Posts Tagged Israel
This post first appeared on the Commentary blog on December 3.
“It’s inevitable that MESA will adopt BDS,” announced Noura Erakat, Palestinian-American “activist,” to the members of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) last week. They had assembled at an open forum to discuss a boycott-Israel resolution scheduled for a vote the next day. “The question is whether MESA will be a catalyst or latecomer…. The importance of MESA adopting this cannot be underestimated.” Her plea was greeted by a round of applause. For a moment, I was tempted to join in myself.
As an Israeli educator, I’m strongly opposed to the academic boycott of Israel, especially by American academic associations. But there’s one exception: MESA, whose conference I attended last week. You see, I’m not a member or a well-wisher of MESA. I’d be perfectly content if it were finally exposed for what it’s mostly become: a pro-Palestine political society whose members just happen to be academics. If MESA were to decide in favor of an academic boycott, I’d have a field day, since I’ve been asserting for many years that MESA isn’t what it claims to be (a “non-political association” according to its bylaws). So I admit it: when MESA plunged into boycott politics before and during its annual conference in Washington, I figured it was a win-win. Boycott defeated? Win for Israel and scholarly freedom. Boycott adopted? Vindication of MESA’s critics, myself included.
You don’t have to take my word for it when it comes to MESA. More than twenty years ago, Edward Said (in Culture and Imperialism) declared MESA liberated territory: “During the 1980s, the formerly conservative Middle East Studies Association underwent an important ideological transformation…. What happened in the Middle East Studies Association therefore was a metropolitan story of cultural opposition to Western domination.” At almost exactly the same time, a MESA president informed the association that “our membership has changed over the years, and possibly half is of Middle Eastern heritage.” I’ll leave it to you to decide whether there might have been some link between the “ideological transformation” of MESA and the shift in the composition of its membership. For my purposes, what counts is that for a good part of MESA’s membership, boycotting Israel is just second nature. It’s practiced as state policy in their countries of origin, and practiced by them informally in their daily lives.
Given this reality, one might ask why MESA didn’t elect to boycott Israel years ago. Proposals were made. But the idea that an academic professional association should be situated outside politics isn’t dead yet, and it’s always had some supporters in MESA, even among some of Israel’s fiercest critics. The more farsighted members also suspect that if MESA were to boycott Israel, it wouldn’t be long before other boycott resolutions would pop up, against Egypt or Iran, Syria or Saudi Arabia. That’s because political grievances in the Middle East don’t end with Israel’s policy toward the Palestinians, and American “complicity” doesn’t end with U.S. support for Israel. Finally, Middle Eastern studies in the United States, at the higher-tier institutions, are addicted to subsidies authorized by Congress. These subsidies are already under heightened scrutiny and budgetary pressures. A boycott decision by MESA could turn into the rationale for Congress to do away with the funding altogether, and would represent a huge gamble with negligible upside.
So in the past, whenever the boycott demand percolated in the ranks, cooler heads prevailed. The problem is that the cooler heads are growing grey and losing authority. MESA’s more numerous militants are less likely to know that there’s any difference between scholarship and advocacy, and they have no clue what a “non-political” learned society does. Government funding has also been cut, so it’s less of a restraint, particularly among those who don’t share in it. And there’s no real need for MESA to be a place for the objective presentation of Israel, since Israel studies long ago moved out to a separate association. (Not surprisingly, nobody in MESA could be found to make the case for Israel in MESA’s open forum on the boycott; an Israel scholar who hadn’t been a MESA member had to be recruited to do the job. He was heckled and personally insulted for his trouble.) There are a few Israelis who study Arab countries and for whom MESA is a professional home, but their number is negligible.
All this has left MESA vulnerable to predatory BDSers, who are constantly on the lookout for openings. In the lead-up to this year’s conference, they targeted MESA with a stealth boycott resolution—stealth, because it doesn’t call openly for a boycott. Instead, it defends the right of members to advocate for a boycott, calls on MESA to sponsor forums to deliberate on a boycott decision, and “deplores” criticism of boycott resolutions by other academic associations as “intimidation.”
While the resolution may appear rather tame, it’s instructive to compare it to a 2005 letter that MESA’s Committee on Academic Freedom issued in response to a British academic boycott of two Israeli universities (Haifa and Bar-Ilan): “We find thoroughly objectionable the call… to refrain from any and all scholarly interaction with the entire professional staff of two universities because of the policies of the state in which they are situated.” How far MESA has fallen! According to this new resolution, not only is such a boycott call no longer “thoroughly objectionable,” but even to criticize it is “deplorable” and an act of “intimidation.” Not only is the resolution intended to shut down criticism of boycotts (as Michael Rubin noted yesterday). It would actually reverse MESA’s past position.
People in the know, from among the cooler heads, have told me that the resolution would be still worse were it not for the heroic behind-the-scenes efforts of MESA’s current president, Nathan Brown, a George Washington University political scientist. He’s said to have steered a compromise: a resolution that the BDSers can cite as progress, but which falls short of endorsing a boycott. I saw him in operation in the “presidential forum” as a prelude to the formal vote. Brown scrupulously avoided taking a position on an academic boycott, but found subtle ways to hint at its possible consequences. MESA, he reminded the audience, is a small organization that relies largely on volunteers; defending a controversial boycott resolution could put huge demands on the secretariat. There might be litigation (read: legal costs). And of course, there’s that matter of funding (translation: Congress could punish us). I’ve heard that some of these same arguments were made by others in the next day’s business meeting where the vote took place. (I’m not a MESA member, so I couldn’t attend.)
