The Voices of War

101. Professor Rashid Khalidi - Understanding The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: An Exploration Of Root Causes And Geopolitical Dynamics

VOW 101 | Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

 

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In today’s episode, I am honoured to host Professor Rashid Khalidi, a distinguished scholar and the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University. Known for his profound insights into Middle Eastern politics, Professor Khalidi is also the author of the ground-breaking book ‘100 Years’ War on Palestine: A History of Settler Colonialism and Resistance, 1917–2017’. He joined me to discuss the intricate dynamics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the geopolitics of the Middle East, and the role of international actors in shaping the region. Given the ongoing escalation of violence in Israel and across the Occupied Territories, the importance of nuance cannot be understated.

 

Some of the topics we covered include:

  • Historical Roots of Zionism: Understand the pivotal roles played by Britain and the United States in the creation of Israel and support of Zionism.
  • Israeli Settlement Expansion: Explore the controversial policies surrounding Israeli settlement expansion and their impact on the region.
  • Life Under Occupation: Gain insights into the daily struggles faced by Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.
  • Western Hypocrisy in International Politics: Examine the dichotomy between interests and values, and how Western nations often display hypocrisy in their international political stances.
  • Religious Influence in Israeli Politics: Delve into the role of religious ideologies in shaping Israeli political policies.
  • De Facto Annexation of Palestinian Territories: Learn about the unofficial yet impactful annexation of Palestinian lands by Israel.
  • Challenges in Palestinian Diplomacy: Understand the hurdles faced by Palestinian leadership in their diplomatic efforts.
  • Global Geopolitics and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Explore how the conflict fits into broader geopolitical trends and alliances.
  • The ‘Shared Values’ Argument Between the U.S. and Israel: Examine the evolving narrative of ‘shared values’ and its implications for U.S.-Israel relations.
  • Potential for Change in Israeli-Palestinian Relations: Discuss the possibilities for meaningful change in the conflict, particularly in the context of shifting global public opinion.

 

Don’t miss this enlightening episode that offers a comprehensive and nuanced understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Middle Eastern geopolitics, and the role of international actors.

 

Resources:

 

Finally, don’t forget to subscribe, rate, and share The Voices of War to help us continue exploring the complex narratives of war. To comment or take the conversation further, please connect to us here:

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Professor Rashid Khalidi – Understanding The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: An Exploration Of Root Causes And Geopolitical Dynamics

In light of the surge of violence in Israel in the occupied Palestinian territories, it’s crucial to provide some context for this episode, I sat down with Professor Rashid Khalidi on the 29th of October, 2023, a week before the latest harrowing escalation. This episode is not designed to pass judgment on any individual actors but to illuminate the underlying motivations and root causes behind the ongoing human tragedy we are witnessing.

The events unfolding at the moment are deeply rooted in a conflict that spans more than a century. While my conversation with Professor Khalidi undoubtedly carries its biases, it aims to inject nuance into a narrative often simplified into a binary of right and wrong by mainstream media. Therefore, I invite you to read with an open mind as we delve into the complexities that shape this tragic and enduring conflict. Let’s get to my conversation with Professor Rashid Khalidi.

My guest is Professor Rashid Khalidi who is the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University and the co-editor of the Journal of Palestine Studies. Professor Khalidi has dedicated his career to shedding light on the complexities of the IsraeliPalestinian conflict, challenging conventional narratives with his extensive scholarship. He’s the author of several groundbreaking books on the Middle East broadly and Palestine specifically, including The Hundred Years War on Palestine: A History of Settler Colonialism and Resistance, which I just finished.

The book offers a nuanced and important counternarrative that places Palestinian voices and experiences at the centre of the ongoing struggle. His work has been instrumental in broadening our understanding of the conflict, examining it through lenses such as settler colonialism, and international involvement, as well as through its ethical dimensions. Given his unique background, it’s a true honour to host him on the show. Rashid, thank you very much for joining me.

Thanks so much for having me.

After reading The Hundred Years War on Palestine, it’s very clear to me that you bring a unique and authoritative perspective to the subject but could you share with the audience a bit about your and your family’s background that positions you as a credible voice on the Palestinian struggle?

It’s rather sad that my book should be unique. This is a two-sided struggle, and the other side of it has had its voice amplified and is multitudinous, multifarious, and available universally whereas the perspective that I have had on this struggle is very rarely heard or seen. I’m glad that it’s out there. My family is originally from Jerusalem. I was born in the United States because my father couldn’t go back after 1948 to Palestine like many hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who were driven out or could not return. I have lived in different parts of the Arab world and for a very long time also in the United States, which is where I was born. I have been teaching for decades in the Middle East. I have written a great deal about various topics in the Middle East, in particular, history relating to Palestine.

Even your father and your grandfather whom you talk about quite frequently in the book have been very intimately involved in the struggle. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Many members of my family have. I talk about my father who worked at the United Nations in what was then called Political and Security Council Affairs where he was one of many individuals in the secretariat of the United Nations who dealt with Palestine and other Arab-Israeli issues. I talk about my grandfather and how he and my grandmother were forced to leave their home near Jaffa after 1948.

