Commentary Magazine


Topic: Shlomo Avineri

The Misleading Nakba Narrative

In recent years the international community has come to accept the Palestinians’ Nakba narrative in which Israel’s birth is treated as a “disaster” and indisputable proof of the need to pressure Israel. While it is possible to sympathize with the tale of Palestinian suffering in the wake of the creation of Israel without seeking to delegitimize Zionism, all too often those who adopt the notion that the events of 1948 were a “disaster” treat Israel’s creation as an original sin that requires the world to bow to all of the Palestinians’ demands.

But what is most troubling is that many on the Jewish left have adopted this same point of view. As Joshua Muravchick wrote in a definitive article on the subject in the June 2013 issue of COMMENTARY, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz has been “Trashing Israel Daily” for years. But its editorial last week days before the celebration of Israel’s Independence Day, which called for the state to not only accept the Palestinian narrative of victimization for which Israel bears sole responsibility but have it taught in its schools, was so over the top it prompted one of the country’s veteran left-wing thinkers and advocates of peace with the Palestinians to call them out.

Shlomo Avineri, a leading Israeli scholar and at one time the director general of its Foreign Ministry, was among the first in the country to advocate negotiations with the PLO in the 1970s when such dealings were illegal. As such, his credentials as an advocate of negotiations and reconciliation with the Palestinians are impeccable. But Avineri was shocked at what he read in a paper whose opinion columns often read more like Palestinian propaganda than anything else. His dissection of the editorial that was published today is must reading for anyone who cares about peace or about the truth. While acknowledging that the history of the conflict is complex, he believes those who accept the idea that Israel alone is responsible for Palestinian suffering are wrong.

He writes:

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In recent years the international community has come to accept the Palestinians’ Nakba narrative in which Israel’s birth is treated as a “disaster” and indisputable proof of the need to pressure Israel. While it is possible to sympathize with the tale of Palestinian suffering in the wake of the creation of Israel without seeking to delegitimize Zionism, all too often those who adopt the notion that the events of 1948 were a “disaster” treat Israel’s creation as an original sin that requires the world to bow to all of the Palestinians’ demands.

But what is most troubling is that many on the Jewish left have adopted this same point of view. As Joshua Muravchick wrote in a definitive article on the subject in the June 2013 issue of COMMENTARY, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz has been “Trashing Israel Daily” for years. But its editorial last week days before the celebration of Israel’s Independence Day, which called for the state to not only accept the Palestinian narrative of victimization for which Israel bears sole responsibility but have it taught in its schools, was so over the top it prompted one of the country’s veteran left-wing thinkers and advocates of peace with the Palestinians to call them out.

Shlomo Avineri, a leading Israeli scholar and at one time the director general of its Foreign Ministry, was among the first in the country to advocate negotiations with the PLO in the 1970s when such dealings were illegal. As such, his credentials as an advocate of negotiations and reconciliation with the Palestinians are impeccable. But Avineri was shocked at what he read in a paper whose opinion columns often read more like Palestinian propaganda than anything else. His dissection of the editorial that was published today is must reading for anyone who cares about peace or about the truth. While acknowledging that the history of the conflict is complex, he believes those who accept the idea that Israel alone is responsible for Palestinian suffering are wrong.

He writes:

Some facts of history really ought not to be left to historians. The attempt to ignore them is morally flawed — and morality is, rightfully, the driving spirit behind the editorial. It is a fact — one that should not be “a matter for historians” — that in September 1939, Germany invaded Poland and not the other way around. It is a fact that on December 7, 1941, Japan attacked the United States and not vice versa. It is also true that what is called the Nakba is the result of a political decision by the Palestinian leadership and the Arab states to reject the United Nations partition resolution, to try to prevent its implementation by force and to attack the Jewish community in the Land of Israel before and after the state’s establishment. Of this, the editorial says nothing.

Thus, the context of the founding of the State of Israel is presented in the editorial exactly as it is presented in Palestinian and Arab political discourse — with total disregard of the political and historical reality in 1947 and 1948. Usually, Arab discourse simply never mentions the partition resolution, just as it never mentions the violent opposition to its implementation. Such denial from the Arab side might be understandable — but in Haaretz? In case anyone forgot or does not know, I suggest going to the newspaper’s archives and reading the headlines from November 30, 1947 and the daily news from the subsequent months. They are full of reports of Arab violence and the beginnings of armed Arab resistance to the establishment of the State of Israel, first by the Arab militias (the “gangs”) inside the country and later via the coordinated invasion by Arab armies when the British Mandate ended on May 15, 1948. The editorial says not a word about that, just as Arab discourse prefers simply to wipe those historical facts from memory.