It’s not hard to imagine Brown belonging to the cooler (greying) heads. It’s much harder to imagine his strategy (or any strategy) stopping MESA’s march toward some sort of endorsement of the academic boycott. At the business meeting, the resolution passed by a huge margin of 256 to 79—this, despite the fact that several former MESA presidents, known as severe critics of Israel, spoke against it. After the conference, Brown published an article meant to spin the “vote to vote to have discussions.” To read it, you would think that the resolution, now likely to be passed by a MESA-wide referendum, would merely “formalize” an endless BDS debate. “The list of questions such a discussion will entail is long,” he wrote, and “some of us will prefer to argue about these questions rather than answer them.” I actually think the majority of MESAns already have answers, before MESA’s “discussion” even begins. Tellingly, Brown omitted the vote tally for the resolution at the business meeting. If he was so effective behind the curtain, how is it that he found only 79 other cooler heads in all of MESA? The scene is now set for a denouement in a year or so, when the BDSers will propose a full-blown boycott resolution. Who’ll be in Brown’s seat then? MESA president-elect Beth Baron, a historian at CUNY, who over the summer signed a letter personally pledging to boycott Israeli academe.
Since MESA is beginning a discussion about boycotting Israel, it’s time to start a discussion about boycotting MESA. Back in 2007, the writer Hillel Halkin responded to British academic boycott resolutions with a call to shift gears. It is wrong, he said, “to turn the issue into one of the unacceptability of boycotts.… There is, in fact, nothing wrong with boycotts, academic or otherwise, if they’re aimed at the right targets.” Halkin called on supporters of Israel to “fight back” in “a massive and organized fashion—or, to call a spade a spade, by means of a counter-boycott.”
I’m doubtful whether a counter-boycott could be applied to individuals, as Halkin suggested, and not just because there are too many of them. But institutions? Why not? The BDS campaign claims that boycotting Israeli academic institutions is a perfectly legitimate response to their “complicity” in Israel’s oppression of Palestinians. Well, what about MESA’s complicity in promoting rabid hatred of Israel that some believe spills over into Jew-hatred? What about MESA’s complicity in the whitewashing of Hamas? In the spring, BDSers Rashid Khalidi and Judith Butler mobilized signatories to a letter insisting that “boycotts are internationally affirmed and constitutionally protected forms of political expression.” By the simplest logic, that applies equally to counter-boycotts. And why should the same bare-knuckle techniques used by the academic boycotters not be deployed against them in an academic counter-boycott?
How might a counter-boycott of MESA operate? Here are some preliminary ideas:
- Individual members could be encouraged and persuaded to resign their membership in MESA. One of the most poignant moments in the MESA public forum on the boycott was provided by Norman Stillman, a historian at the University of Oklahoma and a renowned expert on the Jews of Arab lands. He said that he’d been a member of MESA from its inception, and he’d attended its annual conferences religiously since 1972. But if MESA passed a boycott resolution, he would leave it. Stillman, it might be added, is already on the board of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA), a seven-year-old rival to MESA which is growing steadily. A campaign to encourage disgruntled MESAns to resign and join ASMEA, combined with an expansion of ASMEA’s own activities, would be the simplest measure of all.
- MESA publishes two journals. Faculty members on promotion and tenure committees could be urged to challenge the academic standing of all articles touching on Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict published in these journals, with the aim of categorizing them as non-academic.
- MESA’s secretariat and its website are hosted by the University of Arizona in Tucson, and employees’ salaries go through the university. A political organization that boycotts Israel has no place on a university campus, and should be exiled to an office park. Pressure on the University of Arizona administration, from within and without, to terminate the university’s hosting of MESA would be an obvious measure in any counter-boycott.
- MESA has institutional members, most of them American universities represented by their Middle East centers. No self-respecting university should allow its name to appear as an institutional member of a political organization, a point that could be driven home by students, faculty, donors, and board members. (I would look to the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis to claim the honor of being the first to quit.)
- Many MESA institutional members are National Resource Centers, funded by U.S. taxpayers through Title VI of the Higher Education Act. Some center directors are already personally pledged to implement an academic boycott. If MESA now mandates the same, it’s time for Congress to investigate whether an academic boycott is already underway, formally or otherwise, in Middle East centers that receive federal funds and belong to MESA. Now that the Higher Education Act is up for reauthorization, BDS-committed center directors could be summoned to testify before the relevant subcommittee of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. (A subcommittee took testimony on Title VI during a previous reauthorization in 2003.)
Notice that these possible counter-boycott measures aren’t directed against individuals. Just as the boycott is (supposedly) directed only at Israeli institutions, so the counter-boycott would be directed only against MESA, its institutional projects, and its institutional affiliates.
Of course, I don’t advocate any of these measures yet, because MESA hasn’t passed a boycott resolution yet. But now’s the appropriate time to discuss them, in parallel with the discussion in MESA. Personally, though, I’ve already made my choice. I won’t ever join MESA, for reasons I’ve already explained. I attended this year’s conference as a non-member after a hiatus of sixteen years, and I think that’s about the right frequency. Yes, there are interesting panels at MESA—in between the rallies for Israel-haters and boycott-Israel agitation. On balance, MESA does more harm than good to the stature of Middle Eastern studies in America. That’ll be obvious after the MESAns pass their boycott resolution—and that’s why, in my heart of hearts, I eagerly await it.
