Daniel Levy has of late become one of the most sought-after leftist commentators on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and one of the most frequently quoted and interviewed pundits on the subject in the mainstream press. His name regularly appears in news stories in the New York Times and Washington Post, among other papers. Cultivating an image of expertise and sobriety, he is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, which advertises itself as a center-left source of serious analysis. The day after Annapolis, he debated David Frum for 40 minutes on bloggingheads.tv, the video of which was posted at the end of last week and which has now been posted on the New York Times's website.
Levy's performance was astonishing. His preferred tactic was to repeatedly digress from the debate in order to lecture Frum on what he claimed to be the "historic context" of the conflict; his appearance on Bloggingheads is one of the most misleading performances I've ever seen on the conflict from a putatively serious person. This is a long fact-check, but I think it's a necessary one.
Yasser Arafat's Involvement in the Intifada
Frum: I think there are very few people who would take the view that what happened on the Temple Mount was a spontaneous upsurge of Palestinian public opinion.
Levy: Well, the Mitchell Commission actually took that view. there was a commission, an international commission, that was brought in to say what happened and how do we stop it, and the Mitchell Commission did NOT come out on the side of the argument that said, ‘the Palestinians were just waiting to for a moment to start a violent intifada.' So the one internationally-sanctioned but non-partisan group that was asked to look into this drew a very particular conclusion.
Several minutes later:
Frum: So there are people who say that Yasser Arafat did not start that war?
Levy: Well I'm saying that the Mitchell Commission did not come out with the finding — and this was the only internationally authorized, non-partisan assessment of this — the Mitchell Commission did not come out with that finding, and I think it's very important to put that out there.
Well, indeed, let's put the Mitchell Commission report out there. The MC was charged, in a December 2000 letter from President Clinton, with proposing ways "to end the violence, to prevent its recurrence, and to find a path back to the peace process." The MC report stipulates:
We are not a tribunal. We complied with the request that we not determine the guilt or innocence of individuals or of the parties. We did not have the power to compel the testimony of witnesses or the production of documents. Most of the information we received came from the parties and, understandably, it largely tended to support their arguments. [emphasis added]
The purpose of the MC was thus not to add fuel to the nascent intifada by delving into issues of culpability; it was to cool the violence by showing the parties a path toward peace. In the report, which is quite long, the findings on culpability for starting the intifada were essentially a restatement of the views of both sides:
…we were provided with no persuasive evidence that the Sharon visit was anything other than an internal political act; neither were we provided with persuasive evidence that the PA planned the uprising.
Accordingly, we have no basis on which to conclude that there was a deliberate plan by the PA to initiate a campaign of violence at the first opportunity; or to conclude that there was a deliberate plan by the GOI [Government of Israel] to respond with lethal force.
On this basis, it is disingenuous to declare that the Mitchell Commission absolved Yasser Arafat of involvement in starting the intifada. By the commission's own admission, it was neither within its purview nor its competence to render such a judgment. It is also important to note that the MC was convened at the very beginning of the intifada, before the voluminous and incontrovertible evidence of Arafat's complicity in the terror war had been exposed, making Levy's portrayal of the Mitchell Commission as the definitive exculpation of Arafat all the more implausible. Anyone wishing to look into this material can start with the massive and unrefuted report of the Israeli government on exactly this subject from May, 2002; a lengthy, two-part investigation in 2002 by the German paper Die Zeit (see here and here ); a 2003 study by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs; David Samuels's exhaustive 2005 Atlantic magazine cover story, in which Palestinians who worked intimately with Arafat during both the first and second intifadas are quoted explaining, in detail, Arafat's involvement in choreographing Palestinian rioting and terrorism; and another in-depth reported analysis, this one by the Jerusalem Post's highly-respected Palestinian affairs reporter, Khaled Abu Toameh.
After everything that has come to light about Arafat's involvement in instigating and then clandestinely leading the intifada, it is beyond misleading for Levy to pound the table about a report published in the first months of the intifada that was charged with neither investigating nor judging Arafat's involvement in the hostilities. This is not honest analysis.
The Khartoum Conference and the Six Day War
As part of his project to advance the theme of Israeli intransigence, Levy said to Frum:
Many historians now look back at the Khartoum conference, which is remembered as the Arabs all saying "no no no" to anything with Israel, was actually an opening ploy in a negotiation, and the messages that were sent were actually very different messages.
This is rubbish. The Khartoum Conference, where the famous "three no's" were declared — no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with Israel — took place in late August, 1967. What Levy doesn't mention is that immediately following the Six Day War, Israel, using America as an intermediary, attempted to give the Sinai back to Egypt and the Golan back to Syria. I quote from Conor Cruise O'Brien's history of Zionism and Israel, The Siege:
In the immediate aftermath of the dazzling victory [in the Six Day War], Levi Eshkol's Government of National Unity was prepared to surrender large quantities — though never all — of the occupied territories, in exchange for peace. On June 19, 1967, the Cabinet adopted a four-point resolution, which it communicated to the Government of the United States on June 22, but did not make public.
According to this resolution, Israel was prepared, in exchange for a full peace treaty, to withdraw to the international border with Egypt, with the provisos that Sinai was to be demilitarized, and Israel's freedom of movement guaranteed in the Straits of Tiran and the Suez Canal. Israel was also prepared to withdraw to the international border with Syria, with the Golan Heights to be demilitarized.
