by Norman G. Finkelstein
In Beyond Chutzpah I argued that across the political spectrum historians have now reached a broad consensus on the Israel-Palestine conflict's origins. A recent study strikingly confirms this thesis. Shlomo Ben-Ami was Israel's Foreign Minister and key Israeli negotiator at the Camp David and Taba meetings in 2000-1. In his new book, Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy (Oxford: 2006), Ben-Ami covers a lot of the same ground as my own Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict (Verso: 2003). From the excerpts below readers will note that, although describing himself as "a Zionist, and an ardent one at that" (p. xii), Ben-Ami echoes many of my arguments, even citing the identical evidence. Image and Reality recalls that like many other states that displaced the indigenous population one of the founding myths of Israel was that the land was empty prior to foreign settlement. For supporting evidence it quoted among others Israel Zngwill, Moshe Smilansky, David Ben-Gurion, Izhak Ben-Zvi and Abba Eban:
Until World War I, Israel Zangwill's slogan 'A land without a people for a people without a land' typified Zionist propaganda on Palestine. The influential Zionist publicist Moshe Smilansky recalled in 1914 that, 'From the first moment of the Zionist idea, Zionist propaganda described the land to which we were headed as desolate and forsaken, impatiently waiting for its redeemers'; a ' feeling of certainty' was created 'that Palestine was a virgin country'. (Image and Reality, p. 95)
In David Ben-Gurion's monumental A Personal History, Palestine on the eve of Zionist colonization is described as 'in a virtual state of anarchy... primitive, neglected, and derelict'....
In The Jews in their Land Itzhak Ben-Zvi, Israel's second president, provide a copiously detailed accounting of the Jewish communities -- miniscule and overwhelmingly anti-Zionist, although one would never know it from this record -- in Palestine during the pre-Mandate period. The Arabs generally cast as bedouins, are variously depicted as 'ransacking', 'looting', 'pillaging', 'robbing', 'cheating', 'vandalizing', 'plundering', or 'terrorizing' the Jews.... (I&R p. 96)
Abba Eban recalls in My Country that the 'physical link' between Jews and Palestine was 'never broken' as 'a thin but crucial line of continuity had been maintained by small Jewish settlements.' On the other hand Palestine 'never became the cradle of another independent nation' and 'the association of the land with Jewish history was never obscured or superseded'. Indeed, Palestine on the eve of Zionist colonization is described by Eban as 'a backward and desolate place ... stagnant ... constantly ravished by malaria and pestilence ... squalid ... unpromising, almost repellent' -- aside, presumably, from that 'thin but crucial line' of Jewish 'continuity'. (Image and Reality, p. 97)
To Israel Zangwill, Palestine was 'a land without a people for a people without a land', a 'virgin country', as Moshe Smilansky put it. David Ben-Gurion described Palestine on the eve of the Zionist colonisation as 'primitive, neglected and derelict'. A member of a later generation, Abba Eban, echoed the descriptions of the founding fathers when he wrote in terms that were reminiscent of Mark Twain's contemptuous impressions of the Holy Land in 1867 (The Innocents Abroad), about a 'squalid, unpromising, almost repellent land'.
