Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine since 1989

Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine since 1989

Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine since 1989

Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine since 1989


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In 1993 luminaries from around the world signed the 'Oslo Accords' - a pledge to achieve lasting peace in the Holy Land - on the lawn of the White House. Yet things didn't turban out quite as planned. With over 1, 000 Israelis and close to four times that number of Palestinians killed since 2000, the Oslo process is now considered 'history'.

Impossible Peace provides one of the first comprehensive analyses of that history. Mark LeVine argues that Oslo was never going to bring peace or justice to Palestinians or Israelis. He claims that the accords collapsed not because of a failure to live up to the agreements; but precisely because of the terms of and ideologies underlying the agreements. Today more than ever before, it's crucial to understand why these failures happened and how they will impact on future negotiations towards the 'final status agreement'. This fresh and honest account of the peace process in the Middle East shows how by learning from history it may be possible to avoid the errors that have long doomed peace in the region.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781842777695
Publisher: Bloomsbury Academic
Publication date: 12/01/2008
Series: Global History of the Present
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Mark LeVine is Professor of modern Middle Eastern history, culture and Islamic Studies at the University of California, Irvine. He is a contributing editor for Tikkun magazine, and has written for the Los Angeles Times, Le Monde and Christian Science Monitor. He is the author and editor of half a dozen books, including: Heavy Metal Islam (2008), Why They Don't Hate Us (2005), Overthrowing Geography (2005), Religion, Social Practices and Contested Hegemonies (2004) and Twilight of Empire (2003).
Mark LeVine is Professor of modern Middle Eastern history, culture and Islamic Studies at the University of California, Irvine. He is a contributing editor for Tikkun magazine, and has written for the Los Angeles Times, Le Monde and Christian Science Monitor. He is the author and editor of half a dozen books, including: Heavy Metal Islam (2008), Why They Don't Hate Us (2005), Overthrowing Geography (2005), Religion, Social Practices and Contested Hegemonies (2004) and Twilight of Empire (2003).

Read an Excerpt

Impossible Peace

Israel/Palestine since 1989

By Mark LeVine

Fernwood Publishing and Zed Books Ltd

Copyright © 2009 Mark LeVine
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84277-769-5


From modernity to the Messiah on the Mediterranean

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has always been a dispute over territory – which community had the stronger historical claim to the land between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean Sea; who between them was better equipped physically, ideologically, politically and financially to bring Palestine into the 'modern world'; who, in Ben-Gurion's words, had the greater right to 'rule the country.' Exploring this period of Oslo's 'prehistory' is crucial to understanding why Oslo was from the start an 'inherently flawed' process; as we proceed to the chapters dealing specifically with the peace process, we will see that the failure of negotiations rested partly upon the inability (or unwillingness) of Israelis and Palestinians to learn from their shared and disputed history.

Jews retained a strong religious attachment to the Land of Israel throughout the more than 1,800 years, beginning with the destruction of the Second Temple by Rome in 70 CE, that the majority of the community lived in the diasporic exile. As a territorially focused nationalist identity, however, Zionism emerged in the mid-nineteenth century. This was a moment when two discourses were reaching maturity in Europe – the nation-state and 'High Imperialism' – which would each profoundly shape the Zionist enterprise.

It was the Russian pogroms and the Dreyfus Affair of the 1880s which sparked an organized political movement to return to the ancient homeland of the Jews. Indeed, until, at the earliest, the middle of the twentieth century's first decade, there was no consensus about whether the proposed 'Jewish National Home' (described with the German word heimstatt in most of the Zionist literature of the day) would be an autonomous territory under the sovereignty of the Ottoman Empire or a fully independent state.

Not until the British conquered Palestine in 1917 did the idea of creating an independent state become a feasible goal. Even then, it took the Holocaust to sway the majority of Ashkenazi – that is, European – Jews worldwide, and much of non-Jewish opinion as well, towards actively supporting a Jewish state. Jews from Muslim countries retained a more ambivalent attitude towards Zionism, even as the vast majority of them emigrated to Israel during the 1950s.