I talk about other members of the family going back to a couple of my uncles, several of my aunts, and earlier ancestors who in different ways were involved sometimes as spectators, as people forced to leave their homes, and as political actors. My uncle was very involved in the politics of the Mandate period in the ’30s and the ’40s. One of my great-great-great uncles and others were involved in the politics of the late Ottoman era.

I start the book with a letter that one of my ancestors wrote to Theodor Herzl, the Founder of Modern Political Zionism. I draw on my family, my wife’s family, other families, archives, papers, memoirs, and interviews that I have done with people to make this a book, which is not just historical and doesn’t put forward an analysis but also tries to do that through the lived experience of a variety of people, including myself and members of my family.

That personal nature of it comes through the book. I was going to ask you about that, whether that was intentional because I have heard you talk about it elsewhere. Your other books are very academic. In this one, there is a sense of personal understanding of the issue and true connection to it that I feel gives the book a face, roots, and identity. You see the person that’s behind the book who’s writing in a very authoritative manner. In other words, it is still a wellreferenced and academic book but it’s accessible to the lay audience. Was that part of the intention?

That was precisely my intention. I hope it is well-researched. It has 45 pages of footnotes for anyone who wants to dig into why I say this is what happened in Sabra and Shatila in September 1982. There are the references. You can check them out. For anyone who wants to see why I say this is what happened in the Security Council and what I saw in the Security Council in June 1967, I give you the United Nations records and references to them.

At the same time, this is an entirely different book than anything I ever wrote before. I never included personal references or very rarely, and if so, only in the odd footnote. I wrote in an academic style that I was trained to use in every other book, including a couple of books that were written for trade publishers. The style and the approach were very academic.

My son, other members of the family, and then later on, my agent and my editor very strongly urged me to do something completely different in this book. My son kept saying, “Don’t tell us the boring history. You have done that many times. Don’t write for other academics. Tell the kinds of stories we know that you experienced, the things that you saw, the things that you heard, and the things that you tell us about from the sources that are personal.” I tried to do this. I have to thank my editor and my agent, especially my son, Ismail, and one of my cousins, all of whom strongly pushed me to do something very uncomfortable for me. It was different from anything I had ever done in a book.

It also makes sense that they pushed you to do it perhaps for a different generation accessing information differently but also to personalise the struggle. It takes it out of the academic domain, which is part of the argument you are making. Let’s call it the other side. As much as I hate to use the terminology and dichotomy of us and them, the other side has personalised their struggle not least through the Holocaust anyway but that has echoed through the ages since. Perhaps this is a small step in personalizing the Palestinian struggle or the other side.

We are in a new era with the new generation. I noticed that there has been a plethora. There’s a huge explosion of books from a Palestinian perspective in the last few years like the books of Raja Shehadeh where he talks about his experience walking in Palestine under occupation. He has written a book, which is up for a major prize, where he talks about his relationship to his father who was a lawyer dealing with the occupation.

VOW 101 | Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: There has been a huge explosion of books from a Palestinian perspective these past few years.

 

For example, Raja Shehadeh has written books on occupation law. He’s a lawyer. It’s as academic as you can get. This is perhaps unfair to him. It’s rather dry and boring but in these books and in many other things that are coming out like Suad Amiry’s books about her experiences under occupation, there are many other personal memoirs. There are a lot more poetry, novels, plays, and films that personalise things. This is an attempt to write a history, which is also personal. It’s different but it comes as part of a very new wave of accounts that give access for the first time to the Palestinian side of the story, which is not only untold but is unfairly told in much of what’s available.

Perhaps we can circle back on that optimistic note toward the end. I want to open up properly about the book and then take us into the subject by looking at the book structure because the book structure or the chapter titles tell a story themselves. You are trying to set the context through not only your title but also the chapters. Can you give us a brief overview of your intent behind the chapter titles and perhaps what the chapter titles are and what they mean?

What I intended to do with this book is to demolish an entirely false framing of this as either a conflict between unreasoning, irrational antisemitic Arabs and poor, innocent Jews who simply are trying to find refuge from persecution.

Its a land with no people for people with no land.

It’s arguing that there are no people in Palestine, this is a people without a land, and they deserve it for various reasons. Another version of this is you have two people struggling over the same land. It’s right versus right. It’s like Germany and France. It’s a conflict between two equals. They are not equals. This is not a land without a people. Perhaps you could argue that the Jews were a people without a land but Palestine was not a land without a people.

Finally, there is a specific context for this. Jews don’t come to Palestine, which they do, and they don’t have a national movement, which is Zionism. They come in the context of British imperialism as a colonial settler project protected by the greatest imperial power of the age, which is there to expand, support, and help to establish a Jewish national home in a country almost entirely inhabited by Arabs.

