Thursday, July 3, 2014

History vs "History."

When lawyers make statements about the innocence of their clients sensible people know not to take them at face value, for the legal profession’s first duty is to try to prove that its clients are innocent, whether or not they are. So, to point to an obvious example, sensible and reasonably knowledgeable people know they must discount anything Allan Dershowitz says about Israel; after all, he’s a lawyer and Israel, in effect, is his client.

It’s very different with academic historians, however—or at least it’s supposed to be—for their first duty, their only duty really, is to ascertain historical truth, as best as they can. Thus, historians—perhaps I should say, “historians”— who ignore, distort, or simply baldly deny historical facts and evident truths (and some truths are evident) are guilty of donning the trappings of scholarship in an effort to lend credibility to their ideologies or policy preferences.

To be sure, ascertaining historical truth is hardly  always easy, for on many issues there are perfectly legitimate factual or interpretative differences among scholars. However, there are limits to such legitimate disagreements, especially in cases in which the facts are indisputable. Cliched as it has become, Daniel Moynihan’s famous statement is indispensable: “Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts.”

The Arab-Israeli conflict is one of the historical cases in which the most basic truths are, or should be, incontestable. Despite the conflicting “narratives,” there is no symmetry: one sides’ narrative is overwhelmingly supported by the historical facts, and the other sides’ is largely mythology that is no longer accepted by serious scholars and observers.

One of the clearest examples concerns whether  Arab hatred of Israel and the Jews is primarily responsible for the repeated failures to end the Arab-Israeli conflict since since 1948.  In fact, there should be no dispute over this, for the historical record is irrefutable: the Arab states, individually and collectively, have repeatedly sought to make peace with Israel.

But not according to a June 24 article in the magazine Tablet,”Why the Arab World Is Lost in an Emotional Nakba, and How We Keep It There.”   The author, Richard Landes, is a Harvard-educated associate professor in the Department of History at Boston University—all the right credentials. His argument, however, is another matter.

The “Arab political culture,” Landes writes, is driven by “honor/shame values…[and] tends to favor ascendancy through aggression.” That is why the Arab-Israeli conflict has been intractable, he says—in 1948 and continuing throughout the conflict the Arab states and the “Arab street” have maintained “that for the sake of Arab honor Israel must be destroyed and that those who disagreed were traitors to the Arab cause.”

For this reason, Landes concludes, the Arabs will never agree to peace with Israel, even if Israel withdrew from all the occupied territories: “Attention to honor-shame culture... suggests that such a retreat would trigger greater aggression in the drive for true Palestinian honor, which means ‘all of Palestine, from the river to the sea.’”

The lack of correspondence of this argument with the clear historical truth is breathtaking. In fact, throughout the entire history of the conflict, all the relevant Arab states have repeatedly offered to settle their conflict with Israel, essentially in exchange for the Israeli withdrawal from conquered and occupied Arab lands. I have written about this history in some detail (for one version, see my long blog essay of December 19, 2013, at

In brief summary, at the 1949 Lausanne conference the main Arab states proposed a peace settlement to Israel, provided (1)that Israel agree to withdraw from the territories it conquered in the 1948 war and return to the borders established by the 1947 UN partition and (2)that it agree to the return of the Palestinian refugees who had fled the 1948 war or had been expelled by Israel.  Israel turned down the Arab proposal.

Nonetheless, what Lausanne (and other Arab offers) demonstrated was that regardless of their previous intransigence, the main Arab states were now willing to accept Israel and end the conflict.  Moreover, since the early 1970s, the Arab states have again repeatedly sought to settle the Israeli-Palestinian and overall Arab-Israeli conflicts, on terms that were both just and not merely entirely consistent with legitimate Israeli security needs, but in fact would have furthered them.

Though there have been other (but soluable) issues, in the last forty-four years the basic Arab terms for peace (and, in most cases, a full normalization of political and economic relations) have been that Israel withdraw not to the 1947 lines but only to the expanded Israel that followed the 1948 war, and agree to a two-state settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

Where, then, are the Arab demands--required by their "culture"--that Israel must be destroyed? On the contrary, the evidence demonstrates that Israel could have reached a settlement with the main Arab states collectively in the summer of 1949, or bilaterally with Egypt in 1948 and again in the early 1970s (thus avoiding the 1973 Israeli-Egyptian War), with Syria in 1949 and again in the 1990s, with Saudi Arabia since 1981, and with Lebanon and Jordan since the onset of the conflict.

Moreover, since 2002 the entire Arab League has formally, unanimously and on repeated occasions proposed an entirely fair overall peace agreement with Israel. And, above all, the evidence is overwhelming that since the 1980s at the latest, Yasser Arafat and the mainstream Palestinian leadership have wanted to reach a two-state settlement with Israel, based on the international consensus of what such a settlement would entail. Indeed, the weight of the evidence suggests that even Hamas would, however reluctantly, agree to accept or at least not disrupt a two-state settlement.

None of this--the real history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, not its mythology--can be found in the Landes article.

1 comment:

Castellio said...

Good article. Thanks