by Scott McConnell
January 15, 2002
I read with great interest your 5000-word polemic on the Israeli-Palestinian issue both because I have long been an admirer of your rhetorical abilities and analytical fearlessness and because it is quite effective for drawing readers towards your point of view. I don't agree with a good deal of it, but hope something positive can come from a candid exchange of opinions.
I admit to some worries that such an exchange might not be possible. I've found in the past several months that when one disagrees with one's Jewish friends about Israel, one risks losing those friends. I would add that few things in my political and journalistic experience have been more personally dispiriting.
Not long ago, I had, in the course of a long and wine-filled dinner, a spirited argument about Israel and the Mid East with a Jewish colleague from the NY Press. I commented afterwards that this "Jewish-Christian debate," so rare in New York, had been quite refreshing. He agreed, saying the problem was that there were generally "not enough Christians" to carry their end.
Odd as it might seem, he was right: most American Christians who have given some thought to the issues involved have views similar to mine but given the rank hostility their expression can provoke from Jewish friends and colleagues, have learned to simply keep their opinions to themselves. In so doing they do a disservice both to their friends, and to their own interests as citizens. I am not inclined to follow their example.
At the outset of your piece you write (correctly) that Zionism is the national liberation movement of the Jews, and then remark how curious it is that Zionism is opposed both by some leftists who typically back all national liberation movements and by some conservatives who are habitually hostile to left wing guerrilla organizations like the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Your point is to account for such opposition to Israel by linking it the long history of European anti-Semitism, whose consequences made the quest for a Jewish national state seem necessary.
I don't disagree with this general point, but in making it you cite Patrick Buchanan as an example of a conservative supporter of a left wing Palestinian national liberation movement "aimed at the Jews" and thus expressing "unique opposition to the Jewish homeland."
This is an error, and forgive me if I sound for a moment like the Buchanan campaign staffer I once was in correcting it. While Patrick Buchanan has made hundreds and possibly thousands of on-the-record statements about Israel, has published countless columns and discussed Israel and the Palestinians in several books and speeches, he never has "opposed a Jewish homeland."
By contrast, he has opposed certain policies carried out by the Jewish homeland including those that involve the suppression of the prospect for a Palestinian homeland. But to conflate, as your sentences do, opposition to Israel's maintaining control over the lands and peoples it conquered in 1967 (in a war for whose outbreak the Arab leaders bear most of the blame) with "opposition to a Jewish homeland" is not a fair accounting of Buchanan's position which is quite explicit in its support for Israel in its pre-1967 boundaries. Nor does it fairly summarize the views of millions of others, in America and around the globe, who see no better solution to the Palestine problem than two states, side by side, one for the Palestinians and one for the Israelis with the latter's boundaries conforming to the spirit if not the precise lines of pre-1967 Israel.
There is another, more conceptually ambitious, thread to your piece: the argument that the Palestinians, unlike the Jews, have no solid national claim to land their fathers and forefathers lived on before the Zionist enterprise began.
To this end, you argue that that the Palestinians never had an independent national existence for the arriving Zionist Jews to suppress, and therefore are not entitled to one now. They were, you write "largely nomads who had no distinctive language or culture to separate them from other Arabs . . . the idea of a Palestinian nation did not even exist . . . [in 1950] they did not attempt to create a state of their own . . ." and so on. You probably overstate the case there clearly was agriculture and commercial life in Arab Palestine before the Zionists arrived.
But you are right to say there was no Palestinian nationalism at the time of the Balfour Declaration. Furthermore, that Palestinian "nationalism" which had come into existence a generation later, by the time of the UN partition plan, was not nearly so politically developed as Zionism. Another way to say this is that Jewish nationalism was derived from (and a response to) the European nationalism of the 19th century; Arab nationalism (including Palestinian nationalism) arrived one or two or even three generations later, as part of the wave of Afro-Asian nationalism born after World War I.
At every stage in the confrontation between the original Zionist settlers and the Palestinian Arabs, the consequences of this Zionist head start were manifest. The Zionists had leaders (of every ideological stripe) with a clear sense of the Jewish national mission; the Palestinians were represented by local "notables" who reigned over a semi-feudal system. A typical Palestinian Arab in the years before 1948 might have had a sense of his own village and those in the next valley, he did not think of "the Palestinian people."
The Zionist settlers, by contrast, were among the most sophisticated and nationally conscious people the world had ever seen. The Jews were all literate, many Palestinians, not; the Jews could understand the necessity of training and arming all their available men (and many women); the Palestinians' armed resistance was by comparison haphazard and formless. The Zionists could tax their entire community (in Israel and, in a way, in the Diaspora) to subsidize the building an army and of a new state; the Palestinians were unable to do so. The Jews had leaders who could move effectively in corridors of world power; the Palestinians were geographically remote from key decision-makers and feeble in their ability to estimate accurately the political situation they faced.
