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An outpost of imperialism

Print edition : Jul 16, 2010 T+T-

WHAT is to become of the people of this country [Palestine] assuming the Turk to be expelled, and the inhabitants not to have been exterminated by the War? There are over half a million of these, Syrian Arabs a mixed community with Arab, Hebrew, Canaanite, Greek, Egyptian and possibly Crusader blood. They and their forefathers have occupied the country for the best part of 1,500 years. They own the soil, which belongs either to individual landowners or to village communities. They profess the Mohammedan faith. They will not be content either to be expropriated for Jewish immigrants, or to act merely as hewers of wood and drawers of water to the latter.

Curzon wrote these prophetic words in a memorandum on The Future of Palestine on October 26, 1917, a week before his Cabinet colleague, the Foreign Secretary ArthurBalfour, issued the infamous declaration in a letter to Lord Rothschild on November 2, 1917. Curzon's memo is hard to come by. It is not printed in the official series, Documents on British Foreign Policy, but was reproduced in 1939 in the then Prime Minister Lloyd George's Memoirs of the Peace Conference. Fortunately it is reproduced in Palestine Documents(page 61), an excellent compilation by India's outstanding scholar on the subject, Zafarul-Islam Khan. It is neglected because the publishers (Pharos, New Delhi 110 025) are not as well known.

Balfour, a Biblical Zionist like Lloyd George, acted with malice aforethought. In a memorandum he wrote in August 1919 on the future of the Arab lands seized from the fallen Ottoman Empire, he noted: The contradiction between the letter of the Covenant of the League of Nations and the policy of the Allies is even more flagrant in the case of the independent nation of Palestine. For in Palestine we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country. The four great powers are committed to Zionism and Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad,is rooted in age-long tradition, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabswho now inhabit that ancient land.

In my opinion that is right. What I have never been able to understand is how it can be harmonised with the Anglo-French Declaration, the Covenant, or the instructions to the Commission of Enquiry. In fact, so far as Palestine is concerned, the powers have made no statement of fact that is not admittedly wrong, and no declaration of policy which, at least in the letter, they have not always intended to violate. This, however, is published officially ( Documents on British Foreign Policy; Series I, Volume IV, 1952, page 345; emphasis added, throughout). Note the reference to the nation of Palestine.Is it then surprising that an alien state artificially planted by brute force has dismally failed to win legitimacy more than 60 years after it proclaimed its existence on May 14, 1948? What are a mere 60 years in the life of a nation that haslived on the land of Palestine for centuries?

Roger Cohen, by far one of the most perceptive columnists of The New York Times, recently advised Israel as a genuine friend: What Israel in turn must realise before it is too late is that the real threat it faces today is not one of destruction but of delegitimisation. Its tactical lurches, often violent, do not add up to a strategy; they have resulted in a shocking erosion of Israel's stature. I was talking the other day to the Israeli ambassador to a West European nation and he complained that he could rarely set foot on a university campus these days. Universities represent the future (International Herald Tribune; June 11, 2010).

Like almost all Americans, he lauds Israel's liberal democracy though it denies the rights of Arab citizens within its territories. But, unlike them, he acknowledges that Israel is stuck in the blind alley of a morally corrupting 43-year-old occupation that has made force its reflexive mode of occupation. He was referring to the lands Israel occupied in the 1967 War on the West Bank, Golan Heights and the Gaza Strip. Even on these, about 22 per cent of Palestine, Israel refuses to allow a State of Palestine to be established. Established by fraud and force, Israel came close to winning legitimacy and, with it, the peace its people long for.

In India, neither sympathy for Israel nor ignorance is confined to the ranks of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). There is little awareness of the grip Israel's army has on political decision-making. An increasingly larger share of the officer corps of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) comes from the orthodox or settler families. The Cabinet comprises diehards. The Internal Security and Foreign Affairs portfolios are in the hands of Yisrael Beiteinu (Isreal Is Our Home), the Russian immigrant-based party whose leader, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, is known for his Arab bashing. Housing is in the hands of Shas, a party based in the low-income Sephardic Orthodox community hence the housing construction in places like Ramat Shlomo in East Jerusalem, where land is cheap.

