Archive for category Sandbox

Free online course! Declaring Israel’s Independence

“We hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz-Israel, to be known as the State of Israel.” That declaration by David Ben-Gurion in Tel Aviv on Friday afternoon, May 14, 1948, the Fifth of Iyar, 5708, is the most significant and consequential sentence uttered by a Jew since antiquity.

It put an end to 2,000 years of dispersion and exile, and announced the restoration of sovereign self-determination to the Jews in their own land. “We hereby declare” is the modern equivalent of the Biblical “Hineini,” an affirmation of presence, and an assumption of responsibility. And it is the key passage in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. That declaration is the topic of my free online course “Declaring Israel’s Independence,” an educational program of the Tikvah Fund.

You’ll discover the rich history of the declaration, the heated debates surrounding its drafting, and the drama-filled back stories behind May 14. Watch these seven lectures, take your Israel-literacy to a new level, and become an expert in your own right in advance of Israel’s Independence Day next month. Enroll here.

And view the trailer:

Israel Declares Independence

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The Trump plan: history doesn’t run in reverse

On February 5, Gregg Roman of the Middle East Forum interviewed me on the Trump plan for Israel and the Palestinians. I’ve written about it elsewhere; in the interview, I offer some further reflections. (If you prefer, click here to listen.)

MEF: What’s your take on the Trump peace plan?

Kramer: Well, the first thing you have to do is separate analysis of the plan from the partisan political atmosphere that prevails the United States today, and just look at the plan on its merits and limitations. I understand that’s hard to do, but it’s really important because otherwise, you’re letting your political prejudice influence your analysis, and we want to neutralize that.

The plan has three key levels of analysis that you could do. There are the assumptions of the plan; there are the principles of the plan; and there are the details of the plan. It’s important not to reverse the order of discussion and get lost in the details before you look at the assumptions and the principles.

The core assumption is that the end of the conflict is important. [Otherwise,] why have a proposal? There have been administrations that didn’t make a proposal. The Obama administration basically dropped the whole issue at one point, and focused elsewhere. The idea that resolving the conflict could have a positive effect on the US position in the Middle East and on Israel’s position in the Middle East, is the basic underlying assumption of this initiative.

There’s a bit of linkage here—in other words, it’s important because it connects with the way the US is perceived in the region and the way Israel is perceived in the region.

So that’s one core assumption. The second core assumption is that you can’t reverse history, history only goes in one direction.

And that’s reflected in the principles. Now there are two key principles here. One is that there’s no way that you’re going to see the massive movement of peoples or parts of peoples as a consequence of, or as an element in, any solution. What does that mean? Anyone who thinks that 80,000, or 50,000, or 20,000 settlers can be removed from settlements under any political constellation which is imaginable in Israel today, is simply dreaming. It’s not going to happen.

And the second, that anyone who imagines that the West Bank or Gaza could absorb other huge numbers of Palestinian refugees—really, descendants of refugees—from other countries, is also dreaming.

So everyone stays in place in this plan. And I think that’s a core principle.

Another core principle—and you can’t get around it—is that the United States remains committed to a two-state solution. It has been since 1947. Even a man now described as Israel’s best friend ever still cannot put a plan on the table that doesn’t highlight two states.

The rest are details. We can discuss the details; [but] I think that they’re the most flexible part of the plan. In fact, Jared Kushner indicated they’re all open to negotiation. I’d say that even includes Jerusalem; it certainly includes the borders that are proposed on the conceptual map.

So, in a way, it’s pointless to get lost in the details at this point. It’s much more important to focus on the assumptions and the principles.

MEF: So let’s talk about the conditioning of the Palestinian people before we even have any principles associated with the peace deal. Because as far as they’re concerned, anything that this president or Benny Gantz or Benjamin Netanyahu offers to them, they’ll say no. A hundred years of Palestinian rejectionism.

