Occupation Blues

By Robert Jensen

Published in The Nation · December, 2002

[This appeared in the print edition of The Nation, January 6, 2003.]

review of
Israel/Palestine How to End the War of 1948
Tanya Reinhart
Seven Stories. 278 pp. Paper $11.95.

While Israel’s decisive victories on the battlefield and overwhelming advantage in military force are crucial to its dominance in the Middle East, perhaps just as important is the success of its propaganda campaign.

Never has this been made clearer than in Tanya Reinhart’s new book, which offers a well-documented account of Israel’s culpability for the failure of the Oslo process and the current crisis. Israel/Palestine: How to End the War of 1948 explains not only how the Israeli leadership has pulled off this public relations achievement but the importance of that PR in bolstering support for the Israeli project, both outside and inside the country.

Drawing heavily on reports from the Israeli press that most US readers never see, Reinhart accomplishes the formidable task of adding insight into a subject that is written about endlessly, and doing so without equivocation but also without slipping into raw polemics. There is a refreshing bluntness and candor in her work that makes the political analysis particularly compelling.

Reinhart’s study details the gap between Israel’s mythology (the narrative of an embattled people fighting a defensive war against intractable enemies who will not stop until every last Israeli is pushed into the sea) and the actual history since 1948 (Israeli leaders’ drive to keep the maximal amount of Palestinian land and water with responsibility for the minimal number of Palestinians on that land). She points out that it would be hard for Israel to maintain support for its policy today, at home or abroad, if people understood the history. The mythology, however, has long been effective at creating sympathy, especially as it has proceeded to destroy much of Palestinian society over the past two years. It’s not necessary, of course, that all the world believe that mythology, and most people around the world don’t. It is enough that two key populations-Israelis themselves and Americans-have swallowed the propaganda, for the key to a just solution to the conflict lies in those two countries, where citizens have the capacity to bring to bear on leadership the pressure that can make a difference.

Reinhart, a linguistics professor at Tel Aviv University who in recent years has increasingly turned to political analysis, does not flinch from difficult truths about her country as she sketches the contemporary Israeli political landscape: Since the occupation of the Palestinian territories in 1967, Israeli leaders have debated the best way to control those resources. The large Palestinian population made outright annexation of all the West Bank and Gaza Strip impossible; that would have forced the choice between a multiethnic, secular democracy and an explicitly colonial state. So two different approaches emerged. One was the Labor Party’s Allon plan, which envisioned annexation of up to 40 percent of the territories with some form of self-rule allowed for the remainder. The second approach, promoted by leaders like Ariel Sharon, aimed for more — if possible through the “transfer” of the troublesome Palestinian population out of the territories.

The Oslo process meant the triumph of the Allon plan, temporarily. With the collaboration of a politically weakened (and hence more open to manipulation by Israel) and increasingly corrupt Yasir Arafat, Israel embarked in the 1990s on the project of creating a subordinate Palestinian entity. Reinhart contends that while it was far from a just solution, the Oslo accords had broad support in an Israeli public that was tired of war and willing to accept life on the land Israel had won before 1967. She describes typical Israelis (herself included) as people who lamented the horrible consequences of the 1948 war for the Palestinians, in which some 700,000 were expelled, but-haunted by the memory of the Holocaust-believed that war had been necessary to establish a state for the Jewish people. Like most Israelis, she supported the dismantling of the settlements in the West Bank and Gaza and the end of the occupation in order to bring peace.

But for others-particularly those she calls the “political generals,” including former Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Sharon-the maximalist dream never died, and the plans for more land, and more war, went forward. Because it was difficult to convince Israelis of the need for war, it was crucial to convince them that the Palestinians would never live in peace. Enter Barak and the 2000 Camp David talks. Many writers have taken apart the propaganda of Barak’s so-called “generous offer” to the Palestinians, but Reinhart adds to our understanding with a thorough and clear account that draws extensively on information from Israeli media, and she offers a new account of his strategy. Barak never offered the Palestinians true control over 90 or 95 percent of the territories, as was repeatedly reported. Because there were no maps at those talks and the “offers” were presented as talking points and never formalized, it’s not clear just how much land was on the table, and figures vary. Reinhart’s estimate, at the low end, is that Israel would have given back only about 60 percent, either confiscating or retaining “temporary” authority over the rest.

Whatever the “real” number is, the larger point is that even after giving up a big chunk of the territories under such a plan, Israel would have retained effective control through what Israeli sociologist and peace activist Jeff Halper calls the “matrix of control”-the settlements, bypass roads, border crossings, military facilities and checkpoints that constitute barriers to Palestinian control over their land. Halper compares it to a prison, in which the prisoners might “own” most of the place while prison authorities retain control over no more than 5 percent-the prison walls, the bars of the cells and a few control points. But control over no more than 5 to 10 percent adds up to effective control.

