Reading the history of Israel-Palestine

Submitted by Matthew on 16 January, 2013 - 1:35

Discussion of Israel-Palestine is often hampered by historical illiteracy. A few trite phrases denouncing “Zionism” is the best many on the left can do.

A further problem is finding coherent interpretations of history. For both these reasons, Avi Shlaim’s Israel and Palestine: Reappraisals, Revisions, and Refutations deserves special attention.

Shlaim is an engaging commentator on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He is one of the Israeli “new historians”, who challenged the official Zionist rendition of events. Other authors include Simha Flapan, Benny Morris and Ilan Pappé, although their politics are far from homogenous. Morris radically changed his views following the second intifada in 2000, retreating to the traditional Zionist orthodoxy he had previously done so much to critique. By contrast, Pappé lurched to become the darling of the one-state, BDS left. Instead Shlaim argues that “the only fair and reasonable solution is the partition of Palestine, in other words, a two-state solution”. Shlaim also rejects the BDS movement, arguing that “an academic boycott is an oxymoron: you do not have a boycott on dialogue, debate, or the free circulation of ideas”. He is “strongly opposed to a selective boycott precisely because it would violate the freedom of Israeli academics”.

Shlaim’s work has much to offer a rational Marxist left, despite starting from different premises.

In particular, his framing of the Israel-Palestine question, his understanding of history, of Israel’s relations with the US and his assessment of the peace process, he writes as a consistent democrat. Given the poor quality of discussion on the left, this is a considerable step forward.

Shlaim rightly frames the Arab-Israeli conflict is “a clash between two national movements: the Palestinian national movement and the Jewish national movement, or Zionism”. There are “two peoples, two distinct ethnic communities, and one land; hence the conflict”. He believes that the creation of Israel “involved a terrible injustice to the Palestinians”, but he fully accepts “the legitimacy of the State of Israel within its pre-1967 borders”. He argues that “the root problem today is the Jewish state's continuing occupation of most of the Palestinian territories that it captured in June 1967”.

The historical debate is particularly sharp over different assessments of 1948. Many Palestinians regard Israelis as the conquerors and themselves as the true victims of the first Arab-Israeli war, which they call “al-Nakba” (the disaster). Meanwhile, many Israelis regard 1948 as the War of Independence.

Shlaim provides a sharp critique of one of the most serious Palestinian interpretations of 1948 to date: Nur Masalha’s Expulsion of the Palestinians: The Concept of “Transfer” in Zionist Political Thought, 1882-1948. “Transfer” is a euphemism for the expulsion or organised removal of the indigenous population of Palestine to the neighbouring Arab countries, what is now called “ethnic cleansing”.

In reply, Shlaim quotes from Benny Morris’ (pre-2000) path-breaking work, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949. Morris described the flight of the Palestinians and gave examples of expulsion by force. But he found no evidence of a Jewish master plan or of a systematic policy dictated from above for the expulsion of the Palestinians. He therefore rejects both the “Jewish robber state” and the “Arab order” explanations. Morris’ concluded that “The Palestinian refugee problem was born of war, not by design, Jewish or Arab”.

Masalha’s account is wrong because, in the first place, he “focuses very narrowly on only one aspect of Zionist thinking and neglects the broader political context in which this thinking crystallised”.

Secondly, he portrays the Zionist movement as “monolithic and single-minded in its support for transfer, ignoring the reservations, the doubts, the internal debates and the opposition”. Thirdly, Masalha “presents transfer as the cornerstone of Zionist strategy when it was in fact only one of the alternatives under consideration at various junctures in the conflict over Palestine”. Fourthly, while sharply critical of the Zionist design and of the means by which it was achieved, Masalha “completely ignores the part played by the Palestinians themselves in the disaster that eventually overwhelmed them or the part played by their leader, Hajj Amin al-Husayni”.

The end result of Masalha's “selective use and tendentious interpretation of the evidence” is a rather simplistic account which “posits a straightforward Zionist policy of transfer and lays all the blame for the flight of the Palestinians in 1948 at the door of the wicked Zionists”.

Masalha goes way beyond what his evidence can sustain and “ends up with a mono-causal explanation which absolves everybody but the Zionists”. These points are highly apposite, and have wider applicability.

Shlaim provides an important assessment of US-Israeli relations. Much of the left regards Israel as simply America’s watchdog in the Middle East. After Israel's military victory in the June 1967 war, the US government did come to regard Israel as “a strategic asset”, which “served to check the influence of the Soviet Union and of the radical Arab regimes allied to Moscow”. Shlaim quotes a study, which calculated that between 1948 and 1991, the US subsidised Israel to the tune of $53 billion.

