What the Palestinians ‘Need to Understand’

Bonr in Poland, Zeev Sternhell is an Israeli academic who describes himself as a ‘super Zionist’.

By Jeremy Salt

Zeev Sternhell is an Israeli academic who describes himself as a ‘super Zionist’ but still argues strongly for a two-state settlement with the Palestinians. In a recent interview with Gidi Weitz of Ha’aretz he argued that if one state ever arose between the Mediterranean and the Jordan river, ‘there will either be a devastating civil war or an apartheid state. In both cases the Zionist state as I understand it and want it will not exist. There will be something else here. My only consolation is that I will not be around to see it.’

Born in Poland in 1935, Sternhell came to Israel in 1951 as a boy of 16. He fought in the Golani Brigade during Israel’s attack on Egypt in 1956 and served as a reserve officer in three other wars, 1967, 1973 and Israel’s onslaught on Lebanon in 2006. In 2008 he won the Israel Prize for his contributions to political science despite his strong criticism of government settlement policies. He is loathed on the right and in 2008 was targeted by Jack Teitel, a settler from Florida who had already killed two Palestinians, as it turned out. Teitel planted a bomb outside Sternhell’s home, intending not to kill but only to wound him, as he did not want to turn him into a martyr.

Sternhell made his reputation with a study of fascism in France, arguing that it was in France that it arose and not in Italy. He has applied his research to Israel, where he believes that democracy has become ‘increasingly eroded’ and that ‘we are arriving at a situation of purely formal democracy which keeps sinking to even lower levels.’

Sternhell has written contemptuously of intellectual conformism and the ‘intellectual bankruptcy of the mass media’ in its response to the latest Israeli onslaught on Gaza. All the same, as the Ha’aretz interview reveals, he has many blind spots when it comes to his understanding of why Israel has reached the present dead end in its development.

Sternhell refers to Israel as ‘an extraordinary laboratory in which one sees the gradual erosion of enlightenment values, namely the universal values I mentioned’. In fact, the state of Israel was conceived and built not on enlightenment values but on their negation. The Enlightenment freed Jews living in western Europe from the legal and social discrimination from which they had suffered for centuries. Zionism ‘liberates’ the Jews through the continuing oppression of the Palestinians. This process began with Herzl and has continued until the present day and the fact that Israel is NOT a state built according to enlightenment or universal values is the core of its problems. The central imperative of Zionism was to take the land of the native population, then get rid of them and hide the crime by obliterating all traces of their presence. The stolen land was subsequently parcelled out to ‘socialist’ kibbutzim where membership was only for Jews.

Similar problems arise with the notion of Israel as a democracy. When the state was founded on territory from which the indigenous population had to be purged as a precondition of statehood, when they and their descendants cannot even live on the land let alone vote, how could Israel be called a democracy in the first place?

‘Liberal’ Zionists have drawn an artificial distinction between Palestine pre and post 1967. Whether the land was taken and settled in the name of the state by the ‘first generation’ in 1948 or in the name of the Lord by settlers after 1967 makes no difference to the Palestinians because it was still taken. It was a Labor government which began settlement of the conquered territories after 1967 and Labor governments continued the process of settlement expansion and land appropriation just as enthusiastically as their Likud rivals.

Sternhell’s argument for a two-state settlement is not even based on a full withdrawal from the West Bank but only the dismantlement of ‘some’ of the settlements. Nevertheless, the failure to dismantle even ‘some’ settlements will signal that ‘the Israeli story is finished, that the story of Zionism, as we understand it, is over. ’

Perhaps his most revealing remarks were made in the context of the Palestinian right of return: ‘The editors of an Arab journal recently asked me about the right of return. I told them it’s dead, a destructive illusion. ‘Why not leave the refugees some hope?’ they asked me. I replied, ‘That hope will block any agreement.’ A few years ago in a meeting with Arab [sic.] intellectuals in Haifa we agreed on pretty well everything until we came to the right of return. One of them said ‘Are you in effect asking me to tell my relative, who once lived in this street and is now a refugee in Sidon, that he can never return here?’ That’s exactly your role, I replied, to tell them that they will never return to Haifa or Ramle or Jaffa. As long as they cling to the notion of the right of return they are presenting the Jews of Israel, who want to put an end to all this, from fighting for an agreement. That millstone, which they cannot cast off, is their tragedy and ours.’

