‘We learned from the British’

Amjad Iraqi · Shimon Peres

Writing in the Guardian in 2011, Shimon Peres, then president of Israel, welcomed the uprisings that were spreading across the Middle East. Israel wanted to see ‘improvements in our neighbours’ lives’, he said, which was the reason it was helping Palestinians in the West Bank develop their own economy, institutions and security forces. ‘Israel was born under the British mandate,’ he went on.

We learned from the British what democracy means, and how it behaves in a time of danger, war and terror. We thank Britain for introducing freedom and respect of human rights both in normal and demanding circumstances. It was a great lesson and a necessary one for a country such as Israel, which has been attacked seven times in the 63 years of its existence without compromising democracy and without giving up our quest for peace.

Aside from his misleading portrayal of Israel’s relations with the Palestinians (including his omission of the blockaded Gaza Strip), Peres seemed oblivious to the darker implications of summoning Britain’s imperial past: that he, a leader of a settler-colonial state, was thanking a former colonial power for inspiring the methods Israel used to deal with the native Palestinians, while believing that those methods were benign.

When Peres died last month, many Palestinians resented the national and international outpouring of praise he received. They were especially angered when President Mahmoud Abbas and other Palestinian Authority (PA) officials went to the funeral in Jerusalem; Abbas had to get permission from the Israeli army to enter the city. Ayman Odeh, the head of the Joint List of Arab political parties in the Knesset, sent his condolences to Peres’s family but refused to go to the funeral. ‘This is a national day of mourning in which I have no place,’ he said. ‘Not in the narrative, not in the symbols that exclude us, not in the stories of Peres as a man who built up Israel’s defences.’

Israelis were shocked by these reactions. Since his presidency, Peres was revered in Israel as a peacemaker, a founding father, and a moral compass. He was an architect of the Oslo Accords and the peace treaty with Jordan, a Nobel laureate, and a sponsor of Jewish-Arab coexistence programmes through the Peres Centre for Peace. But he had not been a popular politician for much of his career: he was distrusted by his colleagues (‘a tireless schemer’, Yitzhak Rabin called him), and his brief stints as prime minister ended in political failure and lost elections.

Defenders of Peres’s legacy argue that he shed years of hawkish politics to become, in David Grossman’s words, a statesman who ‘symbolised the willingness for compromise with the Palestinians’.

The Palestinians, however, cannot forget the hawk so easily. For years, Peres helped to govern the military occupation and was a staunch supporter of the settlement enterprise. He encouraged British and French intervention in Suez in 1956 and established Israel’s nuclear weapons programme (the nuclear reactor in Dimona will now be named after him). Under the Oslo Accords, Israel tightened its control over Palestinian water and other natural resources, and the newly formed PA operated as an authoritarian police force at the behest of the Israeli army – all while the settlements continued to expand. As prime minister, Peres oversaw the 1996 shelling of a UN shelter in Qana in Lebanon, which killed more than a hundred refugees. And as president a decade later, he defended the Israeli army’s conduct during its repeated offensives on Gaza, regardless of the massive civilian casualties and destruction they caused. Peres may have believed he was pursing peace, but his notion of peace – even during his ‘dovish’ years – contradicted itself from the outset.

‘Every single empire’, Edward Said observed in Orientalism, has said ‘that its circumstances are special, that it has a mission to enlighten, civilise, bring order and democracy, and that it uses force only as a last resort … as if one shouldn’t trust the evidence of one’s eyes watching the destruction and the misery and death brought by the latest mission civilisatrice.’ Israel is no different. None of the foreign leaders at Peres’s funeral raised the fact that millions of Palestinians live as occupied subjects, second-class citizens, and exiled refugees as a result of the policies he contributed to. None of them asked how he, like other Israeli leaders, could subscribe to liberal values while subjugating another society; support a new state while depleting its sovereignty; and promote equality while preserving ethnic privilege. Perhaps the answer can be found in Peres’s own words: ‘We learned from the British.’