The idea of a modern Palestinian identity – that is, one in which Palestinian Arabs understood themselves to be part of a unique people whose national territory comprised the rough borders of Mandate Palestine – emerged soon after the first stirrings of political Zionism, in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. While strongly rooted in local traditions (particularly religious festivals that brought people together from all over the country each year), Palestinian identity was also encouraged by the wider spread of nationalist ideologies across Eurasia, the growing challenge of European imperialism and soon after Zionism, and the weakness of the Ottoman state.

From the start, the Zionist and Palestinian movements argued over who had the ability to develop the country and thus the right to rule it. Adopting the dominant European colonial discourses of development, Zionists argued that Jewish-Zionist and Palestinian Arab societies were essentially separate and autonomous societies at very different stages of historical development. If Mark Twain anticipated the Zionist view of Palestine as 'sit[ting] in sackcloth and ashes [with] withered [...] fields and fettered [...] energies,' Zionists were firm in the conviction that they could 'make the desert bloom' and breathe new life into an old land (thus the title of Herzl's novel about Zionist colonization in Palestine was Altneuland, Old-New Land).

Palestinian leaders saw things quite differently. They admitted the advanced nature of European and Zionist technologies and even political ideologies; but they understood, first, that Palestine had also undergone significant development during the late Ottoman period, and second, that many of the reforms or advances in agriculture, town planning or other areas discussed by Zionist leaders or the British were not going to benefit them, but rather would further Zionist efforts to 'conquer' Palestine's territory and economy.

The exclusivist ideology underlying Zionism, and Palestinian nationalism as well, was reflected in the burgeoning economic and territorial conflicts between the two communities. Together, they made a long-term, zero-sum conflict between Zionists and Palestinians inevitable by the time the British entered Palestine in 1917. The transformation from Ottoman to British imperial control nevertheless produced a 'shock' to Palestinian Arab society, one that was exacerbated by the fact that the British government was unbounded by even the minimum obligations of the country's former Ottoman rulers to Palestine's indigenous population. Instead, the British government threw its support behind the Zionist colonization enterprise, as exemplified by the Balfour Declaration of November 1917.

The Balfour Declaration stated that 'His Majesty's Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.' The most crucial part of the Declaration was its advancement of political rights for Jews in Palestine, compared with a commitment merely to safeguard – rather than advance – 'civil' and 'religious' (and not political) rights of Palestinian Arabs. This imbalance would characterize British rule through most of the Mandate period, with disastrous consequences for the political and economic development of Palestinian society.

Out of the myriad changes that impacted the development of Palestine in the late Ottoman and Mandate periods, four are most relevant for understanding the country's post-1989 history:

1. Modernization and the development of the two nationalisms The nineteenth century was a period of large-scale transformation in the political economy of the Ottoman Empire. A series of reforms, known as the 'Tanzimat' (but which in fact began well before the Tanzimat decree of 1839), codified the capitalization of land, encouraged commercial treaties with European powers, granted equal rights to Jews and Christians, and reformed land and tax laws, and the legal and political system more broadly. All these changes increased the power of Europeans vis-à-vis the Ottoman state, and in Palestine in particular.

At the same time, however, the greater openness of the Palestinian economy to the world economy facilitated the emergence of a modern merchant and capitalist class (with a focus on oranges, soap and olive oil) that spearheaded a significant development of the Palestinian economy in the last century of Ottoman rule, as trade increased both with Europe and within the empire. The liberalization of land tenure laws and the growing capitalization of land did not impact all classes equally, however; they also encouraged the dispossession of tens of thousands of Palestinians when Zionists started engaging in widespread land purchases. The realignment – but by no means transformation – of Palestinian class structure weakened the poorer segments of the Palestinian peasantry in favor of the 'notable' or upper classes (a dynamic that would be repeated a century later under the Palestinian Authority).

At the same time, the emergence of a Turkish-centered identity among the Ottoman elite lessened the willingness of the Ottoman state to protect Palestinians just when their position in the country began to be threatened. As the Ottoman elite moved from a cosmopolitan to a more exclusive nationalist – Turkish – identity, Palestinians responded by shifting their allegiance away from the empire and towards a similarly more local, nationalist focus.

