Can We Say No to a Friend?

In Europe and the United States the Holocaust cemented the justification for the creation of the state of Israel in 1947. But not only is that living memory, which never carried the same writ in the Middle East, fading, it is increasingly overlaid by Israel’s repeated resort to brute military force, inflaming neighbors in the region and alienating supporters elsewhere. Scars of War, Wounds of Peace demonstrates why it is so necessary for Israel, even with its singular history, to become a “normal” state and why that has become so difficult.

Shlomo Ben-Ami, historian and diplomat, was foreign minister in the government of Ehud Barak. He was among the Israeli negotiators during the Clinton administration’s round-the-clock efforts at the end of 2000 to bring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict if not to an end, then to the threshold of closure. That effort failed. Since then, Ariel Sharon has come and gone from power. Yasir Arafat has died. Israel has turned over Gaza to the Palestinian Authority. Hamas has been elected, creating a humanitarian and military crisis in Gaza. George W. Bush has acquiesced in Israel’s unilateralist decision to demarcate its own national borders. And Lebanon has once again been drawn into the conflict.

Ben-Ami does not rehearse his role in the 2000 negotiations but places the Clinton peace effort in a longer historical perspective, offering what he calls an “interpretive overview...of the pendulous move of Jews and Arabs between war and peace.” He has written a complex, thought-provoking, and contrarian history of diplomatic failure.

The prelude, “The Birth of an Intractable Conflict,” opens in the final decades of the nineteenth century with “Filastin,” then a part of Syria still under Ottoman rule. In 1906 when David Ben-Gurion, founding father of Israel, arrived, the population numbered six hundred forty-five thousand Arabs and fifty-five thousand (mostly religious) Jews. Over the ensuing decades, the Arab inhabitants of Palestine and a growing population of Jewish settlers began to form their respective identities in reaction and counter-reaction to one another-but without accepting the presence of the other. Ben-Ami skillfully dissects the dynamic of the oft-repeated claim of Jewish settlement agents, settlers, and Israeli politicians that “Palestine was a land without a people for a people without a land.” This condescending claim is for Ben-Ami a founding myth that conflates the hubris of military victory with a persistent Israeli denial that the Arab population of Palestine constitutes a people possessing legitimate claims to a national existence and sovereign state.

For the Arab peasants in the backwaters of the faltering Ottoman Empire, a national (Palestinian) consciousness slowly emerged with the growing recognition that their lands, sold to Jewish settlement agents by absentee Arab landlords, were being occupied by settlers whose Zionist ideal was to till the land themselves. In many places, marginalization and eviction of Arabs followed. For immigrant European Jews national identity was formed by this very ideal of self-help that required Jewish labor—a national homeland that Jews would build with their own hands. Local Arabs could migrate to an Arab country. With what Ben-Ami argues was significant, if sometimes grudging, support in 1946 from the British, Zionism succeeded in its quest for an independent state by having supported the Allies in World War II and developed the requisite social infrastructure and political and military organizations of a modern state; the Palestinians had done none of this. Though the emergence of Israel through the Zionist idea was a brilliant achievement, diplomatically, sociologically, and bureaucratically, it was also, in Ben-Ami’s assessment, “a movement of conquest, colonization, and settlement in the service of a just and righteous but also self-indulgent national cause.”

Ben-Ami traces the dynamic of “a land without a people” from the earliest Zionist settlers through the founding of Israel, the wars of 1947-48, 1967, 1973, the invasion of Lebanon, the first and second intifadas, and the “peace initiatives” that followed each. For Israel, war became more important than peace: not only did the new nation see itself under constant threat from the surrounding Arab nations, but its own policy of “aggressive defense” precluded negotiating from a position of strength. This is one of Ben-Ami’s central insights into the dysfunctional dynamic of Israel-Palestinian relations. In 1948, “a pattern was turn down diplomatic initiatives for a settlement that did not respect the status quo created by military gains”-in other words, do not negotiate from either a position of strength or of weakness. When the possibility of Eretz-Israel (Greater Israel), a Jewish state extending from the Jordan to the Mediterranean, emerged with the 1968 occupation of Jerusalem and the West Bank, hopes for a two-state solution to the conflict were buried in the expansionist adventure of West Bank settlements that today are home to some four hundred thousand Israelis. This expansion—sometimes aggressive, sometimes surreptitious—Ben-Ami lays to the policies of both Labor and Likud governments.