Under this plan, Arafat was expected to give up claims to effective sovereignty, without a clear concession from Israel, which would have been politically impossible no matter what the situation regarding the even more difficult issues of Jerusalem and the right of return for refugees. Reinhart argues convincingly that Barak “was neither aiming for reconciliation nor genuinely attempting to move closer to an end of conflict.” She points out that there was a precedent for Barak’s strategy, going back to his 1999-2000 negotiations with Syria over the Golan Heights. In that case, Barak pursued a negotiating strategy designed to derail real progress and frustrate Syria, allowing him to paint Syrian leader Hafez Assad as the rejectionist and to convince Israelis-and Americans-that the Syrians would never make peace.

Reinhart’s analysis of the second intifada is also clear and compelling. She points out that from the moment of Sharon’s provocative visit in September 2000 to Jerusalem’s Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, Israel’s violent reaction to Palestinian protest (which was unarmed at first) was grossly out of proportion. Despite the disparity in force, Israel has successfully defined its military actions as a necessary defense against terrorism, which has resonated particularly well in the United States since 9/11. The result is increasingly common talk in Israel of “the second half of 1948”-finishing the ethnic cleansing that has long been the dream of the maximalists.

That process is already in progress, Reinhart argues, through Israeli actions aimed at destroying (1) the economic infrastructure of the territories, (2) the ability of the Palestinian Authority to provide any security for its people and (3) the Palestinians’ political leadership. Could this “slow ethnic cleansing,” as Reinhart terms it, be transformed into a military campaign of outright expulsion? Even in the militaristic climate created by Washington’s so-called “war on terrorism,” Reinhart contends that such a campaign could happen only “under the umbrella of an extensive regional war.” That sentence is perhaps the most chilling in the book.

Reinhart’s work is important for US readers because of its extensive use of Israeli news sources (many translated from Hebrew), which often are more honest and certainly more complete than US media reports. Reinhart has pointed out that this is not because Israeli journalists are, as a group, any less subordinated to power than commercial journalists in the United States. Instead, she suggests that Israeli journalists are less inhibited in covering some of the brutality of the occupation and the politics behind it simply because the situation has become routine; what would seem outrageous to outsiders is simply normal in Israel, and hence reported more bluntly. Another of Reinhart’s distinctive contributions for a US audience is the description and analysis of the role of the Israeli military. Increasingly seen as “not a state with an army, but an army with a state,” Israel has militarized in ways that do not bode well for hopes of a peaceful political settlement. Describing the military as “the driving force behind Israel’s politics,” she speculates that the real goal of top officers is this ethnic cleansing-finishing the job of 1948-no matter what the political leadership of the country decides.

The picture Reinhart paints of the contemporary situation is honest, realistic and extremely harsh. Yet she remains hopeful about the possibility of real peace and reconciliation. She points out that most of the Israelis in the isolated settlements are willing to leave (according to polls) and that an immediate withdrawal from at least 90 percent of the occupied territories is politically feasible. After such a move, serious negotiations could begin over the large West Bank settlements, the status of Jerusalem and the right of return for refugees. After so many years of failure, not only to achieve peace but to create a framework in which peace is imaginable, it’s difficult for many to believe in the possibility of progress, let alone a solution. Yet Reinhart does not come off as naïve about the obstacles. Indeed, because of her unflinching review of the problems, her hope seems not only authentic but sensible. In more recent writing, Reinhart has suggested that the only hope for real peace is for new Labor Party chairman Amram Mitzna to provide Israelis with a true alternative by sticking to his initial plan of unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and much of the West Bank. As the January 28 elections approach and Labor talks more and more of positioning itself as the center, the short-term prospects don’t look good. Still, Reinhart’s hopes aren’t necessarily misplaced. As the comparison of Israel’s policy to the apartheid system in white-ruled South Africa becomes more common, we might remember that in the 1980s it appeared that that system could continue for some time, and many thought the eventual demise of apartheid would be bathed in far more blood than it was. But within a decade, apartheid was over. Perhaps we should keep that in mind when assessing Reinhart’s claim that the grimness of the current situation is not a death sentence for a just solution.

Whether that path is possible depends on whether the Israeli and American people put pressure on the leadership in both countries. That has long been the case, and is only clearer after 9/11. But before there can be the will to act, there must be the will to know, to go beyond the propaganda. Reinhart’s book — written for a general audience, with a coherent analysis and a compelling call to action — is a good starting place for people who want to know. Her example, that of a citizen of a powerful country willing to contest the conventional wisdom and speak out in public for justice, is a good model for acting on what we learn.