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Making David into Goliath

By Jeremy Havardi
8/13/2014, 1:08 AM

Israel used to be feted across the western world. In the aftermath of the Six Day War, opinion polls showed that Americans and Europeans favoured Israel over the Arabs by a huge margin. Liberals and leftists viewed Israel as a plucky little underdog surviving against the odds in a hostile region. Nearly half a century later and the picture has been utterly transformed. Israel bashing has become the cause célèbre of modern times with the country treated as a pariah state. 

Why did this change occur? Israel's critics would argue thus: 'It's the occupation, stupid'. Before 1967, Israel was not controlling the West Bank or building 'illegal' settlements. David Muravckik, a fellow at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, offers a far more convincing perspective in his new book Making David into Goliath.

The transformation occurred because the conflict itself was redefined. After 1967, it was no longer Israel versus the Arab world, where a tiny and beleaguered nation faced the might of an Arab empire. Instead it was Israel versus the Palestinians, a pitiful and homeless people desperately seeking a return to their homeland. At least that was how a 'progressive' Palestinian leadership liked to picture things. 

Modelling themselves on the Vietcong and with the backing of a mighty Soviet superpower, the PLO began to master the vernacular of the global left. They presented themselves to the west as a 'liberation' movement seeking to resist the worst ravages of First World colonialism. All they wanted was a 'secular, democratic state' where Jews and Arabs would live in harmony as equals. That an Arafat led dictatorship would be neither secular nor democratic was carefully hidden, together with the fact that the Jews they were referring to were those who had lived in Palestine before 1917. 

But that was only part of the explanation. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Palestinian terrorists launched a series of violent attacks across Europe. The most infamous example was the massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972. But instead of responding robustly to this murderous campaign, European countries simply wilted. Terrorists were quickly released by governments in the hope that their nationals would be spared any further attacks. Such abject appeasement took place at the same time that Arab states announced an oil embargo during the Yom Kippur War. The EEC kowtowed to economic pressure and produced the Brussels Declaration, a document so Arabist that it was later described as a 'kiss blown from afar'. 

But for the Arab lobby, the biggest diplomatic coup was its seizure of the United Nations in the 1970s. During this decade the UN became dominated by a Soviet/Arab/Third World bloc which was responsible for the creation of an anti-western, anti-American zeitgeist.  The USSR certainly had an interest in delegitimising Israel, having seen its client states, Egypt and Syria, humiliated in two recent wars. The UN would rapidly become the world's most  powerful bastion of anti-Israel hostility, passing one hostile resolution after another, including the notorious one equating Zionism with racism. 

Another supposedly neutral institution, the world of Middle Eastern academia, was also turned upside down at the same time. Edward Said's seminal tome Orientalism, which lambasted all western attempts to understand the Middle East as bigoted relics of colonialism, became essential reading in many disciplines. All these developments reflect just how easily the west bowed down to relentless Arab pressure. 

But Muravchik does suggest that it is, at least in part, about 'us' and not 'them'. Menachem Begin's dream of a 'Greater Israel' and his policy of settlement expansion proved to be less endearing to many than the socialist vision of Israel's pioneers. The Lebanon war of 1982, with its unforgettable images of Phalangist atrocities, left an indelible impression on Israel's critics. But even the more hard line Begin turned out to be a great peacemaker, signing the Camp David Accords with Egypt and offering a blueprint for Palestinian self-determination.

But by this stage, the damage had been done. Israel had become a pariah nation with much of 'progressive' opinion turning against her. She even spawned her own adversary culture. The new historians like Ilan Pappe and Avi Shlaim, and journalists like Gideon Levy and Amira Hass, fuelled the cauldron of hatred with their diatribes. They gave vital ammunition to advocates of the BDS movement with their accusations of Israeli apartheid, racism and war crimes. 

Muravchik covers a huge amount of ground here but his narrative and arguments are both readable and cogent. Some may disagree with his refusal to cite anti semitism as a prime cause of demonisation. But the book does show how the centre left, both in Israel and around the world, have got it badly wrong. Israel bashing didn't start with the 'occupation', nor will it end with another Palestinian state.