of this phenomenon is the rapturous reception in the American media being accorded to the new book by Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit, My Promised Land (hereafter: MPL). For example, shortly before the publication of MPL, the New Yorker featured a long essay by Shavit based on one chapter of his book, and the New York Times ran an oped by Shavit that was based on another chapter. Then, after it was published there were two long laudatory and prominently featured reviews in the Times. At about the same time, Thomas Friedman of the Times effused over the “must-read” book and described Shavit as “one of the handful of experts whom I’ve relied upon to understand Israel ever since I reported there in the 1980s.” And in the last few weeks, Shavit has been interviewed on radio by NPR’s Terry Gross, on television by Charlie Rose, and in New York’s famed 92 St Y by David Remnick. As a result, within a few weeks of its publication, MPL was already #9 on the Sunday Book Review’s Best Seller List.

As uncritical as the reception has been, it is true that there are some good things in MPL, including a discussion of the concept of “transfer”-- more commonly known today as “ethnic cleansing” –in Zionist ideology: the honest and graphically detailed accounts of Zionist violence and outright terrorism in the pre-state period and the immediate aftermath of the creation of the state of Israel in 1948; the unsparing condemnation of the Jewish settlements, of the occupation, and of Israel’s “systematic and determined use of oppressive force” in crushing Palestinian uprisings and resistance; and the growing threats to Israeli democracy and liberal values, including racism, xenophobia, and even “semi-fascism.”

As all of these things have been widely discussed and justly praised in the reviews and commentaries on MPL, I will focus on the serious problems of the book that have been ignored in the reviews—and which to my mind far outweigh its undoubted virtues and strengths. In fact, for reasons I will argue, what is right about the book makes what is wrong even worse—not merely wrong, but dangerously wrong.

The gravest failing in MP, however, is Shavit’s blatant disregard of the history and major facts concerning the Israeli conflict with the Arab world as a whole and with the Palestinians in particular. The central theme, running throughout MPL, is that a peaceful settlement of these conflicts is impossible because the undying and immutable hatred of Israel in the Arab world—in Shavit’s view far transcending Israel’s own policies and behavior--poses an “existential” threat to its survival. Here are a few examples of this theme:

*“There is always the fear that one day daily life will freeze like Pompeii’s. My beloved homeland will crumble as enormous Arab masses or mighty Islamic forces overcome its defenses and eradicate its existence.” (location 73, Kindle edition. As Kindle uses “locations” rather than page numbers, all future citations in this article are to locations)

* “Israel is the only nation in the West that is existentially threatened” (96)

* “Given our history and our geography, peace is hardly likely.” (3970)

*“The history of the conflict and the geostrategy of the region implied that peace was not feasible…..Why did the Left cling to this empirically incorrect assumption?” (4110)

*Writing about the 2006 Lebanon war (discussed below), Shavit writes: “This time we survived. It was only a preview of what might happen in coming years….. What will happen... when some of our really powerful rivals decide to strike?” (5373)

*“There is no great Arab-Israel war on the horizon, but stability is fragile….Israel is being surrounded by failed states or extremist nations.” (6395) Elsewhere, he elaborates: “the new danger is Arab chaos. The troubling scenarios are of Arab discontent and Islamic fanaticism knocking on Israel’s iron gates.” (6592)

*“Moderate Palestinians are in retreat and radical Palestinians are on the rise….As Islamic fundamentalism and Arab extremism become dominant throughout the region, Palestinian pragmatism is besieged. Thus, if Israel weakens for a moment, the suppressed Palestinian wish [to restore pre-Israeli Palestine] will erupt forcefully.” (6398)

* “There is no hope for peace: no moderate Arab leader has the legitimacy needed to sign a new conflict-ending agreement with the Zionist entity.” (6542)

Shavit sums up his central argument:

Concentric circles of threat [are] closing in on the Jewish state. The external circle is the Islamic circle. Israel is a Jewish state that arouses religious animosity among many Muslims. The occupation of Jerusalem and the West Bank amplified this animosity, but it is Israel’s very existence as sovereign non-Islamic entity in a land sacred to Islam and surrounded by Islam that creates the inherent tension between the tiny Jewish nation and the vast Islamic world....A giant circle of a billion and a half Muslims surrounds the Jewish state and threatens its future. The Arab national movement tried to prevent the founding of Israel—and failed. The Arab nations tried to destroy Israel and failed. (6378-89)

The gap between Shavitism and reality is unbridgeable. The remainder of this essay is organized as follows. Part I, the Arab-Israeli state conflict, includes a discussion of Israel’s missed opportunities for peace before, during, and immediately after the 1948 war, followed by sections on the conflicts with Jordan, Egypt, the Hezbollah in Lebanon, Syria, Saudi Arabia and the Arab League, and Iran. Part II is on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; it includes sections on the Nakba, Yasser Arafat and the PLO, the “right of return” issue, and the problem of Hamas. These sections are followed by an overall conclusion.

    Part I. The Arab-Israeli Conflict

Insofar as Shavit is writing what purports to be history, his argument is either unaware of, or deceitful about, the clear facts concerning the long history of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Despite occasional lip service to the contrary, his underlying premise is that the behavior of the Arab and Islamic world towards Israel is a given and is immutable, having little to do with Israel’s behavior towards the Arabs, especially the Palestinians. This unsupportable argument is actually dangerous, because it plays into and reinforces the woeful ignorance in Israel and the United States of the true history of the Arab-Israeli and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts and of Israel’s repeated spurning or sabotaging of numerous opportunities to end them, from 1948 through today and, it would appear, into the indefinite future.

So far as I’ve seen, not a single review in the general media—certainly not the ones I’ve cited-- has so much as mentioned the unbridgeable discrepancy between Shavit’s opinions and the long-established historical facts about the war-and-peace issues. There is a vast body of scholarship on these issues (including my own); here I can only provide a brief summary of it.

1948 and Afterward

Despite the blood-curdling rhetoric of a few fanatics—“we must throw the Jews into the sea”— according to most of the scholarship about the 1948 war, the Arab state invasion that followed the creation of the state of Israel in May, primarily from Egypt, Syria, and Iraq--was relatively small (about 13,000 troops) and poorly coordinated, reflecting the fact that there was no general Arab determination to destroy Israel but rather a mix of motives, which may have included sympathy for the Palestinians but also was motivated by inter-Arab monarchical and territorial rivalries, especially the fears of other Arab monarchs that King Abdullah of Transjordan would seize the West Bank and then use it as a springboard for his long dream of creating a Hashemite Kingdom extending over parts of Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and Iraq.

To be sure, such relatively limited objectives or mixed motives were far from clear at the time to the Israelis, who thought of themselves as fighting for their very survival. And possibly they were, for who can tell whether the intentions of the invading armies would have continued to be limited to territorial gain (or the prevention of territorial grabs by Arab rivals) had Jewish resistance collapsed?

Nonetheless, the first opportunity for peace occurred in the immediate aftermath of the 1948 war. By March, 1949, bilateral armistice agreements had been signed between Israel and Egypt, Jordan and Syria, and in the summer of 1949 representatives of all the leading Arab states except Iraq agreed to meet with Israel at Lausanne, Switzerland to discuss a general settlement with Israel.

The Arab states were willing to agree to a compromise peace settlement with Israel, provided that Israel withdrew from the territories it conquered in the 1948 war and returned to the boundaries established in the 1947 UN partition plan and accepted the repatriation of the Palestinian refugees. The United States, acting as a mediator at Lausanne, proposed that Israel take back 250,000 refugees and promised US financial aid in resettling the remainder in the Arab world; there were many indications that the Arab states would accept such a compromise.

But not Israel: there would be no Israeli territorial withdrawals and no significant return of the Palestinian refugees, for whom it accepted no responsibility on the grounds they had voluntarily “fled.” Of course, long before Shavit, the Israeli claim had repeatedly been shown to be false and accepted by no serious historians, today including almost all Israeli historians of that period.

There is no mention in MPL of the Lausanne conference, the Arab and American offers, and of Israel’s refusal to negotiate.

Even if the Israeli position on borders and refugees precluded a general settlement with the Arab world, there were a number of opportunities for the new Jewish state to negotiate separate peace agreements with the neighboring Arab states. Just before and even during the 1948 war, King Farouk of Egypt made several efforts to explore the possibility of a peace settlement with Israel, provided it would cede part of Gaza and a narrow strip of the Negev desert

Fearing, and hardly without reason, further Israeli expansionism, Egypt wanted a territorial buffer one. Not only did Israel ignore the Egyptian proposals—which were essentially reiterated after the war--it deliberately provoked further military clashes with Egypt in order to seize all of the Negev, Gaza, and large parts of the Sinai.

Similarly, in 1949 the Syrian regime of Husni Zaim proposed a settlement with Israel: if Syria was granted permanent access to the waters of the Jordan River and Lake Tiberias, the Zaim government would not only sign a peace agreement but would permanently resettle 300,000 of the Palestinian refugees in its own territory. Despite urgings from U.S., UN, and even some leading Israeli officials, David Ben-Gurion refused even to discuss the offer. Zaim was succeeded by a military government headed by Adib Shishakli, who renewed the Syrian proposal on even more favorable terms, offering to resettle most of the Palestinian refugees (500,000) in Syria. Again Ben-Gurion refused to negotiate.

There is no discussion of any of this in MPL.

The Conflict with Jordan

Israeli scholarship has meticulously demonstrated that Jordan has almost always sought to avoid military confrontations and, indeed, has secretly collaborated with Israel on many issues since 1947, especially concerning the Palestinians. Until 1988, Jordan’s Hashemite monarchs Abdullah and his son Hussein were no less opposed than Israel to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank, since they claimed Jordanian sovereignty over the area. Thus, if Israel had agreed to allow permanent Jordanian control over the West Bank and East Jerusalem the Palestinian “problem” either would not have existed or would have become a Jordanian rather that an Israeli one, and there would have been no Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The reason Israel refused such a deal with Jordan, of course, is that it wanted the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza for itself, even though it did not act on these aspirations until after those areas fell into their hands in the course of the 1967 war.

In 1994 the de facto Israeli-Jordanian peace was formalized in the Israel-Jordan peace treaty, which was made possible by Hussein’s renunciation of any claims on the Palestinian territories. With the sole exception of a passing remark that “by the end of 1988, Jordan’s King Hussein no longer wanted anything to do with the West Bank,” this history goes unmentioned in MPL.

The Conflict with Egypt

During the early 1950s, Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser consistently restrained Palestinian guerrilla raids on Israel from Egyptian territory, and there were unofficial exploratory peace negotiations between the Nasser government and envoys from Moshe Sharett, Israel’s foreign minister and leading dovish opponent of David Ben-Gurion. There is considerable evidence that Nasser was seriously considering at least a de facto peace with Israel, but Ben-Gurion and Moshe Dayan arranged a series of provocations that effectively sabotaged the incipient negotiations with the Nasser government. Only then did Nasser begin active support of the Palestinian guerillas and turn to the Soviet bloc for arms. The deteriorating spiral led to the avoidable wars of 1956 and 1967.

Today no serious scholar believes that Nasser intended to provoke war with Israel in 1967. Rather, his primary motive was to put pressure on Israel to refrain from attacking Syria—Nasser had received misleading intelligence from the Soviet Union that such an attack was imminent. Whatever his motive, however, there is no doubt that Nasser’s inflammatory rhetoric, his closing of the Suez Canal to Israeli shipping, and the deployment of Egyptian troops to the Sinai were major provocations to Israel. Even so, most of the scholarship today holds that Nasser was in no position to start a war with Israel and that therefore the preemptive military strike by Israel was unnecessary. No less an authority than Menachem Begin, never one to minimize Arab threats to Israel, agreed: defending his own decision to start a “war of choice” with Lebanon in 1982, Begin publicly stated the following: "In June 1967, we had a choice. The Egyptian Army concentrations in the Sinai approaches do not prove that Nasser was really about to attack us….We decided to attack him.”

