by Hillel Schenker
According to Arab Affairs expert Smadar Peri (Yediot Ahronot,
October 7, 1996), Syrian Defense Minister Mustapha Tlass said in an interview on Syrian TV that he had given an order to translate Binyamin Netanyahu's book >A Place among the Nations into Arabic. He wanted it circulated among the soldiers in the Syrian army, because "it is obligatory that every soldier and officer read it, because the entire book is filled with hatred and a humiliating attitude towards the Arab nation." On the other hand, government supporter MK Yehuda Harel (The Third Way), who says that he and fellow party member Minister Avigdor Kahalani have never opposed a Palestinian state, asserts that Netanyahu as prime minister has not fulfilled any of the ideological commitments he made before the elections, "and that's good." As a historian, he says that "Netanyahu's primary goal is to succeed," not to fulfill ideological commitments. So who's right, Tlass or Harel?
Before reading Netanyahu's book, my impression was that the prime minister was primarily an opportunist, not an ideologue, and as such, the desire to maintain power might lead him to pragmatic conclusions.
The book demonstrates that Netanyahu has a very clearly defined outlook, which tends towards absolute black-and-white definitions and conclusions. He pays lip-service to his desire "to see a secure Israel at peace with its neighbors," but insists that it must be "built on a foundation of truth."
So what is Netanyahu's truth?
His first truth, in the most simplistic terms, is that Jews are good and Arabs are bad. Astoundingly, after carefully combing 401 pages of text, I couldn't find even a single positive reference to Arabs, Arab culture, etc. He writes about how, during the Second World War, Arabs "in Iraq, Egypt and in Syria ... flocked to Berlin to enlist in the war effort and lobby Hitler for favors" (p. 71), equating Arabs with Nazi behavior. He quotes Saudi Arabia's King Saud as having said in 1954 that "Israel to the Arab world is like a cancer to the human body, and the only way of remedy is to uproot it just like cancer ...” (p. 79), but doesn't cite a single positive quote of Arab readiness to accept the State of Israel's existence. This is obviously more than just a flaw in research. Such quotes would interfere with the closed structure of his polemic.
He writes that Arabs are guilty of "heinous crimes" (p. 88), and that "Arab regimes are ... ready practitioners of violence against citizens of their own countries ... This habitual willingness to resort to violence against their own citizens is a feature of most governments throughout the Arab world" (p. 97). And since opposition groups in the Arab world also use violence, "it is difficult to judge which is more oppressive, the people's current rulers or their would-be liberators" (p. 98). He adds that "international terrorism is the quintessential Middle East export" (p. 102), an idea which would definitely come as a surprise to the oil-users of the world. Netanyahu even uncovers a 1928 quote from T.E. Lawrence that most Arab regimes are "tyrannies cemented with blood" (p. 126).
To summarize his view of the Arabs, Netanyahu notes that "although some Arab regimes are truly predatory, others are more often prey. Still, this does not alter the picture before us, a picture that is unpleasant to contemplate, but that must be understood if one is to form a reasonable opinion about the politics of the Middle East. Violence is ubiquitous in the political life of all Arab countries. It is the primary method of dealing with opponents, both foreign and domestic, both Arab and non-Arab" (p. 103). One can only conclude from his analysis that, with neighbors like these, how is it possible to achieve peace?
Netanyahu seems to be frozen in a perception of the Arab world as still being characterized primarily by Pan-Arab ism, though he does grant that it "has been somewhat on the wane" during the past decade (p. 111). However, to reinforce his analysis of the essentially extremist nature of the Arab world, he sees "another force waiting in the wings .... [the] almost universal resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism" (p. 112).
One of Netanyahu's favorite techniques is the use of lists to reinforce his views: a "Partial Chronology of Arab Violence against Arab Rulers" (p. 100), a "Calendar of Middle East Violence, April 1985" (p. 105), lists of Arabs dead in "other" (non-Israeli-Arab) Middle East conflicts (p. 106), etc.
He believes that Israel and the Arabs are locked in a PR war, claiming that since 1967 there has been an "ongoing Arab war…to defeat Israel on the battlefield of public opinion: in the media, in university halls, and in the citadels of government" (p. 81). Of course, the book is replete with examples of successful PR struggles (by the author) which turned the tide in Israel's favor. His conclusion seems to be that good PR could guarantee Greater Israel.
