100 years of Arab-Israeli history: Renowned British doctor pens surprising book on conflict

A British doctor dissects the 100-year quest for peace in the Middle East, from the Balfour Declaration through today.

IDF disperses Palestinian riot 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
IDF disperses Palestinian riot 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Most people know little about most of the problem areas in the world, but nearly everyone seems to have a strong (though not necessarily fact-based) opinion about Israel.
While people of all professions have the right to develop an informed opinion about any global issue, certain personalities – such as Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters – seem to think that they possess superior critical thinking tools and powers of discernment that justify their obsessive criticism of one side of the Mideast conflict.
Along comes Dr. Leslie Turnberg, an accomplished MD for more than six decades specializing in gastroenterology. His research contributions over the years have increased understandings in his field and he has advanced the techniques for treatment. He was knighted for his accomplishments in 1994 and has held numerous key posts in professional organizations.He has authored four books and more than 150 scholarly articles related to the medical and health services fields.
Now he has published a book about – of all things – Israel and the Mideast.
What, one might wonder, qualifies Turnberg to write a work so far removed from his professional field of expertise? How valuable can such a book be?
Comparing the chronic conflict in our region in some ways to a medical condition may help answer the first question: Turnberg can harness his extensive research and analytical skills to diagnose the problem, identify the factors causing the impasse and even suggest “treatment” of the condition.
The answer to the second question is that the book can have significant value to people seeking to make sense of the situation in this region. Turnberg provides a concise and readable, yet detail-rich, examination of the history of the region ever since the Balfour Declaration recognized the need and right of the Jews to reestablish their national home in their biblical homeland.
Beyond the Balfour Declaration efficiently recounts and puts into perspective the major events of the last 100 years and their significance – such as the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, the 1917 Balfour Declaration, the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, the 1920 San Remo Conference, the 1921 Cairo Conference, the 1922 League of Nations legal recognition of the “Jewish national home,” the 1937 Peel Commission Report and more.
With the historical foundation firmly established, Turnberg goes on to diagnose the 1948 War of Independence, the 1956 Sinai War, the 1967 Six Day War, the 1979 Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty, the 1994 Israel/ Jordan Peace Treaty, the Oslo accords of 1993 and 1995, the Lebanon and Gaza wars, the intifadas, as well as the many efforts to secure peace in the region with the Palestinians and all other Arab parties. Published in 2017, the book is refreshingly current.
Any book that attempts to pack in 100 years of history must be selective, yet this thoroughly researched and well-documented book manages to go beyond the highlights to share interesting details about key events and personalities that even readers well-versed in Middle East studies may find surprising. For example, while recounting the roles of Zionist giants Theodor Herzl and Chaim Weizmann, without whom there would likely be no Jewish state as we know it, Turnberg’s research documents not only the vital connection between Weizmann and the Lord Arthur Balfour, but also obscure details, such as the fact that Weizmann apparently had a “prolonged liaison with a married woman.”
IF THERE remain any innocent readers in the world who pick up this book simply to obtain useful knowledge about the history of this region, I believe they will praise the writer for having achieved the dispassionate objectivity overall that one would expect from the medical professional that he is.
Too many readers, however, are likely to scour every page of the book for evidence of bias. Where the book validates their views, they are likely to embrace it, where it contradicts their views, they will tend to condemn and discredit it.
Because Turnberg endeavors to impartially present both sides of the Israel/Arab narrative, those on both the Right and Left will find passages to chafe at and passages to celebrate. Here are some examples of how Turnberg handles contention points.
He calls the 1948 war the “War of Independence.” The word “Nakba,” a key code word to the Arab narrative, never appears in the chapter or in the book. Regarding the 1948 Arab refugees, he diplomatically covers all bases by saying they “were expelled or fled,” but adds that instead of resolving the problem, the Arabs preferred “using the refugees as a rod to beat the back of Israel,” and that is the reason there is still a “refugee” problem today, almost 70 years later.
It is axiomatic for those who obsessively criticize/demonize Israel to blame the Jewish state for starting the 1967 war in order to “colonize” coveted territory, but after examining the facts, Turnberg puts the lie to that, concluding that Israel gained the ground “in a defensive war waged to threaten its existence.”
Turnberg regards PLO leader Yasser Arafat’s rejection of prime minister Ehud Barak’s sweeping peace offer in 2000 as one of the missed opportunities when the Palestinians could have had a state if they had wanted. He notes that Arafat’s refusal “led president [Bill] Clinton to lay the blame for the failure of those talks squarely on his [Arafat’s] shoulders... in his speeches in Arabic, Arafat was clear that he regarded any agreement on two states then as being the first phase in the struggle to take over all the land.”
Cheerleaders for president Barack 432 pages; $35.95 Obama’s role in the Mideast will be less than pleased to read Turnberg’s remarks regarding the US role in UN Security Council Resolution 2334 in the final days of the lame duck president’s term.
“Obama seems to have allowed anger to creep into his actions and that is never a rational way to conduct business of such international importance. Senator Lindsay Graham described him as having ‘gone from naïve and foolish to flatout reckless.’ He certainly should have recognized that prospects for peace negotiations may now have been set back further.”
Regarding prime minister Ariel Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, Turnberg writes: “There is a commonly asserted view that if only Israel would remove the settlements there would be a good chance of peace [but Sharon] did not foresee the disastrous aggression of Hamas and the wars that were to follow... the consequences of unilateral withdrawal have put back prospects for peace even further. There is no encouragement there for withdrawal now from the West Bank.”
As one might expect from a doctor accustomed to curing illnesses, after his very scholarly examination of the patient’s 100-year history, Turnberg seeks to prescribe something effective to resolve the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. He opens his final chapter, called “What Would a Final Status Agreement Look Like?” saying, “Despite the gloomy picture I have described above, I believe there are signs of what a realistic settlement might look like now and how it might be achieved.”
A final peace in his vision would include the elimination of many settlements to make way for a two-state solution, with a resolution of outstanding issues such as borders, refugees, incitement, terrorism and Jerusalem, with each side making meaningful concessions.
The devil, as always, is in the details. Goodwill and a preparedness on both sides to compromise are necessary ingredients; unfortunately, those commodities seem to be chronically in short supply.
Turnberg may not have cured the malady, but for anyone seeking a balanced overview of the patient history and symptoms, Beyond the Balfour Declaration is just what the doctor ordered.