1948 and All That

Three new books on the Israel-Palestine conflict

Books Israel
Founding fighters: Soldiers of the IDF's Eighth Brigade in the 1948 War of Independence (photo: GPO)

As the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority reached their nadir (or climax, or wherever talks doomed from the start eventuate), an interesting thing happened. Israel had agreed at the outset of the talks last year to a rather demented goodwill gesture, taking the form of a four-stage release of imprisoned Palestinian Arab terrorists. As the final stage approached last month, the Palestinian Authority insisted that some Israeli Arabs also be included in the roster of prisoners to be set free.

This was interesting because it demonstrated once more that the distinction between Israeli Arabs and Palestinian Arabs — between Arabs who live west of the 1949 armistice line and Arabs who live to its east — is meaningless. The former happen to have Israeli citizenship; the latter are ruled by the Palestinian Authority. But they hail from the same families and clans as one another; some are even siblings. The distinction is meaningless because the armistice line is meaningless. It follows no outstanding feature of the topography of the land and it demarcates no historic boundary. It does not even reflect earlier, abortive colonial partition plans. Arabs and Jews live on both sides of it. Jerusalem is divided by it. The majority of Jews are on one side; many of their ancient sites (including the tombs of the Patriarchs, Joseph, Rachel, Joshua and Samuel, the biblical cities of Hebron, Shiloh, Shomron, Jericho and the City of David, as well as the Temple Mount itself) are on the other. Yet in the ill-informed and often prejudiced imagination of the international community, this line is supposed to be the basis of the border between two independent states.

And so, outside  the Middle East, the 1949 armistice line (misleadingly known as the “pre-1967 borders”) is the blueprint for peace, the only idea worth talking about. But inside the Middle East, it is ultimately irrelevant to both the Jewish and Arab narratives. Zionists on the Right see the entire Land of Israel as the Jewish inheritance, regardless of the armistice line; while critics and anti-Zionists on the Left are obsessed with the displacement of the Arabs from the entire land, regardless of the armistice line. Meanwhile, the Arabs cannot tolerate any Jewish sovereignty in the midst of Islam, especially not a Jewish state that splits the Arab world in two, again, regardless of the armistice line. These are the contours of the struggle for the Land of Israel, and it is within that middle category of critics and anti-Zionists that one can place the authors of these three books, despite their being written from rather different perspectives.

Lipika Pelham is a Bengali-born British BBC editor and filmmaker who married a left-wing anti-Israel Anglo-Jew, moved around the Middle East in furtherance of his career and eventually found herself living in Jerusalem as he secured himself a position in the international peace industry embedded there. The Unlikely Settler is the memoir of an ordinary woman who sacrifices her career for her aloof husband’s and whose family is breaking apart, set largely in a foreign country that happens to be Israel.

Over the course of the family’s sojourn there, Pelham’s adolescent son befriends an Arab and becomes menacingly hostile to the Jewish state; her infant daughter, by contrast, becomes a budding Zionist — until, that is, her distressed parents send her to an Arab-dominated international school and she, too, descends into comfortable antagonism toward Israel. Pelham’s husband, who, like other foreign peaceniks in the Middle East, is obsessed with Israel’s transgressions and blindly pursues utopian delusions, separates from his wife and leaves the home. Although he eventually returns, their relationship is not what it once was, as she resigns herself, pitifully, to “the region’s greater need of him”.

Like her family, if sometimes more subtly, Pelham too inclines towards sympathy for the Arabs. Hence, although her ethnicity may make her “unlikely”, she is nonetheless a “settler” in their land. And this description is revealing, for she is hardly a raving Zionist ideologue living in a West Bank hilltop caravan. Instead, she lives in a comfortable house on Jerusalem’s swanky Emek Refaim, a street decidedly on the Israeli side of the armistice line. Yet she still views herself as a settler, the implied analogy being that just as she is a foreigner in this land, so are the Jews — and not just the settler Jews on the other side of the armistice line, but also those Jews on the Israeli side, where she lives. Hence her anxious fixation on the fact that an Arab family once lived in her house, and her detailed account of how the regular tours of foreign Arabs descended from those displaced from the neighbourhood routinely harass Jewish locals who now reside there. Judging by the mentality of the tour leaders and participants, they do not seem likely to be appeased by the establishment of an Arab state limited to the other side of the armistice line. If anything, such a state would just encourage further Arab designs on that and other Israeli neighbourhoods.