Of course, Israel ultimately made peace with Egypt. Though Ben-Ami credits Menachem Begin, unlike Golda Meir, with finally responding to Egyptian overtures and American pressures, he attributes the groundbreaking Camp David Accords to President Anwar Sadat and Jimmy Carter. His analysis of Sadat’s success in making peace by launching the “Yom Kippur” war is appreciative, informative, and surprising. (In the midst of Egypt’s attempt to make peace with Israel, Henry Kissinger admonished Sadat: “I cannot deal with your problems unless it becomes a crisis.” Sadat obliged by launching a war he did not expect to win.) Ben-Ami’s assessment of Carter’s role is equally appreciative: “[Carter] knew very little of the complexities...of the Arab-Israeli conflict....This healthy innocence proved to be an...asset.” His other great advantage in Ben-Ami’s eyes: “A rare bird among American politicians, and especially among residents of the White House, [Carter] was not especially sensitive or attentive to Jewish voices and lobbies.”

A cold peace followed between Egypt and Israel, but a peace, nonetheless, and ironically a persuasive case study in Ben-Ami’s larger argument that peacemaking has never been an Israeli priority, only an unwelcome gesture when pressed by its powerful ally, the United States. He shows how a succession of both Labor and Likud governments always took the opportunity to miss an opening for peace—an opprobrium often used by Israelis of the Palestinians, but one which he pins on both.

A critical element in these missed opportunities from Ben-Gurion forward has been the militarization of foreign policy, which made military rather than political or diplomatic strategy the primary mechanism of Israeli relations with the Arab states and in time with the Palestinians. Ben-Ami describes how over the years in several crises the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and intelligence services, rather than elected leaders, had a deciding hand in shaping policy. He characterizes as a “mini coup d’état” Moshe Dayan’s June 1, 1967, move against Levi Eshkol’s government in forcing a decision for war. (The dominance of the military is once again on display in Gaza and Lebanon. The IDF sets policy and targets, the politicians acquiesce in a dangerous escalation, and diplomatic efforts sink to an ever lower ebb. Israel will certainly prevail, but at what cost to Lebanon and the effort to contain terrorism.)

While there may be no arguing with a winning army, Ben-Ami pointedly asks how many of Israel’s wars were really necessary to bring real security, indeed whether real security will ever come from its policy of “aggressive defense,” and the militarization of its foreign policy. Though the frustrations of a diplomat are apparent, Ben-Ami’s “interpretive overview” shows how shortsighted and destructive the Israeli preference for military action has been-and not only for the Palestinians. A Zionist, Labor Party official, diplomat, and historian, Ben-Ami has the knowledge of an insider and the mind-set of a hard-headed patriot. He criticizes the persistent miscalculations of the Palestinians—he might have called their policy “futile offense”—yet he understands why “the facts on the ground” are not their facts. He is critical of and yet sympathetically explains how Israeli policy formed over the decades. Finally he deplores the long-term consequences for both sides of their opposed perceptions and mismatched actions; not so diplomatically he refers to their “sometimes sheer human stupidity.” The combination of military agility in war and blindness to Palestinian claims ultimately has left Israel vulnerable to what in other contexts has been called “the power of the powerless.” The people that didn’t exist rose up in protest. That was the first intifada (1987), which took both the PLO and Israelis by surprise. There was a second intifada. And they are still rising up.

In his final, dark overview of the current situation, Ben-Ami summons a dread analogy: “With no political solution in sight, the specter of an apartheid, binational state of South African characteristics, but with no conceivable South African solution...” becomes a genuine threat. The West Bank settlements are “Israel’s march of folly...a reality on the ground that can no longer be solved only through traditional diplomatic means.” Ben-Ami imagines that “if and when the conflict becomes so acute...with a civil war between Jews and Arabs...and the Arab states being drawn into the conflict again,” the answer will have to be a settlement imposed by an international coalition led by the United States. About that prospect, Ben-Ami seems uncharacteristically optimistic. Or perhaps such an improbable proposal reflects how grim the situation actually is. Not only are the two opponents bound in an intractable conflict, U.S. policy is so inextricably tied to Israel’s that it can serve neither as an honest broker in the eyes of the Palestinians nor an independent counselor to Israel.