  • 12 October 2016 at 12:23pm
    Fred Skolnik says:
    I have no argument with an Arab or Palestinian who supports the Arab or Palestinian cause. Arab or Muslim hatred of Israel, however fanatical, at least has the virtue of being the by-product of a national conflict and is therefore comprehensible in conventional historic terms, unlike such hatred among Israel haters in the West, which is the outgrowth of a scarred and twisted psyche. However, the complete identification with the Palestinian cause by your author, who is an Israeli Arab, goes a long way toward explaining the discrimination that Israeli Arabs face in Israel as a potential fifth column Ironically, your author's name pretty much gives the game away. You will also find not a few Misris and Halabis among the "Palestinian" Arabs.

    As for the rest, it is true that no one liked Peres until he became president and appeared to be above politics. What is not true is that Israel is a colonial power. The colonial powers in the Land of Israel when Zionist settlement began were the Ottoman Turks and later the British. The Jews bought land privately and made a claim to sovereignty in part of the country. The Arabs, who had not exercised sovereignty there since the 13th century, also made such a claim, though they had as much right to sovereignty there as they did in Spain and Iran, which they also conquered in the time of their imperial glory. That's fine. A compromise was offered. The Jews accepted it, the Arabs rejected it and chose war.

    As for the settlements, they are actually neither here nor there, as their final disposition will be determined in negotiations in which Israel's opening position will be a trade-off of territory involving five percent of West Bank land and leaving three-quarters of the settlements within Israel's new borders.

    • 12 October 2016 at 7:48pm
      name says: @ Fred Skolnik
      Your assertion that Arabs "had as much right to sovereignty there as they did in Spain and Iran" is downright preposterous. So what if the Arabs had been under Ottoman control since their lands were conquered in the early 1500's: for centuries they still lived in them, defended them, and shed much blood trying to liberate them, all activities that lend their case legitimacy. As for your ridiculous claim that the Jews had bought all the land privately from Arabs, I refer you to the case of Ben Dunkelman, who is the only reason Nazareth remains Arab today, since he refused his orders to purge it of its local population in '48 - which is how Israel secured most of its lands.

      I don't usually reply to comments I happen to see online, but your malicious insinuation that the author's family name somehow proves that Palestinians don't exist disgusted me into action. FYI, I've met quite a few Arab Halabis, Masris, and even Sahyounis (Zion-i) in my time in the Middle East. If the first two should return to Halab and Egypt respectively, where do we send the Sahyounis? Surely not Palestine, that's where they were expelled from in '48. Any ideas?

    • 13 October 2016 at 3:07am
      Fred Skolnik says: @ name
      Saying that something is preposterous does not make it so. The Arabs "lived in" Spain for 600 years before the final expulsion in the Reconquista. There is also nothing malicious about pointing out that the Palestinians are not an indigenous population. As for rights, "that's fine," as I say. They were offered a compromise that would have left them exactly where they were in the territory under Jewish sovereignty, just as they had remained where they were under Ottomoan sovereignty, and given them sovereignty in the rest of the country, but they chose war. And for the record, 70% of the land allocated to the Jews in the partition plan was public and not private land, including the Negev, which constituted half of the Jewish area.

    • 13 October 2016 at 6:26am
      Joe Morison says: @ Fred Skolnik
      Of course there are people in the West who hate Israel (and who are therefore almost certainly antisemites) but the vast majority of Western criticism comes from people who hate, not Israel itself but, what the Israeli government is doing.

      As a child, I was raised to see Israel as a beacon of Enlightenment sanity in a troubled region; it was common for young people to go and do voluntary work in kibbutzim, I had many friends who did.

      So for me, and many others in the West, it's heartbreaking to see what is happening. I'd say much of the anger in the West comes from the fact that we love Israel and cannot bear to see its government dragging it down into such vileness.

    • 13 October 2016 at 7:24am
      Fred Skolnik says: @ Joe Morison
      No, that is not where the vast majority of Western criticism is coming from, Once again, I invite readers to consider the following:

      I live in Israel and served on active reserve duty for 20 years, a good part of it on the West Bank, and saw very little evidence of vileness, nor do I see it now. I see legitimate security measure in the face of terrorist attacks against Israel's civilian population, with all the consequent suffering this inevitably causes to the Palestinian population. You may not take Hamas seriously, or the murder of Israelis, but we do. If the Palestinians want the occupation to end, they will have to disavow terrorism and reconcile themselves to the existence of a sovereign non-Muslim state in the Middle East.

