“Beware of Small States”: journalist David Hirst interviewed

Veteran Middle East correspondent David Hirst, author of the seminal work on the Palestinian plight The Gun and the Olive Branch, has a new release: Beware of Small States, an equally important book on Lebanon’s complex tragedy. The Electronic Intifada contributor Robin Yassin-Kassab interviewed Hirst on his work and views.

Robin Yassin-Kassab: You did your national service in Cyprus and Egypt just before the 1956 Suez War. What effect did your first experience of the Middle East have on you? Why did you end up spending your life in the Middle East, particularly in its more violent corners? Have kidnappings and bannings discouraged you?

David Hirst: Yes, I was one of the last generation of British 18-year-olds obliged to do two years of military service. Politically speaking, it had virtually no effect on me; I was an immature youth from a thoroughly apolitical middle class background, and knew next to nothing about international affairs, and hardly knew, for example, the difference between Arabs and Israelis. But — unusually for a mere private soldier — I sought and secured permission to use a fortnight’s leave to travel round Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon. I enjoyed the experience. After three years at Oxford, I could not think of a career to embark on. Remembering the American University of Beirut, I wrote and asked them if there were any kind of introductory course about the Middle East that I could follow there. There was. With a vague idea of staying there for a couple of years or so, I found myself drifting into journalism, and, taking to it, I ended up staying fifty.

I grew deeply interested in the politics of the region; I also like to think that — having come to the area entirely devoid of preconceptions, or anything more than the most rudimentary knowledge, tabula rasa as it were — the opinions and interpretations I developed about the Arab-Israeli conflict were always as near as possible spontaneously personal and first-hand ones; I quickly learned that, as such, they were all too apt to clash with what one might call the prevailing Western orthododoxy of the time. I stayed because I felt personally at home in the region, because my work was so professionally interesting, and my newspaper — unusually — never asked me to go anywhere else. As for the dangers, I definitely didn’t relish them, but unless they had become overwhelming and personal — i.e, for example, if I knew, as I did for a while, that there was a plan to kidnap me — I would never have left the region because of them.

RYK: The subtitle of your 1977 book The Gun and the Olive Branch is “The Roots of Violence in the Middle East.” Would you agree that yours was one of the first books (of those widely-available in the Anglo-Saxon world) to contextualize Palestinian violence against the backdrop of Zionist violence and Palestinian dispossession? What was the response to your book back then?

DH: I guess so. But that this should have been so is basically a measure of just how far that Western orthodoxy about the nature and moralities of the Arab-Israeli conflict parted company with historic truth and essential fairness. It is not as if my book discovered or vouchsafed anything really new. All the research had been done for me by earlier scholars. But it seems that I was at that time one of the few Westerners to put the history together in the form of a straightforward narrative setting Palestinian violence against Zionist/Israeli violence, a narrative whose basic conclusion was that the Zionists essentially pioneered the violence in pursuit of their political purposes — at their most dramatic and premeditated the ethnic cleansing of the territory they coveted — whereas Palestinian violence and terror has been essentially reactive.

RYK: Why has the West, in media and cultural production as well as in its geostrategy, tended to be partial to the Zionist narrative of the Middle East?

DH: For all the well-known reasons that have been rehearsed a thousand times. Biblico-Christian sentiment, Western guilt complex, admiration for the rugged, idealistic early Zionist settlers and their achievement in “making the desert bloom” and all that, highly effective Jewish/Zionist propaganda and influence within the corridors of Western power. On the geostrategic level, I don’t agree with the idea that Israel has been a valuable asset or ally in the service of an “imperial” or “neo-imperial” America. Quite the contrary, nothing has been historically more damaging than Israel itself to America’s interests, legitimate or otherwise, and its image in the region.

It is basically a measure of the quite extraordinary, disproportionate influence of the “friends of Israel” — AIPAC and company — that they get American politicians to buy the thesis that Israel deserves the support that the US lavishes on it not only because it shares Western “values” (which it increasingly doesn’t), or it is “the only democracy in the Middle East” (which it increasingly isn’t), but because it is to the strategic and political benefit of the US itself. This is not to say that Israel cannot in certain circumstances render services to the US — a classic example would be Israel’s readiness to rescue King Hussein in Black September 1970 — but that begs the question: who created the circumstances in which such a service was necessary in the first place? And the essential, underlying, perennial answer is that Israel itself, and its behavior towards the Arab region in which it implanted itself, is the principal cause of these kinds of crises and emergencies; and that they constitute threats to US interests because, in its deference to all things Israeli, it allows its interests get inextricably mixed up with those of its proteges. Even before Israel came into being the Zionists and their friends felt the need to promote a “strategic” argument for the creation of a Jewish state — that it would protect the British imperial life-line to the East — that was as spurious as its American descendant is today.

RYK: How have Western perceptions of the Israel-Palestine issue and the wider Israeli-Arab conflict shifted in the years since The Gun and the Olive Branch was published? Why?

DH: Public opinion is clearly changing at an accelerating pace, and will continue to do so the more obviously the nature and characteristic activities of Israel collide at variance with Western “values” and interests. In general governments and political classes lag behind their publics in their perception of this, or, at least, fearful of having to “take on” Israel, they are loath to acknowledge it in public. Hence their continued reluctance to adopt the truly impartial or “even-handed” attitude toward the Arab-Israeli conflict that alone could bring about the “Middle East peace” they so solemnly proclaim they want.

