I WAS fortunate enough to spend a term studying in Jerusalem in 1962. The stand-off between Israelis and Palestinians was bad then, and there were pock marks from bullets still on the walls, but 55 years later it is even worse. Apartheid ended, the Cold War ended, but achieving a peace agreement in Israel/Palestine seems more remote than ever. Leslie Turnberg, a former Professor of Medicine and a Labour peer in the House of Lords, has focused his scientific mind on the history of what has happened since the rise of Zionism in the 19th century to our own time.
He reminds us just how savage the pogroms were: Alexander III in Russia decreed that one third of Jews should be converted, one third expelled, and one third starved to death. A million Jews fled Russia in 1903, and 2500 were murdered in Odessa in 1905. So, despite the desire of most European Jews to assimilate, there was plenty of incentive to join the early Zionists. He gives us vivid vignettes of the key figures Theodor Herzl and Chaim Weizmann, the author’s hero because of his tireless diplomatic efforts.
This led to the Balfour Declaration of 1917, with its fundamental ambiguities. On the one hand, “The establishment of a national home in Palestine for the Jewish people”, but no mention of a Jewish State. At the same time, “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine,” but nothing about their political rights and status.
Turnberg then traces in some detail the efforts to overcome these ambiguities with endless peace plans and proposals right up to our own time, through the wars of 1948, 1967, and 1973, the intifadas, terrorist atrocities, and savage Israeli responses.
One factor that has bedevilled this sorry story is the way in which the Arab states as well as the Western nations involved have always manoeuvred to further their own territorial or other interests, with the plight of the Palestinians not their top priority. There have been brave efforts by a few outstanding leaders to get an agreement, but it was at the cost of their own lives, taken by hardliners. President Sadat of Egypt was assassinated in 1981, and the Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.
One picture that does emerge is that the Israeli leaders have, on the whole, shown themselves willing to accept what was on offer at the time, however little, even a tiny strip of land by the coast, with a view to obtaining greater gains later. The Arab nations, in contrast, have until now been out-and-out rejectionists. Now little of what they could once have had is a realistic prospect.
Turnberg thinks that a two-state solution is the only possibility and urges us not to give up on the idea. He finds hope in the Arab peace initiative of 2002, revived in 2016, in which there would be normal peaceful relations between Israel and a number of Arab States, a return to pre-1967 borders, and a “just solution” (rather than an automatic right of return) to the Palestinian refugee problem.
Unfortunately, with the intransigent Netanyahu in power in Israel, and the Palestinians divided between Hamas and Fatah, and the weak Abbas in control of Fatah, it is difficult to be optimistic. But Turnburg traces this enormously complex and tragic history with a real attempt at objectivity. His book can be recommended to anyone who wants to be better informed about how we got to where we are now.
The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is a former Bishop of Oxford.
Beyond the Balfour Declaration: The 100-year quest for Israeli-Palestinian peace
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