The latest cycle of Israeli-Palestinian violence is pulling the region and the world deeper into a grotesque crime of religious-inspired slaughter, but U.S. politicians can’t see beyond their narrow self-interests, writes former U.S. diplomat William R. Polk.
With the killing of three Israeli teen-agers and the apparent revenge murder of a Palestinian youth – possibly burned to death – the hatred between Israelis and Palestinian has reached a new level of obscenity, and it looks like it will get worse. Much worse.
The major Israeli newspaper Haaretz wrote in an editorial: “There are no words to describe the horror allegedly done by six Jews to Mohammed Abu Khdeir of Shoafat. Although a gag order bars publication of details of the terrible murder and the identities of its alleged perpetrators, the account of Abu Khdeir’s family — according to which the boy was burned alive — would horrify any mortal.
“Anyone who is not satisfied with this description, can view the horror movie in which members of Israel’s Border Police are seen brutally beating Tariq Abu Khdeir, the murder victim’s 15-year-old cousin.”
Or, as Israeli columnist Gordon Levy wroteabout the recent atrocities: “The youths of the Jewish state are attacking Palestinians in the streets of Jerusalem, just like gentile youths used to attack Jews in the streets of Europe. The Israelis of the Jewish state are rampaging on social networks, displaying hatred and a lust for revenge, unprecedented in its diabolic scope. These are the children of the nationalistic and racist generation – Netanyahu’s offspring.
“For five years now, they have been hearing nothing but incitement, scaremongering and supremacy over Arabs from this generation’s true instructor, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Not one humane word, no commiseration or equal treatment. They grew up with the provocative demand for recognition of Israel as a ‘Jewish state,’ and they drew the inevitable conclusions.”
Loss of Civilized Men
My own observations are in accord with these remarks. Over the years since my first visit to what was then the Palestine Mandate in 1946, I have watched the disappearance of the generation of civilized men. Such great Jewish figures as Judah Magnes and Martin Buber flourished in the 1930s but are now forgotten or, if remembered at all, are thought of (by Israelis) to have been naive do-gooders and (by Arabs) to have been just front men for the real Zionists, men like Vladimir Jabotinsky, the spiritual father of Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir and Benjamin Netanyahu.
The Palestinians now point out that what the most extreme of their spokesmen told the American investigators (in the King-Crane commission that Woodrow Wilson sent to the Levant in 1919), that they feared what has now happened.
In the words of the then senior British intelligence officer (Kinahan Cornwallis), the Palestinians hold “a deeply felt fear that the Jews not only intended to assume the reins of Government in Palestine but also to expropriate or buy up during the war large tracts of land owned by Moslems and others, and gradually to force them from the country.”
The British cabinet already thought something like this was inevitable. It was a price the British were willing to have the Palestinians pay since in 1917-1918 – as World War I dragged on – the British desperately wanted Jewish support in Germany (where they thought much of the Army was under Jewish officers), in Russia (where they thought Jews were the leaders of the Bolshevik movements for a separate peace that would release large German forces to fight on the Western front), and in America (where they thought Jews could provide financing for the war effort).
So, the British authorities courted Jewish support in the Balfour Declaration. In careful compromise, they stuck in the Declaration two qualifications – as I recount in two of my early books, Backdrop to Tragedy (with David Stamler and Edmund Asfour) and The United States and the Arab World. They specified their objective as being only “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people” and emphasized that this was not to denigrate the rights of the Arabs “it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of the existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.”
Qualifications aside, what has happened was precisely what everyone then knew was likely what has happened was precisely what everyone then knew was likely, the transformation of Palestine into a Jewish state.
In a remarkably candid statement on Aug. 11, 1919, Lord Balfour, the titular author of the Declaration, admitted that “so far as Palestine is concerned, the Powers [The Allies, Britain and France] have made no statement of fact which is not admittedly wrong, and no declaration of policy which at least in letter, they have not always intended to violate.” (Quoted in my book The Elusive Peace: The Middle East in the Twentieth Century.)
