My Israel, Right or Wrong
- War and Peace in the Middle East: A Critique of American Policy by Avi Shlaim
Viking, 147 pp, $17.95, June 1994, ISBN 0 670 85330 5
The foreign policy record of the Clinton Administration has been dismal. Even when the United States has shown more sensible and decent inclinations than Europe, as over Bosnia, the White House has failed to evolve and stick to a consistent policy, leaving an impression of bungling vacillation. In one area, however, the Administration has not only claimed credit for success but has sometimes been awarded it; astonishingly enough, that area is the Middle East. This book enables us to examine that claim and much else besides, because War and Peace in the Middle East is a critique of American policy from the end of the Second World War. Avi Shlaim is well known to readers of this journal, who will be aware that nobody is better fitted for the task. A member of the revisionist school of Israeli historians, he is a rigorous and fearless scholar who follows the truth where it leads him. A few years ago Shlaim wrote a massive classic, Collusion Across the Jordan; here he shows himself to be equally skilled as a miniaturist. His book is a masterpiece of compression, which should now have a British publisher.
Shlaim is kind about the root of the trouble, the Balfour Declaration, merely saying that what the British failed to consider was the inevitability of a clash between Jewish and Arab nationalism. Since Balfour and Lloyd George had had intimate experience of the clash of nationalisms and religions in Ireland, that was a pretty remarkable fit of absent-mindedness, particularly as they were warned by Curzon of the likely consequences of imposing heavy Jewish immigration on a country already populated by Arabs. Shlaim believes that the British Government issued the Declaration in order to gain support for the war in America and Central Europe. Yet by the time it was issued, America had already been in the war for six months and the Jews in Central Europe could do little to help the Allied war effort.
The Balfour Declaration was surely even more irrational than the conventional view suggests. Its architect, the Zionist leader, Chaim Weizmann, was nearer the mark when he said that two thousand interviews had gone to its making. The Zionists had long brushed aside the presence of a predominantly Arab population in Palestine, and they now managed to make the British Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary do the same. In one historian’s words, Balfour took up Zionism as a kind of hobby, and the Declaration that bears his name was less the outcome of a serious examination of British or Allied interests than of his own uninformed infatuation – he did not think the Arab problem was serious or that Zionism would hurt the Arabs.
Coming to 1948, Shlaim believes that America played ‘a marginal role in the birth of Israel’, a judgment which is perhaps true in the sense that the main role was played by the Zionists themselves, but not one that would have been shared by the British Government of the day nor, probably, by the US Defence Secretary, James Forrestal, nor by many high officials in the State Department who deplored the activities of President Truman and the Zionist lobby. If America’s role was marginal, it was also appreciable. Shlaim’s treatment of 1948 is, indeed, slightly idiosyncratic. ‘There can be no doubt,’ he writes, ‘that the Arabs would have destroyed the Israeli intruders had they had the power.’ That speculation is doubtless well-founded, but highly academic. As Shlaim and others have shown, the distances involved were so great and the Arab armies, with the exception of Transjordan’s Arab Legion, so inefficient and ill-equipped that they had difficulty even getting to Palestine, let alone doing anything drastic when they got there. In his memoirs, Sir Alec Kirkbride, the British Minister to Transjordan, gives a better flavour of Arab attitudes. At a meeting of the Arab heads of government in autumn 1948, the Transjordanian Prime Minister, after outlining how the Arab Legion in Jerusalem was being heavily pressed by the Israelis, asked the Egyptians, whose forces nearby were not engaged in active fighting, to lessen the pressure by staging an attack. This request caused consternation. ‘Good God no,’ replied the Egyptian representative, ‘we cannot attack; the Jews might attack us in turn.’ In his memoirs, Sir John Glubb tells a rather similar anecdote. When the first independent Syrian government was formed after the 1939-45 war, the President asked for an estimate of the cost of a tank regiment. A British officer included a sum for a workshop. This was immediately struck out, and when the officer remonstrated that the tanks would not remain long in the field without a workshop, the President countered: ‘I don’t want them in the field. I want them to drive down the Boulevard on Independence Day.’