Why is this? Because the fundamental disagreement is not over Israel’s presence in the territories — it is not a 1967 problem. It is, instead, a 1948 problem: the very establishment of Jewish sovereignty itself. Due to a war initiated by the Arabs to prevent that outcome, 1948-49 brought about the displacement of several hundred thousand Arabs who now reside in the territories and abroad. Of course, just as Israel absorbed hundreds of thousands of Jewish migrants (including many pressured to leave Arab lands in the wake of Israel’s birth), so the Arabs should have absorbed their brethren. Instead, they have, in part for anti-Israel propagandistic reasons, left them to languish, encouraging them to keep up their demand to return to the Israeli side of the armistice line, destroy the Jewish state and thus win the 1948 war, which the 1949 armistice, by definition, only paused.

For Avi Shavit, a longtime journalist for Israel’s liberal daily Haaretz, this 1948 problem is Zionism’s original sin, a curse on his “promised land”. His book, My Promised Land, is a personal reflection on the history of the pre-State Jewish Yishuv and of the State of Israel, relying on diaries and accounts of deceased individuals, such as his British great-grandfather, and interviews with living personalities, including politicians, writers, Tel Aviv nightclub owners and successful businessmen.

Shavit shows a degree of pride in Zionism’s many achievements. But for all of Zionism’s triumphs, the naqba (the “catastrophe”, as the Arabs refer to Israel’s founding) also makes Zionism a tragedy: the Jews needed somewhere to go but, this narrative explains, the destination was already occupied, so justice for the Jews was an injustice to the Arabs. Consequently, Shavit is also fixated on the Arabs and, like most liberal commentators, deprives them of any agency whatsoever, causing him to distort elements of Israeli history and rendering many of his interpretations dubious. However, to his credit he recognises this tragedy to be a 1948 problem and not a 1967 problem. Therefore while he affirms his longstanding opposition to Israel’s presence in the territories on moral grounds (it is “illegal, immoral and irrational”), he nonetheless acknowledges that a withdrawal to the 1949 armistice line will not actually bring peace and that therefore the Oslo Accords were fated to fail.

This dichotomy of triumph and tragedy tortures Shavit with ambivalence about the story of Israel. For example, there are two chapters devoted to nuclear power in the Middle East, one on Israel’s nuclear reactor and a later one on Iran’s current pursuit of nuclear arms. In the first, he extols the enormity of Israel’s nuclear accomplishment, commenced at a time when only three other countries had nuclear weapons. But he also fears that in attaining nuclear power, Israel inaugurated the nuclearisation of the most volatile region in the world and thereby shot itself in the foot. To the less discerning reader, this analysis might seem timely, given Iran’s march toward nuclear weaponry and threats from Arab leaders that they intend to follow. But this assessment — which seems to lay the blame for Iranian policy at Israeli feet — is totally misleading. Israel became nuclear decades ago, and, tellingly, no Arab country felt threatened enough by the Jewish state to imitate it. Those Arab states that did aspire to nuclear status — such as Saddam’s Iraq and Assad’s Syria — did so for reasons that had little to do with Israel, and it was Israel that halted their advance. Even Iran’s nuclear endeavours are not inspired by fear of Israel — they are instead motivated in significant part by hatred of the Jewish state. And that hatred has nothing to do with 1967 and everything to do with 1948. However, come Shavit’s later chapter on Iran’s nuclear agenda, he effectively affirms this critique of his earlier analysis, praising Israel for hindering Iraq’s and Syria’s nuclear policies and blaming Iran for its own atomic belligerence. This, of course, leaves the reader rather confused as to where Shavit actually stands.

Are these paradoxes a mark of profundity from a commentator critically evaluating his country’s history and prospects or are they a mess of contradictions by someone who lacks moral, historical and strategic clarity? Whatever the answer, such exacting introspection may be appropriate for Israeli readers, who are in more of a position to decide whether the price of such ambivalence is affordable. But Shavit did not write the book for them; he wrote it in English for American Jewry, which is deeply ignorant of Israeli history and increasingly impatient with Israeli policy. Regrettably, what liberal American Jews and their fellow travellers will see in My Promised Land is a refreshing confession of Israel’s supposed 1948 sin. For them, this bestseller — which has won communal literary awards and much acclaim from Jews and non-Jews alike — is merely grist for their anti-Zionist mill.