Avineri also points out the hypocrisy of the effort to brand Israel has having been born as a result of original sin:

Was the Nakba an earthquake? A tornado? A tsunami? It was the tragic result of an Arab political decision to prevent the establishment of a Jewish state in the portion of the Land of Israel that had been under the British Mandate, just as the expulsion of 12 million ethnic Germans from Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary after 1945 was the tragic result of German aggression in 1939 and later in 1941, when it invaded the Soviet Union. In both cases, masses of innocent civilians paid the price of their leaders’ aggression. But if anyone today tried to describe the expulsion of millions of Germans from Eastern Europe as a “disaster” that had nothing to do with the Third Reich’s aggression, he would rightly be called a neo-Nazi.

By ignoring the real reasons Palestinians suffered, those who buy into the Nakba narrative tilt the diplomatic playing field against Israel and legitimize the efforts of those who seek to promote boycotts of Israel or its destruction. Burying the truth about the Nakba makes it difficult if not impossible to understand contemporary Palestinian violence.

One can certainly understand, but not justify, the general Palestinian and Arab opposition to the Zionist enterprise. That is the nature of national conflicts, although this opposition had more aspects of murder and terrorism than other national movements did. Palestinian terrorism against Jewish civilians is not the result of the post-1967 years of occupation. It was part of the 1929 riots and the Arab uprising of 1936. It is true that on the one hand, we cannot conclude from the grand mufti’s presence in Berlin during World War II that Arab opposition to Zionism was identical to Nazism. But on the other hand, to ignore this fact and leave it to historians is a distortion of history. It is part of the concrete historical consciousness of both Jews and Arabs.

Avineri’s cri de coeur about the way Haaretz has joined the assault on Zionism should be heeded not just by those who seek to defend the Jewish state but also principally by those who are troubled by its presence in the West Bank and ardently desire a two state solution. Peace will remain impossible until the Palestinians reject a conception of national identity that is inextricably linked with the effort to destroy Israel. As long as Palestinians treat the Nakba as an excuse to delegitimize Israel, the sea change that will make peace viable won’t happen. Those Jews and Jewish institutions that seek to validate this false Nakba narrative are putting off the day when peace will come, not hastening it.

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What Georgia Can Teach Israel About Iran

One thing pretty much all Israeli commentators agree on is that Western acceptance of the Iran-Brazil-Turkey nuclear deal would be a disaster for Israel.

Unlike the original deal on which it is modeled, and which Iran rejected last fall, this deal makes no pretense even of delaying Iran’s nuclear program. The original deal sought to buy time by transferring most of Iran’s enriched uranium outside the country, leaving it without enough to build a bomb until it enriched more. This deal would transfer a much smaller percentage of Iran’s uranium overseas, and would thus still leave it with enough to build a bomb.

Yet Western acceptance of it would not only kill any chance for tougher sanctions on Iran (no great loss, since the sanctions effort wasn’t going anyplace anyway); it would also make it much harder for Israel to take military action against Iran: Israel would then be portrayed as the warmonger ruining the world’s chances for peace in our time.

As Israel’s government contemplates this grim scenario, it might do well to read a new book on the Russian-Georgian war of 2008 — or at least Prof. Shlomo Avineri’s review of it in Haaretz.

In A Little War That Shook the World, former State Department official Ronald Asmus chronicles the events leading up to the war and its disastrous consequences for Georgia: it lost its last remaining foothold in the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, saw hundreds of its citizens killed and tens of thousands turned into refugees, and effectively destroyed its chances of joining either NATO or the European Union.

Yet Asmus thinks a Georgian failure to respond to Russia’s provocations would have had even worse consequences, Avineri notes: President Mikheil Saakashvili’s government “would have been toppled and there may well have been a coup d’etat in Tbilisi, which could have resulted in a particular well-known pro-Russian politician taking Georgia’s helm. In effect, Georgia could have lost its independence and become a Russian satellite once again” — for the third time in two centuries.

Avineri finds Asmus’s conclusion persuasive. But even if one doesn’t, it is hard to argue with Avineri’s conclusion. “There is something of a moral here for small countries,” the dovish professor writes. “Sometimes, being unwilling to give in is strategically the right move, even if it exacts a high price.”

An Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities would exact a very high price: military counterstrikes by Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and perhaps Syria; international opprobrium; a schism with Washington; and perhaps even international sanctions. And that would be true even if the West ultimately rejects the Brazil-Turkey deal and returns to the Obama administration’s plan A: declaring the problem “solved” by passing another watered-down sanctions resolution that, like its predecessors, will do nothing to halt Iran’s nuclear program.

Nevertheless, the consequences to Israel of a nuclear Iran could well be even worse. And if so, Israel’s government might have to decide that the price of military action is worth paying.

One thing pretty much all Israeli commentators agree on is that Western acceptance of the Iran-Brazil-Turkey nuclear deal would be a disaster for Israel.

