Commentary Magazine


Topic: Yehuda Magnes

Waiting for “Isratine”

In Monday’s Washington Post, Jackson Diehl reminds us of what the true stumbling block is on the road to peace. Referring to Condoleezza Rice’s peace efforts during George W. Bush’s second term, he has this to say:

Eventually, Olmert presented Abbas with a detailed plan for a final settlement — one that, in its concessions to Palestinian demands, went beyond anything either Israel or the United States had ever put forward. Among other things it mandated a Palestinian state with a capital in Jerusalem and would have allowed 10,000 refugees to return to Israel. That’s when Rice learned another lesson the new administration seems not to have picked up: This Palestinian leadership has trouble saying “yes.” Confronted with a draft deal that would have been cheered by most of the world, Abbas balked. He refused to sign on; he refused to present a counteroffer. Rice and Bush implored him to join Olmert at the White House for a summit. Olmert would present his plan to Bush, and Abbas would say only that he found it worth discussing. The Palestinian president refused.

Three times in the past 10 years, the Palestinians were presented with comprehensive peace proposals that would establish a Palestinian state in most of the West Bank and Gaza, would put its internationally recognized capital in Arab Jerusalem, would offer a solidly funded, reasonable and dignified solution to the refugee issue, and would put an end to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict once and for all. First, it was Ehud Barak’s Camp David proposal. Then it was the Clinton Parameters. Then it was Olmert’s peace plan. Each time, confronted with an Israeli prime minister who was ready, pen in hand, to put his name on the dotted line and face the fury and discontent of part of his political constituency to take a risky peace gamble, Palestine’s acclaimed peace seekers — Yassir Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas — walked away.

This history alone should encourage U.S. and European leaders to recognize that the burden of proof, when it comes to peace credentials and readiness for compromise, is on the Palestinian side, not the Israeli one. But history lessons and Aristotelian logic do not always intersect.

For one thing, the Palestinians have learned that every time they say no, sooner or later pressure will be brought to bear on Israel, and a new offer — better than the previous one — will be coming their way. Meanwhile, their tireless efforts to undermine, isolate, delegitimize, and demonize Israel in the international arena strengthen their bargaining position over time and enable them to expect more for less.

This, incidentally, offers at least a partial answer to David Hazony’s post from the other day, when my colleague was understandably puzzled about a growing support for a one-state solution among Palestinians. Why would a national movement give up its dream and settle for such a solution? After all, the Palestinians never seriously entertained this notion when a handful of Jewish intellectuals were toying with the idea in the 1930s and early 1940s. Brith Shalom and Ihud, the two small organizations that counted Yehuda Magnes and Martin Buber in their ranks, after all, not only could not get traction within the Yishuv — they never even got a single Arab leader interested in discussing their vision of a bi-national state for the Palestine Mandate, where Jews would forever be relegated to the role of a minority.

Clearly, the difference is that, back then, the Zionist movement was weak, its staying power in Palestine was questionable, its backing from Britain was waning, and its reservoir of support in Europe’s Jewish Diaspora under mortal threat of annihilation. Why would the Palestinians concede little when they believed — as they certainly did then — that they could have it all?

History offers some reckoning and what looked like a flight of fancy in the mid-1930s is more attractive today. A bi-national state is actually more promising than a nation-state, at least for Palestinian intellectuals, not so much because it would force them to renounce their aspirations but because it would keep their nationalist dream alive — a dream whereby, as Professor Fouad Ajami once so artfully put it, “there still lurks in the Palestinian and Arab imagination a view, depicted by the Moroccan historian Abdallah Laroui, that “on a certain day, everything would be obliterated and instantaneously reconstructed and the new inhabitants would leave, as if by magic, the land they had despoiled.” Arafat knew the power of this redemptive idea. He must have reasoned that it is safer to ride that idea, and that there will always be another day and another offer.”

Little by little, the sands are shifting in the Middle East — or rather, in the perception of the Middle East as seen from Western capitals. Why sign on the dotted line when more pressure will be brought to bear on Israel? Why agree to end the conflict when Israel’s legitimacy is eroded day by day, with its traditional allies ready to do less and less to support the Jewish state? Why not embrace the rhetoric of a bi-national state — in the silly spirit of our irresponsible age — where you can plan the destruction of your adversary and make it look like a human-rights crusade?

A bi-national state is just a stage to redress the balance of power between the two conflicting national claims. It would not be the end of the story though but the beginning of another chapter where the Zionist movement would be stripped of its national symbols, its power to control immigration, and its ability to define national security exclusively in the name of the Jewish people. Meanwhile, the keys to the Middle East’s most prosperous economy and most powerful army would have to be handed over to the Palestinians for power-sharing. It would be a stage on the way to fulfilling the dream of obliterating the consequences of the last century of Middle East history.

Fanciful? Maybe, but if you take the long view of history, and the mismatch between the reality of a small shoe-box-size Palestinian state and the dream of a whole “Isratine” is unbearable, it makes perfect sense.

