Israel’s endless enemies — the dangerous myth in Ari Shavit’s book

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Ari Shavit. (Photo: Spiegel & Grau/NPR)
Ari Shavit. (Photo: Spiegel & Grau/NPR)

It is hard to think of another long-standing conflict in which the irrefutable facts, long well-known to anyone who has seriously studied the issue, seem to matter less than in the Arab-Israeli conflict. The latest, and in a number of ways the most frustrating, example of this phenomenon is the rapturous reception in the American media being accorded to the new book by Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit, My Promised Land (hereafter: MPL). For example, shortly before the publication of MPL, the New Yorker featured a long essay by Shavit based on one chapter of his book, and the New York Times ran an oped by Shavit that was based on another chapter. Then, after it was published there were two long laudatory and prominently featured reviews in the Times. At about the same time, Thomas Friedman of the Times effused over the “must-read” book and described Shavit as “one of the handful of experts whom I’ve relied upon to understand Israel ever since I reported there in the 1980s.” And in the last few weeks, Shavit has been interviewed on radio by NPR’s Terry Gross, on television by Charlie Rose, and in New York’s famed 92 St Y by David Remnick. As a result, within a few weeks of its publication, MPL was already #9 on the Sunday Book Review’s Best Seller List.

As uncritical as the reception has been, it is true that there are some good things in MPL, including a discussion of the concept of “transfer”– more commonly known today as “ethnic cleansing” –in Zionist ideology: the honest and graphically detailed accounts of Zionist violence and outright terrorism in the pre-state period and the immediate aftermath of the creation of the state of Israel in 1948; the unsparing condemnation of the Jewish settlements, of the occupation, and of Israel’s “systematic and determined use of oppressive force” in crushing Palestinian uprisings and resistance; and the growing threats to Israeli democracy and liberal values, including racism, xenophobia, and even “semi-fascism.”

As all of these things have been widely discussed and justly praised in the reviews and commentaries on MPL, I will focus on the serious problems of the book that have been ignored in the reviews—and which to my mind far outweigh its undoubted virtues and strengths. In fact, for reasons I will argue, what is right about the book makes what is wrong even worse—not merely wrong, but dangerously wrong.

The gravest failing in MP, however, is Shavit’s blatant disregard of the history and major facts concerning the Israeli conflict with the Arab world as a whole and with the Palestinians in particular. The central theme, running throughout MPL, is that a peaceful settlement of these conflicts is impossible because the undying and immutable hatred of Israel in the Arab world—in Shavit’s view far transcending Israel’s own policies and behavior–poses an “existential” threat to its survival. Here are a few examples of this theme:

*“There is always the fear that one day daily life will freeze like Pompeii’s. My beloved homeland will crumble as enormous Arab masses or mighty Islamic forces overcome its defenses and eradicate its existence.” (location 73, Kindle edition. As Kindle uses “locations” rather than page numbers, all future citations in this article are to locations)

* “Israel is the only nation in the West that is existentially threatened” (96)

* “Given our history and our geography, peace is hardly likely.” (3970)

*“The history of the conflict and the geostrategy of the region implied that peace was not feasible…..Why did the Left cling to this empirically incorrect assumption?” (4110)

*Writing about the 2006 Lebanon war (discussed below), Shavit writes: “This time we survived. It was only a preview of what might happen in coming years….. What will happen… when some of our really powerful rivals decide to strike?” (5373)

*“There is no great Arab-Israel war on the horizon, but stability is fragile….Israel is being surrounded by failed states or extremist nations.” (6395) Elsewhere, he elaborates: “the new danger is Arab chaos. The troubling scenarios are of Arab discontent and Islamic fanaticism knocking on Israel’s iron gates.” (6592)

*“Moderate Palestinians are in retreat and radical Palestinians are on the rise….As Islamic fundamentalism and Arab extremism become dominant throughout the region, Palestinian pragmatism is besieged. Thus, if Israel weakens for a moment, the suppressed Palestinian wish [to restore pre-Israeli Palestine] will erupt forcefully.” (6398)

* “There is no hope for peace: no moderate Arab leader has the legitimacy needed to sign a new conflict-ending agreement with the Zionist entity.” (6542)

Shavit sums up his central argument:

Concentric circles of threat [are] closing in on the Jewish state. The external circle is the Islamic circle. Israel is a Jewish state that arouses religious animosity among many Muslims. The occupation of Jerusalem and the West Bank amplified this animosity, but it is Israel’s very existence as sovereign non-Islamic entity in a land sacred to Islam and surrounded by Islam that creates the inherent tension between the tiny Jewish nation and the vast Islamic world….A giant circle of a billion and a half Muslims surrounds the Jewish state and threatens its future. The Arab national movement tried to prevent the founding of Israel—and failed. The Arab nations tried to destroy Israel and failed.

