Blog 22

I is for Intra- and Inter-State Wars

B. Foundations Built by Others for the Hundred-Year Jewish/Palestinian War

To state the obvious, violence and war are not the same, even though war is a form of extreme violence. Both employ physical force. Both are intended to harm another. Both employ language that is itself a form of violence. Both result in psychological damage. But violence at its base is personal; it is aimed at harming individuals. Whether sexual or emotional, psychological or cultural, verbal or economic, coercive violence is used to control the behaviour of another. War, on the other hand, is a collective enterprise, an intense and always armed conflict between states that employ armies or mercenaries (the Wagner Group by the Russians in 2023 in Ukraine) or between groups that seek to have exclusive control of a government responsible for a specific territory and population (a civil war). Either inter-state or civil wars may use militias or insurgents. Unlike mere violence, the extreme violence of war results in destruction and mortality on a scale well beyond that of mere violence. But, like inter-personal violence, war is an act of coercion designed to compel another to be subject to one’s will by ultimately rendering the other relatively powerless.

The war between the Jews and Arabs in what was once Mandatory Palestine has continued for over one hundred years. The war began with the assignment of Mandatory Palestine to British control in the Versailles Treaty and confirmed Britain’s 1917 commitment to the Jews of the world to establish a national home for the Jews in Palestine. That promise was known as the Balfour Declaration and was a direct product of the growth in strength and conviction of British Christian Zionists who preceded their Jewish cousins. In effect, the Jewish Zionist enterprise was a by-product of a British imperial victory in a world war. However, in the McMahon-Hussein correspondence, the UK also promised to support Arab independence in all regions demanded by the Sherif of Mecca in return for the Arabs revolting against the Ottoman Empire.[i]

The peacemakers in Paris in 1919 offered a template on how NOT to create a stable world order in the wake of the end of a world war by confirming contradictory promises made to two different groups re government of the same territory.[ii] The peace agreement was no sooner signed than it began to unravel. Partly that was the result of the clashing interests and ideologies of the four dominant male personalities at the Paris meeting: Dr. Georges Clémenceau (78), the elder statesman of the group and former mayor of the Parisian commune of Montmartre after France’s 1870 defeat by the Prussians; he was determined Never Again to allow Germany to threaten France [See the eight-episode 2022 Netflix series Women at War – France lost 1.4 million men with another 3 million wounded]; the charismatic and opportunistic British Liberal leader, David Lloyd George (56); the Italian former Professor of Law and Prime Minister, Vittorio Emmanuelle Orlando (59) in search of protecting and advancing Italy’s emerging imperial interests even though he was personally a liberal; and last, but not least, the fiery verbal self-righteous (and racist) Presbyterian American President Woodrow Wilson (63) who came to the talks determined to forge a political “peace without victory” and left behind a moralistic punitive agreement. The one minimal lesson was that morality, though important in dictating boundaries, cannot provide a foundation for a new political order. Blaming one party, whether it be Germans, Jews or Arabs, only distorts history and does not allow recovery from historical mistakes.

However, the main problem was that the parties continued to believe that peace could be constructed by protecting and securing the sovereignty of a nation and failed to recognize that the only way to keep rival national sovereigns at peace was through collective security. Anyone who expects the Palestinians and Jews of Israel to forge a lasting peace by themselves is in desperate need of an encounter with the lessons of history. Defending the right to self-determination of any nation will inevitably bring about a clash with another nation determined to protect and develop its right to self-determination. Yet those who push for a two-state solution between the parties or a utopian one-state solution for both nations that have been at war for one hundred years are suffering from mind blindness. The only peace that can be forged between the Jews of Israel and the Palestinians will be a collective security arrangement guaranteed by outside parties. But I am getting ahead of myself.