In any case, by the end of 1969, as a result of the Egyptian defeat in 1967 and Nasser’s correct belief that Israel had developed nuclear weapons, the Egyptian leader had concluded that Egypt no longer had a rational military option against Israel and should therefore reach a bilateral peace settlement, on the condition that Israel withdraw its forces from the Sinai and Gaza and return them to Egypt. By 1971 Nasser had publicly announced his acceptance of various UN and US peace proposals that were based on an Israeli withdrawal in return for peace, various security guarantees, and permanent free navigation for Israeli ships through the Suez Canal.

Israel continued to prefer the territorial status quo to peace, however, refusing even to discuss these potential settlements and ignoring all overtures from Nasser and his successor, Anwar Sadat. Moshe Dayan put it this way: “I would rather have Sharm al-Sheikh [the port at the southern tip of the Sinai] and no peace than peace without Sharm al-Sheikh.” As a result, Sadat concluded that Egypt had no choice but to break the deadlock with the limited war in October, 1973. Though Egypt lost the war, it did have the effect sought by Sadat, for it was a major scare for Israel—as well as for the United States, which feared being drawn into a confrontation with the Soviet Union--and therefore set in motion a chain of events that culminated in the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace settlement. The settlement has held firm ever since, even under the short lived Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi.

Today, there is no serious challenge, even by most Israelis, to the argument that but for Israeli intransigence, a peace between Israel and Egypt could have been negotiated almost a decade before 1979---and maybe even before the 1967 war, let alone that of 1973. Other than a few passing references to the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, Shavit says nothing about the history of lost opportunities before 1979. Nor does he acknowledge that this history requires a rather important qualification to his argument that the Arab world refuses to make peace with Israel.

The Conflict with Syria

In the 1967 war, Syria lost large sections of the Golan Heights to Israel. It tried to regain these border areas in the 1973 war, but lost again. Since then, Syria under both Assads, father and son, has had no interest in any further military conflict with Israel, and in fact exercised tight control of what remained of the Syrian parts of the Golan in order to ensure that Palestinian guerrilla forces could not use the area to attack Israel. Since the Assads have ruled out war but want “every inch” of the Golan to be restored to Syria—mainly for purely symbolic or psychological reasons—their only option has been diplomacy.

As early as the 1970s, Hafez Assad privately told Henry Kissinger, and later Jimmy Carter, that he wanted a diplomatic settlement with Israel. Nothing came of these signals, in part because Assad at that point was still paying lip-service to the Palestinian cause—though he also said he would consider that issue settled if Jordan regained control over the West Bank. By the early 1990s Assad dropped the Palestinian issue altogether, and proposed a “total peace” with Israel, including full diplomatic and economic relations, in return for full Israeli withdrawal from Arab lands occupied in 1967. Evidently Assad was much more interested in a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights than with the other Arab areas conquered and occupied in the 1967 and 1973 wars, for after two years of secret negotiations, a peace treaty was at hand. However Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin suddenly suspended the negotiations, fearing that Israeli public opinion would not accept a withdrawal from the Golan.

Following the assassination of Rabin in November 1995, the new Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres initially decided to focus on a peace settlement with Syria rather than with the Palestinians, but then pulled back before the 1996 elections; like Rabin, he feared the domestic consequences. Then, in 1999 prime minister Ehud Barak resumed negotiations with Syria with close U.S. mediation, and in 2000 the Clinton administration drew up a draft peace treaty which narrowed the differences between Israel and Syria to essentially symbolic ones. The principles of the treaty that both sides had agreed to were essentially a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan in return for the Syrian agreement to demilitarize the area and the full normalization of diplomatic and economic relations.

Yet again, Israel abruptly ended the negotiations. Facing continued domestic resistance to Israeli withdrawal from the Golan and contemplating a possible agreement with the Palestinians that would require extensive withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza, Barak backed away from a peace treaty with Syria. Among most Israeli security experts, including many of its leading generals at the time and since, there is a consensus that the agreement that Assad was prepared to conclude served Israel’s security and other national interests and that it was Israel, not Syria, that was responsible for the breakdown of the negotiations.

There things stand today—and given the civil war in Syria, there things will undoubtedly remain in the foreseeable future. Another opportunity for Israel to reach a political settlement with a neighboring Arab state—and on remarkably favorable terms-- was lost because of Israeli intransigence. What this history conclusively demonstrates is that at least since the 1973 war—and very probably earlier than that—in no sense has Syria posed an existential threat to Israel.

There is no mention of any of this history in MPL.

The Conflict with Lebanon and the Hezbollah

From the late 1960s until 1982, the PLO under Yasser Arafat was based primarily in southern Lebanon, from which it carried out attacks against Israel. Following a major PLO attack on an Israeli bus that killed 38 civilians in 1978 Israel invaded southern Lebanon. In the course of its attack it killed an estimated 1000-2000 civilians, most of whom had nothing to do with the PLO. Four years later, Israel struck again, in a far larger attack that succeeded in driving Arafat and the PLO out of Lebanon—but which killed at least 10,000 civilians and devastated the Lebanese civilian infrastructure.

It was this attack that led to the formation of Hezbollah in Lebanon, a Muslim fundamentalist organization whose ideology called for the destruction of Israel but whose military actions in practice were primarily confined to resisting the Israeli military incursions and extended occupations of southern Lebanon. To be sure, Hezbollah did sometimes retaliate for Israeli actions by raiding or shelling northern Israeli towns and villages; one such attack in 1993 led to another major Israeli ground invasion and air attack in Lebanon, again killing hundreds of civilians and devastating civilian infrastructures.

In 2000, Israel withdrew its remaining ground troops in the “security zone” it had established in southern Lebanon, and this action led to a dramatic drop in the long cycle of Hezbollah attacks/Israeli retaliation—or the other way around, no one can tell which. However, apparently motivated by the desire to show solidarity with its Hamas counterparts in Gaza who were under heavy Israeli attack, as well as to force a prisoner exchange with Israel, in July 2006 Hezbollah carried out a cross- border attack that captured two Israeli soldiers and killed three others. Israel then responded with another massive attack on Lebanon, whose purpose was partly to destroy Hezbollah weaponry but primarily to deliberately cause great civilian casualties and destruction among the Lebanese civilian population, so as to punish and deter future Hezbollah attacks. As was widely reported during the attack, and subsequently confirmed in investigations by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, the Israeli attack killed some 1200 civilians, wounded another 4000, and caused massive damage to Lebanese roads, bridges, power stations, water pumping stations, sewage plants, businesses, and civilian apartment houses.

None of this history seems to have any impact on Shavit’s insistence that Israel—through no fault of its own—faces an “existential threat” from Hezbollah. It does not seem to occur to him that if there had been no Israeli expulsion of the Palestinians, there would have been no PLO, that if there had been no PLO there would have no reason for Israel to have attacked Lebanon in 1978 and 1982, that if these attacks had not occurred, there probably would have been no Hezbollah, and that even after the creation of Hezbollah it probably would not have attacked Israel if not for the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon and further massive attacks on that country.

Nor does Shavit notice or at least acknowledge that none of the Hezbollah attacks, whatever their explanation, have been on a scale that remotely posed “existential” threats to Israel. Since 2006, there have been only a few shooting incidents involving soldiers and a handful of Hezbollah rocket attacks into Israel, and none of the latter have caused any significant damage, let alone killed anyone—in short, in the last seven years there has not been even a non-existentialist threat to Israel from Lebanon or Hezbollah. That is not to say that a serious renewed conflict could not break out again because of recent Israeli actions, including a number of air attacks on weapons convoys on their way from Syria to Lebanon, and at least two major assassinations of high Hezbollah officials.

This history of the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict goes mostly undiscussed in MPL, save for one of its oddest chapters, entitled “Reality Shock, 2006”, in which Shavit argues—amazingly, in light of the history of Israel’s many attacks on Lebanon, including in 2006--that in recent years Israel has become “alarmingly impotent” and prone to a “political correctness” that prevents it from recognizing the need for greater military power!

It is worth quoting from that chapter at some length:

Israel’s inability [in 2006] to stop Hezbollah from launching rockets at its northern towns was shocking. Its vulnerability and its impotence were shocking. For over a month, more than a million Israelis lived under fire. Approximately half a million Israelis fled their homes. The nation was helpless and humiliated. Then came a moment of reckoning. The question that echoed throughout the country was what had happened to us. Had we lost it? (5294)

To answer this question, after the war Shavit went on “a depressing tour in the half-deserted towns of the Galilee” and then wrote a Haaretz column—and one that he obviously considers to be just as apropos today, since he reprints it in MPL:

         "What has happened to us?....The politically correct discourse that reigned supreme over the last decade was disconnected from reality. It focused on the issue of occupation but did not address the fact that Israel is caught in an existential conflict….It paid too much attention to Israel’s wrongdoing, and too little to the historical and geopolitical context within which Israel has to survive. …Anything military or national or Zionist was regarded with contempt….Power was synonymous with fascism. Old-fashioned Israeli masculinity was castrated…."

        "Israel is not a normal nation. It is a Jewish state in an Arab world, and a Western state in an Islamic world, and a democracy in a region of tyranny....In the Middle East, a nation whose youngsters are not willing to kill and get killed for it is a nation on borrowed time. It will not last for long." (5294-5326)

Notwithstanding the near-complete end of Hezbollah attacks on Israel, Shavit repeats his apocalyptic warnings today:

Sadly, wars are a testament of Israel’s national strength….Israel’s alarming impotence in 2006 revealed how disoriented and dysfunctional [we have become]…It is not a choice between peace and war. The immediate challenge is the challenge of regaining national potency. An impotent Israel cannot make peace or wage war— or end occupation.... Faced with renewed existential danger, Israel has no relevant national strategy. It is confused and paralyzed. (5326ff)

We are now in cloud-cuckoo land. In light of the long history of destructive Israeli attacks on Lebanon and the relatively inconsequential nature of Hezbollah attacks on Israel, especially since 2006, as well as Hezbollah’s clear reluctance to risk another war that Israeli generals have repeatedly said would inflict even more massive civilian damage on Lebanon, Shavit’s treatment of the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict is nothing less than bizarre.

Saudi Arabia and the Arab League.

For over thirty years, Saudi Arabia has taken the lead in seeking an overall settlement of the overall Arab-Israeli conflict. In 1981 the monarchy proposed an agreement (“the Fahd Plan”) that essentially offered an overall Arab peace with Israel if it dismantled the settlements, withdrew from all Arab territory, allowed the creation of an independent Palestinian state and recognized the right of the Palestinian refugees to return to Israel, if they so chose.

In 2002 King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia convinced the Arab League to unanimously agree to a new proposal which went much further in meeting Israel’s legitimate needs: it called for a formal peace treaty based on an Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories, the establishment of a Palestinian state in those territories—not, that is, in all of the historic land of Palestine, now including Israel itself--and a settlement of the Palestinian refugee problem . If Israel agreed to these terms, the plan explicitly said, “In return the Arab states will do the following: (a) Consider the Arab–Israeli conflict over, sign a peace agreement with Israel, and achieve peace for all states in the region; (b) Establish normal relations with Israel within the framework of this comprehensive peace.”

