Ben-Gurion and his generals

The history of Israel’s founding, like America’s, is encrusted in myths. Over recent years, I’ve been sorting them out at Mosaic Magazine. I resurrected the forgotten story of the Soviet role in the creation of Israel. I challenged the story of the Palmah “massacre” of Arabs at Lydda in the 1948 war.

And I scrutinized the May 12, 1948 meeting of the People’s Administration, a Jewish government-in-waiting. Led by David Ben-Gurion, its worried members only narrowly voted to declare the state of Israel two days later. Or did they? The problem, as I showed, is that the famous vote never took place. But a forgotten vote on that same day crucially decided Israel’s post-war frontiers.

In a new monthly essay for Mosaic Magazine, I now revisit that May 12 meeting, but with another purpose. The usual accounts tell us that Ben-Gurion summoned his generals to brief the People’s Administration on the military situation. This backfired: by their gloom-and-doom assessments, they almost killed Israel’s chance for statehood. Only Ben-Gurion’s optimistic intervention saved the day.

Did the military men really put the birth of Israel at risk? Spoiler: no, not really, but in any event, Ben-Gurion wanted to shake up the meeting. Why would he do that? Hint: the fate of the army depended on it. Now, for the full answer, you’ll have to read the whole thing.

So go right here, for my February essay at Mosaic Magazine. (Monthly essays are followed by expert responses and my final word, so stay tuned.)

Ben-Gurion and his generals, 1948

Ben-Gurion reviews troops in Tel Aviv, 1948, flanked (left to right) by generals Yigal Allon, Yigael Yadin, and Yaakov Dori.

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How does Trump’s partition plan compare?

Left to right: Peel plan 1937, UN plan 1947, Trump plan 2020

It’s officially called the “Vision for Peace, Prosperity, and a Brighter Future.” But the scheme devised by Jared Kushner for his father-in-law President Donald Trump is basically a partition plan, replete with a map.

The President seems to think that his plan is unprecedented in its detail:

In the past, even the most well-intentioned plans were light on factual details and heavy on conceptual frameworks. By contrast, our plan is 80 pages and is the most detailed proposal ever put forward by far.

But past partition plans also were heavy on details and accompanying maps. The British partition plan of 1937, produced by a “royal commission” and popularly named after its otherwise-forgotten chairman, one Lord Peel, ran to 231 pages. Its follow up, the Palestine Partition Commission Report, had 310 pages and thirteen maps. The 1947 partition plan written by the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine had 83 pages (including “annexes, appendix and maps”). The two follow-ups of the Ad Hoc Committee for Palestine, with additional details, added more than a hundred pages.

That’s a long time ago, and one might be forgiven for categorizing Trump’s initiative among the more recent and conceptual “peace plans.” But it’s really the successor to the two preceding partition plans, both in its level of detail and, especially, in its maps.

The most striking consistency in these three partition plans is that the Zionist or Israeli side helped to fashion them so as to say “yes,” while the Palestinian Arabs refused to help prepare them, and so ended up saying “no.” Each rejected plan has been followed eventually by another, which has offered the Palestinians still less.

Comparing the 2020 map to 1947, and the 1947 map to 1937, makes that graphically clear. The Palestinians have appealed every verdict of history, and have lost every time. Odds are that this pattern will be repeated yet again, because the Palestinians remain too weak and divided, or resentful and myth-infected, to say “yes.”

Gradations of legitimacy

But while there’s consistency in the way these plans have been received, there are major differences in their authority. The most legitimate partition plan was that of 1947, because it was put together by an international commission, and it enjoyed the overt support of the two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union. On that basis, it garnered two-thirds support in the UN General Assembly, and became enshrined as Resolution 181.

While the resolution wasn’t more than a recommendation, it was strong enough to figure in Israel’s declaration of statehood. “By virtue of our natural and historic right,” the declaration reads, “and on the strength of the resolution of the United Nations General Assembly, [we] hereby proclaim the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz-Israel, to be known as the State of Israel.”

The earlier 1937 partition plan didn’t get nearly as far. The royal commission’s report was no more than a recommendation to the British government, which then convened another commission, which then declared partition impractical. The League of Nations, in whose name Britain ruled Palestine, never weighed in. For all the heft of the Peel plan, few remember it, although it was the first to establish partition as a possible solution.

