December 1995, Pages 68, 117
Fallen Pillars: U.S. Policy Towards Palestine and Israel Since 1945
By Donald Neff. Institute for Palestine Studies, 1995, 350 pp. List: $15.00; AET: $10.00.
Reviewed by Andrew I. Killgore
For readers of the Washington Post, there is a simple rule for picking out books on the Middle East that are or are not worth reading.
Simply apply the "opposite test." If the Post says a Middle East-related book is good, it's bad. If the Post says it's bad, it's good. Admittedly, the "opposite test" will not be as easy to apply for those who did not experience it first-hand in Baghdad in the mid-1960s where the concept originated.
The governments of Iraq were so perverse in those days that all of their pronouncements were deemed by experienced Iraqis to be fake. For example, an official statement that current imports of medicines, coordinated by official committees, were sufficient for all of Iraq's needs was considered by alert Iraqis as confirmation that even such basics as aspirin were unavailable. Or, an announcement that prison sentences of dissident Kurds had been commuted meant that new arrests had been made.
The Washington Post's review of Fallen Pillars, Donald Neff's fourth book on modern Middle Eastern history, says it is "biased, tendentious, selectively constructed and generally misleading." In short, not worth looking at. But confirming the "opposite test," Fallen Pillars is none of these things. Rather, it is comprehensive, detailed, dispassionate, determinedly honest, fearless, and overall, the history of American policy toward Palestine and Israel over the past half-century.
Neff clears away confusing Middle East underbrush by demonstrating simply that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict resulted from the steady pressure of (Jewish) immigrants struggling not just to share, but to displace the local majority (Palestinian Arab) population from Palestine, and that all else—Cold War competition in the Middle East and the overall Arab-Israel dispute—were derived from that central reality. He demolishes the general misperception so assiduously propagated by Israel and its Jewish nationalist supporters in the United States, that the conflict resulted from aggressive actions by Israel's Arab neighbors.
The Post's "formula" for reviews of Middle East-related books that its editors know they will not like—"non-reviews" is more accurate—requires a Zionist reviewer. Therefore, the reviewer usually is Jewish, never a Muslim and only occasionally a Christian. If none of the facts presented in the book can be refuted, the book's substance has to be ignored.
In the case of the late, great George W. Ball's 1992 book on U.S.-Israeli relations, The Passionate Attachment, oxymoronic "Zionist historian" Walter Laqueur was the reviewer. As one unwilling to acknowledge the validity of any criticism of Zionism, the state of Israel, its leaders, or its international supporters, Laqueur was unable to write anything honest about the book at all. Therefore, this non-review, which did not even pretend to touch on the substance of the book by former Undersecretary of State and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Ball, was an insult to a truly great American statesman, the great majority of Americans who are not obsessed with Israel, and a disgrace to the newspaper itself.
Reviewer of Fallen Pillars Tad Szulc is no Laqueur. Rather he is a respected writer-journalist, and a nice guy. Still, he is obliged, in the narrowly provincial Washington Post manipulative formula, to put down Donald Neff and Fallen Pillars. But Szulc does so unconvincingly and seemingly half-heartedly. For example, he alleges a "propagandistic tone" to Fallen Pillars, but makes little effort to substantiate the charge, much less refute the irrefutable historical facts Neff presents. Instead, Szulc unworthily stresses that Neff's publisher is the Institute for Palestine Studies in Washington, DC. This is a "formula" device to denigrate objective truth (pay no attention to what the author says—only plant doubt about why he says it).
The subject of the review then becomes not whether the book provides useful information hitherto unknown to most readers, but why the writer seems lacking in ardor for Israel.
The whole body of U.S. relations with Palestine and Israel over the past half-century constitutes a dauntingly complex mass, even for specialists such as this reviewer, who has been professionally involved in the field for 40 years. Further, the innocent reader, or reviewer, has to deal with a veritable flood of Zionist "mythinformation," to borrow writer Alfred Lilienthal's word, that has hidden many of the realities of Israeli, American and Palestinian relations from the American public.
Neff focuses on six interrelated aspects, or pillars, of these relations. These are arms policy, borders, Jerusalem, refugees, Jewish settlements, and Palestinians. Using this original approach, the author takes the reader with him through the policy thickets, and shines a magical spotlight on his subjects, one by one.
Neff documents clearly and comprehensibly how, in endless battles that pitted most elected officials—presidents and members of Congress—against the Middle East specialists in the State Department, and other agencies of government and academia, five of these pillars of U.S. policy gradually were eroded and overturned by the politicians.
Only on the issue of the Palestinians did American policy move against the wishes of the Israeli government and its extraordinarily effective American lobby. Finally, after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war forced U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to orchestrate an overwhelming arms resupply to rescue Israel from a sustained war it knew it would lose, the U.S. political establishment was forced to recognize, openly, that the repeated injustices sustained by the Palestinians were at the heart of the entire Arab-Israel dispute. Israel huffed and puffed, but from about 1975 on, the Palestinians were recognized as a people—leaving one pillar intact upon which to begin reconstructing a U.S. policy based upon Middle Eastern realities.
Each chapter of Fallen Pillars is densely documented. Just one example is the discussion of secret meetings between King Abdallah of Jordan, the present King Hussein's grandfather, and Jewish officials from Palestine as the British mandate in Palestine was drawing to a close. Middle East experts have long understood that such meetings took place. But Neff documents the subject precisely. Future Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, then acting head of the political department of the Jewish Agency, met King Abdallah on Nov. 17, 1947—12 days before the United Nations voted to partition Palestine—at Naharayim near Abdallah's Shuneh palace in the Jordan valley. They agreed that Jordanian troops would not attack Jewish forces and that only one Jewish state, not the two Jewish and Palestinian states envisioned in the forthcoming U.N. resolution, would be created in Palestine. Instead, Abdallah could annex the rest of Palestine to Jordan.
Fallen Pillars is an astonishing feat that could only have been written by Donald Neff, who surely knows and has documented more about Palestine-Israel and U.S. relations with it than any other writer in English. Serious students of the Middle East should read it, and then read it again. Put it by your favorite chair so that you can refer to it when you need to.
It is the most complete and comprehensive book written on the subject. But even before you find this out for yourself, you can be assured that it's worth reading. Just apply the "opposite test." If the Washington Post says Neff's book is "biased...and generally misleading," without really explaining why, you can be sure that its descriptions of Israel and the Palestinians are objective, accurate and informative. And you will be right.
Andrew I. Killgore is the publisher of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.