Victor Davis Hanson Private Papers

Palestine Pretense and Israel Reality

What the world knows, but can’t say, to be true/

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

A common theme throughout classical literature is the role of pretext (prophasis) contrasted with the actual cause of complaint (aitia) — the great divide between what aggrieved people say publicly and what they feel privately. Nations, the historian Thucydides reminds us, also adopt such strategic postures. Their spokesmen often voice complaints that are either groundless or — even if partly justified — at least different from the “real” or “true” causes of their discontent.

We know the prophasis of the Arab states at the heart of the Middle East question: Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. But the aitia — the truest cause of the Palestinian lament — cannot be voiced so easily, either openly or in detail. Why? To do so would involve a systematic cultural, political, and social review of the entire Middle Eastern contemporary world — one that might explain, in terms other than the few thousand acres of the West Bank, why a tiny Jewish state is so prosperous, free, and confident amid dozens whose half-billion inhabitants are not.

Do any in Europe and the Middle East really wish to open the Pandora’s Box of secular rationalism, religion, capitalism, democracy and a host of other issues that might hurt Middle Eastern feelings, cost real money, and incur danger — when chanting Zionism, colonialism, racism, and other alleged -isms and -ologies do not?

The Palestinians publicly allege that once given back 100 percent of the West Bank they will recognize Israel and thus the dispute will at last end with recognition by the entire Arab world of the Jewish State. Fair enough. Palestine will thereupon be democratic and prosperous, and so for the first time in its history live in peace side-by-side with Israel. Most Americans welcome just such a vision.

Of course, few in the Islamic world really believe that. Indeed, a number of its more impolitic spokesmen have already written that such a withdrawal would merely be the first step in a renewed struggle to end Israel altogether — as the Arab world was energized at a sign of “weakness,” and the citizens of Israel demoralized by concessions made under duress. If one peruses translated newspapers and magazine articles from the Middle East, the rhetoric of destroying Israel is far more ubiquitous than the gospel of mutual coexistence. The Arab League will soon meet to promise acceptance of Israel’s right to exist with the return of the West Bank — of course with the caveat that we can hardly expect the crazies like Syria, Iraq, and Libya to sign on publicly to such a “surrender.” Mr. Arafat himself to domestic audiences screams “jihad,” and “infidels,” as he praises suicide bombers as “martyrs” and “heroes,” and promises the capture of Jerusalem.

Europeans likewise publicly advance this prophasis, but in private conversation admit that within a few years of “peace” the Israeli-Palestinian relationship would return to its pre-1967 status of conflict over the very existence of Israel. Afraid of terrorism, desirous of trade, eager for steady supplies of oil, nervous over large groups of Islamic immigrants, eager to court third-world favor, and playing good cop to our bad, Europe can hardly express publicly what it privately knows to be true.

Indeed, if the West Bank were to be returned and a general peace declared, there might well be a decade of peace. But then after the hiatus, the madrassas, the autocrats, the theocrats, and the coffee-house intellectuals would, according to their station and methods, all move on to the next round of recovering “all” of “Palestine” — a task made somewhat easier in their mind by Israel’s new nearly indefensible borders.

Unlike the Europeans and some others in the West, much of the Arab world does not see distinct and lasting periods of peace and war, but rather interprets the conflict as a continuum — one that will properly and only end eventually with the end of Israel itself. In this view, the Middle East discord is not unlike the first and second Peloponnesian Wars, the three Punic Wars, the First through Fourth Crusade, or perhaps even the interpretation of World War I and II as part of the larger Anglo-German conflict. Such a series of individual “wars” spanning decades ends not with mutual concessions and a brokered peace, but when one side — an Athens, Carthage, Crusader kingdom, or Germany — is militarily defeated and humiliated.

Why should we put credence in such a pessimistic appraisal of Arab intentions? History supports it. The first three wars were waged when the West Bank was in Arab hands; so why would the premises for the next war be any different from those of 1947, 1956, or 1967, when the goal, as Egyptian General Saad Ali Amer once put it plainly, was “the realization of our common goal — the elimination of Israel”?

The current conflict is surely not over the grievance of dead Muslims — Iraq and Iran make Israelis look like amateurs in that regard. Nor is the lament really over the cruel expulsion of Palestinians en masse — Kuwait garners that prize for expelling a quarter million after the Gulf War. Nor is there much historical precedent of according Palestinians any privileged position based on land lost through war. Compare the current borders of Germany with those of 1914, and then try and make the case for returning soil from France and Poland that was German since antiquity — and the world will answer back with a stern lecture about the wages that a state incurs when it repeatedly attacks its neighbors and loses.

Economically, there is no reason to believe that an autonomous Palestinian state will operate any differently from its other Arab neighbors — statist, corrupt, tribal, and unfree, with an intolerable situation of sending workers into a hated Israel to earn what they could not garner in a beloved Palestine. And without the grievance of the West Bank, the stark reality of such economic disarray might be more, not less difficult, for thousands to stomach.

