“The Hundred-Year Struggle”: Israel, Palestine, and Improbable Peace with Professor Victor Lieberman

U-M Professor Not Allowed to Speak at BDS Meeting Speaks Out Now

In this week’s episode, A’ndre and Ryan dissect the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with University of Michigan Professor Victor Lieberman. This episode provides a broad overview of the conflict itself, going back more than a 100 years and framing the conflict as not one between Muslims and Jews, but one between two rival nationalisms — Zionism and Palestinian Nationalism. Professor Lieberman provides a timeline that goes back to the days of the Ottoman Empire and then into the British administered Mandatory Palestine, the demographic shifts that occurred in the region due to European anti-Semitism, and the political and armed conflicts leading up to creation of the State of Israel. Professor Lieberman digs into the wars between Israel and its Arab state neighbors, the nature of Palestinian political leadership, and the relationship between the goals of the Arab states and the goal of a Palestinian state.  Land, borders, and failures in diplomacy form a large bulk of the discussion, and Professor Lieberman rounds out the conversation with why he is cautiously pessimistic about any potential resolution to the conflict. The conversation aims to effectively and objectively cover the hundred year conflict in one hour, providing a primer that will help our audience formulate opinions on their own, given the issue’s sensitive nature.
Professor Victor Lieberman teaches a popular course on the Arab-Israeli conflict at the University of Michigan, where he serves as the Raoul Wallenberg Distinguished University Professor of History and Professor of Asian and Comparative History. His effective and objective teaching style was rewarded with the Golden Apple Award in 2014 — given to a professor for outstanding teaching, by the students. 

On the length of the Arab Israeli conflict:

“I see it as essentially 100, maybe 140 years old at most. The conflict is not rooted in an endemic historic opposition between Muslims and Jews or between Arabs and Jews. The conflict is essentially between two rival nationalisms—nationalism being a 19th century, late 18th century, European phenomena which then spread throughout the rest of the world.”

On life in Mandatory Palestine between 1920 and 1948:

“In this formation, that concept of nations had no place. There were no nations, there were simply ethnic groups, religious communities.”

“The Zionist movement represented the influx of European Jews whose culture and attitudes and outlook were substantially different from that of long-standing indigenous communities. And whereas the two communities had traditionally gotten along reasonably well, the Jews in an inferior position, openly acknowledged a position of subordination and inferiority. The income influx of European Jews disturbed that equilibrium because European Jews had an entirely different culture and an entirely different vision of the world, and a different vision of the future. And so this rendered the old accommodation no longer tenable.”

On Zionism:

“Zionism, as I suggested, was a response to a crescendo of anti-Semitism in Europe.

On the demographic shifts in the State of Israel:

“The Jewish population rises, particularly in the 1930s as refugees flee in large numbers from Hitler and from Polish anti-Semitism.”

On the creation of the State of Israel:

“If you’d been in a family where your parents beat to death nine out of ten siblings, and you were the only surviving sibling, would you want to go back to live with those parents? It was not a realistic option. So the determination to have an independent state became unstoppable. And world sympathy shifted to that. You either shifted but fastened upon the Jews after the Holocaust so that the vote in the UN was two thirds in favor of the creation of Israel.”

On the Civil War:

“The UN resolution did not call for the creation of a Palestinian state across the creation of an Arab state—which was not yet a Palestinian identity. Most Arabs living in the area call themselves South Syrians, or just Arabs or Muslims. So one fundamental reason that the war did not result in the creation of a Palestinian state is because Palestinian nationalism was very freshly born, very weak, very shallow in its roots. And it wasn’t a cohesive movement. Whatever strength there had been, was basically decimated by the 1936-39 revolt.”

“The reason there wasn’t a Palestinian state is because Palestinian nationalism was extremely weak. Leadership fell to outside powers, and the outside powers had their own national agendas, which are completely incompatible with Palestinian aspirations.”

On Arab states and eliminating Israel:

“The Arab states thought they would be able to destroy Israel and there were sincere expectations if that would be possible.”

