The “Periphery Doctrine” has been a cornerstone of Israel’s strategic approach to the Middle East since the state’s foundation. Devised by David Ben Gurion and Eliahu Sassoon, an Israeli Middle East expert who became Israel’s first diplomatic representative in Turkey, the doctrine was based on maintaining alliances with non-Arab states and ethnic minorities in the region as a counterweight to pan-Arabism. Though three countries — Iran, Ethiopia, and Turkey — became key regional allies of Israel, Ben Gurion was keenly aware that the relationships were temporary, and could not substitute for peace with Israel’s Arab neighbors (something Ben Gurion ironically tried to manufacture through his “activist” foreign policy of unilateral military strikes and disproportionate force). From Turkey’s perspective, the relationship with Israel was never a proper strategic alliance, but rather a means of establishing leverage against nationalistic Arab governments.
This week’s events delivered the death knell to the terminally ill Periphery Doctrine. Following the Palmer/Uribe report’s factually flawed claims about the legality of Israel’s siege on the Gaza Strip and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s refusal to apologize for Israel’s execution-style massacre of 9 activists on the deck of the Mavi Marmara — “We need not apologize!” the Prime Minister boomed three times during a recent press conference — the Turkish government significantly downgraded its relations with Israel. Turkey not only expelled Israel’s ambassador from Ankara, it suspended all military relations between the two states. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has suggested further sanctions will follow, exposing Netanyahu’s bravado as empty and self-destructive.
Pro-Israel commentators are generally loath to engage in discussions of the history surrounding Israel’s creation. When they do, they generally resort to tired and discredited myths about the Palestinians running away at their leaders’ behest, or about the Nakba being “self-inflicted,” as Jeffrey Goldberg said recently. Nakba denial is an important feature of hasbara, not only because acknowledging the real history of Palestinian dispossession in 1947, ’48 and in the years afterwards erodes the foundation of the Zionist narrative, but because the Nakba continues on both sides of the Green Line to this day.
Besides the Israeli army, there is no single organization more intimately involved in the ongoing Nakba than the Jewish National Fund. Originally called the Jewish Colonial Trust, the JNF was in charge of buying land from absentee landlords, then evicting thousands of tenants and residents in Palestine, transforming an entire agricultural class into landless peasants. In the 1930’s, JNF director Yosef Weitz helped lead David Ben Gurion’s Transfer Committee, which planned the widespread campaign ethnic cleansing that would take place beginning in 1947, one year before the foundation of Israel. After the state confiscated millions of dollars of Palestinian land and property, it began leasing it out through the JNF, which declares in its charter that it only leases to Jews. The JNF also planted non-native forests on top of dozens of destroyed Palestinian villages so their residents would have nothing to return to — greenwashing in its ultimate form. (Everything I have referenced is described in greater detail here).
Nowadays, the JNF is leading a violent campaign to expel the Bedouin residents of Al Arakib, a village in the Negev Desert so it can build a forest on behalf of GOD TV, an anti-Semitic evangelical broadcasting network that says it is planting trees in Israel to prepare the land for Christ’s return. Talk about an unholy alliance. The residents of Al Arakib, who have been shot by rubber bullets, beaten, and jailed, have been ordered to move to a “development town” (read: Indian reservation) built by the Or Movement, a JNF subsidiary. For a comprehensive look at the JNF’s seamy agenda and long record of human rights violations, go to the link above and check out the four volume JNF e-book series (my writing and reporting is featured in two editions).
On May 16, a day after worldwide Nakba observances, me and a few friends confronted attendees of a JNF fundraising event in New York’s Lincoln Center called “Broadway Sensation.” We handed out small trees planted next to small cards featuring the names of ethnically cleansed Palestinian villages. The prop allowed us to attempt to discuss the history of the Nakba and the JNF’s role in it with some of the JNF’s major donors. Their hostility to engaging with us was revealing. They knew nothing about the JNF’s involvement in ethnic cleansing and didn’t want to know. Before long we were asked to leave by security guards.
On our way out we noticed on a flier for the event that the JNF’s donors were being entertained by the Scottsboro Boys, a Broadway show about a group of African-Americans wrongly convicted of rape. While some have hailed the show as humorous and well-choreographed, the African-American theater and arts critic Valerie Gladstone called it “a callous production in…questionable taste.” It’s hard to blame her for being so harsh. After all, the musical is a literal minstrel show that is performed during parts by black actors wearing blackface.
Here is a taste of the entertainment the JNF selected for its donors:
“When I look out my window today and see a tree standing there, that tree gives me a greater sense of beauty and personal delight than all the vast forests I have seen in Switzerland or Scandinavia. Because every tree here was planted by us.”
— David Ben Gurion, Memoirs
“Why are there so many Arabs here? Why didn’t you chase them away?”
— David Ben Gurion during a visit to Nazareth, July 1948
JNF forests burning in Northern Israel (photo by Oren Ziv/Active Stills)
Four days after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced plans to place thousands of migrant workers from Africa and Southeast Asia in a prison camp deep in the Negev Desert because, as he claimed, they pose a “threat to the character of [the] country,” a burning tree trunk fell into a bus full of Israeli Prison Service cadets, killing forty passengers. The tree was among hundreds of thousands turned to ash by the forest fire pouring across northern Israel, and which now threatens to engulf outskirts of Haifa, Israel’s third-largest city. Over the last four days, more than 12,300 acres have burned in the Mount Carmel area, a devastating swath of destruction in a country the size of New Jersey. While the cause of the fire has not been established, it has laid bare the myths of Israel’s foundation.