Politically, the situation is depressingly similar. Why, if Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq are run by autocrats, will Palestine be any different? Why, if he were granted his entire agenda, would Mr. Arafat suddenly surrender his ironclad control of the media, and thereupon become the first truly democratic leader of the entire Muslim world to welcome discussion of his policies, Islamic religion, and Westernization?

The best to be hoped for would be a Palestine more similar to Jordan — a “nice-guy” autocracy without real democracy or freedom that supported Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War, and lives in fear of its own Islamic extremists. So we continue with the present Orwellian scene in which loud Middle-Eastern journalists and intellectuals, who have never known true freedom at home, lecture the United States about Mr. Arafat’s democratic demands for his own unfree Palestinians.

If the world knows the bleak prognosis, why all the idealistic demands for granting “freedom” and “democracy” to the Palestinians? To be crass, I think much of the discussion is simply a matter of anti-Semitism and the power of oil. Those two themes are central in many angry letters that I receive daily from critics — and not all of them are from Middle Easterners or survivalists in the northwest, who nevertheless exhibit a spooky commonality. If the Arab world were without crude oil, there could be an honest assessment of the true nature of Mr. Arafat’s regime, and enlightened people could talk of a great faultline between a free democracy and a one-party autocracy. And if this dispute did not involve Jews — that is, if it were seen in the context of hundreds of murderous border disputes over lost lands now going on between Indians and Pakistanis, Chinese and Tibetans, Colombians, Congolese, Irish, Rwandans, Kurds and Turks and other aggrieved, the world would merely sigh.

Much of the problem, then, quite simply is also psychological and arises because a Jewish state is right smack in the middle of the Arab world — and by every measure of economic, political, social, and cultural success thriving amid misery. Without oil, without a large population, without friendly countries on its borders, without vast real estate, and without the Suez Canal, it somehow provides its citizenry with a way of life far more humane than what is found in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, or Egypt. Yet the world listens to the Palestinians’ often-duplicitous leadership — despite the corrupt nature and murderous past history of Mr. Arafat’s regime — because its sponsors sell a good part of the globe’s oil. And to risk their wrath, one would have to support a few million Jews, not hundreds of millions of, say, British, Swedes, or Italians.

And so we give not a damn over millions of innocents elsewhere butchered over millions of acres each year worldwide, but instead focus on what the Palestinians lost while attempting to destroy their neighbors. For those who laugh at such reductionism, imagine the world’s moral outrage if China were tiny and Jewish, while Tibet was backed by Asian nations with the world’s oil reserves. I have not recently heard any European demanding an instant redress for the theft of Tibetan land, the destruction of its cultural heritage, and frequent forced expulsion of its population by a government that is neither democratic nor free.

If such a bleak appraisal of prophasis and aitia is accurate, is there any hope for Israel when the entire world knows the truth that it cannot confess without endangering its economic interests or moral pretenses? What then can Israel do as the West watches and wonders whether the supply of suicidal murderers will be exhausted before the weary Israeli public concedes? Such a strange place, the Middle East — where Klansmen-like terrorists in hoods, who blow themselves up in Israeli restaurants, and fire machine guns up into the air at funerals, try to pass themselves off as noble, underpowered freedom fighters because their fiery supporters in Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and Jordan have learned long ago not to send any more of their own plentiful planes and tanks to destroy Israel.

Given pressure from all sides and short of an all-out war, Israel may well have to exist as a fortress next to Mr. Arafat’s state, after unilaterally returning what it considers it can afford of the West Bank. It would then brace for a cold war of the type the United States waged against the Soviets and Eastern Europe, holding firm against a Palestinian state behind barbed wire and concrete for decades until (fat chance?) true democracy and secularism might appear among its neighbors. West Germany prospered for a half century behind mines, guard towers, and police dogs; apparently that was better than having Communists crossing the border to kill free German citizens.

But there is one final consideration for those smug utopian architects in our state department and Europe that is completely forgotten in all this. There will be no second Holocaust. If almost all of the West Bank is returned, as is likely, and in a few years hostilities nevertheless resume as they did during phases 1-3 of the Middle East wars, as is also likely, the battle will be over Israel itself, not Palestinian land. That will be a war Israel will not lose, and it will be fought outside not inside the Jewish state. And that will be a nightmare compared to the current crisis. Those in Europe and in the United States who now lecture about morality will then prove to be not only amoral, but also answerable for far, far more still.

©2002 Victor Davis Hanson

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About Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow in Residence in Classics and Military History at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, a professor of Classics Emeritus at California State University, Fresno, and a nationally syndicated columnist for Tribune Media Services. He is also the Wayne & Marcia Buske Distinguished Fellow in History, Hillsdale College, where he teaches each fall semester courses in military history and classical culture.

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