Imperial Misconceptions

Amos Gilad and Amos Malka

In late May 2004, interviewed on CBS’s 60 Minutes, former US general Anthony Zinni castigated US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his coterie of neo-cons with regard to their misconceptions concerning the war in Iraq. He had already published his views in a book called Battle Ready, co-authored with Tom Clancy.

Zinni claims that political ideologues have hijacked American policy in Iraq. It was the wrong war at the wrong time, he says, because “Saddam was effectively contained,” whereas the real problem facing America was the war on terror. Moreover, on the way to achieving and justifying their end, the Pentagon and the civilian heads of the Bush Administration made every conceivable error: They relied on mistaken intelligence that was infected with ulterior motives. They underestimated the force that would be needed to rebuild Iraq. They disregarded international criticism and belittled the UN.

We find a similar phenomenon in Israel. On June 10, 2004, Amos Malka, head of Military Intelligence (MI) from 1998 until 2001, was interviewed in Ha’aretz. He castigated the reigning Israeli conception with regard to the Palestinian leadership. This conception is the product of Amos Gilad, head of research in MI from 1996 until 2001 and Coordinator of Activities in the Territories from 2001 until 2003. The Gilad conception goes like this: The Oslo process was nothing more than a Trojan horse designed by Yasser Arafat to destroy the State of Israel. Arafat never intended that there should be two states living side by side; he claims the right of return for the Palestinian refugees in order to achieve his goal by demographic means; he planned and initiated the current Intifada. Gilad’s conclusion: only Arafat’s disappearance from the political arena will make a reasonable solution possible.  

Cover of Challenge, issue #86, July - August 2004.

After four years of public silence, Malka states that his assessment, all along, has been completely different: At Oslo, the strategic goal of Arafat and the PLO was a viable Palestinian state beside Israel. Arafat wanted all along to reach a political solution, but his flexibility was limited by Palestinian public opinion. He asked for recognition in principle of the Palestinian right of return, but he was ready to apply that right in a merely symbolic form. When the negotiations at Camp David failed, the Intifada broke out from the grass-roots level and quickly assumed proportions that Arafat did not want. He “rode the wave” to survive. The massive firepower used by Israel escalated the confrontation to a point where it could not be wound back. If Israel were to make a new offer today, keeping within the “red lines” that had constrained Arafat at Camp David, he would still be interested. (Ha’aretz, June 13)

This conception of Amos Malka, published four years late, has recently been seconded by a number of central figures in the field of intelligence, including Ephraim Lavie, former head of the Palestinian section in the research division of MI; former Shin Bet chief Ami Ayalon; and Arab-affairs expert Mati Steinberg.

We say “four years late,” because for the last four years the Gilad conception has stood alone, and it has had enormous effects. It justified former PM Ehud Barak in taking the position, after the debacle at Camp David, that “there’s no one to talk with.” Steinberg, interviewed by Danny Rubinstein in Ha’aretz on June 16, points out that in a situation where one side is much stronger than the other, a mistaken conception by the stronger tends to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, if you have decided that you cannot reach a political agreement with the Palestinians, your decision leaves them only two choices: either they surrender to your dictates or they rise up against them at all costs. Israel led the Palestinians to feel they had nothing to lose. “That’s the background to the emergence of a culture of suicide bombers… the most alarming development that has occurred during the intifada has been the appearance of suicide terrorists who are not devout Muslims.” Then Steinberg continues:

“When we adopted an approach which does not discriminate between the Palestinian streams, and when we destroyed the governmental center, a huge gap was left in the heart of Palestinian society. Hamas has taken root in this situation - and not just Hamas: there’s also Hezbollah, Iran, and, heaven forbid, Al-Qaida.”

The effects of the reigning Gilad conception do not end there. On its basis, the Labor Party joined a national-unity government with the Likud, in 2001-2002, in order to put down the Intifada. The same conception served as the background for isolating Arafat and attempting to replace him with Abu Mazen. It lies today at the root of the plan to disengage unilaterally from Gaza.

Allow us to note: Despite the reigning Gilad conception, accepted at times by Labor and even Meretz, Challenge has consistently held to its own assessment: Since the outbreak of the second Intifada in September 2000, we have maintained precisely what Ephraim Lavie said on June 13, 2004 in Ha’aretz: that this Intifada “began from below, as a result of rage that had accumulated toward Israel, Arafat and the PA. Arafat hitchhiked on it for the sake of his personal needs.” (We do not agree with Amos Malka, however, that Arafat was interested in a viable state beside Israel. At Oslo, we think, he settled for less, but he could not sell it to his people.)   

