How to Understand John Lyons’ “memoir” Balcony Over Jerusalem
Nov 17, 2017 | Ahron Shapiro
The recently published book by John Lyons, Balcony Over Jerusalem: A Middle East Memoir (co-written with Lyons’ wife, Sylvie Le Clezio) is being billed as a “memoir” of Lyons’ six years as Middle East correspondent for the Australian newspaper, from 2009 until January 2015.
Parts of it appear to resemble that – particularly in the short chapters that cover events in other countries of the Middle East which he visited during his six-year posting.
However, on anything to do with Israel and the Palestinians, it becomes very unlike a memoir. Lyons’ book goes far beyond simple reporting and reminiscences and instead sets out to make arguments and judgments that nearly uniformly are devoted to criticising Israel, its Jewish citizenry and the country’s national character.
Moreover, many of the claims and allegations Lyons makes regarding Israel and the Palestinians in the book appear factually incorrect, or so badly devoid of context and basic journalistic fairness as to be misleading. In several instances, this inaccuracy extends even to claims that he sources to newspaper articles in the endnotes, which turn out not to support the meaning he attributes to them. The book contains much discussion of incidents and issues which have nothing to do with Lyons’ six-year tenure in the Middle East, and are included simply to further his polemical exercise. More on the problematic aspects of many of the claims in the book will be documented in a separate post to appear shortly.
Finally, it should be noted that in the book and in subsequent interviews, Lyons has presented the polemical and highly-critical approach to Israel as the result of his experiences and observations as a neutral, professional journalist in Israel, who arrived without many preconceived ideas or prejudices, and the conclusions he drew from seeing the situation for himself. A close reading of the book makes it clear that this is not an accurate description of where Lyons was coming from during his tenure as the Australian’s Middle East correspondent. Lyons deliberately sought the job of Middle East correspondent precisely because he had an agenda he wanted to pursue.
No preconceived notions?
To begin with the last point, Lyons claims that he took on the job with no personal prejudices on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
I approach reporting of Israel from a ‘projournalist’ stance. I’m neither ‘pro-Palestinian’ nor ‘pro-Israel’. My home is in Australia, on the other side of the world. To use an old Australian saying, I don’t have a dog in this fight. [Page 12]
However, other things he says in the book appear to suggest this is not the case.
First of all, early in the book, it is clear Lyons made becoming Jerusalem-based Middle East correspondent a condition of employment before accepting any job at the Australian. He claims to have wanted the job in order to finish a project on Jewish identity.
Sylvie and I wanted to go to Israel to finish our Jewish-identity series; you can’t understand modern Judaism without understanding Israel.
One day I ran into Paul Whittaker of The Australian, who suggested I have lunch with him and his boss, Editor-in-Chief Chris Mitchell. They offered me a position on the paper. My one request was to be the paper’s next Middle East correspondent, based in Jerusalem. They agreed. [Page 23]
So, what happened to the “Jewish identity” project? The only product of Lyons’ work in Israel and the Palestinian Authority, besides this book, was his body of reporting for the Australian (and ABC’s “Four Corners”) that was often overwhelmingly one-sided against Israel, as documented by AIJAC analysts. To date, nothing substantive about Jewish identity has appeared.
Elsewhere in the book, Lyons explains that, in fact, his “Jewish identity” studies had already, years earlier, led him to conclude that he should return to the Middle East to study, not Jewish identity, but his belief that Hamas was in favour of peace but Israel, and even known peacemakers like Nobel-laureate Shimon Peres, was not.
In Chapter 2, Lyons cites interviews he conducted in the 1990s with Shimon Peres and “moderate” Hamas spokesman Ismail Abu Shanab.
The Peres and Shanab interviews in particular had challenged us. So complicated were the politics of the Middle East that the public positions of these two men apparently differed from their private positions. Internationally, Peres is hailed as a peace-maker – he won a Nobel Peace Prize for his role in the Oslo Accords – but within Israel he was known as one of the strongest supporters of settlements and the Hilltop Youth, a hardline group of national religious settlers who would take hilltop after hilltop and turn them into outposts which were illegal even under Israeli law…
And while Ismail Abu Shanab talked about ‘human-being bombs’, within Hamas he was known to argue against the use of bombs, and to have advocated a long-term political solution with Israel. He once told the Israeli media: ‘Let’s be frank, we cannot destroy Israel. The practical solution is for us to have a State alongside Israel…
The Peres and Shanab interviews had shown Sylvie and me that in the Middle East what people say is not necessarily what they believe. We were determined that we would come back.