Whereas Pelhman’s book is a memoir and Shavit’s a personal reflection, Ahron Bregman’s Cursed Victory is an academic history — and a rather unusual one. It is not a history of Israel, its subtitle — A History of Israel and the Occupied Territories — notwithstanding, nor a history of the Six Day War of 1967, which barely gets a mention, nor of the Palestinian Arabs or Arab-Israel relations or Arab terrorism or Israel’s struggles against it (although each of these has cameos). Instead, it is almost exclusively a history of Israel’s physical presence in, and of some of the negotiations over, the territories captured in the Six Day War, a war Bregman reluctantly and quietly concedes was of Arab making, and which Israel won. That victory was cursed, one infers (and one has to infer it as Bregman does not expressly elucidate his book’s title), because, although Israel liberated the Jewish heartland and acquired coveted buffer zones against its bellicose neighbours, it was also lumbered with a substantial population of embittered Arabs. The book’s chapters are each devoted to a decade since 1967.

An account confined to Israel’s occupation of the territories (or colonisation or empire — pick any of Bregman’s synonyms) is already in its premise slanted against the Jewish state. This comes as no surprise, given that its author, an Israeli, resented so intensely the prospect of military reserve duty in those territories that he chose instead to emigrate to the UK, where he assumed a position at King’s College London’s War Studies department.

Bregman’s bias against Israel leads him to paint the Jewish state in the worst possible light and deny it any benefit of the doubt: whereas many have praised Israeli defence minister Moshe Dayan’s policies toward the territories in the early days as “magnanimous”, Bregman posits that they were in fact “Machiavellian”; when the Israelis began to censor Palestinian Arab textbooks, replacing phrases such as “Our unity will frighten the enemy” with “Our success will please our parents”, Bregman makes no criticism of Arab protestations; when Israel was negotiating with Jordan’s King Hussein in the aftermath of the war, Bregman dismisses the possibility that the monarch might have been at fault for refusing proposals in the hope he might get more, in favour of the view that Israel probably offered very little; Israel’s establishment of employment agencies in the West Bank, which did much for the Arabs’ wellbeing, was “apparently in the interests of the [Arab] workers, but in reality to satisfy the needs of Israeli business and industry, and also to screen workers . . . [for] security”; American support for Israel, in Bregman’s telling, is down to the machinations of the “Jewish lobby” and little else; he describes deportation of Arabs as “ethnic cleansing” but deportation of Jews as mere “relocation”; and he provides a statistic for how many Arab women were left to give birth at checkpoints during the Second Intifada, but says nothing about how explosives for use against Israeli civilians were transported in Red Crescent ambulances, in contravention of international law and, more importantly, of basic decency. One is hard pressed to find a single policy that Israel implemented of which Bregman approves.

The book’s acute tendentiousness aside, a focus on the Israeli presence in the territories is quite legitimate and by no means uninteresting. But with such narrowness comes the danger of ignoring broader context, and this is evident in Cursed Victory in many ways — most egregiously in the reader’s impression that 1967 is essentially the beginning of Arab-Israeli history. The wider reality is, however, ultimately inescapable, and although Bregman argues (wholly unconvincingly) that Israel might have been able to solve the conflict by making concessions immediately following the 1967 war, even he cannot avoid the problem of 1948: he recounts how Yasser Arafat turned down a superlatively generous offer in 2001 and suggests it might have been because he “didn’t want to have to stand before his people and tell them that . . . he had failed to gain for the Palestinians a right to return to old Palestine”. In other words, Arafat “could not bear to abandon the central element in Palestinian identity and life”. This is doubtless an understatement, since there was never any question of Arafat settling for anything less than the destruction of Israel. But what it goes to show is that even Bregman, a diehard opponent of the Israeli presence in the territories who imagines them to be somehow distinct from the rest of the land, who seems to believe an Israeli renunciation of them will usher in real peace and who tries to evade consideration of anything before 1967, still cannot overcome the problem posed by 1948.

Until that problem is confronted and the Arab world comes to terms with the permanence of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel, prisoner releases, settlement freezes and the like, such as those the Israeli government has been lately pressured to offer, will remain futile and counter-productive.