Many will find Robert Spencer’s latest book dispiriting, but reality is often just that. It doesn’t care about our feelings, political optimism, or need for palatable solutions. And nowhere is this more true than in the incendiary sandbox of the Middle-East.
The Left will have no use for it, but speaking as something of a Lefty myself, I give the book full marks, and hope that at least some of my tribe will read and learn from it. It’s called The Palestinian Delusion: The Catastrophic History of the Middle East Peace Process, and it chronicles the failure of every peace attempt that has been made for the last 40 years. Spencer argues that the attempts failed for one reason only: the Muslims of Palestine and surrounding Arab countries were never going to accept a Jewish state in any form. The Islamic imperative, “Drive out those who drove you out” allows for no mitigation — not even when the land of Palestine wasn’t theirs to claim.
An Invented Nationality
Many believe that the Palestinians are a genuine nationality — that they are the indigenous people of the land occupied by Israel. Spencer refutes the myth:
“It is no accident that neither Mark Twain, nor any of the series of English travelers who visited the area, nor anyone else who traveled through desolate Palestine over the centuries ever mentioned the ‘Palestinian’ people. They spoke of encountering Muslim Arabs, as well as Jews, Christian Arabs, and others, but no one, among multitudes of people who wrote about Palestine, ever refers to Palestinians. Nor do the many British white papers and other documents the British government produced during the Mandate period ever mention the Palestinians. The opposing factions in those documents are the Jews and Arabs.” (p 87-88)
That flies in the face of the narrative that today’s Palestinians are analogous to Native American Indians: indigenous to the area and thus have a primary claim on the land. But there was never anything to distinguish the Palestinians culturally, linguistically, or otherwise from the other Arabs of the region. During the Mandate Period (1918-48) the Arabs of Palestine usually considered themselves Syrians, and Palestine was called Southern Syria. Auni Bey Abdul-Hadi told the Peel Commission in 1937, “There is no such country as Palestine. ‘Palestine’ is a term the Zionists invented.”
That outlook changed in the ’60s with the Palestine Liberation Organization. The PLO’s constitution refers to “Palestinians” as if they were a distinct ethnic people, though it confusingly alternates between using the terms as a geographical region vs. a nationality. The “Palestinian people” became the PLO’s propaganda used to counter the image of a small Jewish state in a sea of Arab nations. Now it was “the Palestinians” who were an even smaller nation, oppressed by a Big-Bad. And as Spencer says, a nation and a people need an identity; that was provided by the appropriated flag of the (short-lived) Arab Federation of Iraq and Jordan. A founding father was also needed; Yasser Arafat filled that role.
The propaganda was called out. Syrian President Hafez Assad, for example, told Arafat: “You do not represent Palestine as much as we do. Never forget this: there is no such thing as a Palestinian people, there is no Palestinian entity, there is only Syria. It is we, the Syrian authorities, who are the true representatives of the Palestinian people.” There were even those in the PLO who candidly acknowledged the truth, such as executive member Zahir Muhsein, who said in an interview: “The Palestinian people does not exist. The creation of a Palestinian state is only a means for continuing our struggle against the state of Israel for our Arab unity. Only for political and tactical reasons do we speak today about the existence of a Palestinian people.”
Obviously, alternative facts predated the 21st century.
I was glad to see Spencer taking on the question of standards, because Israel has always been held to a different one. Especially on the subject of territorial acquisition. After the Six-Day War, the UN had produced Resolution 242 about the “inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war”, stating that a nation doesn’t have a right to hold territory just because it conquered the territory. Really? Since when? As Spencer says, the right of conquest has been the way of things since humanity was born:
“The United Nations never questioned the Soviet Union’s postwar territorial expansion, or any other territorial gain at the expense of a defeated aggressor. The United States acquired California and the vast territories of the American Southwest after defeating Mexico in war. Germany had started an aggressive war. No one questioned the fact that after the war, it should suffer a substantial loss of territory. Nations that lost wars, particularly when the wars were the result of their own aggression, had lost territories through history.” (pp 109-110)
And yet when Egypt, Syria, and Jordan wage an aggressive war against Israel, hell-bent on genocide, the UN suddenly advocates for a principle of the “inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war” — but only against Israel.
