The Guardian’s “Long Read” on Israel – the Old Errors and Misrepresentations Rise Again

For some time I have sensed a gradual shift from articles that were in large part composed of or promoted outright lies on the former “Comment is Free” (CiF) pages to a somewhat more muted but nevertheless constantly critical view of Israel.

This is a guest post by AKUS.

For some time I have sensed a gradual shift from articles that were in large part composed of or promoted outright lies on the former “Comment is Free” (CiF) pages to a somewhat more muted but nevertheless constantly critical view of Israel. I believe the active opposition in below-the-line comments by those of us that formed CiF Watch (which eventually broadened to become UK Media Watch) forced the Guardian to be more careful about who writes for it and what they write about Israel.

While thinking over these matters, I encountered the recent Guardian “The Long Read” which chose to highlight an excerpt from a new book by Nathan Thrall in an item titled Israel-Palestine: the real reason there’s still no peace that had the effect of taking me back in time to some of those earlier days.

The lengthy excerpt awoke again memories of articles now long forgotten, of the Guardian’s black –hat /white-hat approach to the conflict between the two sides (Israelis – the bad guys/Palestinians – the good guys). Proof that at bottom, the same prejudices that once were so prominently and frequently and obsessively on display during the reign of people like Alan Rusbridger and Georgina Henry live on at Guardian HQ under the leadership of Katherine Viner.

Quite simply, no matter what the Palestinians did, or what peace overtures Israel made – Israel was always to blame for the lack of progress to peace.

In “The Long Read”  Thrall makes some good points in the excerpt from his book about the security concerns of Israelis but we see the same Guardian approach of laying the burden of not achieving peace at Israel’s door while inherently subscribing to the idea that the Palestinians are not equal actors in the failure to resolve the conflict.

He correctly, I believe, notes that many Israelis have come to believe that surrendering the West Bank to the Palestinians so that they can create a state there may be a worse proposition than maintaining the status quo under current conditions. This view is founded in large part by the experience of the withdrawals from Gaza and Lebanon, which created two terror statelets on Israel’s frontiers and years of threats and actual bombardments of Israeli towns and villages from those areas and, of course, wars.

Thrall notes this, yet in general appears to believe that the major concern that Israel has is internal political upheaval and even violent rebellion by Israelis on the West Bank. He seems to believe that Israel would lose “extraction of the West Bank’s natural resources, including water”; a farcical claim. Israel would certainly not relinquish operations in the Dead Sea and, given the size of Israel’s economy, the loss of resources – cement, primarily – from the barren hills of the West Bank would be a minor matter and probably immaterial; Israel could simply import them as it now does.

Moreover, the casual claim that there would be a loss of water is totally false; Israel in fact exports water to the West Bank (and Jordan) thanks to its huge investment in desalination plants. These kinds of economic “alternative facts” are common currency of Guardian writers yet surface in the writing of this experienced author, drifting up lazily from  an overarching negative view of Israel that simply ignores actual facts.

Thrall’s deepest and most fundamental error lies in assuming that external actors – the great powers – can inflict enough pain – economic pain, apparently – on both sides to force them to come to an agreement. In particular he assumes that it is upon Israel that most pressure can be brought to bear, apparently by boycotting everything that Israel exports – extending BDS to cover everything from Israel thus ending “differentiation” between products from the West Bank settlements and those from Israel as a whole:

“What supporters of differentiation commonly reject, however, is no less important. Not one of these groups or governments calls for penalising the Israeli financial institutions, real estate businesses, construction companies, communications firms, and, above all, government ministries that profit from operations in the occupied territories but are not headquartered in them. Sanctions on those institutions could change Israeli policy overnight. But the possibility of imposing them has been delayed if not thwarted by the fact that critics of occupation have instead advocated for a reasonable-sounding yet ineffective alternative.

Supporters of differentiation hold the view that while it may be justifiable to do more than label the products of West Bank settlements, it is inconceivable that sanctions might be imposed on the democratically elected government that established the settlements, legalised the outposts, confiscated Palestinian land, provided its citizens with financial incentives to move to the occupied territories, connected the illegally built houses to roads, water, electricity and sanitation, and provided settlers with heavy army protection. They have accepted the argument that to resolve the conflict more force is needed, but they cannot bring themselves to apply it to the state actually maintaining the regime of settlement, occupation and land expropriation that they oppose.” [emphasis added]

A simple review of large and growing trading figures between Israel and the great economies of world – US, EU, China and India – would reveal how silly, and doomed, this idea is.

