There Could have been Peace: The Untold Story of why we Failed in Palestine and Again with Israel.
by Jon Kimche.
Dial. 359 pp. $8.95.
For Jon Kimche, the recognized enfant terrible of Zionist journalism, this book is par for the course. Actually this is not a book at all but rather that publishers' nightmare, a collection of essays. Immune as they are to truth-in-packaging laws, publishers use “link pieces” and padding to make a marketable book out of odd bits and pieces. In this case, the padding content is about average but the link device is particularly transparent: under the coy heading of “interlude,” a bare chronology of the years 1923-67 is used to connect a longish piece on the diplomatic history of the origins of the British Mandate with a journalistic account of the post-1967 years. Like others, Mr. Kimche is a victim of the Arab attack of October 6, 1973: the war has invalidated some of his crucial assumptions. Hanging somewhere between the two long pieces, there is a short one on Middle East oil. Crises can be very educational, and what he has to tell us about oil has long since been covered ad nauseam by the daily press. There is already a vast literature on the Balfour Declaration and the formation of the Mandate, and Mr. Kimche has little to tell us that is new. From his characteristically provocative title, one might expect an angry indictment of Zionist policy, both old and new—as well as an exposé of Chaim Weizmann's motives—but Mr. Kimche's hit-and-run raid on diplomatic history does neither. Instead we get a medium-good account of how the British set out to negotiate an agreed settlement with Arabs, Jews, and the French, to whom contradictory promises had been made during the war. Failing to conciliate the rival claims of leaders whose support they no longer needed now that both Turks and Germans were defeated, the British naturally settled down to negotiate among themselves, using Arabs and Jews as puppets to deploy against each other. The real actors were all British, the Foreign Office, the colonial administrations of India and Sudan, the Cairo-based “Arab Bureau” (a classical political “ops” intelligence outfit: T. E. Lawrence was one of the operatives),1 and finally the Cabinet in London, which acted as the stage manager and lead player.
One reason why farce became tragedy was that the British showed a fatal propensity to misjudge their puppets. For their King (of the united Arabia that never was) they picked Faisal, son of the Sharif of Mecca. They thought that Faisal was a stable and moderate man, genuinely interested in reaching a modus vivendi with the French, who wanted Syria, and the Jews, who wanted Palestine, or at least a good share of it. Some of the British also persuaded themselves that Faisal would have widespread support in the Arab world. In fact, Faisal turned out to represent no one in particular except his family's retainers, and he was dominated by a passion for pointless and destructive intrigue. Thus the British backed the wrong horse and went on doing so for three decades—first installing Faisal as King in Syria, and when the French booted him out, as King of Iraq, where Faisal used to invite English ladies for tea while his men were busy killing off tribal and ethnic enemies.
One of the British actors, the “Indian” government in colonial Delhi, never did like Faisal and his ilk, preferring to back Ibn Saud (father of the present Faisal), who was then a tribal chieftain in northeast Arabia. In a manner quite typical of British policy in the Middle East, whose impenetrable muddle Arabs and Jews usually misconstrued as devilish intrigue, Ibn Saud was backed by the British who were running India while Faisal was supported by the British who were running Egypt. Ibn Saud won, completing the conquest of much of Arabia in 1926, and generously giving the family name to his conquests. The present Faisal, whose bogus claims to the holy places are being taken seriously nowadays, has no ancestral rights over Mecca or Medina, let alone Jerusalem, where the Saudis have never figured at all. Actually both Shell and BP have more hallowed and ancient rights in Arabia than the Saudi family, which was a little-known clan fifty years ago.
Another fatal misjudgment was the appointment of Haj Amin el-Husseini as Mufti of Jerusalem. The British thought that they were elevating a valid representative of Arab-Moslem opinion with whom they could do business. Instead of which their action gave official recognition to the leading organizer of agitation and terrorism on the Arab side, undermined moderate Arab leaders, and created an incubus that haunted the Mandate till the very end. To Amin el-Husseini goes the distinction of having transformed the natural Arab hostility toward pioneering Zionism (which was seen as a threat from the very beginning) into a European-style anti-Semitism that was until then quite rare in the Middle East: one of his slogans was, “All Jews are Zionists.” Characteristically, it was under his aegis that European anti-Semitic literature began to circulate in Palestine, including the inevitable Protocols, and it was the Mufti who organized the first fedayeen terrorist bands, thirty years before Nasser followed in his footsteps.
It is recognized that the present conflict is a lineal descendant of the wreckage of the British Mandate, but it is also pretty clear that an independent Jewish state could not possibly have arisen without conflict. As Mr. Kimche's account involuntarily shows yet again, the only Jewish presence that Arab leaders were willing to accept was a clearly subordinate and indeed submissive community, on the model of the Turkish Millet system of ethnic subjugation. What the Jews needed the Arabs would not concede; what the Arabs were willing to grant the Jews did not need: better to live as a free man in New York than as a Moslem-protected person in an Arab Palestine. There was thus no missed opportunity: there could have been peace “with Palestine” but not with a Jewish state in being.
Having failed to press his advertised case in the first essay, Mr. Kimche does have some harsh things to say about post-1967 Israeli policy, but nothing quite so harsh as blaming Israel for the failure to make peace. Mr. Kimche can hardly forget—as some publicists seem to do—that it takes at least two to make peace, and in this conflict one would really need four, including the inchoate Palestinians and the compulsively militant Syrians.
Like others who attempt to go behind the scenes without real access to the men and the documents, Mr. Kimche relies on “private communications” for much of his information. What is one to make of Mr. Kimche's personal version of one of Sadat's secret briefings to Cairo editors? Or of the various “documents” that are footnoted as “letters to J.K.” with no sender named? We may not trust Mr. Kimche, but at least he exists and is a known quantity, unlike his anonymous informants. In covering the age of Henry Kissinger future historians will be in bad shape anyway, since one will never know what actually happened, only what was written down after the fact by civil servants who were probably never told what was actually agreed upon at all those secret face-to-face meetings. But at least one may begin to establish some of the facts with the documents, and this one cannot do by relying on secret informants and anonymous letters.
In any case, as Dr. Kissinger may discover to our universal regret, in the Middle East exciting secret meetings and quick verbal agreements may simply come to nothing, as they have invariably done in the past: Golda Meir was traveling incognito to meet King Abdullah of Jordan (Hussein's grandfather) when Dr. Kissinger was still going to college. Those escapades never produced tangible results and for a reason that is still valid: so long as any substantial body of Arab opinion wants to continue the conflict, no general peace will be possible. Only tactical accommodations produced by military realities are possible, and these can be very important: Lebanon was a dangerous antagonist for Israel in 1948 but stayed out of the fighting thereafter; Jordan was a major threat in 1967, but could no longer take the heat in 1973. If there is another war, Egypt may be the next one to stay out. Who says that wars never settle anything?
1 See also James R. Adams's review, beginning on p. 91.—Ed.