To do that, the British Empire ended up deploying its vast military power to crush the Palestinians when they rose against an attempt to transform Palestine into the land of Israel, which is the words of Vladimir Jabotinsky, an early Zionist leader. He said, “The objective is to transform Palestine into the land of Israel.” That’s what the British helped to do.

If you ignore that context and just see poor, oppressed, and persecuted Jews coming to an empty land, you are talking about falsehood after falsehood. The only correct part of that is persecuted Jews. That part is correct. The rest is false. They came as clients of the greatest imperial power of the age, which had implanted White European settler colonies all over the world, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United States, Kenya, and South Africa.

The Zionist project had its independent nature. It was a national project but it came in as a client of the British Empire. It was supported by the British Empire. It would not have succeeded without the support in the first decades of the British Empire. Most importantly, it was and saw itself as a European project. At the same time as Zionists understood themselves as redeeming or returning to their ancient land, they saw themselves as Europeans, and they were Europeans. They talked about themselves as settlers. They talked about this as colonization. They made no bones about it.

VOW 101 | Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: The Zionist project had its own independent nature, but it would not have succeeded without the support in the first decades of the British Empire.

 

Much later, all of this was airbrushed out. Israel became an anti-colonial project because there was a period when the Zionist project and the British fell out. I’m trying in the structure that I will get into to demolish all of these ideas, which are entirely false framings. What I talk about is a whole series of what I describe as declarations of war on the Palestinians. This is not a conflict between Jews and Arabs. In the beginning, it was a conflict between the British and Palestinians. The declaration of war is made by Britain on behalf of the Zionist movement but it’s in its imperial interest.

The first declaration of war is the Balfour Declaration, which promises a Jewish national home in a country inhabited by Arabs who are never mentioned either in the Balfour Declaration or the League of Nations mandate that follows, and that includes the Balfour Declaration in its terms. I describe other declarations of war. A second would be the partition resolution in which the United Nations violated its charter, which called for self-determination by giving most of Palestine to a minority and then doing nothing about that minority strangling the Arab state that was also supposed to be created in less than half of Palestine in its cradle.

The third declaration of war is what happened around the 1967 War, both American support for Israel’s preemptive war on the Arab states and Israel’s occupation and Security Council Resolution 242, which is an American-devised resolution that entirely excludes the Palestinians from any prospect of a settlement. I go through three other declarations of war. I talk about the 1982 War when I was living in Beirut. I describe it in the context of my experiences. In each of these chapters, I talk about the experiences of someone either from my family or other families who were involved in the events that I described.

We will probably get to the fifth and the sixth toward the end because arguably, the fifth and the sixth are still ongoing. We will get to that but one thing that’s bugged me as I read your book and that’s bugged me since delving ever so superficially, I must admit, throughout my education into the struggle of the Palestinians is what motivated the British initially in the first stages even before the Balfour Declaration and then post to support the Zionist project. Where did that drive come from?

There are multiple motivations for the British. One of them is British Protestant Zionism, the idea that started with Lord Shaftesbury in the early 19th century and became widespread in the middle of a Protestant revival in England in the early 19th century. It is the task of Christians to redeem the land of Israel and return the Jews. It is a motivation there. We see it in Evangelicals who have the same motivation.

That’s quite strong in the US.

That’s a very strong motivation. The idea for some people is that the return of the Jews to Palestine will hasten the coming of the Messiah, the end of days, and a bunch of other ideas that are linked to the revelation of Saint John the Divine in the last book of the New Testament. That’s one motivation. Another motivation that has to be said is antisemitism. You have Philosemitism and Christian Zionism. On the one hand, you have antisemitism.

The same man who issued the Balfour Declaration is the Prime Minister under whom the Alien Exclusion Act of 1905 was passed by the British Parliament, keeping destitute Jewish refugees from Czarist persecution from coming to England, “We don’t want them here. However, we are happy to send them to Palestine.” Years later, Balfour says it in his letter to Lord Rothschild directed to the Zionists, which is the Balfour Declaration, a letter on behalf of the British cabinet sent by Balfour.

That’s the second motivation. I would argue that the most important motivation was not sentimental, religious, or antisemitic. These are factors. The most important was strategic. The British in the years before World War I were increasingly concerned about the defence of Egypt, the vulnerability of Egypt from the East, and the route to India, which went by the Suez Canal through Egypt, which also included the shortest land route between the Mediterranean and the Gulf. Through securing control of Palestine, they hoped to achieve both of these strategic objectives to protect Egypt from the East and secure the Mediterranean terminus of the shortest land route between the Gulf and the Mediterranean.

The most important motivation of the British to support Zionism was not sentimental, religious, or anti-semitic. Above all, it was strategic. Click To Tweet

At the time before World War I, the idea was for a railway. Later on, that became the route for a pipeline, a series of air bases, and a road, which provided the shortest land route between the oil fields of Iraq and the refinery in Haifa for a series of RAF bases across the desert and a road. What the British wanted before World War I and achieved through their supportive Zionism later worked out for them in the Interwar years. That was the main motivation. Anybody who thinks that the British Empire was motivated by sentiment or religion is missing a large part of the picture.

