It is not momentum or errors or personality quirks which have sustained the occupation, but a clear determination by Israel’s elite to maintain control of the West Bank and Gaza. Those who are willing to openly examine how Israel – and the pre-state Zionist Jewish community in the Holy Land – conducted itself prior to 1967, can only view the occupation as part of a natural continuum.
Cursed Victory: A History of Israel and the Occupied Territories. By Ahron Bregman. Allen Lane; 416 pages; £25.
I received my copy of Cursed Victory – Ahron Bregman’s history of the occupation – on the very first day rockets were fired on Tel Aviv during the latest Gaza war. It was one of those rare moments when the reality of the occupation intruded into my daily life, because like most Israelis, most of the time, I am largely sheltered from its pernicious effect.
The same cannot be said for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. The occupation shapes every aspect of mundane existence in their cities, towns and villages. This asymmetry of experience, added to the inherent asymmetry of power between the Palestinians and Israel, is reflected in each side’s views, perceptions and politics.
For Israelis, the occupation is mainly a subject for negotiations in the halls of power. If they think about it at all, they think about positions to be defended in talks and diplomatic discussions, about the terms of agreements and political maneuvering for advantage. Palestinians consider all of these things, of course, but for them, the occupation encompasses everything else as well: access to water and power, urban planning, economic development, education. There is no rhythm of life that is not interrupted by Israel’s control, no public policy issue that is not overshadowed by it.
Cursed Victory reflects this asymmetry, as would any factually accurate account of the issue. But Bregman’s history does not address or analyze this massive imbalance, and this is its greatest flaw. Indeed, as the narrative progresses, despite being highly critical of the occupation and Israel’s policies, it increasingly adopts the Israeli viewpoint (at least, its center-left version) and as a result, critical aspects of the story are missed.
In his introduction, Bregman writes:
While I deal with both the occupied and the occupiers, my focus is necessarily on the latter, as it is in the very nature of its role that the occupier is more often the one driving events… All the same, I try to let the reader also hear the voices and understand the experiences – and indeed the pain – of those living under the occupation, thus putting a human face to the story.
The book delivers on both elements of this promise. Some of its most powerful sections are those that describe the Palestinians’ human experience and pain, mostly in their own words. But the equation it attempts to establish – the Israeli decision makers “driving events” on the one side, and the Palestinians as the “human face” of the issue on the other side – while accurate, misses major elements of the story, which do not fit either rubric.
This point is best demonstrated by the book itself: specifically, part one, dealing with the first decade of the occupation, between 1967-1977. Bregman seeks to present a narrative history, rather than an analysis, and this portion of the book does so quite well. It vividly describes how the occupation’s mechanisms were established, how control was imposed and implemented.
In this section, the narrative unfolds neither on the Israeli side, nor on the Palestinian side, but between them. Israel is in the driver’s seat, but as it creates the occupation through one-sided dictates, it does so necessarily in response to the various challenges and opportunities presented by the Palestinians’ themselves, their resistance and its limits (and the same goes for Syrians in the Golan; although not really for the Sinai Beduin, who hardly appear in the story). This in no way mitigates the brutality and injustice of the occupier’s actions, indeed it often exacerbates them. Nonetheless, it is the dynamic that shapes the occupation and makes it what it is.
Unfortunately, as the narrative progresses, the book’s focus shifts from this crucial interaction to another: the one occurring between leaders and diplomats, haggling on the terms and conditions of political agreements.
When negotiations trump reality on the ground
Partly, this shift reflects the access Bregman has gained to some sensitive and heretofore confidential documents, detailing high-level discussions, especially between U.S. president Clinton and various Israeli leaders during the 1990s. This is where Bregman has several juicy “scoops,” which have already gotten the book some media attention. But the eagerness to milk his unique materials is only a partial explanation for the book’s focus on “peace” talks.
Although Bregman never says so explicitly, this emphasis makes it clear that he considers negotiations more important than the reality on the ground. His gaze returns to the actual reality of the occupation only when violence explodes.
This pattern is apparent, for example, in the narrative regarding the occupation of Syrian lands. In describing the first decade, Bregman extensively discusses how Israel deported or prevented the return of more than 130,000 residents of the Golan, some 95 percent of its pre-1967 population; how it enforced its rule on the remaining Druze; and how it began establishing Jewish settlements on occupied ground.
Afterwards, events in the Golan are mentioned again when Israel formally annexes the heights in 1981, and the remaining Syrians bravely and tenaciously resist this decision. From that point onwards, for the final quarter century covered by the book, the Golan is mentioned almost exclusively in relation to diplomatic maneuvers between late Syrian president Hafez Assad, Clinton and several Israeli premiers.
We learn minute details about the American president and his secretary of state, about Israeli prime ministers and the Syrian leader, but nothing about what happened on the Golan itself, to either the Druze or the settlers. As this once quiet border starts to fray, following the Syrian civil war, this is a particularly unfortunate omission.
Read also: Israel’s watershed moment that wasn’t
The occupation in the West Bank and Gaza is described much more extensively, but the pattern largely holds. The issue of “security” provides a striking example. The security discourse has been dominant in Israeli discussions regarding the occupation. It has been used both to justify “concessions” and oppose them, to crush Palestinians when violence erupts and forget about them when it subsides. The creation of the massive Palestinian security apparatus following the Oslo accords in 1993 is a product of this discourse, and marks one of the most dramatic turns in how the occupation has been organized and sustained since its inception in 1967.