So how would we get back to the Middle East? For the next 10 years this was an issue ticking away in the back of my mind. [Pages 22-23]
Yasser Arafat shakes hands with Shimon Peres at the World Economic Forum in Davos, 2001 (photo credit: CC BY-SA World Economic Forum)
Now the claim about Peres is one of the clear factual errors that are studded throughout the book. Peres strongly opposed the Hilltop Youth, establishers of illegal outposts, a group which did not even exist at the time Lyons interviewed him in the 1990s. No credible source has ever claimed otherwise. Lyons is possibly referring to Gush Emunim, a settler group most historians agree Peres sympathised with to some degree, at most, between the years 1975 and 1980 – a position which had been influenced in part by his close ties with Moshe Dayan and antagonistic relationship with Yitzhak Rabin. Subsequently, Peres reconsidered his previous preferred path to peace through an agreement with Jordan, and never returned to his previous positions. So it was not the interview with Peres, but a factually inaccurate claim he subsequently heard about Peres’ views years previously that supposedly convinced Lyons that Peres was not a sincere peacemaker.
As for Shanab, while he did make some moderate claims to foreigners in English, he was not as influential in Hamas as Lyons alleged and did not have the authority to make concessions on behalf of Hamas or overturn its official doctrines. Nor did he or anyone else in Hamas say the same things in Arabic.
Moreover, there is yet additional evidence in the book that, from even earlier, Lyons was instinctively unsympathetic to Israel – and arguably, to even basic journalistic fairness to Israel. He writes;
As Editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, I’d had long conversations with Jewish leaders who’d argued strongly that Israel was a victim of unfair media reporting. I’d always found it strange that a country exercising military authority over 2.9 million Palestinians in occupied territory could be a victim. [Page 29]
In other words from Lyons’ perspective, before he ever went there, the essence of Israel was that it was “a country exercising military authority over 2.9 million Palestinians in occupied territory” and therefore it could never claim to be treated unfairly by the media.
And according to Lyons’ own testimony, this attitude dated back decades before he was sent to the Middle East for the Australian – a job he sought specifically because he wanted to act on his perception that even Israeli peacemakers were not really peacemakers, but Hamas was potentially moderate.
The purpose of Balcony Over Jerusalem
In short, Balcony Over Jerusalem appears to be Lyons’ and de Clesio’s attempt to convince readers of this long-standing belief.
Far from simply a memoir, the book aims to convince readers to effectively side with the Palestinians against Israel by virtue of arguments either made directly by Lyons himself or his nominated “experts” and selective newspaper clippings and citations.
His intent was to convince the reader 1) that, in order to hold onto the “prize” of a Greater Israel it “coveted”, Israel has been deceiving the world when it claims to want peace, and 2) that the Palestinian narrative of a desperate people under brutal occupation, simply seeking statehood, but with no way to achieve it the face of a relentlessly imperialist Israel, should be wholly accepted.
His first argument is, in fact, made both implicitly and explicitly at a number of points in the book, perhaps most openly in Chapter 12:
When we arrived in Israel we did not realise the prize that it coveted. It was only by living among Israelis, mixing with them at the local sports club or over a Shabbat dinner, that we came to understand the endgame: formalising the occupation into official annexation and achieving Greater Israel. Scores of foreign journalists, diplomats and businesspeople who have lived in Israel long enough have come to this same conclusion.
For Israel, the prize of Greater Israel far outweighs any criticism it receives… To maintain the course towards Greater Israel, Israel needs to be seen to want a peace agreement. [pp. 191-192]
The book is peppered with references to “Greater Israel” being the real explanation for Israeli behaviour.
Lyons lets the mask slip in the final chapters of the book, where he sums up his argument as:
If the whole world could see the occupation up close, it would demand that it end tomorrow. Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians would not pass muster in the West if the full details were known. The only reason Israel is getting away with this is because it has one of the most formidable public-relations machines ever seen, and enormous support from its diaspora communities. But while this worked for the first few decades of the occupation, now virtually every incident between an Israeli soldier and a Palestinian is filmed by a mobile phone. Military occupations look ugly because they are ugly. Israel’s reputation will bleed as long as its control over another people continues. [Page 366]
In order to establish the basis for his conclusions, Lyons relies heavily upon interviews with Israelis, Israeli and foreign journalists and just a couple of Palestinians, and select quotes from a smattering of other individuals in a context that serves his narrative. At the same time, he appears to carefully avoid muddying the waters by ignoring – often in an obvious and blatant way – viewpoints, historical records and source material that might qualify,complicate or refute his arguments.
