There Was an Iron Wall in Gaza

Addicted to territorial aggrandizement and encircled by enemies of its own making, Israel has freed itself of all moral constraints.

A Palestinian woman stands in the in the Gaza Strip, gazing across Israel's "iron wall" on January 1, 1989. (Peter Turnley / Corbis / VCG via Getty Images)

In a 1948 essay, “The Twilight of International Morality,” the international relations theorist Hans Morgenthau looked back at the bygone style of diplomacy practiced by the old aristocratic states of Europe — what might be called “traditional Realpolitik” — and ventured a contrarian argument: that behind its amoral facade and despite its reputation for cynicism and duplicity, it was always grounded in an inviolable ethical code.

He considered Otto von Bismarck, the German avatar of nineteenth-century Realpolitik, and contrasted him with Adolf Hitler. Both men had faced the same stubborn problem: the fact of Germany’s “encirclement” by dangerous neighbors, France to the west and Russia to the east.

But whereas Bismarck “accepted the inevitability of that fact and endeavored to turn it to Germany’s advantage,” through an intricate and sometimes devious Realpolitik diplomacy, Hitler, being “free of the moral scruples which had compelled Bismarck to accept the existence of France and Russia,” set out, quite simply, to annihilate them both.

Whether this difference was really attributable to “moral scruple” or not can be debated; Bismarck’s foreign policy was a practical success, after all, while Hitler’s obviously wasn’t. But Morgenthau had put his finger on a useful and important distinction.

The “Bismarck method” and the “Hitler method” can be thought of as two alternative ways of dealing with danger in the world. The first is the method of Realpolitik, which accepts power realities for what they are; assumes coexistence with enemies to be, for better or worse, permanent and unavoidable; and for that reason prefers, wherever possible, to defuse threats by searching for areas of common interest, employing the minimum quantum of violence necessary to achieve vital objectives.

The second method is animated by an ideologically driven demonology of one type or another — an obsession with monsters that must be destroyed — coupled with an insatiable craving for what Henry Kissinger, in a well-known aphorism, called “absolute security”: “The desire of one power for absolute security,” he wrote in his 1954 doctoral dissertation on the diplomacy of Austrian diplomat Klemens von Metternich, “means absolute insecurity for all the others.”

United Behind Israel

Since October 7, every voice of authority in the West, from Joe Biden on down — in the foreign ministries, the think tanks, the major media — has united behind Israel’s declared objective to “crush and eliminate” Hamas. Its commando strike through Israel’s Gaza “iron wall” and the spree of atrocities against civilians that accompanied it are said to have voided whatever legitimacy the group might once have been accorded. A demand for Hamas’s total defeat and eradication is — for now, anyway — official policy in the United States, the European Union, and the other G7 nations.

The problem, however, is that Hamas, which won 44 percent of the vote in the last Palestinian legislative elections, is a mass political party, not just an armed group, and neither can in fact be eradicated “militarily.” As long as Hamas exists, attempting to permanently exclude it from Palestinian politics by foreign diktat is guaranteed not only to fail but to sow unending chaos.

Because the Hamas-must-go policy is unachievable and unsustainable, it is fated to be temporary, and the only question is how long it will take the world’s leaders to recognize their mistake and how much damage will be done in the meantime.

In Afghanistan it took the United States twenty years, across three administrations, to summon the nerve to admit that it couldn’t defeat the Taliban. Despite the nearly three thousand who died on American soil at the hands of the Taliban’s al-Qaeda “guests,” the United States realized in the end that it had no better option than to talk to the group and make a deal. When an accommodation was finally reached, in 2020, it was — in classic Realpolitik fashion — based on a common interest in defeating a mutual enemy, namely ISIS. In exchange for a commitment from the Taliban not to allow its territory to be used as a base for foreign terrorist operations, the United States withdrew its forces in 2021 and the Taliban is now in power in Kabul.

But Gaza can’t afford to wait twenty years for Biden and company to come to their senses; given the pace of Israel’s killing machine, the last surviving Palestinian there will be long dead by then.

All his life, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has spoken publicly and privately of his dream that Israel might someday get an opportunity to finish the job of 1948 and rid the Land of Israel of its masses of Palestinian interlopers. He expounded on this theme one evening in Jerusalem in the late 1970s to an appalled dinner guest, the military historian Max Hastings, who recounted the conversation in his memoirs; and he returned to the theme while serving as deputy foreign minister a decade later, after the Tiananmen Square massacre, when he lamented Israel’s failure to have seized the moment while the world’s attention was focused on China, to carry out a “mass expulsion of the Arabs.”

Now, thanks to a fortuitous convergence of circumstances — a vengeful public, a far-right governing coalition, and, most importantly, a compliant US president — Netanyahu has been given another chance, and he’s not letting the opportunity slip away.

Israel has explained what it’s doing in plain language. No one can claim they didn’t know. Through a combination of mass-casualty terror bombing — what Robert Pape of the University of Chicago, a leading scholar of coercive air power, has called “one of the most intense civilian punishment campaigns in history” — the destruction of hospitals and other critical infrastructure, and a near-total blockade of humanitarian supplies, it is working “to create conditions where life in Gaza becomes unsustainable,” in the words of Major General (ret.) Giora Eiland, an adviser to the current defense minister.

Israel, in other words, is grimly marching Morgenthau’s argument to its logical conclusion — proving, before the eyes of the world, that the final and most fundamental alternative to Realpolitik is genocide.

Speak of the Devil

In a 2008 article published by the Israel Council on Foreign Relations, Efraim Halevy, one of the more pragmatic Realpolitikers in Israel’s security establishment, aired his qualms about the prevailing Israeli approach to dealing with Gaza and its rulers.

A former head of the Mossad, director of Israel’s national security council, and ambassador to the European Union, Halevy had worked on the Hamas file for many years, and his message was blunt: Hamas wasn’t going away anytime soon. Israel would therefore do well to find a way to make the group “a factor in the solution” rather than a perpetually “insurmountable problem.”

Since the notion of Hamas as a solution to anything was bound to jar the reader’s preconceptions, Halevy took care to lay out a few relevant facts.

He explained, first, that whatever the group’s founding documents might say, twenty years of contact with real-world politics had educated Hamas in the realities of power, and it was now “more than obvious to Hamas that they have no chance in the world to witness the destruction of the State of Israel.”

Consequently, the group’s leaders had reverted to a more achievable goal: rather than Israel’s destruction, they sought its withdrawal to its 1967 borders, in exchange for which Hamas would agree to an extended armistice — “a thirty-year truce,” Halevy called it — which the group said it would respect and even help enforce, and which could eventually be made permanent if the parties so desired.

Second, although Hamas’s leaders were adamant that Hamas would not recognize Israel or talk to it directly, they didn’t object to Mahmoud Abbas doing so, and they declared themselves ready, according to Halevy, “to accept a solution negotiated [by Abbas] with Israel if it were approved in a national Palestinian referendum.”

Two years earlier, Hamas had prevailed in Palestinian elections by emphasizing its pragmatism and willingness to respect the two-state center-ground of Palestinian public opinion. That decision had represented a victory for the moderates within the organization. One of them, Riad Mustafa, a Hamas parliamentary deputy representing Nablus, explained the group’s position in a 2006 interview:

I say unambiguously: Hamas does not and never will recognize Israel. Recognition is an act conferred by states, not movements or governments, and Palestine is not a state. Nevertheless, the [Hamas-led] government’s program calls for the end of the occupation, not the destruction of Israel, and Hamas has proposed ending the occupation and a long-term truce (hudna) to bring peace to this region.

That is Hamas’ own position. The government has also recognized President Abbas’s right to conduct political negotiations with Israel. If he were to produce a peace agreement, and if this agreement was endorsed by our national institutions and a popular referendum, then — even if it includes Palestinian recognition of Israel — we would of course accept their verdict. Because respecting the will of the people and their democratic choice is also one of our principles.

