Why 1948 Matters More Than Ever
Of all the events surrounding modern Israel’s rebirth—the rise of the Zionist movement, the first and second aliyahs, the building of pre-state institutions in the Yishuv—by far the most important, at least for the prospects for peace, spring from the War of Independence itself, because the competing “narratives” about that period lie at the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
If, as is believed almost uniformly throughout the Arab world, Israel was born in original sin, if the Jews really did ransack placid Arab villages, murdering children in front of parents and parents in front of children, and expelling whoever was left, then Arab hatred for Israel and Jews would be understandable, as would their fundamental refusal to really make peace with Israel.
But the Arab narrative (which is often shared by Europeans) is wrong. Israel was not born in original sin—with a few justified exceptions there were no expulsions, nor was there any policy of harming innocents, on the contrary. Thus, even as early as 1937, in a letter to his son Amos, Israel’s founding father David Ben Gurion wrote:
“We do not wish and do not need to expel Arabs and take their places. All our aspiration is built on the assumption—proven throughout all our activity … that there is enough room in the country for ourselves and the Arabs.”
Ten years later, even after much violence and conflict, Ben Gurion’s core beliefs about living in peace with the Arabs had not wavered:
“In our state there will be non-Jews as well—and all of them will be equal citizens; equal in everything without exception … The attitude of the Jewish state to its Arab citizens will be an important factor—though not the only one—in building good neighborly relations with the Arab states.” (Speech, Dec. 13, 1947)
Despite the Yishuv’s attempts to live peacefully with their neighbors, the leader of the Palestinians, the Grand Mufti, Haj Amin al Husseini, chose to make common cause with the Nazis, meeting Hitler and Himmler in Berlin and pushing them to accelerate the slaughter of the Jews, and helping to create Muslim SS units in the Balkans that committed bloody war crimes against both Christians and Jews.
The Mufti’s actions directly implicated the Palestinian movement in the Holocaust, but the Jews still tried to reach an accommodation with their Arab neighbors. When the United Nations in 1947 passed a resolution to partition the Palestine Mandate (or what was left of it, since most of the original territory had been lopped off by Britain to create Jordan) into a Jewish and an Arab state, the Jews supported the plan despite being deeply disappointed with how little land they would receive. The five Arab states in the UN all denounced the resolution (UNGA 181), voted against it, and together with the Palestinian representatives vowed to go to war to kill it.
At the UN in May of 1948, just weeks prior to partition, Abba Eban once again urged all parties to support the world body’s proposal and to avoid war, “… much suffering and grief can still be avoided by seeking the way back onto the highway of the partition resolution.”
Unfortunately for all involved, the Arabs ignored Eban, and launched a brutal war against the Jews, in which more than one percent of the Jewish population was killed. Expecting an easy victory, the Arabs were surprised to meet stiff resistance, and when the Arab armies began to fall back from their initial victories (an Egyptian armored column had penetrated up the coast to within 21 miles of Tel Aviv), the Palestinians panicked and began to flee, thus creating the Palestinian refugee problem that endures to this day.
Had the Palestinians accepted partition, a Palestinian state would have been created side-by-side with Israel in 1948, and there wouldn’t have been a single Palestinian refugee.
This Palestinian refusal to accept statehood was no fluke—they have refused statehood at least two more times since 1948. In the summer of 2000, President Bill Clinton presented his plan (the Clinton Parameters) at Camp David, which would have created a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, with a shared Jerusalem and free passage. Israel’s Ehud Barak accepted the Clinton plan, but Arafat refused it, and rather than making a counter offer instead returned home and launched the second intifada, or violent uprising, in which more than a thousand Israelis were killed.
Despite this, in 2008 the Israelis tried again, when Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced his own peace plan, which would have uprooted tens of thousands of Israeli settlers, abandoned Hebron, divided Jerusalem, and even offered some accommodation to the Palestinian claim to a right of return. The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, refused the peace proposal and once again failed to make a counter proposal.
In the face of the documented truth that it is the Palestinians who have repeatedly run away from a negotiated peace and statehood, it is astounding that both the Palestinians and many Europeans act as if Israel refuses to make peace, as if Israel stands in the way of a Palestinian state.
Until the Palestinians and the Arabs abandon their myths and face reality, until they accept the hard truths that they have been their own worst enemy, the prospects for peace will be dim indeed. When the false narrative is finally exposed and debunked among the Arabs, peace will not be easy or even likely, but it will be easier and likelier.
Alex Safian is associate director of CAMERA (Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America).
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