Mondoweiss

John Kerry picked the wrong timeline for the Jewish state

Foreign ministers 100 years apart: Arthur Balfour of Britain and John Kerry of the U.S. (r)

In his recent speech titled ‘Remarks on Middle East Peace’, US Secretary of State John Kerry offered a wide historical symmetric trajectory including “milestones” which Kerry believes “illustrate the two sides of the conflict and form the basis for its resolution.”

His three-point trajectory was based upon three dates: 1897, 1947 and 1967.

It started out 120 years ago, 1897, with the First Zionist Congress in Basel, “by a group of Jewish visionaries, who decided that the only effective response to the waves of anti-Semitic horrors sweeping across Europe was to create a state in the historic home of the Jewish people, where their ties to the land went back centuries – a state that could defend its borders, protect its people, and live in peace with its neighbors. That was the vision. That was the modern beginning, and it remains the dream of Israel today,” as Kerry appraises.

It continued with a point nearly 70 years ago, marking the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181 which Kerry says “finally paved the way to making the State of Israel a reality. The concept was simple: to create two states for two peoples – one Jewish, one Arab – to realize the national aspirations of both Jews and Palestinians.”

It ended with 1967, where as Kerry notes, 2017 marks “50 years since the end of the Six-Day War, when Israel again fought for its survival. And Palestinians will again mark just the opposite: 50 years of military occupation. Both sides have accepted UN Security Council Resolution 242, which called for the withdrawal of Israel from territory that it occupied in 1967 in return for peace and secure borders, as the basis for ending the conflict.”

I would like to offer an even more symmetric trajectory, which does not dismiss Kerry’s mentioned events (albeit with a somewhat different appraisal of their nature), yet starts a bit later, exactly a century ago, with the 1917 Balfour Declaration which Kerry interestingly omits completely from his historical appraisal; it continues with the 1967 occupation that Kerry notes; and it ends with today – 2017, which I would like to mark as a particular point in a historical trajectory.

Kerry relates to this present as something that is still, in some way, on the horizon, as 2017 was at the time of his speech, just a week ago. But as one is often surprised at how fast the sun sets into the sea at the very last point of dusk, the ‘future’ often surprises us as already being here, whilst we speak of it as ‘soon to come’. I had a conversation about this speech with Israeli journalist Gideon Levy a couple of days ago, where he said:

“John Kerry, in his speech, he described a reality of what would be in a ‘one-state’ scenario, the Palestinians would live in enclaves, and that they would be without rights – he was actually describing the situation of today! Why are you saying when it becomes a ‘one-state’? Today! Why in the future? Today!”

Indeed, today. Let us then go back 100 years.

1917

The reason I pose 1917 as a significant date in this historical symmetry is not because I dismiss the fact and significance of the First Zionist Congress in 1897. It is because at the time of that congress, Zionism was still a fringe, at its very inception, and at this embryonic stage it was still not even completely fixed in any practical way upon Palestine as such. For example, in 1903, at the 6th Zionist Congress, Herzl proposed at British sponsored plan for settlement in East Africa, based on a British official letter concerning a “scheme for amelioration of the position of the Jewish race” [sic]. The congress became known as the ‘Uganda Congress’ for this, and whilst Herzl assured members that this plan would not be at the expense of the aim to create a Jewish homeland in Palestine, there was serious discontent amongst many, who observed it as a sidetracking of the main aim, and the plan was voted down two years later.

One of the main opponents to the plan was future first Israeli President Chaim Weizmann. It is interesting to note how Lord Arthur Balfour himself also appraised this plan, in his introduction to the 1919 book ‘History of Zionism 1600-1919’ by prominent Zionist leader Nahum Sokolow. Balfour writes:

“The [East-Africa] scheme was certainly well-intentioned, and had, I think, many merits. But it had one serious defect. It was not Zionism. It attempted to find a home for men of Jewish religion and Jewish race in a region far removed from the country where that race was nurtured and that religion came into being. Conversations I held with Mr. Weizmann in January, 1906, convinced me that history could not thus be ignored, and that if a home was to be found for the Jewish people, homeless now for nearly nineteen hundred years, it was vain to seek it anywhere but in Palestine.”

The point when Zionism really began to get a tangible grip on realpolitik in regards to Palestine, was thus with the letter sent on November 2nd 1917 by British Foreign Secretary, the same Lord Balfour, to the British Zionist Baron Walter Rothschild, conveying that “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object”. This became known as the ‘Balfour Declaration’.