The gap between Shavitism and reality is unbridgeable….

Insofar as Shavit is writing what purports to be history, his argument is either unaware of, or deceitful about, the clear facts concerning the long history of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Despite occasional lip service to the contrary, his underlying premise is that the behavior of the Arab and Islamic world towards Israel is a given and is immutable, having little to do with Israel’s behavior towards the Arabs, especially the Palestinians. This unsupportable argument is actually dangerous, because it plays into and reinforces the woeful ignorance in Israel and the United States of the true history of the Arab-Israeli and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts and of Israel’s repeated spurning or sabotaging of numerous opportunities to end them, from 1948 through today and, it would appear, into the indefinite future.

So far as I’ve seen, not a single review in the general media—certainly not the ones I’ve cited– has so much as mentioned the unbridgeable discrepancy between Shavit’s opinions and the long-established historical facts about the war-and-peace issues. There is a vast body of scholarship on these issues (including my own); here I can only provide a brief summary of it.

1948 and Afterward

Despite the blood-curdling rhetoric of a few fanatics—“we must throw the Jews into the sea”— according to most of the scholarship about the 1948 war, the Arab state invasion that followed the creation of the state of Israel in May, primarily from Egypt, Syria, and Iraq–was relatively small (about 13,000 troops) and poorly coordinated, reflecting the fact that there was no general Arab determination to destroy Israel but rather a mix of motives, which may have included sympathy for the Palestinians but also was motivated by inter-Arab monarchical and territorial rivalries, especially the fears of other Arab monarchs that King Abdullah of Transjordan would seize the West Bank and then use it as a springboard for his long dream of creating a Hashemite Kingdom extending over parts of Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and Iraq.

To be sure, such relatively limited objectives or mixed motives were far from clear at the time to the Israelis, who thought of themselves as fighting for their very survival. And possibly they were, for who can tell whether the intentions of the invading armies would have continued to be limited to territorial gain (or the prevention of territorial grabs by Arab rivals) had Jewish resistance collapsed?

Nonetheless, the first opportunity for peace occurred in the immediate aftermath of the 1948 war. By March, 1949, bilateral armistice agreements had been signed between Israel and Egypt, Jordan and Syria, and in the summer of 1949 representatives of all the leading Arab states except Iraq agreed to meet with Israel at Lausanne, Switzerland to discuss a general settlement with Israel.

The Arab states were willing to agree to a compromise peace settlement with Israel, provided that Israel withdrew from the territories it conquered in the 1948 war and returned to the boundaries established in the 1947 UN partition plan and accepted the repatriation of the Palestinian refugees. The United States, acting as a mediator at Lausanne, proposed that Israel take back 250,000 refugees and promised US financial aid in resettling the remainder in the Arab world; there were many indications that the Arab states would accept such a compromise.

But not Israel: there would be no Israeli territorial withdrawals and no significant return of the Palestinian refugees, for whom it accepted no responsibility on the grounds they had voluntarily “fled.” Of course, long before Shavit, the Israeli claim had repeatedly been shown to be false and accepted by no serious historians, today including almost all Israeli historians of that period.

There is no mention in MPL of the Lausanne conference, the Arab and American offers, and of Israel’s refusal to negotiate.

Even if the Israeli position on borders and refugees precluded a general settlement with the Arab world, there were a number of opportunities for the new Jewish state to negotiate separate peace agreements with the neighboring Arab states. Just before and even during the 1948 war, King Farouk of Egypt made several efforts to explore the possibility of a peace settlement with Israel, provided it would cede part of Gaza and a narrow strip of the Negev desert

Fearing, and hardly without reason, further Israeli expansionism, Egypt wanted a territorial buffer one. Not only did Israel ignore the Egyptian proposals—which were essentially reiterated after the war–it deliberately provoked further military clashes with Egypt in order to seize all of the Negev, Gaza, and large parts of the Sinai.

