Israel and the Roots of Disaster

Two veteran friends of mine will be on one of the ships leaving Athens soon to challenge the Israeli sea blockade of Gaza. The Israeli government, after attacking a previous flotilla in May 2010 and killing nine people, has said it will use violence if necessary to prevent the ships from entering what any reasonable person by now should agree are Palestinian waters.

This confrontation should not be necessary. The Israeli military occupation over Palestinian life should have been eased and sovereign rights established for Palestinians long ago. The crisis of Palestinian status has reached the level of a disaster, and like the creation of Israel itself it is more than a Jewish problem: It is a world problem.

The flotilla as an act of civil disobedience is occurring at a time Israel/Palestine peace talks are dead in the water and the fledgling coalition of Fatah and Hamas is planning in September to seek recognition of Palestine as a sovereign state from the UN General Assembly, the very same body that recognized Israel in 1947. The US doesn’t want this to happen because, if the past is a guide, it will feel it has to reject the Palestinian request. Since the US is only one of many equal votes in the General Assembly — versus the Security Council where its veto rules — a US vote supporting Israeli intransigence will do nothing but be galling for much of the world.

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

At a time when people in the Middle East and North Africa are in the streets seeking new governing relationships and United States citizens of both parties are becoming fed up with foreign wars, the Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman is acting like a dangerous, petulant child covering its eyes to make the real world go away.

Why does this matter? Why should ordinary Americans care about this? Why not just let the Israelis continue along the same belligerent path they have established over the past decades? The reason is simple: What Israel does or doesn’t do affects our lives here in the United States. Our tax dollars finance their military. And, most important, tiny Israel can drag this huge nation into a major world conflagration it does not want.

The Historic Path to a “Jewish State”

According to the Israeli writer Uri Avnery, the real problem is “all this nonsense about recognizing Israel as the ‘Jewish state.’ It serves many different purposes, almost all of them malign.” In a recent essay he compared Israel, as a religious state, to The Islamic Republic of Pakistan, which like Israel, was created 60 plus years ago out of a volatile ethnic conflict.

Avnery’s family arrived in Israel from Europe in 1923 and soon fell into extreme poverty. He fought with the Irgun against the British, but, then, left in protest of the Irgun’s anti-Arab, terrorist tactics. He was severely wounded fighting in the 1948 war and wrote a famous book about it. He served multiple terms as a member of the Knesset and was once the focus of Golda Meir who said: “I am ready to mount the barricades in order to get Avnery out of the Knesset!” Once he left the Knesset, he became a journalist and has been part of the Israeli left and peace movement for many years. While the Israeli peace movement has been effectively marginalized by the party of fear and conquest, Avnery has not abandoned the notion that Arabs and Jews can get along.

Comparing Israel and Pakistan as like religious states with atomic weapons is, of course, a harsh analogy for many to absorb. I imagine Avnery’s intention is to shock as a way to shake things up and empower a reasonable, radical alternative to the current rightist, Iron Wall policies — to avoid a terrible future for Israel and its patron, the United States of America.

In his 1964 memoir, A Start In Freedom, Sir Hugh Foot, a British colonial administrator in Palestine during a period of Arab rebellion in the 1930s, tells how the current Israel/Palestine impasse was set in motion by the British with the help of the United States. Here’s how Foot describes the roots of the current tragedy:

“The failure of the British administration in Palestine was inevitable. The double sin had been committed of raising false hopes both with the Arabs and with Jews. The hopes were false because they were conflicting. The Arabs who fought with Great Britain in the first world war to throw off the yoke of the Turkish Empire were led to believe that they were fighting for their freedom. The Jews were led to believe by the Balfour Declaration in 1917 that they would win a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine. …The United States particularly urged us on in the pursuit of policies which were bound to lead to conflict.”

He goes on to emphasize, “The Balfour Declaration promised support for a Jewish national home in Palestine.” It said nothing about a strictly Jewish “state.” Avnery points out how, 30 years after Balfour, the English translation of the 1947 Israeli “Declaration of Independence” was “blatantly falsified” to emphasize statehood, while it does not use that term in the original Hebrew. It’s the difference between a secure “home” based on diplomatic understandings and a “state” based on domination and military control.

Sir Hugh Foot, a photo taken by a British soldier in Palestine circa 1930, and Uri Avnery

The point both Foot in 1964 and Avnery today are making is that the historic roots of the Israeli state were a formula for disaster – and that disaster is now unfolding before the world’s eyes. “[B]y the fundamental dishonesty of our original double dealing we had made disaster certain,” writes Foot. “In the narrow compass of the Holy Land we had unleashed two hopes, two forces, two nationalisms.”

Of course, once “unleashed” by the imperial powers, the internal power and momentum of the “two nationalisms” took over with mutual righteous fervor, both feeling ownership of the same land. The fact, as Foot points out, “Palestine was populated and owned by Arabs” was a matter of facts-on-the-ground that the intense drive of Zionism by the late 1960s had turned on its head with the use of superior military power.