According to Halevy, Hamas had conveyed these ideas to the Israeli leadership as far back as 1997 — but it never got a response. “Israel rejected this approach out of hand,” he wrote, “viewing it as a honey trap that would allow Hamas to consolidate its strength and status until such time as it would be capable of confronting Israel in battle, with a chance of winning.”

Halevy regarded this as a serious mistake. “Is the current approach of Hamas genuine or is it a honey trap?” he asked. “Who can say?” Everything would depend on the details — but “such details cannot be pursued unless Hamas is engaged in meaningful discussion.”

Finally — and presciently, it’s now clear — he reminded his readers that refusing to talk brought risks of its own:

The Hamas leadership is by no means unanimous concerning the policies it should adopt. There are the pragmatists, the die-hard ideologues, the politicians, and the commanders in the field. All are now locked in serious debate over the future.

As long as the door to dialogue is closed, there is no doubt as to who will prevail in this continuous deliberation and soul-searching.

Organized Inhumanity

Instead of taking Halevy’s Realpolitik advice, Israel and the United States doubled down on their monster-slaying crusade. Following Hamas’s election victory, they cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority, boycotted its new government, and tried to foment an anti-Hamas coup in Gaza, using forces loyal to elements of Fatah. The coup backfired, however, and when the dust cleared in early 2007, Fatah’s forces in Gaza had been routed, leaving Hamas in full control of the Strip.

In response to that fiasco, Israel’s cabinet designated Gaza a “hostile entity” and prescribed an unprecedented tightening of its blockade, a measure officially referred to as the “closure” — an elaborate system of controls over the movement of people and goods into and out of the enclave, made possible by Israel’s continued grip over Gaza’s borders.

Prime Minister Ismail Haniya, of Hamas (L), and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, of Fatah, chair the first meeting of the previously attempted Palestinian unity government, on March 18, 2007, in the Gaza Strip.
(Abid Katib / Getty Images)

The closure of Gaza was a unique experiment — a pioneering innovation in organized inhumanity. The United Nations (UN) human rights jurist John Dugard has called it “possibly the most rigorous form of international sanctions imposed in modern times.”

To make it sustainable, the closure was crafted to allow Israel to fine-tune the level of suffering Gazans experienced. The goal, as an adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert put it, was “to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger.” Thus, on the one hand, the productive economy was comprehensively wiped out by denying it materials, fuel, and machinery. But on the other hand, Israel would try to estimate how many truckloads of food deliveries per day it would need to approve in order for the minimum caloric requirements of Gaza’s population to be met without producing famine conditions.

The phrase that Israel’s closure administrators used among themselves to summarize their objective was, “No prosperity, no development, no humanitarian crisis.” By October 7, 2023, this policy had been in place for sixteen years, and a majority of Gaza’s population could not remember a time before it.

Jamie Stern-Weiner has summarized the effects:

The unemployment rate soared to “probably the highest in the world,” four-fifths of the population were forced to rely on humanitarian assistance, three-quarters became dependent on food aid, more than half faced “acute food insecurity,” one in ten children were stunted by malnutrition, and over 96 percent of potable water became unsafe for human consumption.

The head of the United Nations (UN) agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, observed in 2008 that “Gaza is on the threshold of becoming the first territory to be intentionally reduced to a state of abject destitution, with the knowledge, acquiescence and — some would say — encouragement of the international community.”

The UN warned in 2015 that the cumulative impact of this induced “humanitarian implosion” might render Gaza “unlivable” within a half-decade. Israeli military intelligence agreed.

As time went on, Israel under Netanyahu tried to turn the closure into a tool of coercive statecraft. When Hamas was being cooperative, the restrictions were minutely eased and Gazans’ misery would ever so slightly subside. When Hamas was recalcitrant, Israel would, so to speak, put the Palestinians on a more stringent diet.

But even in the most convivial moments of the Israel-Hamas relationship, conditions in Gaza were maintained at a level of deprivation that, anywhere else, would be considered catastrophic. In the period just prior to October 7, Gazans had electricity for only half the day. Eighty percent of the population relied on humanitarian relief for basic needs, 40 percent suffered from a “severe” lack of food, and 75 percent of the population lacked access to water fit for human consumption.

That was the bad news. The good news was that Israel had recently hinted it might permit repairs to Gaza’s water desalination plants — depending on how Hamas behaved.

Bismarck in Zion

It would be wrong to compare this situation to old-style, nineteenth-century colonialism. It was much worse than that. It was more like a grotesque parody of colonialism — “no prosperity, no development, no humanitarian crisis” — a cartoonishly malevolent version of the kind of foreign domination against which “wars of national liberation” have been fought by people on every continent and in every era, and by the most gruesome means.

One can debate this or that aspect of the academic left’s discourse about Israel as a settler-colonial state. But the colonial dynamic that lies at the root of Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians is not a matter of debate; it’s a fact of history, recognized as such not just by campus social justice activists but by the leading figures of modern Zionism.

Vladimir Jabotinsky, the erudite and much misunderstood Zionist leader who posthumously became the founding father of the Israeli right (one of his closest aides, Benzion Netanyahu, was the father of the current prime minister) sought to drive home just this point in his famous 1923 essay “The Iron Wall.”

At the time, many on the Zionist left still clung to the pretense that Zionism posed no threat to the Palestinians. They dissembled in public about the movement’s ultimate aims — the creation of a state “as Jewish as England is English,” in the words of Chaim Weizmann — and, even in private, some of them professed to believe that the Jewish presence in Palestine would bring such wondrous economic blessings that the Palestinians themselves would someday be won over to the Zionist cause.

This combination of deception and self-deception put the whole Zionist venture at risk, Jabotinsky believed, and in “The Iron Wall” he set out, in exceptionally lucid and unforgiving prose, to strip away the Left’s illusions.

It’s worth quoting him at length:

My readers have a general idea of the history of colonization in other countries. I suggest that they consider all the precedents with which they are acquainted, and see whether there is one solitary instance of any colonization being carried on with the consent of the native population. There is no such precedent.

The native populations, civilized or uncivilized, have always stubbornly resisted the colonists, irrespective of whether they were civilized or savage.

And it made no difference whatever whether the colonists behaved decently or not. The companions of Cortez and Pizzaro or (as some people will remind us) our own ancestors under Joshua Ben Nun, behaved like brigands; but the Pilgrim Fathers, the first real pioneers of North America, were people of the highest morality, who did not want to do harm to anyone, least of all to the Red Indians, and they honestly believed that there was room enough in the prairies both for the Paleface and the Redskin. Yet the native population fought with the same ferocity against the good colonists as against the bad.

Every native population, civilized or not, regards its lands as its national home, of which it is the sole master, and it wants to retain that mastery always; it will refuse to admit not only new masters but even new partners or collaborators.

This is equally true of the Arabs. Our peace-mongers are trying to persuade us that the Arabs are either fools, whom we can deceive by masking our real aims, or that they are corrupt and can be bribed to abandon to us their claim to priority in Palestine, in return for cultural and economic advantages. I repudiate this conception of the Palestinian Arabs. Culturally they are five hundred years behind us, they have neither our endurance nor our determination; but they are just as good psychologists as we are, and their minds have been sharpened like ours by centuries of fine-spun logomachy.

We may tell them whatever we like about the innocence of our aims, watering them down and sweetening them with honeyed words to make them palatable, but they know what we want, as well as we know what they do not want. They feel at least the same instinctive jealous love of Palestine as the old Aztecs felt for ancient Mexico, and the Sioux for their rolling Prairies.

To imagine, as our Arabophiles do, that they will voluntarily consent to the realization of Zionism in return for the moral and material conveniences which the Jewish colonist brings with him is a childish notion, which has at bottom a kind of contempt for the Arab people; it means that they despise the Arab race, which they regard as a corrupt mob that can be bought and sold, and are willing to give up their fatherland for a good railway system.