And I’m sure you’re familiar with the campaign that the Middle East Forum ran in Israel last summer, associated with our Israel Victory Project: the idea that you can only make peace with defeated enemies, those who recognize a sense of defeat. What’s your take on that idea? Do you think that there’s a way for the Palestinians to give up on sumud, their “steadfastness,” the rejectionism, sarbanut as it’s called in Hebrew, or are we in for this for another hundred years?

Kramer: Look, let me first begin by making a minor correction to the way you described the plan. You called it a “peace plan.” It’s not a peace plan, it’s a partition plan. And a partition plan doesn’t have to be accepted—no partition was ever accepted by the Palestinians—in order to have historic effects. The 1947 plan by the United Nations, which was accepted by the Zionist movement, and was rejected by the Palestinians, still had transformative historic effects: creation of the State of Israel.

What characterizes a partition plan, is that basically it’s a proposal of a third party, looking from the outside, that has some authority, whether it be the British in 1937 when they proposed a partition plan, or the United Nations in 1947, or the United States today. So in a way, the importance of the plan transcends whether either of the parties accepts it.

And I don’t think that the Palestinians can accept it, or will accept it, given the state of their myth-making in their political vision. There are plenty of elements in the plan which Israel really can’t accept either, although Israel will accept the assumptions and the principles without accepting necessarily the details.

But that doesn’t mean that the plan won’t have an effect. The question is, even if the plan is never implemented (and it will never be implemented in all its details), what will be its historic effect?

What will be transformative here for the Palestinians is that they will begin to understand that history only runs in one direction, and the world is moving gradually to an accommodation with the facts of history. The Palestinians haven’t done that. And the reason they haven’t—part of the reason—isn’t just because they’re hidebound. It’s because the world has told them again and again that history can be reversed. Even the United States at various times has told them that history can be reversed. When people stop telling Palestinians that history can be reversed, that is the beginning of wisdom for the Palestinians. That’s the effect of the plan.

And that’s why the plan is so important. It begins with the United States, it will percolate to other states in the West and Arab states, and the Palestinians will begin to understand that their demand for the reversal of history has no support from anyone else.

MEF: You write, in an article that you wrote on the 102nd anniversary of the Balfour plan on October 31 of last year, regarding this issue, that the declaration “did clearly mark the beginning of the end of the Jewish problem as Weizmann and the Zionists understood it: a total absence of power that left the Jews as wanderers, vulnerable and weak.” What will it take to realize, on the Palestinian side, that there is a vacuum of power there, they have no legitimacy in the eyes of many Arab states (in the eyes of the Arab populations, maybe)? They have no ability to tell their leaders what to do unless they openly revolt and even if that happened, the IDF might come in and save those leaders who are providing sort of a Faustian bargain for security as it relates right now to, at least, the West Bank. And they’re suffering; their brand is crisis. How do we get the Palestinians to realize, like the Jews realized—I guess it was 1948, seventy-two years ago now—that the gig is up, you’ve lost, it’s time to develop your own polity not based on rejecting another. How do we get there?

Kramer: Well, you just did it yourself. You have to begin to tell them the truth. Now coming from Martin Kramer, or from you, it will have no effect on them whatsoever. But when they start to hear it from the very same quarters which historically and traditionally have been supportive of their demands, then that will begin to have an effect.

And that’s why, as I’ve argued elsewhere, what’s really important, [in order] for the Trump plan to have that historic effect, [is that it] be marketed to the Europeans, to the Russians, to the Arabs, so that while they may not endorse it—in fact, very few of them will openly endorse it and many will reject it—they will begin to echo some of the assumptions and principles that are in the plan, and go to the Palestinians and say: “Look, we understand why you reject the plan, it’s full of flaws, and so on and so on. But the basic assumptions and principles have some validity.” And when the Palestinians begin to hear that from friends—not from you and me but from their friends—then that will have an effect.

Much of the responsibility for the predicament of the Palestinians today lies not just on them but on their friends, or would-be friends, or supposed friends, who lied to them, misled them and promised they would deliver to them on fantasies, which were completely detached from reality.