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“In thirty minutes, at high noon, more than 200 civilians are killed. Zionism carries out a massacre in the city of Lydda.” That lapel-grabber, from Ari Shavit’s bestselling My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, is the departure point for my essay at Mosaic Magazine, “What Happened at Lydda.”
I won’t summarize the piece, which will run at the top of the magazine site for the month of July. When I first read Shavit’s account, I thought it sounded forced, and so I searched for other interviews with the same people he spoke to twenty years ago, when he collected his material. (Most of the subjects are dead.) A fairly quick search yielded results: I found a trove of additional interviews in public archives. On their foundation it’s possible to construct an entirely different story: not of a vengeful massacre by “Zionism,” but of collateral damage in a city turned into a battlefield.
Sound familiar from the recent history of Israel? It should. This is a story that repeats itself every few years. I don’t know exactly what happened in Lydda on July 12, 1948, because the testimony is contradictory. But Shavit has vouched for the accuracy of his work down to the last fact and detail. Read the essay and see whether I’ve planted a seed of doubt.
Some will say that Shavit’s book, on balance, is good for Israel, and so should be entitled to an exemption from this sort of criticism. The confession of sin married to expressions of love for Israel may be what many American Jews need just now, and I make no judgment about the book as a whole. But the same argument for silence was made when American Jews needed to believe that Israel could do no wrong. And while confession is good for the soul, confessing the supposed sins of others—in this case, the Palmah officers and soldiers of the Yiftah brigade who conquered Lydda—must be done judiciously. After all, most of them can no longer speak.
My motive hasn’t been to protect Israel’s honor against the charge of massacre. There are some well-documented instances from 1948. It’s just that Lydda isn’t one of them. From a narrative point of view, it’s appealing to combine the stories of the largest expulsion and the largest massacre. But that’s a little too tidy, and when the past appears tidy, it deserves another look.
As a historian, I know something about the rules, but as I admit in the article, I’m not a historian of 1948 (or even of Israel). My expertise is the rest of the Middle East. That’s why I placed the essay at Mosaic Magazine, which solicits responses by experts. I’m eager to ignite a debate among people who have made this era their lives’ work (and, of course, Shavit too). There’s also a comments feature, for anyone who might have an interesting insight. I urge you to read my opening move, and I’ll be posting more pointers as appropriate.
And as a bonus for getting this far in this post, here are links to some remarkable photographs of Lydda at the time of its capture, taken by Boris Karmi (1914-2002).
• Mula Cohen (1923-2002), commander of the Yiftah brigade. Shavit portrays him a sad figure, but he looks like he’s on top of the world here.
• A portrait of a smiling Israeli soldier against the backdrop of the “small mosque,” epicenter of the alleged massacre.
• Yiftah brigade soldiers take a break in Lydda.
This post first appeared as an article for Commentary on March 26.
Today, March 26, marks the 35th anniversary of the signing of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, most famously evoked by the three-way handshake on the White House lawn that changed the Middle East. Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian president Anwar Sadat put war behind Israel and Egypt, and in so doing, ended the Israeli-Arab conflict. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues, and so too does the Israeli-Iranian struggle. But Israeli-Egyptian peace put an end to the destructive battlefield wars between Israel and Arab states, of the kind that erupted in 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973. Since the famous handshake among Begin, Sadat, and Jimmy Carter, there has been no destructive battlefield war between Israel and a conventional Arab army. And Egypt and Israel now have been at peace longer than they were at war.
It has often been said of Begin and Sadat that the two men were like oil and water. “The two men were totally incompatible,” recalled Jimmy Carter, describing the Camp David negotiations that produced the treaty. “There was intense perturbation between them, shouting, banging on the tables, stalking out of the rooms. So for the next seven days, they never saw each other. And so we negotiated with them isolated from one another.”
Yet in a briefing paper prepared for the U.S. team prior to the Camp David, these sentences appear: “Both Begin and Sadat have evidenced similar personal and national objectives throughout their familiar transformation from underground fighter to political leader. Despite their often vituperative comments, each should be able to recognize the other as a politician basically capable of change, compromise, and commitment.” The idea that the similarities between Begin and Sadat made peace possible has been scanted in that interpretation of the negotiations that features Jimmy Carter as hero.
This is no surprise. No two leaders could have seemed more different, and it is almost too easy to enumerate the contrasts. For starters, Anwar Sadat came from a poor village in the Nile Delta, a place of almost immemorial permanence. Begin came from the crumbling world of East European Jewry, later erased from the earth. Sadat was an Axis sympathizer during the Second World War. Begin’s parents and brother were murdered by the Nazis. Sadat made a career of the military, and even died in a military uniform. Begin was a civilian through and through. Americans found Sadat to be alluring and easy-going, a gregarious man in a leisure suit. They regarded Begin as rigid and ideological; one American official remarked that, even at Camp David, Begin was always dressed “as though he were about to go to a funeral.” Sadat was an authoritarian dictator who sent his opponents to prison. Begin was a classic liberal with a firm commitment to democracy and the law. Etcetera.
But the similarities between the two are just as striking—perhaps even more so—and it may be precisely the personal parallels that brought them together at the crucial moment, and made the achievement of peace possible.
One obvious similarity is the one to which the U.S. briefing paper alluded, in describing both as “underground fighters.” In fact, both entered politics through the back door, as conspirators who planned political violence and who were steeled by long stints in political prison.