There is no justification for such a belief. It may be that some individual Arabs take bribes. But that does not mean that the Arab people of Palestine as a whole will sell that fervent patriotism that they guard so jealously, and which even the Papuans will never sell. Every native population in the world resists colonists as long as it has the slightest hope of being able to rid itself of the danger of being colonized.

That is what the Arabs in Palestine are doing, and what they will persist in doing as long as there remains a solitary spark of hope that they will be able to prevent the transformation of “Palestine” into the “Land of Israel.”

What should the Zionists do, then, according to Jabotinsky? First, and most important, he urged the movement to build up its military strength — the “iron wall” of the essay’s title.

Second, under the shield of its armed forces, the Zionists should speed ahead with the colonization of Palestine, against the will of the indigenous Arab majority, by securing a maximum of Jewish immigration in a minimum span of time.

Once a Jewish majority had become a fait accompli (in 1923, Jews still made up only about 11 percent of Palestine’s population), it would only be a matter of time, Jabotinsky thought, before it finally penetrated the minds of the Arabs that the Jews were not going to be chased out of Palestine. Then they would see that they had no better option than to come to terms with Zionism.

And at that point, Jabotinsky concluded, “I am convinced that we Jews will be found ready to give them satisfactory guarantees” — guarantees of extensive civil, political, even national rights, within a Jewish state — “so that both peoples can live together in peace, like good neighbors.”

Whatever one thinks of the morality — or the sincerity — of Jabotinsky’s strategy in “The Iron Wall,” as Realpolitik it made eminent sense. It started from a realistic appraisal of the problem: that the Palestinians could not be expected to give up the fight to preserve their homeland. It proposed a program of focused coercive violence to frustrate their resistance. And it held out a set of assurances safeguarding key Palestinian interests in the context of an overall settlement in which the main Zionist objective would be achieved.

Whether this Bismarckian program could have “worked” (from the Zionist perspective) will never be known, however. For in the years that followed, a very different sort of scenario gained prominence in the thinking of the Zionist leadership.

This was what was known as “transfer”: a euphemism meaning the “voluntary” or involuntary physical removal of the Palestinian population from the “Land of Israel.”

In 1923, when he wrote “The Iron Wall,” Jabotinsky was firmly opposed to transfer. “I consider it utterly impossible to eject the Arabs from Palestine,” he wrote. “There will always be two nations in Palestine.” He maintained this stance quite adamantly until the final years of his life, holding firm even as support for the concept steadily spread through both the mainstream Zionist left and among his own increasingly radicalized right-wing followers.

The Israeli historian Benny Morris chronicled this doctrinal shift in his book The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem. He summarized it this way:

As Arab opposition, including violent resistance, to Zionism grew in the 1920s and 1930s, and as this opposition resulted in periodic British clampdowns on Jewish immigration, a consensus or near-consensus formed among the Zionist leaders around the idea of transfer as the natural, efficient and even moral solution to the demographic dilemma.

Thus, by 1948, Morris concluded, “transfer was in the air.”

We Will Attack and Smite the Enemy

In the early morning hours of Friday, April 9, 1948, during the conflict that Israelis call the War of Independence, 132 armed men — mostly from the Irgun, the right-wing paramilitary group that Jabotinsky had led until his death in 1940, but also a few others from a splinter-group offshoot called Lehi — entered a Palestinian village near Jerusalem with the intention of capturing it and requisitioning supplies from its inhabitants.

Six months earlier, the UN had announced its decision to partition Palestine into a Jewish state, which was to be allocated 55 percent of the territory, and a Palestinian Arab state, on the remaining 45 percent. (At the time, there were about 600,000 Jews and 1.3 million Arabs in Palestine.)

The Zionists were delighted to gain such a prize, while the Palestinians — in shock at the prospect of having more than half their homeland torn away from them — rejected the plan in its totality. In response to the announcement, a wave of civil strife between Jews and Arabs erupted, shortly escalating into all-out war.

Amid this violence, the village in question, Deir Yassin, had been faithfully respecting a truce with nearby Jewish settlements. “There was not even one incident between Deir Yassin and the Jews,” according to the local commander of the Haganah, the mainstream Zionist militia that would soon become the core of the newly created Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

Despite this, the rightist paramilitaries had made a decision to carry out the “liquidation of all the men in the village and any other force that opposed us, whether it be old people, women, or children,” according to an Irgun officer, Ben-Zion Cohen, who participated in the operation’s planning. The stated reason for this decision was that it would “show the Arabs what happens” when Jews were united and determined to fight.

(Cohen’s recollections of the operation, as well as those of several other Deir Yassin veterans, were recorded and deposited with the Jabotinsky Institute archives in Tel Aviv in the mid-1950s, where they were discovered decades later by an Israeli journalist.)

That morning, the inhabitants of Deir Yassin awoke to the sound of grenades and gunfire. Some began fleeing in their nightclothes; others scrambled for their weapons or took refuge in the homes of neighbors. The attackers’ initial battle plan quickly fell apart amid equipment failures and communication problems, and they took unexpectedly heavy casualties from the local men armed with rifles. After a few hours of fighting, a decision was made to call a retreat.

Cowering inside their homes at that moment were the Palestinian families who’d been unable to flee in time. As soon as the paramilitary commanders ordered the retreat, these villagers became the targets of the Jewish fighters’ frustrations.

What happened next was recounted by survivors to British police investigators from the Palestine Mandate’s civil administration. Twenty years later, the records of the investigation were obtained by two journalists, Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, for their bestselling 1972 book, O Jerusalem!

The survivors described scenes like the following.

Fahimi Zeidan, a twelve-year-old girl, recalled the door to her house being blasted open as she and her family hid along with members of a neighboring family. The paramilitaries took them outside. “The Jews ordered all our family to line up against the wall and they started shooting us.” After they shot an already wounded man, “one of his daughters screamed, they shot her too. They then called my brother Mahmoud and shot him in our presence, and when my mother screamed and bent over my brother (she was carrying my little sister Khadra who was still being breastfed) they shot my mother too.”

Haleem Eid, a thirty-year-old woman, testified that she saw “a man shoot a bullet into the neck of my sister Salhiyeh who was nine months pregnant. Then he cut her stomach open with a butcher’s knife.” When another village woman, Aiesch Radwas, tried to extricate the fetus from the dead mother’s womb, she was shot, too.

Zeinab Akkel recalled that she tried to save her younger brother’s life by offering the Jewish attackers all her money (about $400). One of them took the money and “then he just knocked my brother over and shot him in the head with five bullets.”

Sixteen-year-old Naaneh Khalil said she saw a man take “a kind of sword and slash my neighbor Jamil Hish from head to toe then do the same thing on the steps to my house to my cousin Fathi.”

Meir Pa’il, a Jewish Agency intelligence official who was on the scene, later described the sight of Irgun and Lehi fighters running frantically through the village, their eyes “glazed over, full of lust for murder.”

When some Irgunists discovered a house that had earlier been the source of fatal gunfire for one of their fallen comrades, they assaulted it, and nine civilians emerged in surrender. One of the paramilitaries shouted: “This is for Yiftach!” and machine-gunned them all to death.

Prisoners were loaded onto trucks and driven through the streets of Jerusalem in a “victory parade.” After a group of male villagers was paraded in this way, they were unloaded from the trucks and executed. Meir Pa’il recalled photographing roughly twenty-five men shot in firing squad formation.

According to Haganah intelligence documents, some of the villagers were taken to a nearby paramilitary base, where Lehi fighters killed one of the babies and then, when its mother fainted in shock, finished off the mother as well.