Unlike the original deal on which it is modeled, and which Iran rejected last fall, this deal makes no pretense even of delaying Iran’s nuclear program. The original deal sought to buy time by transferring most of Iran’s enriched uranium outside the country, leaving it without enough to build a bomb until it enriched more. This deal would transfer a much smaller percentage of Iran’s uranium overseas, and would thus still leave it with enough to build a bomb.

Yet Western acceptance of it would not only kill any chance for tougher sanctions on Iran (no great loss, since the sanctions effort wasn’t going anyplace anyway); it would also make it much harder for Israel to take military action against Iran: Israel would then be portrayed as the warmonger ruining the world’s chances for peace in our time.

As Israel’s government contemplates this grim scenario, it might do well to read a new book on the Russian-Georgian war of 2008 — or at least Prof. Shlomo Avineri’s review of it in Haaretz.

In A Little War That Shook the World, former State Department official Ronald Asmus chronicles the events leading up to the war and its disastrous consequences for Georgia: it lost its last remaining foothold in the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, saw hundreds of its citizens killed and tens of thousands turned into refugees, and effectively destroyed its chances of joining either NATO or the European Union.

Yet Asmus thinks a Georgian failure to respond to Russia’s provocations would have had even worse consequences, Avineri notes: President Mikheil Saakashvili’s government “would have been toppled and there may well have been a coup d’etat in Tbilisi, which could have resulted in a particular well-known pro-Russian politician taking Georgia’s helm. In effect, Georgia could have lost its independence and become a Russian satellite once again” — for the third time in two centuries.

Avineri finds Asmus’s conclusion persuasive. But even if one doesn’t, it is hard to argue with Avineri’s conclusion. “There is something of a moral here for small countries,” the dovish professor writes. “Sometimes, being unwilling to give in is strategically the right move, even if it exacts a high price.”

An Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities would exact a very high price: military counterstrikes by Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and perhaps Syria; international opprobrium; a schism with Washington; and perhaps even international sanctions. And that would be true even if the West ultimately rejects the Brazil-Turkey deal and returns to the Obama administration’s plan A: declaring the problem “solved” by passing another watered-down sanctions resolution that, like its predecessors, will do nothing to halt Iran’s nuclear program.

Nevertheless, the consequences to Israel of a nuclear Iran could well be even worse. And if so, Israel’s government might have to decide that the price of military action is worth paying.

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Promoting Israel’s Image Means Answering the Libels

New York Times Jerusalem Bureau Chief Ethan Bronner writes today about the effort by Israel’s Information and Diaspora Affairs Ministry to get Israelis to promote a positive image of their country. The idea is to coach those traveling abroad on how to improve their nation’s faltering international image.

The effort gets mixed reviews. Some, like leftist political scientist Shlomo Avineri, think it is representative of a “Bolshevik mentality” that seeks to mobilize the people to serve their government. More to the point, he doesn’t like the information the campaign is peddling because it defends the Jewish state against false charges that Israeli policies are obstacles to peace with the Palestinians.

More trenchant criticism came from Eytan Gilboa of Bar-Ilan University. He had no problem with the information intended to help people defend Israel. But he did think the effort was far too focused on disabusing the world of the idea that Israel was a primitive or violent country rather than the high-tech, fun, and attractive place that it really is. “This country’s main challenges are the false comparison people make with an apartheid state and the questioning of its right to exist,” Mr. Gilboa said. “And the pamphlets don’t deal with those.”

Gilboa is right. As I wrote about the “Israel Branding” project promoted by Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the October issue of COMMENTARY, the country’s “immediate need is to not let the libels spread against it go unanswered. Unless Israel is viewed as being in the right in its struggle to defend its existence the brand-evaluator ratings it gets will be pointless.”

New York Times Jerusalem Bureau Chief Ethan Bronner writes today about the effort by Israel’s Information and Diaspora Affairs Ministry to get Israelis to promote a positive image of their country. The idea is to coach those traveling abroad on how to improve their nation’s faltering international image.

The effort gets mixed reviews. Some, like leftist political scientist Shlomo Avineri, think it is representative of a “Bolshevik mentality” that seeks to mobilize the people to serve their government. More to the point, he doesn’t like the information the campaign is peddling because it defends the Jewish state against false charges that Israeli policies are obstacles to peace with the Palestinians.

More trenchant criticism came from Eytan Gilboa of Bar-Ilan University. He had no problem with the information intended to help people defend Israel. But he did think the effort was far too focused on disabusing the world of the idea that Israel was a primitive or violent country rather than the high-tech, fun, and attractive place that it really is. “This country’s main challenges are the false comparison people make with an apartheid state and the questioning of its right to exist,” Mr. Gilboa said. “And the pamphlets don’t deal with those.”

Gilboa is right. As I wrote about the “Israel Branding” project promoted by Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the October issue of COMMENTARY, the country’s “immediate need is to not let the libels spread against it go unanswered. Unless Israel is viewed as being in the right in its struggle to defend its existence the brand-evaluator ratings it gets will be pointless.”

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