My Israel, Right or Wrong

Ian Gilmour

  • 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.’

‘Seven hundred thousand Palestinians became refugees,’ Shlaim continues. But only the rich, or people caught in the front line of a war, just ‘become’ refugees, and they are often allowed to return. The rest are normally driven from their homes by one means or another. As Nur Masalha conclusively shows in his recent book, Expulsion of the Palestinians, the removal of the Palestinians – euphemistically called a ‘transfer’ – was from the start an integral part of Zionism and had long been planned. In 1948, there were many Israeli massacres of Palestinians, of which Deir Yassin and Duwayma are the most notorious, and some 300,000 Palestinians had been ‘transferred’ before the war began. The Arabs, as Itzak Rabin conceded in his memoirs before they were censored, ‘did not leave willingly’. In the end, 80 per cent of the Arab population of what became Israel were expelled and dispossessed. They were not allowed to return.

From Suez onwards, America was unquestionably central to the Middle East, and Shlaim gets properly into his stride. Lately, Suez has been defended in some Far Right circles. Shlaim will have none of that nonsense. Britain’s actions, he finds, were an amalgamation of immorality, political folly and incompetence: ‘Suez was the wrong war, at the wrong time, on the wrong issue, against the wrong enemy.’ The United States has committed no single action in the Middle East quite so wrong-headed, yet since 1967 American policy has also been a combination of immorality, political folly and incompetence, and it has been a good deal more damaging.

President Eisenhower insisted on complete Israeli withdrawal from Sinai in 1957, but he was the last American statesman to display such firmness or fairness. From then on, as Shlaim says, ‘with each successive war America became more deeply committed to Israel, culminating in direct military involvement following Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon.’ Shlaim identifies two schools of thought among American policy-makers: the globalist and the regionalist. The globalists claimed that the Middle East should be regarded primarily in Cold War terms, as an area in which the West and the Soviet Union were vying for supremacy. The regionalists saw the local conflicts as paramount and wanted to help solve them. The globalists were ‘Israel-firsters’; they regarded Israel as America’s most important ally, who should be allowed to do largely what she wanted. The regionalists naturally favoured a more even-handed policy, believing that Arab interests should not be ignored. The globalists won, and ‘since 1967 the Israel-first school has dominated American policy.’

Shlaim has little space to analyse the forces forming US foreign policy, but he leaves no doubt that domestic politics were a crucial factor in giving the Israel-firsters victory, and he stresses the power of AIPAC, the chief pro-Israeli lobby. This raises the question of how genuine was the globalist-regionalist controversy. AIPAC and the Israel-firsters believe that the interests of Israel should rank higher in the formulation of US policy than American interests. However great the general admiration of Israel, that is not a view shared by many Americans. And so to justify the pro-Israeli tilt of American policy, and the vast quantity of weapons and money promiscuously lavished on Israel – that relatively well off country gets a high percentage of the total foreign aid budget – some camouflage of the true reasons for the policy was badly needed, and globalism served the purpose. Of course, some globalists were almost wholly actuated by Cold War motives, but it seems unlikely that there were many such people. Those that there were must have been fairly obtuse.

Shlaim is pleasantly unpredictable in the criticisms of American politicians that he allows himself. Ronald Reagan saw the Middle East – in so far as he saw it at all – in Cold War terms, and Shlaim refers accurately enough to ‘Reagan’s idleness, intellectual mediocrity and lax leadership’. He is scathing, too, about the Clinton Administration, in whose eyes ‘Israel could do nothing wrong, while the Arabs, especially the Palestinians, could do nothing right.’ Yet, except by implication, Reagan’s Secretary of State, George Shultz, gets off scot-free, though he was surely almost as much to blame as Reagan – perhaps more so since he should have known better. Unfortunately, he lacked the courage and integrity to translate his knowledge into policy; instead, he capitulated to the Israeli lobby; indeed, unlike his predecessors, he effectively handed the State Department over to it. Again, though Shlaim is eloquent on the defects of the policies pursued by Nixon and Kissinger – over the first of America’s betrayals of the Kurds and the lost opportunity of an Arab-Israeli settlement – Kissinger himself escapes very lightly.

