Enemies and Neighbors: Arabs and Jews in Palestine and Israel 1917-2017
Ian Black, published by Allen Lane 2017) pp. 640
Ian Black, a longtime Guardian journalist, sees Yasser Arafat’s appearance at the UN in 1974 as the “apogee of his 40-year leadership.”
It’s a curious notation in his latest book, Enemies and Neighbors: Arabs and Jews in Palestine and Israel 1917-2017. But
why does Black, a Middle East editor, diplomatic journalist and author – describe it as the zenith of Arafat’s achievement? After all, it laid the basis for the counter-productive “Zionism is Racism” resolution at the UN the following year. Why this and
not the handshake between Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin on the White House lawn in September 1993?
Such a comment is perhaps symbolic of this misleadingly titled book – since it essentially documents Palestinian Arab resistance during the last 100 years. It presents a reportage of a century of bloodshed, hostility and violence for the general reader and familiar ground is covered. While any writer who attempts to preserve an equilibrium between rival versions of history has a very difficult task, Black’s approach often overbalances. Chaim Weizmann spoke about a lesserand greater injustice – a recognition of complexity. This is often lost in this book.
Instead there is a real sense, wafting from this book, that Israel was born in sin – and that it has pursued sinfulness ever since.
Zionism is broadly viewed as amorphous and faction-less. “Deir Yassin remains a byword for Zionist brutality that has resonated down the decades,” Black writes. Why “Zionist” and not “Irgun”?
The efforts of the Israeli peace camp are often underplayed – for example, the Marxist-Zionist Mapam’s attempts to confront
David Ben-Gurion’s policies towards the Arabs in 1948. Perhaps it is easier to portray tragedy in polarized terms – black
and white, instead of shades of gray. The war of 1948 is reduced essentially to a telling of the Nakba.
Despite this, Black does not shy away from wrongdoings and misdemeanors on both sides and documents them graphically.
Ariel Sharon, the hammerer of the suicide bombers, termed the Israeli presence in the territories, conquered in 1967, an occupation – and Black provides much grueling testimony to cement such a comment.
Black writes about the fatalism of both Israeli and Palestinian rejectionists of Oslo and partly blames Arafat in Ramallah, for
“receiving petitioners and supplicants like a tribal sheikh.” He also sensitively describesthe undisclosed visit of Arafat and
Mahmoud Abbas to meet Rabin’s family in Tel Aviv five days after the murder of the prime minister – although Shimon Peres
refused to allow Arafat to attend the funeral on security grounds.
The significance of Palestinian Islamism – as opposed to Palestinian nationalism – in destroying the peace process during the
1990s is perhaps under-emphasized. This points to a central lacuna in the book – an explanation of the importance of ideology. After all, the actions of politicians do not materialize from nowhere. They are not cartoon characters. Hints of what people actually stand for only emerge incidentally.
Black utilizes a quote of the far-Right nationalist poet Uri Zvi Greenberg, from 1938, to characterize the political philosophy
of the Land of Israel movement, some 30 years later, following the victory in the Six Day War. Yet there were many on the
Left who believed that 1967 was merely a continuation of 1948. The sons of the Marxist leader Yitzhak Tabenkin signed the Land of Israel manifesto and subsequently settled on the West Bank. They do not merit a mention. There was a powerful
socialist desire to combat feudalism and its clerics amidst a matrix of new kibbutzim on conquered territory.
This glossing over of ideology leads to the occasional error such as that Ahdut Ha’avoda – a party in its own right – is demoted to being merely a wing of Mapai. President Reuven Rivlin is described as “a Likud supporter of unusually liberal
views.” Too true, but it makes more sense if Rivlin is viewed as a loyal follower of Jabotinsky’s teachings – someone who does
not pay lip-service to the founder of Revisionist Zionism as do the majority of Likud members.
Black is more at home when writing about contemporary events, such as describing the current government’s shift to
locating “the enemy within” and the antics of mindless breast-beaters in the political arena. He details “the blinding violence”
of recent years and the inertia of those who practice the politics of stagnation in Israel. The metamorphosis of “security and
peace” into “security without peace.”
This weighty tome takes the reader up to the present day. It is strong on description and less so on insights. It is indeed Guardian coverage writ large.
Jerusalem Post 12 January 2018