At this moment, the Trump partition plan is closer to 1937 than 1947. True, it’s officially and overtly promoted by the president of the world’s leading power, which works in its favor. But it’s the brainchild of a handful of Americans, and it has no wider buy-in, except by Israel. A partition plan, to make history, doesn’t need Palestinian backing, as 1947 showed. But it can’t go very far if it doesn’t have what the 1947 plan had: some degree of international endorsement.

Russia, Europe, the Arab states — all of them could advance or retard the plan. Wooing them is especially important for Israel, since it seeks “recognition” for what it’s possessed for half a century. Borders gain legitimacy by mutual agreement (Israel’s borders with Egypt and Jordan) or international certification (its border with Lebanon). It isn’t enough for Trump to wave a scepter, or Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to evoke the Bible, however potent both instruments may be. The United States and Israel will have to canvas the world for support, just as they did in 1947.

Dancing in the streets?

Another difference is the degree of urgency: past plans emerged from crisis situations. In 1937, Palestine was in the midst of an Arab rebellion and violent turmoil. Jews fleeing Nazi persecution sought a refuge. In 1947, surviving Jewish refugees in Europe cried out for entry to Palestine. Partition was conceived as a kind of emergency surgery.

In 2020, in contrast, Israelis and Palestinians are living through the calmest decade-plus in their modern history. They have hammered out a status quo that’s far from perfect, but that still functions. The Trump partition plan emerges, instead, from the urgent political needs of Trump and Netanyahu. Since no one else is desperately awaiting such a plan, few will be keen to make sacrifices for its success.

That may be why the Trump plan is such a conservative one, grounded in realities as they are. Remember that the 1937 plan, forged in a different moral climate, proposed the involuntary “transfer” of more than 200,000 Palestinian Arabs out of the Jewish state. The 1947 plan left more than a third of the country’s Arabs within a Jewish state they opposed. (Most ended up fleeing it.) 1937 and 1947 gave rise to huge debates and fed deep passions all around.

Trump’s partition, by contrast, doesn’t imagine anyone moving, or (with few exceptions) living under a new kind of rule. That’s why its map is also so convoluted, compared to its predecessors. All partition maps have had strange anomalies, with awkward corridors and crossing points. The Trump map is full of enclaves, bypasses, and even a tunnel, precisely so that no one need relocate or submit to alien rule.

Because the plan so closely hews to the status quo, it won’t spark much jubilation among Israelis or much violence among Palestinians. But perhaps that’s its best hope. On the ground, there already exists a kind of two-state reality. Israel is a very strong polity, the Palestinian Authority a very weak one. But both have presidents, cabinets, security forces, anthems, and control of territory. Trump’s plan is focused on drawing final borders and building Palestinian state capacity. It may be a fool’s errand, but it’s not as radical as its predecessors.

History books or recycle bin?

So is it “historic,” a word regularly abused by politicians? Netanyahu: “I believe that down the decades — and perhaps down the centuries — we will remember January 28, 2020.” He even bordered on blasphemy when he compared the occasion to May 14, 1948, arguably the most significant date in Jewish history in the last two millennia.

At this point, it’s not even clear we’ll remember January 28 six months from now. A plan on paper doesn’t make history, even if it’s called “The Vision” and gets launched to strains of “Hail to the Chief.” The Trump partition plan isn’t “dead on arrival.” But for an American plan to stand even a chance of survival, the president must put his and America’s full weight behind it for years to come, perhaps even “down the decades.”

Does Trump’s America, does anyone’s America, have the attention span, grit, and finesse to see the “deal of the century” through? That’s the question of the century.

Cross-posted at the Times of Israel.

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Martin Luther King and Israel, then and now

Not a year goes by without an attempt by someone to associate the name of Martin Luther King, Jr. with the Palestinian cause. It’s particularly striking because while he lived, no one had much doubt about where he stood. Here, for example, is the late Edward Said, foremost Palestinian thinker of his day, in a 1993 interview:

With the emergence of the civil rights movement in the middle ’60s—and particularly in ’66-’67—I was very soon turned off by Martin Luther King, who revealed himself to be a tremendous Zionist, and who always used to speak very warmly in support of Israel, particularly in ’67, after the war.

