Overtaken by Events

Avi Shlaim

  • Intimate Enemies: Jews and Arabs in a Shared Land by Meron Benvenisti
    California, 260 pp, £20.00, September 1995, ISBN 0 520 08567 1

Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated earlier this month by a right-wing extremist claiming to act in the name of God, inflicted more punishment and pain on the Palestinians than any other Israeli leader. As Chief of Staff in 1967, he presided over Israel’s spectacular military victory and the capture of the West Bank. For the next 25 years, in various capacities, he tried to hold on to the Occupied Territories by brute force. Ironically, it was his brutality towards the Palestinians that earned him his reputation inside Israel as a responsible and reliable politician. But the policy of force had been overtaken by events. Consequently, during his second term as prime minister, which began in June 1992, Rabin the predator began to mutate into Rabin the peacemaker.

The policy of force had commanded a very broad national consensus inside Israel; the policy of compromise did not. Rabin’s attempt at a limited, gradual and controlled withdrawal from the West Bank was hysterically denounced by the Israeli Right, and especially by the militant settlers, as treason against the Jewish nation, as the beginning of the end of the Land of Israel. The fact that Rabin’s assassin was an Israeli painfully underscored the deep and persistent divisions among Israelis on relations with their most intimate enemies – the Palestinians.

Meron Benvenisti is a member of the Labour Party but also a severe critic of its policy towards the Palestinians. A geographer and historian by training, he is passionately attached to his homeland. He was Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem under Teddy Kollek from 1971 to 1978 and responsible for administering East Jerusalem and the Old City where the majority of Jerusalem’s Palestinian population lives. In 1982 he established the West Bank Database Project and played an influential part in the debate about the Occupied Territories. Now he is a full-time writer, publishing books in Hebrew and English, including the autobiographical Conflicts and Contradictions (1986) and opinion pieces in the independent Israeli daily newspaper Ha’aretz.

In the Foreword to this book Thomas Friedman, who won two Pulitzer Prizes for his reporting from the Middle East, describes Benvenisti as ‘an oasis of knowledge in the intellectual deserts of the Middle East – deserts where charlatans and ideologues, hucksters and holymen, regularly opine and divine, unencumbered by facts, history or statistics.’ Whenever Friedman wanted to find out what was really happening, he would call Benvenisti, ‘confident that his take would be original, his data unassailable, and his conclusions delivered without regard to whom they might offend or support.’ These qualities have made Benvenisti one of the most quoted and most damned analysts in Israel – a hawk to the doves and a dove to the hawks, ‘Jeremiah and Jonah wrapped into one’.

In the late Eighties, after a decade of hectic settlement activity by the Likud, the question of the day was: could Israel still withdraw from the Occupied Territories or had it reached the point of no return? Benvenisti’s conclusion, based on economic, demographic and land ownership statistics, was that the process of Jewish colonisation in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip had become irreversible. This conclusion both pleased and displeased the various interest groups. The settlers were reassured to hear that the roots they had sunk in Judea and Samaria were now so deep that no government would be able to remove them, but resented being told how much they cost the Israeli taxpayer. Labour Party moderates were reassured to hear that the strategically important parts of the West Bank had been secured, but hotly denied the claim that their favoured option – territorial compromise with King Hussein – had been overtaken by events. The Palestinians felt vindicated by Benvenisti’s figures on Israeli land expropriation, but didn’t want to be told that their own diplomatic intransigence facilitated the task of the expropriators.

Fundamental to Benvenisti’s analysis, here and elsewhere, is the distinction between internal, communal conflict and external, interstate conflict. An interstate dispute is conducted by the representatives of sovereign states within a defined international framework and in accordance with well-established rules of diplomatic practice. A precondition for negotiations is recognition of the legitimacy and equality of the representatives of the other state. The subject of negotiation is not the status of each side but the ways and means of resolving the conflict of interest between them.

An intercommunal conflict, on the other hand, revolves around fundamental issues of identity, competing symbols and absolute justice. It is an existential conflict which is perceived by both sides as a struggle over the supreme value – collective survival – on which there can be no compromise. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is defined by Benvenisti as intercommunal:

an ongoing confrontation between two human collectives, struggling for natural and human resources, and competing for exclusive control over symbolic assets, within a territorial unit that both consider their homeland. It is a multifaceted and multilayered conflict. On the one hand, it is a political, national-ethnic struggle for sovereignty. On the other hand, it is typical of divided societies and derives from an unequal division of resources, asymmetrical economic dependency, and a monopoly over state coercive power exercised by one group against the other. Intercommunal conflicts are organic and endemic, a never-ending twilight war. At best, violence sinks beneath the surface, but the potential for a conflagration is ever present.

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