Eighty per cent of the students in Israeli religious high schools want to disenfranchise the Arab citizens of Israel (one-fifth of the population). The spiritual head of the Shas party, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, has said that the Muslims' religion is as ugly as them. Shas is a member of the governing coalition. Israel's settlements and other moves on the ground have rendered a two-state solution impossible. A one-state, democratic and secular, stands no chance of acceptance by Israelis. The Arab states are not at all bothered about Palestine.

Erdogan and Mubarak The contrast

Arab regimes now represent the only friends left to Israel, remarked the influential chief editor of Al Quds Al Arabi, Abdel Bari Atwan. Which is why the Arab street warmly, gratefully hails the stand the Prime Minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan,has taken on Israel. Referring to Erdogan's fiery response to the Israeliassault on the Gaza aid flotilla, Atwan recalled,This is the language that we have not heard since the time of Gamal Abdel Nasser. In comparison, the Arab states' response was muted for reasons not hard to understand. Alastair Crooke, a former British intelligence officer in West Asia, knows their leaders' plight. He holds that the flotilla affair marks a watershed for Egypt and to a lesser extent for Saudi Arabia.

He describes the plight of Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak in pitiful detail. Mubarak's motives for his dogged support for Israel are well known in the region: He is convinced that the gateway to obtaining Washington's green light for his son Gamal to succeed him lies in Tel Aviv rather than Washington. Mubarak enjoys a bare modicum of support in the United States, and if Washington is to ignore its democratic principles in order to support a Gamal shoe-in, it will be because Israel says that this American blind-eye' is essential for its security.

To this end, Mubarak has worked to weaken Hamas's standing in Gaza, and to strengthen that of Palestinian President Mamoud Abbas. Indeed, he has pursued this policy at the expense of Palestinian Unity his regular unity initiatives notwithstanding. Egypt's one-sided peace brokering' is viewed here as part of the problem rather than as part of any Palestinian solution. Paradoxically, it is precisely this posture that has opened the door to Turkey and Iran seizing the sponsorship of the Palestinian cause. The centre of gravity has moved to the northern tier Syria, Lebanon, Qatar and two powerful non-Arab states Turkey and Iran.

Together these three excellent books help us to understand why things have shaped up the way they have. They explain the depth of the problem that the Arab world poses, the gravity of the Palestinian situation and the roots of anti-Western, especially anti-American, feeling which is by no means confined to Arabs. It is shared by the entire Muslim world, indeed by most of the Third World, especially by the young. Sir Alistair Horne opines that anyone who seeks to understand why the Islamic world bears a grudge against the West should read The Arabs. Few scholars know their subject better than Eugene Rogan, a distinguished academic at Oxford. It is perhaps the best work on the subject since the classic The Arab Awakening. The Story of the Arab National Movement(1938) was written by the legendary George Antonius. Rogan has extensively consulted primary sources in Arabic, familiar as he is with Arabic and Turkish. His childhood was spent in Beirut and Cairo.

The Mamluk dynasty, founded in 1250, ruled over Egypt, Syria and Arabia, with Cairo as the empire's capital. It fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1516, the first time an external power came to rule over the Arabs. There were two historic periods in which the Arabs attained or aspired to attain greatness, according to Samir Kasir, a Lebanese journalist. The first five centuries after the emergence of Islam (from the seventh to the 12th centuries) was one. The second began in the 19th century. It saw a cultural renaissance in the Arab world, which impressed the erudite in India.

Lessons of history

Rogan writes: Western policymakers and intellectuals need to pay far more attention to history if they hope to remedy the ills that afflict the Arab world today. All too often in the West, we discount the current value of history. As political commentator George Will has written, When Americans say of something That's history, they mean it is irrelevant.' Nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, Westerners need to pay far more attention to the way that history has been experienced and understood by the Arabs themselves. This could spare them not from repeating history so much as from repeating historic mistakes. To take but one example, over the centuries Western leaders have tried to present their invasions of the Arab world as liberations from Napoleon in Egypt in 1798, to Sir Stanley Maude as he entered Baghdad in March 1917, to George W. Bush in 2003.

