I like Kevin Drum’s writing, and The Political Animal was one of the first blogs that I started reading on a daily basis, but reading over some of his recent comments on the Middle East, I’ve been more than a little troubled.
Drum was annoyed with the Israeli and American reaction (singular) to Obama’s speech and the manufactured controversy over Obama’s 1967-lines-with-swaps comment. He was also troubled with the sycophantic reaction Netanyahu received during his speech to Congress. I share both sentiments, but if Drum is looking for a reason as to why Congress (Democrats and Republicans) so often resorts to a Pavlovian defense of anything Israel says or does, he might want to take look at his own writing.
For example, Drum gives this summary of the 1967 war: “Israel won a war started by the other side, it occupied some of their territory, and then it decided to take some of that territory forever.” For starters, that’s just patently false, and claims of “preemptive warfare” aside, any history of 1967 clearly shows that Israel fired the first shots of that war, thus the surprise attack that decimated Egypt’s air force.
Then he says, the Arabs have “started and lost three wars against Israel.” Aside from repeating his misunderstanding of 1967, here he’s repeating a simplistic (and incidentally false) narrative of 1948, that would have it that Israel declared independence and then was attacked by its Arab neighbors. This, of course, leaves out the inconvenient fact that Arab intervention in what was essentially a civil war that had begun in November 1947 came after Jewish militias had already made refugees of some 300,000-400,000 Palestinians. The massacre at Deir Yassin, for example, was on April 9, whereas the declaration of Israel’s independence wasn’t until May 14. Furthermore, Arab intervention came not at the declaration of Israel’s independence as many would have it but at the expiration of the British mandate. This is a common trope that rewrite history to make Arabs look like violent aggressors against a peaceful, defenseless newborn Israel, when in fact the war of 1948 is much more complicated.
So of the three wars Drum claims Arabs started, 1 was a civil war in which Arab armies intervened (1947-48), another was begun by Israel (1967), and the third (1973) was a surprise attack initiated by Egypt and Syria to regain land that was occupied in the previous war.
This is without mentioning that “the Arabs” are not a monolith, and even if Drum’s description were accurate (which it’s not), that still wouldn’t justify the dispossession of Palestinians under his explanation that Israel has only a “minority share” of the blame for a lack of peace.
But what does all this have to do with the current kerfuffle? Drum can’t understand why Republicans are engaging in “historical revisionism” as concerns Obama’s speech, all while simultaneously mouthing official Israeli nationalist historiography. Why should contemporary history be any different from modern history?
As Eugene Rogan and Avi Shlaim put it:
Simha Flapan set the agenda when he reduced the historiography on the foundation of the state of Israel in 1948 to seven myths: That the Zionists accepted the UN partition resolution and planned for peace; that the Arabs rejected the partition and launched the war; that the Palestinians fled voluntarily intending reconquest; that the Arab states had united to expel the Jews from Palestine; that the Arab invasion made war inevitable; that a defenseless Israel faced destruction by the Arab Goliath; and that Israel subsequently sought peace but no Arab leader responded.
These nationalist myths have been debunked by the archival work of Israeli historians, such as Benny Morris, Ilan Pappé, Avi Shlaim, Tom Segev and others.
Part of the problem in the US is that Americans have ironically clung even more tightly to Israeli nationalist historiography than many Israelis have. The result is a vague notion that Arabs are mostly to blame for the disposession of Palestinians and the continuing Israeli occupation and that Israel is and always has been a plucky David to the Arab Goliath. So if that’s the historical framework Americans are working from (added to which there is of course the diligent work of the pro-Israel lobby), is it any wonder that the US Congress would wear its palms out applauding Netanyahu as he spoon feeds them a narrative that fits perfectly with the regional history they’ve been taught?
So while Kevin Drum is obviously more critical of real-time history (that is to say, the news), he clearly subscribes to official Israeli mythmaking when it comes to 1948 and 1967.
Note: It should go without saying that Arab nationalist historiography clearly has its own myths that could use shattering, but no one in the American media or government that I’m aware of could be fairly accused of succumbing to, say, Syrian or Egyptian historical myths.