Conor Cruise O’Zion

David Gilmour

  • The Siege: The Saga of Zionism and Israel by Conor Cruise O’Brien
    Weidenfeld, 798 pp, £20.00, May 1986, ISBN 0 297 78393 9

Conor Cruise O’Brien has enjoyed a career of variety and distinction: diplomat, politician, man of letters, an expert on Africa, Irish history and French literature. International affairs have interested him since his UN days in the late Fifties, when his ideas were close to Sartre’s. In a book on Camus published in 1970, O’Brien berated Camus for not supporting Sartre: had he done so, together they ‘would have rallied opinion more decisively and earlier against imperialist wars, not only in Algeria, but also in Indo-China-Vietnam and elsewhere’.

Dr O’Brien spent most of the Seventies as an Irish politician before becoming editor-in-chief of the Observer. His weekly column was an attractive mixture of humour, urbanity and good writing until June 1982 when he abandoned his usual style and published a series of articles justifying Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. He admitted that they contained ‘an unaccustomed element of emotion’, though to some of his readers they seemed to contain signs of fanaticism and even hysteria. The first argued that the Israelis should never return the Occupied Territories to the Arabs because such a compromise would lead to Israel’s death; the second attacked John le Carré for suggesting that Israel might have over-reacted (‘It is as if we British had lost our temper with the IRA,’ le Carré had written in the previous week’s Observer, ‘and decided to punish the entire Irish people once and for all’); and the third claimed that many of Israel’s detractors were anti-semites.

By that stage, Dr O’Brien had decided to write a book. His original intention was to produce a short one ‘of “current affairs” type’, with a brief prologue dealing with Zionism before 1948; in the end the prologue was extended to 286 pages and the whole book to a massive 798. Various motives for embarking on the project are put forward, among them personal reasons of ‘empathy’. Born into the Irish Catholic community, Dr O’Brien admits to ‘a certain atavistic understanding of what it means to belong to a stigmatised people’. The connections between Jews and Irish Catholics – the ‘experiences of oppression and stigmatisation’ – ‘have in fact been important to me, in approaching this subject, and writing this book’. As a result, the book contains a great many Irish parallels, which do not seem on the whole to be more profound or appropriate than the comparison suggested by Mr le Carré.

The aim of the book is to give ‘a somewhat better idea of how Israel came to be what and where it is, and why it cannot be other than what it is’. For the author, the most important fact about ‘what Israel is’ is that it is a state under siege. Dr O’Brien refers to this repeatedly throughout the book, from the title page to the last words: no one, he maintains, will be able to understand anything about the Arab-Israeli conflict unless he recognises this essential fact. I think Dr O’Brien is mistaken about this and would have realised his mistake if he had travelled a little in the Arab world and talked to a few more Arabs. It’s a strange sort of siege when the garrison frequently attacks the besiegers and is never attacked itself. Since 1967, Israel has attacked or invaded six Arab countries (Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Tunisia): during that time no Arab country has attacked Israeli territory. So in the circumstances, ‘siege’ seems a tendentious word. Settler states cannot really be besieged by their dispossessed inhabitants: one could not write a history of the Crusades with this title or a biography of General Custer called ‘The Besieged’.

In spite of its title, the book does not look or sound like a work of propaganda. The tone is much more restrained than that of the Observer articles (except in the account of the 1982 invasion, where the arguments addressed to the anti-semites and to Mr le Carré are repeated). The style is again that of a man of letters, quotations from Milton, Racine and Tacitus giving an impression of wisdom and erudition (an impression not unduly marred by misquotation from Kipling). Although the tone is eminently reasonable, however, the content is often literally unreasonable, in the sense that the author unashamedly uses arguments which he admits have no rational basis. The vindication of Zionism rests on more exotic props – religious, romantic and emotional. It has nothing to do with Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians or other Arabs: it is justified by History, by the history of the Jews in Christian Europe, by the Jewish religion and longing to ‘return’, by anti-semitism and the Holocaust. O’Brien’s view is close to what Arthur Balfour wrote in 1919: ‘In Palestine we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country ... Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in agelong traditions, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land,’

