Debunked, but still fit to print on page one

Nothing gives a historian greater satisfaction than correcting a persistent error. And nothing is more frustrating than the resurrection of that error even after it’s been corrected. Especially if it suddenly surfaces on the front page of the New York Times.

In Monday’s edition, on page A1, an article by Max Fisher appeared under the headline “Israel, Riding Nationalist Tide, Puts Identity First. It Isn’t Alone.” This is the lead:

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.

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.

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, which had been founded to protect not just the Jewish people but their ideals of democracy and pluralism.

In the print edition, this claim about Ben-Gurion wasn’t sourced, but the online version provided a link. Where did it lead? To an article by the late Arthur Hertzberg, once a prominent American rabbi, in the New York Review of Books back in 1987. There Hertzberg claimed to have heard Ben-Gurion, right after the 1967 victory, “insist that all of the territories that had been captured had to be given back, very quickly, for holding on to them would distort, and might ultimately destroy, the Jewish state.”

This week, Hertzberg’s report hit the front page of the New York Times, via Max Fisher. That’s too bad, because only three months ago I thoroughly debunked it at Mosaic Magazine. Although the Hertzberg story is often quoted, it struck me as dubious, knowing what I know about Ben-Gurion’s stated, public position in 1967. So I went to the trouble of asking the Ben-Gurion Archives in Sde Boker to help locate the transcript of the talk that Hertzberg attended. They did, and there’s no evidence whatsoever that Ben-Gurion said what Hertzberg claimed he heard.

Moreover, there’s ample evidence that Ben-Gurion wanted to keep lots of territory. In June 1967, he proposed to annex Jerusalem and Gaza, and make the West Bank an autonomous zone dependent on Israel. He did propose to return the Golan and Sinai to Syria and Egypt, but only in return for “true peace” by treaty. By summer’s end, he’d taken the Golan off the table, and a few years later, he was arguing against returning Israeli settlements in the Sinai and for including Hebron in Israel.

Since the New York Times isn’t going to correct the error, I’m excerpting the part of my article that unravels the Hertzberg claim, supported by verifiable Ben-Gurion quotes, in the hope that you’ll share it. I’ve only got a few thousand subscribers, which is nothing compared to the more than half a million who saw the story on the front page of America’s newspaper of record, and the 2.6 million digital subscribers who might have seen it. But who knows? Maybe the next journalist will do some research before he or she recycles this myth, and will somehow stumble on the truth. The more places it can be found, the more likely that is.

Below is the excerpt, reproduced by permission of Mosaic Magazine. Read the whole article here.

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This brings us to Ben-Gurion’s position after the 1967 war. Two decades after that conflict, in a 1987 article in the New York Review of Books titled “Israel: The Tragedy of Victory,” the gadfly American rabbi Arthur Hertzberg would recall hearing a speech by Ben-Gurion in July 1967 at the Labor training institute Beit Berl outside Tel Aviv. Hertzberg’s summary:

Ben-Gurion insisted that all of the territories that had been captured [in the June Six-Day War] had to be given back, very quickly, for holding on to them would distort, and might ultimately destroy, the Jewish state. He made only one exception of consequence: the Israelis should not relinquish control of the whole of Jerusalem. Ben-Gurion’s most striking assertion that night was that he did not expect immediate peace with the Arabs; for its own inner health, he said, Israel needed only to give back the territories very soon in return for a workable set of armistice arrangements.

That July speech, Hertzberg insisted, had “become my most vivid memory of Israel in 1967.”

In 2003, Hertzberg repeated this story in the introduction to a manifesto entitled The Fate of Zionism. In that “unforgettable encounter,” he now wrote, Ben-Gurion had demanded that Israel “give back, immediately, all the territory that it had captured” except Jerusalem; otherwise, “it would be heading for historic disaster.” With his “wrathful cry that the most glorious of Israel’s victories could turn out to be even more poisonous than defeat,” Ben-Gurion, according to Hertzberg, “was the true Zionist prophet” who “planted in me a recurring discomfort.” Thus, when Hertzberg himself later called for a Palestinian state, he claimed he was simply “follow[ing] after David Ben-Gurion, who dissented, at the end of his life, from the platform of the very Labor party he had helped to fashion.”

