Posts Tagged Israel

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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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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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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