"The greatest mistake Israel could make at the moment is to forget that Israel itself is a mistake. It is an honest mistake, a well-intentioned mistake, a mistake for which no one is culpable, but the idea of creating a nation of European Jews in an area of Arab Muslims (and some Christians) has produced a century of warfare and terrorism of the sort we are seeing now. Richard Cohen, The Washington Post (Tuesday, July 18, 2006, p. A19.
This idea was startling when I read it, and it still is. But is Cohen right? A strong case can be made for the thesis, but what was the alternative given the history of Jewish suffering? Jews deserve and need a home somewhere and somehow as a refuge from tthe hatred and violence shown them, frequently in lands dominated by Christians. Jewish suffering over many centuries is one of history's great tragedies.
The history of the formation of the state of Israel is long and complex, but it involved the settlement of a territory occupied mostly by other people, primarily Arab Muslims. As best I can tell, Jews went from about 1% of the population or less in 1881 to about 33% in 1947, owning about 6% of the land, although disputes rage about exact figures. Resentment and hostility among Arab occupants and surrounding Arab nations were immediate and severe and have not ceased to this day. The expulsion of about 700,000 Palestinians in 1948 and the expansion of Israel especially in 1967 further inflamed the passions of those expelled and dominated by Israel until this very day. Looking back, the present state of things should not surprise us.
The Jewish population of Israel expanded by pushing other inhabitants aside -- the same process by which European whites settled the United States. The difference is that Israel is surrounded by Arab and Muslim nations whose enmity has been unrelenting. The wars that ensued and continue to this very day. have filled the land with blood and tears. Was there a better way to find a place for Jews desperate to escape the pogroms in Russia and persecution elsewhere in Europe, including Nazi Germany? I don't know. Was the project of finding a national home for Jews in Palestine justified in spite of all the hatred, violence, and killing in that troubled land since 1881, when the movement of Jews to Palestine began to increase to escape the persecution they faced in Europe, I am not sure. Whether the process could have been managed at any point in ways that would produce tolerable peace with justice for Palestinians and security of Israel is a question I cannot answer.
The fact remains that Israel exists whether Israel has a right to exist or whether its existence since 1948 is a good thing or was even the best alternative for Jews seeking a place where they could live in peace and prosper. We have "two communities of suffering" (Edward Said) who must deal with each somehow. Right now the prospect does not seem bright, but history if full of surprises, and even this dark moment may conceive new possibilities and hopes we cannot imagine. We can say that the best way forward would be for each community to feel and appreciate the suffering of the other as a preface to mutual accommodations and compromises enabling tolerable conditions of existence for both.
Lacking that and beyond that, the international community must bring pressure on Israel to accept the 1967 borders (with some accommodations benefiting both) as a basis for final resolution. With that established, it could absolutely be insisted that Palestinians cease their violence, and sufficient economic and military pressure put on them to guarantee this outcome. The right of return for the living Palestinians and their descendants of those expelled in 1948 may have to be abandoned but with compensation for their loss.
Some way has to be found to deal with "the Demographic Problem: in the case that Israel withdraws to the '67 border, the Jewish people will not have a Jewish state; the remaining 1.3 million Palestinians within Israel, which currently represent 20% of the Israeli population and will represent twice this amount in the next 20 years, will create a bi-national state within Israel. Instead of two states for two nations, there will be two states for one nation -- the Palestinians."
An alternative has been proposed by shifting the borders so that the maximum number of Palestinians and a maximum number of Israelis will be present in each state.*
This all may be dreaming, and Benny Morris may be right: In the end one must conquer the other and render the vanquished totally impotent to resist the will of the victor.**
Sober reflection on Cohen's suggestion that Israel was a mistake could have salutary effects for both sides in moderating passions and leading to fruitful negotiations to create a livable future, given that the past is what it is and cannot be changed.
* "Today there are many Palestinian settlements within the '67 Israeli border and many Jewish settlements on the Palestinian side. We propose a territory exchange by moving the border so that the maximum number of Palestinian settlements will remain on the Palestinian side and the maximum number of Jewish settlements will remain on the Jewish side, with an exchange rate of 1:1. All this will be done without moving a single person from their home. The only thing that will be moved is the border.
The territory exchange only refers to a 240 square kilometer strip of land along the border but will allow 500,000 Palestinians to not remain a minority in Israel any longer. These Palestinians will remain in their homes, on their land, part of their nation and in their own state. This exchange will minimize the number of Jewish settlers forced to evict their homes, with neither the Palestinians nor the Jews having to lose any territory. This is a win-win situation for both parties."
** Check out the interview with Benny Morris, the eminent Israeli "new historian" who has documented the history of Israeli horrors in expelling the Palestinians in 1948. Morris is absolutely chilling. He argues that Ben Gurion should have thoroughly completed the expulsion of Palestinians at the time and thinks things might have in the long run been better. Theoretically, he favors a two-state solution but believes that Israel must absolutely wall off Israel in the present from the barbarian Arabs who want to annihilate Jews and destroy the state of Israel. After all, America was possible only by the destruction of Native Americans. Sometimes worthy ends, he says, justify terrible means. He thinks in the end one must dominate the other completely if the endless conflict is to cease.