Similarly, in 1949 the Syrian regime of Husni Zaim proposed a settlement with Israel: if Syria was granted permanent access to the waters of the Jordan River and Lake Tiberias, the Zaim government would not only sign a peace agreement but would permanently resettle 300,000 of the Palestinian refugees in its own territory. Despite urgings from U.S., UN, and even some leading Israeli officials, David Ben-Gurion refused even to discuss the offer. Zaim was succeeded by a military government headed by Adib Shishakli, who renewed the Syrian proposal on even more favorable terms, offering to resettle most of the Palestinian refugees (500,000) in Syria. Again Ben-Gurion refused to negotiate.

There is no discussion of any of this in MPL.

The Conflict with Jordan

Israeli scholarship has meticulously demonstrated that Jordan has almost always sought to avoid military confrontations and, indeed, has secretly collaborated with Israel on many issues since 1947, especially concerning the Palestinians. Until 1988, Jordan’s Hashemite monarchs Abdullah and his son Hussein were no less opposed than Israel to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank, since they claimed Jordanian sovereignty over the area. Thus, if Israel had agreed to allow permanent Jordanian control over the West Bank and East Jerusalem the Palestinian “problem” either would not have existed or would have become a Jordanian rather that an Israeli one, and there would have been no Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The reason Israel refused such a deal with Jordan, of course, is that it wanted the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza for itself, even though it did not act on these aspirations until after those areas fell into their hands in the course of the 1967 war.

In 1994 the de facto Israeli-Jordanian peace was formalized in the Israel-Jordan peace treaty, which was made possible by Hussein’s renunciation of any claims on the Palestinian territories. With the sole exception of a passing remark that “by the end of 1988, Jordan’s King Hussein no longer wanted anything to do with the West Bank,” this history goes unmentioned in MPL.

The Conflict with Egypt

During the early 1950s, Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser consistently restrained Palestinian guerrilla raids on Israel from Egyptian territory, and there were unofficial exploratory peace negotiations between the Nasser government and envoys from Moshe Sharett, Israel’s foreign minister and leading dovish opponent of David Ben-Gurion. There is considerable evidence that Nasser was seriously considering at least a de facto peace with Israel, but Ben-Gurion and Moshe Dayan arranged a series of provocations that effectively sabotaged the incipient negotiations with the Nasser government. Only then did Nasser begin active support of the Palestinian guerillas and turn to the Soviet bloc for arms. The deteriorating spiral led to the avoidable wars of 1956 and 1967.

Today no serious scholar believes that Nasser intended to provoke war with Israel in 1967. Rather, his primary motive was to put pressure on Israel to refrain from attacking Syria—Nasser had received misleading intelligence from the Soviet Union that such an attack was imminent. Whatever his motive, however, there is no doubt that Nasser’s inflammatory rhetoric, his closing of the Suez Canal to Israeli shipping, and the deployment of Egyptian troops to the Sinai were major provocations to Israel. Even so, most of the scholarship today holds that Nasser was in no position to start a war with Israel and that therefore the preemptive military strike by Israel was unnecessary. No less an authority than Menachem Begin, never one to minimize Arab threats to Israel, agreed: defending his own decision to start a “war of choice” with Lebanon in 1982, Begin publicly stated the following: “In June 1967, we had a choice. The Egyptian Army concentrations in the Sinai approaches do not prove that Nasser was really about to attack us….We decided to attack him.”

In any case, by the end of 1969, as a result of the Egyptian defeat in 1967 and Nasser’s correct belief that Israel had developed nuclear weapons, the Egyptian leader had concluded that Egypt no longer had a rational military option against Israel and should therefore reach a bilateral peace settlement, on the condition that Israel withdraw its forces from the Sinai and Gaza and return them to Egypt. By 1971 Nasser had publicly announced his acceptance of various UN and US peace proposals that were based on an Israeli withdrawal in return for peace, various security guarantees, and permanent free navigation for Israeli ships through the Suez Canal.

Israel continued to prefer the territorial status quo to peace, however, refusing even to discuss these potential settlements and ignoring all overtures from Nasser and his successor, Anwar Sadat. Moshe Dayan put it this way: “I would rather have Sharm al-Sheikh [the port at the southern tip of the Sinai] and no peace than peace without Sharm al-Sheikh.” As a result, Sadat concluded that Egypt had no choice but to break the deadlock with the limited war in October, 1973. Though Egypt lost the war, it did have the effect sought by Sadat, for it was a major scare for Israel—as well as for the United States, which feared being drawn into a confrontation with the Soviet Union–and therefore set in motion a chain of events that culminated in the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace settlement. The settlement has held firm ever since, even under the short lived Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi.