Why would Egypt and Syria have needed to join an "opening ploy in a negotiation" — by way of the Three No's, no less — when Israel had already offered those states their territory back? The reason, of course, is that Egypt and Syria wished to continue attempting to destroy the state of Israel, which they again tried in 1973. But in Levy's telling, Israel apparently didn't catch on to the nuances of the signals emanating from Khartoum, which the Israeli government should have understood to mean that the Arabs wished to open negotiations. If only Daniel Levy had been around back then to explain all of this!
Levy's treatment of the Six Day War is equally bizarre, as revealed in the following exchange, after Frum mentioned that the Arab states started the war:
Levy: Wait wait, so wait, the Arab states started the war in ‘67, David?
Frum: They provoked it.
Levy: I kind of remember a preemptive Israeli strike, maybe I'm wrong.
Frum: They provoked it by violating the terms of the armistice of 1956.
Levy: But there was a preemptive strike by Israel.
Frum: Yes, there was a first strike by Israel, after the Egyptians violate the armistice that ended the conflict, the hostilities in 1956, you know this.
Levy: But you also know who started the war.
Frum: Yes, because there was a direct threat to the existence of the state. When you violate an armistice, that starts the clock toward a conflict.
Levy: [Angrily] But when you violate international law every day, that's fine. When you put a civilian settler population in occupied territory, that's fine.
Levy has lost control of his intellectual faculties here. He surely knows that there was no occupation or settlements before the Six Day War, because Israel had not won the Sinai, Golan, Gaza, and West Bank yet. Why the ranting about something that hadn't happened yet? And speaking of international law, about whose violation Levy routinely works himself into a state of high moral outrage, one of the main causes of the 1967 war was indeed a flagrant violation of international law — Egypt's. The armistice agreements that concluded the Suez War in 1956 stipulated that the Straits of Tiran — which connect the southernmost Israeli port of Eilat to the Red Sea, and the wider world — are international waters open to every country. Egypt, in May 1967, blockaded the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping, cutting off one of Israel's two most vital ports, as clear a casus belli for war as exists, and an unequivocal violation of the armistice agreements. And let's not forget the continuous Syrian shelling of Israel from the Golan Heights; Nasser's repeated threats to invade Israel and slaughter its citizens; his demand (immediately complied with) that U Thant, the secretary-general of the U.N., remove the peacekeepers in the Sinai that had been in place since 1956 and on the basis of whose presence Israel had withdrawn its forces in 1956; or Nasser's massive mobilization of his army toward the border with Israel in May, 1967.
It feels ridiculous to even be writing a defense of Israel's preemptive strike against Egypt in 1967. The only people who insist that Israel started the Six Day War are crackpots and unhinged anti-Zionists. And Daniel Levy.
In 1994 there is the attack [by Baruch Goldstein on February 25th, 1994] at the Hebron tomb of the patriarchs. Until that moment there has been no Palestinian use of suicide bombings against Israeli civilians. … That's when the suicide bombings first started. There is a hiatus, the suicide bombings end. Israel during the period of quiet then assassinates admittedly a terrorist, the guy known as The Engineer, in Gaza. Then you have a spate of suicide bombings. The suicide bombings during the current intifada don't begin in September 2000, they begin several months after the intifada started. When do they begin? They begin after Israel carried out assassination policies, targeted killings, so again, I just think that if you see this outside of a historical context, you can't understand it.
This is not historical context — it is historical fabrication. The first suicide bombing against Israeli civilians happened on April 16, 1993, at the Mehola Junction, almost a full year before Baruch Goldstein's atrocity in Hebron. The Engineer was killed on January 5th, 1996, and in that three-year period, not including the Mehola attack, there were seven Hamas suicide bombings that killed 58 Israeli civilians, and one Islamic Jihad bombing that killed 21 Israeli civilians — 79 Israelis total. The very reason The Engineer was killed by the Shabak was because of his involvement in the Hamas bombings that occurred exactly during the period in which Levy claims there was a "hiatus" in attacks.
His telling of the second intifada is as equally twisted. According Levy, suicide bombings commenced in response to Israel's targeted killings of Palestinians, a cause and effect proposition. But suicide bombings in the second intifada didn't begin "several months" after the intifada started — they began exactly in the opening weeks of the intifada. There were Islamic Jihad and Hamas bombings on October 26, November 2, 20, and 26, and on December 22, 2000. Meanwhile, the first Palestinian terrorist killed in a targeted killing was Hussein Abayat, who in the weeks before he was killed by the IDF had perpetrated the shooting murders of three Israelis and the critical wounding of another. Abayat was killed on November 9, two weeks after the first suicide bombing of the intifada. Whoops.
There is a reason why Levy's "errors" all work in one direction, and one direction only: It is because he would like to convince his listeners of a narrative which holds that Palestinian terrorism has always arisen in response to Israeli provocations — and thus that Israel has brought such terrorism on itself. His telling of history would also have us believe that Israel has never been genuinely interested in peace with its neighbors, while the Arabs, despite all the genocidal rhetoric and wars of annihilation, have actually been trying to signal to Israel for decades that they are ready for peace. Beyond these observations, I would rather speculate on Levy's deeper motives. It is not clear, after all of this, what credibly is left of Levy's views on the conflict — or what should be left of his reputation for honesty, objectivity, or expertise.
Noah Pollak is assistant editor of the Middle East Quarterly.