Changing Places

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.

The full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in