Although he suggests that “pressure” be exerted on the Palestinians as well, he provides no example of how he would propose to do this – for example, economic pressure by cancelling aid from UNRWA and the various EU and Arab governments and private citizens that make payments to the Palestinians? That is unlikely to happen, though this is perhaps the one approach that could yield swift and positive results at a future negotiation.

Thrall’s view that Israel must be forced to  reach an agreement derives from his misrepresentation of the different roles of the two sides during the various peace talks, which he carefully lists – Madrid, Oslo, Camp David, and Taba. He ignores the Olmert offer to Abbas, which would have given the Palestinians almost everything they have ever demanded. In all cases he says directly or indirectly that the terms offered by Israel were unacceptable to the Palestinians.  He does not accept that the Palestinians, not Israel, torpedoed the chance of an agreement because they would not accept any agreement that gives them less than 100 per cent of what they demand – a condition that a priori makes negotiations meaningless.

Any rational reading of the results of these negotiations – and especially the refusal by Abbas to even examine the map that Olmert offered him – forces one to accept the obvious conclusion that Palestinians leaders believe that the status quo serves them better than accepting slightly less than they initially demand.

The tendency to claim that it is only Israel’s obduracy is reinforced by the equally typical view that the Palestinians have no agency of their own. They are passive actors with no ability to make their own decisions and Israel is to blame for the lack of a Palestinian state by adopting a policy of waiting – even when every offer made was rejected by the Palestinians:

“In fact, history suggests that a strategy of waiting would serve the country well: from the British government’s 1937 Peel Commission partition plan and the UN partition plan of 1947 to UN Security Council Resolution 242 and the Oslo accords, every formative initiative endorsed by the great powers has given more to the Jewish community in Palestine than the previous one.”

Yet it is the Palestinians who have adopted a policy of refusal that represents a belief that just by waiting they will one day have Israel accede to all their demand – or be forced to do so as Thrall suggests should happen.

As a side note, a curious reference in Thrall’s article is a quote attributed to Moshe Dayan:

“The former Israeli defence minister Moshe Dayan once said: “Our American friends offer us money, arms and advice. We take the money, we take the arms, and we decline the advice.” Those words have become only more resonant in the decades since they were uttered.”

Readers of UK Media Watch will know that we have often found similar remarks at the Guardian attributed to Israeli leaders that have turned out to be absolutely false and part of the currency of anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli websites.

Looking for the source, I found that it is invariably sourced to Avi Shlaim’s book, “The Iron Wall”, page 316. As these things do, it has spread through the internet until it has achieved the status of hard fact on anti-Israeli websites.

I took down Shlaim’s book from my bookshelf to check his source for the comment, and found that Shlaim provides no attribution. This is odd, since he methodically references other quotations or reports throughout the book. Just above the Dayan quote is reference 50, to Sadat’s decision to go to war, and just below it is reference 51 citing a comment by Gideon Rafael about Golda Meir. By simple repetition, a phrase that Shlaim inserted into his book without attribution is now accepted as a fact. Perhaps Dayan said it, or perhaps he did not – where did Shlaim find the comment? All searches I ran simply returned me to page 316 of “The Iron Wall”.

In summary, this article correctly represents the view of many Israelis that the status quo is better than having a second Gaza or Southern Lebanon in the suburbs of Jerusalem. However, Thrall proposes a method of forcing agreement between Israel and the Palestinians that is fanciful: full boycott of Israel internationally. Founded on that idea, Thrall’s proposal is completely useless if his purpose is to advance towards a peace agreement.

Ironically, it appears the Arab States may be reaching the opposite conclusion: that it is the “Palestinian Cause” that must be abandoned and that their future lies with a vibrant economic, technological and military regional powerhouse – Israel – rather than continuing to support a group that in fact appears to prefer the status quo over the option of accepting 95% of everything they ask for. Things are moving in the Middle East, and once again the Palestinians are missing their opportunity.

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