Avi Shlaim writes about the Middle East Peace Conference
Since its origins at the end of the 19th century, the Jewish-Arab battle for the possession of Palestine has been accompanied by a battle of persuasion to win the hearts and minds of the world. Although in essence the struggle was between two people for one land, the Zionists won a good deal of international sympathy by portraying Palestine as ‘a land without a people for a people without a land’.
Zionism has perhaps been the most successful public relations exercise of the 20th century: Palestinian nationalism one of the least successful. At the Middle East Peace Conference held in Madrid in late October, the Palestinians, for the first time in the entire history of the conflict, began to gain the upper hand in the propaganda battle. It was a historic reversal which cannot fail to affect the course of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the last decade of this century and beyond.
The early Zionists clearly grasped the power of words in the struggle for independence. Theodor Herzl’s The Jewish State, published in 1896, evoked a powerful response among Jews. On 3 September 1897, he wrote in his diary: ‘ln Basle I founded the Jewish State.’ He was referring to the First Zionist Congress, which he had convened in Basle. The ‘Basle Programme’ stated that the ‘aim of Zionism is to create for the Jewish people a home in Palestine secured by public law’. Both the title of Herzl’s book and his diary entry suggest that from the start the aim of Zionism was an independent Jewish state in Palestine. This long-term goal was deliberately blurred, however, because it would have provoked Arab hostility and been a liability in the struggle to mobilise international support for the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine.
A second important aspect of political Zionism highlighted by Herzl’s diary entry is the belief that commitment to an idea and resolutions passed in international gatherings have a crucial role to play in paving the way to state-hood. It is precisely because of the military impotence of their movement that the early Zionists set so much store by winning the propaganda battle and mustering the traditional Jewish talents of advocacy and persuasion in every part of the world. They always concentrated their efforts on the leading great power of the day: first it was the Ottoman Turks, then the British and then the Americans.
In order to appeal to public opinion as well as to the governments of the Great Powers, the Zionists cultivated an image of reasonableness and moderation. Their tactics were always flexible even if their long-term aim was not. They tended to say yes rather than no to proposals by third parties even when they had serious reservations about them. Their strategy was a gradualist one. They understood that it was better to take what was on offer at any given time – there was always a chance of going back for more – than to reject it and end up with nothing.
Thus they accepted in principle nearly all Britain’s compromise proposals for settling the Palestine problem and enhanced their reputation for reasonableness in the process. In 1937, when the Peel Commission first proposed the partition of Palestine and the formation of a tiny Jewish state, the veteran Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann argued that ‘the Jews would be fools not to accept it even if it is the size of a tablecloth.’
At the same time, the Zionist leaders, especially David Ben-Gurion, were adept at presenting the Palestinian position as unreasonable. It is not that they weren’t interested in a compromise solution. But since the claims of the two sides could not be reconciled, it was preferable to have the Palestinians bearing the responsibility for the deadlock.
In this respect they were fortunate in having as their opponent Hajj Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. For the Mufti epitomised the all-or-nothing approach, the total rejection of any Jewish claim to Palestine, the absolute insistence on rights without any regard for the consequences. The Mufti also created a very poor impression abroad by his systematic rejection of British compromise proposals and by his collaboration with Nazi Germany during the Second World War. In short, the story of the Palestinian struggle for statehood under the British mandate is the story of how the Mufti muffed it.
When the United Nations voted for partition in November 1947, showing that the logic of partition had become inescapable, the Zionists accepted the plan with alacrity although a Jewish state within the borders proposed by the UN would scarcely have been viable. However, accepting the UN resolution put them within the framework of international legality and provided a charter of legitimacy for the Jewish state. They counted on the Mufti to put himself in the wrong with the international community by rejecting the UN partition plan, and reject it he did. It was this sophisticated Zionist approach to playing the game of nations which helped them to win a state of their own in 1948 just as the diplomatic inflexibility of the Palestinians helped to bring about the greatest disaster in their history.
Israel and the Palestinians didn’t change places overnight – it was a gradual process which only reached its climax in Madrid. One important landmark in this process was the rise to power in 1977 of the Likud, who rejected the principle of partition, rejected territorial compromise with Jordan and staked a claim to the West Bank as an inalienable part of the land of Israel. Another was the peace offensive launched by the PLO in 1988. In November of that year the Palestinian National Council met in Algiers and accepted the principle of partition and a two-state solution based on all relevant UN resolutions going back to November 1947. The claim to the whole of Palestine was finally laid to rest and a declaration of independence was issued for a mini-state in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.
