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8 December 2020

From the NS archive: Conflict thoughts

4 January 1980: Christopher Hitchens reviews five books on the Israel-Palestine conflict.

By Christopher Hitchens

The public intellectual and writer Christopher Hitchens became foreign editor of the New Statesman in 1979. He had worked at the magazine previously – initially in 1973, the same year as the Yom Kippur War – as a war correspondent. Around the same time, Hitchens discovered that his mother was Jewish and began to identify as a secular Jew (he remained vehemently anti-religion throughout his life). Here, as foreign editor, Hitchens dissects in typically ruthless style five books on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

***

The Revolt by Menachem Begin, W. H. Allen £6.95
The Rabin Memoirs by Yitzhak Rabin, Weidenfeld £10
From These Men by Shimon Peres, Weidenfeld £8.50
The Israeli Mind by John Laffin, Cassell £5.95
The Elusive Peace: The Middle East in the Twentieth Century by William R Polk, Croom Helm £1.95

The most cruel and intractable conflicts are those where both the contending parties feel themselves to be the oppressed and injured minority. In our time, to take two notable examples, this element of historical argument has made politics even more ferocious in Cyprus and in Ireland. But the conviction that history has done them wrong, that they are alone in the world, that they have powerful and unsleeping enemies, is strongest of all among the Jewish and the Arab inhabitants of what used to be the Palestine Mandate. To the Israeli, his own country looks and feels tiny; an area the size of Wales arrayed against a vast expanse of pan-Arab and pan-Islamic oil-money, weaponry and population. To the Palestinian living in southern Lebanon, Israel is a superstate; an extension of American power and strength into the Middle East, and one which operates with extreme and deadly ruthlessness.

This clash of perspectives may appear symmetrical, but of course it is not. To many Palestinians, the case is a simple one of theft by force majeure – he used to have an orchard in the Galilee and now somebody from Milwaukee has taken it and changed its name. To a Western audience, it hardly needs emphasising that the Israelis do not see the birth of their state in that light (though it often needs emphasising that the Palestinians do).

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All the volumes in this collection are written from Israeli standpoints of one kind or another (with the exception of William Polk’s fine essay). One looks, then, for some echo of the tragedy and the drama of the Middle East. These books enable one to consider the different Israeli tones of voice.

Many Arabs believe that there is a Begin in every Israeli; that in some way he says and does what all Israelis would really like to say and do if they could. To put it mildly, such a view is a short measure on the truth. It might be right to say – as Begin does very clearly – that without his style and his methods the state of Israel would not have been born. The armed men of the Irgun Zvai Leumi might not have been “typically Jewish” in the gentle and reflective sense of that term. They were, in fact, not at all decorative. Begin simply argues that it was they who turned the tide against the British occupation, and who succeeded in making the Arab inhabitants of Palestine evacuate their homes.

Begin’s tone of voice is as awful as his prose – blustering, assertive, egocentric stuff. One sifts for nuggets and anecdotes, but even these are rare. A secret meeting with Arthur Koestler in a dark cellar while the author is on the run might seem like an absorbing tale, but Begin makes it boring because he tells the reader little of what was said and far too much of what was running through his own head at the time. In similar fashion, he clutters and obfuscates some potentially exciting accounts of the guerrilla war against the British with long bursts of self-justification and special pleading. A dash of introspection may not have been conducive to political and military leadership at the time, but it would have been useful in a memoir and very useful in the prime minister of the state of Israel.

Since Begin believes the Zionist cause to be endorsed by God and by the canonical texts, he lets himself off the task of explanation. His great obsession is with the idea of the “Fighting Jew”, who can put an end to his people’s stereotype as passive and fatalistic victims. The creation of this national type has been Begin’s life-work; from the days when he helped Jabotinsky against the Jewish Left in Thirties Poland, to the moment when he decreed the invasion of Lebanon to avenge a Palestinian guerrilla attack (which he denounced without irony as “terrorist”).

There is a great deal of scholarly dispute about Begin’s account, through various editions of his memoirs, of the Dir Yassin massacre. All one can say for certain is this. The Arab inhabitants of that peaceful village were slaughtered. Begin gives away, perhaps, more than he intends when he says that Arab allegations of deliberate murder were false but useful to the prestige of his fighters. He goes on: “Meanwhile the Haganah [Jewish armed forces] was carrying out successful attacks on the other fronts in Haifa. All the Jewish forces proceeded to advance through Haifa like a knife through butter. The Arab began fleeing in panic shouting: ‘Dir Yassin!’”

This is fairly unambiguous. Perhaps we could hear a little less henceforth about how the Arabs were duped into flying by their own leaders? But again, on the small matter of the tone of voice. Begin describes the operation in the typical clichés of relish which turn up in all military memoirs. So we have got the point that Jewish people can be as tough as the next race in their own cause. Could we also, then, hear a little less accusation of “anti-semitism” when we review and criticise Israel as if it was just another state? Or can they have it both ways for ever?