Vol. 17 No. 9 · 11 May 1995
Recent articles in the LRB by Ian Gilmour (LRB, 22 December 1994), Avi Shlaim (LRB, 9 June 1994) and Robert Fisk (LRB, 23 February) focus on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Unfortunately, several inaccuracies can be found in these articles. To mention two: Fisk quotes Lebanese sources as ‘acknowledging that, without Assad’s stewardship, their country would have been eaten up with unacceptable concessions by the peace process.’ Israel has repeatedly made it clear that she has no territorial claims on Lebanon and will withdraw her forces when the Lebanese Government disbands the terrorist organisations that pose a threat to Israel. What is so unacceptable about this? Fisk further claims that the Christian Lebanese militiamen who perpetrated the massacre of Palestinians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut were sent by the Israelis. To the contrary, when it became apparent to Israeli commanders what was happening, they stopped the massacre, saving untold Palestinian lives. Palestinian propagandists turned the story around, blaming the Israelis.
My father, Arthur Ruppin, was a Zionist leader from 1907, when he came to Palestine as the representative of the Zionist Organisation. He founded Brit Shalom, a society to further peace between Jews and Arabs. The basis of Brit Shalom was that neither group should seek political dominance. Thus, each people would elect half the members of a common Parliament. Jewish and Arab immigration would continue, but not to the detriment or displacement of the existing population. Many, although not all, Zionist leaders agreed with these principles. No Arab leader ever did. Expulsion of Jews from Palestine was an integral part of Arab policy. The Palestinians, aided by armies from Egypt, Transjordan, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, tried to expel the Jews in 1948. Expulsion still figures in the PLO charter, which notwithstanding Arafat’s obligation to abrogate it under the Oslo agreement, is still in force because a majority of the PLO’s leadership is not willing to part with the dream of evicting the Jews from Israel. Given the tension between Arabs and Jews before 1948, and the Arab desire to evict Jews from Israel, it is hardly surprising that similar dreams were evoked among some Jews for removal of the Arabs. Some translated these dreams into a plan modelled on the Graeco-Turkish population exchange after the Graeco-Turkish War in the early Twenties. The transfer idea was never adopted by the Zionist Organisation.
The contention that the Jewish leadership engineered the exodus of Palestinians in 1948 is quite ludicrous. After the UN Partition Resolution, the Palestinian Arabs perpetrated country-wide attacks upon Jews. Arab leaders decided to invade the Jewish state following the British withdrawal and promised the annihilation of Palestine’s Jewish population. Arabs living in predominantly Jewish areas were advised to leave their homes and move to Arab areas temporarily until the victorious Arab armies liquidated the Jews. The Jewish Agency tried to stem the exodus. I can attest to this from personal experience. I lived in the village of Michmoret in a predominantly Jewish area. Nearby was an Arab village, A-Nufiat, with which we had good relations. In April 1948 we were informed that the Arab villagers were preparing to flee. Following a Jewish Agency directive to counter the Arab exodus, I went to A-Nufiat to talk with the village head. He said they had been told to flee by an emissary of the Mufti, who warned that the Jews were planning to kill them. I reassured them that no Jew intended them harm. However, two weeks later they disappeared. One old man who stayed behind recounted that an emissary came to A-Nufiat and announced that by midnight the Jews would arrive slaughtering all the inhabitants. When the villagers repeated my assurances, the emissary retorted that this was a Jewish trick – to catch the unsuspecting. Had they heeded my advice, they would still be in their village.
In Robert Fisk’s article, the story recounted by Selma Tawil, who left her home in Haifa for Lebanon three months after the occupation of the city by Jewish forces in April 1948, is another example of misguided action. The story of the Arab exodus from Haifa, where the Jewish mayor begged the Arabs not to flee, is amply documented. Mrs Tawil obeyed the advice of the Arab leadership to leave, despite the fact that she had three months to see that no Arabs were harmed after the Jewish victory. Unfortunately she, like the villagers of A-Nufiat, was badly used by the Arab leadership, and they have paid dearly in consequence. Many Arabs did stay in their homes and villages, where they have lived peacefully to this day. Indeed, Arabs constitute almost 20 per cent of Israel’s current population.
