During the latest outbreak of violence in Gaza, Israeli security forces, using high-powered rifles and live ammunition, have killed forty Palestinians (and counting), and wounded more than five thousand. B’Tselem, a leading Israeli human rights group, Human Rights Watch and Reporters Without Borders have all accused Israel’s government and its minister of defence, Avigdor Lieberman, of targeting reporters and mostly unarmed civilians. Lieberman replied that there are ‘no innocent people’ in Hamas-run Gaza.
The new US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, reassured Israelis that ‘the United States is with Israel in this fight. And we strongly support Israel’s sovereign right to defend itself.’ That this support applies not only to its confrontations with Iran but also to Israel’s turkey shoot of Palestinians in Gaza was established when President Trump’s envoy to the UN, Nikki Haley, vetoed a Security Council resolution that would have investigated the Gaza killings. This was justified on the same grounds: Israel’s sovereign right to defend itself. The invocation of Israel’s ‘sovereign right’ is the big lie at the heart of America’s responsibility for the collapse of the peace process. In Gaza, as in the West Bank beyond the pre-1967 armistice line, Israel is acting not in accordance with its sovereign right to protect itself, but to protect its occupation. What Israel’s military restores when it quells Palestinian protests is not law and order, but illegality and repression, reinforcing its theft of Palestinian territory in order to preclude the possibility of a Palestinian state, a goal it has achieved.
Lieberman’s opinion of the value of the lives of Palestinians mirrors the view expressed by Ayelet Shaked, Israel’s minister of justice. A year before her appointment in 2015, Shaked posted on her Facebook page an article by Uri Elitzur, a settler leader, in which he said that Israel should target not only militants but the ‘mothers of the martyrs, who send them to hell with flowers and kisses. They should follow their sons, nothing would be more just. They should go, as should the physical homes in which the snakes were raised. Otherwise more little snakes will be raised there.’
Shaked is a member of the settlers’ political party, Habayit Hayehudi (the Jewish Home), whose leader, Naftali Bennett, is Netanyahu’s minister of education. In 2013 Bennett said during a cabinet debate: ‘If you catch terrorists, you simply have to kill them.’ When Israel’s national security adviser, Yaakov Amidror, pointed out that this would be illegal, Bennett retorted: ‘I have killed lots of Arabs in my life, and there is no problem with that.’ Israeli Jews, who overwhelmingly support the IDF sharp-shooters picking off unarmed Palestinian demonstrators in Gaza, presumably agree with Bennett that there’s ‘no problem’ with these extra-judicial killings. (I am not aware of any case in which an IDF soldier has aimed his weapon, much less fired it, at an unarmed right-wing Jewish protestor.)
Pompeo, Haley and the Israel lobby – the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac) and allied organisations – are probably unaware of, or simply refuse to know about, the extent to which terrorism and war crimes marked the creation of Israel. Those who are told about this history dismiss it as a fabrication. What they deny or ignore is that these charges have been fully documented not only by historians, including Israeli ones, but by Israel’s own military. The point of recognising this history is not to justify terrorism by either Israelis or Palestinians, but to acknowledge the outrageous double standard that has been applied to the two parties and has undermined the possibility of a peace accord. Without knowing that history, it is difficult, if not impossible, to understand the extent to which Israeli propaganda has succeeded in shaping a narrative about the creation of Israel that presents the Palestinians who were brutally expelled from their homes as the aggressors and the Jews as their victims. Without that history, it is impossible to understand the outrage Palestinians feel over having been portrayed as the bad guys for so long.
Palestinians opposed the UN partition plan and started the 1948 war, but they did so not because of their hatred of Jews or their unhappiness with the partition plans, but because they didn’t want to accept exile, homelessness and disenfranchisement. What other people would have reacted differently? What other people would have agreed to go into exile to accommodate a group that came from outside its borders, claiming a homeland lost two thousand years ago, a principle of ownership that has no parallel in international law? Acceptance of the Zionist claims necessarily meant exile for the Palestinians: the Jews of Palestine in 1948 were a minority and if the Jewish state was to be a democracy, it would need a Jewish majority, meaning that the 750,000 Palestinians who lived there would have been expelled even if they hadn’t rejected the partition plan or declared war on the new Jewish state. As Benny Morris and other historians have written, the war crimes ordered by Ben-Gurion and executed by his generals were not intended for any purpose other than ensuring the departure of a panicked Arab population.
Nothing more profoundly expresses the dishonesty of the dominant Israeli narrative and its perverseness than the statement directed at the Palestinians by Israel’s former prime minister Golda Meir: ‘We can forgive you for killing our sons. But we cannot forgive you for making us kill yours.’ Even if Israelis don’t know about what happened during the 1948 War of Independence, they can be in no doubt about the malicious blockade imposed on Gaza, which, according to the UN, will make it uninhabitable for its two million residents within two years. Almost half of that number are children.
