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The Birth of Israel: The Way It Really Was

By Stephen S. Rosenfeld

Friday, April 24, 1998; Page A27



Israel's 50th anniversary as a state could easily have been a grand jubilee observance of peace with the Palestinians. I say this thinking it could still happen. Certainly it has to count that Israelis curious about their history are now finally getting exposed to a deeper and more inclusive version of it.

Israel's practitioners of a "new history" have been looking beyond the stirring narratives of rescue and national redemption to see how the founding appeared to the Palestinians. In a notable recent series on the state-run Israel TV, the birth of Israel was presented as having not just valiant champions but coldly calculating ones. Israelis were shown as contributors to the "transfer" -- the uprooting and expelling -- of hundreds of thousands of long-settled Palestinians. The resulting buzz has fed into current Israeli concern over the stalemate in peace talks.

Everywhere, state-making turns out to be a violent sorting out of winners and losers. This newly appreciated slice of its history does not invalidate Israel's claim to statehood, which rests on unassailable historical and religious tradition and on the absolute post-Holocaust urgency of the Zionist movement for a Jewish national home. But it does clarify the picture of Palestine that, for the sake of truth, ought to be in people's minds. It is part of the unsentimental reality that peace must somehow accommodate.

It is good news that some number of Israelis -- and not just intellectuals but a broader public -- should now be acknowledging the true manner of Israel's birth as it affected others. An American commentator, Rochelle Furstenberg, observes that the "post-Zionist" historians figure Israel is now strong enough to confront earlier myths. The fact is that pre-state Zionist militia commanders, the young Yitzhak Rabin among them, drove Palestinians from hundreds of their villages, including Deir Yassin, scene of a notorious massacre. What Israelis hail as their finest national hour, Palestinians term "the catastrophe."

President Clinton recently waded into these waters blithely unaware. In a CBS special celebrating the Israeli anniversary, he tossed in a boilerplate tribute to Israel's "making a once-barren desert bloom." He was promptly (but not on air) caught up by Hala Maksoud, president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee: "Palestine was not a desert. Palestinians had a rich culture and society. Haifa, Jaffa and Acre were thriving cities. But Israel erased the Palestinian presence from the land, destroying 418 Palestinian villages. Israel was built on the wreckage of Palestinian lives. It is unconscionable for President Clinton to celebrate this history, while ignoring its human cost. . . .

"Even within Israel the public discussions of the anniversary have been much more thoughtful and frank in reexaming the Palestinian experience.

"Mr. Clinton's statement was particularly astonishing, coming at a time when the U.S. is trying to act as an honest broker in the peace process."

For Israelis, the 50-year balance sheet includes great pluses: the establishment and defense of the state, provision of refuge for Jews in desperate straits, preservation of democracy, building a modern society and economy and beginning peace with some of the neighbors. All that is on one side of the ledger. On the other is Israel's failure to do the hard things that should have been done to invite reconciliation with Palestinians.

The Palestinians' balance sheet is starker. They judge it a success just that they have asserted and maintained a national identity in the minds of their people and in world consciousness. But there has been a specific failure to exploit the several opportunities (1948, 1978) to work toward self-determination, and a general failure to match the Zionists in applying self-discipline to the pursuit of a deeply felt destiny.

The Israeli-Palestinian transaction is a century old and far from complete. But it is evident what its eventual political bottom line must be: the establishment of a Palestinian state next to the existing Jewish state. The nations of the world had it right when they voted to partition then-British Palestine in 1947. It was a good idea then, even though, while the Israelis accepted it, the Palestinians turned it down. Now the two parties have reversed positions, with the Palestinians in favor and the Israeli government of Binyamin Netanyahu seemingly locked in denial, but the idea remains compelling and sound.


(c) Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company


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