As a group with a collective or national personality, the Arabs hardly existed in the perception of the early Zionists and were depicted, for example, by Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, later to be the President of the State of Israel, in his The Jews in their Land, as 'looters', 'robbers', 'cheaters', and 'plunderers'.... (Scars of War, p. 4)
The main Arab (and British) fear before and after the 1948 war was that the Zionist movement would use the Jewish state carved out of Palestine as a springboard for further expansion. In fact, Zionists pursued from early on a 'stages' strategy of conquering Palesine by parts -- a strategy is would later vilify the Palestinians for.Here's what Ben-Ami writes:
As from the late 1970s Israel would always reject the admittedly ambiguous peace overtures of the PLO on the ground that they were part of a 'strategy of phases', the final objective of which was to take over the whole of Palestine and eventually do away with the State of Israel altogether. But the copyright for the strategy of phases might lie elsewhere: it was conceived by the leaders of the Yishuv in the mid 1930s; it was inherent in the notion they had of the real meaning of partition as the first stage of wider territorial accomplishments.(Scars of War, p. 24)Image and Reality argued that Ben-Gurion intended to expel the Arabs and that his main concern was to get the timing right for such an expulsion:
In the first round of conquest, the Zionist movement set its sights on 'the way of transfer'.... The key was to get the timing right. Ben-Gurion refleting on the expulsion option in the late 1930s wrote: 'What is inconceivable in normal times is possible in revolutionary times; and if at this time the opportunity is missed and what is possible in such great hours is not carried out -- a whole world is lost.' (Image and Reality, p. xii)Here's what Ben-Ami writes:
But again, Ben-Gurion's voice had always a special meaning and relevance. At a Zionist meeting in June 1938 he was as explicit as he could be: 'I support compulsory transfer. I don't see in it anything immoral.' But he also knew that transfer would be possible only in the midst of war, not in 'normal times'. What might be impossible in such times, he said, 'is possible in revolutionary times'. The problem was then not moral, perhaps not even political; it was a function of timing, and this meant war. (Scars of War, p. 26)Image and Reality argued that historian Benny Morris's thesis that the Palestinian refugee question was "born of war, not by design" was not supported by his own evidence, which rather pointed to the conclusion that the Palestinians were intentionally expelled. For supporting evidence it quoted among others David Ben-Gurion, Aharon Cohen and Ya'acov Hazan:
My contention will be that the evidence that Morris adduces does not support his temperate conclusions and that the truth lies very much closer to the Arab view. (Image and Reality, p. 52)
Learning that one Zionist official in the city was trying to persuade the Arabs to stay, Ben-Gurion remarked, 'Doesn't he have anything more important to do?' (Birth, p. 328, note 4). (Image and Reality, p. 66)
On 7 February 1948, Ben-Gurion spoke approvingly at a Mapai council meeting of the Arab flight from West Jerusalem and anticipated its generalization. He was delighted that not 'since the days of the Roman destruction' was Jerusalem 'so completely Jewish as today. ... There are no strangers [i.e. Arabs]. One hundred percent Jews.' He added that
'...Certainly there will be great changes in the composition of the population of the country.' (Birth, p. 52; Tikkun, p. 83; 1948, pp. 40, 90; Milstein, 'No Deportations, Evacuation')
(Image and Reality, p. 70)
Two days later, on 6 April, Ben-Gurion added:
We will not be able to win the war if we do not, during the war, populate Upper and Lower, Eastern and Western Galilee, the Negev and the Jerusalem area, even if only in an artificial way, in a military way.... I believe the war will also bring in its wake a great chance in the distribution of the Arab population. (Birth, p. 181) (Image and Reality, p, 71)
In early May, Aharon Cohen, director of Mapam's Arab Department wrote that 'a deliberate eviction [of the Arabs] is taking place. ... Others may rejoice -- I, as a socialist, am ashamed and afraid'.... In July, Mapam leader Ya'acov Hazan thretened that 'the robbery, killing, expulsion, and rape of the Arabs could reach such proportions that we would [no longer] be able to stand'... (Image and Reality, p, 74 - 76)
The soldier eyewitness concluded that 'cultured officers ... had turned into base murderers and this not in the heat of battle ... but out of a system of expulsion and destruction. The less Arabs remained -- the better. This principle is the political motor for the expulsions and the atrocities' (Birth, pp. 222-3; my emphasis). (Image and Reality, p, 76)
...Aharon Zisling of Mapam remarked at another meeting in November that 'I couldn't sleep all night. ... Jews too have committed Nazi acts' (Birth, p. 233). (Image and Reality, p, 77)
In that operation, in the words of one of the Israeli soldiers, as quoted by Benny Morris, whose thesis about the birth of the refugee problem being not by design, but by the natural logic and evolution of the war is not always sustained by the very evidence he himself provides, 'cultured officers ... had turned into base murderers and this not in the heat of battle ... but out of a system of expulsion and destruction: the less Arabs remained, the betters; this principle is the political motor for the expulsions and the atrocities'.