Values are rarely the motivator. It’s national interest. I want to get to that, and I do have a question about the idea of national interest. I‘m under no illusion. Something I discuss on the show a lot is this competing tension between interests versus values. We go to wars under the auspice of some values like spreading democracy and improving people’s lives but the more one scratches below that, the more one realises that there are genuine strategic national security interests that are being pursued. Could the same be said then also about the US and the US support for Zionism?

In the United States case, you have some of the same motivations. In other words, you had a very large evangelical and Protestant concern for the so-called return of the Jews to Palestine. You had an antisemitic motivation at the height of the Holocaust and in the years when Jews were being persecuted before that in Germany. There was an absolute refusal on grounds of Reich antisemitism to change American immigration law and allow more Jews to enter the United States.

The United States was perfectly happy after World War II to send 100,000 displaced persons who were survivors of the Holocaust living in miserable conditions in displaced person camps in Europe to Palestine but were not under any circumstances willing to change the racist American immigration laws that kept people from those countries from entering the United States from the mid-1920s up until those laws were changed in the 1960s.

You have some of the same motivations, i.e. Philosemitism and evangelical Zionism or Christian Zionism but you also have a couple of other factors. One of them is electoral factors in particular for the Democratic Party in the 1940s where you had big-city machines in places where you had large Jewish communities among whom Zionism was spreading in the post-World War II era, especially after the horrible revelations of the Holocaust.

This was a consideration for President Truman. I quote him as saying something to a group of American diplomats who came to him and said, “You have to have a more equal, more balanced, and more even-handed policy on Palestine.” He says, “Gentlemen, I don’t have any Arab constituents. I have a lot of constituents who are very concerned for the fate of Zionism.” That’s a second consideration, and it’s a consideration to this day. It’s almost impossible to determine why President Biden is so obsessed with achieving an Israeli-Saudi normalization except for electoral reasons.

There are some strategic benefits to the United States, undoubtedly. That brings me to the last and probably the most important, which is strategic motivation. The United States, especially very soon into the first Arab-Israeli war or the 1948 War, came to see Israel as a potential strategic asset in the Middle East. Whatever the original motivations for support for Zionism were, very quickly, strategic considerations came to the fore. That was true to a certain extent in the ’50s. In the 1960s, it grew.

During the Cold War, Israel became seen as a vital ally or client against Soviet clients in the Arab world, countries like Egypt and Syria. That’s a strategic motivation that lasts for quite a while. You have the war on terror when Israeli leaders managed to sell the Americans on the idea that Al-Qaeda and Hamas are the same thing, which is an insane, ludicrous, and foolish idea that only people who know nothing about history or who are intent on selling their country’s interests to the United States would believe.

Perhaps we can unpack that a little bit because there might be some in the audience who might question why that is the case, why they are different, and why we shouldn’t conflate it.

Simply, Al-Qaeda or the Islamic State are transnational terrorist organizations that use a method of attacks on civilians but whose objectives and nature are entirely different from a movement like Hamas or Hezbollah, which has a territorial base and clear territorial objectives. In the case of Hezbollah, it was to remove Israeli occupation from Lebanon from 1982 until 2006 when the Israeli army finally left Lebanon. In the case of Hamas, it’s to end Israeli occupation.

It’s completely different from this transnational Islamic ideology. Some of the methods are similar like attacks on civilians but the term terrorism is a very loaded term. Why are attacks on civilians, if they are disproportional and don’t meet other conditions, carried out by an organization like Hamas or others, terrorism and infinitely more massive casualties inflicted on civilians by the United States, Russia, or Israel? Those are not terrorism and war crimes, heaven forbid, whereas any similar attack on civilians is described as terrorism, and the organizations that carried them out are terrorists.

VOW 101 | Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Attack on civilians are not considered acts of terrorism because they do not meet other conditions carried out by organizations like Hamas.

 

What’s sauce for the goose should be sauce for the gander. There are various rules in the laws of war, and there are various rules in terms of what is a war crime but if you only look at the volume and the numbers, Israel has killed infinitely more innocent civilians than Hamas and Hezbollah ever did on the Israeli side yet we use that terminology only for them. I’m making a distinction between types of organizations that use what I would agree is terrorism or attacks on civilians, which the States also does but almost always gets away with. Russia is pilloried as a terrorist state because Russia is doing it against the wishes of the United States. If the United States does it, it’s coach.

To put it bluntly, outside the West, the defence mechanism that’s involved here is that the intention matters. It’s the doctrine of double effect, “Just because I have killed civilians doesn’t mean I intended to and that it’s also justified if I have killed the bad guys.” How we define the bad guys and the good guys is very much up to us.