Presumably the Jerusalem tunnel experience in the fall of 1996 was very chastening, since it provided a graphic demonstration of the inability of PR to correct bad policy.
An Existential Problem
One of the most striking aspects of the book is the fact that Netanyahu has virtually no mentors. Only two role models are referred to at any length: Theodor Herzl, the founder of modem Zionism, and Vladimir (Ze'ev) Jabotinsky, the founder of the right-wing Revisionist movement. Menachem Begin, Yitzhak 5hamir and David Ben-Gurion receive two brief mentions apiece, while his direct political patron, former Foreign Minister and Defense Minister Moshe Arens, is not mentioned at all. It is Netanyahu, his ideas and actions which dominate center stage throughout the book.
He refers to the Jewish right to "self-determination" (p. 21), and proudly writes about "the continued existence of the people whose country had been conquered, and the persistent aspiration of that people to be reestablished in its own home" (p. 27), and doesn't seem to understand that these passages could apply to the Palestinians as well.
Most disturbing to me is his statement (referring to the Nazis and the Arabs) that "libel is the prelude to murder. It is a license to kill." When reading those words, it's hard to forget the libel against Yitzhak Rabin and his government which took place at rallies where Netanyahu was the main speaker.
He asserts that the PLO is "constitutionally tied to the idea of Israel's liquidation" (p. 232), making it inconceivable (in 1993, at the time the book was written), from his point of view, to enter into negotiations with Arafat and the PLO leadership.
So what type of peace does he offer (in the book)? He states that the "problem is not territorial, but existential" (p. 329), i.e., no land for peace, just recognize our right to exist. Until the Arab world becomes democratic, the only possible peace is the "peace of deterrence" (p. 244). He states that "if Israel were to face a threat to its existence, it would respond with awesome power" (p. 344), a veiled threat to use nuclear weapons. Netanyahu asserts that "for the sake of peace, they (the Arab world) must renounce their claims to four ten-thousandths — 0.0004 — of the lands they desire, which constitutes the very heart of the Jewish homeland and the protective wall of the Jewish state" (p. 348).
In the only hint of a readiness for any territorial compromise in the book, he writes that "one simply cannot talk about peace and security for Israel and in the same breath expect Israel to significantly alter [reviewer's emphasis] its existing defense boundaries" (p. 343). Instead of concluding the book with his vision of "A Durable Peace" (Chapter 9), he ends with a discussion of "The Question of Jewish Power" (Chapter 10). Unlike Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, who devoted their adult lives to the cultivation and maintenance of Jewish power, Netanyahu seems to be obsessed with "the question of Jewish powerlessness [as] central to the traumatic experience of the Jewish people" (p. 359). Unlike his predecessors who considered contemporary Jewish power to be a given from which to make a peace based upon compromise, Netanyahu does not seem to have internalized the fact that the State of Israel is considered to have the fourth or fifth most powerful army in the world today.
Reading Netanyahu's book is a difficult exercise. In many ways, it appears to be a propaganda tract, originally created as the ideal gift for potential right-wing donors, to be accompanied by the autograph of a possible future prime minister of Israel.
After finishing the book, I was very pessimistic about the prospects for the foreseeable future. Soon afterwards, I participated in an encounter in Tel Aviv with Sufian Abu-Zaideh, head of the Israel Desk of the Palestinian National Authority. All the Israelis attending were pessimistic, and I mentioned that reading Netanyahu's book only reinforced my pessimism. Abu-Zaideh responded: "I know. Whenever people ask Netanyahu for his views, instead of 'Read My Lips' (George Bush), he says, 'Read My Book.' But I remain optimistic. Reality and the direction of history are too strong. Before the elections, Netanyahu refused to meet with Arafat, and now he is doing business with him. He will have to modify other preconceived ideas as well. The only question is, how much blood will be shed before reality prevails."
Perhaps Sufian Abu-Zaideh is right. The signing of the Hebron agreement is another important step in Netanyahu's reconciliation with reality. However, we are still left with the crucial question — how much unnecessary Israeli and Palestinian blood will be shed before reality eventually prevails?