Significantly, the Arab League proposal markedly softened its position on the Palestinian refugee issue: it called for “a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem to be agreed upon in accordance with U.N. General Assembly Resolution 194,” which called on Israel to allow the refugees “wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors” to do so. There is no mention of a “right of return,” and the carefully chosen language, “to be agreed upon,” effectively grants Israel a veto on the issue

A number of prominent Israelis called upon the government of Ariel Sharon to accept the Arab League initiative as a basis for negotiations to end the conflict—but Sharon refused, calling the proposal “a non-starter.” Nonetheless, the proposal was officially and unanimously reiterated in 2007, following a summit conference in Saudi Arabia of the heads of state of the twenty-two states of the Arab League as well as Mahmoud Abbas in his capacity as president of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas prime minister in Gaza; Abbas voted in favor, and Haniyeh abstained, lending credence to Hamas’s position (discussed in more detail below) that it would not oppose any agreement that was supported by the Arab League.

In 2012 the Arab League again unanimously reaffirmed its peace offer, and in 2013 Secretary of State John Kerry called upon Israel to accept the offer as the basis for negotiations. Needless to say, the Netanyahu government has not done so and, given its obvious intentions to maintain the occupation, there is no chance that it will.

What does Shavit have to say about this history? Disregarding the inconvenient facts, he ignores it, writing: “Now there is no hope for peace: no moderate Arab leader has the legitimacy needed to sign a new conflict-ending agreement with the Zionist entity.” (6541)


Despite his insistence that the Arab world as a whole poses existential threats to Israel, Shavit’s main concern today clearly is Iran: “Iran is not a Netanyahu bogeyman; it is a real existential threat.” (6054) He elaborates: “If Iran went nuclear, the Middle East would go nuclear, the world order would collapse, and Israel’s existence would be in jeopardy.” (5810) And not just Israel’s existence: “All Western leaders knew that Iran might endanger the future of the United States, Europe, and the world.” (5829)

While Shavit does not quite explicitly call for an Israeli attack on Iran right now, that is the obvious implication of his rhetoric—for example, in his Nov. 20 oped in the New York Times (“How Bush Let Iran Go Nuclear”), he castigates the “Munich mindset” of those opposing an attack and in MPL he favorably quotes one Israeli hardliner: “If Israel shied away from taking action just because it was deterred by a few hundred Iranian missiles and a few thousand Hezbollah rockets, it had no right and no way to survive.” (5971)

Actually, Shavit has been issuing the same despairing predictions for a number of years now, as recently pointed out in the brilliantly-titled “Apocalypse Now, Apocalypse Forever,” by +972, an Israeli dissident group:

*In May 2007 Shavit wrote that “If Iran is not stopped this year, then in the summer of 2008 it will be on its way to nuclear hegemony…..Israel confronts the most important decision in its history. The decision of its life.”

*In April 2008 Shavit wrote that “Israel is facing unprecedented challenges. Iran is on the verge of nuclearization, Syria and Hezbollah are growing stronger, Hamas is heading toward conflagration….Israeli society must muster all its inner strength both to prevent war and to endure a war.”

*In September 2008 Shavit wrote that “there is a high probability that in 2009 or 2010, Israel will face a national test.”

*In November 2011, Shavit wrote that “our time is up,” for 2012 would be “the decisive year;” and in February 2012 he wrote that if Obama doesn’t “stop Iran in any way necessary and at any price…he will obligate Netanyahu to act before the 2012 elections.” Then, in March he warned “we are getting closer to the moment of truth….it’s totally clear that for Israel, it’s either now or never.

Needless to say, then, Shavit is not deterred from issuing renewed apocalyptic predictions even though he has been repeatedly proven wrong in the past, nor is he impressed by the fact that most military and civilian experts on the Iranian nuclear issue, including in Israel, take strong issue with his “arguments,” if we can call them such. The consensus view in these groups is that the primary purpose of the Iranian nuclear program is deterrence, not aggression--as has been the case for every other nuclear state.   There is not the slightest evidence to support the Netanyahu-Shavit fear that, out of pure hatred for a Jewish state and out of the blue, Iran would launch a nuclear strike against Israel, despite its full knowledge that the entire country would be literally annihilated by Israeli nuclear retaliation.  

The supposedly more worrisome problem is that Iran might covertly give nuclear weapons to terrorists, who might believe they could use them against Israel—or the U.S.-- and escape retaliation, in the hope that it might not be clear who originated the attack and where it came from.   However, that possibility also is remote: even if Iran was motivated to give nuclear weapons to fanatical groups like al-Qaeda—which for several reasons is highly unlikely--it would have to assume that it would be blamed for any nuclear attack on Israel and would be destroyed in retaliation, even if it hadn't been the source, the inspiration, or the supporter of such an attack.  No doubt in part for similar reasons, there is no evidence that any nuclear state has ever given such weapons to terrorist groups--not even the most extremist or supposedly the least rational states, like North Korea and Pakistan. 

Moreover, most military experts, including most of Israel's own top intelligence and military officials, opposed a military attack on Iran, at least under the present conditions. Shavit actually acknowledges this, admitting that the recent IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi “adamantly opposed the actual use of the military option” (5971), and that he is joined in this view by most other army generals, by Meir Dagan, the head of Mossad from 2002, and by Yuval Disken, the head of the Shin Bet national security agency from 2005 through 2011. Undaunted, Shavit offers no counteranalyses to their arguments.

The overall anti-war argument favored by the majority of informed observers is that an Israeli or even a joint U.S-Israeli military attack would have little chance of meaningful success over the longer run, since Iran would have an even greater reason to reconstitute and protect its weapons facilities in order to deter other attacks. At the same time, such an illegal, unnecessary, and futile “preventive war” would be highly dangerous, likely to result in a series of Iranian retaliatory actions that could destabilize the Middle East, undermine US and other Western interests, and possible precipitate a much wider war.

Moreover, the current negotiations between the U.S. and Iran might yet result in an agreement to allow Iran to continue its nuclear program but agree not to weaponize it. In this respect it is important to remember that in 2003 the moderate Khatami government in Iran strongly signaled that it wanted to negotiate a political settlement, based on a “grand bargain” in which in return for the end of economic sanctions and the U.S.-Israeli military threats, it would not develop nuclear weapons, would end its military support for Hamas and Hezbollah, and would accept a two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian. Astonishingly, the Bush administration spurned this opening, which might have met both US and Israeli concerns and interests.

It is not yet clear whether the current negotiations can produce such a remarkably favorable settlement. If not, the overwhelmingly favored course among Western and Israeli military and security leaders is for a continuation of economic sanctions until Iran is ready to agree not to develop nuclear weapons—and even if that outcome can’t be attained, the fall-back position of Israel, the U.S., and the West should be not a military attack but the same strategy that prevented major war during the Cold war: deterrence and a “balance of terror.”


Part II. The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Shavit sees the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a “tragic” one—implying that both sides are equally responsible for a conflict that cannot be resolved: “I am haunted by the notion that we hold them by the balls and they hold us by the throat. We squeeze and they squeeze back. We are trapped by them and they are trapped by us. And every few years the conflict takes on a new form, ever more gruesome. Every few years, the mode of violence changes. The tragedy ends one chapter and begins another, but the tragedy never ends.” (3851)

Sometimes the same thought is expressed in terms of an irresolvable conflict in “narratives”: the Israelis have their narrative, the Palestinians have theirs, so the only way forward is for each side to “recognize” each other’s narrative. It is far from clear what such mutual recognition would accomplish, and in any case the symmetry of responsibility implied in either the “tragic” or the “conflicting narratives” view is false: the Palestinian narrative is largely true, and the Israeli one is largely false. The history of the conflict makes it unmistakably clear that Israel, from the outset, has been far more responsible both for its onset and for its continuation, from the beginning of the Zionist enterprise through today .

The Nakba

The history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict did not begin in 1948, of course. However, an examination of the complex issues raised by the Zionist settlement in Palestine from the late 19th century through the creation of Israel in 1948 is beyond the purview of this essay, so I will begin with the Nakba (“catastrophe”), the Palestinian word for what happened to them in the 1947-49 period.

Shavit’s powerfully written chapter, “Lydda,1948”, graphically describing the extensive Israeli killings and violent expulsion of Palestinians from one of their population centers has been justly praised for its honesty. In addition, elsewhere in MPL Shavit discusses another notorious case of Israeli ethnic cleansing (he uses that term), the infamous massacre of the Palestinian village of Deir Yassin. As a result of these and other Israeli actions, some 750,000 Palestinians--roughly half of the indigenous Arab population living in the area of Palestine designated by the UN to be a Jewish state—were forcibly expelled or fled in the entirely justified fear that they would be killed by the Zionists if they didn't.

However, after reviewing this history in unsparing detail, Shavit suddenly shifts gears and reaches a different conclusion than one might have expected: the ethnic cleansing and terrorism do not detract from the basic justice of Zionism, because without them Zionism could not have succeeded in creating a Jewish state in the land of Palestine. For example, he writes that “From the beginning there was a substantial contradiction between Zionism and Lydda. If Zionism was to be, Lydda could not be. If Lydda was to be, Zionism could not be. (1801) Later he expands on this:

Do I wash my hands of Zionism ? Do I turn my back on the Jewish national movement that carried out the deed of Lydda? ….I am not only sad, I am horrified…. the conquest of Lydda and the expulsion of Lydda were no accident. They were an inevitable phase of the Zionist revolution that laid the foundation for the Zionist state. Lydda is an integral and essential part of our story. And when I try to be honest about it, I see that the choice is stark: either reject Zionism because of Lydda, or accept Zionism along with Lydda. (emphasis added)…..[The military and political commanders] were right to get angry at the bleeding-heart Israeli liberals of later years who condemn what they did in Lydda but enjoy the fruits of their deed….I’ll stand by the damned. Because I know that if it wasn’t for them, the State of I Israel would not have been born. If it wasn’t for them, I would not have been born. They did the dirty, filthy work that enables my people, myself, my daughter, and my sons to live. (2187)

To be sure, at least we can be grateful that Shavit doesn’t go as far as Benny Morris, the formerly-radical Israeli “new historian,” one of the first to go through the historical documents and memoirs and demonstrate beyond doubt that the Zionist forces perpetrated many massacres and other crimes, but who now concludes that the real problem is that they didn’t go far enough, as there are still too many Palestinians left within Israel.

Aside from the issue of morality, are Shavit and Morris right that there was a “stark choice”: the Nakba was necessary if Israel was to be created? They cannot possibly know that, and it is likely that it is a false dichotomy: other possibilities were simply never explored. For example, suppose the Zionists had offered financial inducements and generous compensation to buy out (or “bribe,” if one prefers) several hundred thousand Palestinians to move to a nearby bordering Arab state, the number that would have been necessary to ensure a large Jewish majority within the Jewish state’s boundaries that were established by the UN Partition plan of 1947. In fact, for a brief time Franklin Roosevelt had considered just such a plan—and surely the U.S., the international community, and wealthy Jewish supporters around the world could have provided the necessary funds.

Even more fundamentally, if Shavit and Morris are right that Zionism really had no other choice but ethnic cleansing, then in my view the Zionist goal to create a Jewish state in a land largely populated by another people was not justified. Since I have addressed these issues in previous blog essays (“The Jewish State Controversy: Can Zionism Be Reconciled with Justice to the Palestinians?” March 11, 2011; “Preaching to the Choir; Reflections on Max Blumenthal’s Goliath,” November 26, 2013), I will not repeat my arguments here.

Finally, in a variety of ways the Israelis might have at least mitigated the injustice--better said, the criminality--of the Nakba, if only they had had the moral and practical sense to have done so. To begin with, they should have acknowledged and apologized for the expulsion of the Palestinians and committed themselves to do everything possible to make up for it-- short of disbanding Israeli as a Jewish state.