One of the British officers from the Criminal Investigation Division attached the following note to the investigation file:

I interviewed many of the women folk in order to glean some information on any atrocities committed in Deir Yassin but the majority of those women are very shy and reluctant to relate their experiences especially in matters concerning sexual assault and they need great coaxing before they will divulge any information. The recording of statements is hampered also by the hysterical state of the women who often break down many times whilst the statement is being recorded.

There is, however, no doubt that many sexual atrocities were committed by the attacking Jews. Many young school girls were raped and later slaughtered. Old women were also molested. One story is current concerning a case in which a young girl was literally torn in two. Many infants were also butchered and killed. I also saw one old woman who gave her age as one hundred and four who had been severely beaten about the head by rifle butts. Women had bracelets torn from their arms and rings from their fingers and parts of some of the women’s ears were severed in order to remove earrings.”

The next day, when Haganah forces inspected the village, one of them was shocked to find Jewish guerrillas “eating with gusto next to the bodies.” A doctor who accompanied the detachment noted that “it was clear that the attackers had gone from house to house and shot the people at close range,” adding: “I had been a doctor in the German Army for five years in World War I, but I never saw such a horrifying spectacle.”

The commander of the Jewish youth brigade sent to assist in the cleanup operation entered a number of the houses and reported finding several bodies “sexually mutilated.” A female brigade member went into shock upon discovering the corpse of a pregnant woman whose abdomen appeared to have been crushed.

The cleanup crew burned and buried the bodies in a quarry, later filling it with dirt.

As they did so, a radio broadcast could be heard in Jerusalem delivering the following message:

Accept my congratulations on this splendid act of conquest. Convey my regards to all the commanders and soldiers. We shake your hands. We are all proud of the excellent leadership and the fighting spirit in this great attack. We stand to attention in memory of the slain. We lovingly shake the hands of the wounded. Tell the soldiers: you have made history in Israel with your attack and your conquest. Continue thus until victory. As in Deir Yassin, so everywhere, we will attack and smite the enemy. God, God, Thou hast chosen us for conquest.

The voice delivering the message belonged to the Irgun’s chief commander — the future Nobel Peace Prize winner and prime minister of Israel, Menachem Begin.

Saying No to Yes

“More than any single occurrence in my memory of that difficult period, it was Deir Yassin that stood out in all its awful and intentional fearsomeness,” the late Palestinian American literary scholar Edward Said, who was twelve at the time and living in Cairo, later recalled:

The stories of rape, of children with their throats slit, mothers disemboweled, and the like. They gripped the imagination, as they were designed to do, and they impressed a young boy many miles away with the mystery of such bloodthirsty and seemingly gratuitous violence against Palestinians whose only crime seemed to be that they were there.

A different memory of Deir Yassin was conveyed by Ya’akov Meridor, a former Irgun commander, during a 1949 debate in the Israeli Knesset: to a disapproving mention of the massacre by a left-wing deputy, he retorted: “Thanks to Deir Yassin we won the war, sir!”

Because of the wide publicity it received, Deir Yassin contributed disproportionately to the terrified panic that spurred the Palestinians’ flight in 1948–49. But it was only one of several dozen massacres perpetrated by Jewish forces, most of which had been the work of the mainstream Haganah/IDF. In a few cases, the IDF appears to have matched or even exceeded the depravity of the Irgun in Deir Yassin (as, for example, at al-Dawayima in October 1948).

Palestinian refugees fleeing in October–November 1948. (Wikimedia Commons)

The radicalized heirs of Jabotinsky delighted in reminding the Left of these details. “How many Deir Yassins have you [the Left] been responsible for?” another rightist deputy interjected. “If you don’t know, you can ask the Minister of Defense.” (The minister of defense was David Ben-Gurion, who’d been kept abreast of the atrocities perpetrated by his troops during the war.)

The result was that, by mid-1949, the majority of the Palestinian population had fled for their lives or been expelled from their homes by Jewish forces and were living now as refugees beyond the borders of Palestine. Their abandoned villages would be bulldozed, and they would never be allowed to return. Israel, meanwhile, had expanded its control in Palestine from the 55 percent of the land awarded to it in 1947 by the UN to the 78 percent of the 1949 armistice lines.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the Arab states and Palestinian organizations were unanimous in declaring Israel an illegitimate “Zionist entity” that would be dismantled and destroyed when Palestine was finally liberated. Until then, Arab governments were to have no contacts with Israel of any kind — even purely economic — on penalty of ostracism from the rest of the Arab world. This stance was affirmed and reaffirmed, year after year, in speeches, diplomatic texts, and Arab League communiqués.

But Israel spent these years patiently tending to its iron wall, so that by 1967, when a second general Arab-Israeli war arrived, the wall was so impregnable that Israel was able to defeat the combined forces of all its adversaries in less than a week, conquering vast expanses of Egyptian, Jordanian, and Syrian territory.

From that moment on, the rules of the conflict changed. There was only one feasible way for the Arab states to regain their conquered territories, and that was by coming to terms with the conqueror. Moshe Dayan, Israel’s defense minister, captured the essence of the situation in a laconic remark made three days after the war’s end. “We are quite pleased with what we have now. If the Arabs desire any change, they should call us.”

With the brute physics of military compulsion now forcing the Arabs to rethink their long-held attitude toward the Jewish state, Israel had a unique opportunity to finally pursue the Bismarckian type of settlement that Jabotinsky had advocated fifty years earlier (albeit in a very different context).

But for reasons originating in both the traumas of Jewish history and the political circumstances of the post-1967 world, Israel was unable to do it. Since the war, its political culture — on the Left and the Right, among the secular as well as the religious — had become suffused with a messianic belief in the imperative of Jewish territorial expansion and the illegitimacy of territorial compromise. Israelis clung to a concept of “absolute security” (in Kissinger’s sense) that over the years would drive them into a series of military disasters, most notably the 1982 “incursion” into Lebanon, which was supposed to last a few weeks but ended up dragging on for almost two decades. And a grossly distorted mental image of Israel’s Arab neighbors was cultivated in the nation’s collective psyche, based on the self-fulfilling prophecy of eternal enmity driven by a timeless hatred of Jews.

The mentality was acutely captured by Joshua Cohen in his 2021 novel, The Netanyahus, a fictionalized account of a 1960 sojourn by Benzion Netanyahu and his young family (including a young Binyamin) to a bucolic American college town for a faculty job interview.

At one point in the book, a fellow Israeli academic assesses the work of Netanyahu père, who was a scholar of medieval Jewish history:

[There] comes a point in nearly every text he produces where it emerges that the true phenomenon under discussion is not anti-Semitism in Early Medieval Lorraine or Late Medieval Iberia but rather anti-Semitism in twentieth-century Nazi Germany; and suddenly a description of how a specific tragedy affected a specific diaspora becomes a diatribe about the general tragedy of the Jewish Diaspora, and how that Diaspora must end — as if history should not describe, but prescribe — in the founding of the State of Israel.

I am not certain whether this politicization of Jewish suffering would have the same impact on American academia as it had on ours, but, in any milieu, connecting Crusader-era pogroms with the Iberian Inquisitions with the Nazi Reich must be adjudged as exceeding the bounds of sloppy analogy, to assert a cyclicity of Jewish history that approaches dangerously close to the mystical.

The paradoxical result of all this was that the more powerful Israel became, the more power it felt it needed, and the more concessions it extracted from its enemies, the more concessions it required. Jabotinsky had advised the Zionist movement to build up its military strength in order to frustrate its adversaries’ attacks — and Israel became quite adept at this. But absent external duress, it could never bring itself to clinch the culminating step of Jabotinsky’s Bismarckian program: the ultimate accommodation with the defeated enemy.

Put another way, Israel couldn’t take yes for an answer.

In February 1971, Anwar Sadat, the new president of Egypt, the largest and most powerful Arab state, became the first Arab leader to declare his willingness to sign a peace treaty with Israel. He would do so, he said, if Israel committed to withdraw from Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and agree to a negotiated resolution of the Palestinian issue.

