Narrative Dissonance

Review: Padraig O’Malley, ‘The Two-State Delusion: Israel and Palestine—A Tale of Two Narratives’

Palestinian supporters fly Palestinian and Fatah party flags, chant slogans and dance during a ceremony marking the 10th anniversary of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's death, at the Palestinian Authority headquarters, in the West Bank city of Ramallah
Palestinian supporters fly Palestinian and Fatah party flags, chant slogans and dance during a ceremony marking the 10th anniversary of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's death, at the Palestinian Authority headquarters, in the West Bank city of Ramallah / AP
September 13, 2015

The best thing about The Two-State Delusion is its title. Political elites worldwide have clung to the "two state solution" for decades, most recently in the fruitless diplomacy of Secretary of State Kerry in 2013 and 2014. But while Padraig O’Malley is right in saying more of the same will go nowhere, his analysis of the problem stands reality on its head.

O’Malley is a professor at the University of Massachusetts who "has spent his career helping to solve conflicts," according to the back page blurb. He started with Ireland, moved on to South Africa, and has now landed in Israel. Hopefully, he’ll skip to another conflict quickly. In a world full of bad books about the Arab-Israeli conflict, this one stands out.

The book’s theme is that Palestinian and Jewish narratives are irreconcilable, which is true. The trouble is that O’Malley has his own narrative, which corresponds almost entirely to the Palestinian narrative, even those elements that are patently false. Take, for example, the Palestinian assertion that they have been "the indigenous population in Palestine without interruption for 1,500 years." O’Malley first presents this as part of the Palestinian narrative, which is fair enough. But later it becomes (repeatedly) absorbed into his own account. Here is O’Malley in his own voice: "Neither the Zionist project nor the state that it created ever recognized the indigenous Palestinians as a distinct people for whom Palestine had been their homeland for 1,500 years."

This assertion—the number of years used to be 1,300, but has grown in the telling—is one that goes back decades. But it doesn’t go back more than that because the notion of Palestinians as a distinct people is a modern concoction. Otherwise why would a local Arab leader, Auni Bey Abdul-Hadi, tell the Peel Commission in 1937: "There is no such country as Palestine. ‘Palestine’ is a term the Zionists invented. There is no Palestine in the Bible. Our country was for centuries part of Syria." Nor would it make sense for renowned Arab historian Philip K. Hitti, appearing before the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry on the Palestine problem in 1946, to grow angry at the term "Palestine." He said: "Palestine does not exist in history—absolutely not."

It may seem strange now, but as Abdul-Hadi said, in modern times the term Palestinian was associated chiefly with Jews. That’s why in 1928 "The View of a Palestinian," written by the founder of The Palestine Post (now The Jerusalem Post) was published in New Palestine, the journal of the Zionist Organization of America. That’s why the Anglo-Palestine Bank, the Palestine Electric Company, the Palestine Foundation Fund, the Palestine Workers Fund, the Palestine Philharmonic Orchestra, the Palestine Potash Company were all created and operated by Palestinian Jews.

The Arab-Israel conflict was recast as the Arab-Palestinian conflict for purposes of propaganda after Israel conquered the West Bank and Gaza in the 1967 war. In 1968 the Egyptian journal Al-Musswar was frank: "The masses of the Palestinian people are only the advance-guard of the Arab nation … a plan for arousing world opinion in stages, as it would not be able to understand or accept a war by a hundred million Arabs against a small state." Or as PLO executive committee member Zahir Muhsein said in an interview with a Dutch newspaper in 1977: "The Palestinian people does not exist. … The creation of a Palestinian state is only a means for continuing our struggle against the State of Israel."

O’Malley makes short shrift of the factual underpinning of the Jewish narrative. The Jews were forced out. They came back after 2,000 years. "The space between is a blank," he writes, meaning the Jews don’t talk about it because it’s all Palestinians from here on in. That’s hardly the case. That "space" is replete with Jewish communities that remained, Jewish efforts to return, thriving Jewish communities established in cities like Safed, Tiberias, Hebron, and Jerusalem, and of other times, when Jews struggled just to hang on. It’s a remarkable story. Zionism is only its modern incarnation, and the most successful.

