Response to LA Times Op-Ed "Six days, 45 years later"

Letter to the Editor:

Miko Peled’s Op-Ed “Six days, 45 years later” (6/6/12) is highly misleading.   While opposing the policies and decisions of one’s government, past and present, on principle is perfectly legitimate and even noble, spreading hateful misinformation in the guise of “activism” is unconscionable.   As the son of an Israeli general, Peled surely knows that the Arabs, not Israel, are primarily to blame for the Palestinian refugee situation, for the “occupation” and most of its unfortunately necessary evils, and for the fact that there is still no Palestinian state.   Yet his Op-Ed is little more than vituperative Palestinian propaganda against Israel.  He has either forgotten the history he learned in school or is determined to ignore it.   Those who seek a just resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should do neither.

At the end of WWI, the British Balfour Declaration favored the establishment of a Jewish State in Palestine.  Until then, the Arabs there considered themselves Southern Syrians (as the Ottoman province had been known).  They made a strategic decision to redefine themselves as a separate people.  The British Mandate for Palestine included the large area of Transjordan.  In 1925, the League of Nations determined that Palestine (for the Jews) and Transjordan (for the Arabs) were newly-created successor states of the Ottoman Empire.  Present day Jordan is the state intended for the people who later called themselves “Palestinians.”

But although the Arabs took their new state, they never accepted the idea of one for Jews.  Long before there was an Israel, Arabs actively sought to murder Jews in Palestine.  They had considerable success, with increasing British complicity cast as neutrality.  The “occupation” that began only in 1967 obviously does nothing to explain decades of prior Arab pogroms and riots, most grievously the extermination of the ancient Jewish community of Hebron – historically more Jewish even than Jerusalem.  Over the next few years, 1929-1933, the Jews extended serious offers of bi-nationalism (just as Peled yearns for now), but the Arabs rejected these, insisting on majority rights. 

In 1948 the UN offered the Arabs another state for the Palestinians.  Israel’s Declaration of Independence guaranteed the Arabs full rights as equal citizens (Peled’s dream) and urged them to help the Jews build a peaceful state.  Instead, the combined Arabs armies attacked Israel.   About 650,000 Arabs fled or were forced to leave.  Although Israel’s official policy after the war was not to permit returnees, tens of thousands of Arabs in fact returned and resettled during the next two years, with Israel turning a blind eye, mostly for humanitarian reasons. 

During the 1948 war, a greater number of Jews living in Arab lands, about 900,000, fled or were expelled from their ancient homes.   We never hear about these Jewish refugees or their descendants because Israel accepted and resettled them, just as tens of millions of other WWII refugees were accepted and resettled by nations around the world.  But the Arabs refused to resettle their own, consigning them instead to generations of squalor and suffering as an ever-increasing political tool against the Jewish state.  Peled’s Op-Ed is one example of how successful this cynical strategy has become, not only internationally but even among far-left Israelis.   

Though unable to strangle Israel at birth, the Arabs (Jordan) did succeed in capturing and annexing the West Bank, including the Old City of Jerusalem (in which it massacred the cut-off Jewish population and razed synagogues and ancient Jewish holy sites).  Jordan occupied these territories for nineteen years, excluding from it all Jews.  Egypt controlled Gaza during this period.  Either or both countries could have established a Palestinian state and solved the refugee problem at any time, but neither had any interest in ending their occupations. 

In 1967, the Arabs prepared to attack Israel again.  Israel warned Jordan to stay out of the war, but  Jordan refused.  Facing an imminent Egyptian attack, Israel launched a preemptive strike.  Peled thus blames Israel for the 1967 war and all that followed.  He also states that his father was one of the few who knew that such an attack was actually unnecessary, but historian Michael Oren says otherwise.  In his definitive work Six Days of War, Oren states: “Quartermaster Gen. Mattityahu Peled, later head of the far left, agreed that the Egyptian threat had to be eliminated at once if Israel were to survive.”  (pg. 133-4).   Oren then quotes Gen. Peled as being strident in urging an attack: “On his (Avraham Yoffe)’s heels came Matti Peled, the quartermaster, even more fervent: “The enemy is digging in and getting stronger while our economy weakens and all for a purpose which no one has yet explained!” (pg. 152).