Dr O’Brien begins his book with a question – ‘Does Israel have a right to exist?’ – and then links it with another: ‘Do the Jews have a right to exist?’ ‘Hardly anyone would deny,’ he suggests, ‘that there is some connection between the two questions.’ Later, he remarks that ‘anti-semitism and anti-Zionism are not to be equated,’ but at the same time makes it clear that they overlap. Indeed, the alleged connection between anti-Zionism and anti-semitism is central to the book’s thesis (as it was to the Observer articles). The allegation is often made by official Israeli apologists and I think Dr O’Brien is wrong to repeat it. He admits that many enthusiastic Zionists, such as Balfour himself, were anti-semitic, advocating Zionism as a means of getting rid of the Jews in their own countries. He mentions Edwin Montagu, the only Jew in Lloyd George’s Cabinet, who regarded the whole Zionist idea – the idea of a national home in Palestine – as anti-semitic, but disregards his reasoning. Yet if we apply it to a comparable issue today, it is surely obvious that he was right. Who, for example, is more likely to be racist: the person who advocates the ‘return’ of Britain’s Asians to India or Pakistan, or the person who welcomes their assimilation to British society?

Without the alleged connection between Dr O’Brien’s two questions, he would be unable to put forward his vindication of Zionism. According to him, ‘the holocaust is not an aberration. It is a vast paroxysm of a deep-seated and apparently incurable disease: Gentile rejection of Jews.’ As this disease is inherent in Gentiles and could manifest itself in a second holocaust, the Jews are justified in doing whatever they see fit to prevent it, even if this means rejecting or mistreating any unfortunate Gentiles in their way. O’Brien thus provides a justification on security grounds for whatever Israel has done, is doing and will do to the Palestinians. To combat anti-semitism, it is necessary to have ‘a strong Jewish state, powerfully armed’, and if that means conquering and expropriating Arab land, expelling its inhabitants or ignoring their rights, that’s too bad.

In my opinion, this view is foolish and shortsighted – bound to lead to more wars and to the real possibility of Israel’s disappearance. It is also an example of the moral confusion which pervades this book. When judging Israel, Dr O’Brien abandons his usual criteria for making judgments and urges us to do the same. ‘Right and wrong,’ Arnold Toynbee wrote, ‘are the same in Palestine as anywhere else. What is peculiar about the Palestine conflict is that the world has listened to the party that has committed the offence and has turned a deaf ear to the victims.’ For Dr O’Brien, right and wrong in Palestine do not matter, though they do elsewhere. In his book on Camus he criticised the French writer’s attitude to Algeria: his political writings on the subject were ‘depressing’ and typical of ‘moderate bourgeois French journalism of the period’. O’Brien was particularly indignant that Camus should have preferred France to justice: ‘if France in Algeria was unjust, then it was justice that had to go.’ Yet this is precisely O’Brien’s attitude towards the Arab-Israeli conflict. If Israel is unjust – and even he admits that it often is – then justice is always the loser. What is so depressing about his present position is that you can take sections of his Camus and, by substituting the names O’Brien, Israel, Palestine, for Camus, France, Algeria, arrive at a moral rubbishing of The Siege. It is a sorry case of intellectual decadence.

This indulgent, amoral attitude towards Israeli behaviour is particularly evident in O’Brien’s treatment of the Arab-Israeli wars. The Gaza raid and Israel’s first Suez adventure are discussed but not criticised. As one would expect from the younger, anti-imperialist O’Brien, there is criticism of ‘French cynicism’ and ‘British hypocrisy’, but nothing about the Israeli aggression. (Poor Camus was severely ticked off for not condemning the Suez violence.) Turning to 1967, O’Brien concedes that ‘Nasser didn’t want to invade Israel’ (as even General Rabin has admitted), and that therefore Israel’s attack on Egypt couldn’t be justified as an act of self-defence. But he will not condemn it as an act of aggression, because anything that makes Israel stronger is a good thing. The important point, as the reader is constantly reminded, is that the fortifications should be extended to make life easier for the besieged.

I do not want to give the impression that Dr O’Brien never criticises Israel. Several politicians are admonished for their moments of ‘hubris’ and triumphalism: Ben Gurion for his ‘victory speech’ in 1956, Meir and Dayan for their arrogance in rejecting Sadat’s offer of peace in 1971. But these – and others – are criticised, not because they were wrong, but because they were unwise: instead of reinforcing the fortifications, their actions undermined them. Moral judgments are delivered on the British and the Arabs but not on the Israelis. Most people, including Dr O’Brien, would in principle accept the right of refugees to return to the homes from which they have been expelled. They would also agree that conquered land should be returned to its owners, not expropriated and colonised. But for Dr O’Brien these principles do not apply to Palestine.