The history of the past century of Palestine can be summed up in a few words: For their own interests, the British and then the Americans just closed their eyes to the developing tragedy; both were content to have a poor, defenseless Near East people pay the price for the historic crime of Western anti-Semitism.
Predictably, the Jewish community grew, appropriated most of the best land (largely by purchase from absentee owners), and benefited from massive infusions of foreign money (now totaling well over $100 billion, or more than all the aid programs for the rest of the world). Meanwhile, the Jewish fate in Europe moved toward the Holocaust.
A Tragedy Unfolds
If I were a Jew in Germany in the 1930s, I certainly would have gone to America and if I could not get in — some could not — to Palestine; if I were an Arab at almost any time from 1920 onward, I would have tried to stop the flood of immigrants encroaching on Arab land. Thus, the real culprit in this long-unfolding tragedy is neither the Jew nor the Palestinian. It is us. Anti-Semitism is a Western disease.
What we see today is that the people who really agree with the Jewish terrorists are the Arab terrorists — with the religious fanatics among both peoples increasingly taking the lead. Between them, there is little if any room for people of moderation, much less for decency. Tit-for-Tat is a game played with blood and steel in which no one is or will be immune. There is no end in sight.
So how have we viewed these events? I have listened for my whole professional life to a false dialogue. For years, policymakers and opinion leaders have argued over “solutions” that are unreal or at least tangential. We keep chanting the dirge — one can almost put it to music — one state or two states. Neither is realistic and even if feasible would not solve the fundamental problem. But we seem to believe that, if we can say one or the other often enough, one of them might become acceptable.
The Hard Choices
It is time to drop the nonsense and face the simple facts. They are these:
In the “one state,” the Arabs will be the subjugated minority with few rights and little or any security — they will be the “Jews” of an Israeli Germany or the “Jews” of an Israeli Imperial Russia, cooped up in ghettos, imprisoned, driven into exile or subjected to a final partition. They, their children and their grandchildren will sporadically resist. Their resistance will call forth more hatred and more reprisal. The cycle will continue.
In the “two states,” those living in the truncated remnants of Palestine (the West Bank and Gaza) will be condemned to perpetual poverty and humiliation. They will have almost no usable agricultural land and virtually no water. They will be cut off from possible markets for what little they can produce. They can have no hope of manufacturing because their draw on electricity will be squeezed.
Even the limited money they can earn will be closely controlled and often blocked by the Israeli Central Bank as it now is. They will have limited access to health facilities, educational institutions and even contact with one another, segregated as they are and will be by restricted zones, walls and standing security and military forces. They too would periodically resist or strike out in fury and so draw upon themselves reprisals. And so too the cycle of violence will continue or even escalate.
Even those who think of themselves as “Israeli Arabs” will remain, in the eyes of the real Israelis, just Arabs. They will have marginally better, but still limited, lives as they do today. As hatred grows ethnically they too will be drawn into the struggle. They are likely to lose what they have so far kept.
Shocking the World
Is there an alternative? Yes, there are three although they either would shock the conscience of the world or are themselves unrealistic. Which is worse depends upon who does the evaluation. But as the French political philosopher Montesquieu once observed that my task ”is not to make people read but to make them think.”
The one the Israelis really want is for the Palestinians to just leave. To go where? To refugee camps or wherever, the Israelis don’t care. A reading of all Israeli policies underlines the Israeli intention to make life as unattractive for the Palestinians as world opinion allows. Honest Israelis admit that the conditions they are creating are worse than South African apartheid was for the Bantu. And always the threat of ethnic cleansing hangs high.
The second alternative, which of course many Palestinians want, is for the Israelis “to go back where they came from.” The Arabs day-dream of their relations with the Israelis in parallel to the Crusades. The Crusaders stayed a long time but finally left. The more recent parallel is to the “French” (many of whom were not French at all) pieds noirs in Algeria. It took a century but they too finally left.