I would also talk about things like proportionality. If you say that there is a “terrorist,” somebody who’s carried out and masterminded an attack on civilians in a building, and they kill 80, 30, or 20 civilians, there’s a question of proportionality. Using a drone to kill somebody in a car who is supposedly responsible for some terrorist act is one thing.

Bombarding Gaza with 155 and 175-millimetre artillery and 2,000-pound bombs in a territory where people have no way to escape and killing as Israel has done in various attacks on Gaza is the sixth declaration of war in the sixth chapter. You can talk about how innocent the intention is until the cows come home but you have killed 2,000 civilians or 1,400 civilians. It doesn’t meet the eye test, let alone any legal test. In the laws of war, there is a measure, which is called proportionality. You kill 50 people to kill 1 person. Unfortunately, that is a war crime.

There is a doctrine in the laws of war called proportional. You kill 50 people to kill one person. Click To Tweet

You have an ally in that view here. I argue on this very show quite often our misunderstanding of the costs of war and how we carry out war. Since we are talking about the US, perhaps I want to stay on that for a little bit longer. It’s something that I was not aware of until I read your book. My impression of the 1967 War, the Six-Day War, and the 1982 War was the US stood back and allowed it to happen because it was seen as Israel suppressing a credible threat to its existence, which is part of the narrative.

There was no such pretext in 1982. That was the pretext in 1967.

In my head, I was thinking of 67, and I conflated too. Maybe let’s talk about 67 first, and then we will talk about 82 to separate them because there is a common thread in the US support and endorsement but perhaps the circumstances are vastly different. Can you tell us a little bit about the 1967 War, the context surrounding that war, and how that even happened?

Let me talk about one other common thread before I talk about ’67 specifically. This is a common thread between the ’67 War. It’s the 1973 October War or the so-called Yom Kippur War and the 1982 War. That common thread was Israel was acting as an ally of the United States against allies of the Soviet Union. It was seen as doing America’s bidding and serving its interest in attacking the PLO in Lebanon in 1982, fighting the Egyptian and Syrian armies in 1973 when they attacked during the October War, and attacking Syria and Egypt in particular in 1967.

That’s a common thread, and that’s the basic reason for American support in all three instances. It had to do with domestic political factors and sentimental connections with Israel. All of that is true but entirely secondary. What drives President Johnson? What drives President Nixon and Secretary Kissinger? What drove Secretary of State Haig and President Reagan in 1982? They are Cold War anti-Soviet motivations, “We will support an American ally that is our proxy against Soviet proxies.” That’s what drove all three of those wars, and that’s why the United States is not simply standing on the side. It is an active participant in all of these three wars.

To talk specifically about 1967, there are three factors that everybody ignores. The first is the United States gave Israel a green light. The head of the Mossad comes to Washington, talks to the President, the Secretary of State, and the Secretary of Defence, and gets a green light. We have this in the documents. Americans have obfuscated it. Israelis had no reason to obfuscate it. You get it more clearly in the Israeli versions of these meetings than you do in the American but that is what happened. The United States gives Israel a green light.

The second important factor is that the President, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Secretary of Defence made it very clear to the Israelis that under no circumstances did they have any chance of losing this war. If the Arabs attacked first, they would whip them. If they attacked first, they would annihilate them. It would take a little longer. It would be a little more costly but they also said, “The Arabs aren’t going to attack,” and they weren’t, we now know.

Israelis were afraid. It must be admitted. There was an existential element to this fear. This is only 22 years after the end of World War II and the Holocaust. The idea that Israel could be in danger and that Israel could even be facing annihilation was something that seized the Israeli public, seized the American Jewish community, and affected many Americans. However, that had nothing to do with reality.

VOW 101 | Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Israelis were afraid of the 1967 War, which happened only 22 years after the end of World War II and the Holocaust.

 

The reality was Israel was so superior under any circumstance that it was going to annihilate the Arab armies if they attacked first or if Israel preempted them. Israel was championing at the bit to carry out a war plan that the Israeli military had set up years before to do what they did, which is to wipe out the Arab air forces in the first strike and then in a situation where air power dominates these desert and arid regions to roll right over whatever opposition they had because they had complete control of the air once the Arab forces had been destroyed.

Could it be said in the thinking of Israelis at the time that it’s a fair assumption in their interest, especially the Egyptian military build-up, to use that narrative to further their aims? Is it understandable?

It depends on what Israelis you are talking about. There’s a great book by Tom Segev about 1967 in which he talks about the Israeli public and Israeli politicians. He makes it very clear as do other authors that Israelis were genuinely afraid and that many Israeli politicians were not military experts. They didn’t know what the military knew but the military knew. Some authors have said this went to the point of the military being willing to force the politicians.

Yoram Peri has a book on the Israeli military in which he says on the eve of the ’67 War, the military was saying, “You have to let us go to war,” because they thought Israel would be annihilated and because they saw this as a golden opportunity to carry out their long-prepared plans and to knock the Arab armies out of the conflict, which they did. It took them a couple of days with the Egyptian army. It took them 3, 4, or 5 days with the Jordanian and the Syrian armies.

