Commentary Magazine


A Place Among the Nations, by Benjamin Netanyahu

The Case for Israel

A Place Among the Nations: Israel and the World.
by Benjamin Netanyahu.
Bantam Books. 467 pp. $24.95.

One of the many claims that the newly elected head of the Likud party, Benjamin Netanyahu, has to lead Israel—others are youth, courage, and the will to reform the country’s paralytic constitutional structure—is the power of communication. Such a skill is, of course, vital to any statesman of a country uniquely dependent on the good will of influential people throughout the world. Netanyahu has long been seen to possess it, since he is familiar to TV audiences everywhere as a spokesman for Israel’s views in moments of Middle East crisis. But his image as a master of the soundbite must now be supplemented by a more formidable accomplishment. He has written what I believe will be widely recognized as by far the most succinct, readable, powerfully argued, and convincing summary of Israel’s case. There are many good books about Israel and the Arabs. But A Place Among the Nations is the one that those interested in the subject must now read.

Netanyahu’s argument tests the premise that no settlement between Israel and the Arabs is possible, let alone likely to be durable, unless it is firmly based on the truth. The central difficulty has always been that the Israelis deal in concrete facts and the Arabs in hyperbolic imaginings. With few exceptions, Israeli negotiators try to stick to realities; and, with few exceptions, Arab negotiators try (albeit often unconsciously, which increases the difficulty) to ignore them. That is the real reason why peace talks always fail.

To compound the problem, the outside world is generally too ignorant of these realities to perceive the fatal dichotomy. The first and most important misapprehension is the failure to grasp the tiny size of Palestine/Israel. This is an old error. Writing in 1869, Mark Twain admitted that actually to visit the place transformed his ideas: “The word Palestine always brought to my mind a vague suggestion of a country as large as the United States. . . . I suppose it was because I could not conceive of a small country having so large a history.”

Communicating with TV audiences, Netanyahu discovered that this mistake was still almost universal. Viewers found it hard to credit his assurance that the Arab world is over 500 times the size of the Jewish state, though this is fundamental to Israel’s security problem. In his book, then, he takes pains to include maps which bring this aspect of the Israel-Arab dispute vividly to the forefront.

But the gross exaggeration of Israel’s physical size—encouraged by Arab propagandists who have never once in half a century published an accurate map of the area—is only one of the untruths which abound. From Netanyahu’s chronological survey of the dispute, I have selected ten “Big Lies” which he is particularly anxious to nail.

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The first concerns the psychologically vital question of nomenclature. To contrast Jewish-Israel with Arab-Palestine makes no historical sense at all. The Arabs are in no sense the residual legatees of the Philistines, from whom the word Palestine derives. In the first place, Philistine dominion never extended much beyond the coastal strip from Gaza to present-day Tel Aviv. As a people, the Philistines were wiped out or absorbed by the Babylonian conquerors. It was the Romans who invented the term Palestina, after the Bar Kochba revolt of 135 C.E., to replace Judea, the historic name of the country, and with the intention of obliterating its Jewish identity. The term Palestine was adopted by Christian cartographers but was never used by the territory’s own inhabitants until quite modern times.

Second, the Arab presence in Judea was achieved by conquest and occupation. The 7th-century Muslim invasion achieved something which the Romans had failed to do—the uprooting of the Jewish farmer from his soil. As Netanyahu puts it: “It was not the Jews who usurped the land from the Arabs, but the Arabs who usurped the land from the Jews.”

Even many well-informed Zionists do not grasp this fact. But it leads logically to the nailing of a third lie: that the creation of Israel was a form of colonization, akin to the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem of the Crusaders or the European colonial empires of modern times, all of which have been swept away by the irresistible forces of history, etc. In reality, as Netanyahu argues, the true analogy is with Spain, where the Muslim-Arab invaders were progressively repulsed, and the country restored to its original integrity.

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The fourth lie or myth is that Zionist Israel was the product of an invasion of Arab Palestine. Yasir Arafat gives the myth its common form: “The Jewish invasion began in 1881. . . . Palestine was then a verdant area, inhabited mainly by an Arab people in the course of building its life and dynamically enriching its indigenous culture.” In fact, by 1881 Jews had outnumbered Arabs in Jerusalem for 60 years. All early- and mid-19th-century visitors to the country agree in describing it as a desolate, largely empty countryside, waiting to be developed. Arab immigration into the territory took place pari passu with Jewish settlement, and largely in consequence of it.

The fifth lie Netanyahu exposes is the assertion that Arab opinion is unanimous that Israel’s existence is incompatible with Arab rights, prosperity, and happiness. This is the case put by the Arab extremists, who believe in a violent solution, but it has never been democratically endorsed.

Here Netanyahu puts his finger on what I have always regarded as the fatal error of the British Mandate: the decision in 1920 to make the brutally anti-Jewish extremist Haj Amin al-Husseini the Mufti of Jerusalem, although he had only placed fourth in the election to the post, and to compound the mistake by elevating his title to Grand Mufti or Mufti for life. The work of this man and his dreadful family in spreading hatred and inciting violence has never been fully appreciated in the West, and his faction in turn has been succeeded by the Palestine Liberation Organization, another extremist clan committed to war as the only solution.