...Aharon Cohen, the director of Mapam's Arab Department, confessed to being 'ashamed and afraid' at the 'deliberate eviction' of the Arabs. In July 1948 his leader, Yaacov Hazan, warned that 'the robbery, killing, expulsion and rape of teh Arabs could reach such proportions that we would no longer be able to stand'. And another member of the party, Aharon Zisling, even exclaimed in November 1948 that 'Jews too have committed Nazi acts'. (Scars of War, p. 42-43)
'Doesn't he have anything more important to do?' was Ben-Gurion's reaction when told, during his visit to Haifa on 1 May, 1948, that a local Jewish leader was trying to convince the Arabs not to leave....
As early as February 1948, that is before the ral mass exodus had started but after he witnessed how the Arabs had fled from west Jerusalem, Ben-Gurion could not hide his excitement. Never 'since the days of the Roman destruction', he said to a concention of his party Mapai, was Jerusalem 'so conpletely Jewish as today. There are no strangers, one hundred per cent Jews.' Ben-Gurion did not have to issue particular orders for expulsion. Rather, he established the strategic-ideological framework of the war effort. 'Certainly there will be great changes in the composition of the population of the country,' he said in the wake of the Arab exodus from west Jerusalem and later from Haifa.
...'We will not be able to win the war if we do not, during the war, populate Upper and Lower, Eastern and Western Galilee, the Negev and the Jerusalem area.' And this he understood would be facilitated by the 'great change in the distribution of the Arab population', a euphemism Ben-Gurion frequently preferred to more blunt expressions.
(Scars of War, p. 44-45)
But what gains did Israel want to reap? Historian Avi Shlaim reports that Ben-Gurion's 'greatest fear' in the immediate aftermath of Israel's victory in 1948 was that the Arab world might bring forth a leader like Ataturk who would achieve real independence for his country and embark on a program for transforming it into a modern, Westernized, secular state.
...Indeed, soon after the Sinai invasion, Ben-Gurion acknowledged the same anxiety in almost identical terms. The crucial redeeming feature of the war, he asserted, was that 'it diminished the stature of the Egyption dictator and I do not want you or the entire people to underestimate the importance of this fact'. 'I always feared', he confided
that a personality might arise such as arose among the Arab rulers in the seventh century or like Kemal Ataturk who arose in Turkey after its defeat in the First World War. He raised their spirits, changed their character, and turned them into a fighting nation. There was and still is a danger that Nasser is this man.
The aim of Israel's joint invasion with Britain and France in 1956, according to US officials, was to 'destroy Nasser's prestige', nipping in the bud the twin bogies of Arab independence and modernization.
(Image and Reality, p. 142)
To do so, the Egyptian upstart had to be put in his proper place, cut down to size. Most seriosly, Nasser had openly defied Israel's monopoly on the use of force. By closing the Straits of Tiran, Egypt -- in the trenchant aphorism of Mohammed Heikal, an influential Egyptian editor and Nasser confidant -- 'succeeded for the first time, vis á vis Israel, in changing by force a fait accompli imposed on it by force'. 'To Israel', Heikal continued, 'this is the most dangerous aspect of the current situation: who can impose the accomplished fact and who possesses the power to safeguard it?' (Image and Reality, p. 143)
On the Israeli side, though always complaining of the backwardness of Arab societies as being the reason for their incapacity to make peace with Israel, there also existed a deep, and never really fully acknowledged, undercurrent of satisfaction at this state of affairs, and hence, a hidden apprehension prevailed at the possibility that the Arab world might be reformed and modernized. The Israeli leaders who in the aftermath of 1948 dismissed peace overtures on the grounds that the ARab leaders were corrupt, illegitimate rulers who could not be taken seriously, were equally suspicious of popular would-be reformers of the calibre of Gamal Abdel Nasser, even when he was ready to engage in peace moves, admittedly always hesitant and ambiguous. On the eve of the Sinai Campaign, Ben-Gurion was candid enough to confess to his diary that:
I always feared that a personality might arise such as arose among the Arab rulers in the 7th century or like [Kemal Ataturk] who arose in Turkey after its defeat in the First World War. He raised their spirits, changed their character, and turned them into a fighting nation. There was and still is a danger that Nasser is this man.