The Palestinians keep track of the immigration statistics and observe that in some years more Israelis leave than immigrants come. They also note that a large part of the Israeli population keeps dual citizenship which gives them the option of leaving. New York is said to have a larger Israeli population than Jerusalem.
The third alternative is Armageddon. Israel has a huge store of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and at least once in the past came close to using nuclear weapons. The Arabs, of course, don’t (now) have nuclear weapons, but at least two Arab states are thought to be capable of getting (producing or buying) them quickly. More immediate, the Palestinians, divided and relatively unarmed as they are, have the capacity to inflict pain on Israelis (and so to bring about retaliation). Sooner or later, that capacity will grow.
The Crusades Analogy
Here the analogy with the Crusades may make some sense. One can envisage a scenario in which acts by Arabs could either make life in Israel unattractive or, alternatively, cause the Israelis — in frustration, fear or fury – to destroy the Middle East and all its people. They have the means to do so.
Should we care? Forget the pious statements. If the past is any guide, we didn’t much care about anti-Semitism when it affected the Jews in Europe and don’t much care about it when today it makes life horrible for many Arabs in the Middle East.
There is much cynical (but covert) anti-Zionist feeling even among many U.S. politicians who rush to benefit from Jewish donations. Privately, many admit that much of what the Israelis are doing is illegal and even more is immoral, but it is the rare politician who says anything publicly. And those who have done so have usually paid a politically mortal price.
Meanwhile, as a nation, we Americans keep on doing what we know how to do — giving money and arms. And, in a destructive and self-defeating gesture to “even-handedness,” giving them to both sides, the Israelis and Arab states.
It is not so important that we don’t incur favor by this policy – neither side is smitten by affection for us and the Israeli government almost daily goes out of its way to humiliate our government. But it could be, and in my judgment eventually will be, significant that we are moving toward Armageddon.
Even the most hardheaded and cynical among us should be concerned since there is a considerable danger of a spillover of any Middle Eastern war into our lives — both abroad in other areas, particularly Islamic areas, and at home.
At minimum, long-term and perhaps escalating hostilities in the Middle East would hurt the U.S. economy. Additionally, they could further damage our already fragile ecology, possibly trigger a wider conflict and certainly damage the sense of law, morality and order by which we live. Even short of actual war, the contagion of instability, hatred and violence is likely to spread and so affect us in other areas and on other issues about which we care.
Perhaps, if U.S. leaders could even slightly raise their eyes above their immediate interests and pay a little attention to the turbulent river of events in which we float, we could grab onto a handhold and stop before we reach the waterfall.
Does anyone see any such leader anywhere? I confess I do not. I am afraid, not for me, since I am now 85 years old, but for mine and yours and everyone’s.
William R. Polk was a member of the Policy Planning Council, responsible for North Africa, the Middle East and West Asia, for four years under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, He was a member of the three-men Crisis Management Committee during the Cuban Missile Crisis. During those years he wrote two proposed peace treaties for the American government and negotiated one major ceasefire between Israel and Egypt. Later he was Professor of History at the University of Chicago, founding director of the Middle Eastern Studies Center and President of the Adlai Stevenson Institute of International Affairs. He is the author of some 17 books on world affairs, including The United States and the Arab World; The Elusive Peace, the Middle East in the Twentieth Century; Understanding Iraq; Understanding Iran; Violent Politics: A History of Insurgency and Terrorism; Neighbors and Strangers: The Fundamentals of Foreign Affairs and numerous articles in Foreign Affairs, The Atlantic, Harpers, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and Le Monde Diplomatique. He has lectured at many universities and at the Council on Foreign Relations, Chatham House, Sciences Po, the Soviet Academy of Sciences and has appeared frequently on NPR, the BBC, CBS and other networks. His most recent books, both available on Amazon, are Humpty Dumpty: The Fate of Regime Change and Blind Man’s Buff, a Novel.