Perhaps there were people around the world at the beginning of the 20th century who believed that the land of Israel/Palestine was "a land without a people for a people without a land," a phrase frequently attributed to the early English Zionist author Israel Zangwill. However, anyone living on the ground knew otherwise. Early Tel Aviv painters such as Reuven Rubin and Nachum Guttman romanticized and idealized the Arab, and Rubin even darkened his image in self-portraits out of identification with them.
The violent clashes in 1929 and 1936-1939, known as the "riots" by the Jews and "revolt" by the Arabs, ended that romantic stage.


At the time of the 1947 UN Partition Plan, 55 percent of the population in the area designated for the future Jewish state was Jewish while 45 percent were Arab. As a result of the war and the Nakba, the proportion in the newly born state of Israel (in the expanded area including what was designated for the Jewish state) changed to about 80 percent Jewish and 20 percent Muslim and Christian Arab, a proportion which has remained to this day.

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Before the war, only a small minority of the Arabs, most noticeably the members of the Communist Party, supported a bi-national solution, and then followed the Soviet Union's lead in being the only Arab party to support a two-state solution as early as 1947-48.
On the Jewish side, a significant minority, led by the Hashomer Hatzair (The Young Guard) socialist-Zionist kibbutz movement and party supported the bi-national idea, together with a group of intellectuals based at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem who came together in the Brith Shalom (Covenant of Peace) movement. Among them were the Hebrew University president, Dr. Judah Magnes, and renowned philosophy professor Martin Buber. After the war they all accepted the fact of the Partition Plan and the establishment of an independent state of Israel, and Mapam (the United Workers Party), the successor to the Hashomer Hatzair Party became the second largest faction in the first Knesset, with 19 seats.

The 1948 War

When the armies of five neighboring Arab countries attacked the newly declared state of Israel, both the government and the people believed that "the enemy" was "the Arabs" in the most generic sense of the term, without any differentiation between countries and peoples. Most, though not all, Jewish Israelis were also insensitive to the creation of the refugee problem, and the word "Nakba" (catastrophe) was not known at the time. They tended to focus more on their own survival.
When the war ended, the Israelis turned inwards, focusing on building the new state and absorbing the hundreds of thousands of Holocaust survivors and the mass wave of immigration of Jews from North Africa and the Middle East. To a great degree, the Other, the enemy, was off the radar.
Only a small group of veterans of the 1948 war, among them Uri Avnery, who advocated a Semitic Union between the Jews and the Arabs of Palestine, and the Canaanites, such as the poet Yonatan Ratosh, Aharon Amir, Amos Kenan and Boas Evron, who advocated a joint identity, held alternative views. The Canaanites declared that while the Israeli Jews originated in the Jewish people, they were now members of a Hebrew nation, connected to local Canaanite mythology, whose destiny lay in a connection with the Arab peoples of the Middle East

Needed - A 'New Outlook'

Following the second Arab-Israeli war in 1956, a group of Israeli Jews and Arabs-led by Simha Flapan, a member of a Hashomer Hatzair kibbutz and a former Mapam leader who is now considered the father of the Israeli new historians-founded a monthly magazine called New Outlook, whose goal was to promote dialogue, understanding and peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors. They were inspired by Professor Buber's belief in dialogue as the key to interpersonal and international relations, who proposed the name as a fitting label to what was needed.
Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion actually used the Knesset as a platform to attack the initiative for "sowing seeds of illusion," since it was "impossible to have a dialogue with the Arabs." This was the period when Israeli academics who participated in international conferences discovered that their Arab counterparts refused to be seen appearing alongside them in public.
Flapan came to Buber and asked: "How can we promote a dialogue in such circumstances?" Buber's response was: "For a dialogue to take place you don't have to have the actual dialogue with the other, you need the existence of the other. The rest will follow."

1967 and Khartoum

After the 1967 war, the "rest" followed in ways which neither Buber nor Flapan could have anticipated. The occupation, which has lasted now for 41 years, brought Israelis and West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem Palestinians into close, if involuntary, proximity. And the fact that the Fateh Movement, led by Yasser Arafat, took over the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1968 helped to promote the concept of the existence of a separate Palestinian people in the minds of the Israelis.
On the other hand, the "three Nos of Khartoum" as the decisions of the Arab League Summit conference in September 1967 are known in the Israeli discourse - no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, and no negotiations with Israel - led most Israelis once again to turn inwards, with the belief that there was no possibility for dialogue and encounter, much less peace, with the neighboring countries and peoples.