I think Jared Kushner wouldn’t see the Trump plan as some unilateral American act. Even the Balfour Declaration was cleared with all Britain’s allies in advance, as I showed that in an earlier study. It was like a Security Council resolution in practice. The US has put this plan on the table. Now what it has to do is, not to get the endorsement of the full plan from anyone, but get other parties to echo elements of its assumptions and principles, and play those back to the Palestinians.

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Ben-Gurion 1948: Israel’s Churchill?

I have the last word word in response to commentators on my essay about Ben-Gurion’s struggle to establish his control over the Israeli army in 1948.

I owe a debt to my three respondents, in order of their appearance: Benny Morris, Eliot A. Cohen, and Efraim Inbar. They’ve added context and some controversy to my essay, “Ben-Gurion’s Army: How the IDF Came into Being (and Almost Didn’t).” And this is a debt owed by Mosaic’s readers as well. The creation of Israel remade the Jewish people, altered the Middle East, and influenced world history. Thus, the pivotal events of 1948 invite never-ending research, questioning, and revision. Since we will never be closer to 1948 than we are now, today’s historians must leave a solid layer of interpretation for future colleagues, and my respondents have done their share.

None of them has contested my core thesis: that David Ben-Gurion used the famous May 12, 1948 meeting of the People’s Administration not only (or primarily) to secure a decision on statehood but also to consolidate and legitimate his control over the army. So there’s no reason to repeat my arguments yet again. Morris, Cohen, and Inbar have, however, raised questions about the broader role of Ben-Gurion in 1948, which is itself one of the larger topics in the history of Israel. What follows are a few reflections inspired or provoked by their contributions….

Continue reading.

Ben-Gurion on the southern front, 1948

1948: Ben-Gurion visits the southern front, accompanied  by Yigal Allon on his left. IDF Spokesman via Wikimedia.

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Does Ben-Gurion deserve the credit?

Over the past two weeks, three distinguished scholars have responded to my essay at Mosaic Magazine on Ben-Gurion’s struggle to gain control of the Israeli army in 1948. In order of appearance, they are:

Benny Morris: “In the end, the army that won the 1948 war was largely commanded by the original, homegrown Haganah officers, from Yigael Yadin on down. These commanders and their reorganized, retrained, and re-equipped ‘militia’ units had swiftly turned into ‘regular’ formations. And together they accomplished exactly what Ben-Gurion had long argued they could never do.” Read more.

Eliot A. Cohen: “Ben-Gurion was an outstanding war statesman—as outstanding in his way, given the size of the stage on which he operated, as Churchill on his much larger stage. An indomitable spirit, a powerful vision, and rhetorical gifts combined to help make him so. But we should not forget that he was also a shrewd judge of people and things, a realist rather than a dreamer, a calculator as much as a prophet armed.” Read more.

Efraim Inbar: “Using the bricks at his disposal, Ben-Gurion built the IDF into a highly effective military force that simultaneously became the ultimate melting pot for Jews returning to their homeland from all corners of the earth. Historians can debate the role played in the ultimate realization of that vision by a single meeting on May 12, 1948. What is beyond debate is that, at its creation, Israel was extraordinarily lucky to have David Ben-Gurion at the forefront of its leadership.” Read more.

Next week, I’ll have the last word in the discussion. In the meantime, enjoy these three informed responses. As you’ll see, I’m in agreement with some aspects, in dispute with others.

llustration: Prime Minister Ben-Gurion (right chair) and Defense Minister Ben-Gurion (left chair), in a caricature by Yoel Buchwald (1920-97). The Israeli Cartoon Museum, Holon, Israel.


Swearing allegiance to Israel

On what day did the Israel Defense Forces come into being? If you guessed May 14, 1948, you’re wrong. The actual date was May 31, two weeks after independence, upon publication of an ordinance establishing the army, signed by David Ben-Gurion.