    • 13 October 2016 at 11:28am
      Joe Morison says: @ Fred Skolnik
      I thought it a risible article.

      The English and the French have precious little enmity between them (far more love, I’d have thought), and I’ve never heard of modern French and English historians arguing along nationalist lines.

      The opinions expressed by hard left activists, are the opinions of a tiny proportion of leftwing people in the West.

      You’re probably right about people who hate Israel, but it is absurd to suggest that hatred of Israel’s actions is partly because Israel is Jewish. The reason so many in Europe single out Israel for special opprobrium when there are plenty of other countries that behave worse is the same reason that we singled out apartheid South Africa for special criticism: we are responsible for its foundation, and it claims Enlightenment legitimacy for itself - it claims to speak in our name.

      To blame all the criticism of Israeli on a hatred that in part rests on Israel’s Jewishness is to give a very weak excuse for not considering those criticisms. You should stop claiming you know what motivates people you have never met and deal instead with what they are saying.

    • 13 October 2016 at 11:55am
      Fred Skolnik says: @ Joe Morison
      You are not a very careful reader. I spoke of the "historical enmity" between France and England.

      The Israel haters are a very vocal group. They never miss an opportunity to express themselves on the Internet so one knows precisely who and what they are. In fact they are always quoting one another.

      I also note that criticism of Israel is not the same as Israel or Jew hatred. The giveaway is always the vehemence of the language. What is really risible is the idea that Israel's more vehement critics or haters are acting out of a sense of personal responsibility - we created you - or because Israel claims to be "enlightened" and thereby offends really enlightened people like yourself. Are you joking?

      As for the substance of the criticism, which more often than not is based on newspaper headlines, television reports and quotations from second- and third-hand English-language sources produced by other Israel haters, all tempered by a very strong anti-Israel bias, and which none of the haters are equipped to verify or evaluate, I certainly address it, as I did above, and if you wish to argue any of your points substantively, I will be happy to respond.

    • 13 October 2016 at 2:18pm
      Joe Morison says: @ Fred Skolnik
      You said that with regards to that historical enmity, it is natural for a Frenchman [sic] to be pro-French and an Englisman [sic] to be pro-English; not only is that not what we're like (the women as well as the men), it would only make sense if some element of that enmity still remained.

      And, yes, when you have some responsibility for something's creation, you have some responsibility for its actions; and when some entity claims to represent the values one stands for while violating them, one has a duty to protest. It was for those reasons that left wing opinion in the West was so opposed to apartheid, and that opposition contributed greatly to its demise.

    • 13 October 2016 at 2:54pm
      Fred Skolnik says: @ Joe Morison
      You are talking high-falluting nonsense. You would have us believe that the Israel haters are an elite group of caring human beings who are brought to tears by the suffering of the Palestinian people. That is not my sense of the people commenting on the countless I Hate Israel sites and producing their malicious texts. They simply do not come across as caring people. In fact, they strike me as being indifferent to real genocides around the world and far more interested in Israel (and America) as culprits than in the Palestinians or anyone else as victims.

      Other than batting around the word apartheid (maybe trying to suggest thay Israel too is an apartheid state), I see that don't really have anything of substance to say. You seem to believe that Israel's absolute culpability goes without saying as a foregone conclusion. It does not and is not.

    • 13 October 2016 at 3:07pm
      Joe Morison says: @ Fred Skolnik
      I said that I agree with you about Israel haters. My point is that hating Israel's government's policies, which most left wing (and many right wing) people in the West do, in no way implies hating Israel, which most of us don't - quite the reverse, in fact.

    • 13 October 2016 at 3:26pm
      Fred Skolnik says: @ Joe Morison
      But what policies do you "hate." And did you "hate" previous governments less. And do you also hate the policies of Hamas?