Though the overwhelming majority of the Palestinian refugees left because of directives by the Arab leadership, some, during the 1948 war, were forcibly expelled. This occurred when the Arab population posed a strategic threat, as, for example, in Lydda and Ramla – two Arab towns on the road linking Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. These towns were taken by the Israeli Army and the towns’ leadership capitulated. A few hours later the townspeople opened fire on our forces, entailing a costly reconquest followed by the expulsion of most of the Arab population.
It is to the credit of the Israeli public that notwithstanding widespread Arab terrorism, the Kach Party – which advocates expulsion of Palestinians from Israel – got only about 1 per cent of the vote in the elections in 1984. The Party has since been outlawed. Contrary to Shlaim’s allegations, the political party Moledet does not advocate mass expulsion of Palestinians. ‘Transfer’ in Moledet’s definition is persuasion of Palestinians, by money and other positive inducements, to emigrate. The Israeli public has rejected transfer in any form. Moledet has never received more than 3 per cent of the vote.
Avi Shlaim, reviewing Benny Morris’s book on Israel’s Border Wars 1949-56, describes Arab refugees infiltrating into Israel ‘looking for relatives, returning to their homes, looking for their possessions, tending their fields’. He cites Morris as showing that ‘the governments of the neighbouring Arab states were opposed to the cross-border forays into Israel for most of the period under discussion.’ The Palestinian exodus took place in 1948. Armistice agreements were signed in 1949, forbidding cross-border incursions. Heavy Arab infiltration started in the early Fifties when there were no possessions left to retrieve. At first the infiltrators concentrated on theft of Jewish property – mainly livestock and farming equipment. Afterwards came sabotage, then murder.
Arab states, except Lebanon, never opposed infiltration into Israel, though they tried to document opposition to avoid accusations of breaking the armistice agreement. Later they (predominantly Egypt) aided infiltrators. Israel’s border contains no natural impediments to infiltration. To protect its citizens, the Israeli Government retaliated. At first, retaliatory raids moved Nasser to intensify feyadeen activity. Only after Suez, Israel’s biggest retaliatory act, did Nasser change course, and infiltration stopped. Similarly, retaliatory raids stopped terrorist infiltration from Jordan. To call Israel’s only possible line of defence ‘dirty’ is mere name-calling.
Ian Gilmour, Robert Fisk and Edward Said (LRB, 20 October 1994) criticise the Oslo agreement, which is described as badly negotiated, humiliating and unfavourable. Israel is accused of delaying and not implementing its commitments to the Palestinians.
The basis of the Oslo agreement is the ending of terrorism, to be replaced by co-operation and reconciliation. Arafat and his PLO have failed completely in this basic aspect. Arab terrorism has increased since Oslo. Gaza and Jericho have become safe havens for terrorists, murderers and thieves. The PLO police does little to apprehend these criminals. Indeed, many of the cars used by the Palestinian police have been stolen in Israel. Hate propaganda continues under the guise of freedom of speech. The Palestinian Autonomy teems with armed gangs belonging to organisations rejecting the notion of peace. Arafat does little to curb their activities. When suicide bombers exploded buses in Hadera, Afula, Tel Aviv and Netanya, Gazans danced in the streets. Arafat only accused television crews of misleading the public. In his speeches he has compared the current agreements to Mohammed’s agreement with the Kureish Tribe. Mohammed signed a peace treaty with the Kureish only later to turn on them and slaughter them all. The Oslo agreement was a test of Palestinian resolve to turn a new page in their relationship with their Jewish neighbours. They failed in that test. The Israeli Government, mindful of the security of Israel’s population, cannot be expected to withdraw from other Arab regions, creating new safe havens for terrorists. Recently, under intense Israeli pressure, Arafat took steps to curb terrorist activity based on Gaza, but his effort fell short of disarming the out-spoken terrorist movements Hamas and Islamic Jihad and has so far produced no tangible results.