Avnery says it was the European holocaust “with its huge emotional impact” that sealed the deal for disaster. Add the imperial strategic partnership with a United States in decline, and the current impasse becomes a nightmare.

Foot, Avnery and others equally as credible raise serious, radical questions based on a reading of history that too easily gets lost in the reactionary defensiveness of Israelis like Netanyahu and Lieberman and their knee-jerk supporters in the United States. These honorable radicals are saying a workable solution to the Israel/Palestine impasse is not in the 1967 borders President Obama has cited; it is even farther back in recognizing the “failure” and “original double dealing” that “made disaster certain” and, then, diplomatically accommodating for those failures in contemporary peace talks.

The hurdle, of course, is humility, which is in short supply these days on both sides.

Radicalism and Extremism

If Foot and Avnery are correct, the British Empire and the one that succeeded it in Washington DC bear very real responsibility for the current Israel/Palestine impasse. The whole mess is built on conflicting promises and the fact one side of the impasse has vastly superior weapons and the other side has a vastly greater, regional population, a population now in wide and unpredictable upheaval.

As Avnery emphasizes with the Pakistan analogy, religion has only exacerbated the problems. In a book that covers the sins of all religions, When Religions Become Evil, Charles Kimball cites the settlement movement in the West Bank as a major cause of the impasse. “The uncompromising biblical claim for all the land and the powerful political role played by Jewish extremists,” he writes, “are like a lighted match in a room full of high explosives.”

Defenders of Israel will, here, cite all the sins of Muslim extremists, and they are right. The same metaphor of lighting a match in a room full of explosives works for them, too. But the tit-for-tat response doesn’t let Israel off the hook, as it misses the point that Israel needs to find the courage and the humility to examine its history and find a new way, a synthesis of the past and the present. At the same time, we in the United States need to stop feeding Israel carrots and whacking Palestinians with a stick.

The word “radical” has gotten a bad name. It comes from the Middle English word for root. While radical can often mean top-to-bottom, thorough change – a complete “makeover,” if you will — it can also mean the courageous employment of a reasoned and fair reading of history as a guide for change. Too often being a radical is synonymous with being an extremist, which are two completely different ideas. Actually, extremist change is often a virtually guaranteed outcome when necessary radical change is not permitted.

The two Veterans For Peace members I know who will be part of the second flotilla are both retired US military officers. After 29 years of military service, including service in Afghanistan, Army Colonel Ann Wright followed her powerful moral compass and decided to devote her life to peacemaking; she was on the first flotilla. Marine Major Ken Mayers is a Jew with 21 of his mother’s extended family lost in the holocaust; for him, it’s a matter of saying “never again” to one people persecuting another. In a You Tube, he says he is going as “an act of atonement.”

This essay is co-posted with This Can’t Be Happening at

About John Grant

John Grant is a veteran, a writer and a photographer. At age 19, he was a radio direction finder in Vietnam, working in the mountains west of Pleiku to locate enemy radio operators. He returned to the US and, then, read and learned what the war was really about; he has been a member of Veterans For Peace since 1985. He did documentary photography in Central America during the wars there and has traveled twice to the war zone in Iraq, as well as to numerous other places around the world. He has taught creative writing in a Philadelphia prison for ten years.