That brings us back to ‘globalism’. Whatever may be thought of Kissinger’s lack of scruple and judgment, his conceit and treachery to colleagues, nobody has thought him a fool. Yet he probably did more than any other man to block a comprehensive settlement both before and after the 1973 war. Nixon’s first Secretary of State, William Rogers, sought such a settlement based on Security Council Resolution 242. At that time, the Americans, like the Arabs then and since, interpreted 242 according to its natural meaning, which is that with minor frontier rectifications Israel should return to its 1967 borders. Kissinger, however, was never interested in such an agreement. Ostensibly, his aim was to wage the Cold War and expel the Soviets from the Middle East. He therefore undercut Rogers’s efforts to procure a fair settlement and, on succeeding him as Secretary of State, made no attempt to get one himself.

Shlaim is surely right in saying that before 1973 an opportunity existed for a negotiated settlement and that it is not possible to blame the Soviet Union for frustrating it. The Russians, indeed, behaved far more responsibly than the Americans. They wanted a settlement and they restricted their supply of arms to their allies, while Nixon and Kissinger made no effort at all to bring peace to the area and supplied Israel with unlimited arms. They thus became Israel’s ‘accomplices in blocking peace negotiations’. In consequence, they precipitated the 1973 war.

After that conflict there was once more a chance of an overall settlement, which was again headed off by Kissinger. The Secretary of State preferred to proceed by expensive (to America) step-by-step agreements and to concentrate on splitting Egypt from her allies. In this he made Anwar Sadat a willing aide. Sadat so misjudged the situation that he thought America would help him against Israel; he even thought Kissinger ‘a man of his word’. Is it really credible that Kissinger thought he was fighting and winning the Cold War in the Middle East? It seems more likely that, despite occasional exasperation at the Israelis’ inability to see what benefits he was conferring on them, Kissinger continued to be an accomplice in preventing a settlement because he was a fervent Israel-firster. The alternative is to think him a fool.

With the end of the Cold War, globalism was no longer a necessary or possible camouflage of an Israel-first policy. Under President Bush and James Baker, the United States briefly reverted to an even-handed approach for the first time since President Carter’s similarly brief attempt at fairness. Yitzak Shamir was forced to choose between American aid and the continued colonisation of the Occupied Territories. But with the election of a Labour coalition in Israel and the approach of Presidential elections in America, even-handedness was largely abandoned. Had Bush won in 1992, it would presumably have been reinstated, whereas with Clinton in the White House it was not even considered. So onesided was the Clinton Administration, indeed, that it had to be bypassed even by the Israelis. In Shlaim’s words, ‘American ignorance and incompetence ... helped Yasser Arafat to use the negotiating channel provided by the Norwegians.’ Clinton’s Secretary of State, the sad and inadequate Warren Christopher, learned of the breakthrough only shortly before everybody else did.

Much of the Israel lobby in the US was and is hostile to the agreement. During Likud’s years of power in Israel, the lobby had imbibed Likud’s views, in accordance with its usual attitude of ‘My Israel, right or wrong’. Yet with the advent of a Labour coalition and its attempt to achieve a peace of a sort, parts of the lobby decided that Israel could be wrong after all. Some of America’s leading columnists, such as A.M. Rosenthal and William Safire, have adopted a Likudist attitude to the Palestinian problem, evidently thinking it permissible to favour the continuance of Israeli oppression of the Palestinians and the failure of the peace settlement from the (relatively) safe haven of New York.

Some years ago, Rosenthal strongly criticised Rupert Murdoch’s activities in America. That was courageous but also surprising, since Rosenthal’s journalism would not have been out of place in a Murdoch newspaper. In September this year he provided a good example of his general approach. ‘King Hussein loves receiving prominent American Jews,’ he wrote. ‘Do they ever ask him why he threw all Jews out of the West Bank when Jordan captured it?’ The only Jews then thrown out of the West Bank were a few hundred from settlements at Kfar Etzion near Jerusalem, which is certainly grounds for criticism though they were treated correctly, as prisoners of war; and a larger number from the Jewish Quarter of the old city itself, which was finally taken by the Arab Legion after days of hand-to-hand battle. Amounting to fewer than two thousand people who were in the middle of the fighting, they could not have remained where they were, and in being handed over to the Israeli authorities they were by common consent well-treated. Moreover, at the time Jordan ‘captured’ the West Bank, Hussein was not the King of Jordan but a schoolboy aged 12. All in all, therefore, any American visitor to Jordan rash enough to pose Rosenthal’s oafish enquiry would be likely to find himself flattened by a fairly crushing rejoinder.