He continues: ‘It’s true that the Palestinians don’t have the strength, the leadership, the necessary elite, the mental fortitude to recognize the fact that 1949 was the end of the process. They don’t have to see it as fact but they need to understand that it’s the end. They don’t have the strength to grasp that and we are rubbing salt into their wounds by making more and more demands and creating an intolerable situation in the territories. We are cultivating their hostility.’

Quite clearly 1949 was not the end, even if it was not the beginning either: that goes back to the late 19th century. ‘They need to understand’ is the voice of the colonial master speaking down to the natives. The unspoken basis for ‘they need to understand’ is not morality or justice but military power. The Palestinian right of return has been enshrined in the body of international law ever since 1948, and in his response Sternhell stands justice on its head. Defending the right of return is counter-productive; surrendering it would be productive; the victim has to pay for the crime and not the perpetrator; it is the perpetrator whose security has to be guaranteed and not the victim; it is the Palestinians who are blocking the road to peace by defending their right and not the perpetrator by refusing to deal with it.

Of the Nakba, Sternhell writes: ‘We arrived at a state of war, we won the war and that was the end of that chapter and the start of a new one. To go on with it decade after decade after the state’s establishment is the ruination of Zionism. What’s happening in the territories is not Zionism, it’s a nightmare of Zionism.’

Ideologically and in practice, Zionism was never about taking some of the land and leaving the rest for the natives: never about sharing the land but, rather, taking it over the heads of the natives. The twin problems all along were how to take the land and how to eject the people because without their dispossession a ‘Jewish state’ could not be established. A ‘Jewish state’ in which the majority of the population was not Jewish would have had to have been an apartheid state from the beginning. The problem was solved by getting rid of the people, a solution far more extreme than the pass laws and segregation of apartheid South Africa, but one which enabled Israel to present the face of a fictive democracy to the world.

The war of conquest of 1948 was the only way in which the central dilemmas of Zionism could be solved. If that war has continued until now it is because the Zionist leadership never regarded 1948 as the end of the process and 22 per cent of Palestine remained to be conquered. Sternhell’s ‘what’s happening in the territories’ is not a nightmare but the attempted fulfillment of Zionism’s historical mission. By settling the territories seized in 1967 without managing to get rid of the majority of the people the question of Jewish state or apartheid state has simply returned.

For Sternhell, Oslo was ‘the first time in history the Jewish national movement recognized the equal rights of the Palestinian people to independence and freedom.’ In fact, it did no such thing. In the two-line letter exchanged with Yasser Arafat in 1993, Yitzhak Rabin recognized the PLO only as the representative of the Palestinian people. In the context of Golda Meir’s remark in 1969 that the Palestinian people ‘did not exist,’ Rabin’s letter might have been an advance but by no means did Oslo represent what Sternhell says it did. No ‘partner’ genuinely committed to peace and the equal rights of another people to ‘independence and freedom’ could have done what successive Israeli governments did. There was no withdrawal of troops but only their redeployment around Palestinian towns; there was no letup in the expansion of settlements; all of the land remains under the control of the Israeli military; only a small fraction has been handed over for the purposes of Palestinian ‘autonomy.’

Even inside Israel the Palestinians suffer from structural discrimination at every level, applied in the education system, in subsidies to councils and the rights granted to Israeli Jews and indeed Jews everywhere but not to the Palestinians. Regulations and laws are streamed towards whittling down the Palestinian presence, so it is not just through its occupation of the West Bank that Israeli democracy is being ‘eroded’ or is a formality.

