Knowledge Boost #6: Israel, A History

So, I accidentally deleted the entire, extremely long post I had writing up this book and I couldn't figure out a way to get it back, so, welcome to take two of this particular edition of Knowledge Boost, where I will try my damnedest not to delete it all again!

Israel. A History By Martin Gilbert

I know the basic outline of the existence of the state of Israel. I was around in the 90s for the Oslo Peace Process and it's I guess we would have to call it a collapse. I remember the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and I think I was inadvertently responsible for the local Catholic school leaving their flag at half mast not for a week but for the better part of a month after I reminded the Principal that the President wanted all the flags at half-mast to honor Rabin. (I don't think the Catholic High School was trying to be extra or anything. I just think they did it, kept doing it, and eventually someone was like, 'Why are we doing this again?')

The point is, that I know a few things about the whole Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. In the wake of the attack of October 7th and the start of yet another conflict in the Middle East, I wanted to try and deepen my understanding to see if I could gain any useful insights or shreds of comfort about the possibilities for if not peace, then certainly, I think I would settle for not war. Yes, I know, it's an incomplete picture. I will get around to trying to read some sources from the Palestinian perspective at some point-- it's just that this book was like $2.50 on Kindle, so I snatched it up and dove in.

The biggest question I was curious about was the most online of them all: Is Zionism racism? Is it a settler/colonialist ideology? The answer that I was left with is yes, no, and depends on what period we're talking about.  Are their strains of Zionism that call for a Jewish State 'between the River and the Sea'? Yes, there are. Do I think the early waves of Zionist immigration to Palestine qualify as a settler/colonialist project? No, I don't. 

To me, the early waves- from 1878 until about 1934 or so are pretty cut and dried. You could quibble about the aftermath of World War I, when Palestine became a League of Nations Mandate under British control, and argue about white Europeans and the Balfour Declaration a bit as well, but it's worth noting that the first mentions of illegal immigration don't appear in Gilbert's text until 1934 or so when the split between Mainstream Zionism and Revisionism was becoming more pronounced and tipping over into actual violence and terrorism on the part of groups like the Irgun or the Stern Gang. Before that, the movement involved raising money amongst the Jewish diaspora or with wealthy patrons to go and legally purchase land in Palestine, mainly to farm.

That, to me, is not, a "hello, here's a smallpox blanket and get the fuck out" type of ideology. If the legal authorities at that time chose not to stop it, that's on them. But it's worth noting that the British- even with the Balfour Declaration, did not allow unrestricted Jewish immigration to Palestine. In fact, they actively tried to slow it down-- sometimes with the endorsement of the Jewish National Agency, which wanted more time to integrate immigrants, and by the mid-30s without their endorsement, they wanted to keep Palestine from exploding into sectarian violence.

The population disparities between Jews and Arabs were pronounced even up to as little as a decade before Israel declared independence. Jews made up between 20-30% of the population I would say until the start of World War II at least and Gilbert's text is very clear: a lot of mainstream Zionism was more interested in adhering to the language of the Balfour Declaration which called- not for the creation of a Jewish State, but a 'Jewish National Home' in Palestine. There were debates about declaring statehood right up until they actually took a vote and did it. Ben-Gurion was also very clear that they were willing to accept a lot less than what they actually got in order just to have something they could call their own and were always willing to reach an accommodation with the Arabs. They actively wanted to.

So, in that sense, no Zionism is not racism, it's not a settler/colonialist ideology. Sorry, no sale, I remain unconvinced. (Don't worry-- we'll get to today's situation soon.)  

Europe, by the time 1878 rolled around, was in the midst of a rising orchard of nationalism. The Revolutions of 1848 failed- for the most part, but their effect was felt for a long time after. And in the midst of all of that, with Europe a best tolerating anti-semitism and at worst, countenancing actual pogroms against Jewish communities, it is no wonder that some of them got together and said, "Hey, wouldn't it be nice to have a place somewhere we could call our own?" It was a natural outgrowth of that. It makes sense- and while it wound up being Palestine, even that wasn't a sure thing. There was talk of Madagascar. There was talk of Uganda. No one set out with the explicit goal of expelling populations already existing in the area. Did that happen? Yet. But it was never- at least from what I can find- an explicit goal of mainstream Zionism. 

I will grant you that maybe Gilbert doesn't want to tackle controversial topics- so maybe that impression, based solely on what I read in this book, is incorrect, but that was my takeaway.