What is the impact of that victory?

The other thing that has to be kept in mind is not only did the United States give Israel the green light to go ahead and not only did the Americans make it clear to them that they understood that they would win anyway. The third thing that the United States did was to extend massive diplomatic support to Israel at the United Nations, running interference for the Israelis so that they could continue to advance in the last 2 or 3 days of the war. I witnessed that in the Security Council. I described my experience at the Visitors’ Gallery as a first-year college student with my father down in the chamber, behind the undersecretary as part of his job.

I go into the debates in the Security Council. I cite the various UN documents. That support continues right through Security Council Resolution 242 of November 22nd, 1967 when the United States sets out parameters for peace that are the Israeli ziggurat. We are not talking about the United States standing on the sidelines. We are talking about the United States giving a green light, reassuring the Israelis, deceiving the Arabs, and then running interference for Israel from that point on, which is something that they have continued to do in the United Nations up until the present moment with very few exceptions.

That perhaps takes us from 1973 to 1982. If you are happy, perhaps continue that narrative because there’s a real thread through that.

We had Ariel Sharon who at that stage by 1982 was the Israeli Defence Minister. He later became Prime Minister. We have Ariel Sharon, someone who is a very shrewd reader of American political discourse who understood perfectly who he was talking to in President Reagan, Caspar Weinberger, and especially Secretary Haig. He was talking to people whom he could say, “The Russians,” and they would jump on a bed and start screaming. They saw Russian Soviets under the bed everywhere.

This is a period when the Soviet Union is in steep decline economically. This is in a period when Soviet influence is beginning to decline in the Third World but these people were still obsessed with the Soviet Union. He sold them during his visit to Washington. As the head of the Israeli external intelligence service comes to Washington in ’67, so does Haig come to Washington in 1982, a few weeks before the war starts. He tells Secretary Haig, “This is what I’m going to do. I’m going to knock Syria out of Lebanon. I’m going to help create a Lebanese puppet state. I’m going to expel the PLO from Lebanon and reduce Soviet influence in the region.”

Haig signs on. In the notes of one of Haig’s chief aides, we have, “Green light for the Israeli nation.” The United States was privy to what Israel wanted to do, signed on to what Israel wanted to do, and continued to supply weapons for an offensive war, which in principle, were in violation of American law whereby American weapons are only supposed to be used for defensive purposes. There was nothing defensive about a multi-month invasion of Lebanon, which ended up with a siege of Beirut and the death of 17,000 Lebanese and Palestinians, most of whom were civilians.

The 1967 War onward was the first time we introduced the terminology preemptive strike, which we have then seen subsequently used in other parts but most prominently from the West 2003 invasion of Iraq. Thats 1967. Through my education in the Australian military, the 1967 War has been talked about as a change in how wars are conducted firstly from this preemptive strike justification but also from using the centre of gravity construct where you are annihilating the absolute key components of an opponent to defeat an X amount of the hardware but you, therefore, defeat durability to fight a war. There’s a link and a continuation of this idea of preemptive strike.

Let me say two things, one about ’67 and one about ’82. In ’67, the Arab states provided a wonderful pretext for Israel to do what it did. For reasons that I go into in the book, Egypt reluctantly mobilised but it did so in a way that provided a credible threat to Israel. The Israelis didn’t make up the fact that the Egyptian army had moved into Sinai. They didn’t make up the fact that Israel removed the United Nations emergency forces from Sharm El-Sheikh and the border. That was a casus belli as far as the Israelis were concerned.

We know now that even though some of Egypt’s generals were chafing to go to war, Abdel Nasser wasn’t going to let them. We know now that the Syrians had limited capabilities to do anything offensive. There was almost no coordination between them. We have the American military and intelligence assessments of 1967. They knew these things, and the Israelis knew them as well. Israeli intelligence was at least as good as American intelligence on these subjects.

The Arab states, in particular, Egypt, provided a pretext, and the rhetoric that came out in the Arab world was extraordinarily threatening, which is why Israelis were genuinely frightened. They listened to what Sawt al-Arab or Voice of the Arabs, Radio Cairo, and so on were saying. They saw what the Egyptian army was doing, and it looked extremely threatened. The military assessment was, “This military cannot defeat our military.” That was what the Israelis knew, and that’s what the Americans told them.

As far as ’82 is concerned, one of the sad ironies of 1982 is that even though Israel did or tried to do exactly what you said, which is to take out the centre of gravity of the PLO, knock the Syrians out of Lebanon, and create a puppet government, the elections that brought Bachir Gemayel to the presidency took place in conditions of Israeli military occupation of large parts of Beirut and with some deputies being brought to the parliament willingly or unwillingly in Israeli armoured vehicles.

Israel succeeded in the objectives that Sharon laid out for Secretary Haig but ironically, in defeating the PLO, they created a much more fearsome foe, which was Hezbollah and Lebanese resistance against the Israeli occupation, which went on from 1982 until 2006. Israel still has serious problems with Hezbollah, which is a much more formidable opponent than the PLO.

