Tanya Reinhart's Israel/Palestine: How to End the 1948 War

— David Finkel

Israel/Palestine. How to End the War of 1948
by Tanya Reinhart
New York: Seven Stories Press, 2002, 278 pages, $11.95 paper.

IN THE RUNUP to the invasion of Iraq, George W. Bush notoriously promised British Prime Minister Tony Blair that the United States would turn its energy to reviving the “Middle East peace process.”

Following the war, sure enough, came the publication of “The Road Map” and the promised U.S. commitment to implementing some version of a two-state settlement. To judge whether Blair or even Bush actually believe this is for real, or whether their pronouncements on the subject are purely cynical, is beyond the present reviewer's competence.

More important is to understand where the “Road Map” actually fits into the recent background of two years of the Second Intifada and daily escalating Israeli brutalities. Tanya Reinhart's uncompromising account of the decade past, from “The Oslo Years: False Expectations” to the disastrous present, supplies the essential information.

Regarding the present state of play, Reinhart entertains no illusions. “(T)he two poles in Israeli politics,” writes this Israeli linguist and political commentator regarding the future of the Occupied Territories, constitute <169>preservation of the present apartheid situation under the cover of negotiations, or ethnic cleansing and mass evacuation.

“If all we can do is select between these two choices, one can understand choosing the first. Apartheid, as horrible as it is, is better than massive ethnic cleansing, because it gives the Palestinians the chance of survival. Apartheid can eventually be defeated, with long struggle, as in South Africa.

I confess that often in the dark months of Israel's brutality, when the ethnic cleansing pole seemed to be winning, I prayed that [left-Labor Party politician Yossi] Beilin would manage to take us back to the road of apartheid. Nevertheless, the trap in this line of thinking is “the idea that these are the only choices.” (222)

Using Reinhart's formulations, we can identify the “Road Map” as the latest and most detailed effort to codify and implement the “apartheid” project. We will return to the knotty problem of its prospects for success.

Con Trick

The central purpose of this concise and indispensable book is to define precisely what the bleak options of “apartheid or ethnic cleansing” mean in the present Palestinian/Israeli context, and to uncover historically and politically how the purported peace process was reduced to this miserable level.

Importantly, in Reinhart's view the cause of this brutal impasse lies not in some deep “rejectionism” of peace and compromise within the Israeli population -- where “(s)ince at the least the early 1990s there has been a wide consensus in Israeli society that peace with the Palestinians and other Arab neighbors requires withdrawal from the occupied territories and evacuation of settlements.” (223)

Rather, the difficulty lies in a con trick by “the Israeli political system, which has been working, in fact, against the will of the majority. To numb this majority, it has been necessary to keep alive the illusion that the occupation is about to end, and at the same time to convince the majority that this cannot possibly happen overnight . . .

“Since Oslo, the dream of peace has been replaced by the myth of negotiations . . . And until the whole deal is agreed upon, it is impossible to evacuate even one tiny settlement. This is how, despite wide support, actual withdrawal and evacuation seem further away every year.” (225-6)

Both of the Zionist blocs, the rightist camp headed by Likud and Ariel Sharon as well as the ostensibly dovish bloc headed by the now-disintegrating Labor Party and its allied leftists in Meretz, have perpetuated this game. Hence, inevitably, “Israel has lost the faith of the Palestinians, who are no longer willing to listen to vague promises about a future that never materializes while they watch more and more of their land being taken by settlers.” (226)

Here again, Reinhart's analysis enables us to put the “Road Map” in perspective. The Sharon government has “accepted” the document with a set of reservations that make implementation effectively impossible from the Palestinian side.

Thus, Sharon himself offers the promise of someday ending “the occupation,” as he now for the first time calls it, while assuring settlers that they can keep building until “all Palestinian violence ends,” which cannot possibly happen while settlement activity continues, to say nothing of daily Israeli killings of militants and children alone, and so on.

Needless to say, when the Palestinian leadership during Bill Clinton's time tried to accept U.S. proposals with reservations, they were not allowed to do so. Israel alone maintains the prerogative to say yes and no at the same time.

All this before any substantive difficulties are tackled. Which brings us to another question that Reinhart's account of the peace process since Oslo helps to illuminate:

How much worse is Ariel Sharon's proposition, for a Palestinian state in about 40% of the West Bank and Gaza, from Ehud Barak's celebrated maximum generous offer that Yaser Arafat so foolishly spurned?

The Generous Offer Myth

“Did Barak really offer  -- at Camp David or in later negotiations -- what is attributed to him by the dominant Western view?” (24)

In that dominant view, of course, Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered the Palestinians “sovereignty over 90-95 percent of the West Bank,” control of the Arab sectors of East Jerusalem, and other historic “concessions.” This theme is repeated so routinely that it no longer invites scrutiny.

Astonishingly, upon examination not only does the “generous offer” prove to be less than generous -- there was in fact no offer!