Then they could and should have avoided further territorial expansion and expulsion of the Palestinians after 1949, especially the conquest and occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza after the 1967 war. Then, they should have agreed to a genuinely viable and independent Palestinian state in those territories, and along with the international community, provided generous development assistance to it.

Still further, the remaining Arab minority within Israel could have been given full political, social, and economic equality, as in fact Israel's Declaration of Independence had promised, a commitment that has been violated throughout the history of Israel.

Had they done all of these things, there is every reason to believe that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would have ended long ago--despite the Nakba, and despite Shavit’s insistence that the real issue for the Palestinians is not 1967 but 1948.

Arafat and the PLO

From the 1950s through the 1970s, there were two ways that the Israeli-Palestinian dispute could have been settled: either by an Israeli-Jordanian peace settlement based on Israeli agreement to permanent Jordanian sovereignty over the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza, or by an Israeli agreement to allow the creation of a Palestinian state in those areas, as was essentially envisaged by the UN partition plan.

Israel’s refusal to agree to any of these solutions resulted in the creation of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. In its early years, the PLO in fact did aim at the complete “liberation” of all of Palestine (that is, the destruction of Israel), and relied primarily on terrorism to achieve that goal. However, from the early 1970s onward, Arafat and his organization gradually moved towards a willingness to seek a compromise political solution with Israel.

Israel ignored the emerging indications of Palestinian pragmatism, but nonetheless the PLO’s position continued to evolve until in 1988 it officially accepted a new partition of Palestine and a two-state solution as the definitive settlement of its claims. Under the terms of the new PLO policy, its state would comprise the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem as its capital. Further, the PLO agreed that the state would be largely demilitarized, would end not only terrorism but all forms of attack on Israel from its territory, and would accept international peacekeeping forces along its borders, in order both to reassure Israel that the new state would not become a springboard for an Arab state invasion as well as to guarantee its own security.

In the Camp David and subsequent Taba negotiations in 2000, the Barak government and the PLO came close to reaching an agreement based on those principles, but just as had been the case with the negotiations between Syria and Israel, at the last minute Barak backed away, apparently because of some combination of domestic concerns and his own unwillingness to give up Israeli control over all the occupied territories, particularly over the Temple Mount/al-Aksa plateau and the Old City of Jerusalem. Shortly after the collapse of the peace process at the end of 2000, Ariel Sharon was elected as Israel’s new prime minister, which spelled the end of a true “peace process” between Israel and the Palestinians.

Shavit thinks that the Palestinians were to blame for the breakdown of the 2000 negotiations, and that it was naïve of the Israeli negotiators to think it was possible to reach a political settlement with them. In a number of places in MPL, Shavit sneers at the “peaceniks” and “bleeding hearts” of the “left.” For example, he concludes an interview with Yossi Beilin , the lead Israeli negotiator at the Taba negotiations (and in other Israeli negotiations with Palestinian leaders), with a remarkable lecture to him that joins unforgivable ignorance to breathtaking arrogance and condescension, a particularly deadly combination:

In hindsight, it seems clear that you did not think about the religious, cultural, and existential dimensions of the conflict. You did not remember the Arab rejection of the Balfour Declaration of 1917, the Arab outrage at the UN partition plan of 1947, and the calamity wrought by the war of 1948. All you saw was the relatively easy problem of 1967, namely, occupation, which you thought you could solve in a relatively easy manner. That a person of your intelligence was tempted to make peace in such a hasty way is unconscionable. Rather than use the unique circumstances of the early 1990s to begin a long process that would eventually lead to a true peace, you opted for the appearance of peace….the Palestinians manipulated you. (4072)

There is now an extensive literature on the 2000 Camp David and Taba negotiations, written by journalists, scholars (including me), and Israeli as well as Palestinian participants in the process---none of which lends any support to Shavit’s position, and none of which he appears interested in or even familiar with. Beilin himself later wrote an entire book on the peace process (The Path To Geneva, 2004), which provides detailed evidence of both the seriousness of the Palestinian quest for a two-state settlement and the manner in which Barak torpedoed the negotiations. And in his own memoirs (Scars of Wars, Wounds of Peace: the Israeli-Arab Tragedy, 2006), Shlomo Ben-Ami, the Israeli foreign minister during this period—and, like Beilin, a former scholar and political scientist—concludes that “Camp David was not a missed opportunity for the Palestinians, and if I were a Palestinian I would have rejected Camp David, as well.”

The Right of Return

Shavit argues that while the Israeli occupation after the 1967 war can and should be reversed, it will not bring peace because the Palestinians also want to reverse 1948, which cannot and should not be done, and which therefore is an insuperable obstacle to a negotiated two state settlement. He writes: “We failed to tell ourselves the truth about the Palestinian wish to return to their pre-1948 villages and homes….For many Palestinians there are other matters that are far more severe and visceral than occupation, like the homes they lost in 1948” (4171-72)

As usual, Shavit states this with certainty, and without offering a shred of evidence to support it—even though on its face it seems preposterous to believe that the Palestinian wish that their refugees from a war sixty-five years ago should be returned to their original homes and villages is “far more” important to them than to end the last forty years of Israeli occupation, repression, and violence, the take-over of all of Jerusalem, and the periodic major military attacks on the economic and civil institutions in the West Bank and Gaza.

In any case it is not necessary to hypothesize about the true Palestinian priorities, for the evidence is overwhelming that in the context of a fair two-state settlement along the lines of the international consensus, Arafat, the PLO, Mahmoud Abbas, and other leaders of the Palestinian Authority have all been ready to settle for a symbolic resolution of the issue.

I have reviewed this evidence in detail in my article, “Zionism, the Jewish State, and an Israeli-Palestinian Settlement” (Political Science Quarterly, Winter 2012-13) In brief, as early as the 1980s, there were a number of signals from Arafat and the PLO that in the context of an overall two state settlement that included Israeli and international recognition of Palestinian or some other form of Muslim sovereignty and control over the al-Aksa mosque in the Old City, the PLO would agree to a compromise settlement of the refugee problem.

Then, at the Taba negotiations at the end of 2000, according to Yossi Beilin “almost full agreement was reached with respect to principles for resolving the problem” (Path to Geneva, 247). Since then, the nature of these principles have become well-known: (1) some acknowledgment from Israel of its responsibility for the Palestinian expulsion or flight in 1948; (2) an unlimited right of the refugees and their families to return to the Palestinian state; (3)large-scale international economic compensation and assistance to the refugees, wherever they choose to settle; and (4) a token return of some families to Israel, subject to Israeli agreement.

In 2008 Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas engaged in secret negotiations over a possible two-state settlement, the general terms of which have now been widely reported. In particular, in early 2001 the British newspaper Guardian reported that Julian Assange’s Wikileaks documents—also known as “the Palestinian Papers”-- revealed that during the negotiations the PA leaders “gave up the fight over refugees….Palestinian negotiators privately agreed that only 10,000 refugees and their families…could return to Israel as part of a peace settlement.”

Finally, in 2012 the twenty-two members of the Arab League unanimously reiterated the language of the 2007 peace plan, which does not mention a Palestinian “right of return” but rather states that “a just resolution of the refugee problem” should be “agreed upon.” This carefully chosen language, effectively granting Israel a veto on the issue, would certainly not have received such support if Abbas and the Palestinian Authority had objected.

The Problem of Hamas

What of Hamas, however, both with respect to a two-state settlement in general and the right of return in particular? In its rhetoric, Hamas has not demonstrated any willingness to compromise over this issue. However, there is increasing evidence that the organization is slowly moving towards a pragmatic, if reluctant, acceptance of the realities of Israeli power-- similar to how Arafat and the PLO’s position evolved during the 1970s and 1980s—and has become increasingly amenable to a de facto if not de jure two-state political settlement based on the international consensus and the four principles governing the right of return. Also, on a number of occasions leading Hamas officials have signaled that they would not oppose any such settlement that was supported by a majority of the Palestinian people.

In any case, it is both unnecessary and pointless to speculate about what Hamas and the Palestinian people might or might not accept. A number of Israeli commentators, including former heads of the Mossad and the Shin Bet, have urged the Netanyahu government to enter into direct negotiations with Hamas. Only in the context of serious two-state negotiations can the true position of Hamas be ascertained.

            The Damage

No matter for how long, how often, and how thoroughly the mythologies that continue to pass for the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict have been discredited, nothing seems to penetrate the psychological walls that most Israelis and American supporters of Israel have erected in order to protect themselves from having to confront the irrefutable truths about the conflict. The latest proof of this frustrating, even maddening, reality is the acclaim-- even or maybe especially in the elite US media-- that is being accorded to Shavit’s book. Whatever its strengths--and there are many—it can only worsen the dismal discourse about the conflict that still prevails in Israel and the United States.

The central theme of MPL is that real peace between Israel and the Arabs is impossible. There are two crucial problems with this argument. The first is the unspoken but clear underlying premise that the enmity between Israel and the Arabs has been a function of some immutable Arab hatred or anti-Semitism that transcends Israel’s behavior towards the Arabs. The second problem is that whatever the cause of the enmity, Israel has repeatedly ignored or sabotaged many opportunities to end the conflict, which could have been done if Israel had been willing to accept reasonable compromises on the four crucial issues: the return of most of the Arab territories captured by Israel in the various wars, a permanent partition of the historical land of Palestine, Palestinian independence and sovereignty in their allotted land, including East Jerusalem, and a small-scale symbolic “return” to Israel of some 10-50,000 descendants of the Palestinian refugees of 1948. Had these steps been taken—and perhaps it is not too late, although the Netanyahu government is doing its best to make sure it is— in all probability the dangers to Israel, “existential” or not, would have come to an end.

You would not know any of this from reading Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land—worse, you might even be more inclined to dismiss Arab-Israeli peace possibilities, precisely because so much of the book is highly critical of Israel but yet argues, essentially, that the conflict is not Israel's fault. 

When propagandists or obvious ideologues not known for their fidelity to truth argue that a Jewish state can never live at peace in the Middle East, sensible people, even when they are not themselves expert in the matter, are likely to consider the source and be inclined to be skeptical. For example, no sensible person would say “Even Abraham Foxman and Alan Dershowitz think that Israel is now and always has been in permanent danger because of Arab anti-Semitism.”

Ari Shavit is another matter, however, for he is a leading journalist in Israel’s most liberal newspaper who has written a book that on the one hand with ruthless honesty describes and decries the history of Zionist terrorism, the expulsion of the Palestinians, the occupation, the settlements, the brutal Israeli repression of Palestinian resistance, the alarming dangers to Israeli democracy and basic Western moral values--but on the other hand essentially argues that no matter what Israel does, it has no chance to be accepted and live in peace in the Arab world.

Thus, Shavit’s apparent—but unearned—credibility may have a considerable influence, because moderate but non-expert Americans might well conclude that “Even Ari Shavit thinks that the Arabs will never make peace with Israel. “ Thus, in the final analysis, despite its almost universal acclaim—or, perhaps, because of that acclaim-- what is wrong about My Promised Land is far more important than what is right, and for that reason it is a dangerous and, indeed, unforgivable book.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Preaching to the Choir; Reflections on Max Blumenthal’s Goliath

In my own work on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I start from two premises. The first is that in light of Israeli intransigence, there is no chance of attaining a two-state settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without strong and sustained pressures from the American government, very probably including making its military, economic, and diplomatic support of Israel conditional upon the end of the Israeli occupation and repression of the Palestinians and the creation of a viable and genuinely independent Palestinian state.