Now: please note, that I said mainstream Zionism. Revisionism was a whole 'nother ball game. They advocated for a state on both banks of the Jordan. They also claimed to be adherents to the ideals of liberal democracy while also doing things like opening a Naval training base with Mussolini, so there's some weirdness there. But whether you can tie Revisionist thought to things like the Stern Gang and the Irgun and eventually, the rise of Conservative/Right Wing Parties like Likud, there is a strain of thought that is descended from this and is very present today in the conflict. The animating principle in the wake of the Six Day War for the Israeli Right was the settlement of The West Bank (what they call 'Judea and Samaria'). For all the criticism that pro-Palestinian folks get for using slogans like 'From the River To The Sea' I think it's absolutely fair game to point out that there are Israelis that think the same exact thing. It's a problem. It is a Settler/Colonialist ideology. And yes, I feel pretty comfortable saying that there are aspects of that area of thought/ideology that are racist as well.

The crux of the conflict- even today, is what happened in 1948 (and to an extent in 1967.) I think the Palestinians were sold a bill of goods by the Arabs. I understand why- because there were debates about declaring Statehood on the Israeli side of the equation and when they did so, they knew they were going to have to fight for it and they knew that success was by no means assured- they started off on the back foot with no planes (they got a shipment in from Czechoslovakia and had to assemble them) and no heavy weaponry in the early going either. It's an easy military calculus to look at that and say, "Yeah, go ahead and evacuate, we'll get you back in there in a week or two." Only that's not what happened at all and Palestinians have been living in refugee camps for decades now because none of the Arab armies were able to deliver on their promises. They're still waiting for that 'oh, we'll get you back there in a week or two' to materialize and at this point, I'm sorry, it just ain't coming.

Wars are never pretty-- and certainly, if you're arguing from a Palestinian point of view, you can point to things like Deir Yassin (done by Irgun militants, condemned by Israeli/Jewish authorities) and the expulsions in Lydda and Ramie (directly ordered by the IDF) and say, 'here, look, they murdered us and expelled us' and you wouldn't be wrong. Deir Yassin only spread terror and confusion amongst the Palestinian civilians that more massacres were coming and yeah, the expulsions of Lydda and Ramie were for lack of a better term, ethnic cleansing, straight up. Both of those ugly, shameful things directly benefited Israel and its war effort.

But no one talks about what happened after 1948. This wasn't just a one-sided expulsion of Palestinians from their land. Every country in the Middle East either outright expelled or strongly encouraged their Jewish populations to leave and where did most of them go? Israel. (This should put paid to the online idiocy about Israel being 'so white', etc. It won't, of course, but basic facts-- those damned inconvenient things, facts-- show that it's simply not the case. They can't all 'move back to Europe' because they're not from there to begin with.) I had no idea about any of this- but it also was a great insight into why you see so many Israelis and Israeli officials asking, 'Why can't the Arabs just take the Palestinians?" because that's what Israel did. It took them about ten years or so to get everybody fully integrated, but they took everyone who wanted to come and got them out of camps and into their society eventually. 

Have I run the numbers to compare them? No, I haven't. It's entirely possible that more Palestinians had to flee that Jews were expelled from Arab countries-- but however you put it, the Nabka is portrayed as a one-sided expulsion of the Palestinians from Palestine- which is true, but more correctly it should be seen as a population exchange. Still a disaster, still a humanitarian catastrophe-- maybe not on the same scale as Partition between India and Pakistan, but this wasn't a one-way street. 

Probably the biggest change of my own personal knowledge base came from Gilbert's chapters on the Suez Crisis of 1956. I had only ever seen more conventional perspectives on this Crisis- mainly from the British point of view and reading it from Israel's point of view present a very different picture. The British and the French may have been more interested in one last grab to preserve fading colonial power- but Israel had very clear strategic aims: getting the Egyptian Army to back off the border along Gaza for a bit and to reopen the Straits of Tiran to ensure maritime shipping got through to their Red Sea port of Eliat. Britain and France may not have gotten what they wanted out of this conflict, but Israel sure did.

Similarly, Gilbert's account of the early hours of the 1973 Yom Kippur War is especially vivid. The call-up notices gradually leaking out in the middle of services. The air raid sirens went off, followed by long stretches of silence. No cars on the streets, no shops open because it's a holy day-- he paints an eerie picture of what, so far, has proven to be Israel's most dangerous hour and perhaps it's most traumatic in many ways- at least up until the 1982 Lebanon War. 1973 saw the collapse of the Labor/National Religious Party alignment and in many ways, I'm not sure the Labor Party has ever gotten back to those heights since.

The period between 1967-1973 is really the hinge point on which subsequent chapters in this conflict flow from. The Israeli Right under the Likud Party came to power. While I'm convinced that only the Camp David Accords and peace with Egypt could have been achieved by Menachem Begin (very much a 'only Nixon could go to China' moment)- from a strategic point of view, what resulted was the return of the Sinai in exchange for a 'cold peace' with Egypt while the settler movement on the West Bank really picked up steam. I think you could view the 1982 War in Lebanon through a similar lens. You've taken your biggest military threat 'off the board' (Egypt) and then you've chased your biggest internal threat (the PLO) out of Lebanon and all the way to Tunisia. The problem is that both of those strategic decisions brought short-term gains to Israel with no meaningful gain in long-term stability or security.

