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A few whiskers away from peace

Vernon Bogdanor analyses an analysis of Palestine and Israel since Balfour

    Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak (L), US President Bill Clinton (C), and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat (R) (Photo: STEPHEN JAFFE/AFP/Getty Images)
    Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak (L), US President Bill Clinton (C), and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat (R) (Photo: STEPHEN JAFFE/AFP/Getty Images)

    Ian Black was Jerusalem Correspondent of the Guardian and then its Middle East editor. It is therefore no surprise that Enemies and Neighbours is critical of Israel, but its tone is far from the visceral hostility of the Corbynistas. Black’s standpoint is that of the Israeli left — of the Meretz party and the country’s revisionist historians.

    He tends, as they do, to put a favourable gloss on Arab actions and an unfavourable one on those of Israel. No doubt Zionist writers do the same thing the other way round.

    Perhaps Black underestimates the pressures of Israel’s democratic culture. Democracies often do bad things, and Israel is no exception. But, by contrast with Gaza, a terrorist state, or the Palestinian National Authority, an authoritarian one, a democracy acknowledges and criticises crimes and errors — even if, sometimes, after a time-lapse. But there is no Meretz-equivalent faction in the PLO.

    Israelis and Palestinians came tantalisingly close to an agreement in 2000 at Camp David when Ehud Barak, Israel’s most doveish prime minister, agreed to a Palestinian state encompassing 97 per cent of territory captured in 1967 and divided sovereignty in Jerusalem. Prince Bandar, Saudi Ambassador to the US, said it would be “criminal” to reject it. Clinton begged Yasser Arafat to accept.

    Black blames both sides for the breakdown. Yet, had the PLO sought a settlement, it would have accepted. Instead, it ordered the second intifada.

    Perhaps Arafat, a slippery customer, wanted to accept but was fearful of his extremists; perhaps he was himself an extremist seeking to use the talks to weaken and delegitimise Israel. But, had Arafat accepted, a Palestinian state would now be celebrating 17 years of existence.

    Still, differences of viewpoint should not detract from the merits of Enemies and Neighbours, which provides evidence enabling the reader to argue with its conclusions; and supporters of Israel will benefit from being presented with criticisms of its policies so clearly laid out.

    It may be impossible to write a balanced account of the long and unresolved conflict between Jews and Arabs. Perhaps it is not even desirable. The Irish diplomat and historian, Conor Cruise O’Brien — whose wonderful history of Zionism, The Siege, is unaccountably missing from Black’s otherwise extensive bibliography — sought such a balance when addressing the UN in the 1950s.

    An American newspaperwoman asked how his speech had gone. O’Brien replied that he had been thanked by both his neighbours, the delegate from Iraq, in the era before Saddam Hussein, and the delegate from Israel. “Christ!” the newspaperwoman responded. “Was it as bad as that?”

    “I have often thought of that comment since”, O’Brien reflected, “on reading how the positions of Israel and of the PLO are to be reconciled”.

    Vernon Bogdanor is Professor of Government at King’s College, London.

    Buy it now: Enemies and Neighbours: Arabs and Jews in Palestine and Israel, 1917-2017