The second premise, however, is that there is no chance of these essential changes in U.S. policies occurring unless a majority of American Jews become convinced that such actions are required by Israel’s own best interests—indeed, without exaggeration, required in order to save Israel from itself, and not only in its relations with the Palestinians but in its domestic political and societal health as well. Of course, it would be far better if Jewish support for American pressures on Israel were motivated at least as much by moral anger at Israel’s behavior and sympathy for the Palestinians; but, sadly, except for a small minority of the American Jewish community, that is not going to happen.

Given those two premises, I have mixed feelings about Max Blumenthal’s new work, Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel--“the result of over four years of on-the-ground research and reporting,” as Blumenthal writes in his preface. On the one hand, it is a powerful and impressive work by one of America’s most astute and courageous young journalists, a highly detailed and vividly written compendium of Israel’s criminal—no other word will do—occupation and repression of the Palestinian people. In persuasive detail, Blumenthal reviews and exposes not only the criminal behavior of Israel towards the Palestinians, but also the variety of ways in which Israel is becoming increasingly rightwing, anti-democratic, and even “fascistic” (a term increasingly used by Israel’s own dissenters)—in its schools, in its courts, in its racism (against both the Palestinians and African refugees in Israel), in its police repression, and in its growing restrictions against free speech and protest by Jewish Israelis, let alone by its own Palestinian citizens.

Blumenthal quotes Akiva Eldar, one of Israel’s greatest journalists, who sums up the findings of Israeli public opinion surveys: “Israeli Jews’ consciousness is characterized by a sense of victimization, a siege mentality, blind patriotism, belligerence, self-righteousness, dehumanization of the Palestinians, and insensitivity to their suffering.” As even Eric Alterman’s blast at Goliath in Nation (one of the few reviews in the mainstream media) concedes, the book is “mostly technically accurate”—an absurdly backhanded way of admitting that he can’t challenge the detailed evidence laid out by Blumenthal. In a rational world, then, Goliath should convince the American Jewish community as well as non-Jewish “pro-Israelis” to support the necessary changes in US policies in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It won’t, however—primarily because so many Jewish and other American “pro-Israelis,” like Alterman, are impervious to the facts. But Blumenthal must also bear at least some share of the responsibility for the hostile reception that Goliath is receiving—even from “liberal Zionists,” let alone from the majority of Israelis and American Jews who are well to the right of that small and increasingly beleaguered group.

The first problem concerns the disjuncture between the audience that Blumenthal wants to reach and his strategy for doing so. It is clear that Blumenthal agrees with the two premises I describe above, for in his preface he writes: “it is Americans’ tax dollars and political support that are crucial in sustaining the present state of affairs. I want to show what they are paying for, the facts as they really are today, in unadorned and unsanitized form, without sentimentality or nostalgia….Readers may not agree with all of my conclusions, but I hope they will carefully consider the facts that appear on these pages. They are, after all, the facts on the ground.”

However, Goliath is not likely to succeed in terms of its own purpose. For those who already have some knowledge of, and are increasingly disturbed by, the realities of Israeli policies and the U.S. collaboration with them, Blumenthal’s detailed reporting, analyses, and conclusions will be entirely convincing. But since that is still a small minority of American Jewish community, the problem is that Goliath is likely to end up as merely preaching to the choir. To be sure, that is far from pinning most of the responsibility for such an outcome simply on problems within Blumenthal’s book: the right wing in Israel and the U.S., Jewish or not, can’t be convinced by any evidence, period. The only hope, then, are Israeli and American centrists, who are unaware of the full truth but who are open, in principle, to reconsidering their position when the facts—powerfully presented by Goliath—are overwhelming and irrefutable.

For several reasons, however, Goliath is not likely to have much of an impact on the mainstream centrists in America, the most importance audience for any work seeking changes in the status quo. Given Blumenthal’s overall argument, however justified by the facts and evidence he presents, reaching that mainstream would have been an uphill battle in any case. However, Blumenthal has made the hurdles even greater because of the general tone of his writing and the loaded language and even outright contempt that he occasionally indulges in—mostly not without good reason, I should add, but a serious mistake nonetheless.

The Chapter Headings

The problems begin with a number of Goliath's sardonic chapter headings, which are designed to dramatize the vast gaps between how the Israelis see themselves--especially in their relations with the Palestinians as well as in their own highly flawed democracy-- and the realities. Among other provocative titles are “The Silence of the Lambs,” “Riding the Ass,” “The Best Times of Their Lives,” and “A Wet Dream.” Far more unfortunate are those that are intended to compare Israeli behavior to that of Nazi Germany: “The Concentration Camp,” “The Night of the Broken Glass,” and probably even “How to Kill Goyim and Influence People.”

In response to critics put off by such in-your-face headings, Blumenthal has defended himself by arguing that the facts justify the title headings. In the chapters dealing with the gap between Israeli perceptions and the realities, he indeed has a very good case that they do; nonetheless, in my judgment they are still a tactical error. The implicit or explicit comparisons between Israeli and Nazi behavior are especially unwise. That is not to deny that there are indeed a number of Israeli actions that are likely to call to mind Nazi behavior, especially in its crushing of resistance in the occupied territories. Nonetheless, they are very likely to be counterproductive in their effects on the intended audience for the book—which, to repeat, is not, or at least shouldn’t be, the far left in the Jewish communities in the U.S. and Israel, which already has noticed the parallels.

Further, even on the merits, and even given some basis in actual Israeli behavior, a fair treatment would have to call attention to what are still vast differences—to put it mildly!--between that behavior and that of Nazi Germany. Better, then, to just set out the facts, and let the readers think of the implications on their own. Or, alternatively, follow the strategy that I have sometimes employed: note the comparisons with the Israeli responses to Palestinian uprisings and, say, the Soviet crushing of the Hungarian and Czech revolutions –anything, that is, but Nazi Germany.

Language and Tone.

In addition to a number of the chapter titles, in too many places Blumenthal allows himself to indulge in loaded language, in some cases unfair on the merits and in others not without reason but nonetheless unnecessarily inflammatory. Here are some examples:

*The Israeli state has “corralled” the Russian immigrants “into the Zionist project, using them as human fodder to fill the ranks of the army and the major settlement blocs.” (22; all page numbers are from the Kindle edition of Goliath)

*When the managing editor of Time Magazine went to Israel in May 2012 to interview Netanyahu, he is described as “eager to relay a heavy dose of Bibi-think to the American public.” (29).

* Michael Oren, the Israeli Ambassador to the United States during most of Netanyahu’s current term is described as Netanyahu’s “attack dog,” to be “sicced” on critics of Israel. (29) To be sure, Oren is dreadful, but the language is off-putting.

*Blumenthal observes that a former three-hundred-year-old Palestinian mosque in Jaffa has been turned into an S & M night club. Fair enough, and sufficiently devastating without further comment—but what purpose is served, other than sheer contempt, when Blumenthal adds that “male bondage enthusiasts enjoyed having the remainder of their circumcised foreskin sewn over the tip of their penis?” (46-7)

*In shops beneath Blumenthal’s flat, “Gun-toting Orthodox settlers” and soldiers are not merely eating, but are “gorging themselves.” (237)

*It is sufficient to describe the Israeli army repression in the occupied territories without calling it the “jackboot” of repression (378), a term which is widely associated with the German army in its repression of the resistance in Nazi-occupied Europe.

The Rejection of Zionism

Blumenthal’s attack on Zionism, even—or especially--liberal Zionism, is an even more important reason why Goliath is almost surely not going to cause the majority of American Jews and other “pro-Israeli” groups to change their minds and support serious U.S. pressures on Israel.

There is a strong case for distinguishing between Zionism’s argument for the continuation of Israel as a Jewish state today (as opposed to a state of all its citizens) from the earlier Zionist arguments for the creation of a Jewish state in the aftermath of the murderous Russian and East European anti-Semitism of the late 19th / early 20 centuries and, obviously, the Holocaust. However, Blumenthal strongly implies that Zionism has always been wrong.

Early Zionism. Throughout the book Blumenthal describes Israel, from its outset, in terms of colonialism. For example, he writes: “In the narrative of the new nostalgia, Israel’s crisis began in 1967 with its conquest of new Arab land, and not in 1948, when it defined its settler-colonial character.” (272) Elsewhere, Israel is described as a colonial power, or one that has a “colonial character.” Or, he argues, kibbutzim that were established—“planted” is his term--in the Galilee or along Israel’s borders with Gaza were part of the “colonial agenda” designed to “to hold back the restive natives” on the other side. (87)

It cannot be denied that there are some legitimate comparisons between Western colonialism and Israeli behavior--unquestionably of its ongoing occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and Jerusalem since 1967, but even in the pre- and early post-state period. The parallels are obvious, and Blumenthal is hardly the first Jewish or Israeli dissident to point to them—yet, there are also highly important differences, and it is incumbent upon critics of Israel to acknowledge them in a serious manner.

It is beyond the purview of this review essay to go into detail, but at least at the level of motivation (consequences are a different matter), anyone describing Israel in terms of colonialism must also acknowledge that the driving force behind early Zionism was the felt urgent necessity (I would say, objective urgent necessity) to create a haven from murderous anti-Semitism. That must be distinguished from the obvious motives and complete lack of objective necessity that drove Western colonialism-- power for its own sake, economic gain or simple greed, or “the white man’s burden,” none of which had the slightest thing to do with early Zionism.

The Nakba. Blumenthal is particularly critical not only of Israeli rightists but also—if not especially --of liberal Zionists who, in his judgment, fail to realize the significance of the Nakba (the violent and frequently murderous expulsion of some 750,000 Palestinians from lands conquered or coveted by Israel during the 1947-49 period) in calling into question the legitimacy of Israel from the outset. For example, in Goliath’s chapter on his interview with the famed novelist and essayist David Grossman, a leading liberal Zionist, Blumenthal writes this:

Despite his outrage at the misdeeds committed after 1967, Grossman excised the Nakba from his frame of analysis. Of course, he knew the story of Israel’s foundation, warts and all. But the Nakba was the legacy also of the Zionist left, as were the mass expulsions committed in its wake….By singling out the settlement movement as the source of Israel’s crisis, Grossman and liberal Zionists elided the question altogether, starting the history at 1967. (273-74)

Liberal or even many not-so-liberal Zionists—Ari Shavit’s recent writing comes to mind—typically acknowledge the horror or even the criminality of the Nakba, but argue that it was necessary to establish a secure Israeli state with a large Jewish majority. My own view is different, as I developed it (and largely repeat here) in a March 2011 essay on this site, “Ethnic Cleansing and the Creation of Israel: Were There Alternatives?

Many post-Zionist critics of Israel argue that ethnic cleansing was an inextricable and inevitable outcome of Zionism itself, and that it simply wasn't possible to create a viable Jewish state without driving out large numbers of Palestinians. However, while there can be no doubt that the principle euphemistically called "transfer" was deeply embedded in Zionist ideology, it doesn't follow that the brutal expulsion of the Palestinians was the only way to ensure a large Jewish majority in Israel--or at least an Israel that remained within the UN boundaries.

Under the UN plan, the land allocated to a Jewish state contained about 500,000 Jews and 400,000 Arabs. Understandably, David Ben-Gurion told other Zionist leaders that "Such a composition does not provide a stable basis for a Jewish state....[It] does not even give us absolute assurance that control will remain in the hands of the Jewish majority." Even strong critics of the entire Zionist enterprise, such as Ilan Pappe, agree: "The almost equal demographic balance within the allocated Jewish state was such that...Zionism would never have attained any of its principal goals." (The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, 35)

What demographic balance would have worked? In fact, since the creation of Israel Jews have constituted about 80% of the population, evidently sufficient to provide a stable Jewish majority. Let us suppose, then, that in 1947 the Zionists had agreed to accept such an 80% majority within the UN boundaries: in that case, some 220,000 Palestinians would have had to be moved into the rest of Palestine or neighboring Arab states, rather than the approximately 750,000 that were expelled when Israel expanded its borders in 1948-49.