Golda Says No to Dr. Goldmann

Before his death in 1970, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser expressed a readiness to meet Dr. Nahum Goldmann, president of the World Zionist Organization. Prime Minister Golda Meir did not take these overtures seriously, and she forbade Dr. Goldmann from carrying out a meeting with the Egyptian president. Golda's rigid rejection of the initiative began to stir uneasy feelings among some Israelis. A group of high school 12th graders wrote a public letter protesting against the prime minister's unwillingness to allow Dr. Goldmann to explore the possibilities for peace with the Egyptian leader.
The letter included the following sentences: "We, a group of high school students who are about to be mobilized into the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), protest against the government policy in the affair of Goldmann-Nasser. Until now we believed we were going to fight and to serve in the army for three years because there was 'no alternative.' Following this affair…we, and many others, doubt whether we can fight in an endless war, with the knowledge that our government sets its policy in such a way as to miss opportunities for peace…"
The charismatic Nasser died in September, 1970, and was replaced by President Anwar Sadat. The perception of Sadat was that he was a weak successor to an historic leader, who had even been a Nazi sympathizer during World War II. His readiness to meet with Dr. Goldmann also was met by rejection.

Sadat Changes the Rules

The surprise of the Yom Kippur War in October 1973 brought both fear and a new respect for Egyptian and Syrian capabilities. And despite IDF Chief-of-Staff Mordechai Gur's paranoia in 1977 that President Anwar Sadat would step out of the plane in Ben-Gurion Airport and his forces would take out machine guns to mow down the entire Israeli leadership waiting to greet them, the Egyptian president brought about a sea change in the average Israeli's attitude towards the enemy. As Sadat said, the question is 90 percent psychological - of course provided that it is asked in the context of a peace agreement.
When Sadat came to Jerusalem, "to the ends of the earth" as he described it, Dr. Goldmann finally had an opportunity to meet with the Egyptian president when he participated in a delegation that met him in the Knesset from the 20th anniversary of New Outlook conference that was being held in Tel Aviv. "So, we finally meet," said Sadat with a twinkle in his eye, in the presence of Prime Minister Menachem Begin. And when Begin, the first prime minister from the right began to hedge on moving forward towards an agreement, another letter of protest was written, the Officers' Letter, which declared that:

…[As] citizens who also serve as soldiers and officers in the reserves….we are aware of the security needs of the State of Israel and the difficulties on the path to peace…However … when for the first time new horizons of peace and cooperation are being proposed to the State of Israel…we are writing this with deep anxiety…A government policy which prefers the existence of settlements beyond the Green Line to the elimination of the historic conflict…[and] a government policy that will cause a continuation of control over millions of Arabs [that] will hurt the Jewish-democratic character of the state,…will make it difficult for us to identify with the path of the State of Israel….

That letter was the trigger and forerunner of a previously non-existent mass Israeli peace movement, which became known as Peace Now.

