Review: Palestine Betrayed

An academic defender of Israel closely examines the Palestinian case but the picture may be greyer than he paints it


By Colin Shindler, May 13, 2010
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Israeli recruits gather last month at the graves of fallen soldiers and other victims of war, Mount Herzl cemetery

Israeli recruits gather last month at the graves of fallen soldiers and other victims of war, Mount Herzl cemetery

By Efraim Karsh
Yale University Press, £20

Palestine Betrayed is a detailed riposte to the version of the Israel-Palestine conflict that places the blame solely at Israel's doorstep. Efraim Karsh, Professor of Middle East and Mediterranean studies at King's College London, charges the younger generation of Palestinian historians with avoiding an academic exploration of the Naqba and instead offering a tale of lament and tears.

He argues that much of Palestinian historiography has actually been written by the Israeli "new historians". Yet Karsh's telescoping together of the new historians misleadingly suggests that they are all reading from the same historical hymn-sheet. While some do indeed bend history to fit personal ideology, others strive to tell this story accurately and honestly.

Significantly, the doyen of the new historians, Benny Morris, was attacked by both Israelis and Palestinians for daring to challenge each side's version of events. While Karsh finds it difficult to criticise any Israeli policy, his work, like that of the new historians, does reflect the complexity of this particular Middle-Eastern imbroglio.

The rise of Arab nationalism (rather than Arab socialism) after the First World War is well documented. This contrasts with the ascendency of Marxist Zionism and explains in part why there was strong sympathy for Nazi Germany in the 1930s in the Arab world - on the basis that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend".

Both Saudi and Egyptian monarchs maintained direct channels to Hitler. The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem was described in one British report as "the most important Arab quisling in German hands". Even after the war, the Mufti's collaboration and the wartime sojourn of the mainstream Palestinian national movement in Berlin was deemed secondary to confronting the Zionist enemy.

Karsh takes an interesting look at UN Resolution 194, which has been misinterpreted and promoted as "the right of return". He points out that all 15 paragraphs deal with facilitating peace and the one that mentions refugees does not talk of Arab refugees. Thus, those Jews driven out of the prospective Palestinian Arab state and from Jerusalem could similarly be regarded as refugees. Placing part of the burden on the Arab states was not appreciated and they actually voted against the resolution at the UN.

The book's strength lies in its delving beneath the clichés and slogans to reveal uncomfortable aspects of the Palestinian case. Its weakness lies in its argument that the Palestinian line is a zero sum game in which defeat can never be accepted and eternal struggle continuously urged until final victory is achieved over the "Zionist entity". This is backed up by selective quotation and it is easy enough to present other quotations in support of a totally different picture.

A polarised, black-and-white scenario appeals to the emotions. But there is a case for viewing this conflict not solely as one between Israel and Palestine but also, perhaps more helpfully, one between the peace camps on both sides and their rejectionist opponents. Most tend to choose one approach and ignore the other. Given the length and complexity of this conflict, it may be most appropriate for concerned parties to strike a balance between the two, and Karsh's book will help that process.

Colin Shindler is Professor of Israeli Studies at SOAS, University of London. His ‘The Triumph of Military Zionism’ is published by I B Tauris

    Last updated: 3:16pm, February 18 2011