Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke to the Jewish Agency Board of Governors yesterday. What was his view of history? How did he use it?
1. He used a static view of causes when it worked for him. In short, since Arabs opposed Israel before the occupation began in 1967 as well as after the 1967 war, Netanyahu noted, the occupation itself could not be the cause of Palestinian (and Arab) displeasure with Israel. They must hate and reject Israel in any form. This stance has the added implication that the peace process is of questionable (or no) value because a two-state solution would still leave an Israel for Arabs to hate and attack.
But causes are dynamic. The 1967 War (through the early 1970s) was exactly the pivot point when the central question of the Arab-Israeli conflict changed. From 1948, it had been whether Israel should exist.** Israelis felt their position was tenuous and the Israeli public feared for Israel’s survival on the eve of the 1967 war (though both the Israeli and US governments privately expected Israel to win any war handily). But after Israel had repeatedly demonstrated its military prowess, several key Arab players started to shift: Sadat’s Egypt and then Arafat’s PLO accepted Israel. (Jordan also signed a treaty in 1994)
The question increasingly became what to do with the Palestinians and the focus was no longer on the territory of pre-1967 Israel but rather on the West Bank and Gaza, the occupied territories. The ground had literally shifted in 1967 and that affected the nature of the conflict. In other words, Israel was state but should the Palestinians exist in the form of a state?
This shift has not been a complete one and important elements of the prior argument are embedded in, say, the Hamas charter. But the much-talked about Israeli-Palestinian negotiated resolution would in any version – US, Abbas, Netanyahu, Peres – leave Israel with as much or more sovereign territory as it had pre-1967 war.
2. His presentation of the Palestinian refugees is misleading and incomplete. Netanyahu:
The second point derives from the first, and that is that the refugee problems are settled in these two respective states – the question of Palestinian refugees will be resolved in the Palestinian state and not in Israel. Just as the question of Jewish refugees caused by that same Arab assault on Israel in 1948, was resolved within the Jewish state. The Arab attack, the attack of five Arab armies, with the Palestinians, on the embryonic Jewish state caused two refugee problems. About 650,000 Palestinian refugees and a somewhat larger number of Jewish refugees expelled from Arab states. Tiny Israel absorbed all the Jewish refugees and the vast Arab world refused to absorb the Palestinian refugees, and neither justice nor common sense mandates that 63 years later, the Arab world or the Palestinians will come to us and say: Now, absorb the great-great-grandchildren of this part of the refugee problem that we created ourselves.
Note the missing verb: “About 650,000 Palestinian refugees.” The Jewish refugees were “expelled” but there is no verb for the Palestinian ones. The reality is that many of the Palestinians were expelled (e.g. see Yitzhak Rabin’s memoir for one example) and some fled a dangerous war zone. The timing is also wrong since several hundred thousand Palestinians became refugees before Israel declared statehood in May 1948 and thus before the battle between Israel and the Arab states.
Israel was designed to absorb Jews. That was and is its self-defined identity and mission, the ingathering of the exiles. Netanyahu takes pride in this immigration in the speech:
Remember we were 600,000 in 1948 and our population grew over tenfold in 63 years.
That was not the mission of the Arab countries. Maybe you could argue that was the mission of pan-Arabism of the 1950s and 1960s, but pan-Arabism was a failure. Its few attempts at unity, such as Egypt and Syria in the United Arab Republic, were short-lived.
Moreover, Jordan granted citizenship to Palestinian refugees and 41.6% of the refugees live and work in Jordan. Though often mentioned, the blanket claim that “the vast Arab world refused to absorb the Palestinian refugees” is false.
3. Netanyahu has moved the goalposts. For years Israel wanted recognition as the State of Israel. It got recognition. First came Egypt with the peace treaty. Then the PLO in 1988 and again in September 1993 when Arafat wrote:
The PLO recognizes the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and security.
Jordan signed a peace treaty in 1994. Syria almost did in 1999-2000, but then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak got cold feet about a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights. (I wrote about it here: “Mediation, Domestic Politics, and the Israeli-Syrian Negotiations, 1991-2000,” Security Studies 16:3, July-September, 2007, pp. 350-381.)
Now Netanyahu wants recognition as a Jewish state as if no one had ever recognized Israel period. There is no acknowledgement of how Israeli policy worked effectively in the past to get recognition of the State of Israel. Of course Bibi wants the Jewish state phrase as a precondition to negotiations because it helps get the PA to make its biggest concession – no refugee right of return to Israel – without getting anything in return such as genuine statehood or Palestinian sovereignty in Arab East Jerusalem.
4. Netanyahu wrongly conflates negotiated outcomes with unilateral ones. Ehud Barak’s government unilaterally withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000. Ariel Sharon did the same in Gaza in 2005. In 2005, I thought this was a bad idea not to coordinate with the PA because it handed the victory to Hamas. Hamas could claim its military fight had caused Israel to flee and without a negotiated context, what could the PA retort?
So Netanyahu took problems from unilateralism (Netanyahu: “We don’t want a repeat of what happened when we withdrew from Gaza or from South Lebanon.”) and applied them to a hypothetical negotiated outcome. That is mixing apples and oranges.
In falling back on these historical manipulations, Netanyahu is not breaking new ground but simply reinforcing the claims that regularly inform the Likud worldview.
**I left aside the revisionist Israeli historians who have strongly challenged the claim that the Arab world was uniformly intent on ending Israel. e.g. Simha Flapan, Avi Shlaim, Ilan Pappe.