This reminds me of Donald Trump’s executive order two years ago. He decided to uphold the law passed by Congress in 1995, which required Jerusalem to be recognized as Israel’s capital by no later than May 31, 1999. (Spencer discusses this too, later in the book, on pp 194-95.) Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama had invoked waivers to this law every six months, postponing the move on grounds of “national security”, and so the law had never taken effect. Trump had also signed a waiver in June 2017, but six months later, on December 6, decided to end the stalling.
Everyone went crazy that day, but this was a rare occasion I applauded Trump, for the same reasons Spencer objects to the UN resolution 242. Every other country has their capital of choice recognized, and Israel should be treated no differently. Israel has controlled the city of Jerusalem since ’67, and if they want to make that their capital (which they did in 1980), no one can properly gainsay them. Trump was simply eliminating two decades of pointless executive stalling. As Spencer’s book demonstrates from cover to back, as long as the state of Israel exists at all, the Arab world will never be satisfied or agree to work towards a peaceful goal — regardless of how boundaries are partitioned or what the Israeli capital is.
It’s to the critical issue we now turn: the peace process between Israelis and Arabs, and why these attempts always fail. Starting with Round 1.
Round 1: The Case of Anwar Sadat
The story of Camp David (1978) is the centerpiece of Spencer’s book, and it’s the story of Anwar Sadat making a fool (and tool) of Jimmy Carter. Sadat was quite a colorful character, having written love letters to Adolf Hitler, praising the German Fuhrer for his campaign against the “sons of Satan”. After World War II he was in bed with the Soviets, who protected and helped Egypt against Israel, until the Soviets got so fed up bailing Egypt out of every jam. In 1973 Brezhnev wanted Sadat to start negotiating with Israel. He was warned by his aide that Sadat and the Arabs would be mighty pissed at being told this.
Brezhnev retorted that the Arabs could “go to hell”, as they had been given everything under the sun — technology, tanks, aircraft, and artillery — and yet they kept getting beaten. “Once again they scrammed,” blasted Brezhnev. “Once again they screamed for us to come save them. Sadat woke me up in the middle of the night twice over the phone, ‘Save me!’ No! We are not going to fight for them.” Egypt would have to start negotiating with Israel peacefully.
So that’s what Sadat did: he became a “peacemaker”, as Spencer explains, by trying to get the United States to fight his battles for him, since the Soviets would no longer do so; America would fight for him at the negotiations table. It was a brilliant strategy that fooled people on all sides. The Israelis were delighted that an Arab leader was making peaceful overtures; Arabs were furious and denounced him. But Sadat had no intention of betraying his fellow Muslims. For all his deceptive talk about welcome and pluralistic abstractions in his speech to the Knesset in November 1977, he budged not an inch on concrete matters, insisting that the Israelis withdraw completely from everywhere he said to withdraw from, including Jerusalem.
What’s astonishing is that Sadat’s repeated insults (and lack of desire for any genuine reconciliation) went more or less unnoticed at this meeting. A state dinner was held in his honor. And the following year, the United States would push for Sadat’s claims.
Enter Jimmy Carter
Spencer, to put it mildly, isn’t a fan of Jimmy Carter. Readers will know from my ongoing series on the presidents that I think Carter was on whole a good president, indeed the last good president to date. However, even I acknowledge that Camp David was not Carter’s greatest moment. It was his worst.
Sadat made Carter his tool, it must be said, and laughed about it privately to his aides, referring to the American president as “poor naive Carter”. Carter, oblivious, showered good will on Sadat, while treating the Israeli Prime Minister (Begin) icily, and Sadat grew so accustomed to Carter’s obsequiousness that he rudely “corrected” Carter anytime the U.S. president sought to put Sadat and Begin on equal footing.