While reading Scars of War, Wounds of Peace, I was following a controversy set off by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt in their article “The Israel Lobby.” Mearsheimer and Walt are distinguished academics at the University of Chicago and Harvard, respectively, both relatively conservative adherents of the realist, or national-interest, school of foreign policy. Their opening question: “Why has the United States been willing to set aside its own security and that of many of its allies in order to advance the interests of another state [Israel]? One might assume that the bond between the two countries was based on shared strategic interests or compelling moral imperatives, but neither explanation can account for the remarkable level of material and diplomatic support that the United States provides.”

As realists whose guiding theory is a narrow political and economic definition of national interest, Mearsheimer and Walt outline the ways in which U.S. financial support to Israel impedes our national interest, even undermines it. In particular, they argue that American aid (which they say amounts to about $500 per Israeli annually) has allowed the West Bank settlements to grow, making an agreement with the Palestinians ever more elusive. The prolongation of this conflict, in the authors’ view, skews U.S. policy not only in the Middle East but worldwide. Furthermore, they write, “the thrust of U.S. policy in the region derives almost entirely from domestic politics, and especially the activities of the ‘Israel Lobby.’” This argument has gotten the authors in deep trouble.

Reading the essay shortly after it appeared, I could predict how it would be received, at least in the United States. While the major media initially ignored its challenge, several critics went after it, accusing the authors of anti-Semitism and quarreling with facts that the authors consider “uncontroversial.” (The controversy to date is available on Wikipedia.) The first sympathetic reaction, ironically but not unexpectedly, came from Daniel Levy writing in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz (March 23, 2006), who argued that the essay “should serve as a wake-up call,” and that the open and critical debate commonplace in Israel should take place in the United States as well.

Mearsheimer and Walt were careful to define the Israel Lobby as “a loose coalition," and to point out that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and other members of the coalition don’t represent the views of many, or even a majority of American Jews—in other words, assuring their readers that their argument should be taken on its merits and not on questions of dual loyalty and conspiracies. Nonetheless, they crossed a line not often breeched in the U.S. media or in discussions about the special relationship between America and Israel.

Their analysis of the impact of the lobby on Congress and the executive branch will be informative to many readers. Michael Massing in the New York Review of Books (June 8, 2006), after criticizing some of the authors’ facts and an inadequate analysis, goes them one better and lays out in even greater detail how AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations influence policy not only about Israel but the Middle East (Iraq, Iran, and Syria). For all the criticism their essay has engendered, perhaps too little attention has been given to their overly narrow definition of national interest. History, especially the Holocaust and the democratic affinity between the United States and Israel, does not enter into this calculus, even though it goes a long way in explaining America’s unswerving and uncritical support for Israel, even if it is not in the “national interest” as they define it.

A kind of impenetrable biblical (or better, Talmudic) exegesis now surrounds the essay, its critics, and its supporters—expect confusion. Nonetheless, a comparison to Ben-Ami’s book suggests that their facts about Israel’s military and settlement policies are not far from his, though he too criticizes them for overemphasizing the influence of the “Israel Lobby” and for underplaying the role of diplomatic forces in this tangled history (see Foreign Policy, July/August 2006). Still, the convergence of these analyses and arguments ought to open up a frank debate, not about the existence of Israel, but about its occupation of the West Bank and its continuing stranglehold on Gaza, along with its policies of border closings, freezing Palestinian funds, and walling off Palestinians from their land and neighbors. As always it needs to be acknowledged that the Palestinians bear an equal responsibility for the descent into this carnage. Yet a critical question looms: Though Israel has in the United States a staunch ally, can our indulgence of its military policies continue? Israel’s moral legitimacy and our own seem even more precariously entwined—to the benefit of no one.


Related: "Stumbling Blocks" by Margaret O'Brien Steinfels

Published in the 2006-08-11 issue: 

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, writes frequently in these pages.

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