Mitigating factors, such as Israel’s legitimate security concerns and persistent Palestinian intransigence in peace talks, are given only token treatment and, when they do appear, seem to be used merely as set-ups for Lyons to minimise their significance, if not dismiss them out of hand.
And, as noted, to compound the problem, many of the claims and allegations Lyons makes in the book appear factually incorrect or fundamentally misleading – though only a few key examples will be touched on in this post, with many more highlighted in a companion post.
Myths, conspiracy and deceit
In his book, Lyons repeatedly accuses Israel of deceiving the world about, well, almost everything it does and why it does them. This campaign extends to Israel’s supporters, who Lyons essentially accuses of deliberate collusion.
“Most correspondents I knew in Israel said that pressure came from self-appointed pro-Israel groups rather than the Israeli Government. I believe the government effectively ‘outsources’ that pressure, which allows it to maintain workable relations with correspondents on the spot while the pressure is applied on the journalist’s editors.” [Page 199]
On three occasions in the book, Lyons contemptuously accuses Israel’s supporters of perpetuating so-called “myths”. All three cases are very serious allegations and are completely unsupported by facts. I will address them in order of what I consider to be their relative significance.
Lyons’ first alleged “Myth” about Israel: Israeli internal debate over the country’s future
In Chapter 20, Lyons alleges the very idea that Israel is fiercely divided between those with different views about the “future of the country” (which we infer by the passage is to mean the necessity of continuing the occupation under current circumstances) is a myth.
To bolster this claim he quotes the AFP bureau chief Philippe Agret who asserts even left-wingers “if not indifferent, they condone” the occupation and discrimination [the implication is against Arabs] within Israel.
And in doing so, he exposes a far worse claim that Agret makes – and Lyons says is in agreement with his own views – which is a crude smear against Zionism itself.
I arrived in Israel having been exposed to all the myths pushed by Israel’s lobby groups. One myth was that inside Israel there had been a fierce debate about the future of the country. Living in Israel, I quickly realised it was untrue. Veteran Agence France Presse bureau chief Philippe Agret agreed: ‘Even the left are united behind Zionism … All of them are Zionists. Today a lot of Israelis are driven by fear. If not indifferent, they condone what’s happening in the occupied territories, and the discrimination within Israel.’ [Page 344]
Let’s be clear about what Agret is saying and what the passage says Lyons agrees with: The allegation is that there is no internal Israeli debate about the future of the West Bank, because even Israeli left-wingers are Zionists and, for Agret, Zionists and Zionism are by definition expansionist and subservient to preserving the integrity of “Greater Israel”.
Meanwhile, those who claim otherwise are pushing a myth schemed by Israel’s lobby groups to disguise Israel’s true face.
What’s interesting is Lyons’ editorial choice to include Agret’s attack on Zionism in the quote. It wasn’t necessary to include this part of the quote to make an otherwise reasonable, though debatable, observation that Israelis today are driven by fear.
According to Agret’s thinking, the debate is framed between the Zionists and the non-Zionists. The tautology, by implication, is that non-Zionists don’t “condone what’s happening in the occupied territories and discrimination within Israel” and Zionists do. If all Israelis, from right to left, are Zionists, then the future of the country really isn’t under debate and there is no difference between Labor or Likud, Meretz (far left) or the Jewish Home party (far right).
By this definition, certainly, Lyons and Agret are right – non-Zionist Jewish Israelis, who do not believe in Israel’s right to exist as the nation-state of the Jewish people, are a tiny minority of Israel’s population and there is no “fierce debate” going on between Zionists and non-Zionists inside Israel.
Furthermore, by throwing in “discrimination inside Israel” as something Zionists are all “indifferent” to or “condone”, Agret has resurrected the claims of the discredited and rescinded 1975 UN General Assembly Resolution 3379 that “determine[d] that Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination”.
