Story so good, he told it twice


I originally thought that New York Times news columnist Max Fisher had taken his tall tale of Ben-Gurion’s July 1967 “prophecy” from Arthur Hertzberg. Actually, Fisher took it most directly from… Fisher. It turns out he used almost exactly the same lede in an article he wrote for Vox in 2015 (under the headline “Israel’s Dark Future”). Compare the two below: on the left, the Times lede, on the right, the Vox lede.

Fisher in NYT and Vox

I’ll make it still easier to compare:

  • Times: “Amid a moment of national euphoria, Israel’s founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, emerged from retirement in July 1967 to warn Israelis they had sown the seeds of self-destruction.”
  • Vox: “Three weeks later, amid Israel’s national euphoria, the country’s founding prime minister emerged from retirement to warn Israelis that they had sown the seeds of national self-destruction.”
  • Times: “Israel had just won a stunning military victory against its neighbors, elating Israelis with a sense that the grand experiment of a Jewish state might really work.”
  • Vox: “In June 1987, Israel won a stunning military victory against its neighbors, elating Israelis and the global Jewish community with a sense that the grand experiment of a Jewish state might really work.”
  • Times: “But Ben-Gurion insisted that Israel give up the territories it had conquered. If it did not, he said, occupation would distort the young state…”
  • Vox: “David Ben-Gurion, 81 years old, insisted that Israel, which had conquered the Palestinian territories of Gaza and the West Bank in the war, must immediately give them up. If they did not, he said, this act of forcible occupation would corrupt the Jewish state…”

The order of the sentences has changed a bit, but it’s the same phrases, and the lede serves the same purpose in both pieces: to claim that the founding father of Israel warned against the “occupation” and urged that all the territories be returned lest Israel be forever corrupted. In the Vox piece, there’s no mention of Hertzberg and no link to his 1987 article, although it’s obviously Fisher’s (only) evidence that Ben-Gurion said any of this.

It again shows just how irresistible this story is. Not only was it told earlier in the Times (by Anthony Lewis, back in 1987). Fisher’s now told it twice, before and since joining the Times. I leave aside the question of whether it’s permissible at the Times to run with a lede you’ve already published elsewhere (and to put it on the front page, no less). The Times strictly prohibits outside op-ed writers from recycling prose passages (see under: Slavoj Zizek, and scroll down). But maybe the Gray Lady is more forgiving of her own.

• •

I’ll take the opportunity of this small discovery to introduce one last nuance regarding Ben-Gurion and 1967. In my last post, I noted that Ben-Gurion “favored autonomy over annexation of the West Bank,” but I didn’t explain why. His reasoning suggests why some in Israel’s “peace camp” are so keen to claim him as a founding father, not just of Israel, but of their cause.

In his diary entry of June 8, as the war wound down, Ben-Gurion formulated his initial position on the West Bank:

On Jerusalem we must not budge. We have to quickly establish a large Jewish settlement there. The same with Hebron. The West Bank must not be returned to Hussein, but its annexation to Israel would mean the addition of one million Arabs, and this would present a terrible danger.

So here was the conundrum: the West Bank couldn’t be annexed, because of those million Arabs. In a letter dated July 17, Ben-Gurion elaborated on the problem:

As for the West Bank (excluding Jerusalem and its environs), it must be remembered that it is home to about a million Arabs, and nothing more imperils our future than adding them to Israel, because soon they would constitute a majority and take over the state. And I don’t imagine to myself that we would annex the West Bank, while denying to its habitants the rights of citizens, or expelling them from this territory.

But the West Bank couldn’t be returned either. Why? Even Ben-Gurion realized the flaw in the 1949 armistice agreement with Jordan: it had permitted an Arab army west of the Jordan river. That also imperiled Israel, and returning the territory would only leave Israel vulnerable again.

So Ben-Gurion developed the idea of the West Bank as an autonomous “province” or “protectorate” (he used both words), dependent economically on Israel, and surrounded on the east by Israeli forces along the Jordan river. In this autonomous entity, from which Jerusalem would be excluded, Palestinian Arabs would conduct their own affairs, but Israel would assume responsibility for defense and foreign relations.

In that same letter of July 17, Ben-Gurion explained his idea. As I showed, he’d done it already in his press release of June 19, but notice the last sentence:

Therefore, I propose autonomy for the West Bank, without sovereignty, but with economic ties to Israel, and in my opinion, we shall have to keep the Israel Defense Forces on the western side of the Jordan river. If Jews want to settle on the West Bank, they should be able to do so.

So the West Bank would be shorn of Jerusalem, separated from Jordan by Israeli forces on the river, dependent on Israel for its outlets to the sea—and open to Jewish settlement should any Jews want to settle there. It just wouldn’t be annexed: that would be a “terrible danger.”

Now if you agree with those two words, you might quote them and gloss over the crux of Ben-Gurion’s proposal. But there’s no doubt: Ben-Gurion, far from warning against “occupation,” was already trying to devise a reasonable alternative that wouldn’t require Israel to return or cede anything. And fifty years later, Ben-Gurion’s vision is very much a reality. “I am more and more persuaded,” wrote Hertzberg in 1987, “that the old man I heard that night twenty years ago was more prophet than angry octogenarian.” If so (and I think not), it wasn’t because he warned against the “occupation,” but because he prepared the rationale for a derivative of it, which has evolved into today’s status quo on the West Bank.

Which is not to say that Ben-Gurion’s proposal in 1967 is a guide for the future. Quoting statesmen of the past is no substitute for independently thinking through problems. The political discourse in Israel is awash in arguments that if only Jabotinsky or Ben-Gurion or Yitzhak Rabin were alive, he would say this or do that. To clinch these arguments, polemicists twist history out of all recognition. But it’s a deception, because the dead don’t know what we know. The question is what we should do, based on the experience and wisdom we’ve acquired since all of these “greats” turned to dust. If the best that critics of Israel’s policies can do is copy and paste (mis)quotes from buried Israeli statesmen, then the road before them is long indeed.

Pointer: Listen to my remarks on Israel’s nation-state law, made in a conference call panel sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, here.

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