The past is beyond us

Someday we (Israelis and Palestinians) may be able to try to understand that the truth that we hold dear, which is a different truth from the other’s truth, also has some validity

Netanyahu and Abbas (photo credit: REUTERS)
Netanyahu and Abbas
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In response to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s speech at the PLO Central Council meeting, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: “He exposed what we have been saying all the time, that the root of the conflict is the basic refusal to recognize a Jewish state, in any borders.”
Abbas did not say anything new. He is not a Zionist and has never recognized the legitimacy of Zionism. By the way, neither did Anwar Sadat, or King Hussein or Mohammed bin-Salman, and not even Abdel Fattah Sisi.
When I was growing up, my “bible” was The Zionist Idea – a collection of essays by the leading Zionist thinkers, edited by Arthur Hertzberg. I discovered a long time ago that the Arabs were reading from different books. The Arabs, citizens of the State of Israel, and in every Arab country in the Middle East, never accepted my version of history. They have always believed that Zionism was a Western colonialist conspiracy and that European Christian antisemitism was the driving force behind Zionism.
Their version of history is also based on facts – from Herzl’s Jewish identity shocked into reality by the Dreyfus Affair, to the proposal in the Zionist Congress to accept Uganda, all the way up to the Holocaust and the refusal of the West to rescue the Jews and the prevent Hitler’s “final solution.” The Arabs have never believed in a national Jewish identity – a sense of Jewish peoplehood – as the driving force, together with thousands of years of unending connection to the Land of Israel and Jerusalem, behind Zionism.
In 1988 when I founded IPCRI (Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information) as a joint Israeli-Palestinian public policy think tank aimed at advancing the two-state solution, in the founding document I stated that the Palestinians would probably never be prepared to accept the moral right of Israel to exist. I don’t think I was wrong, nor have I been naïve in advancing the idea of a two-state solution without gaining the moral legitimacy for my national existence in the State of Israel.
What I thought was possible then – and now – is gaining recognition from the Arabs of Israel’s right to exist and a willingness to live in peace next to Israel, and not in place of Israel. That is why I was not surprised at all when Yasser Arafat wrote to Yitzhak Rabin that “The PLO recognizes the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and security.”
At that time, the State of Israel should have responded with reciprocity and should have recognized the right of the State of Palestine to exist in peace and security. Instead Israel wrote: “The Government of Israel has decided to recognize the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people.”
Even after recognizing Israel’s right to exist, the Palestinians did not recognize that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people – which would be recognizing the moral right of the Jewish people to establish their state on the land that they believe is theirs, stolen from them by the Jews. This is unlikely to ever change. Does that mean that peace can never exist – as Netanyahu seems to be saying? I don’t believe so.
I have long said that Jews and Arabs will probably never be able to agree on history. This does not mean that they cannot agree on the future. These are completely different matters. Will Jews ever be able to assume the responsibility for the Nakba that the Palestinians demand? Probably not. Will the United States ever owe up to its historical responsibility for the massacre of the Native Americans and its moral responsibility to properly compensate them for their losses? Probably not. Does this remove the legitimacy of the United States? Does anyone really question the right of the United States to exist?
Israel exists. Israel is strong, Israel is secure. Israel has the ability to defend itself and to provide for its people a good life. Israel is not going anywhere. Even Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the leader of the nationalist camp in the Zionist movement, wrote in November 1923: “I consider it utterly impossible to eject the Arabs from Palestine. There will always be two nations in Palestine – which is good enough for me, provided the Jews become the majority... As long as the Arabs feel that there is the least hope of getting rid of us, they will refuse to give up this hope in return for either kind words or for bread and butter, because they are not a rabble, but a living people.
And when a living people yields in matters of such a vital character it is only when there is no longer any hope of getting rid of us, because they can make no breach in the iron wall. Not till then will they drop their extremist leaders, whose watchword is ‘Never!’... and the leadership will pass to the moderate groups, who will approach us with a proposal that we should both agree to mutual concessions. Then we may expect them to discuss honestly practical questions, such as a guarantee against Arab displacement, or equal rights for Arab citizens, or Arab national integrity.”
Meretz did not write this. It was written by the person who inspired the leaders of those who formed the Likud.
In November 1988, Yasser Arafat declared independence and read the Palestinian Declaration of Independence, written by the Palestinian national poet Mahmoud Darwish, and the Palestinians agreed to enter into a peace process with Israel that would be based on a two-state solution along the “1967 lines.” This was the ultimate victory of Jabotinsky’s “Iron Wall.”
Jabotinsky would have recognized that the Palestinians did not accept Zionism or the Jewish people’s moral right to exist, and even so, this would not have been at the core of negotiations led by him with Arafat, or with Abbas.
No, Mister Netanyahu and the people of Israel, Abbas did not re-write history. His story was never the same story that we read. The best we can hope for is that at some time in the future we will be willing to read each other’s story without the absolutist view that our version of history is the only real one. Someday we (Israelis and Palestinians) may be able to try to understand that the truth that we hold dear, which is a different truth from the other’s truth, also has some validity. Once we get beyond the need to reconcile the past, we must once again focus our energies on reaching agreements regarding our future – and that is essentially much more important for us all.
The author is the founder and co-chairman of IPCRI – Israel Palestine Creative Regional Initiatives ( His new book In Pursuit of Peace in Israel and Palestine has been published by Vanderbilt University Press.