Samir Kasir wrote poignantly of the Arabs' sense of powerlessness in the face of the West's imperialist onslaught. The feeling has become stronger in recent years.

After five centuries of playing by other people's rules, the Arabs aspire to mastery over their own destiny such as they had enjoyed in the first five centuries of Islam. Most Arabs today would say they have never been farther from realising that ambition. Viewing Arab history through the prism of the dominant rules of the age yields four distinct periods in modern times: the Ottoman era, the European colonial era,the era of the Cold War, and the present age of U.S. domination and globalisation.

Modern Arab history begins with the Ottoman conquests of 1516-1517, during which a modern gunpowder army with muskets defeated a medieval army wielding swords. The conquests established Ottoman power across the Arab lands until the end of the First World War. They also represented the beginning of Arab history as played by other people's rules. Until this point, the Arabs had been ruled from their own great cities Damascus, Baghdad, and Cairo. Under the Ottomans, the Arabs were ruled from distant Istanbul... The Ottoman Empire fell in 1918.

The history is told with mastery of detail and in a lively style. As if British domination over Iraq, Transjordan and Egypt and French over Syria and Lebanon were not enough, the British consciously broke their pledges to the Arabs, which had been made to win their support against the Turks during the War in order to pave the way for a Jewish state in Palestine. In 1917, the Jews formed one-tenth of the population, which was augmented by immigration. It is not hard to understand the Palestinian Arab position. By 1947 the Arabs of Palestine constituted a two-thirds majority with over 1.2 million people, compared to 600,000 Jews in Palestine. Many of the Palestinian cities designated as part of the Jewish state by the Partition Resolution, such as Haifa and Jaffa, contained large Arab majorities. Moreover, Arabs owned 94 per cent of the total land area of Palestine and some 80 per cent of the arable farmland of the country. Based on these facts, Palestinian Arabs refused to confer on the United Nations the authority to split their country and give half away. The U.N. Charter gives no such authority to any of its organs. About two to three hundred thousand Palestinians were driven from their homes in 1948.

Arabs call it Al Naqba (The Catastrophe). There are those like Kissinger who demand that Arabs cease to recall that as price of a settlement. In a very real sense, the Palestine disaster spelled the end of European influence in the Arab world. Palestine was a problem made in Europe, and Europe's inability to resolve the problem reflected its own weakness in the aftermath of the Second World War. Britain and France emerged from that conflict as second-rate powers. The British economy was in tatters after the war effort, and French morale was shattered by years of German occupation. Both had too much to rebuild at home to invest much abroad. Empire was on the retreat, and new powers dominated the international system.

Arab nationalism

The victors of 1918 split the Arab world into fragile nation-states. Nasser's cry of Arab unity swept the Arab world because it reflected the inner urges of the Arab nation, as Rogan records: The transcendental ideology of the age was Arab nationalism. Liberation from colonial rule was the common wish of all Arab peoples by the 1940s, but they had yet higher political aspirations. Most people in the Arab world believed they were united by a common language, history, and culture grounded in the Islamic past, a culture shared by Muslims and non-Muslims. They wanted to dissolve the frontiers drafted by the imperial powers to divide the Arabs and build a new commonwealth based on the deep historic and cultural ties that bound the Arabs. They believed that Arab greatness in world affairs could only be restored through unity. And they took to the streets, in their thousands, to protest against imperialism, to criticise their governments' failings, and to demand Arab unity.