      The fact is that your "critics" hate the idea of Israel's existence as much as its policies because they are always pointing to the great injustice done to the Palestinians by establishing the State of Israel. And then they go a step back and hate the Zionist presumption of wanting a state in the Land of Israel. And then they go another step back and deride whatever claims the Jews advanced on the basis of their historic attachment to the Land of Israel. And then they pretend that Jewish claims are based on some crazy, primitive biblical idea of God saying this or that, and so on and so forth.

      By all means, let us see a link to what you consider substantive criticism of Istael that doesn't cross the line.

      And once again, for someone so convinced of Israel's vileness, you are saying remarkably little of substance.

    • 13 October 2016 at 3:34pm
      Joe Morison says: @ Fred Skolnik
      I'm not going to get into a debate with you about Israeli policy, it would take far too long. But, for the record, I think the policies and behaviour of Hamas are utterly vile (and also deeply counterproductive).

    • 13 October 2016 at 10:13pm
      SixthPartWorld says: @ Fred Skolnik
      Preposterous dissembling. So an 'Ashekenaz' ("from Germany") Jew with the surname Moskowitz gives the game away as well? Pretending not to understand naming conventions is pretty desperate. Surely you can do better than that.

    • 14 October 2016 at 4:15am
      Fred Skolnik says: @ SixthPartWorld
      Jews don't pretend that they didn't arrive from other places. Israel haters pretend that the Palestinians are an indigenous people. Someone is called Halabi because his family migrated to the Land of Israel from Halab (Aleppo). Someone is called Misri because his family migrated to the Land of Israel from Egypt. What is not preposterous but malicious is to deny the historical connection of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel, where, unlike the Arabs, their culture, language, religion and national identity were created. The Jews come from Judea. The Arabs come from Arabia. The Jews nonetheless accepted a compromise with regard to sovereignty. The Arabs didn't and went to war.

    • 14 October 2016 at 9:15am
      RobotBoy says: @ Fred Skolnik
      Your claim about 'Palestinians' not being 'indigenous' to Palestine is preposterous in so many ways, it's difficult to pick a starting place. Do you believe that 'Arabs' refers to those who speak Arabic? Very well, Palestine has been majority Arabic speaking since the first few centuries after Mohamed. Do you mistakenly conflate 'Arab' with 'Muslim'? Even if that's the case, Palestine has been majority Muslim for just as long. If you're trying to argue that 'Arab' only refers to the tribes that spread Islam across the Middle East, well, that would put you on even less stable ground, as most Palestinians are the descendants of the indigenous inhabitants of Palestine that converted to Islam and traded Aramaic for Arabic.
      In the middle of the 19th Century, there were only a few hundred Jews in Palestine, with, dozens, at most of those Ashkenazim (ironically, Zionism was a project of Jews who'd live in Europe for a thousand or more years). The Zionist motto, 'A Land without People for People without a Land' conveniently ignored the fact that Palestine was indeed peopled, and had been for a long, long time. Any way you slice it, Zionism was a colonial project, drawing its rhetoric and methods from European ethnic nationalist movements that all-too often demonized Jews. The logic of colonialism has inevitably destroyed the early myths of secular socialism that provided the more positive aspects of early Zionism, creating an increasingly fundamentalist, hyper nationalistic entity. (Enslaving entire populations will have this effect on even the noblest values). The model for Israel is the 20th Century's most notable colonial-settler state: apartheid South Africa.

    • 14 October 2016 at 10:55am
      Fred Skolnik says: @ RobotBoy
      Indigenousness is not transferable from a conquered to a conquering population. The Spanish Conquistadors did not become indigenous by virtue of the fact that they raped (or married) Aztec or Inca woman or forced them to convert. Today's Palestinian Arabs are part of the Arab nation by their own definition and have absolutely nothing in common with the indigenous populations they conquered and whose national identities they destroyed, not in terms of origins, history, historical memory, culture, religion or language. At best you can call them a medieval population but even as such you have to take into account Arab migration to the Land of Israel in the 19th century, so that, according to the 1931 census, over 20 different languages were in use by Muslims, and non-Jews in Palestine listed as their birthplaces at least 24 different countries (Sudan, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, Morocco, Bosnia, the Caucasus, Turkmenistan, Kurdistan, India, Afghanistan, Baluchistan, etc.) while the Arab population of Haifa rose from 6,000 in 1880 to 80,000 in 1919 as a result of workforce migration.

