Miko Peled has written a perfect book for people, including Israelis, who have always heard that the Israeli government can do no wrong. The General’s Son: Journey of an Israeli in Palestine is partly an account of the author’s father’s life. His father, Matti Peled, was an Israeli general, war hero, military governor of the Gaza strip, member of Parliament, professor, and columnist who turned against the occupation of Palestine.
Largely, however, the book is an account of Miko Peled’s own life, and the evolution of his thinking about Israel. This autobiographical narrative, by a very likable and moral author, takes us step by step from unquestioning Zionism to condemnation of Israeli war crimes. For those who would condemn the morality of this intellectual journey, there are two obvious responses. First, read it.
Second, the false accusations of hating Israel that often result from any sensible proposal to protect Israel from its government cannot easily apply here, by the accusers’ own logic, because the author dutifully performed his Israeli military service, and his father killed a huge number of people in the name of Israel.
Such shallow prejudices have no place in this book, which respectfully and non-confrontationally persuades the reader gradually, through the course of a self-questioning life’s story, that much of what is commonly assumed about Israel is in fact the reverse of reality. The Peled family’s military history is of less interest as superficial immunity from false accusations, than as a starting place for an argument that runs its course from the necessity of brutalizing Palestinians all the way through to the necessity of Israelis and Palestinians living together as friends and family.
Miko Peled grew up in Jerusalem believing that Israel had always been a little David struggling honorably against an Arab Goliath. His grandfather, Avraham Katznelson, had been an important figure in the founding of Israel. His father, Matti Peled, had in 1948 fought in either the War of Independence or the Catastrophe, depending on which label one prefers. Matti Peled was also a leader of the Six-Day War of 1967, when Miko — born in 1961 — was a child.
But Matti Peled, in 1967, had believed he was leading troops into a limited war with Egypt, not a war to conquer territory. At the first weekly meeting of the General Staff after the war, Matti Peled proposed that the Palestinians be given their own state. He said that occupying the West Bank, Gaza, and the Golan Heights would endanger, rather than protect, an Israeli democracy, that it would in fact turn Israel into a brutal occupying power. The other generals claimed that the Palestinians would never settle for the West Bank and Gaza. So, Peled produced evidence that the vast majority of Palestinians would indeed accept that deal. Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin told Peled to let it go.
Matti Peled began writing a column in the Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv in 1967. He immediately rejected the popular propaganda which held that Israel had been viciously attacked. On the contrary, he wrote, Israel had seen an opportunity to damage the Egyptian military and had seized it. Peled proposed allowing the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to hold elections, and denounced the common pretense that Israel could not negotiate with the Palestinians because they had no representatives. After all, Peled pointed out, Israel was forbidding them from electing representatives.
Earlier this year, 2012, former U.S. representative and current buffoon Newt Gingrich claimed that Palestinians are “an invented people.” When Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir made this claim in 1973, Matti Peled wrote:
How do people in the world refer to the population that resides in the West Bank? What were the refugees of 1948 called prior to exile? Has she really not heard of the Palestinian people prior to 1967? In discussions she must have had over the years in her capacity as ambassador and then as foreign minister, how did she refer to these people? Yet she says she has not heard of the Palestinian people prior to 1967? Truly amazing!
Miko Peled and his brothers and sisters grew up with an understanding that was perhaps halfway against war, an understanding that they shared with their father. There had been a time for war, and there was now a time for peace. (To every thing, turn turn turn, there is a season . . . .) They would perhaps have advanced further, sooner, had their father told them more about what he knew and what he was trying to do about it.
In 1973, Matti Peled, Uri Avnery, and Yaakov Arnon, among others, founded the Israeli Council for Israeli-Palestinian Peace. On the tenth anniversary of the 1967 war, in a 1977 televised discussion with the entire general staff from 1967, Peled reminded everyone that the government had never authorized the military’s seizure of the West Bank.
Peled began meeting with Palestinian leaders and discussing possible agreements. He and Yasser Arafat’s confidant Issam Sartawi discussed a two-state solution, while the Palestinian political party Fatah’s position was to support only a single secular democratic state for Arabs and Jews together.
In 1982, when Israel invaded Lebanon, Matti Peled spoke at an antiwar rally in Tel Aviv. It was the first time Israelis had protested a war while it was underway. Ariel Sharon’s involvement in brutal massacres at Sabra and Shatila forced his resignation and kept him out of politics for 18 years.
In 1984, Matti Peled helped found a joint Jewish-Arab political party called the Progressive List for Peace (PLP). He urged the United States over and over again to support Israel by ceasing to give it money and sell it weapons, a corrupting influence that Peled argued Israel had done just fine without. (Try telling that to the U.S. Congress even all these years later!)