Today, there is no serious challenge, even by most Israelis, to the argument that but for Israeli intransigence, a peace between Israel and Egypt could have been negotiated almost a decade before 1979—and maybe even before the 1967 war, let alone that of 1973. Other than a few passing references to the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, Shavit says nothing about the history of lost opportunities before 1979. Nor does he acknowledge that this history requires a rather important qualification to his argument that the Arab world refuses to make peace with Israel.

The Conflict with Syria

In the 1967 war, Syria lost large sections of the Golan Heights to Israel. It tried to regain these border areas in the 1973 war, but lost again. Since then, Syria under both Assads, father and son, has had no interest in any further military conflict with Israel, and in fact exercised tight control of what remained of the Syrian parts of the Golan in order to ensure that Palestinian guerrilla forces could not use the area to attack Israel. Since the Assads have ruled out war but want “every inch” of the Golan to be restored to Syria—mainly for purely symbolic or psychological reasons—their only option has been diplomacy.

As early as the 1970s, Hafez Assad privately told Henry Kissinger, and later Jimmy Carter, that he wanted a diplomatic settlement with Israel. Nothing came of these signals, in part because Assad at that point was still paying lip-service to the Palestinian cause—though he also said he would consider that issue settled if Jordan regained control over the West Bank. By the early 1990s Assad dropped the Palestinian issue altogether, and proposed a “total peace” with Israel, including full diplomatic and economic relations, in return for full Israeli withdrawal from Arab lands occupied in 1967. Evidently Assad was much more interested in a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights than with the other Arab areas conquered and occupied in the 1967 and 1973 wars, for after two years of secret negotiations, a peace treaty was at hand. However Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin suddenly suspended the negotiations, fearing that Israeli public opinion would not accept a withdrawal from the Golan.

Following the assassination of Rabin in November 1995, the new Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres initially decided to focus on a peace settlement with Syria rather than with the Palestinians, but then pulled back before the 1996 elections; like Rabin, he feared the domestic consequences. Then, in 1999 prime minister Ehud Barak resumed negotiations with Syria with close U.S. mediation, and in 2000 the Clinton administration drew up a draft peace treaty which narrowed the differences between Israel and Syria to essentially symbolic ones. The principles of the treaty that both sides had agreed to were essentially a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan in return for the Syrian agreement to demilitarize the area and the full normalization of diplomatic and economic relations.

Yet again, Israel abruptly ended the negotiations. Facing continued domestic resistance to Israeli withdrawal from the Golan and contemplating a possible agreement with the Palestinians that would require extensive withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza, Barak backed away from a peace treaty with Syria. Among most Israeli security experts, including many of its leading generals at the time and since, there is a consensus that the agreement that Assad was prepared to conclude served Israel’s security and other national interests and that it was Israel, not Syria, that was responsible for the breakdown of the negotiations.

There things stand today—and given the civil war in Syria, there things will undoubtedly remain in the foreseeable future. Another opportunity for Israel to reach a political settlement with a neighboring Arab state—and on remarkably favorable terms– was lost because of Israeli intransigence. What this history conclusively demonstrates is that at least since the 1973 war—and very probably earlier than that—in no sense has Syria posed an existential threat to Israel.

There is no mention of any of this history in MPL.

The Conflict with Lebanon and the Hezbollah

From the late 1960s until 1982, the PLO under Yasser Arafat was based primarily in southern Lebanon, from which it carried out attacks against Israel. Following a major PLO attack on an Israeli bus that killed 38 civilians in 1978 Israel invaded southern Lebanon. In the course of its attack it killed an estimated 1000-2000 civilians, most of whom had nothing to do with the PLO. Four years later, Israel struck again, in a far larger attack that succeeded in driving Arafat and the PLO out of Lebanon—but which killed at least 10,000 civilians and devastated the Lebanese civilian infrastructure.