Eventually, Sadat’s persistence in seeking an agreement with Israel paid off: through the good offices of Jimmy Carter, an Egyptian-Israeli agreement on the terms of a peace treaty was signed at Camp David in 1978 — for which Sadat shared the 1978 Nobel Peace Prize — and Israel handed back Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula in stages, ending in 1982.

But it would take eight years, a region-wide war, a US-Soviet standoff that brought the world close to nuclear Armageddon, and a spectacular diplomatic gesture on Sadat’s part — his astonishing 1977 visit to Jerusalem, which led directly to his assassination by Islamic extremists four years later — to overcome Israeli obstructionism and make an Egyptian-Israeli agreement a reality.

For two years following his February 1971 initiative, Sadat fruitlessly tried to advance his peace proposal in the face of Israel’s contemptuous rejection. (In those days, the Israeli sociologist Uri Ben-Eliezer writes, Sadat was still “depicted in Israel as an ignorant Egyptian peasant and a target for mockery.”) By spring 1973, he’d decided that his diplomatic avenues were exhausted, and he resolved to go to war to recover Egypt’s lost territory.

Sadat knew that Egypt couldn’t reconquer the territories in battle. His plan, in essence, was a barroom brawler’s stratagem: he would start a fight with his stronger opponent, quickly get in a few good blows, and then count on onlookers — in this case the United States and the Soviet Union — to step in and break up the scuffle before too much damage could be done. By creating a Cold War crisis, he intended to force the United States, the only power with any leverage over Israel, to drag the Israelis to the negotiating table.

His brilliantly executed surprise attack of October 6, 1973, secretly coordinated with Syria, served its purpose. It caught Israel unaware and unprepared, triggering a national crisis of confidence whose reverberations would be felt throughout Israeli society for years to come. It led to a US-Soviet confrontation that came close to the point of nuclear escalation. And it forced the United States to begin the process of nudging Israel in the direction of a settlement.

Looking back on this sequence of events in his memoirs decades later, the Israeli elder statesman Shimon Peres, not wanting to cast judgment on the decisions of his former colleagues (he’d been a junior minister in government in 1971–73), wrote cautiously about Sadat’s rejected prewar peace terms: “It is hard to judge today whether peace with Sadat might have been possible at that time on the terms that were eventually agreed to five years later.”

But other officials from that era have been less reserved. “I truly believe that it was a historic mistake” to have spurned Sadat’s 1971 overture, wrote Eytan Bentsur, a top aide to then foreign minister Abba Eban, in a judgment now echoed by many Israeli and American analysts. “History will judge if an opportunity had not been missed — one which would have prevented the Yom Kippur War and foreshadowed the peace with Egypt” at Camp David.

“Do Not Be Fooled by Wily Sadat”

If Sadat’s 1971 proposal was killed by negatives quietly conveyed via confidential diplomatic channels, it also fell victim, in the public sphere, to a deeply entrenched mental tic in Western discourse on the Middle East: the reflex of construing any given Arab peace proposal as a trick secretly designed to achieve not peace but the destruction of Israel.

How a peace initiative can even be a trick, and what anyone could hope to gain by announcing a “trick peace proposal,” are questions that lack obvious answers. But to this day, the legend of the “fake Arab peace initiative” continues to exert a powerful psychological hold over many Western and Israeli observers.

For example, shortly after Sadat publicized his 1971 peace offer, the diplomatic historian A. J. P. Taylor — the most famous British historian of his time — warned in a newspaper commentary that the Egyptian leader was attempting an elaborate ruse. “Do not be fooled by wily Sadat,” Taylor cautioned. The telltale clue that exposed Sadat’s real intentions, according to the scholar, was his insistence on the return of all occupied Egyptian territory, including the strategically important city of Sharm el-Shaikh.

Taylor was certain that Sharm el-Shaikh was “a place of no use or importance to Egypt” aside from its dominating position at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba. If Sadat wanted it back so badly, that could only mean one thing: he wasn’t really seeking peace; he “merely wants to be in a position to strangle Israel again.”

Obviously, history has not been kind to that conjecture. Fifty-two years later, Sharm el-Shaikh is an upscale resort town, the jewel of Egypt’s tourism industry. An Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty has been in force for more than four decades and has never been breached, by either side. Israel, needless to say, remains unstrangled.

The mentality of Israel’s Western publicists grew more and more detached from reality in this way, with world events interpreted through the increasingly distorted lens of Zionist demonology. A 1973 editorial in what was then the largest-circulation Jewish newspaper in the United States, New York Jewish Week, is illustrative. At that moment, a UN Middle East peace conference was getting underway in Geneva, and there had recently been a spate of press commentary cautiously suggesting that perhaps Sadat might really want peace with Israel after all.

The editorialists of Jewish Week had a question for such naïfs: Had they learned nothing from Hitler?

The Arab leaders have told us that their aims are quite limited. They say they merely want to regain the territories that Israel conquered in 1967. Then they will be satisfied and recognize Israel, to live in peace forever after.

Had Chamberlain and Daladier read “Mein Kampf” and heeded its warnings, they would have known that Hitler was dissembling [about] his real aims.

Were the gullible editors and statesmen who believe the Arab protestations of limited war objectives to read the unrepudiated war aims of the Arab leaders who now profess moderation, they would know that the Yom Kippur War and the subsequent Arab peace offensive were right out of the Munich betrayal.

With the benefit of hindsight and the enormous condescension of posterity, it’s all too easy to laugh at this kind of hysteria. Surely, after fifty years, the jury is in, and we can now say with certainty that no Middle Eastern Czechoslovakia has fallen victim to the battalions of the Egyptian Wehrmacht.

But exactly the same reasoning and rhetoric are routinely deployed today, only now with Hamas replacing Anwar Sadat’s Egypt as the epicenter of the looming Fourth Reich — a dream-logic montage of history in which an interchangeable chorus of Hitlerian Arabs “professes moderation” at an uncannily Munich-like Geneva (or is it a Geneva-like Oslo?) in order to dupe gullible Westerners about their genocidal intentions.

In fairness to the editorialists of Jewish Week, it should be recalled that Sadat — whose saintly memory as a peacemaker is venerated today by everyone in official Washington, from earnest White House speechwriters to flag-pinned congressional yahoos — routinely indulged in antisemitic invective of a virulence that would never be heard from the top leaders of Hamas today.

In a 1972 speech, he called the Jews “a nation of liars and traitors, contrivers of plots, a people born for deeds of treachery” and said that “the most splendid thing that the Prophet Mohammad did was to drive them out of the whole of the Arabian peninsula.” For good measure, he promised that he would “never conduct direct negotiations” with the Jews. (Reader, he did.)

Nor did Sadat hesitate to verbally evoke the destruction of Israel when it suited him; he did so routinely, including in a June 1971 speech to his ruling Arab Socialist Union party — just four months after his February 1971 peace initiative — in which he declared that the battle of the Arab people against the “Zionist invasion” would continue for generations, even after the “restoration of our occupied land.”

There were two contrasting ways of interpreting this sort of rhetoric from Sadat. On the one hand, there was the approach taken by the editorialists of the English-language Jerusalem Post — a publication deeply in thrall to the legend of the Arab peace fake-out — who gleefully declared that Sadat’s speech had “pulled off the mask of the peace-seeker, to show the true face of the warmonger.” His peace initiative of four months earlier had thereby been exposed as “a calculated fraud.”

But how did the editorialists know it was the February peace proposal that was the fraud and not the June war threat? And if the peace proposal was a “calculated fraud,” why would Sadat expose his own calculated fraud? The Arab-peace-fake-out theory has always had this tendency to run itself into a logical ditch.

