The Israel-Palestine conflict has intrigued me for years. Despite my interest, I had never really engaged in it. The topic is so fractious and divisive that I was scared to dip my toes into this fiery den. A couple of months ago I saw Alan Dershowitz’s book on a friend’s table. He wasn’t reading it – for similar reasons as my own lack of engagement. I picked it up, decided it was time and set myself a challenge to read books from both sides of the aisle – pro-Israel and pro-Palestine. By default of finding it first, The Case for Israel is the first book I read. I don’t feel brainwashed (hopefully this comes through here) and I’m keen to hear the other side of the story.
Dershowitz is a pro-Israel American Jew. Clearly, his perspective is biased towards Israel and I’m sure he interprets the facts differently to Palestinian supporters but I found the book useful and I think Dershowitz follows a reasonably logical approach. While I’m sure he doesn’t provide the gory details, he does at least highlight some of the reasons for Palestinian anger and resentment towards Israel. He also admits numerous failings by the Israeli government and offers alternatives that could have assisted the negotiations.
As a relatively neutral observer, it was great to engage with the fractious history and the events that have created the deep scars we witness today. The book took me all the way back to my youth, the bible and the persecution of the Jews by King Herod. As with most places in the world, Middle Eastern history is one of conflict and conquest. There has been a multitude of powerful rulers in the area throughout history. Hebrew people are believed to have arrived in the region in the 2nd millennium BC. After conquest by the Babylonians, Persians and Greeks an independent Jewish Kingdom was established in 168 BC. Romans took effective control in the next century, persecuted the Jews and renamed Judea Philistine after the early coastal inhabitants. Jews remained in the area throughout but were in the minority until the 1900’s.
The First Aliyah in 1882 was the initial migration of European Jewish refugees to Palestine. At a similar time, Europeans were emigrating to Australia and America. Dershowitz argues that there wasn’t a strong sense of Zionism at that time and that Jews didn’t displace local residents. Rather they purchased land through lawful open transactions and improved the productivity of this land in the subsequent years. He uses Mark Twain’s visit to the area in 1867 as evidence for the barren state of the land in the area at the time. Tel Aviv was only founded in 1909 – allegedly in the desert.
The history gets spicy around the world wars due to the split allegiance and imperial meddling post the wars. Arabs in Palestine fought for the Ottoman Empire during WW1, while the Jewish Legion fought with the British. Since the allies were victorious and the Ottoman’s defeated, the 1917 Balfour Declaration promised land for the Jewish people in the Middle East. Favouritism towards allies and against the defeated is standard practice post wars but this provides clear insight into the British influence on the subsequent tensions. A similar story can be found in many conflict-ridden countries today. Dershowitz argues that some Arabs did not have a problem with the Jewish presence in the 1920’s but there were also those who desired eradication of Jewish settlements. I.E. extreme perspectives were minimal at first but always existed.
The British attempted to control violence in the area by counterbalancing the land promise towards Jews with the appointment of Haj Amin al Husseini as the Mufti of Jerusalem. There were many Arabs who desired compromise but the Mufti turned out to be a divisive figure and an anti-Semite. Dershowitz argues that the Mufti incited the Hebron Massacre of 1929 when 133 Jews were killed. The British responded by limiting European immigration in the pre-war era, which Dershowitz interprets as the start of a dangerous relationship between terrorism and concessions. During WW2 the Mufti had links to Hitler’s Nazis and is reported to have planned to set a death camp in Palestine in the hope of eradicating the Jews. Husseini was declared a war criminal at the Nuremburg trails and escaped to Egypt but still managed to be elected President of the Palestinian National Council in 1948. This chequered history of violent massacres and unsavoury characters holding leadership positions is a common thread, on both sides of the spectrum.
In 1937 the British published the Peel Commission Report which recognised the emergence of Jewish state structures with schools, universities, art, culture, politics and labour unions. The report also noted that Arabs were sympathetic towards Syria, which led some to believe that Palestinian Arabs were effectively part of Syria. The commission recommended a partition in order to solve the “irrepressible conflict”
Similarly to WW1, post WW2 the Allied victory favoured Israel. The Holocaust must have contributed significantly towards the sympathetic stance towards the Jews. WW2 militancy spilled over into the Middle East post the war and there was conflict between Jews and Arabs in the region.
