The Core Condition For Israeli-Palestinian Peace
The right to their ancient homeland may seem like the most natural right in the world to every Jew whether they live inside or outside Israel. But if Jews everywhere take this right for granted, it is obviously not accepted by a significant segment of the Palestinian community, especially extremist groups from both the left and the right of the political spectrum. Acceptance of this Jewish (as distinguished from Israeli) right by Palestinians is, I believe, a fundamental prerequisite to any permanent solution. The Palestinians' refusal to accept this historical right, categorically and unambiguously, will prevent any Israeli government, regardless of its political leaning, from making the necessary concessions for peace.
The affinity of Jews to their ancient homeland is rooted in more that 3500 years of history, not only in Jerusalem, but in Babylon (modern Iraq). No serious historian can dispute the continued Jewish presence in Jerusalem, dating back to the Canaanite period (3000-1299 B. C. E.). The Jews inhabited Jerusalem before and during the first Temple (1200-586 B. C. E.). King David captured Jerusalem from the Amorites and transformed it into the national Jewish capital. For Jews, Jerusalem represents their past and present, the source of their religious and cultural heritage. The hope of establishing the third Jewish commonwealth in what constitutes present-day Israel has been the main source of strength for Jews throughout their dispersion. Centuries of exile have only strengthened that attachment.
Much of the discussion surrounding the creation of the state of Israel centered around the territorial and political dispute between Jews and Palestinians. From the day it was created in 1948, Arab governments, in the media and in public discourse, referred to Israel as a foreign implant, or an instrument of American policy in the Middle East, or the expression of Western guilt over the Holocaust. Yet the yearning of Jews to return to their homeland is as old as the history of their expulsion by the Romans in 70 C.E. In the early 1900's, Zionist organizations in Europe were already working assiduously to establish a Jewish state for all Jews. By 1917, nearly 25 years before the Holocaust, British foreign minister Arthur Balfour, in what in known as the Balfour Declaration, granted the Jews the right to establish a state of their own in Palestine. From that day forward, Arabs inside and outside Palestine objected in principle to the creation of a Jewish state. Denying the Jewish right to a homeland in Palestine became a consistent theme, which in and of itself created an Arab mindset and a consequent political disposition that dramatically influenced the nature of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship and to a large extent shaped the negotiations between the two parties after the signing of the first Oslo accord in 1993. That is, had the Palestinians accepted the right of the Jews as an historic fact not subject to dispute and made it the basis for a two-state solution– Palestinians and Israelis coexisting side-by-side–an agreement might have been achieved a long time ago. But the Palestinians never reconciled themselves to the idea of the inherent right of the Jews to their homeland and, the ultimate fate of the Jewish state was left unresolved. In this respect there was no basic difference between Palestinian extremists and moderates, except in approach and semantics. While Hamas and Islamic Jihad spoke openly about their sworn commitment to destroy Israel, the Palestinian Authority led by Arafat sought a more subtle way to achieve the same goal.
During the negotiations at Camp David in the Summer of 2000, an agreement between the two parties could have been signed had it not been for the two critical demands of Arafat's which had a direct bearing on the very existence of Israel as a Jewish state: (1) He insisted that the Palestinian refugees exercise a right of return to Israel proper, a demand that would have drastically changed the demographic composition of Israel, obliterating the Jewish identity of the state, and (2) he refused to accept the provision in the proposed peace agreement requiring both sides to disavow any future claims, territorial, political, or otherwise against each other. From the Israeli perspective, Arafat's demands were a clear indication of his true intent and ended up torpedoing the negotiations.
Although the Zionist movement began in Europe, the aspiration for a Jewish state was not limited to the Jews residing there. Jews in the Middle East and North Africa shared the dreams of nationhood. The Jewish population in the Middle East that is indigenous to the region has lived in that part of the globe for at least 2000 years before the Arab conquest. Although the Arabs deny the right of European or American Jews to live in what they term Arab lands, they ignore the fact that the Jews, all Jews, have an historic right to live in their ancient homeland, regardless of where they came from. But setting this argument aside, one must ask, what about the right of Jews who have never left the Middle East or North Africa, who have always lived with their Arab cousins? Don't these Jews have the right to exercise self-determination? In fact, 60 percent of Israeli Jews are of oriental (sephardic) origin and have simply moved from one part of the Middle East and North Africa to another part of their native land to build their third commonwealth.
Some Palestinians, including Arafat and other member of Hamas, have spoken occasionally about the right of the Jews of Middle Eastern and North African origin to live in a democratic bi-national state in Palestine encompassing Israel proper, the West Bank, and Gaza. But their underlying assumption has always been that such a state would boast almost immediately a Palestinian majority. How? There are 1.25 million Israeli Palestinians in Israel proper plus 3.5 Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza; together they more or less equal the number of Jews in Israel. Even without any influx of Palestinian refugees; these demographic facts would guarantee a Palestinian majority and politically obliterate Israel as we know it.
In making such an assumption, the Arab states and the Palestinians conveniently forget that although the Jews living under Islamic-Arab rule were tolerated, they were never accepted as equals. And although most Jews were able to practice their religion freely and Jewish literature and culture reached unprecedented heights under Islamic rule, Jews remained a subordinated minority. Thus, they were always reminded of their inferior status and generally prevented from gaining high government positions. To be sure, the Jewish communities in Arab lands were never made to feel that they were living in their own country but survived because of the good will of their Arab rulers. This sort of coexistence is obviously not what Jews today seek after millennia of dispersion, dislocation, and disdain. They have now finally returned to claim their legitimate place under the sun, and this right must be honored, especially by the Palestinians. In fact, the Palestinian themselves could have had their own state as early as 1947. But in that year, and with the support of the Arab states, they rejected the U.N. partition Plan of Palestine which would have created a Jewish and a Palestinian state. The Jews in Israel then went ahead and declared their own state in May 1948. The Palestinians had tragically forfeited an historic opportunity.
Some Israeli religious scholars have observed that the Palestinian exodus suggests that divine intervention was at work. The 700 to 800 thousand Palestinian refugees who left their place of residence in 1948 and 1967 were replaced by Jewish immigrants. In the early 1950s, an equal number of Jews from Arab states, mainly Iraq, Morocco, Yemen, and Syria, immigrated to Israel, where the government quickly resettled them throughout the country. This brief historical account is not meant to minimize or ignore the Palestinian's own plight or rights. Any Palestinians who chose to return to their homeland should be freely able to do so. The West Bank, once it becomes part of a Palestinian state, can certainly accommodate all those who elect to return. In essence, these people can still return to their homeland in the West Bank and Gaza rather than to their original place of residence. I suggest that changing demographic realities in the region have made any large-scale demographic reversal simply impossible.
Israel, in the final analysis, is the political expression of the ancient right of all Jews to choose to return to their homeland. That Palestinians occupied much of the same land does not negate the right of either peoples to it. Both Palestinian and Jew can reside in their homeland, but neither can have it all. Those Israelis who still believe that the land was bequeathed to them by providence and are prepared to fight to the bitter end for greater Israel will have to realize that the third Jewish commonwealth cannot and will not be built on Palestinian graves. Until this is recognized, there will be no peace. And the Palestinian Islamists, such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, who are committed to the destruction of Israel and seek to establish an Islamic state in its place, will never know a day of peace either. They will be destroyed one by one, thus providing a chance for a new generation of Palestinians to emerge. This new generation I believe will accept the mutual right of Jews and Palestinians to the same land, and it is this recognition that will help to finally bring about peaceful coexistence, the only true remaining option.