Wright Is Wrong

October 29, 2014 Topic: Politics Region: Palestinian territoriesUnited States

Wright Is Wrong

 The influential author Lawrence Wright gets the Camp David accords badly wrong in his book Thirteen Days in September.

The Israeli-Egyptian bilateral framework agreement laid out the principles that would govern the eventual Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. Egypt would get all of Sinai, up to the international frontier (the line demarcated in 1906 by representatives of Britain, which then ruled Egypt, and the Ottoman Empire, which then ruled Palestine). The accord called for the establishment of full diplomatic, cultural and commercial relations. Israeli ships would have the right of passage through the Suez Canal, the Gulf of Suez and the Gulf of Aqaba. Egyptian forces in Sinai were to be severely limited, and Israeli forces along the Negev border would be limited to four battalions. UN forces would be stationed between the two sides on the Egyptian side of the border. Israel would withdraw to a north-south line running down the middle of the Sinai Peninsula within three to nine months of the signing of the peace treaty. It was agreed that the treaty would be signed within three months.

During the signing ceremony, Begin thanked Carter profusely and said: “I think he worked harder than our forefathers did in Egypt building the pyramids.” Sadat may not have enjoyed this comparison, as, being a proud Egyptian, he found the idea that Jewish slaves had built the pyramids offensive.


WRIGHT’S BOOK is marred by a profusion of factual errors not common in good history, even in good journalistic history. Many of the mistakes relate to the 1948 war. Wright wrongly assumes that the 1948 war began with the Arab regular armies’ invasion of Palestine on May 15, 1948; in fact, it began on November 30, 1947, when Palestinian irregulars opened hostilities by ambushing two Jewish buses near Petah Tikva. Wright completely omits mention of the first half of the 1948 war, between November 1947 and May 1948, when Palestinian militiamen battled Jewish militiamen for control. He also says that the Lebanese Army was among the Arab armies invading Palestine on May 15. It wasn’t. He seems to assume that Arab anti-Semitism, rampant in the Arab world and in today’s Europe, began with the traumatic events of 1947–1949. But anti-Semitism was rife in Arab societies long before 1948 (as in the pogroms around the Arab lands in the Middle Ages and in modern times—in Baghdad in 1828 and 1941, and in Fez in 1912, for example).

Likewise, Wright’s description of what happened in the Arab town of Lydda on July 11–13, 1948—which he partly bases on my own research but also on Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land—is wrongheaded. There was no “systematic massacre of hundreds” of townspeople (even Shavit, in his tendentious account, doesn’t claim that)—and it is not true that “many” of the twenty to thirty thousand Arabs who trekked out of Lydda died on the march eastward (one Arab writer later wrote of “four hundred,” but a more reasonable estimate would probably put the figure at a dozen or several dozen). Moreover, Israel did not annex “eight thousand square miles” in 1948. The Jews were awarded six thousand square miles of Palestine for their state in the UN partition resolution of November 1947, and conquered and “annexed” another two thousand square miles in 1948–1949.

Wright also tells us that “most of the [1948 war’s] Palestinian refugees fled into neighboring Arab countries.” Actually, only one-third of them fled to neighboring countries—Jordan, Syria and Lebanon—while two-thirds were displaced from one part of mandatory Palestine to another (from Jaffa and Haifa to the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, for instance). I also can’t agree with Wright’s assertion that toward the end of the 1948 war, “forced expulsion had become the policy of the new Jewish state.” Had this been true, there would be no explaining why the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) left some thirty to fifty thousand Arab inhabitants in central-upper Galilee during Operation Hiram in October that year.

There are also many errors unrelated to 1948. The Germans conquered Brisk (Brest-Litovsk), Begin’s hometown, in June 1941 (not “on July 22, 1942”). It’s not true that in the summer of 1942, Rommel had “bottled up the British Eighth Army” at El Alamein. The Arab revolt began in 1936, not in “1934.” It was not the “ultra-Orthodox” but the Orthodox Jews who “spearheaded the settler movement” in the West Bank beginning in 1967. And the turning point of the 1973 Yom Kippur War was not on October 18, when the Israelis set up a pontoon bridge across the Suez Canal, but on the night of October 15–16, when lead elements of Sharon’s division crossed the canal and took up positions on the west bank, signaling the successful breach of the Egyptian lines and the crossing by Israel of the canal. This was to lead to the complete encirclement of the Egyptian Third Army, stranded east of the canal, and to Egypt’s desperate plea for a cease-fire.

