“In Palestine, it is not enough to do nothing in order to preserve the status quo. Every day the situation grows worse; every day the tension mounts higher; every day the gap between the rulers and the ruled grows greater. The moral basis of the government is undermined, and this has a demoralizing effect both on the rulers and the ruled.”
— Albert Hourani, Statement to the Anglo-American Committee of Enquiry of 1946
I first met Dr. Avi Raz at a panel at MESA 2011. He was giving a paper about King Hussein’s first peace initiative in July 1967, part of a book soon to come out. I met him again in 2012, shortly after his book had come out: The Bride and the Dowry: Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinians in the aftermath of the June 1967 War (Yale University Press, 2012).
Dr. Avi Raz was a student of Avi Shlaim, one of the so-called New Historians. Although he does not consider himself part of this group, he is an outspoken critic of the Israeli occupation. In his words, this book” has focused on Israel’s policy and practice in the aftermath of the June 1967 War, and some readers might feel that its conclusions, which are especially critical of Israel, are not even-handed. But it should be borne in mind that the parties to the conflict were unequal. There were the victorious occupiers on the one hand and the vanquished and the occupied on the other, and the former held all the cards.”
He is currently an Associate Member of the Faculty of Oriental Studies at Oxford University.
Why do you call your book “The Bride and the Dowry?” Who is the bride and what is the dowry?
The title of the book draws on a metaphor coined by Levi Eshkol, Israel’s prime minister, after the Six Day War of June 1967. In Eshkol’s metaphor Israel’s territorial conquests were a “dowry” and the Arab population a “bride.” “The trouble is that the dowry is followed by a bride whom we don’t want,” the prime minister repeatedly lamented.
My book shows that the so-called moderate Eshkol and his National Unity Government effectively translated the metaphor into a policy whose aim was to appropriate the dowry and divorce the bride. In other words, the Israeli government’s controlling consideration was to keep as many of the occupied lands as possible with as few Arab inhabitants as possible.
The Arab lands were coveted for strategic, historical, religious, and even messianic reasons; the Arab people were undesirable because they presented what the Israelis regarded as a “demographic danger.”
What made you write this book?
More than two decades ago, in a Tel Aviv bookstore, I came across a book entitled “The Year of the Shabak” written by a former Shabak officer named David Ronen. Shabak is the Hebrew acronym of the General Security Service (GSS), which is the Israeli equivalent of the American FBI or the British MI5. Until the June 1967 War, GSS dealt with counterespionage and internal security, focusing mainly on the Palestinian citizens of Israel. After the war, the GSS was entrusted with maintaining security in the occupied territories as well, counter-terrorism, and so forth. In 1967, Ronen had been a junior operative; he retired some twenty years later as a top-brass GSS officer.
One passage in the book, which describes the GSS’s contacts with prominent West Bank Palestinians, in particular aroused my curiosity. Ronen argues that many of the local leaders were willing to work for some kind of bilateral accommodation between themselves and Israel. He concludes that the opportunity for a peace settlement was missed largely because of Israel’s inchoate, occasionally inconsistent policy.
I was determined to find out more about this allegedly missed opportunity.
Why? What was the real reason to pursue this further? Or let’s say how has this conflict affected you personally?
I am an Israeli. My life has been affected, and at times dominated, by the Arab-Israeli conflict. I fought in some of the Arab-Israeli wars – the June 1967 War, the War of Attrition in 1969-70, the October 1973 Yom Kippur War, and the Lebanon War in 1982; I also covered some of the wars as a journalist. Over the years, the knowledge I acquired of Israel’s history, as well as my firsthand experience, has led me to question the official Israeli line that since its foundation in 1948 Israel has persistently extended its hand in peace to its hostile neighbors but has always been rejected. Since the late 1980s my doubts have been supported by archival based studies on the first Arab-Israeli war of 1948 and the early years of the State of Israel. The passage in Ronen’s book also seemed to undermine the traditional Israeli claim that there was no one to talk to on the Arab side in latter years. In practical terms, it offered a starting point for research which would challenge the generally accepted Israeli argument by examining the immediate aftermath of the June 1967 War in light of the available historical evidence.
By the way, I have discovered that Ronen’s narrative was inaccurate. The GSS’s contacts with West Bank leaders were in fact designed to transform as many of them as possible into collaborators.
You argue that Israel was never interested in peace for land. How do you explain this?
It may be argued that the Israel-Egypt peace treaty of 1979 and the subsequent return of the entire Israeli-occupied Sinai Peninsula to Egypt proved that Israel was willing to exchange land for peace. However, Israel exchanged the Egyptian land for peace only after another bloody and traumatic war – the 1973 war – which broke out as a result of several Israeli rejections of Egyptian proposals for a settlement.
Furthermore, it was not the Israelis who initiated the peace negotiations with Cairo, but Egypt’s President Anwar al-Sadat.
The historical evidence shows that Israel during that period (1967-69) was not interested in “land for peace” but in maintain the territorial status quo and in creating faits accomplis in them – first and foremost in the Palestinian-inhabited Arab part of Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip.