The most recent onslaught on Gaza is not an aberration. Israel has been killing Palestinians for nearly seventy years. Sternhell recognizes this but does not acknowledge the ideological drive behind this long-running war, which is not just about defending what was taken in 1948 but consolidating Zionism’s hold over all of Palestine. It is said that the 19th century architects of the Zionist project did not know that Palestine was already settled. ‘A land without people for a people without land’ was a phrase used by the Zionists as well as their Christian sympathisers. It was a fabrication because while Jews planning to go to Palestine may have had hazy ideas on this subject the founders of the Zionist enterprise were well aware that Palestine already had a people who somehow would have to be removed.

Sometimes the ‘liberal’ Zionist has no choice but to choose. In a recent article ‘Lydda 1948’ (New Yorker, October 21, 2013), Ari Shavit writes of talking to the military governor and the brigade commander chiefly responsible for carrying out Ben-Gurion’s order to expel the civilian population of Lydda and the adjoining city of Ramle. The 60,000 Palestinians in these towns constituted about 20 per cent of the urban population of Palestine. The townspeople were submitted to a reign of terror. Zionist militiamen rampaged through the town, shooting at anything that moved and massacring more than 400 people, including more than 80 in the Dahmash mosque, before going on to rape, plunder and loot. Hundreds more people died of heat and exhaustion after being driven out of the two towns.

The person installed as ‘military governor’ of Lydda, Shmarya Gutman, later to become an archaeologist ‘who forged the Masada ethos’, according to Ari Shavit, knew what had to be done even before arriving in the town. ‘War allowed one to do what one could not do in peace; it could solve problems that were unsolvable in peace.’ More or less he was reproducing what Ben-Gurion had said: war will give us what we want.

Gutman ‘knew his generation’s mission would be to rid the country of Arabs’, so as the horrific noise of the killings in the streets filled his ears he stood in his office and did nothing. Afterwards he called in the terrorized town leaders and made them an offer they could not refuse: they and their people could stay and take their chances or they could leave now. In this way he managed to persuade himself that he was not responsible for their departure because it was they who made the choice. Shavit writes sympathetically of this man who had just had to endure the worst half of his life, the noise of ‘the shooting that would not stop. The wrath of God’, descending not on the people who were doing this or allowing it to happen but on their victims.

At the end he cannot condemn. Zionism has to be rejected because of Lydda or accepted along with it. ‘I will not damn the brigade commander and the military governor and the 3rd battalion soldiers. On the contrary, if need be I’ll stand by the damned because I know that if not for them the state of Israel would not have been born.’

Shavit calls Lydda the black box of Zionism. It was replicated across Palestine in 1948 and it has been replicated in Palestine and surrounding lands ever since. The Lydda of Kafr Qasim, the Lydda of Qibya, the numerous Lyddas of Gaza, the Lydda of Jenin, the Lydda of Sabra and Shatila, the Lydda of Qana, a history of Lyddas piling up into a mountain, remembered or almost forgotten except by the survivors, because if Lydda was the black box of Zionism in 1948 it remains the black box until now. The ‘process’ did not end in 1949 and if the governments of Israel are still unwilling to bring it to an end, as they have shown by rejecting, debauching or dismissing every peace offer ever made to them, even when on the most favorable terms, then there is no reason why the Palestinians should regard the process as at an end either.

– Jeremy Salt is an associate professor of Middle Eastern history and politics at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.

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  1. This man is a racist colonialist settler. If he cannot assimilate with the natives he must return

  2. Your article is very cartoonish. Zeev Sternhell argues, with good reason, that Zionism was a necessity for the Jews as they were persecuted. And unlike what many people say, Israel could not have been created in Germany as there was already 500,000 Jews living in Palestine pri or to the Holocaust. As for the expulsion if the Palestinians, it happened in the course of a war that THEY have launched. I’m not blaming them for having tried to preserve the integrity of their territory but had they accepted the UN partition plan no one would’ de been displaced. The truth of the matter is that this conflict is a clash of rights. Only when both sides will understand it peace will prevail.

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