At first, pan-Arab ideologies were popular among some segments of the elite, but a Palestine-focused nationalism had become the dominant form of nationalist expression before World War I. One dynamic that influenced this development was the rise of a Palestinian public sphere, as half a dozen or more newspapers were operating by the end of the Ottoman era. They were joined by an increasing number of local civic organizations, which supported an emerging national identity among the burgeoning Palestinian intellectual class.

At the end of World War I, the Wilsonian discourse of self-determination that seized the imagination of the world public and influenced the birth of the League of Nations demanded that the territories conquered by the British and French during the war be treated as 'mandates' rather than colonies. Britain and France were not granted sovereign power over Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq; instead, under Article 22 of the League of Nations Covenant, they were authorized, or mandated, to govern these territories only until such time as they would be deemed capable of self-government.

In practice, however, Palestine and the other British (and French) mandates were treated as colonies acquired as the spoils of war. As the British explained to the League of Nations, 'A mandate was a self-imposed limitation by the conquerors on the sovereignty which they exercised over the conquered territory.' And the British government was not about to impose any limitation on its position in Palestine that would interfere with its larger strategic interests. Because of this, the country faced most of the same unfavorable trade and revenue conditions as existed in Egypt or India, most important among them the unwillingness of the British government to spend funds on the development of the country and the productive potential of its people.

In this situation, while the League of Nations recognized Palestine's 'provisional independence' in its Charter, it was Jewish rather than Arab Palestine which became the focus of British attention. Indeed, the huge influx of Jewish capital became a substitute for government revenue, giving Zionist leaders disproportionate influence in how and where the money was allocated. So great at times was this influx of capital, and so skewed was the expenditure of funds for development towards the self-evidently 'modern' Jewish sector, that Palestinians had the impression that 'the Jews can buy everything,' including their patrimony.

Despite the disproportionate economic power of the Zionist movement, and the 'economic warfare' between the two communities, there was significant growth in the Palestinian Arab agricultural sector, and even more the industrial sectors, during the Mandate. But many of the most profitable Palestinian enterprises, such as the Jaffan citrus trade, were controlled by Jews by the 1930s. This imbalance was aggravated by the 'Great Revolt' of 1936–39, as the combination of violent resistance and strikes by Palestinians was used by the Zionist leadership to strengthen their cooperation with the British government, and their position in the economy.

In truth, Zionism had become part of Palestine's economic landscape much earlier, at the beginning of the 1880s. In 1891, the writer and moralist Ahad Ha-Am wrote a stinging critique of the then still embryonic Zionist settlement project in Palestine. Entitled 'The truth from Eretz Yisrael' (Eretz Yisrael is the Hebrew name for the Land of Israel), it argued that '[The Jewish settlers] treat the Arabs with hostility and cruelty, trespass unjustly, beat them shamelessly for no sufficient reason, and even take pride in doing so.'

The common chauvinism of colonists towards the colonized was not the only reason why Zionism had by the first decade of the twentieth century become, in the words of Israeli sociologist Gershon Shafir, a 'militant nationalist movement.' Equally important was the economic competition faced by Jewish immigrants from cheaper and often better-skilled Palestinian Arab workers. In response socialist Zionist leaders developed the strategy of the 'Conquest of Labor' to facilitate the creation of jobs for Jewish immigrants by creating Jewish-only employment. When this proved ineffective, the 'Conquest of Land' became the focus, involving the purchase of land for exclusive Jewish settlement and, through it, employment for Jewish immigrants. While this was unique in its particulars, replacing rather than merely exploiting the indigenous population was a strategy common to most settler colonial movements, including the United States, South Africa, and Australia.

2. Increased immigration and land purchases During the late Ottoman period, from the 1880s till the outbreak of World War I, the non-Jewish Arab population increased from around 500,000 to something over 700,000, while the Jewish population rose from some 25,000 to upwards of 85,000. During the Mandate period the number of Jews in Palestine increased more than ninefold, from approximately 57,000 to 555,000 between 1917 and 1945. The country's Palestinian Arab population did not quite double during this period, increasing from 660,000 to 1.2 million people. Proportionately, Jews increased their percentage of the population during this period from about 9 to 31 percent.

