Review of Jerome Slater’s ‘Mythologies Without End’

Mythologies Without End: The US, Israel, and the Arab–Israeli Conflict, 1917–2020 by Jerome Slater (New York: Oxford University Press, 2021).

Jerome Slater is a retired professor of political science at SUNY-Buffalo.  Although his longstanding antipathy toward Israel is evident throughout this book, he strays from a number of far-left talking points. 

Still, Slater does not seem to understand the essence of the Zionist claim to the Land of Israel.  It was never primarily a Biblical claim, nor a claimed immutable historical right to any patch of land that belonged to the Jews in the past. Israel’s founders argued that as a homeless people, Jews are entitled to return to their ancient homeland.  While early Zionists of the First Aliyah identified with European colonialism, later Zionists aspired to engage in a colonization movement without colonialism.  Neither Borochov nor Katznelson (major theoreticians of the Second and Third Aliyahs) identified with European colonialism.

Nevertheless, his analysis of the relationship between Zionism and colonialism is more sophisticated than much of what is being published nowadays.  While he acknowledges many similarities between Israel and European settler colonies, he stresses that unlike other colonial endeavors, Zionism was driven by the necessity to save a persecuted people.  And he rejects the claim that Jews who found refuge in Palestine treated the Palestinians as badly as Puritans and other American settlers treated Native Americans.

Interestingly, Slater rebukes anti-Zionists for arguing that there was no need to establish a Jewish homeland in the late 1940s, and that they should have tried to settle in the US instead.  Slater reminds them that the US was still largely antisemitic.  He points out that even if Jews had managed to lobby the US government to finally open its doors to Jewish refugees, many Jews would have remained stateless and vulnerable in a world that kept rejecting them.  He even faults cultural Zionists for not responding to the need to provide all persecuted Jews with a haven, and debunks the claim that Zionism is intrinsically racist.

Slater also disagrees with Professors Walt and Mearsheimer’s claim that the “Israel Lobby” alone explains US support for Israel, and that this support was constant.  He provided examples of administrations that acted counter to some Israeli policies.

Yet Slater reminds us that he’s not really pro-Zionist, arguing that a Jewish homeland should have been established in Germany instead of Palestine.  And Slater makes a preposterous claim that the Zionists never intended to respect the UN Partition Plan, even had the Palestinians accepted it; he contends that Israel would have staged a provocation, as Hitler did against Poland, to justify aggression. 

While most of the Zionist movement was always drawn to the idea of “transfer,” this was deemed unrealistic, as neither the British nor the Arabs would have accepted its implementation.  It was only after the 1936-39 Arab Revolt, that it became clear that the Palestinians would go to war against an eventual Jewish state, that the Yishuv’s leadership feared a sizeable hostile minority in its midst.  But even then, Ben-Gurion officially asked the UN Security Council to send soldiers on the ground to “give teeth” to the UN Partition Plan. 

Slater seems to believe that the 1947-48 War was a walk in the park for the Yishuv, that Israel was never seriously threatened.  Yet in the areas of Palestine that fell under Arab control, every single Jew was either expelled or killed; eight percent of Jewish males 19 to 21 years of age, and one percent of the entire Jewish population of the Yishuv died during this war).  He fails to understand that the Haganah, the CIA and British military intelligence thought that even if Jews were to have the upper hand initially, the Yishuv did not have the manpower to sustain a prolonged war.

After a long moral assessment of Zionism, Slater finally addresses the crux of the book: he wishes to debunk the claim that Israel always sought peace — that the Palestinians and Arab states “never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity” (to quote Abba Eban).  This part too is very polemical.  While it may be true that some Arab states were willing to negotiate peace with Israel if it returned to the UN Partition lines, Israelis had good reason to fear ceding land to states that had just attacked it.  Similarly, Slater faults Israel for not having responded positively to Arab hints at peace if Israel were to cede territory to create a land bridge between Egypt and Jordan.  But again, he discounts the risk of ceding land in exchange for what could turn out to be a mere piece of paper.  He also seems to believe that a mere non-belligerence status is just as good as a peace agreement.

Slater’s analysis becomes more sensible when he deals with the post-1967 period.  He shows that Sadat was willing to envision full peace with Israel in exchange for Israel’s complete withdrawal from the Sinai, only to be ignored by Golda Meir.  The same is true for King Hussein of Jordan who wanted to recover all the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, to no avail.