It was this attack that led to the formation of Hezbollah in Lebanon, a Muslim fundamentalist organization whose ideology called for the destruction of Israel but whose military actions in practice were primarily confined to resisting the Israeli military incursions and extended occupations of southern Lebanon. To be sure, Hezbollah did sometimes retaliate for Israeli actions by raiding or shelling northern Israeli towns and villages; one such attack in 1993 led to another major Israeli ground invasion and air attack in Lebanon, again killing hundreds of civilians and devastating civilian infrastructures.

In 2000, Israel withdrew its remaining ground troops in the “security zone” it had established in southern Lebanon, and this action led to a dramatic drop in the long cycle of Hezbollah attacks/Israeli retaliation—or the other way around, no one can tell which. However, apparently motivated by the desire to show solidarity with its Hamas counterparts in Gaza who were under heavy Israeli attack, as well as to force a prisoner exchange with Israel, in July 2006 Hezbollah carried out a cross- border attack that captured two Israeli soldiers and killed three others. Israel then responded with another massive attack on Lebanon, whose purpose was partly to destroy Hezbollah weaponry but primarily to deliberately cause great civilian casualties and destruction among the Lebanese civilian population, so as to punish and deter future Hezbollah attacks. As was widely reported during the attack, and subsequently confirmed in investigations by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, the Israeli attack killed some 1200 civilians, wounded another 4000, and caused massive damage to Lebanese roads, bridges, power stations, water pumping stations, sewage plants, businesses, and civilian apartment houses.

None of this history seems to have any impact on Shavit’s insistence that Israel—through no fault of its own—faces an “existential threat” from Hezbollah. It does not seem to occur to him that if there had been no Israeli expulsion of the Palestinians, there would have been no PLO, that if there had been no PLO there would have no reason for Israel to have attacked Lebanon in 1978 and 1982, that if these attacks had not occurred, there probably would have been no Hezbollah, and that even after the creation of Hezbollah it probably would not have attacked Israel if not for the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon and further massive attacks on that country.

Nor does Shavit notice or at least acknowledge that none of the Hezbollah attacks, whatever their explanation, have been on a scale that remotely posed “existential” threats to Israel. Since 2006, there have been only a few shooting incidents involving soldiers and a handful of Hezbollah rocket attacks into Israel, and none of the latter have caused any significant damage, let alone killed anyone—in short, in the last seven years there has not been even a non-existentialist threat to Israel from Lebanon or Hezbollah. That is not to say that a serious renewed conflict could not break out again because of recent Israeli actions, including a number of air attacks on weapons convoys on their way from Syria to Lebanon, and at least two major assassinations of high Hezbollah officials.

This history of the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict goes mostly undiscussed in MPL, save for one of its oddest chapters, entitled “Reality Shock, 2006”, in which Shavit argues—amazingly, in light of the history of Israel’s many attacks on Lebanon, including in 2006–that in recent years Israel has become “alarmingly impotent” and prone to a “political correctness” that prevents it from recognizing the need for greater military power!

It is worth quoting from that chapter at some length:

Israel’s inability [in 2006] to stop Hezbollah from launching rockets at its northern towns was shocking. Its vulnerability and its impotence were shocking. For over a month, more than a million Israelis lived under fire. Approximately half a million Israelis fled their homes. The nation was helpless and humiliated. Then came a moment of reckoning. The question that echoed throughout the country was what had happened to us. Had we lost it? (5294)

To answer this question, after the war Shavit went on “a depressing tour in the half-deserted towns of the Galilee” and then wrote a Haaretz column—and one that he obviously considers to be just as apropos today, since he reprints it in MPL:

         “What has happened to us?….The politically correct discourse that reigned supreme over the last decade was disconnected from reality. It focused on the issue of occupation but did not address the fact that Israel is caught in an existential conflict….It paid too much attention to Israel’s wrongdoing, and too little to the historical and geopolitical context within which Israel has to survive. …Anything military or national or Zionist was regarded with contempt….Power was synonymous with fascism. Old-fashioned Israeli masculinity was castrated….”

