In Remembrance: Elias Shoufani, 1932-2013
Beyond its personal impact for his family, friends, and colleagues, the passing of Elias Shoufani in Damascus earlier this year had a special meaning for all those who, over the past four decades, have been involved with research at the Institute for Palestine Studies (IPS).
For more than a generation, Elias Shoufani was the Arab world’s leading analyst of Israeli affairs. He possessed a rare level of understanding of Zionist ideology and of the Israeli state’s policies and strategic doctrines, and spread that knowledge widely through over a dozen books and monographs, scores of articles, and extensive lectures. He did this while living in exile through capitalizing on the unique perspective on Zionism and Israel gained from living his formative years and being educated as a Palestinian under the iron military rule of the new Israeli state in the first decades of its existence. He shared this background with a few others like Sabri Jiryis and Habib Qahwaji, who drew on their experiences to help Palestinians in the Diaspora obtain a better understanding of an Israel outside the personal experience of most of them.
Born in Mi’liya in the Galilee in 1932, Shoufani spent much of his life in opposition to the trends of his time, whether as a young man completing his secondary schooling and his undergraduate education (at the Hebrew University) in the institutions of the new Zionist state, or as a militant and activist who rejected many of the political formulas espoused by his Palestinian comrades in Beirut and Damascus, or as an intellectual, writer, and analyst challenging conventional wisdom.
In the early 1960s, Elias Shoufani travelled to the United States, where he obtained a PhD in Islamic studies from Princeton University and thereafter an appointment at the University of Maryland. Like others of his generation, including Hanna Mikhail (Abu ‘Umar), who was memorialized in issue 165 of this Journal, he could have taken the easy course of an academic career far from his homeland and its travails. Instead, like Mikhail, he chose to return to his own people, joining the ranks of the Palestinian Resistance in Lebanon in 1972, at a time when the conflict over the Palestinian presence there was about to explode. At the same time, he began working at IPS, supervising pioneering programs such as the daily translation of the Hebrew press and several other major research and translation projects dealing with Israel. He eventually became head of the IPS Research Department.
I met Elias at the Institute in the early 1970s and came into more regular contact with him when I joined the Research Department on a part-time basis in 1974, alongside my teaching at the Lebanese University and the American University of Beirut (AUB). We worked together in an extraordinary group that included the military expert Riyad Ashkar and AUB professor Marwan Buheiry (both deceased), as well as researchers like Camille Mansour, Ahmad Khalifa, Mahmud Soueid, Sami Musallam, and many others. This fruitful interaction continued until Elias left Beirut for Damascus in 1982 as part of the forced evacuation of the PLO from the city in the wake of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. He continued to undertake research and writing projects for IPS thereafter from Damascus, where he lived for the rest of his life.
Elias Shoufani was a remarkable presence during the decade he worked at IPS in Beirut, animating all our discussions of its research agenda and of the complex Palestinian and regional political situation. His depth of knowledge of Israel was extraordinary. His complete mastery of the Arabic and Hebrew languages, as well as his extensive knowledge of the Qur’an and the Bible, gave him a deeper understanding of the modern Hebrew language than most other analysts, Arab or Israeli. Shoufani was a wide-ranging scholar, having written a dissertation, later published, on the wars whereby the early Islamic state was securely established in the wake of the death of the Prophet Muhammad. He was broadly read in European languages, as well as Arabic and Hebrew; his intellectual interests ranged far and wide.
The focus of Shoufani’s scholarship and his political activism, however, was the struggle over Palestine unleashed by the rise of Zionism and the establishment of Israel over the ruins of Palestinian Arab society. Shoufani’s insight into the ideology and the policies of the Likud government of Menachem Begin that came to power in Israel in 1977 was penetrating and accurate. Elias saw, as did few others at the time, the extent and full implications of the changes in the world view of the Israeli elite that would result from the systematic implementation over time of the ‘‘Greater Land of Israel’’ philosophy of Begin and his Revisionist Zionist followers. Like many others, I listened and learned, read and absorbed, as Shoufani developed his ideas in the years after Begin’s ascension to power. Little did I—or most others at the time—think that the rise of Likud and its maximalist ideology represented a fundamental and permanent change in the orientation of Israel. In fact, every Israeli government since 1977 has reflected to a greater or lesser degree the thinking of this powerful rightwing current in Zionism, which became the new Israeli mainstream after decades of the hegemony of Labor Zionism. In hindsight, it is now clear that the policies of Israel towards Palestine and the Palestinians over the last thirty-five-plus years in the crucial arenas of military occupation, colonial settlement, and all-encompassing security control were thoroughly changed by this seminal event, which Elias was one of the first analysts to understand and articulate fully.
In his numerous books and articles on this and related topics, Shoufani not only analyzed these seminal trends in Zionism and in the policies of successive Israeli governments. He also tried to explain to an often uncomprehending Palestinian and Arab audience how incongruous was the turn by the Arab States and the PLO towards a two-state solution, in light of these momentous shifts in Israel’s posture. Shoufani argued correctly that Israeli governments from that of Begin onwards were committed to keep what Revisionists called ‘‘Judea, Samaria, and the Gaza District’’ by virtue not only of greed for further territorial expansion or supposed ‘‘security’’ concerns. He saw that these governments would cling to these territories most importantly out of a messianic and deeply held ideological belief that they belonged exclusively to the Jewish people, who had a God-given right to settle without hindrance anywhere within them.
Against this background, Shoufani maintained that ostensibly ‘‘moderate’’ and ‘‘pragmatic’’ Palestinian and Arab strategies for dealing with Israel were increasingly unrealistic, and indeed unrealizable in terms of ending occupation and colonial settlement of what remained of Palestine and achieving Palestinian self-determination. He was therefore a scathing critic of the PLO’s move towards a negotiated two-state solution, but his critique was based not on his own ideological predispositions but rather on an acute assessment of what the Israeli leadership would and would not accept, and of what the Palestinians and Arabs must do to change that situation.
Elias Shoufani’s strong opposition before and after 1982 to the political line of the PLO leadership was thus fully grounded in his complete analytical clarity about the situation. This clarity enabled him to predict the dead end toward which these policies were leading long before the Oslo process revealed the same conclusions to many others. He saw, in other words, that because of their unswerving commitment to their ‘‘Greater Land of Israel’’ ideology, Begin and his ideological heirs who have dominated most Israeli governments since 1977 would never voluntarily accept Palestinian self-determination and statehood, or an end to occupation and to the unceasing expansion of colonial settlement throughout Palestine. In his view, only a fundamental change in the balance of forces in favor of the Palestinians, and a clear understanding of the obstacles to changing the status quo, would enable the transformation of that hard reality.
Elias Shoufani was in some sense a modern-day Cassandra, foreseeing a bleak future that others preferred to ignore or to pretend was not inevitable. The bitter outcome for the Palestinians of the Oslo process and of the creation of a Palestinian ‘‘Authority’’ that is fully subordinate to Israel in every way and largely serves Israel’s interests, and the growing hegemony of expansionist Likud ideology in Israel for the past thirty-five years have shown that his bleak vision was accurate. His passing is a great loss to our understanding of Israel and its policies, and has been keenly felt by all those who knew and learned from him over the years.