There were two extreme groups within the Israeli army in the post WW2 period, Irgun and Lechi. In April 1948 these groups violently massacred 100-150 villagers in Deir Yassin, which scared Arabs into fleeing the area and exacerbated a building refugee crisis. Lechi was a particularly right-wing organisation that was strongly anti-Britain. They even tried to side with the Nazis at one point in the hope that they could rid the region of colonial influence. Despite the Deir Yassin massacre and the questionable political negotiations, Lechi’s leader Yitzhak Shamir became Israel’s President many years later.
The appointment to leadership positions of Husseini “the Mufti” in Palestine and Shamir as the President of Israel must have caused significant anxiety and resentment from opponents. There are many more examples like this which underline the deep rooted and often justifiable anger that exists on both sides.
The 6-day war was initiated by an Israeli air attack on Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Iraq in 1967 but it was provoked by the Egyptian decision to close the Straights of Tiran, which was interpreted as an effective declaration of war. Dershowitz argues that Arab nations were planning a massacre in Tel Aviv, to bomb the nuclear reactor in Dimona and use poison gas when crossing the border into Israel. These extreme threats implied the need for a “pre-emptive” attack of opposition airfields. Occupation of Gaza and the West Bank started at this point. Israel contends that it has tried to offer land captured during the “defensive war” in exchange for peace. Egyptians and Jordanians have accepted these offers but neither Palestine nor Syria has been willing.
Dershowitz makes an effort to highlight where he disagrees with Israeli policies. For example, he supported the Alon Plan which proposed withdrawing from population centres in the West Bank and preferred a territorial occupation because this would have avoided becoming an occupying army and the resentment that comes with this. Dershowitz concedes that the 28-year occupation from 1967-1995, when Israel turned Gaza and the West Bank over to the Palestinian Authority, significantly reduced the likelihood of peace.
In 1973 Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack against Israel on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. Egypt achieved its goal to recover the Sinai region but Syria failed to regain the Golan Heights in the north. Arab nations claimed victory and a restoration of Arab pride after the 1967 humiliation. Dershowitz argues that these actions show the asymmetric incentive structure for Arab leaders. They have a strong desire to inflict any harm on Israel because it bolsters Arab pride and there Is a very low likelihood of any further loss of physical territory. This is the reason why Israel argues that it must always remain militarily strong and that nuclear capability is required. Israel is supposedly under constant threat of annihilation, requiring the credible threat of a strong response to pre-emptively mitigate against the risk of attack.
While Dershowitz concedes numerous bad actions and overreactions by Israeli governments, he suggests that there have been plentiful opportunities for more peaceful negotiations. There is a fair amount of focus on the “generous solution” offered by dovish Israeli President Ehud Barak in 2000, which was rejected by Yasser Arafat. He argues that far too many Palestinian authorities consistently reject any two-state solution. For example, the PLO rejected a two-state solution at it’s founding in 1964. Dershowitz goes as far as to argue that numerous Palestinian authorities seek out conflict because they want to provoke Israeli overreaction as they believe that global sympathy towards Palestine during these periods of overreaction is their trump card. Allegedly Prince Bandaar of Saudi Arabia confirmed that this was Arafat’s self-proclaimed policy.
Dershowitz also argues that the democratic Israeli state is set up in such a way so as to try and reduce the degree of conflict and the chances of human rights atrocities. For example, medical facilities are available during emergencies. There are also major restrictions on the use of force by the Israeli army. These restrictions aren’t always in the interests of the Israeli army but the Israeli parliament believes they are necessary in order to promote less long-term conflict and animosity. Dershowitz argues that Israel’s human rights record is a lot stronger than many of its global peers, particularly if you take circumstance into account.
Not the most enjoyable or easy reading book. I’d recommend it if someone wanted to get some appreciation of the Israeli perspective in this on-going conflict. I get a sense that there is a large contingent of people in the media who are pretty anti-Israel. I’m glad I’m a little more educated, appreciate a few of the landmark events and know the key figures. Clearly, the conflict is complex and I’ve only scratched the surface. I’d really like to travel to Israel and Palestine to meet the people and get a sense of the mood on the streets. Apparently, most areas in the region aren’t particularly dangerous.