Why did it take so long? Couldn’t the founders have drafted this ordinance in the weeks before the end of the British mandate? After all, drafting the declaration of independence began some six weeks before independence. And everyone knew there would be a need for a legally constituted army. So why the time lag?

The short answer is that no one knew for sure what the army would look like. Would it preserve the Haganah and the Palmah commands? Would the different parties continue to indoctrinate their own forces, via political commissars? To which civilian authority would the army answer?

Ben-Gurion had an uncompromising answer. The army must answer to the defense minister, acting on behalf of the government. There could be no other armed force, and no other civilian overlord. And until he could get that in writing, he wasn’t prepared to assume the defense portfolio.

There was a huge row over this during the days leading up to independence. It took time to sort it out, and it’s a story of sharp elbows, so it’s been erased from the collective memory. That’s also why I’ve devoted a new essay to it, on the website of Mosaic Magazine.

To round out that account, here I’ll add some details about a major step in the process: the very first swearing-in ceremony of the army. According to the May 31 ordinance, every soldier and officer would “take an oath of allegiance to the State of Israel, its laws, and its lawful authorities.” Ben-Gurion had pushed for the swearing-in of the most senior commanders right through June, and finally convened them at the general staff headquarters in Ramat Gan on June 27.

Ben-Gurion personally administered the carefully formulated oath. This same oath has been taken over the last seventy-two years by millions of Israeli soldiers assembled across the land, from dusty basic training bases to the Western Wall plaza:

I swear and commit to maintain allegiance to the State of Israel, its laws, and its authorities, to accept​ upon myself unconditionally the discipline of the Israel Defense Forces, to obey all the orders and instructions given by authorized commanders, and to devote all my energies, and even sacrifice my life, for the protection of the homeland and the liberty of Israel.

The earliest drafts commanded that the soldiers “obey all the orders and instructions given by the high command.” But what if there were a military coup? “High command” became “authorized commanders”: Ben-Gurion took no chances.

Swearing-in group photograph, June 27, 1948. IDF Archive.

There is an iconic group photograph of this occasion. It shows Ben-Gurion seated at ease on a lawn chair in the center, in short sleeves alongside his wife Paula. They are surrounded by about two dozen commanders, standing or sitting, who don’t yet follow any strict dress code. In a low-quality film clip of the same scene, we see Ben-Gurion beaming confidently at the camera, while Yigael Yadin, head of operations, fiddles with a hat and then a beret, perhaps with a mind to covering his prematurely bald head.

Ben-Gurion’s administering of the oath was as fundamental as his declaration of the state. And it was just as hard-earned, if not more so. A broad consensus supported statehood. But as I show in my essay, powerful interests opposed a unified army under Ben-Gurion’s command.

“This day,” Ben-Gurion wrote of the oath ceremony, “resembled the ‘giving of the Torah’ and the laws to the army of Israel.” Sworn loyalty to the state nixed the possibility of domination by a “select praetorian guard,” or the obedience of the army to a “powerful social movement.” These were all veiled references to Ben-Gurion’s rivals on the left in Mapam, who dominated the Palmah. He hadn’t yet defeated them, but he had the upper hand.

Over lunch with the commanders, Ben-Gurion set a new standard for military subordination to civilian authority — one that has yet to be surpassed. Out of the blue, he announced that all of them were to take Hebrew surnames, there and then. Some pleaded for more time, but he wouldn’t hear of it. The afternoon press release listed all the commanders by their Hebrew names, some of them freshly minted.

Ben-Gurion lunches with senior IDF commanders, June 27, 1948. IDF Archive.

Israel’s politics are full of ex-generals. But Israel has evaded the fate of many war-waging new states, and even some old ones, which were hijacked by “men on horseback.” That’s not something to be taken for granted, and it’s been one of Israel’s clearest advantages over its enemies, both in 1948 and after. In Israel, the civilian leader who founded the state also unified the army, and put the former above the latter. It’s another debt we owe to David Ben-Gurion.

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