However this is not the whole story. Shlaim argues that “with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the orphaning of its Arab clients, Israel was no longer needed to safeguard American interests in the Middle East, if that is what it had been doing”. During the first war with Iraq, the US wanted Israel to “sit tight, keep a low profile and do nothing”. The US voted for UN Resolution 681, which condemned Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians in the occupied territories.

From the Israeli side, the relationship is not perceived merely as that of a client. Israeli general Moshe Dayan is quoted to sum up the Israeli view: “Our American friends give us money, arms and advice. We take the money, we take the arms, but we decline the advice”. From the US side, there is an “Israel-first” school, which supports a special relationship with the Jewish state. However there is also an “evenhanded” school, which believes America's most vital interests lie in the oil-producing Arabian Gulf and is reluctant to jeopardise those interests by being too close to Israel. Shlaim argues that the Americans have “the capacity to bring effective pressure to bear on Israel”, given the $3 billion a year subsidy.

The book contains useful essays on the peace process from the 1990s. Shlaim is candid about his own mistakes, writing that from today’s vantage point, “it is indisputable that I was wrong and Edward Said was right in his analysis of the nature and limitations of the Oslo Accord”.

He is fulsome in his praise for Yitzhak Rabin, though less so of Shimon Peres. Shlaim is scathing about Netanyahu’s first government for waging “an economic and political war of attrition against the Palestinians in order to lower their expectations”.

He also blames Hamas, whose suicide bombings “had the effect of shifting public opinion against the Labour-led government and the peace process and in favour of right-wing politicians like Netanyahu”.

Shlaim is lucid about the Camp David talks in July 2000. Ehud Barak envisaged an independent Palestinian state over the whole of the Gaza Strip and most of the West Bank, but with the large settlement blocs next to the 1967 border being annexed to Israel.

The Jordan Valley would eventually be turned over to exclusive Palestinian sovereignty. Altogether 20.5% of the West Bank was to remain in Israel’s hands: 10.5% to be annexed outright and 10% to be under Israeli military occupation for twenty years. Barak agreed to the return of Palestinian refugees but only in the context of family reunification involving 500 people a year.

On Jerusalem, his offer “fell well short of the Palestinian demand for exclusive sovereignty over all of the city’s Arab suburbs and over Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount”.

Shlaim argues that no Palestinian leadership could accept the proposals at Camp David. However Arafat displayed “neither courage nor statesmanship”. His real mistake was not to reject the much-vaunted offer but “to encourage, or at least to tolerate, the resort to violence from his side following the collapse of the Oslo peace process”. The Palestinian resort to violence in the al-Aqsa intifada “had disastrous consequences. It came close to destroying the peace camp in Israel, convinced the public that there is no partner for peace and brought to power the most aggressively right-wing government in Israel's history”.

Shlaim however suggests that the basic reason for the failure of Oslo was that “Israel reneged on its side of the deal”. The fundamental cause was “the Israeli policy of expanding settlements on the West Bank which carried on under Labour as well as Likud”. But under Barak “settlement activity gathered pace: more houses were constructed, more Arab land was confiscated, and more access roads were built to isolated Jewish settlements”. This policy “precluded the emergence of a viable Palestinian state without which there can be no end to the conflict”.

Shlaim also criticises Hamas as a terrorist organisation, because “its attacks are mainly directed against Israeli civilians on Israeli territory”. He defines Hamas as “essentially an indigenous movement with its own agenda of creating an Islamic state in the whole of Palestine”.

Discussing the Gaza war in 2008-09 (which he opposed), Shlaim argues that “the damage caused by these primitive rockets is minimal but the psychological impact is immense, prompting the public to demand protection from its government”. In the circumstances, “Israel had the right to act in self-defence but its response to the pinpricks of rocket attacks was totally disproportionate”.

Shlaim’s work cannot be appropriated uncritically. He is too soft on the Hashemite monarchy in Jordan. His realist theory of international relations, whilst divining important relationships between ruling classes and their states, has little to say on class struggles and conflicts within states.

The most significant criticism of his work concerns agency. Shlaim believes that “the asymmetry in power between Israel and the Palestinians is such that a voluntary agreement between the parties is simply unattainable”. Instead, “a third party is needed to push Israel into a settlement, and that third party can only be the United States”.

Although an agreement from above cannot be ruled out, this perspective misses altogether the “third camp” within both Israeli and Palestinian societies, particularly among workers, that could become the force for peace.

The third camp in Israel-Palestine today is not a major force. But the labour movement is the best place to construct such an axis, not only to resolve the national question on a consistently democratic basis, but also to coalesce the forces for socialism.

• Shlaim’s website contains a number of useful essays

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