Gilmour quotes Shlaim accusing Israel of being responsible for Arab violence by insisting on the continuation and increase of the settlements. But Palestinian terrorism did not abate even during the first days following Oslo. Hamas and Islamic Jihad declare that their aim is to scuttle the peace process and continue their war against Israel’s very existence. For them there is no difference between a West Bank settlement and Tel Aviv. Said’s accusation that ‘the Israelis deliberately destroyed the infrastructure’ of the occupied territories is far from the truth. Israel invested much more than any previous occupying power in infrastructure and economic development. Income per capita has risen dramatically, and were it not for Palestinian violence, would have risen further. Reporting on Hebron, Said criticises the security measures enforced on visitors to the Hebron mosque. The arrangement, designed to allow both Jews and Muslims to pray at the site, he describes as ‘one monotheistic faith intruding itself on the religious practices of another’. He forgets that this ‘mosque’ is a converted synagogue, built by King Herod over the tomb of the Patriarchs, only one of whom (Abraham) is claimed by the Arabs as their ancestor. He also forgets to mention that this site, holy to the Jews, was closed to them from the Arab conquest in the seventh century to 1967, when the IDF occupied Hebron. Said also mentions the existence of a ‘small rabbinical school located at the back of the mosque that had been unused for generations’. He fails to mention that the rabbinical school was used until 1929, when the Arabs in Hebron massacred the Jewish community that had lived in the city for centuries. In all, it would seem that the monotheistic faith intruding itself on the practices of another was Islam.
All the above-mentioned authors are clearly opposed to the current peace process but fail to propose a realistic alternative. Fisk, for example, berates the Israelis and others for their changed attitudes toward Arafat after the Oslo agreement. Arafat’s sins have not been forgotten. But he is the only recognised Palestinian leader who has been willing to work for peace, however flawed. This is something that calls for a changed attitude. The Oslo agreement is depicted as unjust because many difficult issues (settlements, the status of Jerusalem, the status of refugees) were postponed to a later stage in the negotiations. It was not unreasonably hoped that solution of these issues would be easier after an interval of peaceful relations.
The Palestinians seem to have forgotten that their real weapons in the conflict with Israel are peace, friendship and reconciliation. Pressure on Israel does not work and usually backfires. The Palestinians would be well advised if, instead of blaming Israel for their every misfortune, they were to concentrate their efforts on constructively tackling their problems, and building positive bridges with the Israelis. This will be the only route to achieving their goals of prosperity, independence and dignity.
Vol. 17 No. 11 · 8 June 1995
It is a pity that, before criticising the book reviews written by Avi Shlaim, Robert Fisk and myself, Rafael Ruppin (Letters, 11 May) did not take the trouble to read the books we were reviewing. Had he done so, he could not have allowed himself to serve up to your readers such large portions of hopelessly out-of-date Israeli propaganda: for instance, the canard, repeated by Mr Ruppin, that most of the Palestinian refugees left their homes at the behest of their own leaders was exploded by Erskine Childers as long ago as 1961.
According to Mr Ruppin, ‘the contention that the Jewish leadership engineered the exodus of Palestinians in 1948 is quite ludicrous.’ In a recent interview in Yediot Ahronot Benny Morris, one of the Israeli historians implicitly criticised but not read by Ruppin, had this to say about the eviction of the Arabs: ‘The Jewish generation of 1948 knew the truth and deliberately misrepresented it. They knew there were plenty of mass deportations, massacres and rapes … The soldiers and the officials knew, but they suppressed what they knew and were deliberately disseminating lies.’ Ruppin is also disseminating lies, though he is not, of course, doing so deliberately but because he is content to be uninformed. Morris went on to say: ‘True, in 1948 a transfer was not officially adopted as a policy. There was no central plan to force Arabs to run away. But there were eye-winks to the commanders of forces in the field and a clear policy of impunity for those who ordered deportations and transfers. The same was the case with the commanders who perpetrated or tolerated atrocities against the Arabs in order to prompt them to flee. Ben-Gurion was hypocritical to the core.’ So much for ‘the quite ludicrous contention’. Much the same could be said of what Ruppin writes about Arab ‘infiltration’ after the war. That subject is dealt with in Morris’s excellent new book. Should Ruppin read it, he will learn a lot.