More importantly, there might well have been other ways to achieve that goal without engaging in murderous ethnic cleansing. For example, there should have been serious efforts to buy out the Palestinians with very generous offers, or if one prefers, "bribing" them to leave, as in fact Franklin Roosevelt had briefly considered: surely the international community as well as wealthy Jewish supporters of Israel would have been willing to provide the funds.

And even if financial inducements to leave had proven insufficient, it hardly follows that draconic ethnic cleansing was the only available method: there could have been a far less extensive and brutal "transfer"--such as, if necessary, non-voluntary relocation but accompanied by generous financial restitution. Indeed, it is worthy of note that the partition plan recommended by the British Peel Commission in 1937 cited previous precedents in which "compulsory exchanges of population" had succeeded in preventing civil or international conflict.

That is not to deny that no matter how well compensated, compulsory relocation would still constitute an injustice to Palestinians who refused to leave their homes and villages under any circumstance. Even so, differences in degrees of injustice matter a great deal. First of all, numbers matter: Of the 220,000 Palestinians who would have had to be relocated in order for the Jews to attain a large majority in Israel, surely some significant number of them would have done so if they had been offered very generous compensation and other forms of assistance in picking up their lives elsewhere.

In short, some relatively small number of Palestinians (say, 50,000?) would had to have been involuntarily moved—“transferred”--to areas just a few miles away, with essentially the same geography, climate, history, religion, language, and culture. Yes, that would still be an injustice, but radically less so than the violent expulsion of 750,000 people, many of them who fled in justified fear that they were in imminent danger of being killed, and others who were rounded up in a matter of hours and marched across the border with little but the clothes on their backs.

Finally, even after the expulsion of the Palestinians, in a variety of ways the Israelis might have at least mitigated the injustice--better said, the criminality--of the Nakba, if only they had had the moral and practical sense to have done so. First, they should have acknowledged and apologized for the Nakba, and committed themselves to do everything to make up for it-- short of disbanding Israeli as a Jewish state.

Second, they could and should have avoided further territorial expansion and expulsion of the Palestinians after 1949, especially the conquest and occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza after the 1967 war. Then, they should have agreed to a genuinely viable and independent Palestinian state in those territories, and along with the international community, provided generous development assistance to it.

Still further, the remaining Arab minority within Israel should have been given full political, social, and economic equality, as in fact Israel's Declaration of Independence had promised, a commitment that has been violated throughout the history of Israel.

Had they done all of these things, there is every reason to believe that despite the Nakba the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could have been brought to a peaceful and otherwise acceptable end long ago—and probably still today.

Zionism Today

In one of the most important—and revealing—passages in Goliath, Blumenthal further discusses his interview with David Grossman:

For Grossman and liberal Zionists like him, the transformation of Israel from an ethnically exclusive Jewish state into a multiethnic democracy was not an option. "‘For two thousand years," Grossman told me when I asked why he believed the preservation of Zionism was necessary, "we have been kept out, we have been excluded. And so for our whole history we were outsiders. Because of Zionism, we finally have the chance to be insiders." I told Grossman that my father had been a kind of insider. He had served as a senior aide to Bill Clinton, the president of the United States…working alongside other proud Jews like Rahm Emanuel and Sandy Berger. I told him that I was a kind of insider, and that my ambitions had never been obstructed by anti-Semitism. "Honestly, I have a hard time taking this kind of justification seriously," I told him. "I mean, Jews are enjoying a golden age in the United States."’(275)

Blumenthal then adds: “It was here that Grossman, the quintessential man of words, found himself at a loss,” the apparent implication being that his (Blumenthal’s) argument is unanswerable.

It isn’t. His argument is common among Jewish post- or even anti-Zionists: the core Zionist principle, the need for Jews to have a state of their own, is said to be now anachronistic because of the strength of Jewry and its “insider” status in the United States. For three reasons, it is not a persuasive argument. First, it is ahistorical, even in terms of the United States. In my own lifetime there was considerable anti-Semitism in the 1930s and early 1940s—not exactly ancient history. In this connection, three recent major works that include discussions of anti-Semitism in America before WWI--especially prominent in much of the isolationist movement-- make instructive reading: Susan Dunn’s 1940; FDR, Willkie, Lindbergh, Hitler (2013), Lynne Olson’s Those Angry Days (2013), and Philip Roth’s exercise in alternate history, The Plot Against America (2004), which persuasively imagines what might have happened in America if Charles Lindbergh had become president, an altogether realistic possibility in the late 1930s.

In any case, secondly, I am aware of no supporter of Zionism who focuses on the Jewish situation in the United States in support of the argument that Israel must continue as a largely-Jewish state as a potential refuge against the rise of anti-Semitism. It isn’t ancient and therefore irrelevant history that in late 19th and early 20th century European anti-Semitism was not only severe but murderous—in Czarist Russia, in eastern Europe and, of course, in Germany, where the Jews were increasingly assimilated and powerful-- until, that is, the rise of Nazism. And even when contemporary anti-Semitism has fallen short of becoming murderous, it was sufficiently severe to convince over a million Russian Jews that it was wise to emigrate to Israel.

Third, and most importantly, there is no prospect that Israel will agree to a peace settlement that doesn’t preserve Israel as a Jewish state. That fact of life alone makes the post-Zionist argument irrelevant, even if it were a persuasive one. Even a two-state settlement that preserves Israel as a Jewish state is becoming increasingly remote, let alone the transformation of Israel into a single binational state in which the Jews would almost certainly become a minority in the next few decades.


What is the best strategy to try to persuade Americans, especially Jewish Americans, that their nearly unconditional support of Israel is contributing to the current disaster? My argument on this issue assumes that the American Jewish community and other pro-Israeli groups are divided into three groups. The first are ideologues who are uninterested in the facts and can’t be moved. The second is a probably smaller group who not only know but care deeply about the facts, and need no further convincing that the unconditional US support of Israel is both morally wrong and contrary to the true interests of both Israel and the United States. The third and probably largest sector are the “liberal Zionists”:  American Jews (and their supporters) who are proudly liberal in their general values and in the context of American politics, who are unhappy about the Israeli occupation, oppose the settlements, and support a two-state settlement—but who are not prepared to say either that Zionism was a mistake from the outset or even that it is no longer justified.

Because of problems in both tone and—less often—substance, Goliath will probably not have much of an impact on these liberal Zionists (sometimes more unkindly described as “PEPS,” Progressives Except for Palestine). Indeed, most of them will never even hear about Goliath, let alone read it, because Blumenthal’s frequently confrontational or sardonic rhetoric has apparently resulted in a decision by the mainstream media to ignore the book.

That is most unfortunate, for Blumenthal is right that Israel’s behavior towards the Palestinians is indefensible and antithetical to what we used to be pleased to call “Jewish values.” Thus, I fully understand why he has chosen to bluntly express his (mostly) justifiable rage and contempt--to let it all hang out. Indeed, I’ve sometimes succumbed to the same temptation—but almost always to my later regret. Better, in short, to just let the brute and irrefutable facts speak for themselves.

To be sure, as one of Goliath’s best chapter titles puts it, for many Israelis and their US supporters “There Are No Facts.” Even so, those of us who share Blumenthal’s values and his knowledge of the realities have little choice but to continue our work and hope that at some point the facts will actually come to matter.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Wisdom From Ari Shavit

Ari Shavit is the current toast of the mainstream US media, among others NPR, Charlie Rose, the New Yorker, and the New York Times, which two days ago glowingly reviewed Shavit’s new book, “My Promised Land,” on the first page of the Arts section, on Sunday will publish another glowing review in the Book Review section, and yesterday published an oped column by him.

Shavit is entirely undeserving of all this acclaim. I’ve been reading his opinion pieces in Haaretz for years-- gritting my teeth and reading him, I should say, because more often than not he is infuriating. His writing is typically arrogant, self-referential, dead certain about matters he has no business being certain about, shamelessly exaggerated, and his arguments frequently are so unclear or contradictory—not only from column to column but within the same column—as to border on incoherence.

I will be analyzing and deconstructing Shavit’s book in due course, but first let’s look at yesterday’s Times column, “How Bush Let Iran Go Nuclear,” which illustrates almost all of his failings. I will reprint the entire column, in quotes, interspersed with my own comments, in italics.

               How Bush Let Iran Go Nuclear

“AMERICAN and Iranian negotiators yesterday began a second round of talks in Geneva, seeking a deal on Iran's nuclear program.  If such an agreement were signed, it would represent an Iranian victory — and an American defeat.”

He already knows this, even though no agreement has yet been reached, let alone made public.

“The Iranians would be able to maintain their nuclear program and continue to enrich uranium, while the Americans and their allies would loosen the economic siege on Iran and allow Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the economic oxygen needed to sustain his autocratic regime. Yes, Iran’s race to the bomb would be slowed down — but an accord would guarantee that it would eventually cross the finish line.”

Note: not “leave open the possibility,” but “guarantee.”

“The Geneva mind-set resembles a Munich mind-set: It would create the illusion of peace-in-our-time while paving the way to a nuclear-Iran-in-our-time.”

Munich again, the favorite analogy of Netanyahu and Israel’s hardliners when insisting that other states must go to war on Israel’s behalf: Iran is just like Nazi Germany on the eve of seeking to conquer all of Europe, if not beyond.

“But don’t blame President Obama. Indeed, this American defeat was set in motion long before he took office. What three American presidents, four Israeli prime ministers and a dozen European leaders vowed would never happen is actually happening. What was not to be is almost a reality. The Iranian bomb is nearly here.”

“Why wasn’t the West able to mobilize its political, economic and military resources in time to force Tehran to give up its nuclear ambition? The answer may be described as a spelling error.”

This is merely a lame effort at a joke—bad judgment, dumb writing, but at least harmless.

“After 9/11, the United States was determined to strike back, destroy terrorist sanctuaries and display its imperial might. President George W. Bush chose to do all of this in Afghanistan and Iraq. Afghanistan may have been a mistake, but it was an understandable one: Al Qaeda enjoyed the Taliban’s support and had found refuge in Taliban-controlled territory. But invading Iraq was an incomprehensible mistake, as there were no links between Saddam Hussein and the 19 terrorists who attacked New York and Washington in September 2001.”

“If Mr. Bush had decided to display American leadership and exercise American power by launching a diplomatic campaign against Iran rather than a military one against Iraq 10 years ago, the United States’ international standing would be far greater today.”

A "diplomatic" campaign? Reread the preceding paragraphs, not to mention the ensuing ones. Surely we expect him to say here a military campaign, not a diplomatic one. What’s going on here? Surely Shavit can’t be certain that earlier Bush-era diplomacy would have stopped Iran’s nuclear program in its tracks. My guess is that he wants to have it both ways: say diplomacy instead of military, but mean military, because he knows that an American audience is not in the mood for another US-launched war in the Middle East.

“The Bush administration’s decision to go after Iraq rather than Iran was a fatal one, and the long-term consequences are only now becoming clear, namely a devastating American failure in the battle to prevent a nuclear Iran, reflected in Washington’s willingness to sign a deeply flawed agreement.”

How does Shavit know that Washington will sign a deeply flawed argument that is not yet negotiated? Answer: he doesn’t.

“Mr. Bush’s responsibility for the disaster now unfolding is twofold: He failed to target Iran a decade ago, and created a climate that made it very difficult to target Iran today.”

NB: “target,” which clearly implies "attack," not merely engage in diplomacy.