Unfortunately, Slater’s analysis of the three rounds of negotiations that took place between 2000 and 2014 is flawed.  According to Itamar Rabinovitch, there are three schools of thought that explain the failure of the peace process: the “orthodox” one, which places most of the blame for the failure of peace talks on the Palestinians; the “revisionist” one, which mostly blames Israel; and the “eclectic” one, which blames both parties.  The problem with revisionists (that includes a significant part of the Zionist left) is that they give undue credence to occasional magnanimous statements from some Palestinian spokespersons; the real test is what they are willing to sign onto in a written agreement. 

Slater wrongly claims that Israeli offers made in 2014 do not match those made in 2000 and 2008, alleging it gave Israel veto power over the evacuation timetable for the Jordan Valley and did not recognize Palestinians sovereignty over East Jerusalem.  This is not accurate.  John Kerry, the US envoy, merely wanted to postpone negotiations regarding these issues to a further stage in the process; he did not accept Israel’s right to remain endlessly in the Jordan Valley, nor Israel’s permanent control over East Jerusalem.

In fact, the second draft of this peace plan clearly mentioned the partition of Jerusalem. Israeli journalist, Ben Caspit, revealed that Netanyahu’s chief of staff, Yitzhak Molkho gave the US the green light to make a more generous offer that clearly mentioned the partition of Jerusalem (this was confirmed in Kerry’s memoir, “Every Day is Extra”).

As for the 2007-8 round of negotiations, Slater justifies Abbas’s refusal to respond to Olmert’s offer by invoking the latter’s pending criminal prosecution.  Yet, had an agreement-in-principle been achieved, it would have turned the 2009 election into a referendum on this peace plan — with most Israelis, according to pollsters, supporting it. 

Regarding the Clinton Parameters (Pres. Clinton’s proposals in late 2000), Slater claims that both Israel and the Palestinians accepted them “with reservations.”  Israel did accept Clinton’s framework “with reservations,” but they were merely a criticism of some elements, but without an explicit rebuttal of any specific point.  What’s more, Israel’s former Foreign Affairs minister, Shlomo Ben Ami, phoned Arafat to reassure him that Israel accepted the peace plan without any changes.  And during the Taba Summit in Jan. 2001, Israel went beyond the Clinton Parameters by offering the Palestinians 100 percent of the West Bank (Clinton had indicated 97 percent, with docking in Israeli seaports and a safe passage between the West Bank and Gaza to compensate for the remaining three percent).  Ben Ami went so far as proposing, without the approval of his government, exclusive Palestinian sovereignty over the Noble Sanctuary/Temple Mount, provided that the Palestinians recognize its sacred nature for Jews as well.

As for the Palestinians, they first rejected the Clinton Parameters, before backtracking and saying yes while stating reservations that totally deprived them of meaning:

  • They refused to trade more than two percent of the West Bank, which would have forced Israel to uproot close to 50 percent of the settlers, instead of a more feasible 20 percent (Clinton had suggested a 4-6 percent swap).

  • On Jerusalem, the Palestinians demanded exclusive sovereignty over the Noble Sanctuary/Temple Mount, without recognizing that this site was holy for Jews as well (Clinton called for vertical sovereignty with the surface being under Palestinian control and the remnants of the Jewish Temple below under Israel’s sovereignty).

  • The Palestinians demanded exclusive Israeli responsibility for creating the Palestinian refugee problem, and Israel’s acceptance of an unrestricted right of return; the Palestinian Authority pledged to be “flexible” and “creative” when it comes to its implementation.  In 2008, the Palestinians demanded the return of 80-150,000 refugees over a ten-year period, with a possibility of renewal thereafter.

According to the “Palestine Papers” (a 2011 leak of 1600 alleged confidential documents from the Palestinian Authority), the PA expected Israel to absorb between 600,000 and two million refugees by 2058.  By contrast, the Clinton Parameters suggested that Israel recognize the moral and material damage caused to Palestinian refugees and agree to participate in their compensation.  They also specified a Palestinian right of return to “historic Palestine,” but to be implemented without restriction only within the borders of the future Palestinian state, with Israel absorbing only a symbolic number.  In exchange, the Palestinians were to get a compensation package of $30 billion ($50 billion in 2022 US dollars).

Prof. Slater has written a valuable book that proves unequivocally that Israel spoiled at least as many peace opportunities as the Palestinians and Arab states.  He departs from the cartoonish anti-Zionism of the far left that is now, regrettably, making inroads within the liberal left as well.  However, if he really wants to deride Israeli “mythologies without end,” he should also reevaluate some of his own!