Open Zion

07.06.12

Haute Couture Histories

The Middle East is combustible enough without adding one-sided, incendiary historical accounts to the mix. And yet, again and again, we see what we could call haute couture history—history custom-fitted to the trendy, distorted narrative that confuses cause and consequence, reduces complexity to simplicity, and ignores inconvenient facts to blame Israel as the rigid, bullying, source of Middle East trouble. Two of the latest examples emerged this week in the New York Times, and on Open Zion.

In the Times, Thomas Friedman, writing about Israel’s relations with Egypt’s new rulers, perpetuated the year-plus long allegation that Israel feared Egyptian democracy “because it was so convenient for Israel to have peace with one dictator, Mubarak, rather than 80 million Egyptians.” Friedman then caricatured Israel as a collective court Jew, replicating a medieval pattern of relying on alliances with the powerful over healthy relationships with the people. This tall tale treats Israel’s unhappy acceptance of reality as along standing Jewish ideal. In 1979, when Israel returned all of the Sinai to Egypt for the hope of peace, Israelis believed it would be a true, full peace. The cold peace that emerged was a blow to a central collective Israeli fantasy that needs to be acknowledged when trying to understand Israeli fears about a peace deal with the Palestinians. And yes, by 2011, a cold peace with Mubarak appeared to be better than no peace with the Muslim Brotherhood. But Friedman’s column would have been deeper and more accurate, had he confronted the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty’s messy past.

Similarly, Gershom Gorenberg described the late Israeli premier Yitzhak Shamir in harsh terms as a heartless, unbending extremist, “who damaged the cause of Jewish independence to which he was dedicated.” Gorenberg’s dyslogy—the opposite of eulogy—throws in the mischievous fact that Shamir’s Lehi underground group “was the last twentieth-century organization to identify proudly as a terror group.” This semantic aside reinforces Gorenberg’s recent book’s tendency to overlook Islamist and Palestinian terrorism. I am sure the relatives of all those who died at Munich and Ma’alot, at Kiryat Shmona and in the Twin Towers, will find comfort in the notion that Yasir Arafat, Osama Bin Laden and their henchmen preferred the label “freedom fighter” to terrorist.

More disturbing was Gorenberg’s failure to admit that Shamir was also the Prime Minister who decided not to retaliate against Iraqi Scuds during the first Persian Gulf War, to help preserve George H.W. Bush’s broad coalition against Saddam Hussein’s pillaging of Kuwait. And while Gorenberg justifiably criticizes Shamir for opposing the Camp David accords with Egypt and blocking cabinet approval of the London Agreement with Jordan's King Hussein, Shamir did not block the Madrid Conference, which emerged as a critical symbolic step on the road to Oslo. Here too, a more nuanced assessment of Shamir’s role, including his ambivalence about Madrid, would have yielded a richer but less polemical portrait.

Gorenberg says of Shamir: “His mind was not changeable.” Neither, it seems are Gorenberg’s or Friedman’s minds, even when including all the facts would tease out richer, more multi-dimensional, but less reproachful portraits.