Rogan's work is not confined to politics. It describes the rich cultural life of the Arabs with Cairo as its centre. The 19th century nahda or renaissance was an exciting moment of intellectual rediscovery and of cultural definition, as the Arabs of the Ottoman Empire began to relate to the glories of their pre-Ottoman past. The movement embraced all Arabic-speaking peoples without distinction by sect or region and planted the seed of an idea that would prove hugely influential in Arab politics: that the Arabs were a nation, defined by a common language, culture, and history. In the aftermath of the violent conflicts of 1860 in Mount Lebanon and Damascus, this positive new vision was particularly important in healing deep communal divides. Newspapers played a key role in diffusing these ideas. One of the leading luminaries of the nahda, Burrus al-Bustani, declared in 1859 that newspapers were among the most important vehicle in educating the public'. By the end of the 1870s, Beirut boasted no fewer than twenty-five newspapers and current affairs periodicals.

There is every reason to hope for revival. Between 2002 and 2006, a prominent group of Arab intellectuals and policymakers collaborated on a radical reform agenda. Headed by Jordanian stateswoman Rima Khalaf Hunaidi, the drafters of the Arab Human Development Report focussed on three crucial deficits; a freedom deficit of good government in the Arab world; a knowledge deficit, in which the education system ill prepared young Arabs to take advantage of the opportunities in the global marketplace; and a deficit in the empowerment of women, restraining half the population of the Arab world from making its full contribution to human development in the region. Written by Arabs, for Arabs, the authors of the Human Development Report aspire to nothing less than a new Arab renaissance.

Rashid Khalidi is one of the foremost scholars on the Palestinians' struggle for statehood. He holds the Edward Said Chair in Arab Studies at the Columbia University. That his book has appeared in an inexpensive Indian edition is itself an event in publishing. For, very many Indians take their cue on Israel from Americans.

Myths abound. Tom Segev, the Israeli historian and journalist, records that there is no basis for the frequent assertion that the state was established as a result of the Holocaust ( One Palestine, Complete; page 491). The British prepared for it 20 years earlier. There was no invasion by Arab armies. Of the seven Arab states in 1948, two, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, did not even have regular armies. Lebanon's army never crossed into Palestine. King Abdullah of Transjordan had a pact with the Israeli leaders in advance. The Egyptian army alone entered the territory of Israel defined in the U.N.'s partition plan. For long Israel claimed that the Arabs voluntarily left their hearths and homes until its new historians exposed the falsehood. It is a fine case of scholarship rising above nationalism of which there is hardly any example in South Asia.

Living in New York, Rashid Khalidi confronts the American attitude of denial of the obvious in all walks of life. There has been a traditional aversion on the part of many Americans to hearing any serious analysis, let alone criticism, of their country's Middle East policies, or of those of U.S. allies in the region. This is true even though the veil that had generally been maintained in public discourse over the undemocratic domestic policies of the Saudi Arabian and Egyptian regimes has slipped considerably since September 11, 2001. Israeli excesses have occasionally forced the media to show some measure of objectivity. In recent years, however, especially since the second intifada began in late 2000, the resistance in the United States to any criticism of Israel's policies has increased, even as a military occupation over millions of Palestinians that in June 2006 began its fortieth year grows ever more suffocating.

There are two aspects on which he lays particular emphasis Israel as an outpost of Western colonialism and the Palestinians' failure to meet the challenge. The U.S. continued the policies of the British Empire in the new post-World War II age of American hegemony insofar as Palestine is concerned. This enterprise was and is colonial in terms of its relationship to the indigenous Arab population of Palestine; Palestinians fail to understand, or refuse to recognise, however, that Zionism also served as the national movement of the nascent Israeli polity being constructed at their expense.

In a letter to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on April 14, 2004, George W. Bush pronounced on the finality of the new realities on the ground, including existing major Israeli population centres the settlements on the West Bank.

Palestinians' failure

Khalidi traces the Palestinians' failures to their behaviour during British rule. The core problem was the failure of the Palestinians to create national structures that perhaps might have enabled them to wage a more coherent struggle before the 1936-39 revolt, to weather the repression that accompanied it, and to extract a better outcome from the 1939 negotiations in London, not what happened later. Comparisons with the more successful Indian effort in precisely the same period are of relevance here. Thus, to explain why Palestinian society fell apart with such rapidity in 1947-49 one must go back to well before the fighting of those years.

