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Israel: A Historic Statement

Author: Henry Siegman, Former Senior Fellow and Former Director for the U.S./Middle East Project
February 8, 2001
New York Review of Books

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At a recent meeting of Israel's Cabinet, Acting Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami made a most unusual statement to his governmental colleagues, one that arguably expresses the most honest and important insight into the fifty-year-old conflict between Israel and the Palestinians ever expressed by any Jewish leader. It holds the potential of transforming the Israeli-Palestinian and the larger Israeli-Arab conflict in ways more profound and lasting than any formal peace treaty can hope to.

As reported by Akiva Eldar in Ha'aretz on November 28, 2000, the statement was made by Ben-Ami in the course of a Cabinet debate over a document prepared by the prime minister's office which purported to catalog a long list of Palestinian transgressions. Ben-Ami opposed the distribu-tion of the document on the ground that no one in the West would be surprised that a people under occupation fails to honor agreements with its occupier: "Accusations made by a well-established society about how a people it is oppressing is breaking rules to attain its rights do not have much credence."

It is difficult to grasp fully the importance of these words in the context of the tortured Israeli-Palestinian relationship. They are the first acknowledgment by an Israeli leader that Palestinians are a people under occupation who are struggling for their legitimate rights.


It has never really been understood by Israelis that what has made their conflict with the Palestinians so difficult to resolve has been their inability to acknowledge, even to themselves, that the source of Palestinian anger and violence against them is not an Arab or Muslim version of European anti-Semitism, or an alleged unique Arab/Muslim proclivity to violence, but an understandable sense of injustice and victimization felt by Palestinians. It has been easy, even convenient, for Jews to construe this deep Palestinian sense of the injustice done to them as anti-Semitism, because Palestinians, and Arabs generally, have made use of the worst excesses of European anti-Semitic rhetoric in trying to advance their cause. It is an ugly and reprehensible strategy that will remain as a permanent stain on Arab honor. But anti-Semitism is not the reason for Palestinian opposition to the creation of Israel, or for their anger at Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

Israelis have found it painful to acknowledge the injustice that the establishment of the Jewish state inflicted on the Palestinian people for fear that such an acknowledgment would delegitimize the entire Zionist enterprise. They fear it may justify the claim of the most extremist Palestinians that it is not only the Occupied Territories that Israel needs to return but all of pre-1967 Israel as well.

This fear has resulted in an inability to recognize that Palestinians have any rights whatever, even in the West Bank and Gaza. Consequently, Israeli concessions to the Palestinians are justified by Israelis only to the extent that they serve Israel's security interests, not as an obligation to redress an injustice and satisfy legitimate claims. Thus the cycle of bitterness and mutual recrimination is endlessly reinforced, with time serving only to make the conflict ever less resolvable.

The historic significance—indeed, the majesty—of Ben-Ami's statement is that in a stroke, as it were, it goes to the very heart of the conflict and extracts the poison buried there. It holds the promise of freeing the Jewish psyche to understand that the argument for a Jewish state in Palestine following the Holocaust does not lose its force because of the admission of the simple truth that this state came at a terrible cost to the Palestinian people, or that Palestinian resistance to their traumatic dislocation was an entirely understandable phenomenon rather than wickedness. To acknowledge this is not to imply that pre-1967 Israel must be returned to the Palestinians. It does imply, however, that Jews must recognize a responsibility for rectifying the injustice to the maximum extent possible without jeopardizing Israel's own existence. It also implies that Israeli Arabs who empathize with the suffering of their Palestinian brethren in the West Bank and Gaza and in the refugee camps are not traitors to their country. Indifference to human suffering should not be a litmus test for citizenship in the Jewish state.

Israelis, and Jews generally, have been unable to deal with this simple truth. Indeed, deep repression of that truth quickly became so pathological a need that Israelis even resent Palestinian expressions of sorrow and mourning over the disaster they suffered in 1948. Their observance of the Nakba (the Catastrophe) is seen by Israelis—even leftists—as evidence of Palestinian malevolence toward Jews.


It is understandable that there will be differences about where the line balancing Palestinian rights and Israel's security is to be drawn. But there can be no disagreement that enabling Palestinians to live as a free people in their own state and compensating the refugees who suffered most from the Nakba are not matters of Israeli magnanimity and altruism, but a sacred obligation to a people that has been greatly wronged, a wrong compounded by keeping the West Bank and Gaza under occupation since 1967.

All of this is implicit in Ben-Ami's remarkable statement. To recognize that Palestinians cannot be faulted for breaking agreements made in the expectation—proven false—that they would end Israel's occupation is to recognize, for the first time in this long conflict, that occupiers have no political or moral right to set the ground rules for a people that is struggling to get out from under an occupation.

Israel has the right to demand that Palestinians abide by international rules of conduct when they achieve self-determination and sovereignty. Those same rules permit Israel to respond, as it must—and as it is uniquely capable of doing given its vast military superiority—if Palestinians, no longer under Israeli occupation, act in ways that endanger Israel's security. What Israel cannot do is deny Palestin-ians their freedom because of its self-serving judgment that Palestinians are not yet ready to behave responsibly.

It now remains for Israel's political leaders, intellectuals, and educators—and for Ben-Ami himself—to elaborate more fully the sentiments he expressed privately to his colleagues. Ben-Ami may or may not be remembered as a foreign minister of substantial political accomplishment. But if, in his public activities and pronouncements, he remains faithful to the simple but courageous truth he expressed to the Cabinet, he will surely be remembered as the man who dared speak the difficult words that finally brought healing and reconciliation to two sorely tried peoples and to a conflict-ravaged land.

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