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.

Intimate enmity has turned the two communities into mirror images of each other, swaying together in a dance of death. To drive home his point, Benvenisti cites Camus’s description of the conflict between the French and the Algerians: ‘It is as if two insane people, crazed with wrath, had decided to turn into a fatal embrace, a forced marriage from which they cannot free themselves. Forced to live together and incapable of uniting, they decided at last to die together.’

Given his reading of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as primordial, irrational, all-embracing and all-consuming, Benvenisti has long been sceptical about the conceptual framework of interstate relations and pessimistic about the possibility of a resolution of the conflict. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he argued for two decades before the Oslo Accord, was not susceptible to the ministrations of traditional diplomacy because neither side recognised the legitimacy of the other. Even when the two sides talked in rational, pragmatic language and engaged with each other in a diplomatic context, it was only in order to conceal the hidden agenda of absolute values. Benvenisti’s unique perspective is, to use Friedman’s terms, that of a tribal realist and a professional pessimist.

In Intimate Enemies he examines the implications of two events in the conflict: the massacre of Palestinians by the Israeli police on Temple Mount in October 1990 and the handshake between Rabin and Arafat on the south lawn of the White House in September 1993. In the process, he takes up as well the escalation of the intifada and of intercommunal and internecine violence, the Gulf War, the Madrid peace conference and the Oslo Accord, all of which occurred in the three years separating the massacre and the handshake.

The incident on Temple Mount in which the Israeli police sprayed automatic fire indiscriminately into a crowd and killed 17 Palestinians exemplifies the tribal and atavistic character of the conflict. In truth, the question of who started it was more controversial than the incident itself and Benvenisti skilfully conveys the perspectives of the two communities. The Palestinians, convinced of a conspiracy on the part of Jewish fanatics to lay the cornerstone of the Third Temple within the al-Aqsa compound and cause damage to the Muslim holy places, staged a peaceful protest. The Israelis claimed that the protesters attacked peaceful Jewish worshippers by the Wailing Wall. Some Israelis even believed that Saddam Hussein and Yasser Arafat plotted the disturbance in order to mobilise the Muslim world against the United States and its Zionist puppet. ‘Context,’ Benvenisti observes, ‘is a matter of ethnic affiliation. The attribution of cause and effect is not a matter of objective-logical derivation but rather of one-sided conceptions. The chain of intercommunal violence is nourished by opposing definitions of the relationship between challenge and response. What one group sees as a challenge looks like a response to another.’ Hardly surprising, for were it possible to get the two sides to agree on the order of events, the dispute would evaporate.

In left-wing circles in Israel the massacre on Temple Mount occasioned serious soul-searching. The Left had always externalised the conflict, focusing it on the Occupied Territories: the problem was Israel’s occupation of Arab land and the solution involved ending the occupation and establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Defining the Israeli-Palestinian divide in geopolitical terms allowed the Left to deny the endemic intercommunal nature of the conflict. The Temple Mount incident, in the heart of ‘united Jerusalem’, could not easily be reconciled with this point of view. While no doubt feeling some genuine sympathy for those on the receiving end of police brutality, left-wing Israelis were primarily concerned with the damage to their own self-image and to Israel’s reputation abroad. As such, Benvenisti argues, ‘their reaction to the trauma was not a painful confrontation with reality but an almost desperate attempt to reconstruct their web of evasions and excuses and, most of all, to believe in it again.’ Nor did the incident have any lasting effect on official Israeli policy towards the Palestinian population. In retrospect, it should be seen not as a watershed in Israeli-Palestinian relations but as a testimony to the ethnocentrism of the two communities, of both victors and victims.

The Temple Mount incident provides Benvenisti with a magnifying glass to examine the tangled question of Israeli-Palestinian relations in Jerusalem and to expose some of the anomalies and contradictions of the Israeli approach to the city. In the first place, he argues that Jerusalem exemplifies the struggle between two political cultures, between ‘the state of Israel – an entity which functions according to liberal Western criteria, and membership in which is determined by citizenship – and the Land of Israel – an entity in which tribal-fundamentalist values rule and membership in which is tested by adherence to Judaism in its religious-traditional and patriotic-nationalist sense.’

Second, in Benvenisti’s view there is a contradiction between the Israeli perception of their rule in the city as just and fair and the reality, where concern for ‘the rule of law’ has replaced concern for ‘the legitimacy of the law’. The Israeli authorities have, in his opinion, blurred the distinction between ‘the rule of law’ as a concept embodying universal, liberal and democratic norms of government, and ‘rule through law’, which is a unilateral and coercive system used by one community to impose its will on another.

