Israel/Palestine: a clash of arms and opinions

Two new volumes focus on the intensity of Arab-Jewish differences in Palestine and Israel, with differing emphases


Norwegian Foreign Minister Kurt Vollebek and Yasir Arafat being asked about a talks stalemate in 1997

Norwegian Foreign Minister Kurt Vollebek and Yasir Arafat being asked about a talks stalemate in 1997

Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989
By Mark LeVine
Zed Books, £14.99

‘A Senseless, Squalid war’ — Voices From Palestine 1945-1948
By Norman Rose
The Bodley Head, £20

There is no shortage of books purporting to explain the origins and history of the conflict between Israel and the Arab world. By way of justification for adding to this ever-burgeoning library, Mark LeVine, of the University of California, promises a “fresh and honest” account of the collapse of the peace process initiated at Oslo in 1993.

The nub of Dr LeVine’s argument is that Oslo was destined, and probably designed, never to bring about lasting peace because it was predicated, not on the establishment of a Palestinian-Arab state equal to the Jewish state in terms of its economic foundations and capacity for socio-economic independence, but on a model of dependence and (hence) subservience. At best, Oslo would have given birth to a client-state without financial autonomy, let alone geographical integrity.

Oslo amounted to a Palestinian surrender to Zionist neo-liberalism. It was therefore doomed to fail.

This is an interesting theory, and if it were supported by the facts it would merit serious consideration. Unfortunately, it is supported merely by those facts carefully selected by LeVine to support his theory. Consider, for example, his explanation of the very origins of the conflict. In asserting that the conflict “has always been a dispute over territory”, he consigns to the trash can a wealth of evidence relating to Islamic hostility to Judaism, Jews and Jewish claims to nationhood.

He also offers us some remarkable rewrites of empirical evidence. For instance, he invokes UN resolution 242 in justification of his assertion that Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria are “illegal”, whereas the resolution (from which he actually quotes) talks only of the withdrawal of Israeli armed forces — not of Jews or even of Israelis. Nor, anywhere in this volume, does he refer to the first partition of Mandate Palestine, in 1921, leading to the creation of an exclusively Palestinian-Arab state from which Jewish settlement was prohibited.

Even Dr LeVine’s account of the origins of political Zionism is suspect. Ignoring rabbinical support, dating from the early 19th century — long before the Russian pogroms — for a return of the Jews to Zion, he writes of the “Dreyfus Affair of the 1880s”, apparently unaware that the Affair dated from 1894.

In ‘A Senseless, Squalid War’ (the phrase was Churchill’s), Professor Norman Rose, of the Hebrew University, charts in meticulous detail the last, bloody years of the Palestine Mandate. He neither conceals nor excuses the excesses of the Irgun and the Stern Gang, but carefully places them in the wider contexts in which they must be seen: the Holocaust, the casual but unapologetic antisemitism of the British army, random acts of murder by Arabs of Jews, above all the refusal of the Arabs to agree to the establishment of a Jewish state.

Professor Rose’s is a work of scholarship. Dr LeVine’s is a monument to misdirected academic endeavour.

Geoffrey Alderman is a historian and JC columnist

    Last updated: 3:01pm, April 27 2009