In defeating the PLO, a more fearsome foe was born: Hezbollah and the Lebanese resistance against Israeli occupation. Click To Tweet

The irony is in not trying to knock out these forces, the Syrians hung on in the mountains and continued to play an enormously influential role in Lebanese politics in spite of the Israelis. They defeated the Syrian army in the Beqaa but they could not get them out of the top of the Mount Lebanon range. That meant that they never were able to exclude their influence from Lebanon’s politics. In that respect, they failed, having succeeded as far as the PLO and creating a government favourable to them, which signed a peace treaty, which was never ratified by the Lebanese.

Many might say it’s echoes of Western adventures in Afghanistan or Iraq. There’s one thing that I don’t want to miss, and that is the clever game and strategic thinking by Israeli leaders postWorld War II as the Cold War shaped up. You talk about this in the book. They had support from the USSR, Russia primarily, post the war and post Israel became officially recognised as a state. They were harnessing the power and support of both the major players. Can you talk about that a little bit and then how the shift occurs where the USSR falls off the map and the US becomes the primary client state?

There’s some very interesting manoeuvring by the superpowers and the great powers around the Palestine question starting in World War II. The British in the lead-up to World War II in the wake of their crushing this major Palestinian revolt that took place from 1936 to 1939 offered some concessions to the Palestinians and severely limited their commitments to the Zionists. The Zionist movement was outraged because the British had promised in their understanding to help them create a Jewish state.

The Balfour Declaration only set a national home for the Jewish people but Prime Minister Lloyd George, Foreign Secretary Balfour, and Churchill who was Secretary of State for War told Chaim Weizmann, the head of the Zionist movement, “What we meant is a Jewish state, and that’s what we intend. We let you get a majority in the country, and it becomes a Jewish state. That’s what we meant when we used this ambiguous, deceitful, and typically British term national home of the Jewish people. We meant a Jewish state.”

By the 1939 White Paper, as a result of the Arab Revolt, there was a result of revulsion throughout the Arab world at what Britain had done in Palestine to crush this revolt. As a result of the understanding, “We are going to have to fight World War II among other places in the Middle East, and these people hate us.” The British made concessions to the Arabs and limited their commitments to the Zionists.

At that point, the Zionist movement pivoted to the United States and the Soviet Union. Over time, through brilliant diplomacy and playing on the jealousies and the rivalries between the Great Powers, it managed to garner the support of both the United States and the Soviet Union for the partition of Palestine and handing over most of it to what was then a Jewish minority of the population through the partition resolution of November 29th, 1947.

This is not the genius of the diplomacy of Chaim Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion who are the two main leaders of the Zionist movement at this time. This has to do with Great Power rivalries. The United States is seeking to supplant Britain in the Middle East. The Soviets were always, Stalin in particular, obsessed with the British and getting them out of the Middle East. The United States and the Soviet Union, which are moving into the Cold War, are in alignment on this. They both support partition. The British did not vote in favour of partition in 1947.

They were losing their position in Palestine, and they were not happy about it partly because the Zionist movement turned against them through a series of terrorist incidents, the bombing of the British headquarters and the King David Hotel, and attacks on British infrastructure, British troops, police, and so forth. They put the British in an impossible position. They alienated the Arabs, and now they alienated the Zionists. They threw it over the UN and washed their hands a bit.

The Soviets and the Americans immediately moved in and aligned with one another in an early phase of the Cold War. When they are at odds over Greece, Berlin, and many other things, they are in agreement on this. That only lasts for a while. By the 1950s, Israel had developed relations not just with France but also with Britain again. Most of the armaments that Israel used in the 1956 Suez War and the 1967 June War were British and French armies with Mystères, Mirages fighters, AMX-13 tanks, Centurion tanks, and so on.

During the Anglo-Franco-Israeli attack on Egypt in 1956, the two superpowers in the midst of a ferocious dispute over Hungary which the Soviets had invaded to put down a revolt against their puppet regime, The United States and the Soviet Union found themselves in alignment once again, this time, in support of Egypt and against Israel. You have these shifting alliances of the powers. Britain was not in favour of the creation of Israel in 1947 and did not vote for partition. The United States and the Soviet Union were, yet what you find out by 1956 is the British and the French were aligned with it by the Treaty of Sèvres.

They created a cover for the intervention of the British and the French in their invasion of the Suez Canal zone. The United States and the Soviet Union pushed them back. Things change again. The Soviets had, by this time, become the main armed suppliers of several Arab countries, especially Egypt and Syria. At the height of the Cold War, these became client states of the Soviet Union, and Israel shifted into the orbit of the United States so that by the time of the ’67 War, Israel was already receiving weapons from the United States. They are receiving HAWK anti-aircraft missiles and A-4 Skyhawk bombers.