“Israel is not a normal nation. It is a Jewish state in an Arab world, and a Western state in an Islamic world, and a democracy in a region of tyranny….In the Middle East, a nation whose youngsters are not willing to kill and get killed for it is a nation on borrowed time. It will not last for long.” (5294-5326)

Notwithstanding the near-complete end of Hezbollah attacks on Israel, Shavit repeats his apocalyptic warnings today:

Sadly, wars are a testament of Israel’s national strength….Israel’s alarming impotence in 2006 revealed how disoriented and dysfunctional [we have become]…It is not a choice between peace and war. The immediate challenge is the challenge of regaining national potency. An impotent Israel cannot make peace or wage war— or end occupation…. Faced with renewed existential danger, Israel has no relevant national strategy. It is confused and paralyzed. (5326ff)

We are now in cloud-cuckoo land. In light of the long history of destructive Israeli attacks on Lebanon and the relatively inconsequential nature of Hezbollah attacks on Israel, especially since 2006, as well as Hezbollah’s clear reluctance to risk another war that Israeli generals have repeatedly said would inflict even more massive civilian damage on Lebanon, Shavit’s treatment of the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict is nothing less than bizarre.

Saudi Arabia and the Arab League.

For over thirty years, Saudi Arabia has taken the lead in seeking an overall settlement of the overall Arab-Israeli conflict. In 1981 the monarchy proposed an agreement (“the Fahd Plan”) that essentially offered an overall Arab peace with Israel if it dismantled the settlements, withdrew from all Arab territory, allowed the creation of an independent Palestinian state and recognized the right of the Palestinian refugees to return to Israel, if they so chose.

In 2002 King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia convinced the Arab League to unanimously agree to a new proposal which went much further in meeting Israel’s legitimate needs: it called for a formal peace treaty based on an Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories, the establishment of a Palestinian state in those territories—not, that is, in all of the historic land of Palestine, now including Israel itself–and a settlement of the Palestinian refugee problem . If Israel agreed to these terms, the plan explicitly said, “In return the Arab states will do the following: (a) Consider the Arab–Israeli conflict over, sign a peace agreement with Israel, and achieve peace for all states in the region; (b) Establish normal relations with Israel within the framework of this comprehensive peace.”

Significantly, the Arab League proposal markedly softened its position on the Palestinian refugee issue: it called for “a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem to be agreed upon in accordance with U.N. General Assembly Resolution 194,” which called on Israel to allow the refugees “wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors” to do so. There is no mention of a “right of return,” and the carefully chosen language, “to be agreed upon,” effectively grants Israel a veto on the issue

A number of prominent Israelis called upon the government of Ariel Sharon to accept the Arab League initiative as a basis for negotiations to end the conflict—but Sharon refused, calling the proposal “a non-starter.” Nonetheless, the proposal was officially and unanimously reiterated in 2007, following a summit conference in Saudi Arabia of the heads of state of the twenty-two states of the Arab League as well as Mahmoud Abbas in his capacity as president of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas prime minister in Gaza; Abbas voted in favor, and Haniyeh abstained, lending credence to Hamas’s position (discussed in more detail below) that it would not oppose any agreement that was supported by the Arab League.

In 2012 the Arab League again unanimously reaffirmed its peace offer, and in 2013 Secretary of State John Kerry called upon Israel to accept the offer as the basis for negotiations. Needless to say, the Netanyahu government has not done so and, given its obvious intentions to maintain the occupation, there is no chance that it will.

What does Shavit have to say about this history? Disregarding the inconvenient facts, he ignores it, writing: “Now there is no hope for peace: no moderate Arab leader has the legitimacy needed to sign a new conflict-ending agreement with the Zionist entity.” (6541)


Despite his insistence that the Arab world as a whole poses existential threats to Israel, Shavit’s main concern today clearly is Iran: “Iran is not a Netanyahu bogeyman; it is a real existential threat.” (6054) He elaborates: “If Iran went nuclear, the Middle East would go nuclear, the world order would collapse, and Israel’s existence would be in jeopardy.” (5810) And not just Israel’s existence: “All Western leaders knew that Iran might endanger the future of the United States, Europe, and the world.” (5829)

While Shavit does not quite explicitly call for an Israeli attack on Iran right now, that is the obvious implication of his rhetoric—for example, in his Nov. 20 oped in the New York Times (“How Bush Let Iran Go Nuclear”), he castigates the “Munich mindset” of those opposing an attack and in MPL he favorably quotes one Israeli hardliner: “If Israel shied away from taking action just because it was deterred by a few hundred Iranian missiles and a few thousand Hezbollah rockets, it had no right and no way to survive.” (5971)

Actually, Shavit has been issuing the same despairing predictions for a number of years now, as recently pointed out in the brilliantly-titled “Apocalypse Now, Apocalypse Forever,” by +972, an Israeli dissident group:

*In May 2007 Shavit wrote that “If Iran is not stopped this year, then in the summer of 2008 it will be on its way to nuclear hegemony…..Israel confronts the most important decision in its history. The decision of its life.”

