The Siege: The Saga of Israel and Zionism
CONOR CRUISE O’BRIEN Weidenfeld £20
CONOR CRUISE O’BRIEN’s interest in the Middle East began when, as an Irish UN representative, he found himself sandwiched between the Iraqi and the Israeli delegates. After his first sanitised contribution on the subject — ‘something in it for both sides’ — he was thanked by his colleagues to the alphabetical right and left. ‘Christ — was it as bad as that?’ commented a journalist friend when he told her.
It is the realisation of the virtual irreconcilability of Israeli and Arab/Palestinian positions which
characterises this 800-page history. No congratulations this time, but still something in it for both sides. The Siege is not yet another cliché-laden account of Israel from its Herzlian inception, but the story of the play of forces around the Jews.
Zionism arose because of the inability of non-Jews to assure and assert the security of the Jews over two millennia. In different epochs and different places, Jews were stigmatised for being god-killers, financial leeches or simply non-conformist strangers. In Arab countries, Jews persevered under dhimmi status as protected subjects of the Sultan at a privileged level of discrimination in comparison with Christian Europe. O’Brien’s stated brief does not mention ideology, yet it provides the background noise. Even so, there is no mention of Marxism-Zionism or its founder, Dov Ber Borochov.
O’Brien pinpoints the arrival of Palestinian nationalism in an anonymous proclamation circulated in Jerusalem in 1914. Like Jewish nationalism — born in the same period — it came into existence at an unfashionable time. The most publicised advocate of Palestinian nationalism was the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, who spent the war years in Berlin and, like the Afrikaners, hoped that a Nazi victory would eliminate British influence. O’Brien believes that the Arab-Jewish riots were instigated from above, most notably by al-Husseini and British officers. He cites the fact that during the mid-1920s, when there was high Jewish immigration, there was virtually no violence.
The Holocaust initiated a certain sympathy for the Jews but the stereotype still remained. O’Brien recalls a lunch with a delegate of the Vatican at a refugee conference just a few months after the war. The Monsignor did not mince his words — ‘I’m not anti-Semitic, I just hate them.’ The Jews had done very well out of the war on the black market, he observed.
As an Irishman, O’Brien can relate to the problem of minority peoples who have been relegated to the sidelines of history, but he takes to task Ken Livingstone who in his user-friendly mode a few years ago compared the sufferings of the Irish people over 800 years to the fate of European Jewry during the Holocaust.
The second half of the book describes how a moderate Israeli foreign policy as expounded by Abba Eban was neutralised and isolated by Israel’s Labour’s hawks. The deep bombing raids into Egypt, the inflation of settlements in non-populated areas of the West Bank and the deafening silence which greeted Sadat’s first peace overtures exemplify the malaise which permeated Israel Government policy between 1967 and 1973. The rude awakening of the Yom Kippur war brought some back to their senses, but certainly not all. O’Brien interestingly implies that Henry Kissinger and the CIA obliquely encouraged Sadat to launch his attack.
O’Brien’s treatment of the last decade is couched in realistic terms, but often gives way to polarised opinions. He tends to underplay the role of the peace camp in Israel. While many Sephardim took their revenge on condescending Labour attitudes by voting for Begin in 1977, the real reason for his victory was a large Labour defection to the Democratic Movement for Change, established as a reaction to Labour’s illiberal policies and general corruption. The protest against the Phalangist massacre of Palestinians at Sabra and Chatilla was not led by the Labour alignment’; it was Peace Now who planned and organised it and many hitherto silent Labour luminaries had to be pushed to the platform. Neither is the divide between Ashkenazim and Sephardim so clear cut as indicated.
The epilogue is entitled ‘Territory for Peace?’ O’Brien believes that agreements are possible on Gaza and the Golan, but not, despite his own liberal views, on the West Bank.
He argues that a projected coalition of Labour and dovish parties on the Left could not give up Jerusalem and the vehement reaction from the nationalist Right and the messianic religious would carry with it the whiff of civil war. Moreover, Hussein and Arafat are unlikely to go it alone. A Palestinian state on the West Bank, he suggests, would be unstable and collapse, especially under the political pressure and violent actions of Palestinian rejectionists.
Such a thesis implies that the West Bank problem will not be solved in the short term. Does this mean that all attempts at dialogue are fruitless? O’Brien selects statistics to bolster his thesis, yet some 27 per cent of Israelis in an opinion poll last year regarded the PLO as their negotiating partner. Many Israelis believe that the doors must still remain open while the psychological movement to mutual recognition and subsequent negotiations take place on both sides.
That process has developed at a quicker pace in Israel. The PLO does not unambiguously recognise that the Jewish people have a right to self-determination and still clings to the fantasy of an annexation of Israel within a Greater Palestine. PLO officials such as Said Hammami and Issam Sartawi who espoused a rational position were gunned down by rejectionist gunmen.
If Gaddafy and Assad cut their ties with the rejectionists, it may permit the mainstream Palestine National movement to pursue realistic policies. If the PLO does have a moderate wing, then the irony of Reagan’s Tripoli raid is that it may allow Arafat a measure of flexibility. Even so, Conor Cruise O’Brien’s book injects a dose of hard realism into an area dominated by public relations and propaganda pundits.
New Statesman 6 June 1986