At one point Carter and the Prime Minister argued over UN Resolution 242. Begin (rightly) objected to the clause about “inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war” (which is the way of things everywhere in the world), to which Carter retorted that Begin was just greedy for land. Carter was being unfair. Israel was surrounded by Muslim nations that were committed as ever to jihad, and to wiping out the Jewish state. For security purposes if nothing else, it was perfectly reasonable for Israel to want to keep the Sinai lands it had taken in the Six-Day War.
Sadat was eventually assassinated (in 1981) by jihadists, for daring to make peace with the enemy. But as Spencer notes, Sadat had obtained that peace shrewdly enough, without making any significant concessions to Israel, while Israel gave a up a great deal:
“The Camp David summit wasn’t Adolf Hitler browbeating Czechoslovakia’s Emil Hacha into submission, but neither was it a summit of three people who respected one another as equals. Neither Carter nor Sadat had any respect for Begin. Sadat had scant respect for Carter, either, but cultivated his friendship as useful. Carter had boundless admiration and regard for Sadat, bordering on hero worship.” (p 131)
That’s the definition of being made a tool. “Poor naive Carter” indeed. Camp David unfortunately became the paradigm of the “peace process” in which American presidents pressed Israelis for concessions while asking virtually nothing of the Arabs. While I think it’s unfair in the extreme to accuse Jimmy Carter of anti-Semitism (as Spencer seems to imply, p 134), it’s true that he didn’t play fair with Israel at Camp David.
Round 2: The Nobel Peaceful Arafat
Here’s a question: How does one go from the Yasser Arafat who denounced terrorism and promised to recognize the State of Israel (in 1993), to the same Arafat who said that he recognized only holy war, and that the PLO would sacrifice every last boy to see the Palestinian flag fly over the walls of Jerusalem (1996)? Simple: by following the example of Muhammad.
Spencer shows how the Oslo Accords (1993) were always a ruse on Arafat’s part. He had received instruction from the Romanian spy service operative Ion Mihai Pacepa back in ’78. Pacepa had brought Arafat to Bucharest and told him how to behave in Washington — to pretend to break with terrorism, and to recognize Israel, and to keep saying it over and over until he was blue in the face. That’s what Arafat did, and the end result was the famous handshake between him and Yitzhak Rabin on the White House lawn, with a misty-eyed Bill Clinton presiding over them. Arafat even got a Nobel Peace Prize the following year. (It was jointly bestowed on him, Rabin, and Shimon Peres. Rabin and Peres deserved it; Arafat certainly didn’t.)
Arafat was blasted by the Muslim world for his promises of peace, in a classic repeat of Anwar Sadat. But unlike Sadat, Arafat wasn’t assassinated for his efforts, because he explained what he was doing. He assured angry Muslims that he was doing exactly what jihad groups like Hamas advocated: following the example of Muhammad’s treaty with the Quraysh. Spencer explains:
“By invoking Hudaybiyya to justify Oslo, Araft was saying that despite appearances, he had actually conceded nothing. Muhammad had undertaken the Treaty of Hudaybiyya so that he could make the pilgrimage to Mecca, and so that Muslims could recover their strength after a series of costly battles with the Quraysh. When the Muslims were strong enough to fight again and defeat the Quraysh, he broke the treaty. Arafat was telling his Muslim audiences, who would have been familiar with the Treaty of Hudaybiyya, that he had entered into the treaty with Israel not as a retreat from the Palestinian jihad against the Jewish state but as a tactical move to further the aims of that jihad. And when the Palestinians were strong enough not to need the treaty anymore, he would, like Muhammad, break it.” (p 152)
The tradition of Hudaybiyya is a strong one in Islam: treaties are made to be broken, and lies and deceptions are perfectly acceptable.
No one should have been surprised when only a year after getting his Peace Prize, Arafat was thundering about his commitment to the destruction of Israel, and that “the jihad would continue until all of Palestine is liberated”. But then no one really understands Islamic principles.
Round 3: The Road Map to Nowhere
Presidents of the 21st century have spun wheels in the same muck. “Peace processes” continued under the assumption that if the Israeli settlements obtained in 2000 and 2001 were dismantled, peace would dawn. No one, incredibly, had wizened up to the fact that even if all the Israeli settlements were dismantled, there would be no peace, but only more demands, until Israel was destroyed.