The problem with this story is that Ben-Gurion never uttered the words Hertzberg attributed to him. The transcript of his speech, delivered to a visiting group of Conservative American rabbis on July 12, 1967, is preserved, and while it may not be complete, it bears not the faintest resemblance to Hertzberg’s account of it. There is no mention of the West Bank or its inhabitants, no mention of urgent withdrawal, no victor’s remorse. When Ben-Gurion wasn’t lauding Israel’s astounding victory, or reminiscing about his own past, he was haranguing the rabbis over Israel’s desperate need for Jewish immigration from America so that it could rapidly settle 100,000 Jews in unified Jerusalem. “Ben-Gurion Calls for Mass Immigration in Conservative Rabbinic Seminar,” ran the headline in the Israeli daily Davar two days later. If Ben-Gurion had said anything remotely resembling what Hertzberg claimed he said, that headline would have been radically different.

Nor does Hertzberg’s account bear the slightest resemblance to Ben-Gurion’s own precise statement of what he thought should be done with the occupied territories, laid out in a public letter composed with all the force of his considerable personal authority. Sent to the editors of the Hebrew press, the letter was published in nearly all of the major dailies on June 19, nine days after the war’s end. “If Egypt agrees to conclude a peace treaty with Israel,” he wrote,

and commits to our freedom of navigation, not just in the straits of Eilat but also in the Suez Canal, we will be ready to evacuate the Sinai desert immediately after the signing of the treaty. . . . If Syria agrees to sign a peace treaty, and commits itself to preventing attacks on Israeli settlements by Syria’s inhabitants and from within its territory, we will evacuate the Syrian [Golan] Heights now in our hands.

Armistice agreements, as in 1949? Hardly: Ben-Gurion was willing to return territory only in return for full peace treaties. “I am not sure the other side is prepared for that,” he added.

In fact, there was no difference between this position and the Israeli cabinet decision of June 19: Egypt and Syria would be offered full withdrawal for full peace. But for Ben-Gurion it didn’t take long for Syria’s Golan Heights to be removed from the table: after a visit there in August, he concluded that Israel should settle and annex them.

As for Jordan, Ben-Gurion would return nothing. The Old City of Jerusalem and its surroundings would remain entirely in Israeli hands (it had been Israel’s “eternal capital” since the time of King David). When it came to the rest of the West Bank,

We will propose to the inhabitants . . . to choose representatives with whom we will conduct negotiations on a West Bank autonomy (excluding Jerusalem and its surroundings), which will be tied to Israel in an economic alliance, and which will have its outlet to the sea via Haifa or Ashdod or Gaza. A Jewish army will be stationed on the western bank of the Jordan River to protect the independence of the autonomous West Bank. . . . All the Jews who [once] lived in Hebron and its surroundings will be allowed to return to their former homes, even after the West Bank is granted internal autonomy.

He was even more specific in an address to an Israel Bonds delegation in August. In his view, the West Bank should be an “autonomous though not independent province.” This scheme for the Palestinians hardly constituted “dissent” à la Hertzberg. It basically tracked Ben-Gurion’s proposals of 1956 and 1958, and also the earliest form of the plan for the West Bank drawn up after the Six-Day War by then-Minister of Labor Yigal Allon.

And once again there was another newly occupied territory, in addition to eastern Jerusalem, that Ben-Gurion proposed to annex outright:

The Gaza Strip will remain in Israel, and efforts will be made to settle its refugees in the autonomous West Bank, or in other Arab territory, with the assent of the refugees and the assistance of Israel.

Picking up here on his earlier ideas about Gaza, he still thought it crucial to extend Israel’s coast all the way down to the Egyptian border, even if that meant assuming responsibility for (the dispersal of?) Gaza’s 350,000 Arabs.

In sum, in Ben-Gurion’s plan, no part of the Land of Israel west of the Jordan would be “given back” to anyone. Israel would patrol its entire eastern frontier, the West Bank would become a subordinate “province” of Israel, and the Gaza portion, evacuated of some of its Arabs, would be annexed outright.

In the following months, Ben-Gurion didn’t deviate from this plan. On August 1 (that is, after his Beit Berl remarks), he participated in a Q&A session with students of the Hebrew University. Repeating every one of his points, he added: “In my opinion, the Sinai, the West Bank, the [Golan] Heights, and the Gaza Strip can wait; we have time. But we have to work immediately to build Jerusalem.” So much for acting to return territory “very quickly,” “very soon,” or “immediately.” Indeed, as a recent study demonstrates, Ben-Gurion invested his greatest energies after the war in plans for absorbing all of united Jerusalem into Israel—including such far-out proposals as demolishing the walls of the Old City. More than two years later, in 1969, his position still hadn’t changed:

If there were a chance for “true peace” (and by true peace I mean stability and common action in economics, politics, and education), I would be for the return of territories (except for the Old City of Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, and Gaza). But unfortunately I don’t see any proximate chance for true peace, and thus no room to speak about return of territories.