*In April 2008 Shavit wrote that “Israel is facing unprecedented challenges. Iran is on the verge of nuclearization, Syria and Hezbollah are growing stronger, Hamas is heading toward conflagration….Israeli society must muster all its inner strength both to prevent war and to endure a war.”

*In September 2008 Shavit wrote that “there is a high probability that in 2009 or 2010, Israel will face a national test.”

*In November 2011, Shavit wrote that “our time is up,” for 2012 would be “the decisive year;” and in February 2012 he wrote that if Obama doesn’t “stop Iran in any way necessary and at any price…he will obligate Netanyahu to act before the 2012 elections.” Then, in March he warned “we are getting closer to the moment of truth….it’s totally clear that for Israel, it’s either now or never.

Needless to say, then, Shavit is not deterred from issuing renewed apocalyptic predictions even though he has been repeatedly proven wrong in the past, nor is he impressed by the fact that most military and civilian experts on the Iranian nuclear issue, including in Israel, take strong issue with his “arguments,” if we can call them such. The consensus view in these groups is that the primary purpose of the Iranian nuclear program is deterrence, not aggression–as has been the case for every other nuclear state.   There is not the slightest evidence to support the Netanyahu-Shavit fear that, out of pure hatred for a Jewish state and out of the blue, Iran would launch a nuclear strike against Israel, despite its full knowledge that the entire country would be literally annihilated by Israeli nuclear retaliation.

The supposedly more worrisome problem is that Iran might covertly give nuclear weapons to terrorists, who might believe they could use them against Israel—or the U.S.– and escape retaliation, in the hope that it might not be clear who originated the attack and where it came from.   However, that possibility also is remote: even if Iran was motivated to give nuclear weapons to fanatical groups like al-Qaeda—which for several reasons is highly unlikely–it would have to assume that it would be blamed for any nuclear attack on Israel and would be destroyed in retaliation, even if it hadn’t been the source, the inspiration, or the supporter of such an attack.  No doubt in part for similar reasons, there is no evidence that any nuclear state has ever given such weapons to terrorist groups–not even the most extremist or supposedly the least rational states, like North Korea and Pakistan.

Moreover, most military experts, including most of Israel’s own top intelligence and military officials, opposed a military attack on Iran, at least under the present conditions. Shavit actually acknowledges this, admitting that the recent IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi “adamantly opposed the actual use of the military option” (5971), and that he is joined in this view by most other army generals, by Meir Dagan, the head of Mossad from 2002, and by Yuval Disken, the head of the Shin Bet national security agency from 2005 through 2011. Undaunted, Shavit offers no counteranalyses to their arguments.

The overall anti-war argument favored by the majority of informed observers is that an Israeli or even a joint U.S-Israeli military attack would have little chance of meaningful success over the longer run, since Iran would have an even greater reason to reconstitute and protect its weapons facilities in order to deter other attacks. At the same time, such an illegal, unnecessary, and futile “preventive war” would be highly dangerous, likely to result in a series of Iranian retaliatory actions that could destabilize the Middle East, undermine US and other Western interests, and possible precipitate a much wider war.

Moreover, the current negotiations between the U.S. and Iran might yet result in an agreement to allow Iran to continue its nuclear program but agree not to weaponize it. In this respect it is important to remember that in 2003 the moderate Khatami government in Iran strongly signaled that it wanted to negotiate a political settlement, based on a “grand bargain” in which in return for the end of economic sanctions and the U.S.-Israeli military threats, it would not develop nuclear weapons, would end its military support for Hamas and Hezbollah, and would accept a two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian. Astonishingly, the Bush administration spurned this opening, which might have met both US and Israeli concerns and interests.