The Sinai Campaign was not unrelated to this Israeli instinct, shared at the time by both France and Britain, to curtail the life of a popular nationalist regime bent on recovering 'Arab dignity' by confronting what in the Arab perception were the twin threats of Zionism and imperialism. In 1956 as well as in 1967, Nasser thretened Israel's military supremacy, hence, according to the prevailing military doctrine, her very existence. Should he be allowed to prevail and win a political profit for his aggresive moves, Israel could no longer intimidate her neighbours and would lose their respect in a way that was tantamount to losing her ability to survive in a region that rejected the very legitimacy of her existence. Muhammed Hassanin Haikal, Nasser's confidant, was not entirely wrong when he defined the 1967 crisis in the following terms:
[Egypt] succeeded for the first time, vis á vis Israel, in changing by force a fait accompli imposed on it by force. ... To Israel, this is the most dangerous aspect of the current situation: who can impose the accomplished fact and who possesses the power to safeguard it?
(Scars of War, p. 110 - 111)Image and Reality argued that, although Israeli leaders would later deny it, they could have reached a separate peace with Egypt in 1971 but instead sought to retain Egyptian territory. For supporting evidence it quoted Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan:
Meir observes in her memoir that, except for 'talk about reopening the Suez Canal', the 'Arabs refused to meet us or deal with us in any way ... in 1971 or 1972.' In a March 1971 interview with the Longon Times Meir had whistled a different tune, as she acknowledged that 'Anwar Sadat was the first Egyptian leader to say that he was prepared to make peace'. Possessing more derring-do than Meir, Dayan brazenly states in his memoir that Egypt's reply to Jarring's initiative was 'that she was prepared to end the state of war but not to sign a treaty with Israel'. Back in February 1971, Dayan -- declaring that he would prefer 'Sharm-el-Shaykh without peace to peace without Sharm-el-Shaykh' -- had acknowledged that 'if we return all the territories the Egyptians would be ready for peace'. And in March he had cautioned that 'there must be careful assessment of the situation because this is the first time that Arab leaders have openly talked about peace and lasting borders with Israel'. (Image and Reality, p. 159)
Yet the decision, that Sadat took in February 1971 effectively committed Egypt -- whether for the better or for the worse is another matter -- to a separate peace with Israel, as at Camp David.... True, it pencilled in at the very bottom of its reply to Jarring after consenting to a peace treaty that the 'United Arab Republic considers that the just and lasting peace cannot be realized without ... the withdrawal of the Israeli armed forces from all the territories occupied since the 5th of June 1967'. But Sadat menifestly did not condition his acceptance of the Jarring initiative on such a comprehensive withdrawal.... (Image and Reality, p. 160)
In a 13 March 1971 interview with the London Times, Prime Minister Meir for the first time officially delineated the new boundaries that her government sought: Israel 'must have' Sharm-el-Shaykh and an overland connection to it, the border round Eilat 'must be' negotiated. Egypt 'could not return' to Gaza, the Golan Heights and a united Jerusalem must remain under Israeli control, and border adjustments on the West Bank would be necessary. ...Meir told Time magazine that 'Sharm-el-Shaykh is of absolutely no use to the Egyptians. ... For us it is a lifeline'.
Both Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan were forced to acknowledge the revolutionary change in Egypt's position. In an interview with the London Times the Prime Minister admitted that Sadat was 'the first Egyptian leader to say that he was ready to make peace'. Dayan believed that this was an entirely new situation that called for a 'careful assessment', one that was never made. In fact, Sadat's response to Jarring went even further: it indicated that Egypt wanted an Israeli withdrawal from all the occupied Arab lands, but it did not link Egypt's readiness for peace with the withdrawal from other fronts. Sadat was in effect anticipating the premises upon which he would strike a separate deal with Israel at the Camp David summit.