During the 1967 war, Israel occupied territories more than three times its own size. For the first time in its history the Israeli government was able to offer the Arabs something that they desperately wanted – their lost lands. In the words of Abba Eban, Israel’s foreign minister in 1967, “Israel had cards to play. It held something which the Arabs wished to recover and which was therefore a basis for eventual negotiation.”
However, Eban said nothing about Israel’s unwillingness to relinquish its war acquisitions. Instead, he blamed the Arabs for the political deadlock. This was neither his first false statement, nor the last.
What was Eban’s role in Israel’s postwar policy?
For many years, Cambridge-educated Eban served as a diplomat. He was the first Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, and simultaneously (from 1950) the ambassador to the United States. In 1966 he became foreign minister, but his membership in the cabinet never turned him into a statesman. In fact, he acted like a shyster lawyer, using every trick in the book for the success of his client – the state of Israel. Of course, the success of his client would be his own success, even on issues that his persona position was the complete opposite.
Professor Avi Shlaim, an eminent historian of the Arab-Israeli conflict, said about Eban that “He had the backbone of a noodle.” I have found that Eban was not always truthful, and this is an understatement. Yet Eban was Israel’s voice in the diplomatic arena, and as foreign minister, he was the one who carried out Israel’s foreign policy of deception, whose aim was to mislead the international community, and specifically the United States, into thinking that Israel was seriously considering its peace options.
On the other hand and specifically in the book, you mention that the Arabs were interested to make peace. Can you elaborate?
Not all the Arabs were ready to make peace with Israel in 1967. Syria rejected any kind of accommodation with Israel and even refused to attend the summit conference of the Arab leaders which was held in August of that same year in Khartoum. Egypt was also not seriously ready to negotiate an accord with Israel.
But the two claimants to the West Bank and Arab Jerusalem – the West Bank Palestinian leadership and King Hussein of Jordan, the ones who lost the most– were ready and eager to resolve the conflict with Israel directly. Both communicated their peaceful desire from the start of the occupation. They presented Israel with two competing options for a settlement. The West Bankers embodied what became known in Israel as the “Palestinian option,” while the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan was considered the “Jordanian option.”
With the whole of Mandatory Palestine and more than half of the Palestinian people under its control, Israel was thus provided with a historic opportunity to defuse the Palestine problem which lies at the heart of the decades-long Arab-Zionist conflict. However, it chose neither option. Instead, Israel used the two options in order to preserve the territorial status quo of 10 June (the last day of the war), first and foremost in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Who made up the leadership of the West Bank Palestinians interested to make a deal? Was there a party representing them?
There was no leadership in the Western sense. There were no political parties in the West Bank. The West Bank political elite was mostly comprised of traditional leaders and urban notables – a‘yan in Arabic – and many of them were part of the Jordanian establishment. In the summer of 1967 they could deliver, because the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was then an insignificant body, largely controlled by Egypt, and the Palestinian guerrilla organizations, notably Yasser Arafat’s al-Fatah, were still limited in number and appeal. Following the Israeli annexation of Arab Jerusalem in late June 1967, the West Bank notables changed tack and opted for a Jordanian-Israeli settlement. Only a small group still advocated the creation of a Palestinian entity in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, with Arab Jerusalem as its capital.
Nonetheless, they all wished to resolve to conflict with Israel peacefully.
Israel not only ignored the peaceful ideas and overtures of the West Bankers, but also banned political organization and denied Palestinian requests to convene and discuss political solutions. Even non-political associations, including social clubs such as Rotary or Lions, were not permitted to gather.
The Israelis, desiring a trouble-free occupation, were not looking for independent-minded leaders, but for lackeys. In July 1967, Israel’s internal security service Shabak launched a secret operation aiming to turn West Bank leaders into quislings. In the same month Israel began to exile Palestinian leaders who did not toe the official line, and in September it started to deport them to Jordan. One such person was the radical mayor of al-Bireh, ‘Abd al Jawad Saleh. He was always open and blunt about his feelings toward the Israelis. For example, in August 1968, Israel’s Defense Minister Moshe Dayan said to the mayors of Ramallah and al-Bireh and their councilors: “Don’t I know that you pray seven times a day that we [Israelis] will finally leave this area?” Mayor Saleh interjected: “Not seven times a day, but seventy-seven.” In 1973, Saleh paid the price for speaking his mind. He was deported to Jordan, together with seven other prominent West Bankers. Ironically, their expulsion took place on 10th December – the International Day for Human Rights.
What was the mindset of some of the Israeli leaders in not wanting to come to any agreement with the Palestinians – something that continues to this day? How can you occupy a whole people or an area and not face opposition? Why did they suppose that Palestinians would accept the status quo?
At that time, the Eshkol government was divided by multifarious opinions about most of the political issues. Some members of the cabinet, notably Menachem Begin, wanted to keep the occupied territories, while others were ready to exchange occupied territories for contractual peace with the Arabs – but not all the territories. For example, Mapam (Hebrew acronym for the United Workers Party), a left-wing faction that was regarded as the most moderate in the ruling coalition, was adamant in keeping Syria’s Golan Heights, presumably because of the region’s fertile lands which were coveted by members of Mapam’s kibbutzim in the adjacent Galilee.