The PLO Too

The attitude towards the Palestinians and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) also began to change. Perhaps the person who most personified that change was Prof. Yehoshafat Harkabi, a retired general and a former head of Israeli Military Intelligence. He published an authoritative translation of the PLO Charter and promoted the widely accepted idea that the PLO was an implacable enemy of the State of Israel. As the PLO began to enter into dialogue with Israelis in the 1970s, first with anti-Zionist members of the miniscule Trotskyite Matzpen Movement, and later with more mainstream non-Zionist and Zionist Israelis who were members and supporters of the Israeli Committee for Israeli-Palestinian Peace, such as General (Ret.) Prof. Matityahu (Mati) Peled, Dr. Yaacov Arnon (former director general of the Israeli ministry of finance), Uri Avnery and others, Harkabi's views began to change. In 1978, while Begin and Sadat were being hosted by President Jimmy Carter at Camp David, Harkabi participated in a two-day dialogue with leading Palestinians, including Anwar Nusseibeh, Elias Freij, Dr. Haydar Abdel Shafi, Mohammed Milhem, Ibrahim Daqaq and Ziad AbuZayyad (today co-editor of the PIJ), organized by New Outlook in Jerusalem, together with writers Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua, Amos Elon, Prof. Shimon Shamir, Prof. Yehoshua Arielli, MK Rabbi Menachem Cohen and other academics and public figures-later published as a book entitled When Enemies Dare to Talk. And in 1989, Harkabi was the Israeli keynote speaker at the New Outlook-Al Fajr "Road to Peace" conference held at Columbia University in New York. The Palestinian keynote speaker was PLO representative Dr. Nabil Sha'ath, who later became foreign minister in the Palestinian Authority government.
After the Oslo Accords and the Declaration of Principles (DOP) were signed in 1993, even PLO leader Yasser Arafat was humanized in the eyes of the Israelis when he was featured as a sympathetic puppet character in the Israeli version of The Spitting Image/satirical Muppet-like show Hachartzufim on Israeli TV.

Regression and Hope

The failure of Camp David II in the summer of 2000, the outbreak of the second intifada, the victory of Hamas in the January 2006 elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council, the almost 4,000 Katyusha rockets fired by Hezbollah forces from Lebanon on Israeli civilian locations in the Galilee in the summer of 2006, the ongoing firing of Qassam rockets against Sderot and other Israeli communities near the Gaza border, and the general rise of an Islamic fundamentalism which refuses to accept an Israeli state in the heart of the Muslim world have caused a serious regression in the Israeli attitude towards the Other. And, of course, the general anxiety felt about a possible Iranian nuclear bomb and the threat to "wipe the Zionist regime off the map," fears which are fanned by right-wing politicians, hasn't helped any.
The Arab Peace Initiative (originally known as the Saudi Initiative) ratified at the Arab League Summit Conference in Beirut in 2002 - that offered Israel peace and normalized relations with the Arab world in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal to the Green Line and acceptance of an independent Palestinian state - did not make a deep impact on Israeli consciousness, partially because it appeared in the middle of the second intifada, because the Israeli government did not take it seriously, and because the Arab countries did not do enough to promote the initiative.
The Annapolis process and the renewal of Israeli-Palestinian talks have also not made a deep impact on Israeli public opinion.


There is no doubt that, following the collapse of Camp David II, the second intifada, the perceived failure of the Oslo process, and the increasing influence of Hamas in Palestinian society and right-wing rejectionist forces within Israeli society, there has been a serious deterioration in the level of mutual confidence and trust between Israeli Jews and their Palestinian neighbors.
The fact that over l50 Israeli and Palestinian Peace NGOs continue to meet, to promote dialogue, to work to monitor, to ameliorate and end the occupation, and to seek joint formulas for a peaceful resolution of the conflict is encouraging, but it has not changed the basic negative direction.
However, the situation as it has evolved within Israeli society also contains seeds of hope for the future.
A recent study noted that Israeli Jews have unconsciously incorporated over 500 Arabic words into their vocabulary. The so-called Israeli cuisine is frequently a Middle Eastern cuisine. Israeli TV recently featured a prime time satirical sitcom written by Palestinian Israeli author Sayed Kashua, with Arab and Jewish actors and over half the dialogue in Arabic. The sports pages are filled with everyday items that feature Palestinian-Israeli football players who star in almost all of the Israeli clubs; Turkey is the most popular tourist destination for the average Israeli; and many important businessmen continue to promote joint Israeli-Palestinian economic projects.
And, in public opinion polls, a clear majority of the Israelis and the Palestinians continue to believe that a two-state solution will be the eventual solution to the conflict - a Palestinian state based in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem alongside the State of Israel, including a removal of most of the settlements - though a majority in both communities also doubt whether there is a political will and ability to achieve such a solution today.
Therefore, all we need to cultivate a healthy relationship between Israeli Jews and their Palestinian, Arab and Muslim neighbors, and to take advantage of the positive trends within Israeli society, is to end the occupation in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian and comprehensive Israeli-Arab peace. It's that simple. And that difficult.