RYK: Do you think the greater visibility of the Israel lobby in the West, partly because of John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt’s The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, partly as a result of changes in the American Jewish community, will have a positive effect on Western policy?

DH: The extraordinary outrage, hysteria almost, that greeted the publication of their book — sober, scholarly, unassailably objective presentation of its topic though it was — and the manifest reluctance of the mainstream media and of course the US political establishment to be seen to endorse its conclusions, is just another demonstration of how very powerful — and spoiled — that lobby is, but also, I think, how eventually vulnerable it is too. I just don’t think AIPAC and the like can go on like this for ever, with their bigotry on Israel’s behalf, their specious arguments and their disdain for America’s true interests in the region, as opposed to those which they define for it; they are pushing their luck and the harder they do so the stronger will be the eventual backlash against themselves and the foreign state they promote.

RYK: Should we believe that US President Barack Obama’s different tack on peace-making will go anywhere? Is a two-state solution still a realistic possibility?

DH: Only if Obama summons up the determination to “impose” a solution along the lines I suggest in my book. Though more promising than any other American president in recent times, I don’t think he will. The “friends of Israel” in America are still too strong.

RYK: Will there be further constitutional reform in Lebanon? Will the day that a Shia vote is worth the same as a Maronite vote be the day that Hizballah’s forces integrate into a national army?

DH: Well, within the complex checks and balances of the “sectarian state,” the Maronites do hold a disproportionate share of political power. But, thanks to constitutional modifications, demography and local and regional developments over time, it is nothing like it used to be when the state first came into being. The Shia were once the underdogs in the system; now they are the most dynamically up-and-coming — indeed perhaps, in practical terms, the single most powerful one. And that in large measure, is thanks to the existence of Hizballah, its military might and its regional, above all Iranian, backing. They won’t be integrated into a national army unless that army can somehow espouse enough of their agenda to satisfy them. Hizballah’s relationship with its environment is a constantly evolving one, but I don’t see that happening in any foreseeable future.

RYK: Recently a demonstration for “secularism” was held in Beirut. Could this be the beginning of a significant movement which could finally break down sectarian loyalties?

DH: Such manifestations have happened before. They never seem to lead anywhere significant.

RYK: Arab world opposition shifts from Leftist to Arabist to Islamist. At the moment Islamism is most prominent, with some Arabist and Leftist ideas subsumed into Islamism. What do you foresee happening next?

DH: I foresee that Islamism as a whole — in power as well as in opposition — will in the fullness of time lose its moral ascendancy, just as the other great credos, nationalism — or at least the “nationalism” of the regimes that presume to embody it — and leftism have done. Take the most famous and influential of Islamist regimes, Iran. The new opposition movement, largely from within the ranks of the existing order, is a striking indication of just how much, through the actual exercise of political power, Islamists can discredit themselves and the exalted ideology they uphold — indeed, no doubt, Islam the religion itself as well.

RYK: The “resistance front” of Hizballah-Syria-Iran seems to be threatening a unified response to any future Israeli attack outside historical Palestine. Is this a credible threat? Does the changing role of Turkey — its economic and political alliance with Syria and Iran — and the increasingly warm relationship between Russia and Syria, suggest the Middle East may be approaching a “balance of terror” to deter Israel from adventurism?

DH: There are increasing indications that the “next war” in the Middle East — what I call the seventh — may spread beyond Lebanon to embrace Hamas in Gaza, Syria and Iran. There is no formal military alliance between them, but Syria and Iran are clearly seeking to inculcate the fear that, if Israel does go to war against its likeliest, first target — Hizballah — they will join in on its side. They might be doing this for deterrent purposes only. Even so the mere hint of it increases the risk that, by accident or design, it will come to pass. Alternatively, of course, if Israel were to hazard a strike on Iran’s nuclear sites, it is highly probable that Hizballah would retaliate with its now vastly replenished stock of missiles. And, this time, that could well escalate into the war with Syria which had failed to materialize in 2006 — with Israel’s so-called Second Lebanon War — and earlier such conflagrations between it and Hizballah.

RYK: British journalist and author Robert Fisk says he is utterly pessimistic about the future of the Middle East. He sees it as an unfolding “hell disaster” with no light on the horizon. Are you equally gloomy?

DH: In my experience it has become a truism: things never get better in the Middle East, they just get steadily worse. I have been hearing that — from Arabs of pretty much any condition or background — since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. I don’t see any likely change in that reality, certainly not, at any rate, till the chief of the region’s many maladies — the Arab/Israel conflict — finds a cure, or a convincing remission.

RYK: Beware of Small States strikes exactly the right balance between close detail and broad interpretative sweep. How do you do it? Do you have a guiding principle?

DH: Well, I am happy you think so. I don’t think I have a guiding principle. It just comes out that way. I suppose that, apart from trying to get my facts right and my analysis sound, I aim above all at readability and narrative flow. Achieving it is the toughest thing, and sometimes I almost despair of doing so. But the breakthrough always seems to materialize in the end.

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