Jewish land purchases did not increase nearly as significantly as the Jewish percentage of the population; even at the end of the Mandate, Jews owned only about 7 percent of the land of Mandate Palestine. Nevertheless, it is impossible to overestimate the importance of the land purchases made during the Mandate period. Indeed, the increasing intensity of the policies of 'conquering' labor and land were proportional to the increase in the country's Jewish population; the latter encompassed enough territory to enable Jews to create a socially, politically and ultimately militarily viable presence along the coast, Galilee and Negev region of the country. The number of Jewish settlements grew from about 29 in 1920 to over 270 at the end of the Mandate.

By the 1930s, a decade after the 'land question' had become a central dynamic within the Zionist-Palestinian Arab conflict, Palestinian peasants (rather than just the large local or absentee landowners) were being forced by deteriorating economic conditions to sell land to Jews. Even as the British imposed increasing restrictions on land sales to Jews, more land was purchased between the 'Great Revolt' – the period during 1936-39 when various segments of Palestinian society offered coordinated and often violent resistance against the rapidly growing Zionist presence in the country – and the end of the Mandate than during the sixteen years previous to it; more than half of that was purchased during the last two years of British rule. Land was also settled without government permission by the construction of small and easily defensible 'tower and stockade' (Homa Umigdal) settlements by Jews. The same model was adopted by settlers after 1967, and even during and after the Oslo years, when Israeli governments threatened to withdraw from more sparsely settled regions of the West Bank.

3. Doomed politics The modern history of Palestine has been defined by episodes of resistance by the indigenous population against foreign interference of all sorts. This 'spirit of resistance' was nurtured by centuries of on-and-off-again warfare between Bedouins and towns, coupled with periodic invasions by foreign forces (Crusaders, Egyptians, Syrians or Europeans), and communal revolts that gripped the country, beginning with the 1834 revolt against Ibrahim Pasha, and continuing to the present day with the al-Aqsa intifada.

Bedouins, peasants, or city-dwellers, the non-Jewish Arab populations of Palestine did not react passively to changes imposed from above, whether by the Ottomans, Egyptians, Zionists or the British. As in many countries, however, the incorporation of Palestinian elites (however unevenly) into the economic and political structures of the late Ottoman Empire and then the British Mandate marginalized the poorer segments of Palestinian society. They responded with the standard forms of subaltern resistance – slacking off work, petty thefts, and violence when necessary (against the growing European presence on their lands, later against Zionists, the British and even their own elites).

What made this dynamic particularly damaging in Palestine was that in the context of the growing competition with a better-organized and financed national movement that had the institutional support of the occupying power, the 'notable' class failed to put the broader nationalist interest ahead of their narrower economic interests. A major problem faced by Palestinian society was that a factional political culture based (in principle if not reality) on kinship and patronage relations, which had gradually evolved during the late Ottoman period, suddenly had to function horizontally, across class lines, in order to establish a cohesive level of political solidarity. 'Notables' would have had to mobilize the working class with whom they had no direct or indirect relations of patronage or reciprocity in order to confront the threat of Zionism; but the entry of the peasants and working class into Palestinian Arab politics generally was, on the face of it, as much a threat to the power of Palestinian elites as was the growing power of Zionism.

To cite just one example of how this dynamic played out on the ground, when pressed by Jewish labor negotiators to better wages and conditions for Palestinian Arab workers, the vice-mayor of Jaffa responded: 'Why do you bother us and meddle every day in the interests of the workers? ... We don't have democracy, we scorn democracy ... We only understand one thing: the worker that puts forth demands to us is a worker that wants to be lord over us and this we will not suffer.' It wasn't just that advancing the interests of the Palestinian working class challenged their hegemony; also important was the price of true nationalist activities, as the British would jail or even exile leaders who endorsed the kind of activism that might counter the growing threat from Zionist colonization.


Excerpted from Impossible Peace by Mark LeVine. Copyright © 2009 Mark LeVine. Excerpted by permission of Fernwood Publishing and Zed Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Abbreviations and Acronyms
Introduction - An Impossible Peace
1. From Modernity to the Messiah on the Mediterranean
2. From Handshake to Security State
3. No Land, No Peace
4. The Economics of Failure
5. Religion, Culture and Territory in a Globalized Context
6. Violence, Chaos and the History of the Future
Conclusion - Oslo and the Burden of History
Suggestions for Further Reading
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