An alternative interpretation could be found in a rival Israeli newspaper, Al HaMishmar, the organ of the small, far-left Mapam party, which proposed a much more believable explanation for Sadat’s bellicose rhetoric. The paper simply pointed out that his oration had been an election speech, delivered at a party conference. Most likely, the paper suggested — in the skeptical spirit of clear-eyed Realpolitik — it had just been a bit of electioneering.

Al HaMishmar was right, of course, and the Jerusalem Post was wrong. Sadat’s peace proposal was not a fraud, and the theory of the Sadat peace fake-out had no truth to it.

But, more important, it was the opposite of the truth.

Recall that Sadat’s position was that he was willing to make peace with Israel, but only on the condition that Israel withdraw from the occupied territories and accept a just solution to the Palestinian question. To Arab audiences, he promised again and again that he would always insist on both — that he would never stoop to anything so dishonorable, so treacherous, as making a separate peace with Israel that failed to address the plight of the suffering Palestinians.

However, in the end, that’s exactly what he did. At Camp David in 1978, when he found himself unable to extract any substantive concessions from Israel on the Palestine file, he yielded to the superior force of Israel’s iron wall and signed an agreement that restored Egypt’s lost territory while offering little more than a fig-leaf gesture toward the Palestinians. (The agreement pledged that Egypt and Israel would continue negotiations on Palestinian “autonomy” under Israeli sovereignty; the brief trickle of pro forma negotiations that followed quickly petered out, as expected.)

President Jimmy Carter shaking hands with Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin at the signing of the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty at the White House, 1979. (Wikimedia Commons)

The defection of Egypt, the strongest Arab state, from the Arab coalition was a historic disaster for the Palestinian movement, from which it arguably never recovered.

Which means that if Sadat had, in fact, been harboring any dark thoughts in the back of his mind when he put forward his 1971 peace proposal, what they amounted to was not a secret plan to bring about the destruction of the Jewish state, as erroneously proclaimed by Taylor and the American Jewish press and a cavalcade of witting and unwitting propagandists from the pages of Reader’s Digest to the platforms of Meet the Press.

What Sadat was actually concealing was his shamefaced readiness to countenance the defeat of the Palestinian cause.

Which is how it came to be that Menachem Begin, thirty years after proclaiming, “As in Deir Yassin, so everywhere, we will attack and smite the enemy,” and Sadat, seven years after declaring that he would “never conduct direct negotiations” with Israel but would strive to bring about its “complete destruction,” could stand together on the White House lawn and warmly shake hands while a beaming Jimmy Carter looked on.

That was Realpolitik in action.

“The Language of Lies and Treason”

At that moment, the man who would become the moving spirit behind the creation of Hamas — a forty-three-year-old quadriplegic Gazan named Ahmed Yassin — was on the cusp of an astonishing political ascendancy.

At the time of the Camp David Accords, politics in Israeli-occupied Gaza revolved around two poles. On the Left, there was a constellation of forces grouped around the physician Haidar Abdel-Shafi, a former communist, and his local branch of the Palestine Red Crescent Society. These included the feminist and labor leader Yusra al-Barbari of the General Union of Palestinian Women; Fayez Abu Rahmeh of the Gaza Bar Association, which aided Gazan political prisoners; and Mousa Saba, the head of the Gaza chapter of the YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association), which hosted summer camps and discussion seminars for Palestinians of all faiths. Abdel-Shafi, who’d been a founding member of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in the 1960s, was an early proponent of a two-state settlement in which an independent Palestinian state would coexist alongside Israel.

The other pole centered on the Gaza branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which had been founded in 1946. Yassin, a pious schoolteacher with a thin voice who’d been paralyzed in a sports accident as a child, joined the Brotherhood early on and in the 1960s began attracting a devoted local following for his charismatic lay preaching.

At the end of the 1960s, the local Brotherhood was at a low ebb, its membership no more than a few dozen. But over the course of the 1970s, Yassin and his band of followers would embark on an energetic organizing campaign whose institutional expression was what they called the “Mujama al-Islamiya” (the Islamic “Center,” or “Collective”), a network of religious schools, community centers, children’s nurseries, and the like.

Throughout this process of institution-building, Yassin and his followers rigorously kept their distance from anti-Israel violence — or indeed nationalist agitation of any kind. Jean-Pierre Filiu, a French Arabist scholar and author of a magisterial history of Gaza, writes that Yassin “adhered to the Brotherhood’s moralizing line that prioritized spiritual revival over active militancy.” In Yassin’s view, “the Palestinians had lost Palestine because they were not sufficiently Muslim — it was only by returning to the sources of their faith and to their daily duties as Muslims that they would ultimately be able to recover their land and their rights.”

In a significant political gesture, the Israeli military governor in Gaza attended the 1973 inauguration ceremony of the Jura al-Shams mosque, the central hub and showpiece of the Mujama. As late as 1986, an Israeli governor of Gaza, General Yitzhak Segev, could explain that Israel was giving “financial aid to Islamic groups via mosques and religious schools in order to help create a force that would stand against the leftist forces which support the PLO.”

Occasionally, these connections attracted accusations from PLO partisans that Yassin and his men were puppets or stooges of the Israelis. But the Islamists’ tacit nonaggression pact with the occupier was not the product of manipulation; it reflected a coincidence of interests — an expression of Realpolitik on both sides.

What really drove Yassin and his followers, above all else, was their vision of “Islamization from below”: the creation of a society in which every individual could choose to be a good Muslim and be surrounded by institutions that would nurture that choice. That was the essence of the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideology everywhere, and like the US religious right, its exponents were highly adaptable when it came to the means by which to advance it. American fundamentalists might alternately burn Beatles records or sponsor Christian rock festivals, build suburban megachurches or preach with long hair in hippie conventicles. The Islamists of Gaza would approach their mission with a similar flexibility.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the ethos of the Mujama was defined by a vehement rejection of all politics (“the language of lies and treason,” they liked to say) in favor of priorities like family, education, and a return to traditional mores. Hence the Islamists’ adamancy about abstaining from the national struggle — a choice that had the added benefit of shielding their project from harassment by the Israeli military authorities.

The men of the Mujama were not above using violence against other Palestinians in pursuit of their objectives: in a moment of hubris amid the wave of Arab revulsion at Sadat’s peace treaty, Yassin’s forces tried to take on the local left — “the communists,” “the atheists,” as they contemptuously called all their left-wing rivals — by running a candidate against Abdel-Shafi in elections to the presidency of the Red Crescent Society.

When the Islamist candidate lost in a landslide, “several hundred Islamist demonstrators expressed their anger on 7 January 1980 by ransacking the Red Crescent offices, before moving on to cafés, cinemas, and drinking establishments in the town center,” Filiu reports. (The Israeli army conspicuously refrained from intervening.) In the 1980s, Gaza would be the scene of a vicious and at times violent campaign by the Islamists to impose “modest” dress on women.

It was only after the outbreak of the First Intifada at the very end of 1987 — a spontaneous and massive popular uprising over which PLO cadres quickly assumed leadership — that Yassin overruled his divided advisers and made a strategic decision to join the struggle against Israel.

Amid the explosion of mass strikes and boycotts, stone-throwing demonstrations and confrontations with Israeli soldiers, the men of the Mujama saw which way the wind was blowing. They had a product to sell, and it was obvious what their target market wanted. In contradiction to everything they had preached over the previous decade, they began issuing anonymous leaflets calling on the faithful to resist the occupation. Soon they started signing the leaflets “the Islamic Resistance Movement,” whose Arabic initials spell “Hamas.”

Almost overnight, the notorious quietists of Gaza’s religious right, once ridiculed and condemned by Palestinian nationalists for sitting out the anti-Israel struggle, transformed themselves into armed guerrillas.

By the time of the 1993 Oslo Accords, they had become the unlikely standard-bearers of uncompromising Palestinian nationalism.

