Bernard Lewis on "the Jewish Question"

From the Wall Street Journal – November  26, 2007, Page A21

Herewith some thoughts about tomorrow’s Annapolis peace  conference, and the larger problem of how to approach the Israel-Palestine  conflict. The first question (one might think it is obvious but apparently  not) is, "What is the conflict about?" There are basically two  possibilities: that it is about the size of Israel, or about its  existence.

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.

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.

A good example of how this problem affects negotiation is  the much-discussed refugee question. During the fighting in 1947-1948,  about three-fourths of a million Arabs fled or were driven (both are true  in different places) from Israel and found refuge in the neighboring Arab  countries. In the same period and after, a slightly greater number of Jews  fled or were driven from Arab countries, first from the Arab-controlled  part of mandatory Palestine (where not a single Jew was permitted to  remain), then from the Arab countries where they and their ancestors had  lived for centuries, or in some places for millennia. Most Jewish refugees  found their way to Israel.

What happened was thus, in effect, an exchange of  populations not unlike that which took place in the Indian subcontinent in  the previous year, when British India was split into India and Pakistan.  Millions of refugees fled or were driven both ways — Hindus and others  from Pakistan to India, Muslims from India to Pakistan. Another example  was Eastern Europe at the end of World War II, when the Soviets annexed a  large piece of eastern Poland and compensated the Poles with a slice of  eastern Germany. This too led to a massive refugee movement — Poles fled  or were driven from the Soviet Union into Poland, Germans fled or were  driven from Poland into Germany.

The Poles and the Germans, the Hindus and the Muslims, the  Jewish refugees from Arab lands, all were resettled in their new homes and  accorded the normal rights of citizenship. More remarkably, this was done  without international aid. The one exception was the Palestinian Arabs in  neighboring Arab countries.

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.

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.

There are signs of change in some Arab circles, of a  willingness to accept Israel and even to see the possibility of a positive  Israeli contribution to the public life of the region. But such opinions  are only furtively expressed. Sometimes, those who dare to express them  are jailed or worse. These opinions have as yet little or no impact on the  leadership.

Which brings us back to the Annapolis summit. If the issue  is not the size of Israel, but its existence, negotiations are foredoomed.  And in light of the past record, it is clear that is and will remain the  issue, until the Arab leadership either achieves or renounces its purpose  — to destroy Israel. Both seem equally unlikely for the time being.

Mr. Lewis, professor emeritus at Princeton, is the  author, most recently, of "From Babel to Dragomans: Interpreting the  Middle East" (Oxford University Press, 2004).

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  1. Richard Tennesen said:

    Led to you website for the Bernard Lewis article — found the “Countdown for a two-state solution” with ticking “clock,” etc. — what is the date’ s significance — some 362 days from now? What happens then?
    Thank you, Richard Tennesen

  2. daniel said:

    to respond to Richard:

    The countdown started on December 12 2007, the date when the Israeli and Palestinian heads of state committed to commence ongoing negotiations for the conclusion of a two state agreement. They committed to aim to achieve an agreement within a year, so we want to remind the world that the clock is ticking, and that every day that goes by without a resolution, the window of opportunity gets smaller for attaining a historic compromise. The related question is, what is our role to support this process?

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