Whilst the term ‘race’ was replaced with ‘people’, and whilst the ‘declaration’ ended with the qualification of “it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country”, there were many who regarded Zionism’s core notions as problematic to the extreme. Some of the most vociferous opponents were Jews themselves. The British Jewish Secretary of State for India Edwin Montagu levelled scathing critique at the Government’s intentions to endorse a ‘Jewish national home’ in Palestine in 1917, saying:

“I assert that there is not a Jewish nation. The members of my family, for instance, who have been in this country for generations, have no sort or kind of community of view or of desire with any Jewish family in any other country beyond the fact that they profess to a greater or less degree the same religion. It is no more true to say that a Jewish Englishman and a Jewish Moor are of the same nation than it is to say that a Christian Englishman and a Christian Frenchman are of the same nation: of the same race, perhaps, traced back through the centuries – through centuries of the history of a peculiarly adaptable race”.

Although some Jews saw Zionism as dangerous, Zionist leaders had managed to persuade British leaders that those were just “the wrong kind of Jews”. As Weizmann recalls in his memoirs (Trial and Error, 1949), one of his several exchanges (between 1906 and 1915) with Balfour went like this:

[Balfour said] “Are there many Jews who think like you?” I answered: “I believe I speak the mind of millions of Jews whom you will never see and who cannot speak for themselves.” … To this he said: “If that is so you will one day be a force.” Shortly before I withdrew, Balfour said: “It is curious. The Jews I meet are quite different.” I answered: “Mr. Balfour, you meet the wrong kind of Jews”.

By 1915, Balfour was already saying to Weizmann “you know, I was thinking of that conversation of ours, and I believe that after the guns stop firing you may get your Jerusalem”, already offering a state not even under his control, to another supposed “nation” which had little presence there.

Indeed, the Zionist venture was from the outset meant as a völkisch nation-state colonialist project. Whilst the Balfour letter regards a ‘national home’, one should not be too naïve about what this would eventually mean. In fact, Herzl’s diary entry from 1895, saying that “We shall have to spirit the penniless population (the Arabs) across the borderwhile denying it any employment in our own country”, could have already betrayed the real goals of Zionism from the outset. The reason why such designs were generally obscured from the public as far as possible (and still are), is already outlined in the continuation of Herzl’s mentioned diary entry, which states that “expropriation and the removal of the poor [indigenous population] must be carried out discretely and circumspectly”. These notions of ‘discretion’ and ‘circumspection’ lie at the heart of the reason of how Zionism managed to get so far in its diplomatic efforts to secure international and imperial powers to aid its cause.

Nor should one be in doubt as to the designs of Balfour himself. In 1919 he responded to Lord Curzon, that “in Palestine we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country …. The Four Great Powers are committed to Zionism. And Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long traditions, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land”. (In Geoffrey Lewis, Balfour and Weizmann, 2009).

The British Palin commission sent to investigate Jerusalem riots in 1920, regarded the ‘Balfour declaration’ to be “undoubtedly the starting point of the whole trouble”. It laid out the full declaration text, and noted as follows:

This is a very carefully worded document and but for the somewhat vague phrase “A National Home for the Jewish People” might be considered sufficiently unalarming, offering as it does, ample guarantees for the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities. But the vagueness of the phrase cited has been a cause of trouble from the commencement. Various persons in high positions have used language of the loosest kind calculated to convey a very different impression to the more moderate interpretation which can be put upon the words. President Wilson brushed away all doubts as to what was intended from his point of view when, in March 1919, he said to the Jewish leaders in America, “I am moreover persuaded that the allied nations, with the fullest concurrence of our own Government and people are agreed that in Palestine shall be laid the foundations of a Jewish Commonwealth.” The late President [Teddy] Roosevelt declared that one of the Allies peace conditions should be that “Palestine must be made a Jewish State.” Mr. Winston Churchill has spoken of a “Jewish State” and Mr. Bonar Law has talked in Parliament of “restoring Palestine to the Jews”. Of the interpretation put upon the Declaration by all but the most moderate Zionists, it will be necessary to speak in detail later on”.

Thus the ‘Balfour declaration’ which Zionists themselves note as a milestone event in regards to the manifestation of the Jewish State, is very arguably ‘the starting point of the whole trouble’, not dismissing that Zionist activity and settlement had already begun.

This is a milestone event which Kerry had failed to mention, or deliberately omitted, although it is not only the most striking in its symmetry as a centennial, but also striking as a moment of distinct imperial action on behalf of a would-be Jewish State.