Thus the American regime and the Israeli establishment both acted on basic misconceptions. The Americans pressed to topple Saddam as part of their plan to control the Middle East and its oil. The elimination of Saddam was an end in itself, intended to shock and awe any potential opposition to the American empire.  

In contrast with the US, Israel adopted the Gilad conception of “no partner” after it failed to impose a permanent solution on Arafat at Camp David. This failure capped a long process of disillusionment. Following the first Gulf War in 1993, we recall, Israel’s Labor Party had raised the status of Arafat from that of an isolated, weakened leader to that of a partner, in order that he should do his part in bringing about its vision of a new Middle East. Arafat, however, did not play the role for which Israel had appointed him – he did not function as Israel’s executive arm in the Territories – for the simple reason that he got too little from Israel in return (apart from the establishment of an apparatus for oppressing his people). When the Israeli purpose failed, instead of analyzing and criticizing its goals and its behavior toward the Palestinians, Israelis leveled their barbs at Arafat the man, trying to replace him with Abu Mazen. In other words, Israel sought to do the same thing again. When Abu Mazen too proved unable to deliver the goods, the way was prepared for announcing a unilateral disengagement.

Israel’s intelligence assessments were influenced, even perhaps determined, by the country’s political need for a partner who would fulfill its wishes, and not, as they should have been, by disinterested analysis. “Gilad,” wrote Akiva Eldar in Ha’aretz on June 11, “…has the primary influence in PM Sharon’s decision to shift to unilateral measures. It was he who supplied Sharon’s predecessor, Ehud Barak, with professional support for the theory that ‘there is no Palestinian partner.’ This theory, known in the intelligence community as the ‘Conception’, has won the credence of most Israelis, and it has also gained many devotees abroad. It was easy to absorb this notion into a soil already soaked with the blood of the Intifada’s victims.”  

There is almost no precedent for the debate that is taking place in Israel today with regard to the “Conception”. Suddenly we hear contradictory assessments, grave in their implications, which Malka and his colleagues had kept under lock and key for four bloody years. What has moved them to speak publicly at last? Where have they been? A large price has already been paid for Gilad’s “Conception”. Irreparable damage has been done to both societies, Palestinian and Israeli, as a result of the lies. These lies won the backing not only of shady researchers but also of two American presidents, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. They have cost dearly in human life on both sides. They have left Palestinian society and property in ruins. They have erected walls of cement and hatred between the two peoples. The damage will endure for generations.

In the US there is already a consensus that the war in Iraq was a mistake, and the debate that is now underway between Democrats and Republicans concerns damage control. In Israel, the “no partner” Conception has led Sharon into a trap. On June 28 Palestinians fired four Kassam rockets from Gaza into the town of Sderot in Israel. There had been many such firings in the past, but none had caused fatalities. This time a man and a child were killed. The next day the Israeli army entered the area from which the Kassams had been fired, but the rockets kept falling in Sderot. These events explode the notion that a mere wall – or unilateral disengagement – will make a difference. Israel cannot disengage from the Palestinian territories because it cannot disengage from the Palestinian problem.

To return to our question: What aroused the opponents of the “Conception” from their four-year slumber? Perhaps it was their opposition to unilateral disengagement. Suddenly they have re-discovered that there is, after all, a “partner”. 

The revelation of this truth is largely irrelevant today for two reasons: First, even if Israel is ready, in coordination with Egypt, to give Arafat and the PA a symbolic role in the administration of “liberated” Gaza, the Arafat of today is not the Arafat of 1993, nor even the Arafat of summer 2000. Today’s Arafat is the mere vestige, the peel, of another conception, which dates back to the early 1990’s, when the world reconciled itself to the fact that the US was its sole remaining superpower. Since then we have had September 11, 2001, and since then we have had the war in Iraq. America has lost its greatness. The Palestinian arena, like the Iraqi, is careening out of control. Insurgents with unconventional methods are setting the agenda, thanks to America’s – and Israel’s – megalomaniac drive for power. 

Let us suppose that it were possible to repair the image of Arafat, as Malka and his colleagues appear to want to do. Israel would still come up against the same wall: the Palestinians would refuse to accept its dictates. Even Ephraim Lavie, quoted above, admits that the Intifada broke out not just because of the Occupation, but also because of Palestinian disappointment with the PA. To bring real peace to the region and to make the radical reforms that are necessary, there is a need for a change of “conception” indeed – but a much more basic one. Such a change will require a different world leadership, a new global order, including the Middle East in its sphere. A change of such depth will not come from America or Israel, which seek to rule through the creation of puppet regimes. The needed change will have to come from massive political movements, from opposition parties that will place, at the head of their platforms, peace and development, jobs and the common good. 

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