Frankly, it is appalling that someone who spent six years living in Israel would agree with such a misrepresentation of Zionism and Zionists – which is no more than “A movement for (originally) the re-establishment and (now) the development and protection of a Jewish nation in what is now Israel”, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
Moreover, in claiming that Israeli society is united behind continued occupation, Lyons papers over both decades of polling showing a majority support for a two-state solution and the entire left flank of the Knesset. Labor’s Isaac Herzog, who narrowly missed beating Netanyahu in the last election, is mentioned only once in the book, where he is quoted slamming the recent controversial and currently court-frozen Settlement Regularisation Bill. The Meretz party, which played an influential and important role in Rabin’s coalition in the time of the Oslo Accords, isn’t mentioned once in the entire book.
The Israeli grassroots peace movement, including the NGO Peace Now, is barely mentioned in the book. Peace Now is incorrectly described as a “human rights group”.
Despite what Lyons’ book would suggest, this past May, tens of thousands of Israelis gathered in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square for a peace rally.
Meanwhile, when it was formed Israel’s Likud-right coalition held a razor-thin one-seat majority in the Knesset (it eventually expanded by five more seats held by the secular nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party only when repeated attempts to bring Labor into the government failed) – and any alternative coalition would almost certainly exclude all parties that are opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state or advocate continued support for settlements outside of the blocs.
Lyons’ second alleged Israeli “myth”: “the occupation came as a surprise”.
A close second to Lyons’ claim that Israeli debate over the future of the West Bank is a myth is his claim – which might be termed a conspiracy theory – that Israel’s capture of the West Bank and Gaza was part of a premeditated scheme.
He first claims that Israel had a clear “ambition” to take over the West Bank, then cites Israeli Supreme Court President Meir Shamgar and the “Alon plan” [sic] as supporting evidence.
One myth perpetuated by many of Israel’s supporters is that the occupation came as a surprise – but the ambition of taking over the West Bank as part of Greater Israel was clear before the country won the Six Day War of 1967. In the documentary The Law in These Parts, former Supreme Court president Meir Shamgar states that laws for the West Bank were written in the early 1950s.
The master plan for Israel to take over the West Bank was formed by Yigal Alon [sic] when he was Minister of Labour in the early 1960s. The strategy was that controlling most of the West Bank would effectively push Israel’s border to Jordan. It gave Israel a security buffer against Jordan, Syria and Iraq. The Alon plan also meant Jordan and the West Bank could never form any political or military entity against Israel. [Pages 170-171]
Regarding Israel’s ambition to take over the West Bank, pre-eminent Israeli historian Benny Morris addressed this a decade ago in a critique of “new historian” Tom Segev’s claim to this effect in his book about the Six Day War that was published at that time.
As for Israeli expansionism, it is true that after the war of 1948-1949, many Israelis, including Ben-Gurion and most of his generals, felt that a great opportunity had been missed and that it would have been better to have ended the war with the country’s border on the Jordan River. (Their reasons were more military and strategic, and less ideological and historical.) But over the following years, an overwhelming majority of Israelis came to accept that war’s results, including its strategically problematic borders, and restrained any expansionist inclinations. By 1967, only the messianic-religious and the secular far right dreamed and talked about expansion to the West Bank, or Judea and Samaria, the historical heartland of the Jewish people and faith. For the vast majority of the citizenry, led by the successive Mapai-dominated governments, such thinking was alien. Many examples can be offered in proof of this claim. Consider only this exchange, published in early May 1967 in an Israeli newspaper, between the expansionist right-winger Geula Cohen and the Grand Old Man, David Ben-Gurion.
Cohen: “What are the borders of my homeland?”
Ben-Gurion: “The borders of your homeland are the borders of the State of Israel, as they are today.”
Regarding Lyons’ allegation attributed to Shamgar that “laws for the West Bank were written in the early 1950s”, which he claims to have sourced from the 2011 documentary “The Law in These Parts”, a transcription of the actual English subtitles from the relevant scene from the documentary follows. I’ve added comments where the subtitles deviated from the Hebrew voiceover to an extent worth correcting:
The story of the law in the territories actually begins before 1967. Years [the Hebrew voiceover says kama shanim or “a few years”] before the war, IDF legal corps officers studied international law, the laws of war, and regulations of occupation of enemy territory.