A bad example of conceding on an issue of self-determination to one group at the expense of another can be found in the concessions given to the Japanese in the Treaty of Versailles. The Japanese, insisting on their imperial equality with the nations of the West, were awarded the German concession in the Shandong Province in China, a step from which a direct line can be drawn to the Japanese atrocities committed in Nanjing and around which Dr. Joseph Wong has organized the creation of a new museum in Toronto opening in November 2023 and directed to teaching children in Ontario schools and remembering the sacrifices the Chinese were forced to bear in WWII. At the end of 1937, the Japanese military looted and burned at least one-third of Nanjing’s buildings, raped and tortured at least 20,000 and up to 80,000 Chinese women, both young and old.

The bitterness of betrayal, whether in China or Palestine, led directly to the creation of organized insurrectionist groups. On May 4, 1919, Chinese students in reprisal burned the European parts of Beijing and created the May Fourth Movement, the embryo for the Chinese Communist Party. On the other hand, the war debts would eventually lead to the total unravelling of the imperial order with which the twentieth century began. By 1947, Britain would be forced by its weakening economy to abandon its bridge to the Far East through Palestine. But in 1947, the Brits, the Americans, the French and the Italians were all blind to the threat that would break open twenty years later.

Who in 1919 would have predicted that two nations that barely existed in the minds of their respective peoples at the time would consolidate into powerful rival nationalisms which would go to war for a century? More significantly, who would have predicted that the downtrodden Jews of the European and Arab world would emerge as the foremost power in the Middle East? For that matter, who would have predicted that in 2019, China would become a rival for world hegemony with the United States?

Several lessons have been learned from the failures of 1919. One, as evidenced in Ukraine; proxy wars, however horrid, are preferable to conflicts involving a multitude of nations. The Western nations are determined not to repeat the mistakes of the post WWI period when they sent armed forces in to reverse the Bolshevik ambitions. Secondly, if limited militarism is better than expansionist militarism, liberal internationalism always seems to retreat in the face of collective violence and the convictions behind self-determination. Thus, Canada’s ambitious attempt under Lloyd Axworthy to introduce and institutionalize a collective security arrangement based on A Responsibility to Protect led to its universal adoption by the United Nations only a few years later – wrongly applauded as a great success – but with the added Chinese condition that intervention would only be allowed following the agreement of the affected country. The sovereignty principle once again prevailed over collective security.

The third lesson is the most relevant to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Do not send contradictory messages. One cannot promise national self-determination for Jews in the same land on which self-determination is expected by the rival majoritarian population. The only way to resolve the dispute, as has long been repeatedly recognized, is not by hoping for a love-in within a single united state but by a division of the land between the two peoples. Unfortunately, as we shall see, as each war has been fought at approximately twenty-year intervals over the last century, the lines of division have shifted in one direction as one of those rival peoples became more populous on the ground and also grew in economic and military strength. It is very difficult to accept new dividing lines. But it is even more fruitless to fight to restore dividing lines consecrated in the past.

However, in 1917 and 1919, the Jews had only been promised a national home within Palestine, not a state of their own. But even that limited goal was rejected by the large majoritarian population of Palestine at the time, or, at least, by the leaders even though the challenge had not permeated widely in the minds of the inhabitants, though, in total, there were not that many then – under a million. If even in that nascent situation one could not establish a legal regime acceptable to both groups that would ensure a stable peace rooted in compromise, conciliation and even arbitration, how could one expect even more after the scars inflicted by a hundred-year war?

One final lesson. Beware of collective agreements that cannot be implemented and that will have unintended consequences that will reverse and subvert every one of both the lofty and self-interested motives behind that collective agreement. We have learned to manage rather than end wars. We have learned to mitigate their terrible effects through multilateralism and to contain their horrific results through concerted international efforts. Most of all, we have learned how the support of civil society within each national group is even more important than the stances of the respective rival governments. As we shall see, the Jews of Israel and the Palestinian Arabs have carried the burden, both of the failures and the successes, of earlier history ever since.

NEXT: The Opening Stage of the one-hundred year Jewish-Palestinian War

[i] Cf. 1915-1916.

[ii] Jay Winter (2019) “The Peacemakers of 1919 a Century On,” in Alex de Walle (ed.) Think Peace: Essays for an Age of Disorder, Carnegie. Jay Winter is Charles J. Stille Professor of History emeritus at Yale University.


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