Sadat, as a young revolutionary, immersed himself in conspiratorial plots, both against the British (who then controlled Egypt), as well as against Egyptian leaders he regarded as collaborators. As a result, he found himself in and out of prison. In 1945, the 27-year-old Sadat and his friends decided to assassinate the on-and-off prime minister of Egypt, Nahhas Pasha. Here is Sadat describing the decision to kill him:
When we were schoolboys we had gone out twice a day to have a look at Nahhas, cheering and applauding as he rode down to work and back. He had been a mythical hero—a peerless symbol of patriotism, self-sacrifice, and devotion. But then he lost everything and we came to regard him as a traitor. His disloyalty to Egypt and her people made his removal a national duty. We therefore decided to get rid of him.
The group staked out Nahhas’s motorcade; one of the members threw a grenade, but luckily for Nahhas, it missed his car. The group was quite disappointed; eager to assassinate someone, they decided to kill the former finance minister, Amin Osman Pasha. This succeeded, and while Sadat was not the triggerman, he was tried as part of the conspiracy and was acquitted only after a lengthy trial.
During eighteen months in the isolation of Cell 54, Sadat experienced his political epiphany. But what did he say about the deed that put him there? “The assassination of Amin Osman achieved its objective,” he wrote. “We had managed to mar the image of effective colonialism, with unprecedented decisiveness, in the eyes of the people.”
Menachem Begin had the more famous “underground” career. He was first sent off to prison during the Second World War by the Soviet secret police, the NKVD—an eight-month travail he recounted in his memoir White Nights. By then, he too had been initiated into a life of clandestine conspiracy—methods of operation he would bring with him to Palestine in the last days of the British mandate. There, at the age of 31, he would rise to leadership of an underground organization, the Irgun, which would be responsible for the 1946 bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, which killed 91 persons. (Begin would always claim that a telephone call had been placed to warn that the bombs had been planted.) In 1947, Begin ordered the retaliatory hanging of two kidnapped British sergeants. It was, he said, “the most difficult decision of my life,” and an act of “cruel revenge.” Begin managed to stay underground throughout this campaign, pursued by the British who never caught up with him.
Clandestine nationalist “underground” activity, involving violence against the British Empire and its collaborators, represented a clear parallel in the careers of Sadat and Begin. So, too, was their eclipse during their middle years, as the British Empire retreated from the Middle East and Egypt and Israel gained full independence. Both men spent many years on the political margins, overshadowed by charismatic leaders who had a stronger grip on the imaginations of their peoples.
Sadat was a member of the Free Officers conspiracy in 1952, and was part of the cabal of young officers who overthrew the monarchy. But after Nasser emerged decisively as the leader, Sadat came to be regarded as the most colorless man in the ruling clique. He was socially conservative, rather more religious than his colleagues, and seemingly a bit less sophisticated because of his rural origins. He spent eighteen years in the looming shadow of Nasser, and became his number two only in the year before Nasser’s death. No one could have guessed, during Nasser’s long-running high-wire act, that Sadat would succeed him. (Sadat’s deferential posture may have spared him being purged by Nasser, who never considered him a threat.) When Sadat became president, he was 52 years old—the same age as Nasser on his death.
Begin languished even longer on the margins. The Zionist revolution was credited to David Ben-Gurion, the man associated most directly with Israel’s war of independence and institution-building. The Revisionists led by Begin would always claim to have played a crucial role in Israel’s struggle for independence, by their acts of resistance—some would call them terror—against the British and the Arabs. But this was a disputed narrative—one put forward by Begin in his book The Revolt—and one that left the great majority of Israelis unmoved. The evidence for this was the performance of Begin’s political party in Israeli elections. Begin was a perpetual denizen of the opposition benches in the Israeli parliament. In a political landscape dominated by the Labor Party, he spent decade after decade delivering speeches and doing little else.
His opening only came after the 1973 war, launched by Sadat, which finally precipitated a crisis of confidence in the Labor Party leadership, and opened the door for Begin. (Here was a paradox: it was an decision of Sadat that cleared the way for Begin.) When Begin became prime minister in 1977, after leading his own party to defeat in eight election cycles, the world was astonished. He was 64 years old when he assumed the premiership.
Sadat and Begin thus spent decades in the shadow of men who effectively issued the declarations of independence of their countries. (Ben-Gurion actually declared Israel’s independence in 1948, and Nasser effectively declared Egypt’s independence by nationalizing the Suez Canal in 1956.) But neither of these giants had managed to bring peace to their peoples. Nasser drove Egypt to defeat in 1967, while Ben-Gurion, despite leading Israel to victories in 1948 and 1956, had been unable to translate military prowess into peace, and this was true of his Labor Party successors as well. They left unfinished legacies, which provided the openings for Sadat and Begin.
Who Dwell Alone
Begin and Sadat also shared a strongly pro-Western, anti-Soviet orientation. Begin had been thrown in prison by the Soviets, and although it was the struggle against the Nazis that formed him, his animosity toward the Soviet Union, while less in degree, was similar in kind. A champion of Jewish peoplehood first and foremost, he saw the Soviet Union as an oppressive regime of antisemitic evil—in contrast to many on the Israeli left at the time, who remembered the Soviet Union as the great ally of the Second World War, and who persisted in admiring its (supposedly) socialist values.
This aversion to the Soviets also held true of Sadat. During Nasser’s years, Egypt aligned itself squarely with the Soviet Union, which became Egypt’s major arms supplier, financier of the Aswan dam, and principal source of diplomatic backing. But Sadat never trusted the Soviets. He was certain they represented another form of colonialism, and that their policies were meant to keep Egypt subservient. He came to power as president in 1970, and already by 1972 he had expelled thousands of Soviet advisers, whom he regarded as agents of a foreign empire, no different than the British of an earlier era. It would be his desire to align Egypt with the West—and particularly the United States—which would set the stage for his decision to visit Jerusalem.