Israel was able to reclaim what had been its land, not just in ancient times but prior to Jordan’s 1948 invasion.   Peled then characterizes Israel’s 1967 victory as a “lost opportunity for peace.”  He’s right, but in a completely different way than he implies.  In February 2005, during a course on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict taught by historian Robert Levy, I wrote the following notes:

June 19, 1967.  Israeli government decides to return all occupied territory to Egypt (Sinai) and Syria (Golan) and return to pre-1967 borders.  “Palestinian Option” – would even have granted Independence in return for peace.  But Syria and Egypt said no because they were embarrassed, ashamed, and shocked after 67 war.”

In September of that year, the Arab League announced its infamous “Three No’s:” “No peace with Israel, No recognition of Israel, No negotiations with it.”  Peled somehow falls to mention this as he blames Israel for the “lost opportunity for peace.”  Historians have since concluded that the Arabs were not as adamant as their formal declaration indicated, but Israel didn’t know that at the time and took the Arabs at their word.  Only then did Israel decide that it had no choice but to continue the occupation and not return to the pre-1967 armistice lines.  These were not at all borders but only cease-fire lines, expressly stated by the signatories to be without prejudice to future negotiation of permanent borders.  But the Arabs refused to engaged in any such negotiations, and the West Bank settlements began shortly thereafter.  Who, then, is responsible for the occupation?

In 1973, this time misreading the signs of an imminent attack and thus failing to launch another preemptive strike, Israel was fortunate to survive the Arab attack that occurred on Israel’s holiest day when most soldiers were in synagogue praying.  Israel’s sense of invulnerability, ushered in by the 1967 victory, was shattered.  Although the Arabs also ultimately lost the 1973 Yom Kippur war, it restored their pride, which ironically allowed peace talks to take place. 

Four years later, in the euphoria of Sadat’s historic visit to Israel, Israeli Prime Minister Begin offered, in addition to a total withdrawal from Sinai, Palestinian autonomy, with the issue of actual sovereignty to be postponed.   Many Palestinians now regard their rejection of this Autonomy Plan as their biggest mistake. 

Yet, in 1993, Israel signed the Oslo accord that did grant partial autonomy to the Palestinians as a substantial step toward a future state.  Israel got terrorism as a result.  In 2000 Israel and the U.S. proposed giving the Palestinians 97% of the territory and East Jerusalem.  This was rejected again, followed by another round of homicide/suicide bombings and other violence.  More recently, Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza, with the results its population electing Hamas and ushering in a reign of missiles upon Israeli cities. 

Israel is certainly not perfect; no country is, especially no new country.   Israel made political, social, and military mistakes.  In the early years, claims of Palestinians forced off their land were denied for fear of setting precedent, subjecting new settlements to claims of illegitimacy, and jeopardizing housing needed for huge numbers of Jewish immigrants.  During the 1950s, when faced with unrelenting Arab infiltration (some with murderous intent, others just seeking to return home), Israel responded with massive retaliation.  This included collective and arbitrary punishment designed to stop the infiltration and deter the Arabs into acquiescence.  It didn’t work; Israel’s “Iron Wall” doctrine only generated greater bitterness.  (On the other hand, the Arabs have also seen Jewish and then Israeli restraint as weakness, such as during the 1930s and following withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza).   

Israel’s invasion of Lebanon was a disaster.  None of its goals was accomplished except expelling the PLO – which only made the Palestinians an international cause célèbre.  For the first time, Israelis began to harbor doubts about the pure morality of their military.   Israel also mistakenly believed that it could crush the first intifada militarily.  Its televised actions further damaged its international reputation and pushed Ronald Reagan into negotiating with Arafat and the PLO.   This helped to show the Palestinians that force worked.  Israel even nurtured the birth of Hamas, calculating that it could be a counter-weight to the PLO.  