On the changing borders:

“After each attack, Israel sought to protect itself against future attacks by annexing land from which the attacks had proceeded.”

On the historic normalization of relations:

“I don’t think there’s ever been very much popular support of normalization. It’s always been a lead project based upon people who are considering national interest in strategic considerations.”

“Palestinians are the only surviving refugee population to maintain their identity, because first they had the support of the Arab world than they had the support of the Soviet Union. Now they have the support of Iran.”

On Israel and the West Bank territory:

“There was no notion of a single state in which Palestinians and Jews would live together, passengers in the West Bank and Jews would live together. So this was the vision which was pursued by Likud, which came to power in 77 was pursued for another ten years. What finally eliminated that option was the first Intifada, which showed depths of Palestinian unhappiness that hadn’t been recognized before.”

On Jordan’s relationship with the Palestinians in the West Bank territory:

“When Jordan controlled the West Bank from 1948 or 1949 until 1967, the goal was to integrate the local population into a Jordanian national identity, to suppress any expression of Palestinian nationalism. It became quite impossible. All kinds of restrictions on Palestinian political activity were meant to make sure they weren’t really called Palestinians to make the Arabs who lived in that area and into Jordanian citizens.”

“The government has to accede to the, the sympathies the wishes of the people. But in fact, the government’s strategic interest has always dictated accommodation with the West. So on the one hand, has a lot of rhetorical sympathy for the Palestinians. And that continues today and there was also under Hussein. But on the other hand, there was a willingness to accommodate Western expectations and to make a de facto peace arrangement with Israel.”

On the successfulness of the Palestinian Liberation Organization:

“The Palestine Liberation Organization was formed in 1964, under Egyptian domination and only became a genuinely independent dynamic organization…They came up with a new ideology, which said  that we can’t depend upon the Arab states to save us, we have to liberate ourselves. And the only way to liberate ourselves, is to arm struggle. And we’re committed to the creation of an independent state, which is going to control the entire territory of the mandate, we’re going to expel all the Jews who arrived after 1917 or in some cases like 1881. And we aren’t we shouldn’t be seen by the world not as a charity as a charity case, not as recipients of international benevolence, but as a nation whose rights have been denied who are entitled to return to their homeland. So this message resonated with the Arab world.”

On the dynamic change from the invasion of Lebanon by Israel:

“So these are the two transformations which wreck the plan of the right and which lead to a return to labor government, which are indicated draws tremendous strength from the transformation of the world situation: the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the rise of the United States to a position of unchallenged to Germany, in the world and in the Mideast in particular.”

On the failure of the Oslo summit meetings:

“At the end of the day, the Oslo proposals were simply unacceptable to the Palestinians because they required a declaration that the conflict was over an acknowledgment that they would never be able to destroy Israel, that violence was not required recognition and was to be rejected. And none of these ideas was acceptable.”

On the U.S. stance regarding the Israeli situation and the Palestinians:

“I think, with the development of Islamic radicalism, the 9/11, and the rise of al Qaeda and a general image of kind of clash of civilizations, in the American, European, and Israeli mind, Hamas and the Second Intifada are fused with a general Islamic radicalism. And it leads to a rightward turn in American politics or rightward turn in Israeli politics, and a temporary marginalization of the Palestinians. It’s temporary, growing marginalization of the Palestinians.”

On the issue of Hezbollah:

“Despite the fact that Hezbollah is viscerally opposed to Israel’s existence, and the population is quite hostile to Israel. They’ve entered into negotiations to come up with an economic division of authority in the Mediterranean Sea, which would kind of cement a peace agreement between Israel and Hezbollah, because then both sides would hold hostage the others infrastructure, and then war couldn’t resolve.”

On a possible solution to the Israeli Palestinian situation:

“So a three state solution would say that with or without a formal understanding, in effect, you have three states: Gaza, the West Bank and Israel. And that may be the most realistic solution.”

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