By 1997, the younger Peled, Miko, had left Israel to spend time in England, Japan, and the United States, settling in the area of San Diego, California. Miko Peled still had family in Israel whom he visited often, including a 13-year-old niece named Smadar. She was killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber in 1997, and Peled flew to Jerusalem for the funeral. The mayor, and future prime minister, Ehud Barak was among those attending. Barak was, at the time, campaigning for prime minister. Peled recalls:
Here he was sitting among us, trying to convince people that in order to really make peace he had to run without making it look like he wanted peace so he wouldn’t lose votes for being a peacemaker. I sat quietly wondering if anyone really believed such nonsense. Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore and said, ‘Why not tell the truth?’ The room became silent. ‘Why not tell people that this and other similar tragedies are taking place because we are occupying another nation and that in order to save lives the right thing to do is to end the occupation and negotiate a just peace with our Palestinian partners?’ . . . I received a withering look from Barak, and when he prepared to leave and made the round of handshakes, all I got was a cold shoulder.
In 2000, Miko Peled, back in San Diego, joined a group of Jews and Palestinians who were meeting to talk and broaden each other’s horizons. Peled’s wife was concerned at first that he might be killed, and Miko himself was far from sure he wouldn’t. Such was the novelty for this Israeli in meeting with Palestinians, and such was the fear and misunderstanding. But Peled thrived in these dialogue groups, made friends, and encountered surprising perspectives.
A Palestinian friend mentioned during one meeting that back in 1948 the Palestinians had gone to battle with 10,000 fighters, while the Jews had had triple that number, or more. Peled was outraged, as he had always believed the Jews to have been the smaller force, the underdogs, the Davids up against Goliaths. But he held his tongue because he respected his friend’s opinion. He researched, and learned. He discovered that the Jewish militias had in fact used superior strength to destroy Palestine and forcibly exile its people.
The distrust and misunderstanding went both ways. A Palestinian man named Nader Elbanna, on first meeting Peled, assumed he must be working for Mossad, the Israeli spy agency. But Nader and Peled became friends and began speaking together at Rotary clubs, as well as raising funds to provide both Palestinians and Israelis with wheel chairs.
The more Peled learned, the more he wanted to know. He began traveling to Palestine. He found the people, of whom he was initially frightened, wonderfully open and generous. He found that they knew his father and called his father Abu Salam, meaning Father of Peace. Peled himself had not been aware that his father had been given that name by Palestinians. Peled met with nonviolent activists in Bil’in and elsewhere in Palestine. He learned that, contrary to media depictions, the bulk of Palestinian resistance was and had always been nonviolent.
The Israeli occupation, on the other hand, was and had always been more brutal than Peled had known. He learned from an Israeli naval special forces officer of tactics used in patrolling the coast of Gaza:
They would come upon Gazan fishing boats and from time to time they would single out a particular boat, order the fishermen to jump in the water and blow up the boat. Then under gunpoint, they told the fishermen to count from one to a hundred and then when they were done to start over again. They would make them count over and over again until one by one the fishermen could no longer tread water, and they drowned.
A Palestinian friend named Bassam Aramin, two years after Peled met him, on January 16, 2007, lost his daughter. His two daughters, aged 10 and 12 were walking home from school, holding hands, when an Israeli soldier took aim and shot the younger one in the head.
Peled increasingly dedicated himself to the Palestinian peace movement, in which he worked with those who had been imprisoned and tortured by Israel. In doing so, he learned the history of Israel and Palestine, and the history of his own family. He learned of an Israeli massacre of civilians in Gaza in 1967, and that his father had investigated it and that his father’s views had likely been changed by it. The elder Peled had not only been prophesying brutal occupation for the future in 1967 but also acknowledging its existence already in place.
The younger Peled also came to abandon the idea of a two-state solution, as his father had favored. Miko Peled has seen Israelis and Palestinians live together as the closest of friends. His belief is that only a single state, a secular state, a democratic state, in which all are welcome and respected, will put the violence and suffering to rest.
The people of Israel and Palestine are highly educated. They are perfectly capable of living in peace. To do so, they will have to learn what Peled’s book helps teach so well: Never, under any circumstance, no matter the context, no matter the poetic justice, no matter past histories of victimization, no matter the intention or desire, never ever ever is war an acceptable instrument of public policy. In fact, we are lucky if the best of wars don’t doom us to a century or more of ongoing bloodshed and resentment.