Skipping 1947

We are allowed to skip episodes of history when we regard them as less critical to our appraisal, or when we chose to omit them in the service of succinct summation. In my appraisal, I will thus opt to skip the indeed critical point which Kerry presents as a milestone – 1947. It is not that the UN resolution 181 known as the ‘Partition Plan for Palestine’ is not a subject worthy of historical appraisal as such. It is simply, that Kerry regards it as a “milestone” in that it “finally paved the way to making the State of Israel a reality. The concept was simple: to create two states for two peoples – one Jewish, one Arab – to realize the national aspirations of both Jews and Palestinians.” This is a highly disingenuous appraisal. First of all, the resolution was null and void for all practical purposes, as it was not in the UN mandate to create states, nor was the resolution ever taken up in the Security Council. Furthermore, it regarded the “aspirations”, “desires” and prejudices” of the Palestinians with clearly far less importance in comparison to the “far profounder”, “needs” and “hopes” of Zionism, as Balfour would have expressed it. The plan appropriated 55% of historical Palestine to a Jewish population constituting a mere 1/3 of the entire population (It was about 10% at the time of the ‘Balfour declaration’), where Jews owned about 7% of the land.

The 1947 Partition Plan was thus a continuation of the colonialist biased pattern that manifested itself in international imperial concerns since 1917. The Zionists of course accepted this Partition, and could exploit the ‘Arab rejection’ as another talking point in the presentation of Zionism as ‘diplomatic and willing’ as opposed to ‘Arab rejectionism’ – a central Zionist Hasbara talking point. Davide Ben-Gurion was very aware of the “circumspection” necessary in order to appear ‘willing’ in international diplomacy, whilst exploiting any opening as a starting point for the acquisition of more. He applied a certain ‘discretion’, so it is often necessary to look into the more private writings to get a glimpse of his actual intentions. Such a glimpse, one of great value, is offered to us in his letter from 1937 which he wrote to his son Amos (first published by Ilan Pappe), where he considers an earlier partition plan – the Peel commission plan:

“My assumption (which is why I am a fervent proponent of a state, even though it is now linked to partition) is that a Jewish state on only part of the land is not the end but the beginning. When we acquire one thousand or 10,000 dunams, we feel elated. It does not hurt our feelings that by this acquisition we are not in possession of the whole land. This is because this increase in possession is of consequence not only in itself, but because through it we increase our strength, and every increase in strength helps in the possession of the land as a whole. The establishment of a state, even if only on a portion of the land, is the maximal reinforcement of our strength at the present time and a powerful boost to our historical endeavors to liberate the entire country.”

1967

“The Six-Day War, when Israel again fought for its survival”, says Kerry.

Another myth, dispelled by Israel’s own leaders and generals:

Former Prime Minister Menachem Begin, a member of the cabinet in June 1967 said that “In June 1967, we again had a choice. The Egyptian Army concentrations in the Sinai approaches do not prove that Nasser was really about to attack us. We must be honest with ourselves. We decided to attack him”. General Matti Peled, Chief of Operations in 1967: “I am convinced that our General Staff never told the government [of Levi Eshkol] that there was any substance to the Egyptian military threat to Israel, or that we were not capable of crushing Nasser’s army which had exposed itself, with unprecedented foolishness, to the devastating strikes of our forces…. While we proceeded towards the full mobilization of our forces, no person in his right mind could believe that all this force was necessary for our ‘defense’ against the Egyptian threat….To pretend that the Egyptian forces concentrated on our borders were capable of threatening Israel’s existence not only insults the intelligence of any person capable of analyzing this kind of situation, but is primarily an insult to Zahal [the Israeli Army].”

There are numerous similar accounts. Here is a short collection:

Rabin: “I do not believe that Nasser wanted war. The two divisions which he sent into Sinai on 14 May would not have been enough to unleash an offensive against Israel. He knew it and we knew it.”

Mordecai Bentov (member of the wartime national government): “The entire story of the danger of extermination was invented in every detail and exaggerated a posteriori to justify the annexation of new Arab territory.”

General Haim Bar-Lev (Rabin’s predecessor as chief of staff): “We were not threatened with genocide on the eve of the Six Days War, and we had never thought of such a possibility.”

Ezer Weizman, Chief of Operations during the war (by the way nephew of Chaim Weizmann): “There was never any danger of annihilation. This hypothesis has never been considered in any serious meeting.”

And finally, to sum this up with Peled once again: “The thesis according to which the danger of genocide hung over us in June 1967, and according to which Israel was fighting for her very physical survival, was nothing but a bluff which was born and bred after the war.”

Thus, in accordance with the words of Israeli generals and leaders themselves, Kerry’s appraisal could simply be said to be ‘an insult to intelligence’.