Ruppin is no luckier with his claim that the Israeli occupation has economically benefited the Palestinians. In fact it has been wholly malign economically as well as politically. One of Israel’s most respected journalists, Danny Rubinstein, wrote in Haaretz earlier this year:
a comparison between the standards of living of Palestinians residing in Jordan and that of the residents of the West Bank and Gaza arouses sad thoughts regarding the actions and neglect of almost thirty years of Israeli rule … Whatever Jordan has done for its residents, including Palestinians, is much more than the Israeli Government has done, or more accurately has not done for the subjects of the military government. The differences exist in every area of public government investment … Most of the roads in the West Bank and Gaza remained in the same state as they were in 1967. Not even one traffic light is to be found … The Israeli rule never granted any government assistance for investments in building factories. Except for two small hotels in Bethlehem, not one hotel has been built in the territories, nor one large factory … The result is that the backward and poor Jordanian Kingdom did much more for the Palestinians who lived in it than Israel. The comparison with Jordan shows in an even more glaring form how badly we treated them.
Even if Ruppin is not prepared to read Israeli historians, it should not be too much to ask him to read Israeli newspapers.
Since he has uncritically accepted all the past Israeli propaganda, we cannot be surprised that he now uncritically accepts Israel’s current version of events. Accordingly, Ruppin puts all the blame for the current failure of the peace process on Yasser Arafat and Palestinian ‘terrorism’. Certainly Arafat is open to heavy criticism, though not for the reasons given in Ruppin’s letter. Yet his letter contains not even a whiff of criticism of such Israeli actions and breaches of the agreements as their accelerated stealing of Arab land to enlarge their illegal settlements in Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank, their refusal to release thousands of Palestinian prisoners, their failure to redeploy their army, and their postponement of elections. Similarly he says nothing about Israeli ‘terrorism’ or the Hebron massacre.
As I have already expressed my views on this subject in the LRB, I will not inflict them again on your readers. But perhaps I may quote another journalist, this time an Arab, Muhammad Hallaj: ‘The peace process has degenerated into a scheme to persuade the Arabs to live in peace with Israel without persuading Israel to live in peace with the Arabs.’ It is that Israeli attitude – well illustrated by Mr Ruppin’s letter – together with the Clinton Administration’s craven and contemptible support for every Israeli action and pronouncement, however indefensible, which stands in the way of a fair and lasting peace.
House of Lords
I don’t think one should let Rafael Ruppin’s historical revisionism go unchallenged. He states that I claimed ‘that the Christian Lebanese militiamen who perpetrated the massacre of Palestinians at Sabra and Chatila refugee camps in Beirut were sent by the Israelis.’ And continues: ‘To the contrary, when it became apparent to Israeli commanders what was happening, they stopped the massacre, saving untold Palestinian lives. Palestinian propagandists turned the story around, blaming the Israelis.’ This is factually, historically untrue. The Israelis sent the Christian militiamen into the Sabra and Chatila camps on 16 September 1982, allegedly to ‘flush out’ two thousand ‘terrorists’ who, Ariel Sharon claimed (totally wrongly, as it turned out), had remained behind in the camps after the PLO evacuation. Israel’s own Kahan Commission report records how a joint liaison office was set up between the Christian militia and Israeli intelligence officers. I myself saw the military markers which the Israelis had placed around Beirut Airport to guide the Christian militiamen on their way to the camps.