“The Bush administration didn’t initiate a political-economic siege on Iran when it was weak”--Oh, now it’s a “siege” that Bush failed to undertake—more than diplomacy, then, but short of a military attack—“and Mr. Bush weakened America by exhausting its economic power and military might in a futile war. By the time American resolve was needed to fend off a genuine global threat, the necessary determination was no longer there. It had been wasted on the wrong cause.”

“The correct way to confront the Iranian threat would have been to establish a broad coalition including Russia, the European Union, Sunni Arab countries, Israel and the United States.”

No problem—how could Bush have missed this solution? Brings to mind an old joke: Guy runs into a hamburger joint, snaps his fingers, and says to the short-order cook: “Quick, make me a hamburger.” “Poof,” says the cook, “You’re a hamburger.”

“This would have placed Iran’s leaders in a real stranglehold and forced them to abandon their nuclear project — just as Libya did in 2003.”

“Stranglehold?” Sounds like more than diplomacy to me. Just like the diplomatic and economic pressures employed by the broad coalition against North Korea succeeded in stopping its nuclear weapons program?

“The Republican Party could have done that in 2003 or 2005 or 2007. But Republican leaders squandered the opportunity. Worse still, the United States got bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan and that sucked all the oxygen out of America’s lungs. Mr. Bush passed on to Mr. Obama a nation that had lost much of the resolve it had possessed. When faced with a real threat to world peace, America’s will was spent. It had evaporated in the violent streets of Basra and Baghdad.”

“Sure, Mr. Obama has made mistakes, too. After coming to office, he wasted time on a futile policy of engagement and then on ineffective sanctions. He ignored the British, French, Israelis, Egyptians and Saudis who warned him that he was being naïve and turned his back on the freedom-seeking Iranian masses in June 2009. When Mr. Obama finally endorsed assertive diplomacy and punitive sanctions in 2011 and 2012, it was too little, too late.”

“But Mr. Obama was operating within the smoky ruins of the strategic disaster he had inherited. After Iraq, America is a traumatized nation, with a limited attention span for problems in the Middle East. The empire is weary. It has lost the ardor and wisdom needed to deal with the cruelest of the world’s regions and with the most dangerous of the world’s evil powers.”

Note the over-the-top rhetoric (which I have italicized) in these three paragraphs. He's lost it.

“The Geneva agreement being negotiated is an illusion. The so-called moderate president of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, is an illusion, too.”

How does he know that? That’s what the hardliners said--for quite a few years-- about Gorbachev in the Soviet Union. And Rouhani, who like Gorbachev has been saying almost all the right things, has been in power for less than four months.

“So is the hope that Iran’s supreme leader can be appeased. Because America missed the opportunity for assertive diplomacy, all the options now left on the table are dire ones. Rather than pursuing a dangerous interim agreement, the West must insist that all the centrifuges in Iran stop spinning while a final agreement is negotiated. President Obama was right to demand a settlement freeze in the West Bank in 2009. Now he must demand a total centrifuge freeze in Iran.”

Good idea. As we will recall, Obama’s “demand” that Israel stop the settlements in the West Bank stopped  them cold, so why wouldn’t a similar demand be just as successful in stopping Iran’s nuclear program?

Does anyone at the Times actually read the opeds before they are printed?

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Deconstructing Ian Lustick’s “Two-State Illusion”


On September 15, the New York Times published published Ian Lustick’s long analysis of the stalemated Israeli-Palestinian two-state peace process, entitled “Two-State Illusion.” In bringing to the attention of the general public the diminishing prospects for an Israeli-Palestinian two-state peace settlement, there is no doubt that Lustick—and the Times—have performed a very important public service.

Even so, there are three important problems in Lustick’s analysis. The first is that he is dismissive and condescending to supporters of a two-state settlement; indeed, some of his tone and language essentially questions their intelligence and even their motives. Second, some of his arguments are internally inconsistent. And most importantly, Lustick does not make a persuasive case for his central argument: that there might be an attainable and superior alternative to an Israeli-Palestinian two-state agreement if only the negotiations for such settlement were abandoned.

I will proceed by reprinting the entire Lustick piece, interspersing it with my own comments, italicized and in red.


"Two-State Illusion," by Ian S. Lustick

THE last three decades are littered with the carcasses of failed negotiating projects billed as the last chance for peace in Israel. All sides have been wedded to the notion that there must be two states, one Palestinian and one Israeli. For more than 30 years, experts and politicians have warned of a “point of no return.” Secretary of State John Kerry is merely the latest in a long line of well-meaning American diplomats wedded to an idea whose time is now past.

True believers in the two-state solution see absolutely no hope elsewhere. With no alternative in mind, and unwilling or unable to rethink their basic assumptions, they are forced to defend a notion whose success they can no longer sincerely portray as plausible or even possible.

It’s like 1975 all over again, when the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco fell into a coma. The news media began a long death watch, announcing each night that Generalissimo Franco was still not dead. This desperate allegiance to the departed echoes in every speech, policy brief and op-ed about the two-state solution today.

Here Lustick is attacking a straw man: Just who are these two-state advocates who hold to a “desperate allegiance” to“an idea whose time is past,” and who have “no alternative in mind and [are] unwilling or unable to rethink basic assumptions?” That doesn’t accurately describe any serious two-state advocate with whom I am familiar—all of whom fully recognize that currently such a settlement is no longer realistically attainable. At the same time they—perhaps I should say we--consider that the only alternative to a two-state agreement (other, that is, than the continuation of the Israeli occupation and repression of the Palestinians)would be the creation of some kind of binational democratic single state. The problem, however, is that such a state has even less chance of being accepted by the Israelis than a two-state settlement, and it is far more likely to end in bloody communal conflict than in a just and democratic peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Continuing with Lustick’s essay:

True, some comas miraculously end. Great surprises sometimes happen. The problem is that the changes required to achieve the vision of robust Israeli and Palestinian states living side by side are now considerably less likely than other less familiar but more plausible outcomes that demand high-level attention but aren’t receiving it.

Strong Islamist trends make a fundamentalist Palestine more likely than a small state under a secular government. The disappearance of Israel as a Zionist project, through war, cultural exhaustion or demographic momentum, is at least as plausible as the evacuation of enough of the half-million Israelis living across the 1967 border, or Green Line, to allow a real Palestinian state to exist. While the vision of thriving Israeli and Palestinian states has slipped from the plausible to the barely possible, one mixed state emerging from prolonged and violent struggles over democratic rights is no longer inconceivable. Yet the fantasy that there is a two-state solution keeps everyone from taking action toward something that might work.

But what is Lustick’s argument here? He begins by saying that it is more likely that Palestine will become a fundamentalist Islamic state and that Israel will somehow “disappear as a Zionist project” than that there will be a two-state settlement between a largely Jewish and Zionist Israel alongside a non-fundamentalist Palestinian state. The prediction about Palestine is offered with no evidence and no supporting argument; the prediction about the death of Zionism in Israel is quite unpersuasive, regardless of “war, cultural exhaustion or demographic momentum,” for the overwhelming majority of Israelis—including most Israeli liberals who deplore the occupation—have no intention of giving up Zionism.

Then, Lustick’s next sentence (“While the vision” etc.) strongly implies that in a "mixed state"--usually referred to as the one-state solution-- "prolonged and violent struggles for democratic rights" between the Jews and the Palestinians would be more likely than smooth and peaceful transition to a true binational democracy.

Possibly so, but then Lustick's next sentence seems to contradict this assessment, for he asserts that the two-state “fantasy” is what “keeps everyone from taking action toward something that might work.” But what is this “something?”  Apparently that it would be better to abandon fruitless negotiations so that a binational democracy state can emerge after prolonged communal warfare.  No wonder he doesn't want to clearly spell this out--it would surely not hold much appeal to most Palestinians or Israelis.[1]

All sides have reasons to cling to this illusion. The Palestinian Authority needs its people to believe that progress is being made toward a two-state solution so it can continue to get the economic aid and diplomatic support that subsidize the lifestyles of its leaders, the jobs of tens of thousands of soldiers, spies, police officers and civil servants, and the authority’s prominence in a Palestinian society that views it as corrupt and incompetent.

Israeli governments cling to the two-state notion because it seems to reflect the sentiments of the Jewish Israeli majority and it shields the country from international opprobrium, even as it camouflages relentless efforts to expand Israel’s territory into the West Bank.

American politicians need the two-state slogan to show they are working toward a diplomatic solution, to keep the pro-Israel lobby from turning against them and to disguise their humiliating inability to allow any daylight between Washington and the Israeli government.

Finally, the “peace process” industry — with its legions of consultants, pundits, academics and journalists — needs a steady supply of readers, listeners and funders who are either desperately worried that this latest round of talks will lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state, or that it will not.

The first three of those paragraphs are acute and persuasive, but the fourth is another matter. Those who have not given up the long-range hope for a two state settlement, Lustick writes, constitute a “peace process industry,” whose “legions…need a steady supply of readers, listeners and funders."  Funders? This is apparently meant to suggest that those who continue to favor a two-state solution are just another special interest "industry"--something like, perhaps, the "military-industrial complex," or the Israel Lobby, whose “legions” descend on Washington on behalf of their narrow self-interests?

Since I first started writing about a two state settlement some thirty years ago, I suppose that makes me a member of this “industry”; however, I don’t recognize Lustick’s portrayal. Nor do I find persuasive the implication—more than an implication, really—that the unwillingness to abandon the two-state idea can only be explained by the intellectual density of “the peace process industry” or its “need” for readers, listeners, and—of all things—funding.

Lustick continues:

Conceived as early as the 1930s, the idea of two states between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea all but disappeared from public consciousness between 1948 and 1967. Between 1967 and 1973 it re-emerged, advanced by a minority of “moderates” in each community. By the 1990s it was embraced by majorities on both sides as not only possible but, during the height of the Oslo peace process, probable. But failures of leadership in the face of tremendous pressures brought Oslo crashing down. These days no one suggests that a negotiated two-state “solution” is probable. The most optimistic insist that, for some brief period, it may still be conceivable.

But many Israelis see the demise of the country as not just possible, but probable. The State of Israel has been established, not its permanence. The most common phrase in Israeli political discourse is some variation of “If X happens (or doesn’t), the state will not survive!” Those who assume that Israel will always exist as a Zionist project should consider how quickly the Soviet, Pahlavi Iranian, apartheid South African, Baathist Iraqi and Yugoslavian states unraveled, and how little warning even sharp-eyed observers had that such transformations were imminent.

In all these cases, presumptions about what was “impossible” helped protect brittle institutions by limiting political imagination. And when objective realities began to diverge dramatically from official common sense, immense pressures accumulated.

JUST as a balloon filled gradually with air bursts when the limit of its tensile strength is passed, there are thresholds of radical, disruptive change in politics. When those thresholds are crossed, the impossible suddenly becomes probable, with revolutionary implications for governments and nations. As we see vividly across the Middle East, when forces for change and new ideas are stifled as completely and for as long as they have been in the Israel-Palestinian conflict, sudden and jagged change becomes increasingly likely.

History offers many such lessons. Britain ruled Ireland for centuries, annexing it in 1801. By the mid-19th century the entire British political class treated Ireland’s permanent incorporation as a fact of life. But bottled-up Irish fury produced repeated revolts. By the 1880s, the Irish question was the greatest issue facing the country; it led to mutiny in the army and near civil war before World War I. Once the war ended, it took only a few years until the establishment of an independent Ireland. What was inconceivable became a fact.

France ruled Algeria for 130 years and never questioned the future of Algeria as an integral part of France. But enormous pressures accumulated, exploding into a revolution that left hundreds of thousands dead. Despite France’s military victory over the rebels in 1959, Algeria soon became independent, and Europeans were evacuated from the country.

