"Did You Two Squabble?"


Editors’ Note: This trenchant essay by Israeli novelist YITZHAK LAOR was originally submitted to the London Review of Books, which in the past has frequently published Laor’s writing. But they refused to run this skewering of the Israeli Left with the LRB’s editor chiding Laor that “in my editorial judgment (to be pompous) this piece won’t help anyone.” CounterPunch is honored to publish it. AC / JSC

One of the times I was detained (it was after a demonstration), I shared a cell with a young burglar, all blood and broken teeth, beaten twice. The first time was when he tried to escape, as detectives came to arrest him, since attempted escapes had become a sort of free license for police violence. The second time was a bit later when he was taken to hospital to stop his bleeding. Handcuffed he entered the ER, chained to a cop, and the doctor asked them both: “Did you two squabble?” The burglar did what he had to do: he spat his blood right into the face of the enlightened MD, and of course was beaten again, right there, still handcuffed, under the indifferent eyes of the medical staff. I liked my cellmate, I cannot forget his story, nor his pride. From that day on, June the 8th 1982, the question “did you two squabble?” became for me the image of the real description for the bystander.

A month after the Intifada began, four years ago, Major General Amos Malka, by then No. 3 in the military hierarchy, and until 2001 the head of Israeli military Intelligence (MI), asked one of his officers (Major Kuperwasser) how many 5.56 bullets the Central Command had fired during that month (that is, only in the West Bank). Three years later Malka talked about these horrific figures. This is what he said to Ha’aretz’s diplomatic commentator, Akiva Eldar about the first month of the Intifada, 30 days of unrest, no terrorist attacks yet, no Palestinian shooting:

Kuperwasser got back to me with the number, 850,000 bullets. My figure was 1.3 million bullets in the West Bank and Gaza. This is a strategic figure that says that our soldiers are shooting and shooting and shooting. I asked: “Is this what you intended in your preparations?” and he replied in the negative. I said: “Then the significance is that we are determining the height of the flames.” (HaAretz, 11.6.2004).

It was a bullet for every Palestinian child, said one of the officers in that meeting, or at least this is what the Israeli daily Maariv revealed two years ago, when the horrible figures were first leaked. It didn’t much change “public opinion”, neither here nor in the West, neither two years ago nor 4 months ago when Malka finally opened his mouth. It read as if it had happened somewhere else, or a long time ago, or as if it was just one version, a voice in a polyphony, hiding behind the principle theme: we, the Israelis are right, and they are wrong.

Israeli political society–including the Zionist Left, Labour, Meretz and Peace Now, all currently disappearing because of this war–had been so deeply involved in construction of anti-Palestinian consent during the first months of the Intifada, that none of them — neither their politicians, nor their intellectuals — were able to acknowledge such a story and say: “Oops, we’re sorry, we were misled.”

And it is not only about Major General Malka’s bullet figures, of course. It is also about the total dismissal of the Palestinian accusations during those months of autumn 2000: nobody–not even the pro-Palestinians in the West–believed them, when they tried to tell their story, that included the reality of the 1.3 million 5.56 bullets fired at them, when they tried to tell their version of how Israel made every possible effort to turn the unrest of Fall 2000 into a bloodbath, to push the various factions to use arms, to turn this into the final stage of unwriting Oslo. That was the goal of Ehud Barak and his men, General Shaul Mofaz (then Chief of Staff, now minister of defence) and General Moshe Ya’alon, the real mastermind behind the plan — to “burn onto the Palestinian mind” (his own words) that they cannot beat us.

What appeared in the liberal press in the West–and I don’t even mean the New York Times–together with sporadic reports from the scenes and reaction from the Israeli official spokesmen was a “comfortable, balanced lesson”: both sides should not be violent, or should not use violence. “You two squabbling” over there. By and large this construction of public opinion everywhere was based on nothing like facts. It was based on a long tradition of Western hostility towards the Arabs, but it was cemented with the help of the Zionist Left writers and intellectuals.

A few weeks before Camp David, summer 2000, during preparation for Camp David summit, Major General Malka reviewed Arafat’s positions for the Israeli cabinet members.

I said there was no chance that he would compromise on 90 percent of the territories or even on 93 percent. He is not a real-estate trader, and he is not going to stop midway. Barak said to me: “You are telling me that if I offer him 90 percent, he isn’t going to take it? I don’t accept your assessment.”
I said to him that indeed, there is no chance that he would accept it. [] I told them [the cabinet members, all Labour and Meretz] that the difference between me and them is that they are speaking from hope and I am trying to neutralize my hope and give a professional assessment. But Barak saw himself as able to make his assessments without assessments from MI, because he is his own intelligence, and he thought he was smarter. Afterward, it was convenient for him to explain his failure by a distorted description of the reality. (Ha’aretz, 11.6.2004).