      The Jewish population of the Land of Israel in 1882, before the first wave of immigration, was 24,000. Of course there was an Arab majority. So what? It was achieved through conquest. Since the total population of the country was around 300,000 in an area that today accommodates well over 10 million people and still has plenty of room, no one can be blamed for seeing it as a land without a people in the demographic sense, and all visitors to the area did in fact note that it was barely populated.

      None of this is the issue. The issue is Israel's sovereignty in part of the land, which was sanctioned and legitimized by the same Powers that created the independent Arab states in the region and is justified by virtue of the historical connection of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel, which is no less valid then the Arab connection through conquest. I have the feeling that if the American Indians or Native Americans, any time in the last 60 or 70 years, had begun agitating for a state of their own out West, say in New Mexico, where they constitute 10% of the population, you would have been among the first to support them. And if the UN had proposed a partition of New Mexico, you would have supported that too. And if the Indians had proclaimed a state and the United States had invaded it after declaring that it would destroy it and massacre its population, you would have been screaming bloody murder. Tell me that isn't true.

      The colonial powers in the Land of Israel were the Ottoman Turks and then the British. The Jew bought land privately in the pre-State period, did not displace Arabs, did not make laws for them, did not rule them, so what is this nonsense about colonialism? As for the West Bank settlements, as I wrote above, their final disposition will be determined in negotiations in which Israel’s opening position will be a trade-off of territory involving five percent of West Bank land and leaving three-quarters of the settlements within Israel’s new borders.

  • 12 October 2016 at 3:55pm
    freespeechlover says:
    Thank you for this smart analysis of Peres, his invocation of the British and how Palestinians view his legacy.

  • 13 October 2016 at 12:24am
    nztab says:
    I seldom add replies either, but one can see from both Mr Iraqi's post and the comments that it has generated why one should. Like an Alzheimer's sufferer, the official media outlets seemed confused why Peres' funeral was such a big deal, with two US Presidents on one plane - woah! That was about the extent of the coverage I saw. This is the West's institutional loss of memory. The true record of the last sixty-eight years is evidenced in the Wiesenthal-like grasp of detail Mr Iraqi displays, which cannot be gainsaid Fred, and which all Palestinians cling on with. And it is that which needs our constant support in these dreadful amnesiac days.

  • 13 October 2016 at 10:35am
    SamGamgee says:
    As usual in the LRB, one would think from what is written about Israel that the Palestinians are simply innocent victims and that Israel has no legitimate security concerns. Not one stone thrown, no hate-filled antisemitic propaganda issued, not one aeroplane hijacked, not one suicide bomber sent in, not one rocket launched, it would seem. Just innocent Palestinians suffering at the hands of wicked Israelis.

  • 13 October 2016 at 10:08pm
    Graucho says:
    The Likud are, to use the political metaphor, "holding a wolf by the ears". Whether it ends up as it did with slavery in the U.S. or as it did with apartheid in South Africa is of course the big question.

  • 14 October 2016 at 7:36am
    cufflink says:
    We were in Barnet A&E yesterday having my wife's head injury checked out after a nasty fall. As we passed through an entry door a distinguished upright man kindly held the door open. He was wearing Hebrew regalia and dress in a bright pronounced display. I returned his good gesture with 'Shalom'. He was delighted and saw us through to reception with a hand shake.
    The woman doctor we saw might have been Jewish too, and after a nurse had cleaned the wound the doctor came into the cubicle just before her departure home and wished my wife well. I raised my hand to brow in salutation.
    Simon Peres, whatever is said as to his politiical life and purposes has always been a hero and exemplary human being to me in his cultivated gentlemanly demeanour - a man of grace and of the Left too. I liken him to other Jewish exemplars - Leonard Woolf and Lionel Trilling; even perhaps Disraeli? May he rest in peace.
    Israel and Palestine is a dire serious business but my feelings are that with more sagacious input from both sides Shalom will show us through the opening door onto safe democracy.
    Thank you Joe and Fred for exchanging views so thoughtfully on this.

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