Wright does his readers a major service by providing verbatim Dayan’s famous eulogy over the grave of Roy Rothberg in Nahal Oz, next to the Gaza Strip, in 1956. Rothberg was shot dead by Arab infiltrators in the kibbutz fields. But Wright writes that Dayan had met Rothberg “during the siege of Gaza.” What siege? There was none; Gaza was then under Egyptian rule. The only “siege” of Gaza I know of is the one imposed by Israel on the Strip since 2007, when Hamas took over the Strip from the Palestinian Authority in an armed coup. And the kibbutz didn’t “commandeer” the Arabs’ fields—the fields were part of the territory conquered by Israel in the 1948 war, a war that the Palestinian Arabs and the Arab armies had launched.


BEYOND THESE factual errors, I found Wright’s book rather slanted. He has every right to prefer Sadat and Carter to Menachem Begin. Many, if not most, Israelis found Begin’s expansionist policies vis-à-vis the Palestinian territories and his war in Lebanon in 1982 abhorrent. Many also found him personally irritating and unlikable—though his reputation has definitely improved, in Israeli minds, since his death in 1992. This is partly due to the country’s steady drift to the right. But it also owes much to Begin’s personal honesty and reverence for the law.

But Wright’s tendentiousness goes way beyond his attitude toward the Israeli prime minister. In a way, he lets the cat out of the bag when he writes, regarding the Lebanese Christian Phalangist massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila camps in Beirut in September 1982, that “the Israelis had a clear view of the slaughter from the rooftop of the Kuwaiti embassy, which they occupied. To assist the Phalangists in their work, the Israelis provided illuminating flares at night.” The implication is that the IDF deliberately aided the killers. This is essentially untrue. Israel’s subsequent Kahan Commission of Inquiry found fault in Defense Minister Ariel Sharon’s conduct and in that of several senior generals (all of whom were fired)—but ruled that the army had been unaware that a massacre was taking place and that when awareness finally dawned, it intervened and stopped it. None of this is in Wright’s book.

Wright’s detailed description of the Israelite conquest of Canaan circa 1200 BC—which he bases solely on the Bible—is in a similar vein. To begin with, he calls Palestine a “vast tract” of land. “Vast”? By comparison, for example, with the lands that the Arabs rule, from the Atlantic to the Persian Gulf? He speaks of “the Israeli horde” that crossed the Jordan River. (I know that “horde” can mean a wandering mass of tribesmen; but in current usage it has a definitely savage connotation.) He tells of Joshua’s conquests and attendant massacres of Canaanite tribesmen—which all sounds very immoral in 2014 but was quite the norm in the thirteenth century BC. Wright seems to be condemning the Israelites of three thousand years ago by the light of twenty-first-century morality. And he directly connects 1200 BC to 1978—or 2014—by writing:

For many believers, the account of the annihilation of the peoples of Canaan is one of the most troubling stories in the Bible. For Begin, however, Joshua was the original incarnation of the Fighting Jew. Joshua’s mission was to carve out a living space [a reference to the Nazi quest for Lebensraum?] for the Israelites, much as modern Jews sought to do so in the Arab world. . . . Begin certainly wasn’t the only Israeli leader who believed that spilling blood was a necessary ritual for the unification and spiritual restoration of the Jewish people, and that enacting revenge on the Arabs was a way of healing the traumas of the Jewish experience in Europe and elsewhere.

Curiously, Wright then goes on to say that much of the biblical story that he has just related is actually untrue or of doubtful veracity, given recent archaeological discoveries—that the town of Ai was not conquered by Joshua but was destroyed a thousand years earlier, for example, or that Jericho was not a fortified town. Nonetheless, Wright is telling his readers that Zionism—he mentions Begin, Dayan and David Ben Gurion in the same bloodlusting breath—is a conquering, vengeful ideology.