There is an old and ghastly joke about an Israeli spokesman making the routine promise that “Israel will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East” and adding under his breath “and we won’t be the second either”. There comes a point, in this endless quest for “security”, where quantity turns into quality, and where “objectively necessary” security measures amount to a whole posture of hostility to the Arabs on one hand and dependence on the Americans (of all people) on the other. Yitzhak Rabin likes the emollient and the half-truthful rather than the bragging and the arrogant. Here he is replying to the well-known accusation that he “came out” for Nixon while Israeli ambassador in Washington:

“In that interview I noted that never in America’s history had any president gone so far in his pro-Israeli declarations or in expressing America’s commitment to Israel’s security as President Nixon had … That was a fact – and at most I was bringing it to the attention of the Israeli, not the American, public. I truly cannot understand how my words could have been interpreted as a ‘campaign speech’ when the campaign had yet to begin and I was at any rate addressing myself to an audience that was not going to the polls.”

Rabin’s memoirs are like that – slippery and therefore revealing. Like Harold Wilson (whose writing style resembles his), he often wants to blame things on his colleagues. The luckless Shimon Peres once fell out with Rabin over an alleged leak of information (concerning a secret Soviet contact with Israel about which one would like to hear more but learns nothing). Rabin’s account of the affair, which involved subjecting his colleagues to lie-detector tests, ends like this: “Considering the gravity of the problem, I found it curious that we were never able to get to the root of it.”

Rabin’s open hostility to Peres is the small change of Israeli political gossip. Much of it seems to be personal. Rabin is centrally concerned with the problem of America, where he obviously thought himself better qualified to represent Israeli interests than Peres. The interesting thing, as one follows Rabin through this long, tedious and businesslike narrative of negotiations, is that the more Israel comes to depend on the United States, the less the two countries seem to trust each other. This paradox, which enhances the Israeli conviction of being alone in the world, is very baffling for Arabs (and not just for them). Still, at least one can see how irritating Peres must be by reading his own book.

His cameos of Israeli life and leadership are mainly schmaltz: “The Most Unforgettable People I’ve Met”, from the pen of the onetime “Minister for the Administered (sic) Territories”. Such gooey pen-portraits, of Ben-Gurion and Eshkol, Bergmann and Haviv, add little to our existing knowledge. The chapter on Yonatan Netanyahu, martyr of the Entebbe raid, consists mainly of a eulogy delivered by Peres at the boy’s grave. Even Max Hastings, whose own account of Netanyahu was also published by Lord Weidenfeld, found on examination that he had not quite been the Zionist Galahad of legend and song. No hint of that here – all the characters are much larger than mere life.

“Generally kibbutzniks are irreverent.” That is a typical John Laffin sentence, combining all his best-known qualities: the cliché, the meaningless statement, the windiness which infects even his most apparently succint passages. Anybody who has read The Arab Mind or (more recently from the same pen) The Dagger of Islam will know what to expect. The whole is an unsorted box of clippings, author’s anecdotes and mid-Atlantic “insights”. Not worth the detour. Avoid.

The shelves of books on Israeli elan are all rather beside the point. Everybody knows that Israel has a capacity to motivate and to mobilise its citizens – a resource which many larger states would give great revenues to possess. But can there be circumstances where this flair is a weakness? It’s possible to argue, and some Israelis do believe, that the blitzkrieg victory of June 1967 was a deadly and deceptive “high”. Then, if ever, would have been the time to make a settlement with the Palestinians. But the sensation of invincibility was so strong, and so irresistible to the politicians, that it led to hubris and from that to the ghastly entanglements of today. It would be nice to report that Begin or Rabin or Peres had written reflectively on this irony. (It would be astonishing if it had occurred to John Laffin.) But alas…

William Polk is a real pleasure to read after all this schlock. He has a genuine historical approach, and an easy thoughtful style. He also has a very fair and inquiring mind. Nobody with intelligent preconceptions could finish the book without at least re-examining them. New readers should begin here.

Polk begins by slaying a few obvious canards. He establishes the conflict as an ancient one, involving a conflict of rights as well a of nations. He reviews the literature and the arguments of both sides in a critical fashion (including the memoirs of Begin and Sadat, about both of which he is more indulgent than I could be). He is a great puncturer of illusions, including (he was an emissary to the region for Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon) those of his own side. Discussing the Camp David accords, he feels bound to point out that the American desire to make Sadat “their man” has inhibited any serious appraisal of the chances of peace. And, while he has considerable sympathy for the Palestinians, he subjects their more idealistic and impractical propaganda to a fairly tough analysis. I can’t remember a better general book on the whole region, and recommend it most heartily. Compliments also to Croom Helm, a small outfit who have risked a lot on publishing worthy and useful books in this field. If only the richer houses felt able to do the same – but here are 30 quid’s worth that say different.

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

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