Only thus can one fully explain the striking lack of organisation, cohesion, and unanimity in the Palestinian polity in the years immediately preceding 1948, particularly in view of the marked contrast with the improving situation of the yishuv in the same period. This thirty-year-long failure to seize the levers of power of the mandatory state or to create alternative state structures may have affected the Palestinians during the many decades of statelessness that followed 1948, down to the present.


Rashidi points out that if there is ill will toward the United States in many Middle Eastern countries, it is a mistake to try to explain it by reference to Islamic doctrines, to the alleged propensity of Muslims for violence, or to the supposed centrality of the concept of jehad to Islam. One need look no further than the corrupt and autocratic regimes propped up by the United States all over the Middle East, and at American policies regarding Palestine, Iraq, and other issues that are highly unpopular in the region.

This theme has been excellently developed by two scholars at the National Centre of Excellence for Islamic Studies in the University of Melbourne, Australia. Their survey of U.S. policies in West Asia is excellently documented. There is a history of American exceptionalism in foreign policy formulation. Narrow self-interest is cloaked in idealism. Decades of U.S. foreign policy had pivoted on the approach of drawing oil-rich states into the U.S. sphere of influence through a programme of assistance, support and friendship. Regime change through direct U.S. intervention was an obvious break from earlier tactics and harks back to the 1950s and the coup in Iran that ousted the nationalist government of Mohammed Mossedeq. In the neoconservative mindset that dominated the White House at this point, the war against Iraq may well have been seen as the first step toward revamping the entire Middle East.

The result is increased militarisation of international relations, the added potency of Islamist extremism and the wreck of Iraq's fragile unity.

If the U.S. is disliked in the region, it is largely because of its policies on Israel. The U.S.-Israeli relationship lies at the core of Middle Eastern interpretation of the United States. The establishment of Israel and the dynamics of regional politics, especially after 1967, led to the exclusion, marginalisation,occupation and demoralisation of a society. This is a situation that continues without remedy. The Pew Research Centre found in recent global surveys, among Muslim majority countries, first and foremost its thinking that American policy is too supportive of Israel at the expense of Palestine'.

Put simply, Washington is the only player in the international system capable of extracting concessions from Tel Aviv. Consequently, Washington's role in relation to this conflict is assessed in terms of outcomes. The stagnation of the peace process and the continued suffering of the Palestinians are perceived as an example of Washington's unwillingness to use its leverage to move Israel towards resolution. In this way, Washington's approach to the Palestinian situation is often understood as representative of the problematic equivocations and double standards that plague broader U.S. policy in the Middle East. It is impossible to be both loyal ally (of Israel) and objective mediator. Arab anti-Americanism has grown exponentially since the 1990s.

The authors come to the central point of their thesis with sharp clarity. The roots of anti-Americanism lie in the impact of Washington's foreign policy in this troubled region. U.S.policy since the 1950s has often served to exacerbate and inflame these tensions. The U.S.-Israeli alliance, presented here as a byproduct of the Cold War, lies at the heart of these tensions. However, as argued, it is not the sole cause of popular discontent with the United States. Rather it serves as the starkest example of the inconsistency and hypocrisy that permeate U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Be it in Palestine or Iraq, the suffering of Middle Easterners does not appear to figure in U.S. policy in the same way that the suffering of Americans, or Israelis, does. In an era marked by the rise of Arab media and enhanced communications, these inequities are powerfully displayed in a way not experienced in previous generations. The political ramifications of this reality are significant. No one should be surprised when Arabs rise in revolt against the U.S. clients in West Asia.

As for Israel, it is unlikely to learn from the fate of Sparta, which Will Durant so brilliantly described In the end Sparta's narrowness of spirit betrayed even her strength of soul. She descended to the sanctioning of any means to gain a Spartan aim. Militarism absorbed her, and made her, once so honoured, the hated terror of her neighbours. When she fell, all the nations marvelled; but none mourned (The Life of Greece, page 87).