By 1971, his view hadn’t much altered. He had stopped mentioning Gaza alongside Jerusalem and the Golan Heights as territory Israel had to keep. But his concept of “true peace” remained absolute. Asked by an American senator what it meant, he answered: “Nu, it’s fairly simple. Peace such as that which exists between Belgium and Holland.”

But this wasn’t his final stop. As time wore on, and the wait for “true peace” lengthened, Ben-Gurion envisioned still more revisions to the pre-1967 status quo. In 1972, he was asked whether he’d changed his views during the five years since the war. Ben-Gurion replied that in 1967 he’d been willing to return all of the Sinai, but Egypt had still refused to make peace.

In the meantime, we are settled in the Sinai, and important things are being done there. There is a big difference between returning barren desert and returning settled areas. I would not order the dismantlement of the settlements in the Sinai and the return of territories to Egypt. Something changed in Sinai since the Six-Day War, and things continue to change. It’s one thing to return desert, another to return territory settled by Jews.

When asked whether his revised view included the West Bank, and particularly Hebron, he added: “Provision should be made for a large and growing Jewish settlement in Hebron that should be able, in the fullness of time, to become a part of the state of Israel.” This repositioning didn’t pass without notice outside Israel: “Ben-Gurion Switches on Annexation,” announced a headline in the New York Post. It was the last major statement by Ben-Gurion on borders; he died the following year.

So Hertzberg’s Ben-Gurion—advocate of an immediate, unilateral, and almost total Israeli withdrawal—was a figment of the rabbi’s imagination. But Hertzberg didn’t consciously fabricate him. (I allow myself to say this as someone who briefly had Hertzberg as a teacher.) He simply did what many do when they want to validate their own political notions: they trace them back to a (mis)quotable “founding father.” No doubt, Hertzberg’s encounter with Ben-Gurion—the “George Washington of Israel”—was as “unforgettable” and “vivid” as he claimed. But two decades after the fact, he remembered only those fragments of Ben-Gurion’s remarks that he could distort and cram into his own by-then alienated verdict on 1967: “It would have been better had the Six-Day War ended in a draw and not in a series of stunning victories.”

Ben-Gurion and land for (true) peace

In the film Ben-Gurion: Epilogue, Israel’s founder is made to seem eager to exchange territory for peace. That was in 1968, when he was 82 and long out of power. We see him say this to an interviewer: “If I could choose between peace and all the territories that we conquered last year [in the Six-Day War], I would prefer peace.” (Excluded: Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.)

In my April essay at Mosaic Magazine, I showed that Ben-Gurion had a very different take on territory back in May 1948, when he declared Israel’s independence from the pinnacle of his political and analytical power. But what about the later Ben-Gurion?

In my “last word” in the month-long discussion of my essay, I track his thinking on Israel’s borders, from the later months of 1948 through 1972, the year before his death. It turns out that the quote in the film, torn from its context, is utterly misleading. I restore the context, and you may be surprised to discover where the “Old Man” ended up.

In the course of telling that story, I touch on a few of the most interesting points raised by my distinguished respondents: Efraim Karsh, Benny Morris, and Avi Shilon. I’m grateful for their insights.

“Israel’s Situation Today Looks Much as Ben-Gurion Envisioned It,” my “last word”—read it right here.

The Fragile Crescent

On April 30, I gave a lecture at Harvard University, where I am Olin Institute Senior Fellow, and where I’ve spent the past month. The subject: “After Iraq: The Future of the United States in the Middle East.” Below is an excerpt from the lecture.

The objective of the United States is to protect and advance its interests at the lowest cost, and from the greatest distance. That is easiest done when there is a stable structure of states with which to interact. A state is a convenient address a place to which you can dispatch diplomats or cruise missiles, to which you can sell arms or issue threats. In short, a state is an entity with which a state can conduct business, usually at arm’s length.

The states of the Middle East are the legacy of the Anglo-French partition of the Ottoman empire that followed the First World War. The United States has regarded these successor states, however constituted, as basic building blocks of order. Washington did not draw the map of the Middle East, but it has been adamant that the map not be altered. At times, certain Middle Eastern leaders, acting in the name of this or that ideology, have attempted to wipe a state off the map. Nasser’s Egypt absorbed Syria, Saddam’s Iraq absorbed Kuwait, and Asad’s Syria absorbed Lebanon. In each case, the United States used its influence or power to put the map back.

It has been axiomatic in Washington that the foundation of the pax Americana is the maintenance of a partition largely finalized back in 1922. The United States is even committed to putting Palestine back on the map, from which it disappeared in 1948. If only the map could be completed, so the thinking goes, the Middle East, like Europe, would cease to be preoccupied with identity, and move to more productive pursuits.

