The Rewriting, Un-rewriting and Re-rewriting of History

In the "Rejectionism and Accommodation" chapter of Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel & The Palestinians, Noam Chomsky recounts how Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s 1971 peace initiative has been effaced from history. Sadat’s offer of "a full peace treaty on the pre-June 1967 borders, with security guarantees, recognized borders and so on" was rejected by Israel with the backing of the U.S. Henry Kissinger "assumed that Israel’s power was unchallengeable" and thus ignored Sadat’s warnings that "he would be forced to resort to war if his efforts at a peaceful settlement were rebuffed."

"In October 1973, Sadat made good his threats…To the surprise of Israel, the U.S., and virtually everyone else, Egypt and Syria were remarkably successful in the early stages of the war…At that point, U.S. policy shifted," it decided to "accept Egypt as a U.S. client state" and the way was paved for Sadat’s historic trip to Jerusalem in 1977.  

The "preferred story" being one of Arab rejectionism and Israel/U.S. accommodation, history had to be "rewritten," "Sadat, for example, is regularly portrayed as a typical Arab warmonger who tried to destroy Israel by force in 1973, then learned the error of his ways and became a man of peace under the kindly tutelage of Henry Kissinger and Jimmy Carter…Sadat’s ‘decision to make peace’ came after the ’73 war."

Those words were written in 1983. Needless to say, much has been learned about the workings of the Arab mind over the course of the last twenty-five years, hence there’s been a slight change in the story as two sightings from last summer reveal. Firstly, good old Tom Friedman applies the Sadat example to Iraq (NYT, June 25, 2008):

"Having recently returned from Egypt, I have the Suez Canal on my mind. And looking at Iraq from Cairo, the thought occurred to me that maybe the Iraqis have just crossed the Suez Canal. If so, that’s good news.

"What am I talking about? There is no way that Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat could have ever made peace with Israel had he not first launched his lightning strike across the Suez Canal on Yom Kippur, 1973. ‘The crossing,’ as that surprise attack became known in Egyptian lore, was as psychologically important as it was militarily important. It wiped away Egypt’s humiliating loss in the 1967 war and gave Egyptians the dignity and self-confidence to make peace with Israel as military equals. While the military reality was more complex, Egyptians nevertheless felt they had liberated the Sinai themselves."

Secondly, Aluf Benn applies the example to Hamas. The cease-fire has been in effect for a month and is working (at least from Sderot’s point of view) but he’s apprehensive (Ha’aretz, July 27, 2008):

"There are four arguments against the cease-fire with Hamas and Hezbollah, all of which can be countered…

"Shouts of victory: The television shows Hezbollah’s arrogant processions and the praise Hamas heaps on itself, and this drives the Israelis crazy. So let them rant. Let them be pleased with themselves and throw parties. Better a satisfied enemy that keeps things quiet than a wounded and vengeful neighbor. Egypt made peace only after it tasted victory in the Yom Kippur War, not after the defeat of the Six-Day War."

Whereas Friedman would never deign to expose himself to contact with the hoi polloi, some of the Ha’aretz writers are approachable. Thus I asked Benn "What about Sadat’s 1971 peace offer?" and he responded:

"Obviously, I could not develop a complicated historical debate in a short op-ed devoted to another issue, and had to do with a short sentence…

"Sadat initiated a partial deal in 1971 and then offered a more comprehensive deal in 1973 to Kissinger. Golda Meir and Nixon rejected both offers. Both initiatives fell short of the post-1973 peace treaty, especially on normalization, although one can argue that Golda could negotiate better terms than Sadat’s opening position. Another possibility is that Sadat needed a ‘diplomatic cover’ as a pretext to go to war and made his offer knowing that it would be rejected…

"Yet, history is about what actually happened, not about what might have been. And the fact is that peace happened only after Egypt felt equal to Israel by crossing the Suez Canal and not a second before…"