The famous Road Map to Peace was first outlined by Bush in a speech in June 2002. It called for an independent Palestinian state living side by side with Israel in peace, and the plan was to achieve this by 2005. The plan unraveled almost as soon as it began to be implemented. On June 3, 2003 Bush met with President of Palestine Mahmoud Abbas, as well as the leaders of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain; they all “agreed” to the Road Map to Peace. Shortly after, Palestinians murdered two Israelis (June 5), Hamas killed four Israeli soldiers (June 11), and a suicide bomber killed 17 people on an Israeli bus (June 17). As Spencer says, an essential premise of the Road Map — that Palestinians would end terrorism — was impossible to fulfill from the start. None of the agreeing authorities (assuming their sincerity) had the power to end the principle of Islamic jihad. That would take a massive religious reform.
Withdrawal from Gaza: The Greenhouse Parable
In June 2004, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced the Disengagement Plan: Israel would withdraw completely from Gaza, and from certain parts of the West Bank. Sharon was convinced that such a disengagement would strengthen Israel’s hold over the territory central to its existence, and he extended the hand of peace to the Palestinians, enjoining them to preserve peace and move forward on the basis of “full and equal citizenship and due representation in all institutions”.
The withdrawal from Gaza was hailed (even by skeptics of the Israelis) as a solid show of good will, which it obviously was. But the Palestinians had never reciprocated such gestures in the past, and they certainly were not about to do so now. They responded by looting and destroying hundreds of greenhouses left behind by the Israelis, causing two million dollars in damage.
It wasn’t surprising, for as Spencer points out, the greenhouse event was a dramatic snapshot of the “peace process” that had gone on for years: “The greenhouse incident serves as a parable of the ‘peace process’ itself. Throughout the process, Israelis would make gestures of goodwill that would not be reciprocated, or the Palestinian Arabs would say everything they were expected to say and then act as if they had meant none of it. Instead of calling the Muslims to account, however, the world powers — Britain first and then the United States, would put more pressure on Israel to make more concessions, as if some new manifestation of generosity would finally have the desired effect. The obvious lesson was never learned.” (pp 181-82)
“Peace Partner” Abbas
When I wrote my presidential piece on Barack Obama, I referred to him as George W. the Second, gave a laundry list of reasons why, and with Spencer’s book one can add plenty more. Like Bush, Obama peddled the myth that Islam is a religion of peace (while he himself stepped up America’s war-mongering efforts in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen) and played the victim card on Palestinian behalf with absurd rhetoric. In his 2009 Cairo speech, for example, Obama actually compared the Palestinian situation to the plight of African Americans during the slavery and Jim Crow eras. Equating Israeli self-defense measures with slavery and racism is ludicrous, however one feels about armament issues.
Also like Bush before him, Obama reaffirmed U.S. support for a two-state solution, calling on both Israelis and the Palestinians to abide by the provisions of the thoroughly useless Road Map. In his 2013 Jerusalem speech, he guaranteed that Abbas would be a true peace partner to the Israelis: “While I know you have had differences with the Palestinian Authority, I genuinely believe that you do have a true partner in President Abbas.” Two years later, Abbas was cheering jihad groups (the Mourabitoun and the Mourabitat) who rioted violently on the Temple Mount. Abbas said:
“We bless you; we bless the Mourabitoun and the Mourabitat. We welcome every drop of blood spilled in Jerusalem. This is pure blood, clean blood, blood on its way to Allah. The Jews have no right to desecrate these places with their filthy feet and we won’t allow them to.”
Obama’s promised “peace partner” indeed. Entirely predictable.
The Deal of the Century
Despite getting a couple of things right (see pp 194-201, like allowing the Israelis to choose their capital), Donald Trump has copied the failures of his predecessors. Six months ago (in June 2019), he unveiled his “Deal of the Century” plan, which just involves throwing more money at the Palestinians — as if that could possibly motivate them to lay down arms and renounce jihad. It was a whopping $50 billion package. Abbas treated it with scorn.
