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Bernard Lewis on Israel: To Be or Not To Be

As non-history is about to repeat itself in Annapolis, today’s Wall Street Journal runs Bernard Lewis’ sober take on tomorrow’s Middle East peace conference.   If the issue is about the size of Israel, then we have a straightforward border … Read More

By / November 26, 2007

As non-history is about to repeat itself in Annapolis, today’s Wall Street Journal runs Bernard Lewis’ sober take on tomorrow’s Middle East peace conference.

 

If the issue is about the size of Israel, then we have a straightforward border problem, like Alsace-Lorraine or Texas. That is to say, not easy, but possible to solve in the long run, and to live with in the meantime.

 

If, on the other hand, the issue is the existence of Israel, then clearly it is insoluble by negotiation. There is no compromise position between existing and not existing, and no conceivable government of Israel is going to negotiate on whether that country should or should not exist.

Lewis points out that despite token gestures on the part of some Palestinian negotiators, it is Jewish statehood itself, and not “a straightforward border problem,” that offends.

PLO and other Palestinian spokesmen have, from time to time, given formal indications of recognition of Israel in their diplomatic discourse in foreign languages. But that's not the message delivered at home in Arabic, in everything from primary school textbooks to political speeches and religious sermons. Here the terms used in Arabic denote, not the end of hostilities, but an armistice or truce, until such time that the war against Israel can be resumed with better prospects for success. Without genuine acceptance of Israel's right to exist as a Jewish State, as the more than 20 members of the Arab League exist as Arab States, or the much larger number of members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference exist as Islamic states, peace cannot be negotiated.

Depressingly, in a world where every last creed or cult need only declare itself to receive acceptance (if not special dispensation), “the Jewish question” continues to be as unsolvable as the Riemann Hypothesis. What to do with the pesky lot of us? If you think about it, introducing the question of a right to existence would be positively surreal in the discussion of any other country. Flip through a world atlas, set your finger down on almost any page and consider whether or not the state on which you’ve landed has, by virtue of its policies and origins, earned the right to exist. From tin pot dictatorships (whose maps are redrawn daily) to the tawdry satellites of European imperialism, it is only Israel that comes under fire for simply daring to be. And in a stroke of dialectical genius Arabs have created a Palestinian question. Before Yasser Arafat had a public presence Jews were largely considered the underdogs in the region. A fragile assemblage of survivors getting on with it in a sea of hostility. When under Arafat’s direction the narrative changed from Arabs vs. Jews to Jews vs. Palestinians the scales of sympathy tipped as well. That Palestinians have a ton to complain about can’t be denied. Here’s Lewis again:

 

The government of Jordan granted Palestinian Arabs a form of citizenship, but kept them in refugee camps. In the other Arab countries, they were and remained stateless aliens without rights or opportunities, maintained by U.N. funding. Paradoxically, if a Palestinian fled to Britain or America, he was eligible for naturalization after five years, and his locally-born children were citizens by birth. If he went to Syria, Lebanon or Iraq, he and his descendants remained stateless, now entering the fourth or fifth generation.

And here’s why Annapolis is a bad joke with an ancient punchline:

 

The reason for this has been stated by various Arab spokesmen. It is the need to preserve the Palestinians as a separate entity until the time when they will return and reclaim the whole of Palestine; that is to say, all of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and Israel. The demand for the "return" of the refugees, in other words, means the destruction of Israel. This is highly unlikely to be approved by any Israeli government.

 

About 6 months ago I heard an NPR report that opened with the interview of a Gaza woman who was almost killed by Hamas forces for not covering up in the streets. Next they spoke to a woman in the occupied West Bank. She was shouting over the techno music pumped into her gym, where she was interviewed after working out. There are many Palestinians who want to be Israel’s peaceful neighbor. Unfortunately, many amongst the Palestinian power elite still live on as pawns in Arafat’s nasty scheme.

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