It is not too much to say that it took establishment of Israel and the experience of Israeli rule on the land occupied in 1967 to give birth to a genuine Palestinian nationalism and spur the Palestinians to embark on the long course of trying to catch up. Of course if the Palestinians had been as nationally self-conscious as the Jews from the outset, Zionism would never have fulfilled its ambitions, at least not in Palestine.
But it has never been customary for the United States to recognize as legitimate only those national movements that arrived first. Nor does the important fact of earlier political development grant the more advanced people a moral right to perpetual domination. The fact of Irish ancestry may have rendered me (actually of mixed Anglo-Irish descent) somewhat more conscious of how this can work. For hundreds of years, the British who ruled Ireland were better organized, more literate, more technologically advanced, more adept at the mobilization of men and resources, in short more powerful. The phrases they used to describe the Irish were seldom more generous than those you use to describe the Palestinians. Many intelligent Englishmen could not imagine decent Irish self-government . . . ever, nor conceive of the development of a political entity which might allow the Irish to look the English in the eye as equals.
Yet history has almost finished making that turn in the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland, and (however the remaining embers of that conflict are ultimately disposed of) has provided a striking example of how comparative latecomers to modernity and nationalism can narrow gaps in national development that once seemed completely unbridgeable.
You make an important point about the UN partition plan which created the legal basis for Israel's establishment: had the Arabs accepted it, there would be no Middle East conflict. I certainly concur that the Arabs would have been better off if they had agreed to partition, instead of initiating wars they were not prepared to fight. But I'm not sure that their acceptance would have put an end to the conflict.
As you know, from the time of the state's very founding, there have been important Israelis (and not only in the Likud Party) who aspired to expand Israel to what they called its "natural borders," who wished to ethnically cleanse the Palestinians whose lands they coveted. ("Transfer" was the preferred euphemism.) Diplomatic necessity prevented the Israelis who thought this (including Ben Gurion, for instance) to restrain themselves but I am not sure that Arab acquiescence to the original partition agreement would have satisfied the Zionists who had long dreamed of the lands of Biblical Judea and Samaria.
You yourself seem relieved that that the Palestinians did not accept their half a loaf in a timely manner, devoting several paragraphs in support of the notion that Jordan is the logical place for a Palestinian state anyway. Sharon is known to share this notion of "resolving" the Palestinian problem, which would be acceptable neither to the Palestinians nor Jordanians.
You state that the Palestinians who didn't flee in 1948 and remained in what is now Israel have more political rights than any Arabs in the Arab world. This too is not an insignificant point just as it was not insignificant when Senators from the segregationist South argued that American blacks had far more rights, and were far more prosperous, than blacks in Africa. But the yearning for political self-determination (or equal civil rights) has become a nearly universal political drive whose claims any political realist has to acknowledge. I can think of no instance in which it has been trumped by the allure of exercising circumscribed minority rights in an alien and hostile polity.
When your essay reaches the Oslo period, I sense some uncertainty creep into your argument, as if you yourself are not sure whether you are disappointed, relieved, or ecstatic at the apparent breakdown of the peace process. If, like Ariel Sharon, you believe the "Palestinian homeland" is "Jordan" then of course you would be delighted at the failure of Oslo, and can look forward to further Israeli measures to demolish homes and drive the Palestinians from Gaza and the West Bank.
But something tells me you aren't completely comfortable there. You are of course on strong grounds when you decry the Palestinian Authority's failure to more effectively prepare the Palestinian people under its jurisdiction for peace. But your treatment is one-dimensional: there were years during Oslo when the PA's behavior was quite responsible, when its suppression of those Palestinian elements that rejected Oslo and any peace arrangement were sincere and forceful. The PA's behavior seemed to correlate with the actual state of the peace process the Palestinians acted responsibly prior to Rabin's assassination, far less so after Netanyahu succeeded him and began to stall and delay full implementation of the agreement.
Remarkably, in such a long essay, you fail to mention even once the word "settlements" though of course you must know that the settlements are the main locus of tension between the occupying forces and the Palestinians on the West Bank and Gaza. In political terms, the settlements are "facts" by which the Israelis say to the Palestinians: We have power here in your home and you do not. We control your water supply and your movements; we build roads that are for our use only, while choking yours with military checkpoints. You will never establish full sovereignty over this, your ancestral land.
I'm sure, David, that there is much in Arab political culture which is irrational, inured to the spirit of generous compromise, and even hateful, but I can think of few peoples in the world which would accept such treatment without resisting. And as you know, during the Oslo peace process, which was supposed to lead to the creation of a Palestinian state, the Israelis increased the number of settlements, and all the access roads and checkpoints which go with them, by roughly one-third. This did much to sour the peace process, and stands in my mind in a sort of rough moral equivalence to the anti-Zionist propaganda taught in Palestinian schools which you quite rightly despise.
Your largest point is that the Palestinian national grievance is "a self-inflicted wound." Perhaps you mean that the Palestinians did not have leaders with the intelligence and foresight to recognize that Zionism was the greater force there to stay and make a timely accommodation with it. This is undeniable the Palestinians waited far too long to recognize Israel and give up the idea that other Arab armies, or even they themselves, would destroy the Jewish state.