In Monday’s Washington Post, Jackson Diehl reminds us of what the true stumbling block is on the road to peace. Referring to Condoleezza Rice’s peace efforts during George W. Bush’s second term, he has this to say:

Eventually, Olmert presented Abbas with a detailed plan for a final settlement — one that, in its concessions to Palestinian demands, went beyond anything either Israel or the United States had ever put forward. Among other things it mandated a Palestinian state with a capital in Jerusalem and would have allowed 10,000 refugees to return to Israel. That’s when Rice learned another lesson the new administration seems not to have picked up: This Palestinian leadership has trouble saying “yes.” Confronted with a draft deal that would have been cheered by most of the world, Abbas balked. He refused to sign on; he refused to present a counteroffer. Rice and Bush implored him to join Olmert at the White House for a summit. Olmert would present his plan to Bush, and Abbas would say only that he found it worth discussing. The Palestinian president refused.

Three times in the past 10 years, the Palestinians were presented with comprehensive peace proposals that would establish a Palestinian state in most of the West Bank and Gaza, would put its internationally recognized capital in Arab Jerusalem, would offer a solidly funded, reasonable and dignified solution to the refugee issue, and would put an end to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict once and for all. First, it was Ehud Barak’s Camp David proposal. Then it was the Clinton Parameters. Then it was Olmert’s peace plan. Each time, confronted with an Israeli prime minister who was ready, pen in hand, to put his name on the dotted line and face the fury and discontent of part of his political constituency to take a risky peace gamble, Palestine’s acclaimed peace seekers — Yassir Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas — walked away.

This history alone should encourage U.S. and European leaders to recognize that the burden of proof, when it comes to peace credentials and readiness for compromise, is on the Palestinian side, not the Israeli one. But history lessons and Aristotelian logic do not always intersect.

For one thing, the Palestinians have learned that every time they say no, sooner or later pressure will be brought to bear on Israel, and a new offer — better than the previous one — will be coming their way. Meanwhile, their tireless efforts to undermine, isolate, delegitimize, and demonize Israel in the international arena strengthen their bargaining position over time and enable them to expect more for less.

This, incidentally, offers at least a partial answer to David Hazony’s post from the other day, when my colleague was understandably puzzled about a growing support for a one-state solution among Palestinians. Why would a national movement give up its dream and settle for such a solution? After all, the Palestinians never seriously entertained this notion when a handful of Jewish intellectuals were toying with the idea in the 1930s and early 1940s. Brith Shalom and Ihud, the two small organizations that counted Yehuda Magnes and Martin Buber in their ranks, after all, not only could not get traction within the Yishuv — they never even got a single Arab leader interested in discussing their vision of a bi-national state for the Palestine Mandate, where Jews would forever be relegated to the role of a minority.

Clearly, the difference is that, back then, the Zionist movement was weak, its staying power in Palestine was questionable, its backing from Britain was waning, and its reservoir of support in Europe’s Jewish Diaspora under mortal threat of annihilation. Why would the Palestinians concede little when they believed — as they certainly did then — that they could have it all?

History offers some reckoning and what looked like a flight of fancy in the mid-1930s is more attractive today. A bi-national state is actually more promising than a nation-state, at least for Palestinian intellectuals, not so much because it would force them to renounce their aspirations but because it would keep their nationalist dream alive — a dream whereby, as Professor Fouad Ajami once so artfully put it, “there still lurks in the Palestinian and Arab imagination a view, depicted by the Moroccan historian Abdallah Laroui, that “on a certain day, everything would be obliterated and instantaneously reconstructed and the new inhabitants would leave, as if by magic, the land they had despoiled.” Arafat knew the power of this redemptive idea. He must have reasoned that it is safer to ride that idea, and that there will always be another day and another offer.”

Little by little, the sands are shifting in the Middle East — or rather, in the perception of the Middle East as seen from Western capitals. Why sign on the dotted line when more pressure will be brought to bear on Israel? Why agree to end the conflict when Israel’s legitimacy is eroded day by day, with its traditional allies ready to do less and less to support the Jewish state? Why not embrace the rhetoric of a bi-national state — in the silly spirit of our irresponsible age — where you can plan the destruction of your adversary and make it look like a human-rights crusade?

A bi-national state is just a stage to redress the balance of power between the two conflicting national claims. It would not be the end of the story though but the beginning of another chapter where the Zionist movement would be stripped of its national symbols, its power to control immigration, and its ability to define national security exclusively in the name of the Jewish people. Meanwhile, the keys to the Middle East’s most prosperous economy and most powerful army would have to be handed over to the Palestinians for power-sharing. It would be a stage on the way to fulfilling the dream of obliterating the consequences of the last century of Middle East history.

Fanciful? Maybe, but if you take the long view of history, and the mismatch between the reality of a small shoe-box-size Palestinian state and the dream of a whole “Isratine” is unbearable, it makes perfect sense.

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