Rosenthal’s wondrous ignorance is not, however, the most striking feature of the passage I have quoted. What can one say about a cast of mind which complains of the humane handing over of some two thousand people to the other side’s authorities yet accepts or welcomes what even Rabin called ‘the harsh and cruel’ expulsion of 700,000 Palestinians before, during and after the war? William Safire, another rabid pro-Israeli trumpeter, has a similar talent for turning the truth on its head. Like Rosenthal, he thinks that Israeli Jews (but not Israeli Arabs) have a right to settle on the West Bank and Gaza Strip and that to remove them would be ethnic cleansing. In fact, the Israelis have no such right. Their settlements, constructed on land allotted to the Arabs in the Partition resolution of 1947 and then occupied by Transjordan, are palpably illegal under international law. To remove them would be both legal and just.

The internationally recognised pre-1967 borders give Israel 77 per cent of the land of Palestine. Although that left only 23 per cent for the Palestinians, Israel has since stolen some half of that small remnant. ‘Two million Palestinians of the Territories, who amount to a little less than a third of the total population of Palestine,’ a distinguished Israeli politician reminded us last year, ‘now control no more than 8 per cent of the water resources and 13 per cent of the land.’ Even the Serbs in Bosnia have gone nowhere near as far as that. Yet Safire and Co criticise the Serbs’ ethnic cleansing while applauding the Israelis’ continuing dispossession of the Palestinians. This almost crazily askew character of so much American comment on the Arab-Israeli dispute is both cause and effect of the Israel-first policy and helps to explain the humiliating position of the Clinton Administration – which is normally in Rabin’s pocket.

Shlaim’s view of the Oslo Accord is of course very different from that of Likudist American columnists, yet he regards it as ‘an extraordinary achievement’ for the Palestinians. LRB readers will remember the issue a year ago which contained two articles on Oslo, one by Shlaim himself and one by the paper’s other leading commentator on the Middle East, Edward Said. While acknowledging that the Palestinians had made painful concessions, Shlaim thought that Arafat had pulled off ‘a major diplomatic coup’. Said, on the contrary, regarded the accord as ‘an instrument of Palestinian surrender, a Palestinian Versailles’. At the time I found myself, weakly and illogically, agreeing with both views. Ever since 1925 the Palestinians had refused what they had been offered. On each occasion their refusal was entirely understandable; any other people faced with their unfortunate situation would probably have reacted in the same way. Nevertheless, the politics of refusal had been disastrous, and it seemed time for a change. On the other hand, the Oslo agreement was ineptly negotiated and outstandingly unfavourable; with the exception of Israel’s recognition of the PLO, nearly all the concessions came from the Palestinians. Not to have insisted on the complete ending of the illegal settlement building was an astonishing omission – though there is some reason to suspect that the Palestinian negotiators had an almost Rosenthalian ignorance of the subject, thinking that the settlements were very much less extensive than they are. In addition the PLO’s reduction to such straits that it would agree to almost anything was largely the result of its own ineptitude, the outstanding example of which was Arafat’s catastrophic imbecility in siding with Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War.

A year on the argument has moved in Edward Said’s direction, as his recent article in this journal showed. Israel, with American connivance, is still robbing the Palestinians of their land for settlements. The Oslo Accord and the Cairo Agreements have turned out to be not the peace of the brave but the peace of the bully. And even so Rabin (with US support, naturally) has delayed their implementation to bring further pressure on Arafat. His excuse is that Arafat has not demonstrated his ability to curb violence, which is true, yet it is Rabin, by insisting on the continuation and increase of the settlements, who has made violence inevitable. Creeping Israeli annexation of the Occupied Territories and, possibly, the creation of four mini-Bantustans dominated by Israel now look a more likely outcome than genuine autonomy, let alone an independent Palestine. Yet there is little that Arafat can do. By sheer incompetence, he and the PLO have alienated most of the Arab world; and Europe is seemingly impotent or indifferent. The Palestinians are on their own.

Theoretically the United States could still intervene to help ensure a just and workable outcome of the peace process. In his altogether admirable and generally realistic book, Shlaim calls for more active American involvement. After noting that since 1967 the United States has undermined its credibility as a peacemaker by its pro-Israeli bias, he optimistically affirms that ‘the time has come for America to adhere to an even-handed approach.’ Such an approach is long overdue. But what practical chance of even-handedness is there from an Administration whose Middle East policy is in the hands of Clinton, Gore, Christopher, Indyk et al? None. Although Christopher may take some credit for being the messenger boy between Jerusalem and Damascus, American policy is now even more servile to the Israeli lobby than it was in the days of Johnson, Kissinger, Reagan and Shultz. That hardly seems a matter for self-congratulation.