The Kahan Commission, which held an official inquiry on the massacre, states that Israeli troops, contrary to what Ruppin says, knew very well what was going on in the camp from an early stage – but did nothing. Their official report, which was published by the Israeli Government, records how Lieutenant Avi Grabowski, deputy commander of an Israeli tank company, witnessed the murder of five women and children shortly after the massacre began. The report says that he was discouraged from complaining and was informed that his unit’s battalion commander had already been informed of the massacre but had replied: ‘We know, it’s not to our liking, and don’t interfere.’ At noon on the 17th – more than twenty-four hours before Ruppin claims the Israelis discovered what was happening – Grabowski’s tank crew asked a Christian militiaman why he and his men were killing civilians and were told: ‘Pregnant women will give birth to terrorists; the children when they grow up will be terrorists.’ And still the massacre continued.
Of the Arab village of ‘A-Nufiat’ (correct name:’ Arab al-Nufay’ at) which adjoined Ruppin’s settlement, he says that, had the Arab villagers heeded his advice not to flee in 1948, they would still be in this village ‘to this day’. Ruppin must know this is incorrect. The Arab villagers were ordered to leave ’ Arab al-Nufay’at by the Haganah on 10 April 1948; the village was bulldozed by Israeli forces less than three weeks later. Today – as Ruppin must be all too well aware, since he lives there – only a single house and a mulberry tree remain.
Vol. 19 No. 1 · 2 January 1997
Many Jews, including myself, are outraged at the way you malign Zionism. Over the years you have given extensive space, in articles and letters, for Edward Said to fulminate against Israel, while those who have rebutted him have had little space. It takes some chutzpah for you to give six books about Israel for review to Ian Gilmour, who is virulently hostile to it (LRB, 31 October 1996). His analysis of War and Peace in the Middle East, by Avi Shlaim, an Israeli of the extreme left (LRB, 22 December 1994), made very plain his venom against Israel. It is even more offensive that two of the books, which are anti-Zionist, Jewish History, Jewish Religion, by Israel Shahak, and Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict, by Norman Finkelstein, were not offered for review to an objective scholar of the Middle East. Most would say that the former’s book is also anti-Judaism; all will find obscene the comparisons between Israelis and Nazis in the latter’s book.
Gilmour is highly selective with his facts. He claims that in the late Forties Israel instigated a massive operation to induce Jews in Arab countries to emigrate to Israel. They needed no such persuasion. There was hostility to Jews which had nothing to do with the Zionists: there were massacres in Fez in 1912 and in Constantine in 1934, and harsh persecution in Yemen. To be fair, this was far less than their brethren suffered in Christian Europe.
Gilmour points out the massacres of Palestinians by Israelis without mentioning that it was the Palestinians who initiated these bloodbaths in the earlier years: those in Jerusalem in 1920, Jaffa in 1921, Hebron in 1929 and throughout Palestine in 1936. Furthermore, when he states that ‘the Palestinians have committed a number of crimes, including terrorist atrocities,’ it is as if he were to say that Thomas Hamilton killed a number of schoolchildren in Dunblane. Never mind the endless horrific slaughter of Israeli civilians, Palestinians massacred Europeans at Rome airport in 1973 and at Rome and Vienna airports in 1985; perpetrated numerous hijackings of airplanes from many countries; bombed the World Trade Center in New York in 1993; are prime suspects in the bombing of an airplane over Lockerbie in 1988; and a Palestinian assassinated Robert Kennedy in 1968.
Gilmour, while glorifying Arab rule of Jerusalem, denounces Israel’s. However, he omits Jordan’s sovereignty over the holy city from 1948 to 1967, when it destroyed the Jewish quarter and refused access to all Jews. Not only is Jerusalem an open city under the Israelis, but they have acted with Gandhian restraint in the face of relentless violence by Arabs since 1967. Indeed, if Israelis were as barbaric and racist as Gilmour constantly tells us, they would have thrown out the Arabs from the captured territories immediately after the 1967 war (perpetrated by the Arabs who vowed to throw the Jews into the sea).