Israelis are treating the fire as one of their greatest tragedies in recent years. A friend who grew up in the Haifa area told me over the weekend that he was devastated by the images of destruction he saw on TV. His friend’s brother was among those who perished in the bus accident. Though he is a dedicated Zionist who supported Netanyahu’s election bid in 2008, like so many Israelis, he was furious at the response — or lack of one — by the government. “Our leaders are complete idiots, but you already know that,” he told me. “They invested so much to prepare for all kinds of crazy war scenarios but didn’t do anything to protect civilians from the basic things you are supposed to take for granted.”
On 3 December, Netanyahu informed the country, “We do not have what it takes to put out the fire, but help is on the way.” To beat back the blaze, Bibi has had to beg for assistance from his counterpart in Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Western-backed Palestinian Authority and Israel’s American and British patrons. Israel is a wealthy country which boasts to the world about its innovative spirit — its US-based lobbyists market it as a “Start-Up Nation” — but its performance during the forest fire revealed the sad truth: its government has prioritized offensive military capacity and occupation maintenance so extensively that it has completely neglected the country’s infrastructure, emergency preparedness and most of all, the general welfare of its citizens.
Beyond the embarrassing spectacle of Turkish supply planes landing in Tel Aviv just six months after Israeli commandoes massacred Turkish aid volunteers on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, or the confessions of impotence by the hard-men Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman, the fire exposed a terrible history that had been concealed by layers of official mythology and piles of fallen pine needles.
“There are no facts”
Among the towns that have been evacuated is Ein Hod, a bohemian artists’ colony nestled in the hills to the north and east of Haifa. This is not the first time Ein Hod was evacuated, however. The first time was in 1948, when the town’s original Palestinian inhabitants were driven from their homes by a manmade disaster known as the Nakba.
Conservative columnist George Will was recently in Israel. His trip resulted in a series of laughably error-laden columns revealing not only a crude view of the Israel-Palestine conflict and obsequious admiration for Bibi Netanyahu, but a lack of knowledge about major historical events in his own country.
In his third column, Will begins his mutilation of history in a passage about the Peel Commission. He wrote:
In 1936, when the British administered Palestine, the Peel Commission concluded that there was “an irrepressible conflict” — a phrase coined by an American historian to describe the U.S. Civil War — “between two national communities within the narrow bounds of one small country.” And: “Neither of the two national ideals permits” a combination “in the service of a single state.” The commission recommended “a surgical operation” — partition. What followed was the Arab Revolt of 1936 to 1939.
Asad Abukhalil has already nailed Will for getting the date of the Peel Commission report wrong. It was 1937, not 1936. And the Arab Revolt broke out in Palestine before the Peel Commission introduced its findings. I would also add that David Ben Gurion privately accepted the Peel Commission’s recommendations because he saw them as the basis for a later partition that would gift the Zionist settler minority with major port cities like Jaffa and Haifa and throw the Palestinian Arabs back to the hinterlands. Moshe Sharett, a future prime minister of Israel, remarked about the Peel Commission, “the [Palestinian] Arab reaction would be negative because they would lose everything and gain almost nothing ….”
George Will had a horrible run in Israel. Luckily for him, the Washington Post does not correct errors if they advance Israeli hasbara
But leaving his distortions about the Arab Revolt aside, Will made a major error and has not been compelled to correct it. This proves the point Abukhalil makes again and again: “in the US, you can say anything about the Middle East provided it is done from a pro-Israeli perspective.”
In the same passage, the Princeton PhD made another huge error, attributing the phrase “irrepressible conflict” to an unnamed “American historian.” I don’t know where Will got his citation from (some Wikipedia entry?) but it did not reflect well on his claim to expertise on American politics. Even amateur scholars of the Civil War know that the phrase was coined by then-Senator William Seward in his famous speech in 1858.
Will’s tendency to err and distort was also on bold display in his first column from Israel, a boot-licking ode to the leadership qualities of Netanyahu. In the column, Will repeated a widely discredited tale that Netanyahu first told at AIPAC:
Nevertheless, a display case in Netanyahu’s office could teach the Obama administration something about this leader. It contains a small signet stone that was part of a ring found near the Western Wall. It is about 2,800 years old — 200 years younger than Jerusalem’s role as the Jewish people’s capital. The ring was the seal of a Jewish official, whose name is inscribed on it: Netanyahu.
What is Bibi Netanyahu’s connection to the ring, and by extension, to the ancient land of Israel? There is none. His father, Benzion, changed his name from Milikovsky to Netanyahu after he emigrated from Lithuania to Palestine. Thus Bibi has a much closer relation to Sarah Palin, whose Lithuanian maternal grandfather was rumored to be a Jew, than to any late Bronze Age “Jewish official” from the Middle East.
To understand the sheer insanity of Netanyahu’s magical ring story, consider how I would be received if my grandfather, Hymie Blumenthal, changed his name to Hymie Quetzalcoatl, then I asserted a historical mandate to rule over Mexico because Quetzalcoatl was a diety of the inhabitants of the ancient Toltec city of Teotihuacan. I would have a hard time being taken as seriously as David Koresh or the Unabomber.
Was Bibi’s magical ring tale inspired by Wagner?
Perhaps Bibi’s tall tale was inspired Wagner’s Der Ring Des Nibelungen, an opera about a magic ring fashioned by a dwarf that grants its bearer the power to rule the world. In the opera, Bibi is Siegfried, the megalomaniacal son of Wotan who wages in a destructive conflict for the right to wear the ring. And Will is the opera critic who writes a review of the fictional performance as though it were a real life historical event.