Yes, Kerry acknowledged:

“Palestinians will again mark just the opposite: 50 years of military occupation. Both sides have accepted UN Security Council Resolution 242, which called for the withdrawal of Israel from territory that it occupied in 1967 in return for peace and secure borders, as the basis for ending the conflict.”

Well, ostensibly so, I would say.

Israel’s supporters managed to find a way to create the famous ‘ambiguity’ in UN 242 in relation to the occupied territories that Israel should evacuate. As Secretary of State Dean Rusk noted in his book “As I Saw It” (1990), “there was much bickering over whether that resolution should say from ‘the’ territories or from ‘all’ territories. In the French version, which is equally authentic, it says withdrawal de territory, with de meaning ‘the.’ We wanted that to be left a little vague and subject to future negotiation because we thought the Israeli border along the West Bank could be ‘rationalized’; certain anomalies could easily be straightened out with some exchanges of territory, making a more sensible border for all parties. We also wanted to leave open demilitarization measures in the Sinai and the Golan Heights and take a fresh look at the old city of Jerusalem. But we never contemplated any significant grant of territory to Israel as a result of the June 1967 war. On that point we and the Israelis to this day remain sharply divided. This situation could lead to real trouble in the future. Although every President since Harry Truman has committed the United States to the security and independence of Israel, I’m not aware of any commitment the United States has made to assist Israel in retaining territories seized in the Six-Day War.”

So, there was that ‘vagueness’, which indeed led to ‘real trouble’. As Palestinian Authority Chief Negotiator Nabil Shaath, said: “Resolution 242 has come to be used by Israel as a way to procrastinate.”

And this brings us to 2017.

2017

Here we are. Happy new year. Nothing much has changed in the past 100 years, except that the ‘Jewish national home’ project manifested itself into ‘greater Israel’, a term which even Kerry uses. But he seems to want to frame this on the “settler agenda”.

“The settler agenda is defining the future of Israel. And their stated purpose is clear. They believe in one state: greater Israel. In fact, one prominent minister, who heads a pro-settler party, declared just after the U.S. election – and I quote – ‘the era of the two-state solution is over,’ end quote. And many other coalition ministers publicly reject a Palestinian state.”

But are these anything but rogue elements in Israeli politics? I recently wrote in response to Kerry’s speech, that just before the last elections, just before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that “the Arabs are coming to vote in droves”, the prime minister assured the public in no uncertain terms that there will not be established a Palestinian State under his watch. It was unmistakable. And the Likud party platform of 1999, never rescinded, ‘flatly rejects a Palestinian state’, and the Likud was voted in just shortly after that (2001), and again, and again, and again, and again. What is there to be in doubt about? Is this not what the ‘democratic’ Israel wants? Is this not what its public voted for? Is this not a reflection of its real ‘values’?

Kerry is forgetting that the settlements are not merely the products of the right, but rather of all governments both right and left. Notice how even the political left leadership (Isaac Herzog) bemoans the ‘damage’ done to the ‘settlement blocs’ due to the recent UN resolution condemning settlements.

Back to my conversation with Gideon Levy. I said:

“I recall that you wrote in some article, that you not only thought that the idea of the 2-state solution is dead, but that it was not even born”.

Levy said:

“I say it was not born because I think that there was not one Prime Minister in Israel who ever really intended it. Because if there had been a PM who would have really intended it, then they would first of all stop with the settlements. And no PM has ever stopped with the settlements.”

This is also the point of Ilan Pappe – that the settlements are a ‘litmus test’ for the honesty of Israel in the ‘peace process’. And it must thus be said to have been dishonest throughout.

But when will recognize that what we are seeing is, indeed, what is reality today and not ‘soon’? We have come full circle. This has been a century of the Jewish State, where it has come from merely being endorsed in 1917 (by a power not in control of Palestine at the time), to manifesting as Greater Israel with unfathomable military power that continues to be replenished by USA, which provides to it more than half of the U.S.’s entire global foreign military aid, whilst Kerry complains that its leaders are not listening.

No. It is we who may not have been listening properly, not paying enough attention to Herzl’s words in those ‘discrete’ and ‘circumspect’ entries in his diaries way back in 1895, when he already knew what the venture would entail.

This is 2017. This is Herzl’s ‘Der Judenstaat’, The Jewish State, as it has come full circle over the whole of historical Palestine. It’s one state, today. As Kerry notes, the choice in such a case is only between Apartheid or democracy, but he thinks there is a tomorrow. As Levy was saying to me, it’s today, and the struggle needs to be over the nature of its governance. Apartheid has been the choice so far, and it’s that or democracy. If we choose democracy, we should start working at it, today.