David Brooks (Mis)Uses Israeli History to Involve the U.S. in a Cycle of Violence

I left Israel last summer with the awareness that the people there live in misery. I was moved by a friend’s grim summary of the situation: “The Arabs don’t want us here, they just don’t. So we have to accept that there will be one war after another.” One war after another? That’s misery.

David Brooks got the same quote I did, in a column a week ago (September 28) from a “veteran of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.” How long will our war with the Arab world last? “This is forever.”

Surely this is how many (maybe most) Israelis think. But there are two huge problems in parroting these thoughts, as Brooks did, to guide American relations with the Arab world. 1, is the widespread Israeli belief that Israel deserves no share of blame for the 60-year history of violence with “an existential foe,” as Brooks says. It’s simply wrong: “nationalist propaganda,” in the words of Simha Flapan, one of the Israeli “new historians” who have in the last generation transformed historical understanding of the Middle East. 2, and more dangerous, is the conflation issue: Brook’s neoconservative claim that Americans should think about the Arab world as Israelis do “who have more experience with Islamic extremism.” Why? Why must we recapitulate the experience of an ally in the Arab world?

First let’s consider the history of Arab-Israeli violence, and specifically the two wars that Brooks cites as historical examples of dealing with Islamic “extremism”: 1948 and 1967.

If you read the new historians, it is clear that in both wars, the two sides, Israel and the Arab states, had prepared for war. In both cases, Israel was the far stronger side, and won resoundingly—and in winning greatly expanded its territory.

In the first instance, the U.N. had partitioned Palestine in 1947 and called for a Jewish and an Arab state. The Palestinians, and later the Arab neighbors, were determined to stop the creation of a Jewish state. The founders of Israel also were determined to prevent the creation of a Palestinian state. “The essential condition of life in Palestine was one of mutual exclusion,” Shlomo Ben-Ami, the historian and former Foreign Minister, writes in Scars of War, Wounds of Peace. Indeed, the idea of “transfer” or ethnic cleansing of Palestine, was central to the leaders of the new Israeli state. “‘Drive them out!” was Ben-Gurion’s instruction to a leading general at a Palestinian village.

After ’48 Israel wound up with a lot more territory than it had been assigned under partition, and did so by expelling 700,000 Palestinian refugees, many of them fleeing atrocities and massacres—refugees who were not allowed to return to their homes after the war. As Hannah Arendt wrote at the time, “Liberals in all countries were horrified at the callousness, the haughty dismissal of humanitarian considerations by a government whose representatives, only one year ago, had pleaded their own cause on purely humanitarian grounds…”

Note: I’m not saying that the Arabs would not have driven the Jews into the sea if they were able. But they weren’t able, and duly the Arabs were forced off the land, and perceived Israel as an “existential foe.”

In ’67 the evidence from the new historians is that while Israel started the war, preemptively, neither side really wanted a war but both sides practiced brinksmanship, and indeed, the Israeli generals strongarmed their own political leaders to action. Before his death, the hero of that war, General Moshe Dayan admitted that the Israeli army had pressed tractors to plow fields further and further into the demilitarized zone between Israel and Syria so as to bring on hostilities, and allow Israel to capture the Golan Heights (according to Avi Shlaim in his book, The Iron Wall).

Yes the Arab states were hostile to Israel, perhaps even her existence; but consider that of the three states that took Israel on, Egypt and Jordan have since signed peace treaties with Israel, and Syria has repeatedly offered to make a deal with Israel, and Israel has repeatedly rejected these overtures. I count that as one of the big revelations of my trip to Israel last summer: the statement (by David Kimche in the Jerusalem Post) that we don’t make deals with Syria and give up land, because Syria’s too weak. Some way to treat a neighbor with a legitimate beef. Gideon Levy attacked the obdurate Syria policy in Ha’aretz just the other day, saying that Israel has adopted a militarized approach to its neighbors, and would prefer to dominate them rather than have peace. Altogether 22 Arab states have said they would accept Israel’s existence along the borders established, to Israel’s advantage then, after the 1948 war. It is simply not accurate to describe these neighbors as posing an “existential threat” that goes on “forever.” It is self-serving propaganda. Or as Hannah Arendt wrote prophetically in 1950 (the quotes are from Prophets Outcast, from Nation books): “Today the Israeli government speaks of accomplished facts, of Might is Right, of military necessities, of the law of conquest, whereas two years ago, the same people in the Jewish Agency spoke of justice and the desperate needs of the Jewish people.”

Brooks applauds Israel for crushing Arab nationalism in ’67. He does not consider the calamity that followed from that war: the rise of Israeli nationalism. Nationalists, who have never accepted partition of Palestine, but dream of a Jewish state that extends to the river Jordan, have built hundreds of thousands of homes, illegally, in the occupied territories, thereby violating the Geneva Conventions, and have helped to construct an apartheid system, in which a couple of million Arabs are deprived of basic rights, causing enormous resentment across the Arab world, inflaming the murderous Khalid Sheik Muhammed among others. Yes, Israel has real problems from extremist neighbors, now including non-Arabs, like Iran. But many of them it has brought on itself, through a militarized cycle of violence. “The 1967 victory was so overwhelming that Israelis increasingly came to believe that they could live forever without peace,” Simha Flapan writes.

On to point 2. The danger of Brooks’s argument—the neoconservative fallacy, duly imbibed by the neoliberals—is that Americans should look on Israel’s approach to its neighbors as a model for our own relations with the Arab world. “Israel: a country which for fifty years has rested its entire national strategy on preventive wars, disproportionate retaliation, and efforts to redesign the map of the whole Middle East… for the US to imitate Israel wholesale, to import that tiny country’s self-destructive, intemperate response to any hostility or opposition and to make it the leitmotif of American foreign policy: that is simply bizarre.” (Tony Judt)

We’re a pluralistic superpower, not a small ethnically-homogeneous state battling for borders. One of the most creative thinkers about the Middle East, Joshua Landis of the University of Oklahoma, makes the point that many states in the Middle East, including Israel, share attributes: They are new, created by colonialists from another continent drawing lines with rulers on maps; and from Iraq to Syria to Israel, they all have problems with ethnic minorities and militias and borders. Israel’s democratic institutions and freedoms could be a beacon to the entire region, if its militaristic attitudes towards its neighbors, hardened by victories and U.S. military funding, and the lobby here, were not so galling, and had helped perpetuate a cycle of violence. This is the heart of the fallacy of the Israel lobby in the U.S.: the blurring of our interests with a relatively new state in a powderkeg region and the widespread acceptance in our press that because Israel has gone down a blind alley of violence as an answer to its neighborhood, of wars “forever,” as Brooks promotes the policy with such appeal, we must adopt that as our answer, rather than imagining a different way.