The point is not that Israelis have no right to defend themselves against Palestinian terrorism, but that the Israeli argument that there is no moral equivalence between Palestinian terrorism and Israeli preventive and retaliatory violence is deeply flawed. The relevant comparison is between the way the Jews acted during their struggle for statehood – not after they achieved it – and the way Palestinians, still very much in the midst of their hopeless struggle for statehood, are acting now. It is also flawed because you cannot condemn terrorism if you do not offer people under occupation a credible route towards achieving viable statehood through non-violent means. That is something Israel has never offered the Palestinians. Netanyahu’s declaration last year – ‘We’re here to stay, for ever’ – could have been made by Israel’s Labour Party in the aftermath of the 1967 war. When asked in 1968 about Israel’s plans for the Occupied Territories, Moshe Dayan, the defence minister, replied: ‘The plan is being implemented in actual fact. What exists today must remain a permanent arrangement in the West Bank.’ When asked the same question ten years later, he said: ‘The question is not “What is the solution?” but “How do we live without a solution?”’
The violence to which Palestinians have resorted in their struggle for statehood is not any different from the measures to which Zionists resorted before and during the 1948 war. According to Morris, ‘the upsurge of Arab terrorism in October 1937 triggered a wave of Irgun bombings against Arab crowds and buses, introducing a new dimension to the conflict.’ While in the past, Arabs ‘had sniped at cars and pedestrians and occasionally lobbed a grenade, often killing or injuring a few bystanders or passengers’, now, ‘for the first time, massive bombs were placed [by Irgun] in crowded Arab centres, and dozens of people were indiscriminately murdered and maimed.’ Morris notes that ‘this “innovation” soon found Arab imitators.’
During Israel’s War of Independence, Jewish defence forces acted in similar ways to Irgun and Palestinian terrorist groups. As Morris explained in an interview in Haaretz, documentation declassified by the IDF shows that ‘in the months of April and May 1948, units of the Haganah were given operational orders that stated explicitly that they were to uproot the villagers, expel them and destroy the villages.’ The Haganah, which became the IDF, was responsible for at least 24 deliberate massacres of unarmed civilians; the number of victims in each operation ranged from single figures to several hundred. ‘What the new material shows,’ according to Morris, ‘is that there were far more Israeli acts of massacre than I had previously thought, [including] an unusually high concentration of executions of people against a wall or next to a well in an orderly fashion.’
The orders for these crimes were not given by a lone officer but were issued in writing by senior Haganah commanders following meetings with Ben-Gurion. And Morris goes on to justify them: ‘without the uprooting of the Palestinians, a Jewish state would not have arisen here.’ The only fault he finds with Ben-Gurion’s actions is that they did not go far enough to prevent the demographic problems facing Israelis today. All the Palestinians should have been expelled, he argues, and some day probably will be.
The hypocrisy of Israel and the international community’s demonisation of the Palestinians are also evident in the writings of Ari Shavit, a long-time star columnist of Haaretz, who conducted the interview with Morris. In his own book, in which he unflinchingly describes the atrocities committed by Israel’s military against the Palestinian civilian population of Lydda in 1948, Shavit declares that he shares the anger felt by the Israeli brigade commander and the military governor in charge of the operation at ‘the bleeding-heart Israeli liberals of later years who condemn what they did in Lydda but enjoy the fruits of their deed’. Why? ‘Because I know that if it wasn’t for them, the state of Israel would not have been born.’ This knowledge has never prevented Shavit’s condemnations of Hamas’s terrorism, though Palestinians have far better reason than the Jews had to believe they will never gain their state unless they make the cost of continued occupation too high for their adversaries.
According to this double standard, my people’s terrorism is sacred, but my neighbour’s terrorism is criminal. When my neighbour renames a street after his terrorist hero it proves he will continue his terrorism even after he achieves statehood, whereas when my country elects former terrorists as prime ministers (Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir) it proves we are the greatest democracy in the Middle East. When my terrorists are killed or imprisoned, a grateful people take care of their families. When my neighbours do the same, it proves they reward terrorism, and must be denied statehood. The point is not that states behave hypocritically – of course they do. The point is that when hypocrisy is the starting point of diplomacy, you will not get peace but only more hypocrisy and violence.
American diplomats have always known this. The members of the US diplomatic corps who served in the Middle East during the more than half a century that I worked professionally on this subject were outstanding. They understood that, given the vast disparity of power between Israel and the Palestinians, without determined American intervention the outcome of the conflict would be entirely on Israel’s terms. But US politicians consistently undercut its diplomats by assuring Israel’s governments that even though the US objected to policies that violated previous agreements, international law and democratic norms, they would always have Israel’s back.
And the US has had Israel’s back, and not only when Israel’s security was threatened; it has also scuttled Security Council resolutions that might have changed Israeli calculations about the costs of its permanent subjugation of the Palestinian people. America’s assurances convinced successive governments that they could safely turn their country into an apartheid state, a transformation that far-right governments headed by Netanyahu have now made a reality. US administrations have allowed this situation in part because of the unique vulnerability of American domestic politics to the pro-Israel lobby – unique because of America’s large and influential Jewish community and its even larger influential Christian evangelical community. More recently, alt-right and neo-Nazi elements that form the most loyal members of Trump’s base have joined this circle of supporters: they now see Israel’s embrace of a religiously defined national Jewish identity (replacing its previous status as ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’) as a validation of their own Christian, racist, fascist and white supremacist ideology. White supremacists can now join with Netanyahu in castigating Jewish critics of Israel’s xenophobic and far-right nationalistic policies as self-hating Jews.