Vol. 14 No. 3 · 13 February 1992
Avi Shlaim’s article on the Madrid Peace Conference (LRB, 9 January) is far too unbalanced. He always puts the worst interpretation upon Israeli actions, while giving the benefit of the doubt to Israel’s opponents – even when there is no doubt.
1. He is right to say that Arafat used the words ‘we absolutely renounce terrorism’ at Geneva in December 1988. What he fails to mention is that, only five days later, Arafat told Austrian television: ‘I did not mean to renounce terrorism.’ The Palestine National Council, he declared, had only conditionally renounced it. Nor does Shlaim mention that, at the preceding Algiers conference, the Palestine National Council reaffirmed the PLO Charter which calls for Israel’s destruction in over half of its articles.
2. Shlaim mentions in passing that the PLO supported Saddam Hussein in part because it was ‘frustrated’ by ‘the suspension of its dialogue with the US’. But he does not say why this dialogue was suspended. It was suspended because a PLO faction launched an abortive sea attack on Israeli civilians on holiday beaches, less than 18 months after Arafat had ‘renounced terrorism’.
3. Shlaim praises Hanan Ashrawi’s ‘eloquence’ and ‘evident sincerity’. He fails to mention that she was unable to find the eloquence to condemn a terrorist attack on a busload of women and children just before the talks began.
4. Shlaim calls the Israeli Prime Minister ‘a former terrorist’. He fails to mention that the Stern Gang was involved in sabotage and assassination of selected targets, but that, unlike the PLO, it did not condone the indiscriminate murder of civilians.
5. Shlaim writes that the Zionist movement ‘set … much store by winning the propaganda battle and mustering the traditional Jewish talents (sic!) of advocacy and persuasion in every part of the world’. Which is better – advocacy and persuasion, or the killing of innocent civilians?
6. ‘Ironically, by excluding the PLO,’ Shlaim writes, ‘Israel helped the Arabs of the occupied territories to bring fresh faces forward’ at the Madrid conference. He fails to mention that the Israeli Government had sought for many years to elicit an alternative leadership in the territories. Indeed, the Government had suggested that the delegation to represent the territories be chosen through free elections, a proposal rejected by the PLO, which claimed that since it represented every Palestinian no elections were necessary. Shlaim contrasts the two delegations at the conference – the one led by doctors and university professors, the other by ‘an ex-terrorist’, Shamir. Might he not have pointed to a different contrast: that one delegation was composed of elected leaders, the other of unelected?
7. Shlaim accuses Shamir of insincerity in proposing autonomy in the territories – he calls it ‘limited autonomy’, which seems a bit ungenerous, since the Shamir proposals involve Palestinian ministries over all domestic affairs, excluding only foreign affairs and defence. According to Shlaim, Shamir ‘only put the idea forward in response to pressure from Washington and he gave it up at the first indication that the Palestinians might accept it.’ It is perhaps unfortunate for this thesis that it appeared just before two Israeli ministers resigned precisely because they feared that Shamir had not ‘given up’ the idea of autonomy, but was determined to pursue it.
Shlaim quotes a Palestinian delegate who said that ‘in Madrid we founded the Palestinian state.’ When the Israeli autonomy proposals were first put forward at Camp David, they were denounced by an Israeli Labour MP as ‘the Balfour Declaration of the Palestinian state’. Might not the Palestinians have done better to have negotiated on this basis in 1979 rather than wasting over a decade in futile terrorism and recriminations? No sensible person believes that the Arab/Israeli dispute is one in which all the right lies on one side. But because he does not try to understand the Israeli case, Shlaim has written a propaganda piece instead of the measured account of the problems of peace in the Middle East which we have the right to expect.
Brasenose College, Oxford
Vol. 14 No. 4 · 27 February 1992
Vernon Bogdanor (Letters, 13 February) is right to point out that in my article on the Madrid Peace Conference I give the Palestinians the benefit of the doubt while judging Israel harshly. This is because I see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a conflict between occupiers and occupied, oppressors and oppressed, and my sympathies here, as always, are with the underdog. Bogdanor seems to regard terrorism as the central issue in this conflict; I regard terrorism as a symptom of the underlying political problem, which is Israel’s absolute denial of the right of self-determination to the Palestinians.