That distortion of reality wouldn’t be a realizable project, were it not corroborated by the old Western colonial discourse of mistrust of the Arabs. But it also needed, in a very interesting way, the Israeli Peace Camp’s intellectuals. None was more suited for this task than the Israeli writers who built their careers in the West on being Peace loving people, without ever specifying what peace means. However, the gap between the facts and the effort to distort them was so wide that it didn’t take too many years to come to light. Akiva Eldar, who brought the could-be-sensational interview with Malka, writes:

Malka insists that even after the peace talks gave way to hostilities, MI did not revise its assessments. Neither did the research units at the Shin Bet, the Mossad, the Foreign Ministry and the office of the coordinator of activities in the territories adopt the thesis that the Camp David summit had revealed “the Oslo plot” [by Arafat]. (Ha’aretz, 11.6.2004)

So, it was the Zionist Left’s mission four years ago to either impose an impossible peace plan on the Palestinians, or to depict them as responsible for the war that would break out. This is how David Grossman did his job for Ehud Barak:

True, there is no symmetry between the concessions the two sides can make. Israel holds almost all the cards, while the Palestinians have more restricted options Nevertheless, there is no escaping the sense that Arafat was the less bold, less creative, and more stubborn of the two leaders. (Death as a Way of Life).

It is not dialectical, nor is it crooked thinking. It was the foreign Office theme, to frame Arafat. That decision preceded even the war. It ran throughout the Oslo years, when colonization deepened, the number of settlers tripled, lands were expropriated, roads for Jews were paved in the Occupied Territories. But when Camp David failed, regardless of anything else, they all, the writers, the ambassadors, the senior columnists, got the same tip: put the blame on Arafat. Read how Amos Oz described for the The Guardian’s readers the failure of Camp David in July 2000 and note how similar is the way Arafat “inability” is being portrayed also here:

Ehud Barak went a very long way towards the Palestinians, even before the beginning of the Camp David summit; longer than any of his predecessors ever dreamt to go; longer than any other Israeli prime minister is likely to go. On the way to Camp David, Barak’s proclaimed stance was so dovish that it made him lose his parliamentary majority, his coalition government, even some of his constituency. Nevertheless, while shedding wings and body and tail on the way, he carried on like a flying cockpit, he carried on. Seemingly Yasser Arafat did not go such a long and lonely way towards the Israelis. Perhaps he could not, or lacked the fierce devotion to making peace. (Even if Camp David Fails, this Conflict is on its Last Legs’, Guardian, 25 July 2000, my emphasis).

When he wrote for the NYT he was even more vicious: “I am sitting in front of the television in the living room, seeing Yasser Arafat receive a triumphant hero’s welcome in Gaza, and all this for having said no to peace with Israel. The whole Gaza Strip is covered in flags and slogans proclaiming the ‘Palestinian Saladin’ . . . My heart breaks.” (NYT, 28.7.2000).

And he went on, the same month, same newspaper:

Yet the Palestinians said no. They insist on their ‘right of return’, when we all very well know that around here ‘right of return’ is an Arab euphemism for the liquidation of Israel. Mr Arafat doesn’t insist on merely the right to a Palestinian state, a right I fully support. Now he demands that the Palestinian exiles should return not only to Palestine, but also to Israel, thus upsetting the demographic balance and eventually turning Israel into the 26th Arab country.

But four years later, HaAretz revealed what every Palestinian negotiator had claimed for four years.

In a lecture at Princeton University in March, 2002, [Prof.] Mati Steinberg, [until the middle of 2003 a special advisor to the head of the
Shin Bet] argued that the Camp David summit failed because of the dispute over the Temple Mount–not over the issue of the right of return,
which was barely discussed at that summit and was born retrospectively
in Israel in order to create the internal consensus. (Ha’aretz, 11.6.2004).
Needless to say, Amos Oz never retracted, never apologized. On the contrary, he sharpened his attacks on the Palestinians, very flattered by the position he obtained with Ehud Barak, for a while at least, as a “soul mate” for late night phone calls from the leader of the Labour in his last days in power.

Those who read Oz’s prose can easily find in it that kind of “Brotherhood of the agonizing strong males”. Perry Anderson rightly described it as the Israeli “Labour’s traditional culture–the mixture of machismo and schmaltz of which a figure like Amos Oz offers a typical embodiment.”