Arafat Says Uncle

If the Oslo Accords signing ceremony in 1993 looked like a restaging of the earlier handshake on the White House lawn — a new production of an old play, with Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin in the Sadat and Begin roles, and Bill Clinton typecast as the new Jimmy Carter — that was not the only resemblance between Camp David and Oslo.

Both agreements were by-products of Israel’s congenital inability to take yes for an answer.

If the “yes” in Egypt’s case came in 1971, when Sadat first signaled his willingness to recognize Israel, the “yes” of Yasser Arafat’s PLO was first delivered in December 1973, just before the Geneva peace conference, when Arafat sent a secret message to Washington:

The Palestine Liberation Organization in no way seeks the destruction of Israel, but accepts its existence as a sovereign state; the PLO’s main aim at the Geneva conference will be the creation of a Palestinian state out of the “Palestinian part of Jordan” [i.e., the West Bank and East Jerusalem] plus Gaza.

But Arafat’s private declaration brought no change in the PLO’s formal, public position: officially, the group remained committed, in the words of the 1968 PLO charter, to “the elimination of Zionism in Palestine.”

The reason for this discrepancy stemmed from the fact that “recognizing Israel” meant something very different for the Palestinians than it had for Egypt.

Sadat’s peace initiative had proposed trading recognition of Israel for a full restoration of Egypt’s territorial integrity. For the Palestinians, by contrast, recognition of Israel was tantamount in and of itself to a signing away of their right to 78 percent of their homeland’s territory. What for Egypt had been merely a humbling political concession to a regional military rival was, for the Palestinians, an existential act of renunciation.

Arafat believed the Palestinian masses would nevertheless support such a sacrifice — but only as part of a historic compromise in which recognition of the loss of 78 percent of Palestine would be compensated by assurances that the remaining 22 percent would become a Palestine state.

He therefore adopted what might be called his “American strategy.” For the next fifteen years, Arafat chased the prize of a dialogue with the United States, hoping to strike a deal: in exchange for a formal, public PLO commitment to recognize Israel, Washington would publicly commit to work for Palestinian statehood and apply the necessary pressure on Israel.

The PLO leader pitched this concept to any American who would listen. In a 1976 conversation with a visiting US senator in Beirut, Arafat “said that before he was able to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist as an independent state he must have something to show his people,” a US embassy dispatch reported to State Department headquarters in Washington. “This something could be Israeli withdrawal of a ‘few kilometers’ in the Gaza Strip and on the West Bank,” with a UN force taking control of the evacuated territory.

Israel acted quickly to foil Arafat’s strategy. In 1975, it extracted from Secretary of State Henry Kissinger a signed memorandum of agreement in which Kissinger pledged that the United States would not “negotiate with the Palestine Liberation Organization so long as the Palestine Liberation Organization does not recognize Israel’s right to exist.” By making PLO recognition of Israel a precondition for dialogue with the United States, the agreement ruled out any scenario in which recognition might be granted in exchange for US commitments.

Kissinger had no qualms about signing away his ability to talk to the PLO. He was convinced that nothing could come of such talks — not because the Palestinians were rejectionists but because the Israelis were. “Once [the PLO] are in the peace process,” he told a meeting of US Middle East ambassadors in June 1976, “they’ll raise all the issues the Israelis can’t handle” — the issues of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem.

According to Kissinger, anyone foolish enough to think a US administration could use its leverage to force Israel to concede on those issues “totally underestimates what it involves in taking on the [Israel] lobby. They never hit you on the issue; you have to fight ten other issues — your credibility, everything.” In short, “We cannot deliver the minimum demands of the PLO, so why talk to them?”

As soon as Kissinger’s memorandum was signed, Israel’s fixers and propagandists went to work transforming it from a mere understanding between foreign ministers into a sacrosanct totem of domestic politics, to which every ambitious US politician had to genuflect. In the 1980 presidential election, all four major candidates — Ted Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, John Anderson, and Ronald Reagan — tried to outdo one another in anathematizing the PLO and promising not to talk to it.

This time the ideological Wurlitzer had to be cranked up to eleven: it wasn’t enough to portray the PLO as a group that currently rejected Israel’s existence (which, if anything, might serve as an argument in favor of US contacts with the group — to try to persuade it to change its stance).

Rather, the PLO had to be depicted as incapable of accepting Israel’s existence, or of coexisting with Jews at all. In the popular phrase of the time, endlessly repeated or paraphrased by ostensibly factual news organizations like the Associated Press and the New York Times, the PLO was an organization “sworn to Israel’s destruction.” Or, as Exodus author Leon Uris — the Homer of American Zionism, its bard and ur-mythologist — put it in a 1976 open letter: the PLO was “emotionally and constitutionally bound to the liquidation of Jewish existence in the Middle East.”

Top US officials were forced to ritually repeat this fiction — that the PLO was bent on Israel’s destruction — even though they knew firsthand that it wasn’t true. “We have to consider what the parties’ position is,” Jimmy Carter’s secretary of state, Edmund Muskie, said in June 1980, defending the United States’ increasingly isolated stance opposing PLO involvement in peace talks, “and the PLO’s position is that it is not interested in a negotiated settlement with Israel. It is interested only in Israel’s extinction.”

Meanwhile, privately, the CIA had been telling the State Department that, far from refusing to recognize Israel, the PLO was internally debating what to demand in exchange for recognition: “Despite efforts by Fatah moderates [such as Arafat] to convince the rest of the [PLO] leadership that a dialogue with the US entails sufficient long range benefits to justify [recognizing Israel], the PLO leadership remains largely convinced that it must demand more than just talks with the US before giving up what it considers to be its only major ‘card’ in the negotiating process.”

Prime Minister Ehud Barak of Israel and Chairman Yasser Arafat of the Palestinian Authority shake hands at a trilateral meeting at the US ambassador’s residence in Oslo, Norway, November 1999. (Wikimedia Commons)

Like A. J. P. Taylor’s musings about Anwar Sadat, the assessments of the PLO that prevailed in that era have aged poorly. Far from proving “emotionally and constitutionally bound to the liquidation of Jewish existence in the Middle East,” the PLO today not only recognizes Israel, it has a leader, Mahmoud Abbas, whose policy of “security coordination” with the occupation authorities is considered so indispensable to the Israeli army that the country’s lobbyists and diplomats have to periodically remind confused right-wing Republicans that they actually want the United States to keep funding the Palestinian security forces.

Abbas, whose endless concessions to Israel have consigned him to political irrelevance among his own people, has spent the past decade begging for a NATO occupation of the West Bank — an odd way to go about pursuing the “liquidation of Jewish existence in the Middle East.”

Finally, in 1988, Arafat caved. In exile in Tunisia following the PLO’s bloody expulsion from Lebanon, he pushed the Palestinian National Council (PNC) for a unilateral recognition of Israel with no assurance that any movement toward a Palestinian state would be forthcoming. In his memoirs, then Secretary of State George Shultz gleefully summed up the episode this way: “Arafat finally said ‘Uncle.'”

Israel had at last received its “yes” from the Palestinians, signed, witnessed, and notarized. But it had no effect whatsoever on either the US or the Israeli attitude toward Palestinian statehood.

More than thirty years later, the Palestinian decision of 1988 — which called for peace between an Israel on 78 percent of the land and a Palestinian state on 22 percent — remains an offer on the table, one that no Israeli government has ever expressed a willingness to touch.

Had Arafat stopped there, the Palestinians, in diplomatic terms, would have been positioned as advantageously as could be expected given the circumstances.

Instead, he made a tragic, historic error. He went further than “yes.”

In 1992, fearful of being sidelined from the post–Gulf War flurry of Middle East diplomacy, Arafat secretly authorized back-channel talks in Oslo with representatives of the newly elected Israeli government of Yitzhak Rabin, in the course of which he agreed to concessions that, once made public, were met with outrage and disbelief by the most alert Palestinian observers.