I believe I am more aware than most of the profound Jewish religious attachment to the Land of Israel. I was raised in a deeply Zionist and religiously observant home. Moreover, I am old enough to have experienced personally what it meant to live under the Nazis. On the last ship to bring a small, fortunate number of Jewish refugees to the US in 1942, this 11-year-old was writing poems on deck about ‘the beautiful blue skies of Palestine’. Yet before the rise of the Zionist movement, this attachment was understood universally in eschatological terms. Zionism was rejected by the overwhelming majority of Orthodox Jewry as a heresy, just as completely as the Zionist movement rejected Orthodoxy as an anachronism that held back the political and cultural modernisation of Jewish life. No one could have imagined at the start of the 20th century how completely Zionism would be taken over by Orthodox Jewry in the aftermath of the Holocaust. The possibility that the government of this new Zionist state might someday fund an organisation that seeks to restore the ancient priesthood and the sacrificial cult it presided over, as this and previous Israeli governments have actually done, would have sent the founders fleeing to the exits. But neither the secular nationalism of Zionism nor the eschatology of the Orthodox translates in an obvious way into a right to uproot the people who lived in Palestine. Indeed, at the opening session of the World Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897, a group of particularly distinguished Zionist leaders opposed the idea of a Jewish state and instead pressed for an internationally recognised Jewish home.
Anyone who has followed the recent flood of new legislation by Netanyahu’s government aimed at protecting the Jewish identity of the state from encroachment by democratic norms, will agree that these early Zionist advocates grossly underestimated the threat to Israel’s democracy posed by the current defenders of ‘fundamental Jewish values’. Legislation that allows Israeli Jews to bar Israeli Arab citizens from Jewish neighbourhoods – which in Israel means virtually everywhere other than Palestinian neighbourhoods – is one result of this new dedication to fundamental Jewish values. Another example is the appalling treatment by the government of migrants from African countries who have sought asylum in Israel. Not entirely unrelated is a recent statement by Israel’s Sephardi chief rabbi, a government official, on the kinship of black people to monkeys.
Israel’s response to its critics has been the familiar falsehood at the heart of its international propaganda: a two-state solution would have been reached long ago if Hamas hadn’t ruled out any possibility of peace with Israel and refused to recognise the Jewish state. That this claim is disingenuous should be obvious from the fact that on the only occasion Israel withdrew from its settlements and turned them over to Palestinian control, it returned them to Hamas, and not to the Palestinian Authority. The PA, which governs the West Bank, formally recognises Israel’s legitimacy, co-operates closely with Israeli security forces to prevent Hamas infiltration into the West Bank and never fires missiles into Israel or digs tunnels under its borders. But the West Bank is where Israel has chosen to expand its settlements.
To this day, the official position of Likud, Israel’s ruling party for much of the past half-century, is that it will never allow the establishment of a Palestinian state anywhere in Palestine. The largest caucus in the Knesset is the one devoted to assuring the establishment of a Greater Israel in all of Palestine, and, until that goal is reached, preventing Palestinian statehood on even a square foot of Eretz Yisrael. Likud’s official dismissal of Palestinian statehood never led the US to challenge Israel’s qualification as a peace partner, although Likud’s rejection of Palestinian statehood has been as uncompromising as Hamas’s opposition to Israel’s statehood. Unlike Likud, however, Hamas has stated repeatedly that despite its own refusal to accept Israel’s legitimacy, it would join a Palestinian government that recognises Israel, because state recognition is a government responsibility and not in the remit of individual political parties.
Mahmoud Abbas deserved the worldwide condemnation he received after his anti-Semitic diatribe at the recent meeting of the Palestinian National Council in Ramallah. But his comments aren’t the only reason it is high time for him to be replaced as head of the Palestinian national movement. He has failed miserably in providing a clear strategic path to Palestinian statehood. It would be dishonest to credit Netanyahu’s claim that Abbas’s anti-Semitism is responsible for the death of the two-state solution. The blatant anti-Semitism of Hungary’s Victor Orban and Poland’s Jaroslaw Kaczynski has not diminished Netanyahu’s admiration and friendship for these authoritarian enemies of democratic governance. The two-state solution died because Netanyahu and successive Israeli governments were determined to kill it, and those who could have prevented its demise lacked the resolve and moral courage to do so. America failed in the mission it thought itself uniquely qualified to accomplish because it failed to understand that the diplomatic objective of a great power, and particularly the world’s greatest power, should not be peace, a goal that Netanyahu dishonestly embraced, but justice – or at least the avoidance of injustice so egregious as to discredit the values and institutions on which the future of humanity depends.
Henry Siegman is president emeritus of the US/Middle East Project and a former senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
This article first appeared in the London Review of Books