The Peace Process as we knew it in the 90s is largely moribund, but I think it's worth noting that Barak, Rabin, and Sharon-- all old soldiers who had seen wars and battles seemed to share the common notion that the current situation with the Palestinians is (and to me, remains) largely untenable for Israel's future and it's security. You may dislike their methods (the wall, etc in the case of Sharon-- but the security fence was apparently fairly effective at stopping suicide attacks) but they at least tried to do something. They recognized that this was no longer tenable and I think that's to their credit. The fact that Rabin and Peres-- formerly bitter political rivals put that aside and made a serious push for peace in the face of a sustained terrorism campaign is even more to their credit. Lesser leaders than both of them would have quailed in the face of sustained violence and shifts in public opinion. They did not.

Rabin's strategic notion to bolster the PLO to avoid theologizing the conflict-- he believed, as it turned out correctly, that it would make it more intractable, proved to be the right move and those last chapters that cover Rabin's efforts are incredibly depressing- as you see his assassin try three times to get close enough to take his shot before actually succeeding. 

(Rabin's assassination was probably the first political assassination that really impacted me. I was around for Rajiv Gandhi's assassination, but largely unaware of it. The fact that my Grandma was scheduled to go to the Tory Party Conference in Brighton that the IRA bombed was something I only learned later- and that doesn't really count because the IRA missed both my Grandma and Thatcher. Outside of the Nepalese Royal Massacre in 2001 and maybe Shinzo Abe's assassination I can't really think of too many others. The Nepalese one received a lot of news coverage, Abe's assassination I think was more down to the footage that was readily available all over the internet when it broke.)

The biggest problem that probably hangs over the last chapters of the book is one that Gilbert doesn't touch upon. To be fair, it's not the book he's writing-- he's here to provide you with a history of Israel and does a remarkably comprehensive job of doing that, but all over those last few chapters is the question: how do you get to a final resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict without shaking those who benefit from the status quo on either side from their very entrenched positions?

The current Israeli government isn't remotely interested in a two-state solution. They benefit from being able to say, "Look, they drop rockets on us, they kill and murder us and you want us to do a deal with them? Are you out of your mind?" And to a certain degree, they're not wrong- it's just that they say that on the one hand while on the other hand, exacerbating the cycle of violence by building more and more settlements on the West Bank some of which maybe not a majority at this point, but some at least, are going to have to be given back. I do think even if Israel gets a new government and everything they could possibly want from the Palestinians, they're never going back to pre-1967 borders now. That's a pipe dream.

Similarly, the Palestinians have been offered quite literally the diplomatic equivalent of the real-life moon on a string and turned it down. It's even worse, given the current conflict, because Hamas has no interest in the welfare of ordinary Palestinians. They've had the run of Gaza since 2005 and by rights with enough oil money, the place should be Dubai on the Med. It's not because they want the status quo of blood and death and violence more than they want something tangible for the Palestinian people. (Don't give me any rot about how 'Gaza is an open-air prison'  either. If it is, it's a fucking shit prison, given how many rockets and arms and assorted instruments of death Hamas seems to have acquired.) I think that's the most infuriating thing at all. Building something in Gaza would have only benefited Hamas politically and they could have done that without sacrificing any of their political demands. They could have done that without recognizing the legitimacy of Israel or surrendering the right of return or East Jerusalem. All you had to do was build and not fucking kill and they couldn't manage that.

Before reading this book, I floated one relatively mild thing about the conflict, the gist of which was that without formally recognized co-existence on either side, a lasting peace deal is probably impossible. The Israelis have to acknowledge that the Palestinians aren't going anywhere. The Palestinians have to acknowledge that the Israelis aren't going to march quietly into the sea. I wouldn't expect either side to warm to the idea of a bi-national state, but in the absence of that option, you need to do something. Because none of this is tenable going forward.

Gilbert's book only convinced me of that position even more.

(This book also kicked my IR brain back to life, because am I crazy or does constructivism seem like an increasingly important strain of IR thinking, especially when applied to this conflict? I'm not sure I really plugged into IR the way I should have, but this makes me want to go back and read more.)

As a nation, the fact that Israel has endured despite it all remains something of a heroic achievement. I realize that may not be popular to say out loud, but it's an accurate descriptor. They came to farm the desert and make things grow there and they did. They triumphed time and time again against overwhelming odds. It's hard not to admire them for it. Are they blameless? Have they made mistakes? Do they have things they need to resolve? Sure. But what nation out there doesn't have its share of problems, sins, and shameful episodes they have to overcome?

It's hard to see hope there, right now, but the history of the nation and its people underlined to me something very simple: anything is possible.


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