Cursed Victory

So near and yet… (left to right) Arafat, Hussein, Clinton and NetanyahuSo near and yet… (left to right) Arafat, Hussein, Clinton and Netanyahu

By Ahron Bregman
Allen Lane, £25

Ahron Bregman’s new book is an intelligent, critical account of contemporary Israeli history after the 1967 Six-Day War. The conquered territories, occupied and then colonised, became an ideological albatross that has hung around Israel’s neck ever since. The prime minister at the time, Levi Eshkol, took to making a seemingly Churchillian V-sign on public occasions. He revealed to his perplexed wife, however, that it stood not for “victory” but for “vi krishen aroys” – Yiddish for “How do we get out of this?”

Both Moshe Dayan and his rival for the premiership, Yigal Allon, proposed plans for the territories – called “occupied” by the left, “administered” by the centre and “Judea and Samaria” by the right and the religious. Allon suggested an effective partition of the West Bank between Israel and Jordan with security settlements abutting the River Jordan. Dayan favoured large settlement blocs, integrating with the Palestinian population rather than separating from them.

Integration turned into economic dependency and the Palestinians became a cheap labour force. Even so, Israel initially did make attempts to encourage Palestinian entrepreneurs and created 6,000 new jobs as well as the Erez industrial zone near Gaza.

Clinton bitterly reported Arafat’s rejection of his plan

Bregman’s account of the past 20 years makes painful reading. With the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the demise of the Oslo process, Israel’s conflict with ascendant Palestinian Islamism submerged the imagery of a bright future for both peoples in a quagmire of periodic violence.

It has been characterised by suicide bombers, the development of bigger and better missiles, the brutalisation of ordinary Israeli soldiers, the killing of Palestinian civilians and the absence of any peace initiative from successive Netanyahu governments.

This book utilises to good effect unpublished intelligence files, transcripts of telephone calls and interviews with the many protagonists. For example, Bregman produces a taped conversation between President Clinton and Hafez al-Assad in which the Syrian leader is told, “Barak believes you are a man of honour”. No wonder Angela Merkel was annoyed at US eavesdropping on her telephone conversations.

Bregman also reproduces a remarkable private letter from King Hussein to Netanyahu, less than a year into his first administration. He writes:

“The saddest reality that has been dawning on me is that I do not find you by my side in working to fulfil God’s will for the final reconciliation of all the descendants of the children of Abraham. Your course of actions seems bent on destroying all I believe in…”

Bregman writes about another telephone conversation – between Clinton and Barak on 3 January 2001 – in which the US President bitterly reported that Arafat had turned down the Clinton Parameters, now recognised by many Israelis and Palestinians as still the best proposal yet made.

The book concentrates on testimony and reportage but does not always explain the context in which an event happened. For example, why did Israel retain the West Bank? There are religious, nationalist, Marxist and security explanations, but none are given.

Why was Menachem Begin willing to return Sinai to the Egyptians? He explained to the far right and the national religious constituency that he did not consider it to be part of the Land of Israel whereas the West Bank – Judea and Samaria – was its heartland. Instead, space is allocated to marginal titillations such as the poisoning of Arafat without any concrete evidence.

But this book produces nuggets of new information that add to the tower of knowledge about this intractable situation. In 1967, Israel received a dowry (the land). But with this dowry came an unwanted bride (the Palestinians). In 2014, Israel is still unable to work out a framework for a rational divorce settlement.

Jewish Chronicle 18 September 2014

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