Bogdanor claims that at its meeting in Algiers in November 1988 the Palestine National Council ‘reaffirmed the PLO Charter, which calls for Israel’s destruction in over half of its articles’. This is the opposite of the truth. The Charter rejected the principle of partition, whereas the PNC accepts it as the basis for a settlement. Article Two of the Charter states: ‘Palestine with the boundaries it had during the British mandate is an indivisible territorial unit.’ The PNC abandoned this claim and adopted a two-states solution. The difference between the PNC resolutions and the PLO Charter is not one of nuance but one of principle and substance. Yasser Arafat, portrayed by Bogdanor as a Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde on the subject of terrorism, was the architect of this Copernican revolution in the political thinking of the PLO.
It is Mr Shamir who plays Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in relation to the Palestinians. To the Americans Shamir pretends that he wants to move forward towards an agreement with the Palestinians. To his extremist right-wing partners he pretends the exact opposite. Why on earth should one give Mr Shamir the benefit of the doubt when all his actions are so transparently directed at avoiding substantive peace talks with the Palestinians?
Shamir can no longer maintain, as his predecessors did, that there is no one to talk to on the other side. Golda Meir used to reiterate with such monotonous regularity her readiness to meet any Arab leader at any time and in any place to discuss peace that even her own officials began to joke about Golda’s launderette, open 24 hours a day. At Madrid, however, the moment of truth finally arrived. Mr Shamir should either negotiate with the Palestinians on the generally accepted basis of land for peace or put up a notice on his door to announce that Golda’s launderette is closed until further notice.
St Antony’s College, Oxford
Vol. 14 No. 6 · 26 March 1992
Though Vernon Bogdanor (Letters, 13 February) is right to criticise Avi Shlaim’s article on the Madrid Peace Conference and to point out the untrustworthiness of the PLO, his sympathetic words about the Stern Gang and especially about Shamir should not go unchallenged. Does one have to remind Mr Bogdanor that Mr Shamir cynically gave the order for the assassination of the Swedish Count Bernadotte, the then UN mediator in 1948, because the latter was not partial enough to the Jewish cause? Mr Bogdanor may call the Count a selected target, but one fails to see any attenuating circumstances, let alone excuse, for the cold-blooded murder of a civilian and great humanitarian who had done more than any other living person for the Jews by helping thousands of them to escape certain death in the Nazi camps. During the war years Count Bernadotte became a hero to us Scandinavians and helped us live through a difficult period. When he was murdered by Mr Shamir, most of us lost our sympathy for the Jews and particularly for Mr Shamir, who may have done more than anyone to destroy worldwide sympathy for his countrymen.
Avi Shlaim admits – proclaims even – that, in his article on the Madrid Peace Conference (LRB, 9 January), he gave ‘the Palestinians the benefit of the doubt while judging Israel harshly’ on the grounds that the Israelis are, in his view, ‘the oppressors’ and the Palestinians ‘the oppressed’. It is a pity that he did not accompany his article with a warning that it was intended to be a propaganda exercise in the interests of the Palestinian cause. Unfortunately, his letter (Letters, 27 February) introduces a new confusion. He says that at Algiers in November 1988, the Palestine National Council abandoned the provision in the PLO Charter calling for Israel’s destruction. In fact, Article 33 of the Charter makes it clear that it can only be amended by a special session of the Palestine National Council and a two-thirds vote. No such special session has been called. Arafat’s assertion that declarations of the Algiers conference were sufficient to amend the Charter is quite false. The Charter remains with its assertion in Article 22 that the methods of ‘the Zionist movement’ are ‘those of the Fascists and the Nazis’.
Shlaim has sought to portray Arafat as a moderate. He is again unfortunate in his timing, since his letter appeared just after Arafat was quoted in a conversation with Ibrahim Souss, PLO representative in France, in which he called Jews ‘dogs’, ‘filth and dirt’, ‘filthy garbage’, with whom he would ‘settle accounts’. Such language has not been used by any political leader since Dr Goebbels.
Brasenose College, Oxford