In the Oslo Accords, Arafat not only reaffirmed the PLO’s recognition of Israel without any reciprocal Israeli recognition of Palestinian statehood — or even any mention of the possibility of statehood — he conceded to Israel a veto over Palestinian statehood (“The PLO . . . declares that all outstanding issues relating to permanent status will be resolved through negotiations”).

Not only did Arafat renounce the use of force against Israel — unilaterally, with no reciprocation — and agree to suppress resistance to the occupation on Israel’s behalf, he did so with no commitment from the occupiers to stop confiscating Palestinian land to expand Jewish settlements, roads, or military installations.

The Palestinian-American historian Rashid Khalidi has called Arafat’s move “a resounding, historic mistake, one with grave consequences for the Palestinian people.” Edward Said labeled it “an instrument of Palestinian surrender, a Palestinian Versailles.” Haidar Abdel-Shafi, who headed the official Palestinian delegation to the US-sponsored post–Gulf War peace talks, condemned the deal and its “terrible sacrifices,” calling it “in itself an indication of the terrible disarray in which the Palestinians find themselves.” Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian national poet and author of the 1988 Declaration of Independence, resigned from the PLO leadership in protest.

One of the most underappreciated facts about the Oslo agreement, as the quotes above attest, is that among its most vehement Palestinian critics were not just the opponents of the two-state solution but its most committed and long-standing supporters — those like Khalidi, Said, Darwish, or Shafi, who as far back as the early 1970s had taken what was then the lonely step of urging a Palestinian reckoning with the bitter verdict of 1948.

Truth and Consequences

“We learned the lesson of Oslo,” Khaled Meshaal, the Qatar-based head of Hamas’s external politburo, told a reporter from the French daily Le Figaro in late December. “In 1993 Arafat recognized Israel, which gave him nothing in return.”

He contrasted Arafat’s blunder with what he portrayed as Hamas’s shrewder balancing act. In 2017, the group adopted a new charter — a project Meshaal personally spearheaded — which embraced a two-state solution and excised the antisemitic language and apocalyptic bellicosity of the original 1988 founding statement.

But it did so, he stressed, “without mention of recognition of Israel by Hamas.”

Meshaal “suggests that when the ‘time comes’ — that is, with the creation of a Palestinian state — the question of recognizing Israel will be examined,” Le Figaro reported. “But since not everyone in Hamas is in agreement, he doesn’t want to go any further.”

Hamas’s top political leadership had spent the years leading up to October 7 trying to position Hamas as a respectable diplomatic interlocutor, one that could someday succeed where Arafat had failed in clinching Palestinian statehood. All of that came crashing down with the atrocities of October 7, leaving observers perplexed about what exactly had happened, and why.

Almost immediately there were murmurings among diplomats, journalists, and intelligence officials about some kind of split within Hamas. But only occasionally was the case stated as bluntly as it was by Hugh Lovatt, an expert on Palestinian politics at the European Council on Foreign Relations, who was quoted in late October saying: “The brutal violence deployed by Hamas against Israeli civilians represents a power grab by radicals in the military wing, cornering political moderates who advocated dialogue and compromise.”

Over the last two weeks, more details have surfaced.

In a December report for the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Ehud Yaari, an Israeli specialist on Arab politics with close ties to the country’s security establishment, wrote about “Growing Internal Tensions Between Hamas Leaders,” citing “extensive private conversations with numerous regional sources.”

“The specific details of the [October 7] attack,” Yaari reported, “appear to have come as a complete surprise to [Hamas chairman Ismail] Haniyeh and the rest of the external leadership.” They had given approval for a cross-border attack, but not like the one that ended up being carried out.

Only a “core group of commanders” had been involved in the detailed planning for October 7, Yaari reported. These included Hamas’s Gaza strongman Yahya Sinwar, plus two top commanders of the military wing (known as the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades), one of whom is Sinwar’s brother Mohammed.

It was this group, Yaari alleges, that at the last minute inserted new orders — to “murder as many civilians as possible, capture hostages, and destroy Israeli towns” — into the battle plan. The plan was withheld from Hamas’s field commanders “until a few hours before the operation.” (The October 7 operation was a joint action carried out by a coalition of forces from a number of different Palestinian armed factions, not just Hamas.)

“The scope and brutality of the attack triggered criticism from external leaders” of Hamas, Yaari wrote, some of whom “sharply condemned Sinwar’s ‘megalomaniac’ search for grandeur” in “private conversations.”

The last-minute changes to the battle plan might help to explain the surprising variation in victims’ testimonies about the attackers’ behavior. In an article published in Haaretz in December, for example, a resident of the Nahal Oz kibbutz, Lishay Idan, recounted her family’s ordeal and told of how, at Nahal Oz, “very strange things happened.”

“A terrorist wearing camouflage and a green headband, who looked like he was in charge, told the hostages he was from Hamas’ military wing and it didn’t harm civilians. ‘They said they were only looking for soldiers and they didn’t harm women and children,’ Idan said.” Even as acts of extreme brutality were being committed against civilians by other attackers in the area, she explained, these particular fighters behaved differently.

“It’s no simple thing for me to say this,” she concluded, “but it seems the cells that came to our kibbutz were better focused. . . . In some cases they took humanitarian considerations into account.” They “brought us a blanket and pillows and told us to put the children to sleep,” and when her child needed to be fed, they “asked me to write down exactly where [a bottle of baby formula] was in the house” next door. “Lishay wrote it in Hebrew,” the article recounts, “the terrorists used Google Translate, and off they went.”

A few other October 7 victims have recounted similarly discordant testimonies.

Currently, top Hamas leaders are engaged in intensive “day-after” discussions with counterparts from Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party about the prospects for a national unity agreement — possibly including the long-discussed scenario of Hamas’s accession to the PLO, the recognized international representative body of the Palestinian people.

According to Yaari, these talks are now exacerbating the split between Sinwar and the rest of the Hamas leadership:

When reports of these talks reached Sinwar, he told Haniyeh that he considers this conduct “outrageous,” demanded that all contacts with the PLO and dissident Fatah factions be discontinued, and insisted that no consultations or statements on the “morning after” take place until a permanent ceasefire is reached.

The external leadership has ignored Sinwar’s directive, however.

A source who spoke to Le Figaro — a knowledgeable “Gazan notable” — went even further, claiming that “Israel isn’t alone in wanting [Sinwar] to lose. His friends in the political wing in Qatar and the Qataris themselves wouldn’t be unhappy if he were killed by Israel.”

In a different world — a world where Israel preferred peace to conquest — one could imagine some devious Bismarck-like leader in Jerusalem watching over these machinations like a chess player, plotting to split Hamas, isolate the irreconcilables, and make a deal with a Palestinian national unity front.

Or one could imagine, perhaps, some international mediator coming along to propose an agreement in which Israel would withdraw to its 1967 borders in exchange for, say, Hamas consenting to the destruction of its Gaza tunnels under UN supervision.

Would Hamas agree to such a plan? Who can say? But it’s easy to guess what Netanyahu’s response would be.

A decade ago, US Secretary of State John Kerry dispatched a team of US military advisers to Jerusalem to work out a plan that might satisfy Israel’s security concerns in the event of a peace agreement with the Palestinians and an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank.

Netanyahu refused to let his generals cooperate with the American visitors.

“You understand the significance of an American security plan that is acceptable to us?” Netanyahu asked his defense minister. “At that moment we’ll have to start talking borders.”

Such are the consequences of Israel’s decades-long quest for Lebensraum. Repelled by the thought of security without conquest, terrified of “talking borders,” and encircled by enemies of its own making, a cornered Israel has finally absolved itself of its last moral obligation. It no longer feels bound to accept its neighbors’ physical existence. Whatever happens next, Israel will share responsibility with its accomplices.