Do we need another history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Most Americans, even those who care about the subject, would probably say no. For one thing, most Americans already know what they think. Israel/Palestine is the foreign policy equivalent of abortion. The debate is vicious but predictable, and in the American political mainstream its contours haven’t changed much in a quarter-century. In the Trump era, moreover, Americans don’t care as much. Conservatives pay less attention to the security of Israel’s borders and more to the security of America’s. Liberals are too worried about the survival of democracy in the United States to focus on its survival in the Jewish state.
Given these realities, even an Israel/Palestine book with a mind-bending thesis would struggle to command attention. And Ian Black’s new history of the conflict, “Enemies and Neighbors: Arabs and Jews in Palestine and Israel, 1917-2017,” isn’t mind-bending. Its central theme is that Zionism and Palestinian nationalism were irreconcilable from the start, but that ordinary Jews and Palestinians have interacted in creative ways nonetheless. If you find that argument plausible, it’s most likely because you’ve heard it before.
But if “Enemies and Neighbors” breaks no conceptual ground, it has other merits. It’s a good read. Black, a longtime correspondent and editor for The Guardian of London, has a gift for summary. He synopsizes events in sharp, fast paragraphs filled with vivid detail. And by largely avoiding the international politics of the conflict, he keeps a tight focus on events on the ground. In describing the communal violence that broke out in 1929, for instance, he notes that Arabs from the village of Qaluniya attacked their Jewish neighbors in Motza, killing every member of the Maklef family except 9-year-old Mordechai. He survived by jumping out a window and went on to become the Israeli Defense Forces’ second chief of staff.
Black also shows how certain dynamics recurred again and again across the decades. He notices that from the early days of Zionist immigration, Jews relied on Palestinian labor to help build the state that Palestinians opposed. In 1889, he notes, Zichron Yaakov, an early agricultural settlement comprising 200 Jews, employed 1,200 Arab laborers. Almost a century later, after Israel took control of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the Six Day War, an Israeli sociologist noted that “at night the campus” of Tel Aviv University “is like a big dormitory for Palestinian workers.” In the 1990s, after Benjamin Netanyahu’s government responded to Palestinian terrorism by restricting movement from the occupied territories into Israel proper, a Palestinian complained that “most of the people in our village want to be connected to Israel [and to] have the opportunity to work in Israel.” Zionism’s need for Palestinian labor, and the willingness of many Palestinians to provide it, fits comfortably into neither the Zionist nor Palestinian nationalist narrative. But Black weaves it into his.
And Black notices that from the beginning, Zionists tried to bypass the Palestinians by dealing with other Arab leaders, who were less hostile to Jewish ambitions. In 1919, Emir Faisal, who wanted Zionist support for his bid to lead the newly independent Syria, signed an agreement with Chaim Weizmann endorsing further Jewish immigration to Palestine. After its takeover of the West Bank, Israel promoted pro-Jordanian Palestinian politicians, whom it considered more conciliatory than the newly created Palestine Liberation Organization. In the late 1990s, Ehud Barak infuriated Yasir Arafat by prioritizing negotiations over the Golan Heights with the Syrian dictator Hafez Assad. These days, Netanyahu often implies that an Israeli rapprochement with the Sunni gulf states — built around their common hostility to Iran — would force Palestinians to curb their nationalist demands. Such wishful thinking, Black shows, has a long history.
He savors moments when the ideological mask lifts, and Jews and Palestinians see each other not merely as threats, but also as human beings. He tells the story of the future prime minister Golda Meir, during Israel’s war of independence, touring neighborhoods of Haifa from which Arabs had recently fled and being reminded of abandoned Jewish towns in Europe. Upon reaching a desolate apartment block, she encountered an elderly Palestinian woman, who began sobbing. Meir broke into tears too. Still, Israel did not permit Haifa’s Arab refugees to return.
Similarly, Black recounts an astonishing 1956 eulogy by Moshe Dayan, then the chief of staff for the Israel Defense Forces, for a young kibbutz member murdered by Palestinian fighters near Gaza. “Let us not blame the murderers today,” Dayan said. “Why should we complain about their burning hatred for us? For eight years” — since Israel’s war of independence — “they have been sitting in the refugee camps in Gaza, watching us transforming the lands and the villages where they and their fathers dwelt, into our property.” Dayan was not suggesting that Israel give those lands back. To the contrary, he told the bereaved kibbutzniks that “we have no choice but to fight.” But in contrast to many current Israeli and American Jewish leaders who claim that only cultural pathology explains Palestinian hostility to Zionism, Black shows that some former Israeli leaders understood — and even empathized with — the Palestinian opposition that they nonetheless sought to quash.
Black does not romanticize Palestinian nationalism. Again and again, he shows how Palestinian leaders harmed their own cause. He tweaks them for boycotting the legislative council elections that Britain — then Palestine’s mandatory power — held in 1923, while the Zionists participated. He condemns the Mufti of Jerusalem for rejecting a 1939 British White Paper that went a significant way toward meeting Palestinian demands. And he reports that in the mid-1990s, when Arafat ran the newly created Palestinian Authority, a ton of cement in Gaza cost $74. Of that, $17 went to the P.A. and another $17 went to Arafat’s personal account — at a bank in Tel Aviv.
But Black also punctures the view, often endorsed by American pundits and politicians, that Palestinians bear virtually all the blame for the failure of recent efforts to create a Palestinian state. He hews to a view common among academics: that even when Israeli and Palestinian leaders both supported the two-state solution, they meant dramatically different things by it. Even the most moderate Palestinian leaders meant a sovereign state on (or extremely near) the 1967 lines, with a capital in East Jerusalem and the right (which might not be fully exercised) of Palestinian refugee return. Even the most generous Israeli leaders meant a less-than-sovereign state without full control of Palestinian East Jerusalem, minimal, if any, refugee return and Israeli settlement annexations that, the Palestinians claimed, turned their prospective state into Swiss cheese.
In the Netanyahu era, this gulf has only widened. Black notes — and doesn’t dispute — “the growing belief that a two-state solution” is now “defunct.” But he’s also skeptical of proposals for one secular binational state. He offers no vision for progress and no expressions of hope. The book ends with the words: “No end to their conflict was in sight.” No wonder Americans, who are depressed enough about their own country, are turning away.
ENEMIES AND NEIGHBORS
Arabs and Jews in Palestine and Israel, 1917-2017
By Ian Black
Illustrated. 606 pp. Atlantic Monthly Press. $30.