Both men also relied heavily on the technique of the strategic surprise. Sadat had attempted, through his first few years in power, to achieve the return of the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt through back-channel diplomacy. He ultimately concluded that what had been taken by force could only be restored by force. That led him to the bold decision to launch war against Israel in October 1973, in cooperation with Syria. His war goals were limited: to compel Israel to come to the table and force the United States to take Egypt seriously as its potential Arab partner. The war produced just enough military success to be portrayed to the Egyptian people as a victory, so that Sadat could claim to have achieved the battlefield triumph that had eluded Nasser. But to translate his (limited) military achievement into something more, there had to be a political move of comparable audacity. This would come in the form of his surprise decision to violate all the norms of Arab political conduct, and pay a visit to Israel where he appeared in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, and made a famous speech of reconciliation.
Begin also was given to the audacious act. Three of them marked his premiership. First, there was the decision to withdraw from all of Sinai, involving the demolition of Yamit, a large Jewish settlement there. It was the first time Israel had ever dismantled a settlement, and it came as a shock, especially to his admirers. Second, there was his decision in 1981 to bomb Iraq’s nuclear reactor—a complete surprise to the world, driven by an inner conviction that he was acting to save Israel. This was followed by his decision to invade Lebanon—a move intended by Begin to complement the peace with Egypt, in remaking Israel’s strategic environment. (If it did so, it was for the worse.) Begin, like Sadat, could also surprise both friends and adversaries with bold moves.
Both men were also driven by an almost isolationist nationalism. Nasser had placed Egypt squarely in the Arab circle: Egypt was to lead the Arab world, and the Egyptians were first and foremost Arabs. In 1958, he even briefly subsumed Egypt in something called the United Arab Republic, which joined Egypt and Syria in a single polity. Sadat, in contrast, extricated Egypt from its Arab commitments. He regarded it as a civilization unto itself, so weighty that it could stand aloof and alone. Yes, it would engage in alliances and relationships with other Arab states, but Sadat was determined to put Egypt first, even if that meant that other Arabs might shun it.
Begin proceeded from a similar set of assumptions. The Jews were alone in the world, they were a people unto themselves, and they had been repudiated by East and West, even in those lands where they had been first emancipated. Begin did not regard this as tragedy, but as destiny. The Jews were destined to dwell alone, and he accepted the fact with equanimity. Here too there would be alliances and relationships, but Israel did not belong to any larger club, and ultimately it could rely only upon itself. This set the stage for the bilateral agreement between two leaders seeking to isolate their peoples from the threats around them. (It also meant that the peace itself, as much as it was intended to reconcile Egypt and Israel, was also bound to isolate them from one another.)
The two men also had a shared concept of the territorial limits of peoplehood. For Sadat, Egyptian territory was sacred, and the Sinai Peninsula was part of Egyptian territory. The commitment to the Palestinians, in contrast, was vague—diminished, in no small measure, by Egypt’s overall withdrawal from the Arab world. For Begin, the West Bank was sacred—not occupied territory, but Judea and Samaria, Israel’s patrimony. Yet the Sinai was foreign land. Had Begin been driven only by security considerations, he might have resisted withdrawal from the valuable strategic buffer represented by the Sinai. (Some of his advisers thought he should.) But his precise sense of where the Jewish homeland began and ended made possible an agreement based on a total Israeli withdrawal from Sinai.
Triumph and Tragedy
The saga of Camp David and the Israeli-Egyptian peace has been told many times (and, currently, in a play running at Arena Stage in Washington). That Jimmy Carter faced a formidable challenge in bringing Sadat and Begin to an agreement is indisputable. Begin himself, in remarks that immediately followed negotiations, said that the Camp David conference “should be renamed the Jimmy Carter conference.”
But the parallels in the lives of Sadat and Begin may have worked, in ways subtle but strong, in favor of an agreement. Here were two men forged by prison and violence into believers in their own destiny, but who had been written off politically for decades. By the time they came to power, they were in a hurry to achieve something that would transcend the legacies of their celebrated predecessors. Here were two men who believed that their peoples were fated to struggle alone, but who were prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to cement relations with the United States, in the interests of their peoples but also in order to shut the Soviet Union out of the Middle East. Here were two men who did not shy from the bold gamble, and who actually saw a greater risk in inaction. And above all, here were two men possessed not only by a strong sense of peoplehood, but of its geography, which they conceived in ways that left no overlapping territorial claims.
There is one more parallel. Both men finished their lives tragically. Sadat was assassinated in 1981 on the reviewing stand during the annual celebration of Egypt’s October 6, 1973 military offensive. While world leaders attended his funeral, the Egyptian crowds stayed home and so too did Arab leaders. He died in splendid (personal) isolation, mirroring that which he brought upon Egypt. Begin also died in isolation—one he had imposed on himself after he resigned the premiership in 1983, in the wake of the Lebanon war. In the decade between his resignation and his death, in 1992, he went into seclusion. He was buried, as he wished to be, not among Israel’s leaders on Mount Herzl, but on the Mount of Olives, and not in a state funeral, but in a simple Jewish ceremony.
For many Egyptians, Sadat’s achievement in war was tainted by an ill-conceived peace. For many Israelis, Begin’s achievement in peace was tainted by an ill-conceived war. The two men who, with Jimmy Carter, shared the world’s stage on March 26, 1979, to thundering accolades, departed this earth to mixed reviews.