Fast forward six months. Israel indeed has broken the cease-fire, Hamas resumed its rocket fire and Israel unleashed "Operation Cast Lead," the barbarity of which is beginning to alarm it proponents. Benn again turns to history to show that sometimes states just don’t know when to stop (Ha’aretz, Jan. 7, 2009):

"The euphoria point has tripped up many of history’s greatest strategists and military leaders. Here are a few examples…

"Israel fell into the euphoria trap after its lightning victory in the Six-Day War. It believed that if it just applied more force, it would be able to stay in the Sinai Peninsula forever. The battered Egyptians, who in the War of Attrition that followed saw their own cities destroyed, offered peace, but Golda Meir scornfully rejected it. The result was the Yom Kippur War, which caused Israel a national trauma, and then the withdrawal from Sinai, after thousands of unnecessary funerals."

There are moments which are so startling that cracks appear in the armor and the truth slips out. Six months ago, the peace could not have been made until after 1973’s thousands of funerals, "not a second before." Now, in the wake of the incredible carnage Israel was inflicting, those funerals were "unnecessary."

If Aluf Benn rewrote and then un-rewrote history, who re-rewrote it? That’s an embarrassing question.

What happened is that when Barack Obama’s inauguration time arrived, signaling at least a temporary end of the blood bath, Benn’s colleague Shai Golden expressed the hope that "Now maybe we can calm down" (Ha’aretz, Jan. 21, 2009):

"Israel chalked up one significant achievement in this conflict…The War of Attrition, the Yom Kippur War, the first and second Lebanon wars, as well as the prolonged years of the intifada damaged Israel and harmed it…mainly as far as its fighting national ego is concerned…

"This time, it seems, Israel decided to ignore everything and everyone. The use of ‘disproportionate force’ achieved the results and the desired pictures. The sights of the destruction from the heart of Gaza are shocking. The number of victims is horrifying – mainly the relative percentage of the ‘uninvolved.’ But Israel beat Hamas, Gaza and the Gazans in a manner that proved to it that it really is in charge and that it is able to go crazy if it so desires.

"The pictures of the destruction, more than they were directed at the eyes of Israel’s enemies, were directed at Israeli eyes. Eyes that are hungry for revenge, pride and national respect…

"Now, when a balance has been achieved between the size of its ego and its military power, maybe it will be able to calm down…Paradoxically, a strong Israel, unified and burning with a sense of justice, an Israel that circled above the bodies of its defeated rivals with the hardheartedness of a victor, is an Israel that is far more ready for peace. Perhaps more than ever."

Well, I couldn’t stop myself. I e-mailed Golden:

"Dear Shai, hope you’re right about the possibility that now that Israel’s self-esteem has been restored it can calm down and make peace. Did you have in mind ‘the crossing,’ how Egypt could make peace only after it wiped away its humiliating loss in the ’67 war by tasting victory in the ’73 war?"

Had Golden responded, I would have apologized for what was meant to be a trick question, but he never did. So that’s how I ended up re-rewriting history.

Incidentally, if you had meant to read Fateful Triangle but never got around to it, now’s a good time, while the recent events are fresh in mind. The brunt of it takes place in 1981-1982, with the Palestine Liberation Organization taking the part of Hamas and Lebanon taking the part of Gaza. It’s all there, PLO/Hamas indicating it accepts a two-state solution and gaining legitimacy by adhering to a truce. Israel, threatened by this "peace offensive," breaks the truce, provoking a violent PLO/Hamas response which provides Israel with the excuse for an invasion of Lebanon/Gaza. The U.S. political class and media parrot the Israeli propaganda, it has the right to self-defense, its army practices purity of arms while the PLO/Hamas cowardly hides among the civilian population, never mind that Operation Peace for Galilee/Sderot is really "the war to safeguard the occupation of the West Bank" (Chomsky, quoting Avner Yaniv/Zvi Ba’rel, Ha’aretz, Nov. 16, 2008; Johann Hari, The Independent, Dec. 29, 2008; Meron Benvenisti, Ha’aretz, Jan. 22, 2009). Yes, now’s a good time to read Fateful Triangle, "perhaps more than ever."

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