In those years, the Military Advocate General [voiceover includes the word “az” or, “at that time”] Meir Shamgar, wrote the “Guide for the Military Advocate in Occupied Territory,” a booklet containing all information a military legal professional would need should the IDF ever occupy territory in a neighbouring country. [Hebrew voiceover actually says meh ehat ha-medinot ha schonot, or “from one of the neighbouring countries.”]
In the scene, Shamgar’s footage of reading from this manual is captioned with the title “Justice Meir Shamgar, Brigadier General (Retired), Military Advocate General 1963-1968”.
Further, nowhere in the movie does Shamgar, the narrarator, or anyone else claim this guide was written with the West Bank in mind. Furthermore, from the dates of Shamgar’s tenure as MAG, we know that the book wasn’t written in the early 1950s at all – in fact, no earlier than 1963.
Here’s what any first-year university student of Middle East history does know: Israel occupied Gaza and the Sinai briefly in 1956 as part of what was known as the Sinai Campaign (part of the Suez Crisis that also involved military coordination with the UK and France). It would therefore have made perfect sense that, if no military legal guidance had been ready for that war, the IDF legal department would have learned from that experience and ordered the creation of contingency plans in case the armistice would fail again and the IDF would be called upon to battle neighbouring armies and capture their territory.
In other words, this claim contains two clear factual errors – that the document was written in the 1950s, and that it was written “for the West Bank.” It may have later been applied to the situation in the West Bank, but the source Lyons cites offers absolutely no evidence it was written “for the West Bank.”
Regarding his allegation that Yigal Allon had a “master plan to take over the West Bank”, he can only be referring to a peace plan commonly known as the “Allon Plan”.
Now, Yigal Allon was Minister of Labor in the early 1960s, but – and this can’t be stressed enough – his plan did not predate the 1967 war but was formulated as a response to it. Lyons cites no source for his claim that Allon actually formulated the plan “in the early 1960s” and AIJAC has been unable to find any credible sources which make this claim.
Allon, who personally believed in Israel’s right to the entire West Bank, nevertheless advocated a plan that, by design, would sacrifice that dream for peace and security.
Mordechai Bar-On, a former Knesset member for the left-wing Ratz party, and one of the founders of the Israeli organisation Peace Now, wrote the following about Yigal Allon and the intentions behind his plan in Bar-On’s 1996 book In Pursuit of Peace: A History of the Israeli Peace Movement:
After the end of the war Allon advocated a territorial compromise but insisted that this should be done not on the basis of “giving up our historical claims to these territories, but despite our right to hold on to them. It should be done in order to achieve another historic achievement, not less important—peace.”
There was one important difference between Allon and the other members of the government. Allon was opposed to the decision not to decide. “The fact that the Israeli government does not take a position,” he argued, “does not mean that positions are not taken in other power centers, both friendly to Israel and not friendly.”
He wanted to preempt the formulation of other plans that might be dangerous from the Israeli perspective. Allon felt that an explicit Israeli peace plan would help abate Arab suspicions that Israel wanted not peace, but the annexation of all the territories. Allon also argued that a clear plan with regard to the territories would allow Israel to start a rational settlement program in those areas that would eventually remain part of Israel.
To delineate “what kind of peace [Israel] desires, and in which ways it must and can be achieved,” Allon presented a plan to the government on July 26, 1967. The plan, which became known as the Allon Plan, was never formally adopted but became a de facto guideline for future Labor Party policy.
Allon clearly allowed for the possibility of a Palestinian state – although obviously in 1967, the land Israel captured had been held by Jordan and land-for peace scenarios assumed that the West Bank would be returned to Jordan, which viewed the West Bank as part of its annexed territory (even if most of the world did not recognise the 19-year annexation).
In addition, Lyons’ overall claim above can be refuted outright (as can subsequent claims he makes in Chapter 20 that “overwhelming evidence now exists that Israel determined from 1967 that it would aggressively execute its settlement push to make a Palestinian State impossible”) through Israeli cabinet transcripts released in 2012 (and which I blogged about at the time) .
These revealed that on June 18 and 19, in the first Israeli cabinet meetings to discuss the fate of the West Bank after the war, the cabinet failed to agree on a policy for the territory, including any settlement policy. They certainly did not have any predetermined plan, but were clearly struggling with a surprise outcome for which they were unprepared.
What does it matter, you may ask, that Lyons got these two particular claims wrong?