Mrs. Meir's Cabinet did not rise to the dramatic challenge posed by Anwar Sadat. In the same interview where she recognised the boldness of Sadat's reply to Jarring, the Prime Minister continued to insist that Israel 'must have' Sharm-el-Sheikh, that Egypt 'could not return' to Gaza, and that the Golan Heights and much of the West Bank, including united Jerusalem, must remain under Israel's control. She also took the liberty on another occassion to say that 'Sharm-el-Sheikh is of absolutely no use to the Egyptians'. (Scars of War, p. 134)
Ironically, probably no war in history has been launched with as much advance publicity as the 'surprise' attack of October 1973. Sadat repeatedly warned that, if Israel remained obdurate, Egypt would have to recourse but to launch an attack. To cite one of literally scores of examples, in a 9 April 1973 Newsweek interview, Sadat declared: 'The time has come for a shock. ... Everything is now being mobilized in earnest for the resumption of the battle -- which is now inevitable'. (Image and Reality, p. 165) ... ...Dayan lectured the Israeli army's general staff that 'the weakness of the Arabs arises from factors so deeply rooted that they cannot, in my view, be easily overcome: the moral, technical and educational backwarness of their soldiers'. ...Rabin in July 1973... The Arabs have little capacity for coordinating their military and political action. (Image and Reality, p. 168)Here's what Ben-Ami writes:
If the Yom Kippur War was a surprise, it was not because Sadat did not give sufficient indications that once his peace overtures had been turned down he would go to war. The overconfident Israelis simply did not take him seriously. In April 1973, he told Newsweek in the most explicit terms possible that he was getting ready for war. 'The time has come for a shock,' he stated: 'everything is now being mobilised in earnest for the resumption of the battle, which is now inevitable.' But in Israel, Dayan dismissed the Egyptian threats. His was the view that the Arabs were almost congenitally incapable of winning a modern war. He addressed the General Staff in the summer of 1973 with an anylysis of the balance of forces that ruled out an Arab attack, but also with a reflection on the 'moral, technical and educational backwardness' of the Arab soldier. At about the same time General Rabin wrote in an almost identically dismissive vein of the Arabs' congenital weaknesses in modern warfare: 'The Arabs have little capacity for co-ordinating their military and political action.' (Scars of War, p. 144)Image and Reality argued that the P.L.O. compromised fundamental Palestinian rights in the 1995 Oslo Accord:
Oslo II states that 'Neither Party shall be deemed, by virtue of having entered into this Agreement to have renounced or waived any of its existing rights, claims, or positions'. Seemingly balanced, this provision actually signlas a most crucial concession by the Palestinians. In effect, the PLO grants a legitimacy to Israel's pretence of possessing 'existing rights' in the West Bank and Gaza, and to Israel's rejectionist 'claims, or positions', including those denying Palestinians the right to sovereignty in the West Bank and Gaza, which need not be 'renounced or waived'. The broadly affirmed title of the Palestinians to the occupied territories is now par on a par with the broadly denied title of Israel to them. (Image and Reality, p. 172-173)Here's what Ben-Ami writes:
And if all this were not enough, the Palestinians had incompetently agreed in the Oslo II agreement to a principle that practically put Israel's claim for land and assets in the West Bank on an almost eual footing with that of the Palestinians. The Israeli negotiators of the final agreement under the Barak government were advised by the Oslo II accord that neither side, Palestinian or Israeli, had 'renounced or waived any of its existing rights, claims, or positions'. For the Israelis this meant that the precise nature of the final agreement was wide open to negotiations on all the core issues at stake: bordders, settlements, Jerusalem and refugees. (Scars of War, p. 230)Image and Reality argued that Israel's motive for signing the Oslo Accord was for the P.L.O. to serve as Israel's collaborator in suppressing Palestinian resistance to the occupation. For supporting evidence it quoted Uri Savir:
The US and Israel seized on this opportune moment to recruit the already venal and now dsperate Palestinian leadership -- 'on the verge of bankruptcy' and 'in [a] weakened condition' (Uri Savir, Israel's chief negotiator at Oslo) -- as surrogates of Israeli power.... The 'test' for Arafat and the PLO, according to Savir, was whether they would 'us[e] their new power base to dismantle Hamas and other violent opposition groups' contesting Israeli aparttheid. (Image and Reality, p. xix)Here's what Ben-Ami writes:
With security uppermost in their minds, the Israelis judged their peace partners on the basis of their credibility as providers of security. Conspicuously, as one of the chief Israeli negotiators in Oslo, Uri Savir, acknowledged, Arafat was chosen as a partner by the Iraelis with the hope that he would use his new power base in the territories 'to dismantle Hamas and other violent opposition groups'... The Israelis conceived of Arafat as a collaborator of sorts, a sub-contractor in the task of enhancing Israel's security. (Scars of War, p. 211)