With the passage of time and memory, some have suggested that King would have supported the Palestinians, if only his life hadn’t been cut short by assassination in 1968. So argued New York Times columnist Michelle Alexander on last year’s Martin Luther King Day. Her conclusion: “If we are to honor King’s message and not merely the man, we must condemn Israel’s actions.”

But as I pointed out in an essay last March, King didn’t lack opportunities to condemn Israel while he lived, during the twenty years between 1948 and 1968. Instead he praised it.

Not only that: he knew the “plight” of the Palestinians perfectly well, having visited Jordanian-held East Jerusalem in 1959, where he got a tutorial over dinner from the leading lights of Arab Palestine. Yet he never left a quote in support of any aspect of the Palestinian Arab cause.

This is a source of Palestinian frustration on every Martin Luther King Day, since supporters of Israel have their pick of King quotes that favor Israel (“an oasis of brotherhood and democracy,” in King’s words). A few years back, I myself validated the origins of one of the most contentious of these quotes: “When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews. You’re talking anti-Semitism!”

It’s not that King didn’t have a solution in mind for the region. He believed that the Palestinian refugee problem, if not the Arab-Israeli conflict as a whole, could best be resolved through “a Marshall Plan for the Middle East, where we lift those who are at the bottom of the economic ladder and bring them into the mainstream of economic security.” Today that would be called “economic peace,” and it’s had a succession of champions, up to and including Jared Kushner.

On one occasion right after the 1967 war, King echoed the proposition that Israel should trade land for peace with the defeated Arab states: “I think for the ultimate peace and security of the situation it will probably be necessary for Israel to give up this conquered territory because to hold on to it will only exacerbate the tensions and deepen the bitterness of the Arabs.” (This was in a televised interview on June 18.) His position was in line with the emerging American view that Israel’s conquests, while neither illegal nor immoral, should be exchanged for peace.

And this was pretty much the outer limit of King’s vision for the Arabs. True, his carefully worded support of Israel wasn’t ebullient, and he never got around to visiting it. (The 1967 war scuttled his one concrete plan to do so.) There is also clear evidence that he wished to be seen as balanced in his approach to peace. But he regarded Israel’s creation as just (he said Israel had “a right to exist”), and whatever cost it involved was an unfortunate injury that needed repair, not a moral blight on the scale of Vietnam or segregation.

A Reciprocal Deal?

It’s sometimes claimed that King kept his silence on Israel to win Jewish financial or political support for the civil rights movement. That’s the claim of UCLA historian Robin D.G. Kelley in a recent article. King was “growing more critical of Israel but remained silent” for fear of “losing valuable allies and financial support.” He didn’t want to “further jeopardize what was already a dwindling funding stream.”

One imagines that King’s advisers never lost sight of the money. But this notion of a quid pro quo takes no account of the spiritual dimension of King’s ties to Zionist Jews. The two who were closest to him were refugee rabbis from Hitler’s Europe, who regarded the creation of Israel as redemption. And just as the Holocaust drove their passion for civil rights, it steeled their devotion to Israel.

The first was Joachim Prinz (1902-1988), a social activist, pulpit rabbi, and Zionist organizer, who personally knew nearly all of Israel’s leaders. Prinz allied himself with King in 1958, and at the 1963 March on Washington, he spoke in the slot before King’s historic address. The following year, Prinz consciously emulated King’s protest tactics by getting himself arrested near the Jordanian pavilion at the New York World’s Fair. (The pavilion featured a “bigoted” mural putting the blame for the Palestinian refugee problem on Israel.) That summer, Prinz told Golda Meir: “It is the greatest tragedy of my life that I did not come to Israel.”

The second was Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972), philosopher and theologian at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and an heir to one of the great Hasidic dynasties. King described Heschel as “a truly great prophet,” who famously marched in the front line with King in Selma, Alabama in 1965. Immediately after the 1967 war, Heschel wrote one of the most ecstatic Zionist tracts ever compiled, his Israel: An Echo of Eternity (1968). “One of the insights learned from the great crisis in May, 1967,” he wrote,

is the deep personal involvement of every Jew in the existence of Israel. It is not a matter of philanthropy or general charity but of spiritual identification. It is such personal relationship to Israel upon which one’s dignity as a Jew is articulated.