Let’s be clear about what Lyons is saying and what it tells us about his beliefs. The idea that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank was schemed as part of a “master plan” years before the war essentially promotes a conspiracy theory about Israel as an inherently expansionist entity, which could never really be interested in peace.
Lyons’ third alleged “myth” about Israel: the Israeli Supreme Court and the fairness of the Israeli justice system.
For years, leaders of the Australian Jewish community kept telling me the Israeli Supreme Court was a stronghold of justice. Living in Israel soon dispelled this myth. [Page 208]
The main case that Lyons uses to show the alleged lack of justice in Israel (and at the highest echelons) involved an east Jerusalem Arab Sabbar Kashur – married with two children – who lured a Jewish woman into having sex with him by telling her the lies that he was Jewish, unmarried, and interested in a long-term relationship.
Here, as in many places in the book, he lets a left-wing Israeli – in this case Gideon Levy – criticise the Israeli Supreme Court in the strongest language.
“Don’t they realise that their verdict has the uncomfortable smell of racial purity, of ‘Don’t touch our daughters?’”, Lyons approvingly quotes Levy.
Israel’s Supreme Court, with the Prime Minister and President, seated.
Yet Lyons seems oblivious to the fact that his own home state of New South Wales has very similar “rape by deception” laws and prosecutors here would also have likely considered Kashur’s acts to have constituted a serious felony – possibly subject to a maximum sentence of 14 years in prison! (By contrast, Kashur received a sentence of 18 months).
The law in NSW now says that there is no consent if a person has sex with another person: (a) under a mistaken belief as to the identity of the other person; (b) under a mistaken belief that the other person is married to the person; or (c) under a mistaken belief that the sexual intercourse is for health or hygienic purposes.
Yet largely on the basis of this one controversial case, which would likely have had a similar outcome in his own home state – as well as claims about it made by Israel’s most extreme left-wing pundit – he is prepared to declare it is a “myth” that the Israeli justice system pursues genuine justice.
Distorting the settlement issue by using radical left and right wingers to explain motivation behind government policy instead of consulting the policymakers themselves
For a book that makes the case that Israel’s West Bank settlements are more important to Israelis than peace, it’s strange that non-connected, fringe players are given the job of explaining the rationale behind settlement and West Bank policy rather than people truly in the know.
Lyons interviews Kedumim mayor and early Gush Emunim settler activist Daniella Weiss, who, while reasonably well-known in the settler movement, has never served in the Knesset or played any official role in forming Israel’s settlement policy.
In the book, Lyons writes about Weiss:
As well as having an army on call, Daniella Weiss developed a close relationship with Ariel Sharon, then Minister of Housing. She told us: ‘With my work with Ariel Sharon, there was a clear understanding, a very clear planning of spreading the communities, the Jewish communities, in the way that there will be no option for a Palestinian State in Judea and Samaria.’ [Page 160]
About this, Lyons wrote:
It would be my use of Daniella Weiss in that report that most angered the Israeli lobby in Australia. To have an Israeli saying that the settlements had been deliberately planned to ensure there could be no Palestinian State was far more confronting for the lobby than to have an Australian lawyer, Gerard Horton, talking about abuses by the Israeli Army of Palestinian children. [Page 161]
Lyons makes it appear as if his interview with Weiss revealed something secret and taboo, and that is what “the lobby” found objectionable. Nothing could be further from the truth – and the criticisms made by AIJAC at the time, for instance, do not support this claim. Ariel Sharon’s plan for settlement was something of which he was proud and he devoted an entire chapter to it, titled “Settling the Territories”, in his 1989 autobiography Warrior.
Lyons seems to think it is a secret that Ariel Sharon, above, supported and worked with the settlement movement as Housing Minister in the late 1970s and 1980s. In fact, he openly boasted of the fact.
In that chapter, he explained in detail his proposal made to Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s cabinet on September 29, 1977 – as always for Sharon, his primary concern was security.
I explained that whatever political solution we eventually agreed upon for these territories, we would in any case be facing three major problems. The first was security for the coastal plain with its population centers, its industrial infrastructure, its power stations and airport.
Sharon, like Yigal Allon, saw the need for some settlements for security, but Sharon saw deficiencies in Allon’s plan.