After four decades one would think some sanity would break through. Why is everyone still confused over an issue that is fairly straightforward? Mostly because people believe that Palestinian terrorism against Israel is justified, and that the Israeli government is a racist demonic regime. Israel can certainly be criticized (and I do criticize Israel, probably more than Spencer does), but the false equivalence between Israeli wrongs and Arab jihad has to stop. There’s no comparison. Democracies like Israel and western powers do bad things, but in autocratic nations under Islamic law, bad things are the life blood and raison d’etre.
And as Spencer says, the United Nations fuels the false narrative by over-heaping condemnation on Israel while turning a blind eye to massive human rights abuses committed by others. In 2018 alone, the UN condemned Israel 21 times, while not condemning Hamas even once. That’s being hostage to false narratives, and then some.
When we ask, then, what should be done to achieve peace in the Middle-East, the question itself is a problem, because it presumes something can be done. The reality is that peaceful negotiated settlements will never be achieved, as long as the doctrine of jihad — along with the anti-Semitic passages of the Qur’an and Sunnah — remain unreformed in the Muslim world. If Spencer’s book doesn’t convince you on this point, there’s probably no amount of persuasive power that can. Every single attempt at peaceful strategies — from Camp David under Carter, to Oslo under Clinton, to the Peaceful Road Map promoted by Bush and Obama — have failed because each was predicted on Muslim acceptance of a Jewish state, which is anathema in Islam. It doesn’t matter how small, truncated, or diminished that Jewish state is. From the Islamic point of view, it has to go.
The “solution”, in other words, says Spencer, is that there really is none:
“That is not something that people today, particularly Americans, want to hear. There is a prevailing assumption that if we just sit down and talk with one another, we will ultimately be able to find common ground and work out all our differences. Well, the Israelis and the Muslim Arabs have done this again and again and again for more than four decades now, and the conflict still rages. Borders have been adjusted, troops have been withdrawn, settlements have been dismantled, and yet the Palestinian media still daily seethes with rage and hate against Israel, and calls for its destruction. For talks to succeed, both sides have to be willing to make compromises and abide by agreements; the Palestinians have repeatedly shown that they are willing to do neither. They clearly see negotiations with Israel as means to gain concessions that are steps on the way to the ultimate collapse of the Jewish state. Future participants in the ‘peace process’ will be foolish, and will be played for fools, if they continue to negotiate with the Palestinians.” (pp 217-18)
What Spencer suggests in place of “peace process” is containment or management of the problem through strength, and for western countries to openly admit that a Palestinian state will by necessity be an inveterate enemy of Israel, and to then plan accordingly. Enlightened societies should speak honestly about Islam, and about the way Palestinian leaders have refined lying and deception into a form of high art. Above all, I would add, the religion of Islam is need of a massive reform if anything like peaceful co-existence is to be achieved. Of course, this will be unacceptable to most thinkers in the Western world. It requires too much common sense, and to fly in the face of entrenched wishful thinking.
I’ll close this review with my own wishful thinking: I wish with all my heart that the State of Israel had not been created. It was one of the worst political snafus of the 20th century. The Allies’ hearts were in the right place, and the Jewish people certainly deserve a homeland of their own, but it was a godawful idea to make Palestine that home. Franklin Delano Roosevelt had been right when he warned (in 1944) that putting Jews in the Holy Land would ignite a relentless jihad. (FDR was wrong about most things, but not this.) What the Allies should have done instead is carve out a section of Germany, the nation responsible for the Holocaust, and give that to the Jewish people. There would have been a lot less blood and tears in 70 years to come.
But that’s my fantasy. What’s done is done. The state of Israel was created. Generations have come and gone, and Israel is the Jewish homeland now — like it or not, for better or worse. The Israeli-Palestinian problem needs to managed, if not “solved”, with a minimum of bloodshed. But to engage in peace accords and negotiations as if Muslims will give up the doctrine of jihad is an irresponsible policy grounded in historical ignorance. Spencer’s book is the wake-up call to pull western policy makers out of dreamland.