Misled are the peacemakers: a reply to Freedland

Last week, the Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland (pictured) took the part of the erstwhile Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat in a role-play exercise. But the peace agenda discussed was seriously distorted. Writing in The Propagandist, Lyn Julius puts forward an alternative peace plan that addresses the ‘right of return’, Jewish refugees and democratic change in Arab lands:

For most of last week, the Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland was cast as the erstwhile Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat in arole-play exercise , while Palestinians played Israelis.

Apparently, every time such exercises take place, it is the ‘Palestinians’ who seethe with righteous indignation as the underdog. The ‘Israelis’ suffered too, the negotiators recognise, but that was ‘in the past’.

How has the peace agenda come to be so seriously skewed? The victims of a genocidal project to destroy the Jews in the Middle East have been turned into aggressors, and Jewish suffering downplayed. Who around the negotiating table remembers that it was the Arabs who rejected the UN Partition Plan for Palestine, and launched a war of annihilation against Israel in 1948? Who remembers the Arab League secretary-general Azzam Pasha’s spine-chilling promise : ‘This will be a war of extermination and a momentous massacre which will be spoken of like the Mongolian massacres and the Crusades’?

It was a good week, writes Freedland. He negotiated Israel back to the 1967 borders.That was the easy bit, Jonathan. Did the ‘Israeli ‘negotiators’ get the ‘Palestinians’ renounce their ‘right of return’ to Israel proper?

The ‘right of return’: This issue cannot be brushed aside lightly as ‘rhetoric’. Not content with getting a Palestinian Arab state in the West Bank and Gaza, even the ‘moderates’ of the Fatah camp have refused to recognise Israel as a Jewish state. Most recently they again affirmed that their ‘right of return’ was non-negotiable. Thus Palestinians reserve the right to turn the Jewish state into a second state of Palestine, by overwhelming it with millions of returning refugees. The first act of such a Muslim majority-state would be to repeal Israel’s ‘Law of Return’ which entitles Jews, wherever they may be, to automatic Israeli citizenship.

That’s why, in the real negotiating world, Benjamin Netanyahu is right to make Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state the quintessential issue. (The real Erekat has said flippantly that Israel can call itself what it likes – but does the Arab side accept Israel’s right to call itself what it likes?) If successive Israeli governments did not insist on this point in the past, it is because Netanyahu has realised that the much vaunted ‘two-state solution’ leaves room for ambiguity.

To put it bluntly, Arabs need to become Zionists if there is to be peace. They need to accept that the Jews are an indigenous Middle Eastern people with a right to self-determination in their ancestral homeland.

Refugees: The Palestinian negotiatiors at Freedland’s role-play hold ‘the moral high ground’: the Palestinian refugees are seen as the main victims of an Israeli injustice. But this is another serious distortion.

The Arab refugees are the unintended consequence of a war the Arabs failed to win against the nascent state of Israel in 1948. But it is forgotten that the Arab waged a second war, on their own defenceless Jewish citizens, a war they won easily. This war was not a mere backlash to Israel – it was inspired by totalitarian Arab nationalism and by the rise of Nazism. The Jewish refugees – now comprising half the Israeli population with their descendants – were successfully ‘ethnically cleansed’. Now it is the turn of other minorities.

The peace agenda espoused by Freedland and others misses the fact that the single largest group of refugees created by the Arab-Israeli conflict was not Palestinian. Almost a million Jews were expelled, not just from Jerusalem and the West Bank, but Arab lands, and their pre-Islamic communities were destroyed. In terms of lost property, the Jews forfeited land four times greater than Israel itself. As a matter of law, the Jewish refugees too deserve justice. Recognition of their plight and compensation for seized assets many times greater than Palestinian losses must also be included on the peace agenda. Two sets of refugees exchanged places in the Middle East. The parties to peace must recognise that the exchange is irrevocable.

The peace agenda needs to include a humanitarian solution for Palestinian refugees in Arab countries and their four million descendants. They need to be granted full rights in their Arab host countries – including the right to become full citizens in their countries of birth, just as Jewish refugees were granted full rights in Israel and the West. The Palestinian refugee camps, terrorist breeding grounds, need to be drained. The agency perpetuating Palestinians refugee status from generation to generation, UNWRA, must be dismantled and Palestinians allowed to be absorbed in wider Arab society.

Jihad-driven antisemitism: The peace process needs to address the very cause of the Jewish exodus – the same bigotry which drives the Arab and Muslim struggle against a Jewish sovereign state in the Middle East and marginalises minorities. The conflict is not just between Israel and Palestine; it is rooted in the Arab world’s cultural and religious prejudice against non-Muslims ; and with the rise of Islamism, it is between western values and Iranian-backed Jihad.