  1. Ed McCarthy says:

    In most respects, I agree with what John Grant has written. There are exceptions. It is too simple to say that Gaza’s coast constitute “Palestinian waters” into which the Gaza flotilla ought to be able to sail unhindered. The 1993 Oslo Accords can be interpreted to sanction Israel’s control of those waters, and Israel regards itself as at war with Hamas, giving it some grounds for arguing that a blockade is justified. That its positions tend to undercut assertions that it does not remain effectively in occupation of Gaza is an interesting sidelight. Neither would I give as much weight to the Arab countries’ “vastly greater population” as Mr. Grant appears to. Historically, Israel’s military superiority has made Arab numbers a negligible factor and the Arab Spring, which is the product of forces other than concern with Palestine, probably has not changed fundamentals by which Arab support for Palestinian aspirations has been largely a matter of not putting their money where their mouths are.
    Like Michael Wong (“Israel vs. Israel,” on this same site), John Grant sees Israeli-Palestinian relations as a “disaster,” and in a state of “crisis.” I substantially agree with the former, but think that “crisis” is in the eye of the beholder. The traditional Israeli-American agreement, tacit though it be, has been to allow the Israelis to “manage the conflict,” sometimes relatively gently, but too often with brutality and lethal force. Among both Israel’s supporters and detractors, there are dissents from this, but this is the default position, acquiesced in by most others—including most of the Muslim and Arab world. If matters are critical, they have been critical for a very long time.
    In most other respects, John Grant presents sound analysis. The United Kingdom and the United States have certainly both done too much to create the present situation, and thus have a particular responsibility for resolving it—though the British at this point in history will surely do little more than follow an American lead. This and much else Mr. Grant has to say is true. Whether the conclusions he draws from his analysis are the best ones possible I am less sure of. I am more distrustful of the judgment, if not the intent, of “honest radicals” who would go back before 1967 to the roots of the conflict in order to set things right and make the Palestinians as whole as possible. To me, the lesson here is Beware the Lessons of History. History is open to interpretation, and is usually more complicated than advocates of a particular position like to think. What is one person’s “reasoned and fair reading of history as a guide for change” is another’s unacceptable distortion of the facts. Which facts, and at what starting point, are to be taken into account? By and large too, exercises in turning back the clock are doomed to failure. Grant accurately observes that by the late 1960s Israel, thru its military superiority, had come close to completing a process of dispossessing the Palestinians of the land which they had previously owned and been predominant in. Mr. Grant and the “honest radicals” seem to think that matters could again be reversed. Given Israeli determination and massive strength, enhanced by continued US support, I do not think so.
    No doubt Israel needs to find “a new way” for dealing honestly with its past. Some Israelis have already done that, as have some Americans with regard to our own depredations. In both cases, however, the numbers are far from a majority. The US, too, needs “to stop feeding Israel carrots and whacking Palestinians with a stick.”The problem is that moving to the point where both Israel and the US, but especially Israel, will see the folly of the ways pursued and attempt to do justice to the Palestinians is a very long term proposition. Individuals may have “conversion experiences”; they are largely unknown among nation-states and their general populations.
    Grant is right that extremism is the likely result of failure or unwillingness to make needed change. We only have to think of al-Qaeda to realize the truth of that. Whether the necessary change has to be “radical” is another matter. From one Israeli perspective, any change which would end their absolute control over their situation would be unacceptably radical, indeed extreme. Even from a less rigid Israeli stance, what Grant’s “honest radicals” are likely to have in mind, i.e., a single secular and democratic State, would not pass muster. It would mean the end of Israel as the embodiment of the Zionist dream of a Jewish State. Both dream and State have their problematic aspects, but they will not easily be given up. A single State for both peoples is not achievable in the foreseeable future.
    What is possible is a modification—not a reversal—of American policy based on a reassessment of our national interests in the Middle East which would allow for the creation of a Palestinian State alongside Israel, i.e., a 2-State solution based on the 1967 borders. Palestinians would have to swallow hard over many aspects of such a solution, but it is probably the best they can get, and those choosing to live in that State would at least have a modicum of self-determination.
    One day, perhaps a century or so from now, both Palestinians and Israelis, along with many others, will acknowledge the perniciousness and folly of their nationalisms, and of religious and ethnic particularism. That day however is not yet, politics is still the art of the possible, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains essentially a political one, if with profound moral dimensions.
    One thing John Grant and I do unequivocally agree on: The courage, sincerity and dedication of Colonel Ann Wright, Major Ken Mayers and the others who have sailed with the Gaza flotilla. I have worked with Ken Mayers within an Israel-Palestine Working Group. Ken and I have significant differences, including with regard to some of the matters discussed here, but I know him to be a person of both intelligence and integrity.

    Ed McCarthy
    Veteran Member, William Ladd Chapter 1, Maine

    • John Grant says:

      Ed McCarthy,

      You and I really don’t disagree that much. You are just conceding more to the balance of power that I sketched out. It’s a silly metaphor, of course, but the current power balance has a lot to do with the US and The West over decades “feeding Israelis carrots and whacking Palestinians with a stick” — to the point there is certainly no possibility of ever “going back” to 1967 or 1948 or 1917. The only hope is to look at the process as one of a classic dialectic: The past is the “thesis,” now is the “anti-thesis” — and the future is a “synthesis” of both. Yes, this is easy to say but hard to make work. Palestinians want the “thesis” of the past when they lived in the area on their own before they were militarily dominated by the Jews, and Israelis, of course, want the “anti-thesis” of the current status-quo (Oslo etc etc) because that way they have all the power. The solution is a realistic future, which as you say may take a century or more. But you gotta start somewhere, and it seems the right place to start is for the US to stop playing a western game so exclusively and start playing a world game capable of examining their own past critically. I guess I feel we need to take a few belated whacks with the stick at the Israeli right and feed the reasonable Palestinians some carrots for a change to balance out the slate.

      John Grant

      • Ed McCarthy says:

        John: agreed we are, very substantially so. I am getting used to this little netbook, so will save most thoughts for the message you sent me. Broadening and reconceiving US national interests seems to me a core undertaking. At the same time, I think we get the conceptions we do because so much of the Left, especially on the Israel-Palestine issue, has given up on Washington. Understandable, but regrettable too. More anon.

        Best–Ed McC.

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