The 90-95 percent of the West Bank purportedly included in the Palestinian state was to include some 50 Israeli settlements, as well as the Jordan Valley where Israeli military forces would be posted, which would be under Palestinian “sovereignty” but where Palestinians could not go! (This is above and beyond the 130 settlements to be annexed to Israel.)

Says Reinhart, “leaving these settlements intact [together with bypass roads, etc.] would entail that 40 to 50 percent of the newly created state would consist of areas that Palestinians would have no access to.” (28)

Put in this light, Barak's proposal appears not very much different from Ariel Sharon's except that Sharon is somewhat more honest in packaging it.

This framework had been worked out in advance by the Israeli politician Yossi Beilin (then of the Labor Party, now Meretz) and the Palestinian Mahmoud Abbas, or Abu Mazen (now the designated Palestinian prime minister).

Reinhart calls this a “shameful document” that Yaser Arafat had accepted in hopes of “a more favorable implementation of the plan than that which Barak had tried to force on him at Camp David.” (30)

In fact, Barak refused to make even this offer unless the Palestinian side signed an “end of conflict” declaration, under which the agreement would supersede and cancel out all Palestinian rights established by United Nations Resolutions 194 (December 1948) and 242 (November 1967) calling respectively for the right of return of refugees expelled in 1948 and for Israeli withdrawal from the territories occupied in the 1967 war.

As regards Jerusalem, with some verbal trickery the Palestinians were to establish a capital city in the nondescript village of Abu Dis, a part of the Jerusalem municipality under Jordanian rule, which they could rename “Al Quds,” the Arab name for Jerusalem.

This has nothing to do with the solution Reinhart advocates. That solution, the way to end the war of 1948 until some future time when the two peoples may voluntarily choose a unified country for both, is “the establishment of a true Palestinian state,” not Israeli control “disguised as self-government similar to a Bantustan.” (243)

To get there, “(f)or true negotiations to begin, Israel must first withdraw unilaterally -- as it did in Lebanon. It is astounding how simple it would be to do this...The only way out is to begin right now.” (226)

Apartheid Under Construction

Reinhart offers much more, based on close readings of evidence and information from the Israeli press, including details on the “slow ethnic cleansing” since 2000, deliberate shooting of civilians as shown by the high proportion of head injuries, and the escalation to the still-unknown carnage in the Jenin refugee camp in April 2002.

Especially chilling here -- and essential reading for understanding the later death of Rachel Corrie -- is the account of the military bulldozer driver “Kurdi Bear” who spent seventy-five uninterrupted hours, fuelled by rage and alcohol, flattening one building after another in the Jenin camp without knowing who might still be inside. (161-65)

There is a grisly account of the collaboration among Palestinian and Israeli security apparatuses in the arrest, torture and liquidation of militant Palestinian opponents, a foretaste of what the “Road Map” requires of Abu Mazen and Company.

There is also an indication of the other option available if apartheid doesn't work, or possibly as an extension of it: expulsion of populations under the cover of war.

Here again Reinhart helps us understand one possible terminus of the maze into which the “Road Map” leads. The Israeli military establishment (“an all-powerful group of fanatical generals who keep their plans secret even from the full forum of the Israeli government” [206]), well-connected to the hawkish elements in the U.S. administration, has long advocated a U.S.-Israeli military confrontation with Iran and Syria.

For this faction, indeed, the conquest of Iraq was less important in itself than as a curtain-raiser for reorganizing the Middle East entirely.

Israel's 1979 peace treaty with Egypt and its fraudulent promise of “Palestinian autonomy” created the conditions for Israel's disastrous 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Today's “Road Map” may be designed in part to lubricate the machinery for the next U.S. axis-of-evil crusade.

Even without that apocalyptic scenario, Sharon has assured his ability to blow up the “road” any time he wishes, as he has done several times before, simply by escalating the assassination of Palestinian resistance leaders to the point where any cease-fire negotiated among Palestinian organizations breaks down.

Final Reflection

I have my own suspicions, which reading Reinhart's work tends to confirm for me, about the dynamic of the past ten years: Zionism as the ruling ideology of the Israeli state cannot be destroyed militarily, and its elites harbor no serious fears on that score, but it would not survive peace.

That is to say that even the kind of unjust solution represented by a barely-viable tiny Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem -- what I call a “22% solution” because it represents that percentage of the Palestinian people's homeland -- would mean the beginning of the end of the (already-eroding) power of Zionism to command the loyalty and sacrifice of the Israeli Jewish population.

I personally hope to live long enough to witness such a blessed event. But Reinhart's brutally honest book makes clear that the past ten years have brought Israel and Palestine closer not to any kind of peace -- just, unjust or anything else -- but to new depths of oppression, impasse and mutual hatred. And the short-term prospects under the “Road Map” hardly look much better.

ATC 105, July-August 2003