Third, there is a stark contrast between the official claim of fair treatment for all Jerusalem’s residents and the discrimination in services, in allocation of resources, in licensing and environmental development that Arab residents experience. The evidence he musters for this discrimination, both on the part of the regime and at municipal level, is compelling. Of the huge development funds allocated by government ministries in Jerusalem, the Jewish sector gets 95 per cent and the Arab sector only 5 per cent. The united city invested 3 per cent of its development budget in East Jerusalem in 1986 and 2.6 per cent in 1990. In an interview Teddy Kollek acknowledged the disparity: ‘I’ve done something for Jewish Jerusalem in the past 25 years; for East Jerusalem? Nothing!’

Finally, Benvenisti challenges conventional Israeli wisdom on how the dispute over Jerusalem might be resolved. He notes that since 1917, when the city became a pressing international problem, no fewer than forty plans have been suggested while the problem has grown steadily more severe. In 1967, when the borders of the city were redrawn, Israel was guided by the wish to include ‘a maximum of land with a minimum of Arabs’. Ever since, successive governments have insisted on absolute and indivisible Israeli sovereignty while offering self-administration of the Jewish, Muslim and Christian holy places and decentralisation of municipal government to allow greater autonomy to the non-Jewish minorities. These offers, however, only address the secondary problems while avoiding the critical question of sovereignty. In the meantime, Israel’s policy – for which there is broad national consensus – has been to integrate the hinterland so as to create one continuous Jewish presence in Greater Jerusalem and to cut off the city’s Arab residents from the Arabs on the West Bank. This course of action, in Benvenisti’s opinion, is a sure recipe for friction and animosity.

But Israel’s entire policy of building settlements in the Occupied Territories was always certain to lead to friction and animosity. Initially confined to the Jordan Valley in accordance with security imperatives and the classic Zionist doctrine of avoiding as far as possible heavily populated Arab areas, Labour’s settlement policy soon developed a momentum of its own. It also paved the way for the policy pursued by the Likud and the national religious parties from 1977 onwards, which was to build settlements everywhere in the West Bank, including the heavily populated Arab areas. Judea and Samaria in their view were not occupied territories but liberated territories. For them it was out of the question to prohibit Jewish settlements in places of Biblical resonance like Beit El, Shiloh and Hebron. Labour Governments established 34 settlements in the territories: the Likud Governments that followed Labour in 1977-85, and the National Unity Governments in which Labour and Likud were partners 32. The end result was a settlement map that significantly reduced the scope for carrying out the Labour Party’s original plan of territorial compromise.

Benvenisti compares the Israelis’ attitude to the territories occupied by their army in 1967 to the idea of the ‘frontier’ in American history: as a border region beyond the pale of civilisation, inhabited by natives who did not constitute a society with political rights and were incapable of spiritual attachment to the land. Ethnic attachment to the ‘frontier’ region conquered in 1967 was, he claims, instantaneous and endorsed by all elements of the Israeli-Jewish political culture. This is an overstatement. The truth of the matter is that Israeli society was, and remains, deeply divided in its attitude to the ‘frontier’ region.

Some of these divisions come to light in Benvenisti’s long chapter on the Palestinian uprising against Israeli rule in the Occupied Territories. Although the intifada began in December 1987, nearly three years before the massacre on Temple Mount, Benvenisti retraces his steps to examine its origins, aims and significance. In fact, there is no better illustration of his thesis that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an intercommunal one. The intifada broke out spontaneously, without preparation or planning by the Palestinian élite, let alone the PLO, because the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories felt not that their human rights were being trampled on but that their very existence as a national community was under threat. It arose out of the conditions of intimate enmity and its aim was to free the territories from Israeli military presence, political control and economic exploitation. The intifada was a general uprising against the Israeli regime.

Was the intifada an anti-colonial national liberation struggle? It certainly had many of the features of such a struggle. It was directed against a country that had occupied a territory which was not its own, colonised it, taken over its natural resources, exploited the cheap labour of the natives, and maintained its rule by an army of occupation. Similarly, Israel’s response was hard to distinguish from colonial repression, especially with Defence Minister Rabin’s memorable order to his soldiers to break the bones of the troublemakers. On closer examination, however, the colonial model appears more problematic. It assumes, for example, that the borders of the hegemonic country are well defined whereas Israel’s post-1967 borders were not. Another significant difference is that the Europeans dismantled their colonial regimes and went home whereas the Israelis have to negotiate with enemies who share their land.