Human rights in this area are a secondary matter, as he makes clear in a rather chilling discussion about disenfranchising the Arabs of Israel (i.e. those who did not become refugees in 1948). The Israeli Arabs are already second-class citizens, suffering from subtle methods of apartheid in areas such as housing and unemployment: the removal of their voting rights would reduce them to a status not much higher than that of South Africa’s blacks. Yet Dr O’Brien envisages certain circumstances – if, for instance, there was an Arab parliamentary bloc behaving like Parnell’s Irish followers – where this would be justifiable. Even after reading 440 pages of the book, I was shocked by this argument. It is the sort of line which General Sharon would approve of. As a civilised and fundamentally decent man, O’Brien no doubt finds Sharon repellent, ‘a little like the swaggering Goering’, but their intellectual positions are not very different. O’Brien’s is merely stated more reasonably.

O’Brien’s indulgence towards the Israelis is accompanied by a markedly different attitude towards the problems of the Palestinian Arabs. He knows exactly what has happened to them – he even admits ‘that they were the indirect and innocent victims of what happened to the Jews in Europe’ – but he has little sympathy. He mentions the seizure of Arab land and the destruction of several hundred villages after 1948, but without appearing to understand what the Arabs must feel about all this. The title itself is an indication of how little he understands the Arab position: if he had talked to Palestinians from Hebron or Nablus, forced to tolerate armed vigilantes spouting the Old Testament in American accents while Jewish settlements on Arab land go up all around them, he might have seen who was really under siege. He might have also understood why some Palestinians (about 1 per cent) have turned to violence – he might even have recognised his own double standards in the matter. Discussing Camus’s stance in 1956, O’Brien criticised his inconsistency in accepting ‘the violence of the Hungarian rebels’ while finding ‘inexcusable’ the ‘violence of the Algerian Arabs’. Dr O’Brien’s inconsistency – excusing the Algerians while condemning the Palestinians – is surely much greater than Camus’s, because while the Algerian struggle against France is in some ways comparable to the Palestinian struggle against Israel, it is not at all similar to the Hungarian revolt against the Soviet Union. Whatever else they have done, the Russians have not colonised most of Hungary.

The failure to understand the Palestinian grievance reflects a general lack of understanding of the Middle East. By his own account, we learn that during the Sixties and Seventies the Middle East was not high among Dr O’Brien’s preoccupations. There are a number of factual errors in his account of the Lebanese civil war (one might charitably assume that some of these are misprints); and anyone who sees that war as ‘a take-over bid’ by the PLO, ignores the first year of the conflict (1975) when the PLO took no part. Similarly, anyone who thinks Israel’s rule on the West Bank between 1967 and 1977 was ‘about as benign a regimen as was possible in the circumstances’ has evidently not read the reports of the Red Cross, Amnesty International, the Sunday Times, the National Lawyers Guild or the Israeli League for Civil and Human Rights. O’Brien states that the book is not intended for scholars or specialists, but that is no excuse for inadequate research. The 1948 war is so contentious a subject that it seems imprudent not to have read more widely before attempting to write about it. It is disingenuous to write of the capture of ‘the Arab towns of Lydda and Ramle, whose inhabitants left’ (my italics) when Israeli writers such as Rabin and the Kimches have described how Dayan and Ben Gurion expelled them. It is also rather astonishing to read that ‘the Hagana had no policy of driving out Arabs’ before 15 May, since the northern commander of the Hagana, General Allon, has described how, before that date, he ‘cleaned’ the Galilee of ‘tens of thousands of sulky Arabs’.

The book has been carefully crafted to avoid charges of bias, and its supporters will point out that Dr O’Brien goes to some lengths to be even-handed in, say, his analysis of the Balfour Declaration. Apart from his account of 1982, there is little haranguing of the readership. He is certainly not one of those propagandists always sniffing for traces of anti-semitism while apparently unaware of their own anti-Arab racism. Yet the book does contain a subtle bias, in tone as well as content, which reveals itself in a condescending, mildly contemptuous attitude to the Arabs (for instance, when he describes the Druzes’ ‘customary practice’ of massacring their opponents). It is also apparent in what he leaves out. One favoured tactic is to recount Arab atrocities giving the number of Israeli casualties and then to mention Israeli reprisals without giving figures for the Arab dead. We learn, that 37 Israelis were killed in the Palestinian raid of March 1978, but no mention is made of the two thousand Arabs killed in the retaliatory invasion three days later.

