When it comes to history’s most intractable conflict, Ian Black is not an easy man to pin to an opinion.
The veteran journalist has spent decades reporting on Israel and Palestine, mostly for the Guardian, first as a correspondent in Jerusalem and then as the newspaper’s Middle East editor. He left the paper in July 2016
Over the past four years, he combined the day job — he is now a senior Fellow at the London School of Economics — with work on a book tracing the events of the past century in that narrow strip of land next to the Mediterranean Sea.
The resulting volume, Enemies and Neighbours: Arabs and Jews in Palestine and Israel, 1917-2017, was published this month and focuses “pretty relentlessly” on Israel and the Palestinians, Dr Black says.
This is a drama, he says, in which politicians, strategists and soldiers from countries around the world have played a role, but “closer attention is paid in the book to Jerusalem, Jaffa, Ramallah, Tel Aviv, Haifa, Nablus, Hebron and Gaza and the bitterly disputed landscape around them”.
It is an ambitious attempt at even-handedness — but is that possible with a conflict about which so many people have such fervently-held opinions?
Few journalists are comfortable being interviewed themselves and Dr Black does not buck the trend. He is vastly knowledgeable about Israeli-Palestinian discord and chooses his words with immense care.
Take, for instance, the way he describes the shortcomings in how Jews, Israelis, Muslims, Palestinians debate the conflict.
“I think that throughout this story, among people who are naturally, instinctively interested in and sympathetic to Israel, there isn’t sufficient understanding of the other side — and that is one of the things that I wanted to try to achieve in this book,” he says. “People who are interested in the subject — Jewish people in particular — are often extremely well-informed about the history of the conflict and its complexities. But I think there is often very little understanding of the story of the Jews and the success of the Zionist project in terms of the effects it had on the others — on the Palestinians.”
But Dr Black is quick to then provide a balance to that opinion.
“Most Palestinians who consider themselves to be spokespeople will usually say ‘the right thing’ about the Holocaust and they will make a distinction between Jews and Zionism, however difficult that distinction is,” he says. “But I think that there is a problem for younger people understanding the impact of the Holocaust. Without question.”
It is this balanced approach that he has attempted in Enemies and Neighboursand for which he has attracted praise from critics.
Early reviews have noted the book’s strong grasp of the intricacies of the past century and its sharp analysis not just of the politics, but of the social and economic forces that have shaped the region.
The Israeli political scientist Meron Benvenisti and Sari Nusseibeh, the Palestinian professor of philosophy, are among admirers of the work, a fact that particularly pleased its author.
“The idea that Israeli and Palestinians, knowledgeable people with reputations, can both praise it as an objective and balanced work matters to me enormously,” says Dr Black.
The book was published shortly after the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration. Dr Black tackles the implications of that moment in 1917 when Britain backed a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
He says: “For all the reasoned discussion of the Balfour Declaration, there is insufficient understanding of what happened next when the British retreated from the idea of a Jewish state.
“They never promised it explicitly and by 1939 they said they never intended there would be a Jewish state in Palestine against the wishes of the Arab majority.”
But after the horrors of the Second World War, global opinion had changed. In 1947, 70 years ago this week, the fledgling United Nations voted for a partition plan that would create independent Arab and Jewish states and a special international regime for Jerusalem.
It immediately led to the war that result in the state of Israel.
The UN vote, says Dr Black, “is invariably billed — particularly in Israeli and Zionist historiography — as the moment where the Palestinians really screwed up; they made a terrible error.
“Now you can argue it was an error in the sense that it laid open the way to violence, and war, in which they were not only defeated but they were evicted effectively from their homeland.
“But there’s no question about the sequence of events.
“I think that the Palestinians and the Arabs misread the international mood in the wake of the Holocaust and I think that they made a mistake. Having said that, I also think that if you look back at the history of the preceeding 30 years since Balfour, that that mistake was understandable.
“They were being asked to divide what they saw as their country with people who they saw as foreign settlers. They had never been consulted about that.”
It must strike a bewildering note in this drama, then, that in recent weeks we have seen signs of open flirtation between Israel and Saudi Arabia, something unthinkable over the past decades.
Dr Black says: “I think that the drift of the story is that Arab states are going to accept Israel and the issue is the Palestinian one, which is why I’ve chosen to focus in the book on what remains the reducible core of the conflict. If that could be resolved, lots of other things are possible.”
But the final lines of Enemies and Neighbours make clear that resolution is not likely.
“Violence was never far away,” he writes. “No end to their conflict was in sight.”
Dr Black accepts his interpretation is “a huge generalisation about an enormous subject” but it does strike a pessimistic tone for the future of Israel and the Palestinians.
‘Enemies and Neighbours: Arabs and Jews in Palestine and Israel’, 1917-2017 is published by Allen Lane
Originally published in the Jewish Chronicle, 1 December 2017