It is not yet clear whether the current negotiations can produce such a remarkably favorable settlement. If not, the overwhelmingly favored course among Western and Israeli military and security leaders is for a continuation of economic sanctions until Iran is ready to agree not to develop nuclear weapons—and even if that outcome can’t be attained, the fall-back position of Israel, the U.S., and the West should be not a military attack but the same strategy that prevented major war during the Cold war: deterrence and a “balance of terror.”…

            The Damage

No matter for how long, how often, and how thoroughly the mythologies that continue to pass for the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict have been discredited, nothing seems to penetrate the psychological walls that most Israelis and American supporters of Israel have erected in order to protect themselves from having to confront the irrefutable truths about the conflict. The latest proof of this frustrating, even maddening, reality is the acclaim– even or maybe especially in the elite US media– that is being accorded to Shavit’s book. Whatever its strengths–and there are many—it can only worsen the dismal discourse about the conflict that still prevails in Israel and the United States.

The central theme of MPL is that real peace between Israel and the Arabs is impossible. There are two crucial problems with this argument. The first is the unspoken but clear underlying premise that the enmity between Israel and the Arabs has been a function of some immutable Arab hatred or anti-Semitism that transcends Israel’s behavior towards the Arabs. The second problem is that whatever the cause of the enmity, Israel has repeatedly ignored or sabotaged many opportunities to end the conflict, which could have been done if Israel had been willing to accept reasonable compromises on the four crucial issues: the return of most of the Arab territories captured by Israel in the various wars, a permanent partition of the historical land of Palestine, Palestinian independence and sovereignty in their allotted land, including East Jerusalem, and a small-scale symbolic “return” to Israel of some 10-50,000 descendants of the Palestinian refugees of 1948. Had these steps been taken—and perhaps it is not too late, although the Netanyahu government is doing its best to make sure it is— in all probability the dangers to Israel, “existential” or not, would have come to an end.

You would not know any of this from reading Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land—worse, you might even be more inclined to dismiss Arab-Israeli peace possibilities, precisely because so much of the book is highly critical of Israel but yet argues, essentially, that the conflict is not Israel’s fault.

When propagandists or obvious ideologues not known for their fidelity to truth argue that a Jewish state can never live at peace in the Middle East, sensible people, even when they are not themselves expert in the matter, are likely to consider the source and be inclined to be skeptical. For example, no sensible person would say “Even Abraham Foxman and Alan Dershowitz think that Israel is now and always has been in permanent danger because of Arab anti-Semitism.”

Ari Shavit is another matter, however, for he is a leading journalist in Israel’s most liberal newspaper who has written a book that on the one hand with ruthless honesty describes and decries the history of Zionist terrorism, the expulsion of the Palestinians, the occupation, the settlements, the brutal Israeli repression of Palestinian resistance, the alarming dangers to Israeli democracy and basic Western moral values–but on the other hand essentially argues that no matter what Israel does, it has no chance to be accepted and live in peace in the Arab world.

Thus, Shavit’s apparent—but unearned—credibility may have a considerable influence, because moderate but non-expert Americans might well conclude that “Even Ari Shavit thinks that the Arabs will never make peace with Israel. “ Thus, in the final analysis, despite its almost universal acclaim—or, perhaps, because of that acclaim– what is wrong about My Promised Land is far more important than what is right, and for that reason it is a dangerous and, indeed, unforgivable book.

A version of this post first appeared on Slater’s site. It includes an extensive section on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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Sharp analysis. Thanks for writing it.

Excellent critique, Mr. Slater. It’s my understanding that in the ’48 war the Arab state participants were more concerned with the territorial ambitions of their Arab neighbors than they were with fighting the Zionist armies. Iraqi, Syrain and Egyption forces were mostly parked in rearguard positions to protect their territories, committing only a small number of troops to the fight against Israel. Jordan had the most at stake in ’48 war, resulting in the fiercest… Read more »

Slater is masterful. full marks. There may be some slight danger to Israel from its Arab neighbors: Palestinians have been known to throw stones, after all, and there have been a few small rocket attacks and suicide bombers over the years. But this was never “existential”. Shavit says Israel managed to survive the 2006 Lebanon war? A war that it started! As Slater made clear. Existential threats by war? Pfui. Anyway, the real (and only)… Read more »

Slater, a bone to pick with you: “To be sure, such relatively limited objectives or mixed motives were far from clear at the time to the Israelis, who thought of themselves as fighting for their very survival. And possibly they were, for who can tell whether the intentions of the invading armies would have continued to be limited to territorial gain (or the prevention of territorial grabs by Arab rivals) had Jewish resistance collapsed?” The… Read more »

I have been following Israel/Palestine for many years, and this is the best single essay I have read on the subject in a long time.