The Israelis were drunk with victory in the aftermath of the June 1967 War.
Following the stunning military victory over three Arab armies, the atmosphere of fear that prevailed in Israel prior to the war because of Arab threats of annihilation was replaced overnight by megalomania and hubris. This attitude of arrogance clouded the Israelis’ judgment.
Between 1967 and 1973 the Israelis saw themselves as an omnipotent regional power and thus discarded reason and sense. Using the excuse of “security,” they insisted on keeping the occupied territories because they provided Israel with “strategic depth.”
But the motivation for having the Palestinian-inhabited Old City of Jerusalem, West Bank, and Gaza Strip was in fact very different – these places were part of biblical Eretz Yisrael, or the Land of Israel.
In a way, the Israelis fell in love with the Arab lands they occupied in the war.
What was the reason behind President Johnson’s support of Israel?
In my view, the reason was Johnson’s personal attitude toward Israel. He had been a sympathizer of Israel long before his presidency. Shortly after taking office following the assassination of President Kennedy, Johnson told a visiting Israeli diplomat, “You have lost a very great friend. But you have found a better one.” Like President Truman, he had a biblically based religious background that reinforced his sympathy toward Israel. Johnson, who was a Texan, tended to see the Israelis fighting the Arabs as a modern-day version of the Texans struggling with the Mexicans in the mid-19th century. Many of Johnson’s oldest and best friends were Jews and loyal supporters of Israel. Some key officials in the Johnson administration were furious about Israel’s intransigence and duplicitous behavior, and wanted to lean hard on Israel. But the Johnson administration never used the levers it possessed to exert influence on Israel. True, in the late 1960s Johnson was preoccupied with the worsening situation of the Vietnam War. Still, I believe that the principal explanation for Washington’s indulgence is the President’s personal attitude.
Do you consider yourself a member of the “New Historians?”
Avi Shlaim, one of the four founding-fathers of the “new historians” (or revisionist historians) of Israel, was my doctoral supervisor at Oxford, so some people might regard me as a “new historian” as well. But I am not, because the “new historians” are a thing of the past. In the late 1980’s they were the first to publish archival based books on different aspects of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Their critical works challenged the traditional versions of Israel’s history. Back then, “old historians” and apologists for Israel accused the “new historians” of having a political agenda, but in time much of their findings and conclusions have been accepted as solid history.
Is Israel a Democracy?
Israel is a democracy for its Jewish citizens, but much less so for non-Jews, particularly the Palestinian citizens of Israel. (I do not like to use the term “Israeli Arab.”)
Israel is certainly not a democracy in the occupied territories, which are under military rule. In the last two years or so, there have been more and more attempts to pass in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, anti-democratic laws. Some of them are reminiscent of certain Nuremberg laws. The Ministry of Interior is applying a persistent xenophobic policy directed at non-Jews, including refugees from Eritrea and other African countries. And there are more and more reports about anti-democratic behavior of security agencies toward Jewish Israelis. For example, just the other day I read in an Israeli paper that left-wing activists who peacefully oppose the occupation got visits at home at 6 in the morning, which was meant to serve as a “subtle” warning. To the best of my knowledge, there are no legal grounds for such measures. There were also cases where the government did not obey the ruling of the High Court of Justice to dismantle illegal Jewish settlements built on privately-own Palestinian lands in the occupied West Bank.
This anti-democratic tendency is very frightening. But in fairness I should add that Israel is still more democratic than any Arab country.
Do you think we will see peace and a Palestinian state in our lifetime?
In The Bride and the Dowry I describe the Israeli unwillingness to pay the price for peace; Israel’s refusal to recognize the Palestinians as a legitimate partner for peace; the policy of deception that Israel adopted in order to stay put in the occupied territories and the Israeli attempts to mislead the world about its territorial ambitions. All this happened when the government of Israel was regarded as moderate. My narrative ends in 1969. Since then, everything got much worse. Of course, Israeli leaders always talk about their desire to make peace with the Arabs. But as Secretary of State Dean Rusk told the Israelis after the 1967 war, “It is not enough to chant peace.” In the late 1960’s, the Israelis refused to pay the territorial price for peace, and they are certainly unwilling to do so now, when many dozens of illegal Jewish settlements are dotting the occupied West Bank.
Since 2002 there has been an Arab peace offer on the table – the Saudi peace initiative which offers what Israel had called for from its foundation in 1948: an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict, recognition of Israel, peace agreements, and normal relations – in exchange for withdrawal from all the territories occupied in June 1967, a just solution to the refugee problem in accordance with UN Resolution 194 of December 1984, and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, with Arab Jerusalem as its capital.
This far-reaching peace initiative was adopted by the 22-member Arab League at its summit in Beirut in March 2002, and reaffirmed at the Riyadh Summit of the Arab heads of state in March 2007. None of the governments of Israel since 2002 – Sharon’s, Olmert’s, or Netanyahu’s – have ever discussed the Arab peace offer.
Thus, the short answer to your question is: No, I don’t think we will see peace and a viable independent Palestinian state in the foreseeable future. But I sincerely hope to be proven wrong on this one.