Fathom editors spoke to Ahron Bregman about his new book Cursed Victory: A History of Israel and the Occupied Territories (Penguin, 2014). Bregman served in the Israeli army for six years, taking part in the 1982 Lebanon War. He worked as an academic consultant / associate producer on two major BBC documentaries: The Fifty Years War: Israel and the Arabs (1998) and Elusive Peace: Israel and the Arabs (2005). He left Israel in 1989 and now teaches in the Department of War Studies, King’s College, London. The views expressed here by Ahron Bregman are his own and not those of the Fathom editors or board. Cursed Victory, which has sparked an international controversy, will be reviewed in a future issue of Fathom.
Part 1: Influences
Fathom: We are going to talk about your new book, Cursed Victory. But first, please tell our readers something about the personal journey of Ahron Bregman. You write that ‘no historian can detach his work from his own experiences.’ Can you tell us about your own formative experiences that have led you to write this book?
Ahron Bregman: I’ve spent the last 25 years in the UK, but I still regard myself as an Israeli. You can take me out of Israel, but you can’t really take Israel out of me. My ancestors were all from Palestine / Israel. Nine generations on the land.
I’m called Ahron after my great-great uncle who was killed in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. He’s buried on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, together with another guy, the two of them in the same grave. The other guy was a medic who was shot and killed while trying to rescue my badly injured uncle. So they died together, their bodies lay in the field until they were found five years later and then they were buried together.
For me, the 1982 Lebanon War was a major formative experience. It had a huge impact on me. Not so much the fighting itself, but the lies behind the war. The manipulations. You see, an entire army – in fact, an entire nation – was dragged to the gates of an Arab capital, Beirut; and for what? In Lebanon, I lost two of my cadets: Efi, who was killed in a car crash there, and Gidi who was killed when an ammunition truck exploded in his face. I carried Gidi’s coffin with five other officers for a burial near Tel Aviv; the coffin was so light, very little remained of Gidi. I myself was nearly killed too, in an ambush not far from Beirut.
I was an artillery officer. We stayed in the evacuated Al Jamous School, overlooking Beirut. From there, sitting on school desks and looking out of the classroom windows, we directed our fire on Beirut, trying to force Arafat to get out of there. In the background we were listening to Israel Radio in shortwaves and we could hear how the government was lying to its own citizens. They would announce, for instance, that Beirut was ‘quiet’. Quiet? We kept bombing it for days and weeks on end – artillery, bombing from the sea and from the air. It was all burning up there. Have you ever seen a city on fire?
Then came the Intifada, the Palestinian uprising against the Israeli occupation in 1987. It caught me when I was travelling in Kathmandu, Nepal. In a small corner shop I spotted in one of the papers a picture of an Israeli soldier beating up a Palestinian demonstrator with the butt of his rifle and my hair stood on end. Then the army started shooting the Palestinians – using live ammunition. From Kathmandu I sent a letter to Haaretz accusing the army of committing brutal crimes. I wrote in my letter that I would not return home before the killing was over. But in the end I had nowhere else to go. Back in Israel I became very vocal about it all. I gave an interview saying that should I be called up by the army for a tour of duty in the occupied territories, I would flatly refuse. Nowadays, there are many Israelis who refuse to serve in the occupied territories, but at the time it was an unusual act of defiance quite unheard of in those early days of the Intifada. I felt I could not be a part of it and I had to find another country to live in until the insanity came to an end. So I came here, to the UK, and I’m still here. I love Israel, but I hate the occupation – I really deeply hate it.
Part 2: Sources
F: In a ‘Note on Sources’ you write that you used top-secret memos in the book, as well as letters and reports ‘which have never been seen before’ including transcripts of telephone conversations between the President of the United States and world leaders ‘secretly recorded by Israeli agents.’ This will raise some eyebrows, to say the least, and may be met with some scepticism. What are you able to tell Fathom readers about these sources and how you obtained them?
