Jerome Slater, Mythologies Without End: The US, Israel, and the Arab-Israeli Conflict (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020). 507 pp. $29.95.
Every long-running international conflict acquires a lore that rationalizes the position of one or the other of the parties and gets instilled through repetition in the hearts and minds of partisans. The lore may blend fact with fiction, and insofar as fiction is involved it tends to impede resolution of the conflict. Of no conflict has this been truer than the one between Israelis and Arabs.
Several circumstances have helped to sustain the mythology surrounding this tragic clash, including religious overtones that convert political demands into what some believe to be the will of God. The founding of the state of Israel in the aftermath of the Holocaust has invoked guilt and other emotions among a larger audience than the parties directly involved. The extraordinary role that Israel plays in the politics of the United States—Israel’s most important benefactor—has been another major impediment to clear-eyed understanding of the conflict and thus to its resolution.
The central myth of the conflict is embodied in the famous quip of former Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban that “the Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” The notion is that the conflict would have been settled long ago if it weren’t for the recalcitrance of Arab leaders bent on destroying, or at least perpetually opposing, the Jewish state and who have repeatedly refused to opt for peace when given the chance to do so. That notion, and the entrenched mythology surrounding it, is thoroughly demolished by Jerome Slater’s new history of the conflict.
There indeed have been missed opportunities, and Palestinians and other Arabs have made serious mistakes along the way. But most of the refusals to opt for peace have been on the Israeli side. Moreover, the missing of opportunities for peace has entailed not just muffed diplomacy but rather an expansionist Israeli intention to control all the land in Palestine and more. Slater’s exhaustive research, mustering an abundance of material including leaders’ own statements of intent, persuasively establishes this counterpoint to the established mythology.
Slater, a professor emeritus of political science at the State University of New York at Buffalo, initially approached this subject in a manner familiar to many other American Jews of his generation. In a prologue, he tells of how, as a young man who had served in the U.S. Navy as an anti-submarine warfare officer, he once wrote to the Israeli embassy offering to serve in the same capacity on an Israeli destroyer in the event of a new war with Egypt. His views on the conflict changed as he learned more about it. That learning process continued for fifty years, and Mythologies Without End reflects an entire career of scholarship.
The Road to Disaster
All the while, Slater has retained his concern for the security and well-being of Israel. He sorrowfully writes that Israel, with “essentially blind” U.S. support, “is well along the road to both a moral and security disaster.” He says the first step in preventing things from getting worse is for Israel “to come to terms with the historical truth.”
Slater raises legitimate questions about aspects of the Zionist claim to all of Palestine that is rooted in biblical fable about ancient Israelites as the “original” inhabitants. Even if rooted in fact, the claim disintegrates before the fact that Jews were only a small fraction of the population of ancient Palestine and that clocks do not get turned back to ancient times in the countless other places on the planet that have been conquered repeatedly by different peoples. Besides, if all rights are to go to the “original” inhabitants, what about the rights of the Canaanites from whom the Israelites are said to have seized the place? (Research by genetic anthropologists shows that DNA from ancient inhabitants who could be called Canaanites is found in both Arabs and Jews living today.)
Most of the book focuses on the episodes in modern history when it could be said that opportunities for peace came and went. The war of 1948 and its aftermath constituted one of those episodes. Perhaps the biggest mistake Arab leaders ever made involving the conflict with Israelis was to reject the United Nations partition plan for Palestine, notwithstanding the way it favored Jewish inhabitants of the territory. That rejection not only led to a defeat in war but also fed the notion—which has persisted well after it became out of date—that Arabs never have wanted to make peace with Israel.
Slater’s treatment debunks several myths associated with this episode, showing that the small and uncoordinated Arab military operations had at least as much to do with sorting out rival territorial claims among the Arabs themselves as it did with any ambition to drive Israel into the sea. The Israelis had a legitimate right of self-defense, but this neither required nor justified either the seizure of Arab lands beyond those designated for a Jewish state in the partition plan or the Nakba under which some seven hundred thousand Palestinians were expelled from their homes or fled in understandable fear for their lives. Slater provides evidence that the desire of David Ben-Gurion and other Zionist leaders to ensure a large Jewish majority in the new state of Israel had a lot to do with the Nakba. Missed opportunities arose after the 1948 war when Israeli unwillingness to make compromises with Egypt, Jordan, and Syria based on the return of captured Arab lands prevented peace settlements with those states and set the stage for later wars in 1956 and 1967.
A similar pattern followed the 1967 war, which Israel initiated and which brought all of Palestine plus Syria’s Golan Heights and the Egyptian Sinai into Israel’s possession. Israel’s decision to keep everything but the Sinai led to the decades of misery and strife associated with the occupation of Palestinian-inhabited territory. If Israel had decided differently, then the evidence that Slater gathers and correctly describes as “overwhelming” is that peace settlements with Egypt, Jordan, and Syria could have been quickly reached after the war, in addition to making peace with the Palestinians feasible.
Like the West Bank, the Golan Heights was long an object of Israeli territorial ambition. Former Israeli defense minister Moshe Dayan, in an admission published only after his death, described how from the 1940s to the 1960s, Israel deliberately provoked Syria in an effort to trigger the kind of confrontation in which Israel could seize the Golan Heights. For years after the capture of the Golan, Syrian president Hafez Assad repeatedly offered to reach a full peace treaty with Israel that included the return of the captured territory. Secret negotiations came tantalizingly close to an agreement, with the remaining disagreement involving a few meters of shoreline on Lake Tiberias. It was Israel, not Syria, that backed away from this opportunity, partly out of expected resistance from the Israeli right-wing.
Opportunities for Peace with Palestinians
By the 1980s the Palestinian leadership under Yasir Arafat had given up whatever hope it may have once had of governing all of Palestine and henceforth pursued the goal of a truncated Palestinian state living side-by-side with Israel. This posture was reflected in the Oslo Accords of the 1990s, with explicit Palestinian recognition of the state of Israel. Again, negotiators came close to a full settlement, aided by the mediation of President Bill Clinton in 2000 and in further bilateral talks at Taba. Slater notes how mistakes from both sides contributed to the ultimate failure of these negotiations but assigns most of the blame to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and his unwillingness to commit to accepting a Palestinian state. This opportunity for peace ended not because of anything that was done on the Palestinian side but because of Israeli politics, as Ariel Sharon replaced Barak.
In 2002 the Arab League put forward its peace initiative, offering Israel complete peace with all Arab states once Israel had permitted the creation of a Palestinian state on occupied territory. In 2007 the League unanimously reaffirmed its proposal while dropping references to “right of return” and making it clear that Israel would have a veto over how many refugees, if any, to accept. In Slater’s words, “most observers of the conflict are astonished” that Israel has never acknowledged the Arab peace initiative or agreed to negotiate a settlement based on its principles.
This long and sad history is relevant to current U.S. policies toward Israel, including the Trump administration’s one-sided “peace plan” that shoves the Palestinians aside, accompanied by armament-fueled pressure on individual Arab states to expand relations with Israel even in the absence of an Israeli-Palestinian peace. These moves can reasonably be interpreted as election-year ploys that reflect no coherent strategic view of the conflict. But if there is any implied strategy, then it rests on the notion that it is the Palestinians who most need to change their attitudes to make peace possible. Both history and current realities indicate otherwise. Israel is the side that not only has the land and the power and thus the ability to change the status quo but also—given how comfortable it has become, thanks to U.S. backing, with the land and the power—has had the least incentive and least inclination to change it in the direction of peace.