But the peace treaty signed 35 years ago today has turned out to be the most durable feature of the Middle Eastern landscape, and the bedrock on which the stability of the region rests. Two “incompatible” men forged it—perhaps because, ultimately, they were so much alike.
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This article first appeared at Mosaic Magazine on January 20, as part of a discussion of Israeli strategy.
Ofir Haivry has given a historically well-versed account of the evolution of Zionist and Israeli grand strategy, from Herzl to the present. He also makes a trenchant case that Israel has strayed from the “activist” precedent set by David Ben-Gurion in the early years of the state.
There was always something romantic about the “activist” doings of Israel—forging ties as far afield as Ethiopia and Iran, dabbling in the secessionist causes of the Kurds of Iraq and the blacks of southern Sudan. And, of course, there was the longest and most cherished play of all: the cultivation of ties with the Maronites of Lebanon. Ah, that view from the heights above Beirut. . . .
But as romantic as it all may seem in retrospect, this “activism” failed to achieve its primary end, which was to keep Arab states so preoccupied with other problems that they would avoid war with Israel. In each decade, Israel ended up fighting wars with Arab states: 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973. Each war had its own dynamic, but together they combined to create the firm impression in the world that the Arab-Israeli conflict was indeed the “Middle East conflict,” the source of all the region’s problems. Israel’s support for the southern Sudanese and Ethiopia didn’t restrain Egypt, its support for the Kurds didn’t deter Iraq, and its backing of the Maronites didn’t stop the PLO from carving out a mini-state in Lebanon. Relationships with Turkey and Iran did nothing to cause Arab states to think twice.
The problem was that Israel’s would-be friends among the region’s minorities were too weak, which was precisely why they sought Israeli support in the first place. Israel’s sub rosa allies, the monarchies of Ethiopia and Iran, were also weak at their cores, and both would be toppled by revolutions, in 1974 and 1979 respectively. Attempts to rekindle these ties never translated into meaningful strategic gains, and one of them, Israel’s mediation in the Iran-Contra affair, totally backfired.
The only way to break the cycle of wars with the Arabs was to get Egypt out of it. Egypt, too, had engaged in an “activist” policy following the 1952 revolution. In his Philosophy of the Revolution (1955), Gamal Abdel Nasser placed Egypt in three “circles”: Arab, African, and Islamic. Egypt began meddling in all of them, thinking this would inflate its importance as a regional power. Instead, this ceaseless “activism” turned into a burden, culminating in Egypt’s disastrous military intervention in a civil war in Yemen, which may have set the stage for Nasser’s humiliating defeat in 1967. Pan-Arabism was the Arab version of “activism,” and it, too, failed. When Anwar Sadat also sought an exit from the cycle of wars with Israel, his first move was to jettison it altogether.
It was the dual failure of Israeli and Egyptian “activism” to end costly wars that drove both countries to abandon it in favor of a direct deal for peace. The contribution of this peace to Israel’s security has been indisputable. Israel hasn’t fought a full state-to-state war since 1973. The costs of small wars, from Lebanon to the intifadas and Gaza, have never approximated those of waging a war with an Arab state—or worse, a coalition of them. No wonder Israel has preferred the stability of Egypt, although it has no way to promote it, and can only pray for it.
The drawback of the old “activism” was that it committed Israel to weak parties who didn’t bring enough heft to the relationships. The list presented by Haivry in arguing for a new “activism” today isn’t much more promising. There is no reason to be in the morass of southern Sudan, for instance, if there is no threat from Egypt, and even then it would be a very weak card. The same is true of the North African Berbers, also of little use to Israel absent a threat from Egypt. The Christians scattered across the Fertile Crescent are vulnerable, and they are emigrating whenever they can. The Druze everywhere sway with the wind, as they must do in order to survive, and they saw enough of Israel in Lebanon to know that they would be foolish to rely on it.
The Kurds, a big item on Haivry’s list, are much more interesting than they were way back when Israel cultivated them against Saddam. If they don’t overplay their hand, they may even acquire some trappings of sovereignty. But Israel will never be more than a bit player there, given that the Kurds are landlocked and Turkey has resolved to play the dominant role. Then there are the Alawites, who, if they did retreat to a coastal enclave in northern Syria–far from certain– would do so in defeat, and would need more than they could give. (Russia would remain their patron.)
As for the Azeris and other ethnic groups in Iran, despite decades of Western efforts to entice them to break off, they remain in a fixed orbit around the Iranian state. (Azerbaijan itself is a better play, although its significance is more economic than strategic.) Ethiopia, again, is valuable only if Israel faces a hostile Egypt, which it doesn’t. Lately, Israel has reached out to Greece and Cyprus, to tweak Turkey. But these are the basket cases of the European Union—better than nothing, but far inferior to any future reconciliation with a post-Erdogan Turkey.
This may be as good as it gets, and the Mossad could be kept busy collecting little bits and pieces of the shattered mosaic. But let’s not rule out alternatives to an alliance of weaklings.
One is some kind of cooperation with the Arab oil states, which are economically powerful but militarily exposed, and which are worried (perhaps excessively so) that the United States might sacrifice them to a reconciliation with Iran. No, they are not “natural” allies of Israel, and in the Saudi case, they are as distasteful to Israelis as Israelis are to them. But here, too, there are significant differences. The statelets that line the Gulf may funnel money to Islamists in Syria and elsewhere, but at home they are comparatively tolerant, to the point of allowing Arabs and Muslims to fall into the minority through the importation of foreign workers.