AB: Benjamin Netanyahu said recently in an interview with Bloomberg, and let me quote him here, that, ‘Israel has not conducted any espionage operations in the United States, period. Full stop. Not direct espionage, not indirect espionage, nothing, zero. We do not conduct in any way, shape or form espionage operations in the United States.’ Well, in my book I show that Israel did in fact spy on the Americans. Israeli agents secretly recorded the telephone conversations of Bill Clinton whilst he was President of the US, and I quote directly from these secretly recorded conversations. If you read carefully Netanyahu’s words you’ll see that he’s repeating, twice, the fact that Israel did not conduct espionage ‘in’ the US. So maybe the spying was done somewhere along the telephone line, not physically in the US, but elsewhere. Still, this is called espionage and it goes against the spirit of Netanyahu’s message about not spying on friends.
I know the documents I’ve quoted will lead to a major investigation in Israel, as there are even more sensitive documents in the book, such as one written by Israeli internal security saying that a dead Arafat would benefit Israel.
What’s my source? Well, I can’t really tell you; this secret will go with me to the grave. In my book I call it ‘private sources’. But let me tell you just that: when I research a book, I hunt for private archives. You see, in Israel, everyone – but everyone – from the minister and down the ladder to the most junior aide and adviser, perhaps even the cleaners, keep their own private archives. Some of these collections are quite big, others are small, perhaps just a few folders. But even the small ones often contain top secret documents. It’s a catastrophe.
The first and, in fact, the most interesting private archive I have ever reviewed was of a former head of the Mossad, the Israeli secret intelligence. I’ll not tell you his name, but he invited me to his office and I spent nearly a week there, going through his folders, hardly eating or drinking because it was so fascinating and I just didn’t want to waste any time on breaks. I’ll not be surprised if after the publication of Cursed Victory, the Israelis will try to put an end to this practice, whereby everyone’s got his little private archive.
Part 3: Periodisations
F: The book offers a chronology of the post-1967 occupation, but it also offers a periodisation of the occupation into an initial decade of uncertainty and status quo, a second decade of settlement building in pursuit of a ‘Greater Israel’, and then, under the impress of the intifadas, a sobering up and a search for an exit by negotiation and unilateralism. You conclude that ‘Israel’s attempt to swallow the occupied territories over the last four decades of occupation has failed.’ My question: given that two thirds of Israeli Jews consider a Jewish majority more important than the Greater land of Israel; given that most of the settlers are located within settlement blocs, with fewer than 100,000 living beyond the blocs (among 2.5 million Palestinian Arabs); and given that even Benjamin Netanyahu is now repeatedly talking about the threat of a binational state, isn’t the ‘Greater Israel’ project really facing inevitable failure?
AB: Yes, of course. The settlement of the occupied lands, which is at the heart of the ‘Greater Israel’ project, is an utter failure, an utter disaster. And it’s been dead for many years now. Remember the Jewish settlements in the Sinai? Where are they? All gone. Remember the settlements in the Gaza Strip? Gone too. The Golan was offered to the Syrians in return for peace (alas, nothing came of it) and the Israeli offer included a pledge to remove all 32 Golan Jewish settlements. And on the West Bank, when the two state solution is finally implemented, the Israelis will be allowed to keep no more than two or three per cent of the land, where the big settlement blocs are located, and to compensate the Palestinians for that land. Was it worth it? Of course not.
Part 4: ‘Cursed’ Victory
F: Let’s talk about the book’s title. Why, for you, was the Six Day War a cursed victory?
AB: Because it turned the Israelis from the underdog, from the injured party, to occupiers – brutal occupiers in the eyes of the world. The verdict of history will regard the four decades of occupation that followed the 1967 military victory, which I describe in my book, as a black mark on Israeli and, indeed, Jewish history.
F: Do you accept the Six Day War was a one of self-defence? It has long been argued that, if the situation had been reversed, and the Arab armies had been victorious against Israel, Israel’s Jewish population would have been either exterminated or expelled, as the leaders of many of Israel’s neighbouring Arab countries had repeatedly threatened to do.
AB: I don’t know about this ‘What if’ question – about what if Arab armies had been victorious against Israel. The guarantor – the US and in fact the whole of the West would not have allowed any such thing as extermination or expulsion of the Israelis to happen. Not after the Holocaust. Never.