And when Mikhail S. Gorbachev sought to save Soviet Communism by reforming it with the policies of glasnost and perestroika, he relied on the people’s continuing belief in the permanence of the Soviet structure. But the forces for change that had already accumulated were overwhelming. Unable to separate freedom of expression and market reforms from the rest of the Soviet state project, Mr. Gorbachev’s policies pushed the system beyond its breaking point. Within a few years, both the Soviet Union and the Communist regime were gone.

Obsessive focus on preserving the theoretical possibility of a two-state solution is as irrational as rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic rather than steering clear of icebergs. But neither ships in the night nor the State of Israel can avoid icebergs unless they are seen.

All of this is unexceptionable, and a useful reminder that today’s “fantasies” can become tomorrow’s realities. However, Lustick fails to observe that by the very same logic, a two-state solution, which he derides, could also become a future possibility.

The two-state slogan now serves as a comforting blindfold of entirely contradictory fantasies. The current Israeli version of two states envisions Palestinian refugees abandoning their sacred “right of return,” an Israeli-controlled Jerusalem and an archipelago of huge Jewish settlements, crisscrossed by Jewish-only access roads. The Palestinian version imagines the return of refugees, evacuation of almost all settlements and East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital.

Lustick is wrong or at least quite misleading about the real status of the Palestinian “right of return.” There is a great deal of evidence that moderate Palestinian leaders—and possibly even Hamas—recognize and accept that there can be no large-scale right of return, and are prepared to essentially abandon it as a practical matter and accept instead a largely symbolic minimal return, in exchange for Israeli acceptance of the other major elements in the international consensus two-state idea: the end of the occupation, the removal of Jewish settlements, Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines except for some small territorial swaps, East Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian state, etc.

I have discussed the evidence for this in my blog, On the U.S and Israel, in the posting of Sept. 7, 2013, entitled “Is the Palestinian "Right of Return" an Insuperable Obstacle to an Israeli-Palestinian Peace Settlement?"

Lustick now comes to the heart of his argument: a superior alternative to the two-state solution can only emerge if the two-state idea—especially negotiations to realize that idea--are abandoned. He puts it this way:

DIPLOMACY under the two-state banner is no longer a path to a solution but an obstacle itself. We are engaged in negotiations to nowhere. And this isn’t the first time that American diplomats have obstructed political progress in the name of hopeless talks.

In 1980, I was a 30-year-old assistant professor, on leave from Dartmouth at the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research. I was responsible for analyzing Israeli settlement and land expropriation policies in the West Bank and their implications for the “autonomy negotiations” under way at that time between Israel, Egypt and the United States. It was clear to me that Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s government was systematically using tangled talks over how to conduct negotiations as camouflage for de facto annexation of the West Bank via intensive settlement construction, land expropriation and encouragement of “voluntary” Arab emigration.

To protect the peace process, the United States strictly limited its public criticism of Israeli government policies, making Washington an enabler for the very processes of de facto annexation that were destroying prospects for the full autonomy and realization of the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people that were the official purpose of the negotiations. This view was endorsed and promoted by some leading voices within the administration. Unsurprisingly, it angered others. One day I was summoned to the office of a high-ranking diplomat, who was then one of the State Department’s most powerful advocates for the negotiations. He was a man I had always respected and admired. “Are you,” he asked me, “personally so sure of your analysis that you are willing to destroy the only available chance for peace between Israelis and Palestinians?” His question gave me pause, but only briefly. “Yes, sir,” I answered, “I am.”

I still am. Had America blown the whistle on destructive Israeli policies back then it might have greatly enhanced prospects for peace under a different leader. It could have prevented Mr. Begin’s narrow electoral victory in 1981 and brought a government to power that was ready to negotiate seriously with the Palestinians before the first or second intifada and before the construction of massive settlement complexes in the West Bank. We could have had an Oslo process a crucial decade earlier.

Now, as then, negotiations are phony; they suppress information that Israelis, Palestinians and Americans need to find noncatastrophic paths into the future. The issue is no longer where to draw political boundaries between Jews and Arabs on a map but how equality of political rights is to be achieved. The end of the 1967 Green Line as a demarcation of potential Israeli and Palestinian sovereignty means that Israeli occupation of the West Bank will stigmatize all of Israel.

For some, abandoning the two-state mirage may feel like the end of the world. But it is not. Israel may no longer exist as the Jewish and democratic vision of its Zionist founders. The Palestine Liberation Organization stalwarts in Ramallah may not strut on the stage of a real Palestinian state. But these lost futures can make others more likely.

The assumptions necessary to preserve the two-state slogan have blinded us to more likely scenarios. With a status but no role, what remains of the Palestinian Authority will disappear. Israel will face the stark challenge of controlling economic and political activity and all land and water resources from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. The stage will be set for ruthless oppression, mass mobilization, riots, brutality, terror, Jewish and Arab emigration and rising tides of international condemnation of Israel. And faced with growing outrage, America will no longer be able to offer unconditional support for Israel. Once the illusion of a neat and palatable solution to the conflict disappears, Israeli leaders may then begin to see, as South Africa’s white leaders saw in the late 1980s, that their behavior is producing isolation, emigration and hopelessness.

Fresh thinking could then begin about Israel’s place in a rapidly changing region.

But what is the implication here?  That you can't make an omelet without breaking some eggs?  Or that if you want revolutionary change, “the worse, the better,” as Lenin supposedly said?  No doubt  Lustick would object to such a characterization, but in fact he is arguing--or strongly implying--that it would be better to abandon the current obsession with the two state solution and to let things slide into chaos as the Palestinian Authority loses support among the Palestinians and the oppressive Israeli policies makes Israel a pariah, too much so even for the U.S. to support. Then, he suggests, facing disaster both sides might be willing to make concessions.

Perhaps. Historically, however, this kind of apocalyptic thinking has more often resulted in--apocalypse.

Lustick continues:

There could be generous compensation for lost property. Negotiating with Arabs and Palestinians based on satisfying their key political requirements, rather than on maximizing Israeli prerogatives, might yield more security and legitimacy. Perhaps publicly acknowledging Israeli mistakes and responsibility for the suffering of Palestinians would enable the Arab side to accept less than what it imagines as full justice. And perhaps Israel’s potent but essentially unusable nuclear weapons arsenal could be sacrificed for a verified and strictly enforced W.M.D.-free zone in the Middle East. Such ideas cannot even be entertained as long as the chimera of a negotiated two-state solution monopolizes all attention.

But all of these possible changes are entirely consistent with—indeed, the sine qua non—of a two state solution—and have long been recognized as such by its advocates.

Finally, Lustick comes to what he considers to be a desirable alternative to a two-state settlement, in which both sides, facing disaster, might be willing to make concessions, and new alliances might form between Jews and Arabs with a similar agenda:

But once the two-state-fantasy blindfolds are off, politics could make strange bedfellows. In such a radically new environment, secular Palestinians in Israel and the West Bank could ally with Tel Aviv’s post-Zionists, non-Jewish Russian-speaking immigrants, foreign workers and global-village Israeli entrepreneurs. Anti-nationalist ultra-Orthodox Jews might find common cause with Muslim traditionalists. Untethered to statist Zionism in a rapidly changing Middle East, Israelis whose families came from Arab countries might find new reasons to think of themselves not as “Eastern,” but as Arab. Masses of downtrodden and exploited Muslim and Arab refugees, in Gaza, the West Bank and in Israel itself could see democracy, not Islam, as the solution for translating what they have (numbers) into what they want (rights and resources). Israeli Jews committed above all to settling throughout the greater Land of Israel may find arrangements based on a confederation, or a regional formula more attractive than narrow Israeli nationalism.

Talk of your fantasies: Israeli nuclear disarmament in the framework of a “verified and strictly enforced W.M.D.-free zone in the Middle East”? An alliance between ultra-Orthodox Jews and Muslim traditionalists, the same Islamists who Lustick, a few paragraphs ago, predicted “would make a fundamentalist Palestine more likely than a small state under a secular government”?[2] And Israeli Jews who fled from the Arab Middle East might come to “think of themselves as Arabs”?

It remains possible that someday two real states may arise. But the pretense that negotiations under the slogan of “two states for two peoples” could lead to such a solution must be abandoned. Time can do things that politicians cannot.

Just as an independent Ireland emerged by seceding 120 years after it was formally incorporated into the United Kingdom, so, too, a single state might be the route to eventual Palestinian independence. But such outcomes develop organically; they are not implemented by diplomats overnight and they do not arise without the painful stalemates that lead each party to conclude that time is not on their side.

Peacemaking and democratic state building require blood and magic. The question is not whether the future has conflict in store for Israel-Palestine. It does. Nor is the question whether conflict can be prevented. It cannot. But avoiding truly catastrophic change means ending the stifling reign of an outdated idea and allowing both sides to see and then adapt to the world as it is.

No doubt. But it remains quite implausible that the negotiating process—however currently doomed to failure because of Israeli intransigence—is the major obstacle to “allowing both sides to see and then adapt to the world as it is.” Or to put it differently, the current negotiations process is indeed an obstacle to progress, but that is because the Israeli government is not “negotiating” for a two-state solution but, with inept or disingenuous US collaboration, is using the negotiating process to deflect attention from its intransigence.

However, when Israeli-Arab negotiations have been serious, carried out by parties genuinely interested in a compromise peace settlement, they have worked: the negotiations leading to the Egyptian -Israeli peace settlement in 1979; the Israeli-Jordanian settlement in 1994; the Taba negotiations at the end of 2000 between high Israeli and Palestinian officials that came very close to ending the conflict; the unofficial but high-level Geneva Agreements of 2003, which specified in great detail the components of a peace settlement, and which surely will be the framework for any future two-state settlement; and recent revelations about the secret negotiations in 2008 between Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert and President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, which both Olmert and Abbas have said came very close to success before they were aborted after Olmert authorized “Operation Cast Lead,” the major Israeli attack on Gaza at the end of 2008.

In the final analysis, there are rarely alternatives to diplomacy and detailed negotiations in order to peacefully settle long-standing conflicts-- although the obvious precondition for success is that all sides have to be genuinely willing to compromise. Lustick's argument would have been far more convincing if he had just clearly and explicitly said that the two-state negotiations have failed because of Israeli intransigence and US complicity in that intransigence. In fact, it is clear that Lustick actually shares that assessment.

A clear and persuasive alternative to Lustick’s argument would go something like this: The two-state solution is currently dead—but overwhelmingly because of Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians, its historical mythologies, its increasingly extremist religious and nationalist ideologies, its moral blindness, and its sheer stupidity concerning its true interests, let alone of the demands of minimal justice. However, the only theoretically desirable one-state alternative, a democratic binational state, has even less chance of being accepted by the Israelis than a two-state solution—and even if Israel did agree to a single binational state, it would be more likely to end in large-scale communal violence and Jewish domination than in peace, democracy and binational equality.

Therefore, there is no practical alternative but to keep the two-state idea alive in the hope—not necessarily foolish, in light of Lustick’s own list of apparently hopeless ideas that nonetheless were eventually realized—that something significant will change, such as serious US pressures on Israel or even a sea change in Israeli attitudes and behaviors.

[1]In a hard-hitting analysis of the Lustick argument, two young Israeli scholars and activists opposed to the Israeli occupation write that “[Lustick’s] claims become so out of touch with reality that they border on insult to Israelis and Palestinians genuinely interested in resolving the conflict in one way or another.” Avner Inbar and Assaf Sharon, “Partition Skepticism and the Future of the Peace Process,” Open Zion, Sept. 25 2013

[2]Similarly, Inbar and Sharon sardonically observe that this apparent inconsistency in Lustick’s argument can be resolved only if “[the] the two-state solution…[was] the driving force behind Islamic fundamentalism…”