Israeli governments have aided the establishment of illegal settlements, and extremists on both sides have resorted to assassinating Presidents who favored peace (Anwar Sadat, Yitzhak Rabin).  Israel’s right-wing political parties oppose peace negotiations.   Israeli leadership has been periodically unstable (rotating heads of government and parliamentary gridlock), inconsistent in policy, intransigent in reacting to possible peace overtures, unprepared and/or unwilling to reign in hawks or, at times, take bold initiatives for peace (while dramatically doing so at other times).  These are only examples.  Hence, no honest assessment of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can absolve Israel of all responsibility. 

Nevertheless, what American-born Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir said, fully ten years before the occupation, remains true: “Peace will come when the Arabs love their children more than they hate us.”  What Israeli U.N. Ambassor Aba Eban remarked is also true: “The Palestinians have never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity for peace". I feel sorry for them, but they have been raised to be the destroyers of the State of Israel. They could have had their State on a number of occasions.”

Since 1967, the descendants of the original 650,000 Arab refugees have become five million.  The nations who support the U.N. (principally the U.S.) spend hundreds of millions of dollars annually and operate a massive bureaucracy to help support the perpetual refugees – all because they continue to be the pawns of Arab governments and militants.   Their suffering is truly lamentable, and Peled is right to advocate for their salvation. 

But he is going about it in a completely disingenuous way.  For him to blame Israel solely or even primarily is a gross perversion of history and fuels international vilification of Israel.  This is the son of an Israeli general who fought for Israel’s existence?  His idyllic vision of a “real democracy where Israelis and Palestinians live as equals in a shared state, their shared homeland” – the original offer of the fledgling Jewish state -- would now mean demographic suicide for the tiny, the only Jewish state in the world, even assuming (ignoring history) that the Palestinians were indeed willing to live peacefully with Jews. 

And just what does Peled imagine will happen if Israel were to suddenly end the occupation and/or accede to Palestinian demands?  Would Palestinians stop teaching their children with textbooks showing that all of Israel is Palestinian land?  Stop giving them suicide (homicide) bomber costumes and pretend bombs as toys?  Stop indoctrinating them to grow up to “kill Jews” (not “kill Israelis”)?  Stop treating those who do kill Jews as heroes and martyrs worthy of state funerals, family pensions, and public monuments?  Arab leaders say no such things in Arabic. 

Like Peled, the great majority of Israelis yearn for peace and would make great additional concessions to obtain it if only they believed that it were possible.  But they are thoroughly disillusioned realists.  Unlike Peled, they don’t absurdly blame “45 years of successive Israeli governments for eliminat[ing] any chance for the two-state solution to become a reality.”  One can and should lament Palestinian suffering and work to alleviate it.  This can include seeking to change some Israeli government policies by supporting liberal political parties, such as the Labor party now in position as the government’s opposition.  But for Peled to describe the occupation as a “reign of terror” is way over-the-top.  Machine-gunning school children; blowing up city buses, weddings halls, and pizza shops; and firing hundreds of missiles indiscriminately into cities is a “reign of terror.”  Checkpoints, curfews, and travel restrictions to prevent such are not, even if hardship, discrimination, some dehumanization, and excesses inevitably occur. 

A century ago – a fifty years before the occupation -- Britain recognized the justice of restoring national sovereignty for the Jews in their ancient homeland.   The Arabs fought this every step of the way.  The fact that the Palestinians don’t also have a home isn’t because of the 1967 occupation or the “settlements,” but because the Arabs have never accepted coexistence with a Jewish state as the price of having their own.  To end the occupation and their suffering, all the Palestinians need is leadership willing to finally accept Israel.   Since Peled is an enthusiastic supporter of the Palestinian cause, he likely has many friends among them.  I therefore suggest that he turn his activism to encouraging responsible and moral Palestinian leadership that will finally make a lasting and just peace with Israel, rather than continuing to trash the land of his birth and his people.  

(Note: Photo by David Rubinger)

***

Arthur Levine is a lawyer, expert witness, historian, and rabbi who lives in Israel and Fullerton.  He is a dual American-Israeli citizen.



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