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 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.
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.