1982 is the low point of the book, the only moment when Dr O’Brien sounds like a press counsellor at the Israeli Embassy. Many of Israel’s supporters thought the invasion was a grotesque over-reaction to the attack by an anti-PLO group on the Israeli Ambassador in London: even the Ambassador himself, on recovery, denounced it as a ‘useless military adventure’. But Dr O’Brien remains adamant: ‘No state, surely, could willingly tolerate the presence within a neighbouring state of a radically hostile political entity ... ’ He agrees that the war, which resulted in the partial destruction of three of Lebanon’s cities, did not look good, especially in front of the television cameras, but this was because it was misunderstood. ‘Unsophisticated people’ might think Israel’s assault ‘brutal and unprovoked’, but this was because they were too unsophisticated to understand ‘that the PLO was what this was all about.’ Simpletons might be horrified by the destruction of schools and hospitals in Beirut, but then they did not realise that near these places lurked ‘people dedicated to the eventual destruction of Israel’ whom the Israelis were justified in attacking even if it entailed spraying a capital city with phosphorus shells and cluster bombs. With the same argument, one could talk of South Africa’s right to attack its neighbours in search of the ANC, Spain’s to invade France to seek out ETA, and the Afghan Government’s right to bomb Peshawar and its refugee camps because they shelter mujahadin.

Not only does Dr O’Brien repeat the arguments of the Israeli Information Ministry: he also relies on its version of events even when independent witnesses have shown it to be false. It is thus no surprise to read that Israel ‘did what it could to minimise civilian casualties – by dropping warning leaflets in advance of bombing, for example’. Interestingly, no source is given for this statement, though a note at the back adds that this tactic worked well at Sidon. In fact, it did not work well at Sidon: according to the Financial Times (17 June 1982), the city suffered 36 hours of continuous bombing before the leaflets were dropped. On 9 June, in the suburbs of Sidon, the inhabitants of the large refugee camp of Ain el-Hilweh were showered with leaflets telling them to ‘flee for their lives’ before they were trapped by a bombardment. However, Ain el-Hilweh had first been bombed – by land, sea and air – on 6 June and was to be bombed again on the 7th, 8th and 9th. A witness reported in New Society (19 August): ‘the bombing continued without cease as the leaflets flooded down amidst the rubble. All roads out of the camp were under intense attack throughout the ten days. If the leaflets were of help to Israeli embassies abroad, they were useless to the victim populace.’

The book’s conclusion is contained in an epilogue entitled ‘Territory for Peace?’ This title refers to a formula endorsed by moderate Arabs and moderate Israelis, although there is disagreement about how much territory should be traded in exchange for a peace settlement. Dr O’Brien rejects the formula altogether. Moderate solutions are dismissed and proposals for a comprehensive peace settlement – such as those of the Brookings Institution – are treated with gentle sarcasm. What O’Brien is telling us is that Israel can’t be expected to relinquish its conquests, and certainly should not be forced to do so. Possible solutions, such as a demilitarised West Bank with borders policed by UN troops, are not discussed. Nor is the notion considered that Israel, having exerted such pressure on American policy, might usefully be the recipient of similar pressure from the US. In fact, O’Brien has no solution to offer beyond trying to improve the present arrangements and finding a way of ‘sharing’ the West Bank between Israelis and Palestinians (while keeping it under Israeli control). Following this depressing conclusion, the reader is likely to wonder whether the whole Zionist enterprise might not have been a long, tragic error. I suppose the answer might depend on how convinced people are by Dr O’Brien’s belief that the Gentiles’ evil designs against the Jews are permanent and inalienable. I still think the assimilationists were right and that since the Holocaust their argument has been vindicated by the strength and success of Jewish communities in the US and Western Europe. The establishment of a Zionist state in an Arab territory – impressive achievement though it undoubtedly was – has resulted in so many wars, so many thousands of dead, so much misery for millions of people, that it is easy to understand the bewilderment of the Israeli writer Yizhar: ‘we came, we shot, we burnt, we blasted, we repulsed and expelled and exiled ... what the hell are we doing here?’