Freedland’s peacemaking simply does not address Jihad. Assume that Arab governments are willing to renounce anti-Jewish media- and mosque-driven incitement and violence. Assume they are willing to accept Israel as the state of the Jewish people: how do you deal with the spoilers intent on wrecking the peace? If Israel makes an agreement with the ‘moderates’ of the Palestinian Authority, what about Hamas? If peace with Hamas, what about Hezbollah? The history of the Middle East is littered with the corpses of moderates murdered by extremists. Make peace with one armed fanatic group, and another pops up elsewhere.

Only if democracy takes root in the Arab world can violent extremists be marginalised. Islamists have only become a powerful force because they control the mosques, the only conduit for popular political expression in failing or non-democratic states. To bring about a lasting peace, we need to adopt the Sharansky solution – incremental financial incentives to encourage liberal democracy, the establishment of civil society with real respect for civil and human rights, independent institutions and the rule of law.

If there is lesson for Israel from the Arab Spring, it is that peace deals with illegitimate dictators are at best tactical truces. Democracies do not need to distract their masses with an external bogeyman. Democracies do not go to war with one another.

Peace negotiators, real or make-believe, need to move on from the tired old cliches of the Oslo years. The issues are broader than conventional wisdom suggests. Would someone please tell Jonathan Freedland?

Read article in full

Cross-posted at Harry’s Place andCiF Watch

A thought-provoking comment by Mettaculture at Harry’s Place:

Democracies do not go to war with one another.

mmmmmmm. Well a bit of a sweeping cliché that one. I do not wish to rubbish completely the essence of this cliché, because it is the case that, generally, wars between opposing democratic nation states are defined by their lesser destruction, greater willingness to solve diplomatically and to make reparations (or to simply buy the land being fought over).

Now it is true that many nasty wars have been fought between constitutional Monarchies and Republics where there is a lot of definitional debate about exactly what is a democracy (and of course what constitutes a war vs an invasion or a skirmish, an intervention or a squirmish).

None the less four Anglo-Dutch Wars, the wars between the splintering Bolivarian republics post Nueva Grenada and in central America (Neuva España ) post independence, the Mexican-American War and even the 100 hour football war between El Salvador and Honduras were wars.

But the ‘democracies don’t wage war’ truism is least rue when we consider the really nasty wars, civil wars, revolutions and wars of independence that have consumed so many lives in the last two centuries.

The wars that arise from within a constitutional state either for territorial independence (for some geographically separated colony, province or part of a nation) or within a contiguos territory devided by region, class or ethnicity are often the most brutal wars of all. These wars destroy and disfigure whole civilisations their economic and cultural forms their families and for long decades after their future relationships.

The American Revolution (The American War of independence we Brits call it which indicates that it was British colonists rebelling against lack of local governance),The American Civil War, the first and second Boer Wars, the first and second Balkan war, The Graeco-Turkish War (along with the combined Armenian, Assyrian and Greek genocide), The Spanish civil war, The Partition of India The first Kashmir War, The Invasion of Cyprus, and the Yugoslav war have all been ugly wars characterised by civil and ethnic fracture resulting in acts of barbarism between people who had lived previously as communities of part of a greater whole.

These fratricidal/ethnic/national self determination wars are also characterised by some of the most serious crimes against humanity.

All of these wars arose within the context of struggle for national or ethnic self determination where the constitutional (and increasingly violently contested) forms of relatively democratic government were inadequate to the task of resolving long standing societal or even civilisational factionalism.

Indeed what has always been a causative factor in these wars is that representation in governance has always lagged behind rapidly changing economic and social conditions, with the consequence that politically entrenched powerful groups become locked into a scrabble for resources with the newly emergent ‘demotic’ challengers.

Now it seems Lyn Julius is saying to important things (to crudely precis an important contribution) that we need to be place at the heart of the debate in relationship to Israel’s existential struggle for self determination:

First; There has been an exchange of refugee populations in the Middle East in the creation of Israel. This population exchange no matter how it happened (coerced, ethnic cleansing, voluntary) was done along principally confessional lines (but confessional lines that were believed to reflect ethnicity).

This caused terrible hardship for the refugees but it is done. What is more it was done in exactly the same way that modern nation states were carved out Independence movements from within two great Empires; the Ottoman and the British Empire in India (the third of the territory that remained as princely kingdoms and its preceding Mughal Empire).

The Modern state of Israel (and by the exact measure its surrounding sharp lined new post Ottoman Arab nations) therefore is a deeply rooted political fact of the modern global order of Sovereign Nations States, just as are, via exactly the same historical process) the states of Greece and Turkey (Armenia, Bulgaria etc) and Pakistan and India (Burma and Sri Lanka etc).