Pre-intifada Israeli rule was characterised by minimal use of coercion and relative acquiescence on the part of the subject population. Israeli officials considered the situation stable and the outbreak of the intifada took them completely by surprise. Frustrated by their failure to suppress the uprising with force, Israeli officials concluded that they were fighting a new type of war. To Benvenisti, however, a violent confrontation between communities is not a war and therefore any comparison with Israel’s previous wars is invalid. ‘In a conventional war,’ he writes, ‘the army defends the country’s borders, while in an intercommunal conflict it defends the regime. A conventional war lasts until one side wins, or until both sides tire and everyone goes home. Intercommunal conflicts are chronic, endemic, organic and endless. They just go on and on.’ Furthermore, in a civilian uprising there is no frontier, the occupation of territory has no meaning and the distinction between soldier and civilian is blurred.

One tangible result of the intifada was to shift the PLO from confrontation with Israel to negotiation. The PLO leadership in Tunis had nothing to do with the outbreak of the intifada but it was not slow to claim credit or to assume control over its direction. It was the local leaders, however, who pressed Arafat to translate the intifada’s achievements into a realistic political programme. They knew the enemy much better than he did and had a much sounder appreciation of the balance of power. Arafat heeded their advice and at the Palestinian National Council meeting in Algiers in November 1988, he won a majority for the recognition of Israel, for a two-state solution and for a Palestinian declaration of independence.

The response of the Israeli Government was predictably cool. Just as the Palestinians were moving towards territorial compromise, Israel under Yitzhak Shamir’s leadership was moving away from it. Intense international pressure induced Shamir to come up, in May 1989, with a Palestinian election plan but it was a plan that he knew would be unacceptable to the Palestinians. His aim in framing it was simply to shift the responsibility for the continuing deadlock onto the Palestinians. In any case, this plan was added to the pile of papers stamped with the initials OBE – overtaken by events.

The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 arrived like a deus ex machina. In the Middle East tragedy the god came in the unlikely form of Saddam Hussein posing as the champion of Palestinian independence. Arafat embraced the Iraqi dictator, and the Palestinians found themselves supporting Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait while simultaneously demanding the end of Israel’s occupation of their land. This unexpected display of Palestinian-Iraqi solidarity was greeted by Israeli officials with relief. Not only did it seem to vindicate their claim that the Palestinian problem was just one component rather than the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict, they could turn their attention from ‘the boys with stones’ to the external military threat, from the new type of war in their own backyard for which they had no answer to the global crisis unfolding in the Persian Gulf. Prominent members of the peace camp, like Yossi Sarid, revoked their sympathy for the Palestinian cause. ‘Saddam Hussein,’ Benvenisti writes, ‘made it possible to revert once again to the sterile vocabulary of interstate disputes and escape the intercommunal conceptual conundrum.’

The peace process initiated by George Bush and James Baker in the aftermath of the Gulf War was different, in Benvenisti’s view, from previous American initiatives in that this time it was the Americans who badly needed progress. Shamir, however, failed to discern the fundamental difference between this plan and its predecessors, and this blindness contributed to his defeat in the general election of June 1992. Benvenisti has no difficulty in explaining Rabin’s victory. The public, he says, wanted a change of government and voted for Rabin because he represented both extremes – a minister of defence who had employed the iron fist against the Arabs; a statesman who promised peace in six to nine months. Nor is Benvenisti surprised that Rabin, once elected, opted for continuity rather than change and that some of his proposals to the Palestinians in the bilateral talks were the same as those proposed by the Shamir Government, warmed up and repackaged. The single event that mystifies Benvenisti is the famous handshake. Disarmingly, he confesses that the event itself and the lead-up to it stunned him: his own romantic perception of the conflict, he now concludes, had given excessive weight to its ideological and emotional elements. Busy fending off attacks from both Right and Left, he failed to realise that the entire ideological debate, including his own contribution to it, had become anachronistic.

A cynic might say that Benvenisti got it all wrong and that his book also should be stamped OBE. This would be excessive. Benvenisti deserves credit for his serious, sensitive and highly original analysis of the fatal embrace between Israel and the Palestinians. Although his style is less than elegant, his knowledge of the international and regional context limited and his account of Palestinian thinking rather sketchy, his discussion of Israeli strategy and tactics is as incisive as it is illuminating. Even on the historic handshake Benvenisti offers an original gloss. It was a ‘supremely symbolic act,’ he writes,

transforming the Israeli-Palestinian feud from a primordial shepherds’ war into a rational, solvable conflict. It has redefined the enmity: Israelis and Palestinians have been transformed from demonic foes into legitimate enemies. Thus a precondition of any negotiations was met: recognition of the legitimacy, autonomy and authority of the representatives of the other collective entity. Nothing has been resolved, but a marketplace had been established, and give-and-take procedures had been defined.

That a professional pessimist can write so optimistically is surely a good omen. And if both sides continue to play by the new rules, maybe the Israeli-Palestinian feud itself will eventually become just another boring interstate dispute, conducted by conventional diplomats using the sterile vocabulary of interstate relations.