The emirs who build extensions of the Guggenheim and the Louvre, open branches of American universities, and put their resources not into weapons but skyscrapers, are more than just “Sunni authoritarians,” in Haivry’s phrase. These small states represent the most functional part of the Arab expanse (remember, it’s all relative), they’re not totally benighted, and they have strengths to offset their weaknesses. If Iran’s power grows, and confidence in the United States diminishes, these micro-states will do what it takes to survive, perhaps opening opportunities for Israel.
They are also in league with Egypt and Jordan, which remain bound to Israel by treaties that have stood many tests. The behind-the-scenes cooperation between Israel and the military in Cairo and the monarchy in Amman remains far-reaching. Those observers who, only a few years ago, wrote off the generals and the royals as vestiges of the past have a lot of explaining to do. Just as important, the ruling elites in both countries have shown grit in the face of challenges, and they can deliver on security when it is in their interest to do so. The simple geographic fact is that they are the custodians of Israel’s two longest borders, and no amount of romantic adventure in distant corners can substitute for solid relationships with immediate neighbors.
It would be splendid if all these considerations could be cast aside in favor of building, as Haivry writes, a league of “forces in the Middle East seeking self-determination, democracy, and liberty.” The problem is that these forces don’t have much force, and their commitment to the lofty principles that underpin Western modernity is far from unequivocal. In any case, the prevention of war is just as moral a pursuit as the promotion of democracy, especially where prospects for the former far outweigh the unlikely success of the latter. Even the United States, the greatest champion of liberty in human history, has been humbled by its failure to spread its values in the Middle East. Fortunately, Israel has shown that it can maintain liberty even in a region that is unfree. It can afford to wait until the peoples surrounding it transform themselves, however long it takes.
Israel has also shown that it can flourish even in the absence of a Palestinian state. In Israel, the question of whether the status quo on this front is sustainable is a subject of political disagreement, but it doesn’t break down along the lines of support for “activism” versus “stability.” For example, one might get the impression from Haivry that Amos Yadlin, the former chief of military intelligence, is a potential “activist” who sees opportunities everywhere except in the Palestinian track. In fact, he so supports a Palestinian state that he would have Israel thrust it upon the Palestinians even if they don’t want it—as a way to stabilize Israel.
Yes, there are some who believe that Israel, like Arab regimes, is also losing legitimacy (through its own actions or hostile “delegitimation”), and so must be saved by an alternative “activism” personified by John Kerry, who presents Mahmoud Abbas, the old-guard head of the Palestinian Authority, as a new “opportunity.” The problem with Abbas is that he is just another one of the weaklings, reliance upon whom is more likely to drain Israeli power than enhance it.
Which brings us to the ‘special relationship’ with the United States. It is absolutely true that the United States is retrenching (the result of its own deep disillusionment with the “activism” of George Bush’s “forward strategy for democracy”). Elsewhere I have argued that Israel needs to think about a “Plan B” for a post-American Middle East. But I must also admit that no one, myself included, has one. I recently chaired a panel of Israel’s most astute strategic thinkers, from the full range of the political spectrum, but when I asked them what could be done to offset American retrenchment, their answers were identical: there is no alternative. If India is indeed a “principal candidate,” as Haivry suggests, it will be a long time before any outside power fills the vacuum, so Israel will have to find ways to do so itself.
In particular, it will have to make sure that Iran doesn’t fill that vacuum. To some, Israel’s preoccupation with Iran may seem excessive and obsessive. I myself think it can be best apprehended by viewing this single image. Look at it carefully. Today, no regional power is capable of making this nightmare scenario come true. If Iran emerges with such a capability, Israel’s entire grand strategy will have to be revamped to embrace a very different kind of “activism,” well beyond drinking coffee with Kurds and Druze.
The possible parameters of such a posture deserve fuller treatment, but it would be better not to have to go there at all. That is why Iran must remain at the top of the agenda, and that is why Israel mustn’t be distracted by Arab springs, Islamist winters, and various photogenic “awakenings.” It must keep its eye on this ball, lest the ball become a fireball. No ramshackle structure of “partnerships” will matter if the image above becomes not just thinkable, but feasible.
The strength of Zionism and Israel has been their adaptive character, and particularly their ability to identify extraneous sources of power and to draw upon them to build independent Jewish power. Our heirs in the decades to come will judge us by whether, in these times of relative security, we prepared Israel for more troubled days. There can be no substitute for independent power, in the absence of which our fate would be comparable to that of Kurds, Christians, and Druze. By all means, let us seek new friends. But let us not forget that we must prepare ourselves to survive as a people that dwells alone.
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Dear Fellow Members of the American Studies Association (ASA),
We are pleased to report our progress toward our next boycott resolution. As you know, our president, Professor Curtis Marez, gained some notoriety from a quote given by him to the New York Times. He had been asked why, given the widespread abuse of human rights around the world and especially in the Middle East, the ASA had chosen to boycott only Israeli universities. His answer: “One has to start somewhere.”
This prompted questions as to where we would go next. So we took our lead from a statement by Professor Marez: “We are targeting Israeli universities because they work closely with the government and military in developing weapons and other technology that are used to enforce the occupation and colonization of Palestinian land.” In that spirit, we have decided that our next boycott should be leveled against additional universities that collaborate with their governments and militaries in developing weapons and other technology used to violate human rights around the world. And since we are the American Studies Association, we have decided to focus our quest in these United States, where perhaps, right under our noses, universities are falling short of our own new standards of academic virtue.