Militarily, then, this situation mandated a line of settlements along the Jordan plain from the Beit Shean valley to the Dead Sea. Like all border settlements in Israel, these would be organized for defense, with their own weapons and ammunition, their contingency plans, and their integration into the overall defensive system. The Labor government had recognized this need; and working under the Allon Plan…
But ever since Yigal Allon had first described his plan to me back in 1967, I had believed it was inadequate. A thin line of settlements along the Jordan would not provide a viable defense unless the high terrain behind it was also fortified. In addition, the settlements needed secure road communications with the coastal plain. Consequently, I proposed that we thicken the line of settlements on the river and establish other settlements on the high terrain with an eye toward reinforcing this line. Beyond that, I proposed several east-west roads along strategic axes, together with the settlements necessary to guard them.
But who would volunteer to live in these early settlements? Later in the chapter, indeed, Sharon identified Gush Emunim as eager helpers. And Weiss is correct in saying that, in the days when the Palestine Liberation Organisation was sworn to destroy Israel – and for almost a decade after Oslo – Sharon was adamant that a Palestinian state would be disastrous and pose an unacceptable threat to Israel. At the time, this was not unique. Many others, including Yitzhak Rabin, said similar things.
But what Weiss didn’t say (from her perspective, why would she?) and Lyons did not reveal is that, after becoming prime minister in 2001, Sharon dramatically changed his views about settlements.
In 2006, in the aftermath of Sharon’s debilitating stroke, Ha’aretz columnist Ari Shavit published a feature-length article in the New Yorker concerning his insights about the stricken leader gleaned from several interviews over the years. A significant part of Shavit’s story was about Sharon’s profound change in views on settlements after he became prime minster.
Shavit said Sharon told him in 2003:
“Well, I have made up my mind to make a real effort to arrive at a real agreement,” he said. “I’m seventy-five. I have no political ambitions beyond the position I now hold. And I see it as an aim and a goal to bring this people security and peace. Therefore I shall make very great efforts. I think that this is something that I need to leave behind me: to try to reach an agreement.”
This time, when I asked about the idea of dividing the land between Israelis and Palestinians, he replied, “I believe this is what will happen. It is necessary to see things in a very realistic way: in the end, there will be a Palestinian state…
I don’t think that we need to rule over another people and run its life. I don’t think that we have the strength for that.”
Shavit probed further:
I asked if he was prepared to consider the evacuation of isolated settlements. “If we reach a situation of real peace, true peace, a peace for generations,” he replied, “we will have to make painful concessions.”
This was just one interview with Sharon that reflected this shift in his thinking. Many more exist.
But what about Lyons’ claim that Sharon’s 2005 Gaza withdrawal was just a devious ploy to entrench Israel’s control in the West Bank?
Did Sharon know where he was heading? Members of his inner circle have told me the details of the planning process. In the National Security Council, aides were working on four alternatives: evacuating isolated settlements in the West Bank; evacuating an entire settlement region, perhaps one near Nablus, where some of the most extreme zealots live; withdrawing from eighty-eight per cent of the West Bank; and, finally, withdrawing from ninety-two per cent of the West Bank.
The point is that, regardless of what Weiss says about Sharon’s thinking in the 1970s, what’s much more relevant was his views on the settlements a quarter century later. Sharon evacuated 25 settlements – including all of the Gaza settlements and four more in the West Bank. He had his National Security Council prepare withdrawal scenarios not unlike those put forth to the Palestinians by Prime Ministers Ehud Barak in 2000 and 2001 and Ehud Olmert in 2008.
All these were much closer in time to Lyons’ tenure in Israel than the events in the late 70s and early 80s that Weiss describes. Yet Lyons is not interested in them and does not mention them, because they do not suit his narrative.
Relying on the “expertise” of one radical settler with no significant influence or standing and ignoring the words of Sharon, the architect of the settlements himself, calls into question Lyons’ judgement about the source material he employs regarding the Israeli right.
Lyons’ glaring omissions, especially for giving readers insight into Israeli concerns
Finally, one of the most telling aspects of the book is the obvious subjects that Lyons refuses to report on or discuss, even though they occurred relatively close to his time in Israel. These include:
- Omissions about repeated Palestinian rejection of Israeli peace offers that would have given them a state.
- Omissions that deprive the reader of mainstream Israeli concerns about security.
