Saturday, November 20, 2010

Israeli Foreign Policy, 1967-1971

I arrived at this year's Middle East Studies Association annual meeting later than usual because of a combination of its location in San Diego, at the opposite end of the country from me, and my Sunday afternoon presentation time, which necessitates my missing class Monday. I decided not to miss Friday, as well, and so didn't get here until late last night.

My approach to large conferences seems different from most people I know, who attend almost exclusively sessions in their research specialization, however they define it. I definitely pick up some of those, but am often more drawn to sessions in other areas, particularly those I am responsible for teaching or which seem important for outreach purposes, which feature top scholars in the field. I figure this gives me a way to keep up with what's really happening in these other fields, based not only on the papers themselves, but on the audience reaction to them. In fact, the one session today which I went to because of its proximity to my core areas of expertise was the one from which I didn't get that much, simply because the papers, while clearly excellent in their own right, didn't really engage their material in the way I expected them to, and in fact did so in a way that I've simply never found that engaging.

On the other hand, the session "At a Crossroads: Moments of Decision in Israeli Foreign Policy", which featured papers by Oxford Avi Raz, UC-San Diego's Gershon Shafir, and UCLA's Leonard Binder, definitely provided me with useful information and perspectives. I don't feel comfortable explaining Binder's, which I could tell was a response to a Stephen Walt book where I know most of the facts of Middle Eastern history and the issues involved in the debate, but not in detail how the two relate to each other, if you take my meaning. I will say I'm dubious of his central contention, which is that Arab states in the past few decades have tended to form alliances with those they perceive as threatening, which opposes Walt's traditional realist views that states seek allies to counter threatening powers.

I will, however, call attention to Raz's paper on Israeli attempts to limit the repatriation of refugees to the West Bank after the Six Day War, which clearly indicates that in contrast to the idea that the Israeli government was instantly ready to return occupied land for peace, the government of Prime Minister Levi Eshkol saw the area as a potential future part of Israel, with a desire to limit the Arab population accordingly to preserve the Jewish demographic advantage.

Gershon Shafir's work also questioned the Israeli desire for peace by examining the reasons for Israel's refusal to engage with the 1971 Sadat Initiative, concluding that two key elements were the desire to keep settlements in the Sinai Peninsula and the weakness of an Israeli peace camp in the wake of what was seen in Israel as a war of necessity against Arab aggression. One of his final points was that the old canard that the Arabs "never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity" applied just as much to Israel. The discussant, Concordia University's Neil Caplan, was unenthusiastic about that formulation, suggesting that the "missed opportunity" idea usually just served the political ends of whomever was saying an opportunity was missed, but Shafir countered by saying his only qualm about the term regarding 1971 was that the opportunity wasn't "missed" so much as "avoided." I suspect the Arab League proposal that's been floating around since 2002 will one day be added to the list.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)

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