Our attention has been drawn to the University of California at San Diego—where, so it happens, Professor Marez chairs the department of ethnic studies. We begin with a basic data point, taken from a 2012 press release by the UCSD News Center under the headline: “UC San Diego Maintains Strong Ties With Department of Defense.” The item notes that UCSD (itself situated on a former marine base) “has maintained a strong connection with defense initiatives for the military and U.S. government over the past five decades…. During this fiscal year alone, the Department of Defense has granted more than $60 million to support various basic and applied research studies at UC San Diego.” To this must be added grants from defense contractors, who are thick on the ground in San Diego.
After an intensive internet search, we have discovered where some of this funding is going. The 2012 news item, quoted above, mentioned that the most recent DoD grant, for $7 million, went to a team of physicists, biologists, chemists, bioengineers, and psychologists, “to investigate the dynamic principles of collective brain activity.” Nothing could sound more sinister. (Although our critics, pointing to our earlier boycott resolution, have claimed that “collective brain activity” does not have much potential.) Social scientists are also doing their share. For example, there is the political scientist doing a DoD-funded project on “cross domain deterrence,” in collaboration with the Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos National Laboratories. (E.g., you threaten a student with a failing grade, and they threaten back with harassment charges.) And there is the economist, funded by DoD and Homeland Security, asking “Can Hearts and Minds be Bought? The Economics of Counterinsurgency in Iraq.” (In a word: yes, but every academic dean knows that anyway.)
However, there are projects far more ominous than “collective brain activity,” such as weapons systems, and particularly drone warfare. San Diego is the nation’s biggest center of military drone production, with the massive presence of General Atomics and Northrop Grumman, the two leaders in the field. General Atomics makes the Predator and the Reaper, Northrop Grumman makes the Golden Hawk and the Hunter. We remind our members that in the fall, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch issued reports on civilian casualties in U.S. drone strikes in North Waziristan (Pakistan) and Yemen, respectively. Both reports are replete with disturbing case studies. Amnesty expressed “serious concerns that the USA has unlawfully killed people in drone strikes, and that such killings may amount in some cases to extrajudicial executions or war crimes and other violations of international humanitarian law.” Human Rights Watch concluded that “US statements and actions indicate that US forces are applying an overly broad definition of ‘combatant’ in targeted attacks… These killings may amount to an extrajudicial execution.” We have already received direct calls from Waziri and Yemeni civil society organizations, demanding our action. (We discount the one that began: “Oh, ye unbelievers of the ASA…”)
Just how much contract research on drones is done by UCSD? In July 2012, MuckRock News made a request under the California Public Records Act (the California equivalent of the Freedom of Information Act), asking to see “all contracts between UCSD and government agencies or private corporations for services relating to aerial drones, UAs, UAVs and UASs (‘drones’).” A year and a half later, UCSD has yet to produce any contracts, claiming that it is backlogged with other requests.
Nevertheless, your association has managed to uncover some specific instances. In 2006, the university’s Structural Engineering Department did a project to boost the payload of the Hunter. According to Northrop Grumman, the project helped to “add additional communications, intelligence and weapon payloads to the Hunter, expanding the capabilities of the fighter.” (Here is a photo of the Hunter on campus.) UCSD has also had a partnership with the Los Alamos National Laboratory, in which students worked on “damage detection for composite wings of the Predator UAV.” Interest in this subject continues, and two Predator wings were recently installed at the university for testing. (Here is a photo of two students posing with the wings.)
We intend to keep digging, but we believe this is enough to justify action. Remember the words of Professor Marez: “We are targeting Israeli universities because they work closely with the government and military in developing weapons and other technology that are used to enforce the occupation and colonization of Palestinian land.” Given that UCSD works closely with the U.S. government and military in developing weapons and other technology employed by the United States (including the CIA) to perpetrate extrajudicial executions and other violations of international humanitarian law, UCSD is obviously a candidate for boycott by the ASA. Our standards, to be compelling, should be consistent.
We have also been apprised of the following, by the Students for Justice in Palestine at UCSD: “UC San Diego is built upon indigenous Kumeyaay land just as Israel is built upon indigenous Palestinian land.” This being so, there are even further grounds for implementing a boycott, as UCSD stands on occupied Kumeyaay territory. Even the chancellor’s residence sits in the midst of a Kumeyaay cemetery. We know the analogy is not perfect: if you drop a shovel in indigenous Palestinian land, you might still strike an ancient Jewish grave. Nevertheless, we believe the parallels are compelling, and that this is further reason to boycott UCSD.
We are certain no difficulty would be caused to Professor Marez were his university to be boycotted. This would only preclude “formal collaboration” with his institution, so he could continue to participate in our annual conferences. And we are certain the pressure on him would lead him to stand firm in the faculty lounge and confront his scientific colleagues, and above all the chancellor of UCSD. The chancellor himself is a computer engineer who spent years working at the Department of Defense (at DARPA, its basic research branch), and later served as an adviser to DARPA on unmanned combat air systems. But we are sure our boycott, and the persuasiveness of Professor Marez, would lead the chancellor to reverse the university’s immoral course.
An ASA boycott of the University of California at San Diego would be a bold act, demonstrating our adherence to consistent principle and our solidarity with the peoples of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen, who live in constant fear of deadly U.S. drone attacks. In protesting these U.S. government violations of international humanitarian law, we have to start somewhere. Fellow members: let us make clear, in no uncertain terms, that we do have the courage to speak truth to power, even if it means sawing off the limb on which we sit!
•This parody first appeared on the Commentary blog on January 7.
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— Michael Koplow (@mkoplow) January 9, 2014