Given the volume of writing on the Arab-Israeli conflict, “you might think that everything has been said,” says Noam Chomsky. But Victor Kattan’s new book, Coexistence to Conquest: International Law and the Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, takes a fresh look at the prehistory of the dispute, as well as the evolution of international law and its import for the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine, says Chomsky. While he is familiar with much of the material in this account, Chomsky also notes episodes in Kattan’s narrative that open up new, “sordid chapters” in these “convoluted, complex, often painful historical events.”
Kattan set out to explore how the conflict began, and so pored over the writing of scores of European political figures, and leaders of Zionist and Arab nationalist movements of the late 19th and 20th centuries. His key insight: Neither Arabs nor Jews were to blame for triggering hostilities, but rather Britain, and the other major powers.
Kattan argues that anti-Semitism, which welled up during a period of collapsing colonial empires, motivated British actions that led to a Jewish homeland in Palestine, and paved the way for trouble over decades to the current time. In the 19th century, Jews viciously persecuted in Russia began flooding Western Europe, especially Britain, where many thousands more embarked to the U.S. America and Britain were the promised land to the Jews, says Kattan — not Palestine. But British distaste for these immigrants soon led to plans for diverting the unwanted foreigners to an alternative location.
In the early 1900s, Kattan describes documents authored by British statesmen, and by such early Zionist leaders as Theodor Herzl, arguing that Britain’s Jewish immigration “problem” could be solved by finding Jews a homeland in Palestine. Kattan even cites U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis endorsing such a solution. Anti-immigrant fervor, says Kattan, led to the Balfour Declaration of 1917, describing Britain’s intention to facilitate a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
This was a compromised piece of diplomacy, suggests Kattan, ushering in an era of unending disputes and hostility. Key issues the British sidestepped or muddied, says Kattan, included promises made to Arabs for their own independent kingdom, and the principle of self-determination, emergent in international law, which would have acknowledged the claims of the Arab majority in the lands carved out for the Jews. While Britain bore the largest share in creating the Middle East mess — with its many vital interests in the region — Kattan says that other nations were complicit, entangled as they were by immigration and independence movements and their own strategic influence.
Kattan follows this sorry tale through the Second World War and Israel’s founding, describing repeated failed attempts to reach a settlement between Arabs and Jews over a shared homeland. But due to a conflict set in motion so many years before, a “culture of blame” now exists that will likely prevent agreement, particularly, says Kattan, “as long as Israeli settlements expand.”