It is a lamentable fact that Arab terrorism has always been aimed primarily at instilling fear into the Arab population rather than the Jewish one, and that, in consequence, no democratic Arab verdict on how to create a peaceful settlement has ever been possible. But the likelihood is that ordinary Arabs, given the chance, would see with their own eyes the empirical evidence that coexistence of Jews and Arabs, far from being incompatible with Arab aspirations, is essential to their fulfillment.

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The sixth lie, and one which has been largely accepted in the West, is that the very existence of Israel is the prime cause of tension and war throughout the Middle East. My own view is that the reverse is true, which is why I always call Israel the “Militant Peacemaker.” As Netanyahu points out, the false proposition was finally disproved, for all the world to see, by the brutal Iraqi invasion and occupation of Kuwait, which had nothing to do with Israel. On the contrary: Israel endured a horrific bombardment by Scud missiles without once responding. This act of aggression by one Arab state against another was the most serious disturbance of peace in the Middle East since World War II, and its reversal required the intervention of virtually the entire international community. It demonstrated that the prime cause of tension in the area is not Israel but inter-Arab rivalry.

That had always been true. Netanyahu provides a table citing nineteen acts of Arab violence against Arab rulers between 1949 and 1992, and another listing eighteen major instances of inter-Arab violence during a single month, April 1985. That Arab governments and organizations are habitually violent is dismally self-evident. Less generally grasped, however, is the fact that most Arab violence is directed against other Arabs, with the Israelis as distressed onlookers.

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The lie that Israel’s existence is central to area tensions is compounded by a further, seventh, one, that Israel is also the direct source of aggression. Netanyahu calls this “the reversal of causality” and devotes an interesting chapter setting it right-side-up again, with particular reference to the West Bank. Since many American Jews, and even Israelis, accept the Arab claim that Israel should, in natural justice, “return” the West Bank to “the Palestinians,” and that the area should then be cleared of any Jews—not to put too fine a point on it, rendered Judenrein—it is important that Netanyahu’s demonstration of the right of Jews not merely to live in this territory but to render it secure should be widely read.

Netanyahu’s own belief is that the Arabs themselves, fairly consulted, would recognize that right, and this brings him to the eighth myth, widely believed in the West, that Arabs are incapable of democracy. Acceptance of this libel leads Western governments to tolerate the most vicious dictatorships, such as Saddam Hussein’s in Iraq, on the ground that they are preferable to “chaos” and “instability.” Yet it is precisely the dictatorial nature of Arab regimes which produces inter-Arab aggression and war, as well as periodic assaults on Israel; the growth of Arab democracy, by contrast, would make the greatest single contribution to Middle East peace.

Israelis like Netanyahu, who have spent their adult lives dealing with the Arabs, know their strengths and limitations far better than any outsiders; it is not they who are responsible for the caricature Arab of Western demonology. Quite the contrary: they remain convinced of the fundamental rationality of the Arab peoples, and that is why they retain their faith in an eventual solution satisfactory to both sides.

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But in the meantime, Israel has to defend itself, and this brings Netanyahu to the ninth lie: the myth of Israeli strength. Despite the high state of training and readiness of the Israeli forces, and their efficient use of such weapons as they possess, the facts of geography make the country highly vulnerable and the facts of economics ensure that Israeli military security will never be more than marginal. As Netanyahu points out, if Israel had not retained the so-called “occupied territories,” the Yom Kippur War of 1973 would have extinguished the state. So, far from resting on any inherent strength, Israel, like any other surrounded fortress, must retain what he calls “The Wall,” and this fact conditions what peace it can accept.

Finally, Netanyahu turns to the tenth lie: that the inevitability of demographic change makes the Israeli state untenable in the long run. Even in Israel there is a tendency to fall for this one. After the Six-Day War one pundit argued in the newspaper Ha’aretz that the West Bank could not be retained because the Arab “rate of natural increase will equalize the population of these two peoples within fourteen years.” But in fact, fourteen years later the proportion of Jews to Arabs had barely changed at all, and later predictions of demographic doom which Netanyahu quotes have been similarly disproved.

The truth is quite different. The long-term survival and prosperity of Israel, and its ability to make a decisive contribution to the wellbeing of the entire area—in which Netanyahu strongly believes—depend not on demography but on policies. It is not so much the number of Jews in Israel who matter, though they are increasing at a speed which would have seemed impossible a decade ago, but the quality of the decisions taken by the Israeli people.

Here we come to the constructive part of Netanyahu’s argument: his belief that Israel must break free of the statist straitjacket in which its founders placed it, and so unleash the enormous creative energies of one of the most gifted peoples in world history. But to describe in detail the changes he proposes, Netanyahu would have to write another book. I hope he will.

About the Author

Paul Johnson is the author of Modern Times, A History of Christianity, and A History of the Jews, among many other books.




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