Not only has this “final status” eluded the United States. The irony is that the United States itself has delivered a massive blow to the map. In Iraq, it meant to destroy the regime and leave the state intact, but the state collapsed with the regime. The ramifications throughout the region are profound, if uneven.

They are not as significant for the states that draw upon a strong sense of territorial or ethnic or linguistic nationhood—Egypt, Turkey, Iran. But what I call the “Fragile Crescent” has felt the shocks acutely.

The British and French divided this part of the Ottoman empire, but not into its smallest conceivable parts. In fact, many of the successor states in this area were mini-empires in their own right, modeled on the late Ottoman system, governed on the same principles, and often by the same elites. Iraq, in particular, was a scaled-down version of the Ottoman empire. David Fromkin in his book A Peace to End All Peace wrote: “The Allies proposed a post-Ottoman design for the region in the early 1920s. The continuing question is whether the peoples of the region will accept it.” But precisely because the design was not entirely post-Ottoman, it somehow did function and most people grudgingly accepted it.

Now that design has been given a blow, and large pieces of the remaining order are threatened with further fragmentation. Put differently, the dissolution of the Ottoman empire has resumed.

There are three specific impacts of the Iraq war that are rendering parts of the political map an anachronism.

The first is the Shiite revival in Iraq and beyond, also known as the “Shiite Crescent,” a phrase coined by Jordan’s King Abdullah in a loquacious moment. The idea—a Sunni one, not a Shiite one—is of a Shiite band of population running from the Arab Gulf states through Iran, southern Iraq, leap-frogging Sunni parts of Iraq and Syria, and extending into Lebanon a trans-border, trans-ethnic belt of allegiance with Iran at its center.

The “Shiite Crescent” is one part hype, one part reality. There isn’t a contiguous belt of Shiites like the one shown in newspaper graphics; Shiites outside Iran and Iraq are still surrounded by a Sunni sea. Nor are Shiites driven by a need to reconfigure the map. In key states in the “Shiite Crescent”—Lebanon, Iraq, Bahrain—Shiites are not minorities: they seek to capture the state whole, not break it into parts. Still, wherever the Sunni-Shia rift runs through a state, that state is vulnerable. The “Shiite Crescent” may be a hyped Sunni slogan, but it highlights the growth of an allegiance that is both sub-state and supra-state, and that erodes the state order from without and within.

The second impact gets less attention: the Kurdish crescent. The Kurdish revival is as deep as the Shiite, but it is potentially far more subversive of the state order, because Kurds, unlike Shiites, are everywhere a minority. Iraq’s Kurds already have a de facto state, and it is a going concern, which is unlikely to maintain more than a formal tie with the rest of Iraq, if that. The autonomy of Iraq’s Kurds is a long-standing American commitment, which the Kurds are reinforcing through an extensive public relations and lobbying effort.

The more successful Iraq’s Kurds are—the more state-like they become—the more this affects Kurds in Turkey, Iran, and Syria. The rather expansive map of “greater” Kurdistan is a logo map—that is, a mental map inculcated via its representation on everything from keychains to commemorative plates. You will not find “Shiite Crescent” keychains, because the notion is Sunni, not Shiite, and Shiism is not a territorial nationalism. But Kurdistan is another matter: Kurdish nationalism has a strong territorial component, and it won’t be put back in a bottle.

The third and last impact involves the movement of millions across borders: the refugee crescent. These are mostly Iraqi Sunnis who have fled the chaos of their country to Syria or Jordan, and who are waiting out the war. Their numbers are already substantial, and they could increase dramatically in various scenarios. As the Palestinian case demonstrates, refugees put more than a material stress on host states. They throw the legitimacy of the status quo into question. While populations are being separated in Iraq, a great mixing is taking place in Syria and Jordan, with outcomes that cannot be predicted.

In sum, the map has been undermined. The choice the United States will face with greater frequency and urgency is whether or not to sustain its traditional support for that map. Past challenges came from aggressive states encroaching on smaller ones, and aggressors could be cajoled, deterred, and punished. But transformation within states, in which the main actors are movements, insurgents, refugees, and secessionists, is another matter.

We have a natural proclivity to dwell on those problems that we somehow might fix or tweak with the tools we have. Iran’s nuclear ambitions are a classic case. So is the Israeli-Palestinian issue. I have not discussed those problems this afternoon they are already being discussed elsewhere and everywhere. But it is precisely because the United States has so few of the tools it needs to deal with this sort of “new Middle East,” that its strategic and policy implications are not being discussed anywhere. Perhaps now would be a good time to start.

Postscript: For my pre-war discussion of this same issue, go here.