For King, these men were not “supporters,” they were fellow visionaries, with whom he shared prophetic values. They spoke too as personal victims of racism, and gave voice to the millions who had perished in the Holocaust. The idea that their eloquent commitment to Israel didn’t affect King underestimates both him and them.

What would King think of Israel today? It’s an idle question. But he thought well of Israel then, and its flaws in his day weren’t far fewer, nor were its virtues much more numerous, than they are in ours. Whether he deserves to be called “a tremendous Zionist,” as Edward Said claimed, is a matter of perspective and definition. But the attempt to make him into an advocate for Palestine is an offense to history.

(Cross-posted at The Times of Israel.)

Choice books on Israel, 2019

Mosaic Magazine asked its regular contributors for year-end book recommendations. I selected these four worthwhile books published in 2019. Other contributors (the list is illustrious) made interesting choices too, and you can read them in two parts: here and here. Now, my choices.

Journalism, it is said, constitutes the first draft of history. Sometimes it’s more than that, as when journalists move away from day-to-day reporting and plumb the past. Three of the most worthwhile books on Israel in 2019 fall into just that category.

David Ben-Gurion lived a life that still confuses, inspires, and fascinates, and each retelling reveals some neglected aspect. His greatest biographer was the late Shabtai Teveth, originally a journalist, who wrote a multi-volume study in Hebrew (and a single-volume condensation in English). As it happened, I knew Teveth well; when he was working on Ben-Gurion, his archive filled a specially rented apartment in Tel Aviv. There was so much to say that his monumental project never made it to 1948.

Tom Segev, Ben-Gurion

Now Tom Segev, also a journalist, has produced a one-volume portrait: A State at Any Cost: The Life of David Ben-Gurion (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 816pp., $40). Some will remember Segev from decades ago as one of those enfants terribles who tried to demolish conventional Israeli narratives. His claim, back then, that Ben-Gurion had heartlessly exploited the Holocaust drove Teveth to write a book-length refutation.

But in this new biography, not only does Segev effectively admit that he got that wrong, he has also given Ben-Gurion an admiring treatment—almost despite himself, one is tempted to say. Sure, Ben-Gurion’s flaws are there to see (no one who knew him could fail to see them). Yet Segev still lets Ben-Gurion’s greatest strength shine through: his sheer single-mindedness, without which Israel might have been born in much more pain and suffering. No one should rely on just one biography to put Ben-Gurion in focus, but Segev’s is a good place to start.

Matti Friedman, Spies of No Country

We think we know all there is to know about 1948, until someone comes along and proves that we don’t. Matti Friedman, in his brisk Spies of No Country; Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel (Algonquin Books, 272pp., $26.95)tells the story of Jews from Arab lands who came to mandate Palestine, where pre-state Zionist intelligence then recruited them to go back as spies. It’s the kind of espionage better known through the saga of Eli Cohen, the Egyptian Jew sent by Israel in the 1960s to spy on Syria. Friedman shows that Zionist intelligence began recruiting Jews from Arab countries as early as the 1940s, sending most of them to Lebanon. Whether they made that much of a difference is debatable, but their adventures make for riveting reading.

Friedman’s book is also an antidote to the present-day meme of the “Arab Jew”—Jews who supposedly felt themselves to be Arabs until the birth of Israel displaced them. Yes, there were far-left intellectuals, mostly Baghdad Jews, who imagined themselves to be Arabs. (I had one as a colleague, the late academic Sasson Somekh.) But Friedman’s heroes undertook aliyah before the state, and some made the supreme sacrifice to launch it.

In 1948, the vast majority of Israeli Jews came from Europe or European parents. Of the 37 signatories of Israel’s declaration of independence, 35 were born in Europe. But Friedman shows that other Jews assisted at the birth, and his book is an effective way to remind American Jews (as Friedman does in this interview with Jonathan Silver) that today’s Israelis are as much Middle Eastern as anything else.