After the ’67 War, they received the top-of-the-line American fighter bomber, the F-4 Phantom. Israel became a major client of the United States and the Middle East. Egypt and Syria have already been major clients for quite a while. The Arab-Israeli conflict between the Arab states and Israel comes to align itself with the Cold War with several of the Arab states on the Soviet side and Israel and other countries in the Middle East on the American side.

There’s something so wonderful about talking to a historian who’s able to weave not just the regional but the geopolitical dimensions. Thank you for that. I have thoroughly enjoyed that. You painted a wonderful picture in my mind. You said the phrase, “Brilliant diplomacy. What made Israeli diplomacy brilliant as opposed to Palestinian diplomacy? We are talking about the age of decolonization. Nations are gaining independence around the world. What was different and why in the approach to the superpowers from the two sides?

One thing that has to be kept in mind is that starting in 1948, Israel became a nation-state, and a couple of years later, a member of the United Nations. It has international diplomatic status, which the Palestinians never did and to this day don’t. Palestinians have been denied self-determination systematically from the Balfour Declaration until now. That’s one of the reasons I call this a 100-year war. It’s a war on Palestine but it’s also a war on the Palestinian’s right to represent themselves.

VOW 101 | Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Starting in 1948, Israel is a nation-state. A couple of years later, it became a member of the United States and gained international diplomatic status, which the Palestinians never did.

 

The second factor is that Zionism is not a Middle Eastern phenomenon. It’s an Eastern European Jewish phenomenon at its origins. It starts with Europeans. It starts with people who are living at the heart of European societies. Theodor Herzl is an Austrian. He’s a Viennese. His first language is German-Austrian. Golda Meir grew up in Milwaukee. She was born in Eastern Europe. She lived through pogroms but she came to the United States as a young woman. I once heard her speak. If you ever listened to her, she spoke perfect American.

You had people brought up in Russian whose native language was Russian. You had people brought up in Germany whose native language was German, and they didn’t just speak the languages. They were from and understood the cultures and the political systems of the countries they came from. When we talk about Chaim Weizmann who’s a British subject and a chemist who’s making a major contribution to the war effort during World War I, you are talking about someone who is talking as a peer to Lloyd George, Churchill, or Balfour. He’s not talking to them as some supplicant from a Third World country, a native, or a darky. He’s one of them. He’s one of us.

Abba Eban’s father was the Chief Rabbi of South Africa. Chaim Herzog’s father was the Chief Rabbi of Dublin. These are people who come from Irish society, British colonial societies, or whatever European or American milieu you are talking about. We are talking about these first and second-generation Zionist and Israeli leaders. They spoke the language, and they understood the politics.

The other thing that has to be said is that they understood from a very early stage of the Zionist project that they could not do what they needed to do without external support. Herzl wore himself out going from capital to capital to obtain the support of the Ottoman sultan or the German Kaiser, and he met the Kaiser in Palestine or the French Parliament. Weizmann finally succeeded with the British during World War II and before World War II. Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Ben-Zvi are working in the United States. They understand that without this external support, the settler colonial project can never succeed.

Another important Zionist leader, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, says, “Without an iron wall, which has to be provided from outside, this project cannot succeed. We need those guns and bayonets.” That’s what he’s saying. They understood this, and they therefore had a global perspective on the struggle that they were entering into from the very beginning. Zionism succeeds in London before it succeeds on the ground in Palestine. It succeeded in New York with the Biltmore Declaration of 1942 before it succeeded in Palestine. It does not succeed in Palestine without what they do in New York and without the money that they raise in the United States.

Zionism will not succeed in Palestine without doing what they did in New York and using the money they raised in the United States. Click To Tweet

This is a Jewish National Fund collection box into which people were putting pennies, nickels, and dimes in the United States. A friend of mine found it in the basement of his house. It says, “Redeem the land of Israel. Contribute to the Jewish National Fund.” It has language in Hebrew, a fist inside the Star of David on one side, and the same logo, “National headquarters, 41 East 42nd Street.” Zionism is this, plus settlers, a military, the nation-building ethos, and the ideology. It’s money and diplomatic support from abroad without which the project doesn’t work. It does not work in the 21st century.

They understood this. I don’t think Palestinians had that same kind of access. How many of them spoke perfect English? How many of them went to Western universities? We are talking about the ’20s, the ’30s, the ’40s, the ’50s, the ’60s, or the ’70s. I have dealt with members of the Palestinian leadership in the ’60s and the ’70s. I can tell you that they had some understanding of the Third World and the Global South. They had some understanding of some parts of Europe. They had an understanding of what was then the Eastern Bloc, the Soviet Union, and its satellites.

Their understanding of the West, generally, however, and of the United States was almost nil or extremely limited. They thought, “If I speak to Secretary of State Shultz, I will achieve a breakthrough.” It wasn’t Weizmann speaking to Balfour. It was the political, organizational, and financial organization over many decades starting in the 1780s and through the first, second, and third Zionist congresses in the 1890s.

 

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