It is true though that in 1967 Israel felt deeply threatened by the Arabs. So their pre-emptive attack on the enemy did make sense. But it doesn’t make sense to keep occupied lands. And even if you do decide to keep lands you’ve occupied for whatever reason, then don’t build villages there, don’t take over the resources – the water, the oil and so on, don’t use it, as it isn’t yours. It’s occupied land and international law of occupation is very clear on this matter – occupied territories should remain intact.
Q: The book could be read as radically downplaying the significance of Israeli actions in pursuit of peace. For example, you claim that Sinai was ‘relatively worthless and easy to give up on.’ However, Menachem Begin faced significant opposition and required the support of Shimon Peres (then opposition leader) to secure the passage of the peace agreement through the Knesset. Sinai was considered an area of huge strategic importance: to this day Egypt must request Israeli permission to deploy troops in the Sinai. Israel had settlements, such as Yamit, which it was forced to evacuate, and it also gave up the possibility of energy resources which it had been exploring in Sinai. Was it really ‘worthless’ and ‘easy’?
AB: As for the strategic importance of the Sinai: well, strategically, peace was worth more than land. Since the signing of peace with Egypt in 1979 and the return of the Sinai to Egyptian hands there has been no war between the two nations. Also, mind you, Israel did not have the Sinai in 1967 but it still gained a superb military victory over Egyptian forces in the Six Day War. In 1973, on the other hand, it did control the Sinai but suffered a terrible military setback at the opening of the [Yom Kippur] War.
As for the Sinai oil and the Jewish settlements there: well, of course there was plenty of oil in the Sinai – but then it’s against international law for an occupier to exploit it, and Israel did. And of course there were Israeli settlements there too – but then again, it’s against international law to build villages on occupied territory.
Part 5: Americans
F: You argue that in the 1970s the US used its ‘diplomatic and financial clout’ to push Israel and Egypt in the direction of a peace agreement, and that this is a model. You argue for the international community, particularly the US, to push, even ‘bribe’, Israel into an agreement today. What measures do you have in mind? Some believe pressure on Israel would only embolden those opposed to a peace agreement altogether. Others would point out that the real breakthroughs came not due to international pressure but were initiatives generated by the parties acting in their own interests, e.g. Sadat’s visit to Israel, the secret Oslo negotiations – how do you respond to that argument?
AB: If I ask you the question: when did Israel withdraw for the first time from occupied territories, there’s a good chance that you’ll say that this happened following the signing of the Israeli-Egyptian peace deal in 1979. But in fact Israel withdrew for the first time in 1974-1975. At that time the Nixon Administration came to the Israelis and said: ‘We want you to pull out from some parts of the Sinai, even symbolically and we’ll reward you for that.’ And they did – big time. The US committed itself to giving Israel large scale military and financial support, a contingency plan for meeting Israel’s military needs in an emergency, and a pledge to preserve and consolidate Israel’s military superiority by furnishing it with the most advanced and sophisticated weaponry that America could offer. Additionally, the US pledged neither to recognise nor to negotiate with the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) as long as it rejected the right of Israel to exist and to renounce violence. It also guaranteed that for five years Israel would be able to obtain all its domestic oil needs from the US, even agreeing to construct in Israel storage facilities capable of storing one year’s supply of oil. And the US undertook not to put forward any peace proposals without first making ‘every effort to coordinate with Israel its proposal with a view to refraining from putting forth proposals that Israel would consider unsatisfactory,’ thus effectively giving the Israelis a veto power on any peace programme. The US also committed to protect Israel from the Russians (it was the Cold War). Well, it worked. In 1974-5, and for the first time ever, Israel withdrew 35 km in the Sinai, away from the Suez Canal. Israel’s then Defence Minister and now President, Shimon Peres, summed up the benefits to Israel by saying, ‘We gave up a little to get a lot.’ So yes, I do call it a bribe – a diplomatic bribe, if you want, and that’s fine with me. If you ask yourself why the Israelis get $3 billion a year from the US, regardless of the financial situation there, then think 1974-1975. And if the US now wants Israel to withdraw again it should try it again – putting pressure on Israel not by using sticks, but by offering carrots – a gentle diplomatic bribe.