Yaakov Katz, Shadow Strike

Dangers from the north still loom over Israel, but thwarting them is now a high-tech enterprise. Yaakov Katz, editor of the Jerusalem Post, has reconstructed the most dramatic case in Shadow Strike: Inside Israels Secret Mission to Eliminate Syrian Nuclear Power (St. Martin’s, 320pp., $28.99)It’s amazing just how much information Katz collected on one of Israel’s most secretive operations: its discovery and 2007 bombing of Syria’s al-Kibar nuclear reactor, then under construction. Most of the people involved eagerly talked to Katz, who weaves an artful narrative of technology, intelligence, and politics. (He did the same in this interview with the Tikvah Fund chairman Roger Hertog.)

It’s also a cautionary tale. The George W. Bush administration had thrown a whole army against supposed weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, on the basis of flawed intelligence. But when Israel proposed that the United States act against a proven nuclear facility in Syria, it demurred. At least Bush stood aside when Israel’s then-prime minister Ehud Olmert told him bluntly that Israel would act alone. It’s a repeat of an old lesson: at crucial moments, Israel’s staunchest ally is just as likely to balk, which is why Israel needs the means and independence to defend itself against any threat—alone.

Jerold Auerbach, Fit to PrintFinally, and still on the subject of journalism, one reason America isn’t an entirely reliable ally is that its elites get much of their notion of Israel from the New York Times. The Wellesley historian Jerold S. Auerbach has undertaken the dour task of plowing through more than a century of the paper’s reportage, to demonstrate not just the infamous bias of the Times but its peculiarly Jewish origins, dating all the way back to its publisher Adolph Ochs. Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism, and Israel, 1896-2016 (Academic Studies Press, 322pp., $29.95) is a must-read for anyone who relies even a bit on the Gray Lady for news and opinion (and an essential companion to Laurel Leff’s 2006 book Buried by the Times, on how the paper botched its coverage of the Holocaust). An excerpt from Print to Fit appeared in Mosaic.

 

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A sleepless night in Room 16

A couple of months ago, my wife and I took a 24-hour vacation in Jerusalem, spent entirely at the historic American Colony, one of Jerusalem’s oldest hostelries. The hotel originated in a messianic Christian commune whose members had arrived from Chicago toward the end of the 19th century in anticipation of the Second Coming. While waiting, they diversified into economic activities, including hospitality. Over the last century-plus, the American Colony has hosted an A-list of dignitaries and celebrities from T.E. Lawrence (“of Arabia”) to the British rock star Sting.

The hotel’s location, on the edge of the Arab downtown, has long facilitated its role as a neutral ground for meetings of Israelis and Palestinians; I’d dined there a few times in the distant past for just that reason. Today its old stone buildings remain charming and its many gardens enchanting—nowhere more so than where they conjoin around a bubbling fountain to form the enclosed patio of the main building.

Since ours was not a business trip but a holiday, to be devoted to rest and relaxation, the setting suited us just fine. To our delight, on check-in we received an upgrade to a suite: Room 16.

A bit of intrigue heightened our excitement. A year ago, the London Daily Mail had run a feature on “the ten best history-making hotel rooms.” It included, among others, Lenin’s room at the Hotel National in Moscow, the “Scandal Room” at the Watergate in Washington, and the Plaza Hotel suite that hosted the Beatles on their 1964 visit to New York. Tenth on the list was Room 16, “our” suite at the American Colony.

And what happened in that suite to merit such distinction? According to one telling of the story, a 1992 meeting in Room 16 was the first step in the “Oslo process” between Israel and the Palestinians that led to the accord signed at the White House in September 1993. “We concocted the start of what became the Oslo channel in Room 16 of the American Colony Hotel,” testifies Terje Rød-Larsen, the Norwegian mediator. “And the rest is history.”

In a new essay at Mosaic Magazine, I look into that history. I discover that Room 16 didn’t lead up to Oslo, but it led down the “road not taken”: namely, the road to an agreement between Israel and the so-called “inside” leadership of the West Bank and Gaza, personified by Faisal Husseini, that would have bypassed the PLO. It didn’t happen that way, but was it even a possibility?

For my full essay on the forgotten alternative to Oslo, continue here.

(And as a special bonus for my subscribers, go here for a look inside Room 16. The lovely woman is my wife.)

American Colony Hotel lobby

 

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