But that doesn't mean the grievances of the present Palestinian people are not legitimate. When Palestinian children are shot for sport by Israeli marksmen (New York Times correspondent Christopher Hedges describes this ugly enterprise in the September Harper's) or Israeli special forces leave booby trapped bombs on the pathways outside Palestinian elementary schools (as happened last month) these actions create grievances as compelling and legitimate as those felt by the Jewish victims of suicide bombers in Haifa or Jerusalem.
When Palestinian women are forced to give birth in ditches because Israeli checkpoints make it impossible to reach the hospital, that is not a manufactured grievance but a real one.
I of course agree with you that the Palestinians erred grievously in failing to make a realistic counterproposal to Barak's offer at Camp David; and that the Palestinian bid for "right of return" for their refugees to pre-1967 Israel is a complete nonstarter. I have heard sophisticated and politically active Palestinians make these same points. I was glad to see that Arafat's latest appointment as the PLO's political representative to Jerusalem, Sari Nusseibeh, has said much the same thing. His appointment I think belies your contention that no Palestinian leaders acknowledge Israel's ties to the Holy Land.
There were several spots in your essay where I thought your summaries or brief quotations didn't convey the full sense of the facts your depiction of the Mitchell Commission report as exonerating Sharon's behavior when he marched with 1000 troops up the Temple Mount/Holy Sanctuary is one such instance. But since you cover so much ground so artfully, I will spare you arguments that might seem like nitpicking.
But I don't want to leave you without asking one major question: how you think American interests would be served by adoption of the policies implicit in your argument? You paint the Palestinian national movement as a fraud and the effort to build a state in the occupied territories as a nonstarter, and suggest the Palestinians "try Jordan" if they want a state of their own. Though this is not an uncommon view on the Israeli Right, it is generally kept under wraps because sophisticated Israelis understand how poorly it plays with international audiences.
So, again, what are the American interests in this situation? Of course you recognize that Israel's day-to-day suppression of the Palestinians is now covered by television throughout much of the Muslim world, and for numerous reasons (in part surely to deflect popular attention from the shortcomings of Arab governments) the Arab-Israeli conflict has become the emotional center of Arab politics. Though Israel might well be able to dominate the Palestinians without American weaponry, financial assistance, and diplomatic support in the UN and elsewhere, the fact that it is generously supplied with all three makes that domination easier.
The Arabs know this. Arab leaders who are friendly to the US had been warning Washington with increasing urgency of the explosive feelings the unresolved Palestinian problem was generating among their own people. Last September 11, Americans got a bitter taste of the consequences. Not because the bin Laden crew was directly linked to the Palestine problem, but because the widespread anti-Americanism in the Arab world which provides, as it were, the sea in which Al Qaeda's fish can spawn and swim, is inexorably linked to Israel's unrelenting domination of the Palestinians.
In short, Israel's efforts to deny the Palestinians a homeland on the territory which the United Nations allocated for that purpose poses a problem for the United States, for the way Americans are perceived and treated in the world. Washington is rightly committed to Israel's security, and if a peace settlement gave Israel recognized borders, I would support guarantees to protect those borders not that Israel, with its extremely competent military and advanced weaponry, would have any trouble defeating any conventional assault. (The potential long-term security threat to Israel from ballistic missiles containing non-conventional weapons is hardly attenuated by Israel's domination of the West Bank and Gaza.)
But as Israel's sole and generous patron, the United States risks the unleashing against its own citizenry of the anger felt by the Palestinians (and spilling into the rest of the Arab world) over their continued national dispossession. Indeed, that anger has already been unleashed. Even if as you argue it was the Palestinians' own fault that they lost their homeland, or that they have no legitimate claim to any of the territory allocated them by the United Nations partition of the Palestinian mandate why would it be in America's diplomatic and strategic interests to endorse such arguments, considered completely ridiculous in most of the world?
A relevant analogy here might be the civil rights movement and the Cold War: many American southerners argued that American blacks were better off than those in African countries, and there were sound reasons why they should attend separate schools or be denied the same rights as white people. But even if such arguments had been right (they were not), there were far more compelling global reasons during the Cold War 1950s and 1960s that made it imperative for the United States to end segregation.
Similarly, at a moment when the United States, facing a long and treacherous struggle against a ruthless terrorist enemy, must wage a focused and successful campaign for the hearts and minds of a billion people in the Arab and Muslim world, why should it continue to subsidize an Israeli occupation which undermines everything else it is seeking to accomplish?
David, I hope you know this letter is written in a spirit of friendly, even comradely, disagreement, and that it comes from someone who has plenty of appreciation for everything you have done since you came out as a "Lefty for Reagan" seventeen years ago, and who was an avid Ramparts reader a dozen years before that.
Best wishes, Scott McConnell
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