But you hear nothing about this in Cursed Victory. Since the issue of security has been largely marginal to the negotiation of major Israeli-Palestinian “peace” agreements, it is also marginal in Bregman’s narrative.
The curse of ‘negotiationism’
It seems that Bregman is afflicted by the same “negotiationism” (my neologism) which generally dominates the Zionist left viewpoint regarding the occupation. “Negotiationism” can be defined as the assumption that the intricacies and maneuvers of peace talks are the key to solution, and that the solution itself – at its core – is political and diplomatic, rather than institutional and democratic. “Negotiationists” tend to focus on leaders, as representatives of their “side” in negotiations, and often neglect the complex internal politics of each side and their critical role. (Bregman, for example, hardly mentions that as Barak was furiously negotiating with the Palestinians in 2000, his coalition completely collapsed, and he became a lame duck, with no public mandate to reach any settlement.)
“Negotiationists” implicitly assume that if a treaty is agreed and signed, the people and the reality on the ground will just fall into place and accommodate whatever the agreement states. This is generally true regarding the peace agreements that Israel signed with Egypt (with the return of the Sinai), and Jordan (where there were few border issues), and it might prove true for a future agreement with Syria. But this perspective is inadequate for understanding and describing the occupation of Palestine and how it has evolved over the first 40 years. (Bregman’s book does not cover events after 2007.)
This failure is particularly evident when Cursed Victory strays from narrative to analysis. Bregman’s thesis is that the occupation has persevered through a series of missed opportunities, unfortunate events, miscalculations, truculent personalities, and a general “policy drift” toward solidifying the occupation on the Israeli side.
Instead, the simpler and more economical explanation is that Israel’s policy has been to maintain the occupation – albeit in varying guises and forms. It is not momentum or errors or personality quirks which have sustained the occupation, but a clear determination by Israel’s elite, from the leadership to middle ranks, to maintain control of the West Bank and Gaza.
Indeed, despite its increasing focus on diplomacy and negotiations, Bregman’s narrative supplies little evidence to bolster the “negotiationist” viewpoint, and plenty of material that undermines it. From the very first days of the occupation, when Israeli forces expelled about a quarter of the territories’ population, and destroyed whole neighborhoods in East Jerusalem (with residents sometimes buried alive under the rubble), through the rapid expansion of settlements under the supposedly pro-peace governments of Rabin and Peres (1992-1996), to the current blockade on Gaza and restrictions on movement in the West Bank, almost every action by Israel indicates an intention to maintain control.
Even a narrow analysis of Israeli positions in negotiations reveals the same attitude. Complex arguments on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount/ Haram Al Sharif, the right of return, the end of the conflict and recognition of Israel as a “Jewish” state often obscure this basic fact. But the history of “peace talks” shows that almost all Jewish Israelis expect the Palestinians to have highly restricted sovereignty, with complete Israeli discretion to intervene in their territory, which will be misshaped and contorted by various parts annexed to Israel.
The ‘pain of history’
How does this kind of “peace” differ from continued occupation maintained through a subservient, if occasionally rebellious, Palestinian proxy government (as is largely the situation right now in both the West Bank and Gaza)?
If the facts do not support it, what is the source of the “negotiationist” view? Bregman cannot be accused of sympathizing with the occupation. In the introduction, he explains how his resistance to the occupation caused him to emigrate from Israel. Throughout Cursed Victory he vividly describes the suffering and travesties caused by Israel’s subjugation of millions of Palestinians.
Paradoxically, the vehemence of Bregman’s opposition to the occupation may be the key to understanding his “negotiationist” view. This perspective is closely associated with the idea – popular among the Israeli left – that 1967 marks a major break in Israel’s history. As Bregman writes in the introduction:
That Israel – a vibrant and intellectual nation overwhelmingly aware of the pain of history – went down the path of military occupation is in itself quite astonishing.
In fact, the occupation is anything but astonishing. Those who are willing to openly examine how Israel – and the Zionist Jewish community in the Holy Land before it – conducted itself prior to 1967, can only view the occupation as part of a natural continuum. Palestinian citizens of Israel were under martial law from the country’s founding in 1948 to 1966, just a year before the West Bank and Gaza were occupied. Displacement, deportation, oppression and violence were used against Palestinians before, during and after the 1948 war. Indeed, the enterprise of Jewish colonization was premised on ignoring and subordinating the rights and interests of indigenous Palestinians.
The “pain of history” remembered by Israeli Jews was not a force that acted against the occupation: it was one of its primary drivers. Jews had suffered as minorities for millennia, and more than six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. Although persecution motivated them to immigrate, in Palestine, they increasingly became the persecutors. But as this role reversal has deepened, the mindset has remained the same. Israeli Jews, despite all evidence to the contrary, continue to view themselves as a besieged and persecuted people, constantly on the brink of total extinction.
As justified threats receded, paranoia replaced genuine concern; hate, animosity and suspicion feeding the demonization of Palestinians and Arabs. In that situation, the sense of control provided by the occupation became an essential building block of Israeli “security.”
Bregman does not even consider the possibility that negotiations were never perceived by the Israeli leadership or Jewish public as an “opportunity” to end the occupation. They were seen as a means to entrench and legitimize it. And that opportunity was not missed. Israel’s international standing has never been higher, its control of Palestinians is at its peak of efficiency.
As the occupation nears the end of its fifth decade, the future may hold in store many more guises and forms it can assume. But a fundamental change in essence would require Israel to relinquish control and assume certain risks. You do that if you have trust. And you can only build trust if you view your counterparty in realistic terms, as fully human as you are. This prospect still seems far off.