This is done we should, we must, accept these political facts as unalterable. Doing this allows us to then talk of compensatory payments to refugees (Jews and Palestinians) and their descendants.

I think this is the most important, the most robust, part of Lyn Julius article.

This should have always been the negotiation position. To have conceded the Palestinian refugee question as a self standing issue, irregardless of the entwined fates of the Jewish, Mizrahi, refugees has been to concede an argument and a set of demands that cannot be solved in those terms without undermining the right of Jewish self determination.

Refugees should be compensated and their civil and political rights recognised in the country of their residence and birth.

My Greek friend does not even consider that he has a right of return to the Anatolian Village that all four of his Grandparents were born in. My Palestinian friend (still after this argument) does believe that he should get his Grandmother’s house back in East Jerusalem and that there should be a ‘one state solution’ that allows him that.

He thinks this even though he is unsure of the chain of title for the property before 1948 and even though his grandparents migrated to the economically booming Palestine Mandate in the early 30’s (he came from Damascus where an elderly Christian Aunt still lives and a Jewish great grandmother died).

My Palestinain friend, an urbane and reasonable person (except on this issue) believes this because he has never really been challenged, within his liberal Anglo-Palestinian cultural millieu, to think anything different other than of his casually daily reinforced unproblematically viewed ‘right’.

The second part of Lyn Julius’ argument that is essentially ‘Israel must work with the Arab spring and democracy movements and do no more deals with dictators for short term security, because we all want democracy and democracies do not go to war’ is weaker.

Not because she is not right, ultimately, but because she may well be making a strategic mistake to see this as a prescription for action rather than the desired goal because, well, it can all go pear shaped in the short term.

Democracies are not easy to establish, or rather they are easy to establish utopically in an 1848 way

They can have a tendency to end briefly, up against a cemetery wall though.

Democratic emergence is also characterised by the release, the unleashing of long subdued ethnic, religious and economic tensions.

Power blocks battle for power and democracies, especially those born in independence movements or civil wars tend to be short lived.

Demotic forces are unleashed and democratic institutions (which take decades to build) can easily be undone.

Israel has fought a democracy, Lebanon, in several of its wars, it has invaded it twice.

This is not because Israel hates democracy or would rather do a deal with a dictator like Assad for stability, but because the Lebanese democracy allows for representation of sectarian and military interest groups inimical to Israel’s existence.

Lebanon may not be a perfect democracy, none is, but its’ electoral structure allows for a balancing of powers which is essential for enough stability in a democracy to build genuinely impartial and robustly independent democratic structures.

None of Israel’s wars with its only democratic neighbour have improved the institutional foundation of Lebanese democracy, on the contrary, Israel’s involvement in Lebanon is on a par with Syrias, in its threat to destroy Lebanese democracy, not by intention as with the Syrians, but by default for the simple reason that very few multi ethnic multi religious democracies are strong enough to resist melt down when drawn into wider conflicts.

Democracies do go to war and Israel and Lebanon with almost certainly be engaged in armed conflict, soon.

I still think that Lyn Julius is right in that unless Israel’s neighbouring regimes become zionists then there is little prospect for peace.

The irony is that only a stable democratic country that recognises another’s legitimate sovereign right for self-determination as much as it values its own can have a majority understand the universality of the principle of self determination and see that Israel’s right to this is unremarkable and that zionism (at least in the mature Westphalian sovereign state world legal order we live in) is quite unremarkably enough simply a political expression of Jewish nationalism.

I don’t have any easy suggestions as to how we get these mature Arab democracies surrounding Israel where a majority think ‘oh yeah Israel its just another country in the Eastern Mediterranean like Greece or Turkey’

I am sure, though, that unless the popular political discourse surrounding this issue begins to see Israel as an ultimate political fact, a geo-political consequence of the creation of Modern Nation States out of Old Empires involving unpleasant and never to be repeated population exchanges, just like the creation of Greece and Turkey or Pakistan and India; then we don’t even get to take the first step.


  • The longer the wars disappear in the distance, the more ignorant people will forget that it was not Israel who rejected the foundation of Israel (natchurly) but the 6 arab States. Instead of giving them (the so-called Arab refugees) a helping hand, the bigger Arab countries left them in their camps instilling in them their hatred of Jews. I am very pessimistic about that, I have a feeling it will never end!
    Israel is so tiny compared to the Arab countries!
    Sultana latifa a former Jewish refugee from Egypt


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


This website is dedicated to preserving the memory of the near-extinct Jewish communities, of the Middle East and North Africa, documenting the stories of the Jewish refugees and their current struggle for recognition and restitution.

Point of No Return

Jewish Refugees from Arab and Muslim Countries

One-stop blog on the Middle East's
forgotten Jewish refugees - updated daily.