I could go on forever with quotes. But silence is unquotable. The way these protagonists, representatives of the Peace Movement, as they are depicted in the Western press, kept their mouths shut during the great massacres in Raffah or Gaza, and before, during the massacres in Jenin, or other towns and villages of Palestine, that silence is unquotable. Unless the Western newspapers were to ask them: ‘Are you for or against the IDF? Would you speak out for or against this operation, or that one?’ there would be no answer. But they didn’t ask, because they didn’t want to know, those Western newspapers, because the function of these writers was never informative, nor intellectual.

Is it about bad writing? Is it about bad journalism? Is it about paternalistic editors who tollerate awful columns from such a provincial place where they all squabble each other? No. It is far more serious. “Allow me to tell a brief story, a private one.” This is how David Grossman opened one of his European columns, in 1998.

A very dear member of my family, a survivor of the Treblinka death camp, arrived at my wedding with a bandage on her forgotten forearm. She was covering her tattooed number so as not to mar the celebration with a memento of the Holocaust.

I understood then, very sharply, how much all of us here in Israel are always walking on a surface as thin as that bandage.

Only in Israeli writing in the West–Exodus of course preceded “us”–does one reflect in one’s own wedding party on the fate of the Jewish people. However this is not a story about a family, but about “politics in Israel”, told not by a survivor, or son to survivors, “second generation”. No. Every Israeli is a second generation within the Western imagery of Israel, no matter what happens to the Palestinians. Israel wouldn’t succeed later in the Intifada (after Jenin) to brush aside criticism in the Western press with the silly concept of “New anti-Semitism”, had it not had those cheap and vulgar “personal stories” about “our life thin as a bandage”. And it works especially among Diaspora Jews, especially in NYC, who are, usually, blackmailed three times with such kitsch: “How dare you being alive?”, “How dare you being against us?” “How dare you being so better off than we are?” Needless to say that no Israeli newspaper would have published such rubbish, about that aunt with the bandage even if Grossman would submit it. Needless to say that no reviewer abroad would pick on such an embarrassing and infantile “lesson of Holocaust”.

Why is it important to analyze this kind of journalism? Because it has long become part of the image of “Modern Jew” in the West. We–no matter what we do–represent something else. Would it be the same for a Palestinian to have a seat in the same Pantheon? Of course not. He has to be at least Edawrd Said in order to do so, an expert of “our” culture, that is English literature, and/or Wagner. Otherwise he is not one of us. But the “Modern Jews”, that is Israelis, have a different role and place in the matrix. They represent an “alternative history”, where the Jews were never expelled or destroyed, just traveled for a while. No matter what they do, as long as they “look like one of us, talk like one of us, think like of us” they please us.
No serious writing about the Middle East conflict within the Western press can evade both the theme of “You two squabble over there” and the role of the Israeli embodied in a certain “liberal” Israeli writers writing about politics, totally uncommitted to politics.

In short, the “balanced position” of newspapers such as The Guardian, Le Monde, La Republica etc. was not achieved through the Zionist Left writers’ argumentation, but through their presence, like images, like voices, like sound bites. Their thought had no importance, only the personal aspect. Even Amos Oz the less personal of all, had to use his “personal credit card” when depicting the Israeli as a victim of the Palestinians:

Already in 1967 I was one of the very few Israelis invoking the solution of two neighbouring states, with Jerusalem as the capital city of both, reciprocal recognition and mutual acceptance. Since then, for many years, my own people treated me like a traitor. My children at school suffered all manner of insults, accused of being the children of one ready to sell off his homeland. […] I pause to reflect. I remember how in the old days a single phone booth would have sufficed to contain the entire national assembly of Israeli peace activists. We could literally count ourselves on the tip of our fingers, a tiny minority among minorities. Today everything is different. More than half the nation is with us. […] Yet the Palestinians said no.