On the first point, Lyons never talks in any detail about the Israeli peace offers of 2000, 2001 and 2008. He makes one brief reference in passing to the Clinton Administration efforts in 2000-2001, but his only significant passage discussing Clinton as a peacemaker was to claim, misleadingly, that Clinton blamed Russian Israelis for the failure to create a Palestinian state. The consensus of most Clinton Administration officials, including Clinton himself, that Arafat was the reason their initiatives failed, was not mentioned or even hinted at.
He references Olmert’s 2008 offer – again without providing any detail – only so he can quote Olmert saying, “Abbas neither accepted nor refused,” which is also misleading without additional context. (More details on both these points will appear in the companion piece on factual errors and misleading claims in the book.)
Israeli PM Ehud Olmert’s 2008 peace offer to PA President Mahmoud Abbas is mentioned in passing only so Lyons can mention that Olmert said ” Abbas neither accepted nor refused.” Abbas’ own 2015 admission that he rejected the offer “out of hand” was of course not mentioned.
Similarly, the Gaza withdrawal is mentioned only in passing as a “political masterstroke” that, Lyons claims, gave the appearance of Israeli flexibility for no other reason than to provide cover for increasing the settler population in the West Bank. At an earlier point in the book, Lyons mentions the evacuation of settlers from Gaza as a template for an evacuation he urges for Jews in the West Bank and east Jerusalem – but that’s it.
Lyons is extremely dismissive of Israeli domestic security concerns – particularly in regard to worries by average Israelis over the ramifications of any potential IDF withdrawal from the West Bank. In fact, Lyons makes no real effort to explain the viewpoint of centrist Israelis on the subject, let alone interview an expert on the subject. He appears to have no interest in understanding these Israeli concerns – only in dismissing them as baseless or contrived.
The book relies heavily on Israelis from the far left – such as Gideon Levy – quoted approvingly, and some far right figures like Weiss, whose statements serve Lyons’ purpose.
His non-Israeli sources are also often far from neutral. On two occasions in the book, (pp. 166, 171) Lyons supplements his narrative with allegations by anti-Israel activist journalist Jonathan Cook (a writer who Lyons identifies only as “award-winning”). A prolific propagandist for the Palestinian cause, Cook has contributed 250 articles to the extreme anti-Israel and pro-terrorist website Electronic Intifada and, since 2010, has been a regular contributor to the strongly anti-Israel website Mondoweiss. In an opinion piece he wrote for the International Herald Tribune during the second intifada, Cook criticised those who called on Palestinians to adopt non-violence against Israel, opining that “nonviolence is unlikely to be effective as a strategy.” Lyons’ decision to interview Cook for the book without revealing Cook’s activist bent is telling.
Meanwhile, the book contains almost no positive comments about any aspect of Israel or Israeli society. While there are a few scattered paragraphs mentioning the effects of terrorism on Israelis, the overwhelming theme of the book is that Israel is a horrible expansionist occupier and oppressive state, while Israelis as a people are largely racist, inhumane and cruel.
On the other hand, Lyons includes some material which has nothing to do with his tenure in Jerusalem or his unofficial theme of the “ugliness” of Israeli occupation of the Palestinians. He devotes two and one half pages (pp. 235-237), apropos of nothing in his narrative, to the Liberty incident during the 1967 war, when Israeli forces inadvertently attacked an American intelligence gathering ship, killing 34 American sailors. Lyons’ apparent reason for including his discussion of this 50-year-old incident is to demonstrate “Israel could do anything with impunity,” a claim he quotes former Australian politician Tim Fischer making but which Lyons implicitly endorses. Or to put it another way, Lyons appears unable to resist including any incident in his book, no matter how irrelevant to his narrative, that casts Israel in a negative light.
This relatively brief analysis should demonstrate to readers that Balcony Over Jerusalem: A Middle East Memoir is not really a memoir at all but a polemic, at least when it comes to Israeli-Palestinian issues. Moreover, it is a polemic whose core themes were already in the mind of Mr. Lyons before he ever went to the Middle East as the Australian’s Middle East correspondent. Finally, it is a polemic which is not only largely uninterested in presenting any evidence or views which do not advance its core purpose – insisting, “If the whole world could see the occupation up close, it would demand that it end tomorrow” and that Israel is an immoral society with virtually no redeeming features – but is also notably slipshod with the evidence it does present (as a follow up post will detail more clearly).