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
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
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
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
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