So who was living in Palestine those 2,000 years? It depends when you look. The land was ruled—and peopled—by a succession of dynasties, fourteen to be exact, among them Persians, Byzantines, Crusaders, Mamelukes, and Ottoman Turks. Richard Mather, who runs the Jewish Media Agency website, reports on one snapshot in time, taken in 1695 by Dutch mapmaker Hadriani Relandi, who surveyed 2,500 places in Palestine mentioned in Jewish sources. He found that not one had a name of Arabic origin and most of the inhabitants of Palestine were Jews, Christians and Bedouins. Jerusalem held 5,000 people, mostly Jews. Under Muslim rule the once fertile country was rendered progressively more barren. The process of despoliation—and depopulation – was complete by the mid-1800s, famously documented by Mark Twain, Herman Melville, and other visitors. The large Arab population is of recent origin. Arabs started coming in the mid-1800s, many to escape the Egyptian military draft. They kept coming until 1948, thanks to the economic opportunities Zionist settlement offered.

O’Malley’s one-sidedness hangs like heavy fog over the book. Israelis "cling" to the idea that the Arabs want to drive them into the sea. The Holocaust "makes it impossible for Israelis to view themselves as victimizing others." Israel "will never let Western Europe off its guilt-ridden hook." He dismisses Israeli security concerns as so much Holocaust paranoia. The Israel Defense Forces "dole out death … always using disproportionate force." Particularly absurd is his Vietnam comparison, with Israelis cast as the Americans and Hamas and Islamic Jihad as the Viet Cong, with the supposition that Israel as a foreign invader doesn’t know the lay of the land like the "natives" do. In fact, the ties of Israelis to the land are so strong that archaeology is a national obsession.

The conflict is asymmetric but not for the reasons O’Malley says. As he describes it the all-powerful Israelis, backed by the "irredeemably biased" Americans, oppress the downtrodden Palestinians, whose land Israel illegally holds. But the reason the conflict is asymmetric is that the goals of the two sides are so different. The Palestinians are determined to wipe Israel off the map. If violence fails then they will do it demographically, through the Arab refugee "right of return." Israel’s goal is to preserve its existence. It has offered dramatic territorial concessions but inevitably draws the line at an Arab right of return, that right now being attached to the descendants of the original refugees, numbering in the millions.

It should be noted that although O’Malley adopts the Palestinian narrative, he also drips with condescension toward Palestinians, who like the Israelis are "addicted" to conflict.

Missing from O’Malley’s narrative is the central importance of Islam. For Islam, no non-Muslim state has the right to exist in the heart of the Middle East. That the despised Jews now rule there is considered an abomination.

For all the panoply of scholarship (96 pages of endnotes, 42 dense pages of bibliography, seven pages of interviewees) the book is rife with errors, many of them major, substantive, inexcusable misstatements of basic facts. In his Wall Street Journal review, Matti Friedman has pointed out some of them: for example, O’Malley’s off-the-wall assertion that "massive U.S. assistance" ensured Israel’s victory in the Six Day War. Israel flew French Mysteres and Mirages in that war. It was not until after the war that Lyndon Johnson began to offer Israel any substantial military equipment.

Add to the errors the unbelievably sloppy reference to "Menachem Begin’s Stern Gang." The Stern gang was led, unsurprisingly, by Stern—Avraham or "Yair" Stern, as he was known. Begin led a rival, much larger underground organization, the Irgun. Then there’s the author’s statement that the World Zionist Organization founded the Histadrut, when it was founded by Socialist Labor parties in Palestine.

The book’s shabby scholarship is a sad commentary on the state of our universities, and one wonders why Viking saw fit to publish it. Viking has an admirable history of printing some of the best authors of the English language. Pity they spoiled their own narrative with this one.

Published under: Book reviews