This is of course a mixture of truth and fiction. Oz’s children grew up in a Kibbutz and if they suffered it was never because of his political positions back in 1967. But that doesn’t matter, he is a representative of a nation, and as such he has a role within the European need for an Other that is part of the I, not real other at all. One could easily begin here an analysis of the way Israeli literature is being read and accepted in the West . But we better forget the literature. The point is that the reader of such critical newspaper, critical of Israel policy, sometimes even critical of Zionism, that reader is surely appalled by what s/he reads about Israeli racist citizenship laws, or about Israeli draconic apartheid in the Occupied Territories, or about the death toll of Arab babies in Israel compared with Jewish babies, but s/he is not anti-Israeli like the Right Wing press. On the contrary. The liberal reader wants to know that there are Israelis “like us”. Ah, but there are no Israelis like you, good liberals, because to be good liberal like you, over here, one has to become a radical, or what you vehemently condemn, an extremist. One cannot be a European liberal and support Israeli Apartheid. One cannot be a European liberal and support a state that prevents marriage between religions, etc. etc. In short Zionism does not conform with values of liberalism. It is always closer, even it is “Left”, to Le Pen or Heider. It is a matter of minor disputes. Even if you take the simple fact, that none of the writers I quoted here, and their colleagues, has ever supported the refuseniks, warmly supported by every simple minded European, we can understand that intellectual lack within that discourse of Israeli writers on the Left. Amos Oz can receive the most prestigious prizes in Barcelona or Berlin, he can’t really talk about peace, for the discourse of peace in Israel traverses the old clichés that used to work before Oslo, before the current Intifada, before Ehud Barak and his junta, supported by the same Amos Oz, turned it to another part of history: Apartheid in a world ruled by one super-power. Talks of peace with no politics, no support of resistance, solidarity with the victims are empty and hollow, fit for ceremonies, not a debate.
I am not saying that the readers of the liberal newspapers don’t care about such matters. On the contrary, they do care. They need an Israeli to be against “all those things”, they need a columnist to do what a column sometimes does, “write what I think, exactly what I think”. Now we come back to peace and war. I am writing these things during the atrocities the IDF is committing in the Gaza strip.

Less than a year ago, A. B. Yehoshua received a Peace Award from the city of Naples. The book for which he got the award was The Liberated Bride. It is not about peace, to say the least. Tariq Ali got the same award, together with Yehoshua, for a non-fiction book, on Bush and his war in Iraq. I ask you to read carefully what A. B. Yehoshua said six month later, to Ha’aretz, 6 months before the current atrocities taking place in Gaza. [The italic parts within the text appeared only in the Hebrew version of the article. The English editors of Ha’aretz chose not to include in their own version of that interview:]

It’s possible that there will be a war with the Palestinians. It’s not necessary, it’s not impossible. But if there is a war, it will be a very short one. Maybe a war of six days. Because after we remove the settlements and after we stop being an occupation army, all the rules of war will be different. We will exercise our full force. We will not have to run around looking for this terrorist or that instigator–we will make use of force against an entire population. We will use total force. Because from the minute we withdraw I don’t want to know their names. I don’t want any personal relations with them. I am no longer in a situation of occupation and policing and B’Tselem [the human rights organization]. Instead, I will be standing opposite them in a position of nation versus nation. State versus state. I am not going to perpetrate war crimes for their own sake, but I will use all my force against them. If there is shooting at Ashkelon, there is no electricity in Gaza. We shall use force against an entire population. We shall use total force It will be a totally different war. It will be much harder on the Palestinians. If they shoot Qassam missiles at Ashkelon, we will cut electricity to Gaza. We shall cut communications in Gaza. We shall prevent fuel from Gaza. We shall use our full force as we did on the Egyptian (Suez) Canal in 1969. And then, when the Palestinian suffering will be totally different, much more serious, they will, by themselves, eliminate the terror. The Palestinian nation will overcome terrorism itself. It won’t have any other choice. Let them stop the shooting. No matter if it is the PA or the Hamas. Whoever takes responsibility for the fuel, electricity and hospitals, and sees that they do not function, will operate within a few days to stop the shooting of the Qassams. This new situation will totally change the rules of the game. Not a desired war, but definitely a purifying one. A war that will make it clear to the Palestinians that they are sovereign. The suffering they will go through in the post-occupation situation will make clear to them that they must stop the violence, because now they are sovereign. From the moment we retreat I don’t want to know their names at all. I don’t want any personal relationship with them, and I am not going to commit war crimes for their own sake. (“A nation that knows no bounds”, HaAretz weekend magazine, an interview with A. B. Yehoshua, 18.3.2004).

It is not about cheating the Europeans, nor selling them warmongering wrapped up in peace phraseology, by writers who, at home, either encourage the army to do atrocities or keep their mouth shut. No, it is about a bizarre function of a “Peace loving writer from Israel”, who has nothing to declare but a heart full of grief, or anger, no information, nothing but some incoherent beliefs, some “optimism” for the complacent reader. And truth, where is the truth? Well, “you two squabble”.

YITZHAK LAOR is an Israeli novelist who lives in Tel Aviv.