I.F. Stone, the legendary iconoclastic journalist of the 1950s and 60s, once
wrote that "Stripped of propaganda and sentiment, the Palestine problem is
simply the struggle of two different peoples for the same strip of land."
Well, yes, that's so. The dispute is, at some level, simply about ownership of
a strip of land and could therefore be solved by an agreement to divide the
land between the two peoples. Sounds simple enough. And yet, in the same 1967
essay, Stone wrote: "If God, as some now say, is dead, He no doubt died trying
to find an equitable solution to the Arab-Jewish problem."
Well-intentioned outsiders who try to find such a solution usually start with
two basic outcomes that must be achieved for a settlement to be constructed.
Israel must end up with borders, recognition and peace. The Palestinians must
end up with self-government in some portion of historic Palestine. Given the
physical and military realities that have existed since 1967, the Palestinian
entity would probably comprise most or all of the West Bank and the Gaza
Still sounds fairly simple, but countless questions have to be answered before
such a deal can be struck. What are the borders? Does Palestinian
self-government mean an independent sovereign state or a semi-autonomous region
under Israeli sovereignty? What becomes of the Jewish settlements in the West
Bank? Who gets East Jerusalem, to which both parties have an especially
powerful attachment? Who gets the use of the Jordan River? What sort of
military or police establishment can the Palestinians maintain? What sorts of
guarantees can be written into the deal to reassure Israel that the Palestinian
state or entity won't be used for a future attack on Israel? What about the
individual land claims of Palestinians whose families owned property before
1948 in what is now Israel? Do they have a right to return or to be
Any one of the questions above represents a potential dealbreaker. And all of
the above ignores the separate issue of the Golan Heights, which separates
Israel and Syria. But if all the questions listed above could be answered
satisfactorily for both sides, the tragic deadlock could probably be broken.
Considering the enormous suffering on both sides of the tribal divide since the
conflict began, one would think the two parties would find a way to answer
But in the same 1967 essay, Stone suggested why the parties have been unable to
do that. Israelis and Palestinians, he wrote, "sit not just in separate rooms,
like employers and strikers in a bitter labor dispute, but in separate
universes where the simplest fact often turns out to have diametrically
Growing up Jewish in the 1950s, I was raised in one of those universes. I
accepted the axiom that the existence of Israel was necessary, proper and just.
"Necessary" because all of Jewish history--but especially the unfathomable
barbarity of the Holocaust --showed that without a secure homeland of their
own, the Jewish people were subject to discrimination, oppression and
potentially even extermination. "Proper" because Israel was bringing democracy
to a part of the world where none existed. And "just" because the state of
Israel was legally created by the United Nations, because it had the backing of
the United States and because Israel wanted only to live in peace with
neighbors who refused to live in peace with it.
It was many years before I learned that a parallel universe existed, just as
real and compelling for those who grow up within it. In this universe, the
Zionist dream-come-true was a living nightmare; the creation of Israel was the
negation of Palestine; the Jews solved the problem of their homelessness by
evicting the Palestinians from the homeland where they had dwelt for at least
The creation of Israel violated basic international principles of
self-determination because every action that supposedly legalizes it was taken
without consulting the indigenous population. In this universe, Israel is a
creation of Western imperialism. The Zionists were themselves Europeans,
ushered into Palestine under British auspices and sustained by U.S. aid.
The rest of this chapter is an overview of the two universes, which I call
parallel realities. It is structured as what you might call a dialogue of two
monologues, with alternating statements that derive from the parallel
realities. The statements are not quotes from actual individuals, except where
indicated. They are based on writings of scholars and the utterances of
Palestinian and Israeli leaders that reveal the differences between the two
universes on the major historical events affecting the land that both peoples
want to call home.
Israeli/Thousands of years ago, the Jews lived and ruled in the land
that God had promised them, the only country they ever had, the place where
King Solomon built the Temple that is the holiest site in Judaism. David
Ben-Gurion, founding prime minister of Israel, said: "Jerusalem has been the
Jewish capital for 3,000 years since King David. Jerusalem is more Jewish than
Paris is French or London is English."
Palestinian/The modern Palestinians descend from the ancient
Canaanites and Philistines who inhabited the Palestine region before, during
and after the relatively brief era of the Jewish kingdom there. Palestinian
historian Sami Hadawi called the connection of the ancient Israelites with
Palestine "short-lived, unstable, intermittent, long extinct, based on nothing
better than the right of conquest."
Israeli/After a series of oppressions by a succession of empires,
most of the Jews were evicted from their homeland by the Romans and spent two
millennia scattered in foreign lands. During these millennia there was always a
Jewish presence in the homeland and the rest of world Jewry retained its
special relationship and claim to the land by keeping alive the dream of
someday returning, symbolized by the traditional Passover toast: "Next year in
Palestinian/In the seventh century a.d., shortly after the death
of the Prophet Mohammed, Muslim crusaders from the Arab peninsula conquered
Palestine. The local population converted to Islam and became assimilated into
Arab culture. For the next 13 centuries, Palestine was inhabited by a
predominantly Arab Muslim population. No conquest, no U.N. resolution, no
Israeli policy can invalidate the justice and morality of the claim of that
population to that land.
According to Muslim tradition, Mohammed ascended to heaven from Jerusalem to
receive a divine revelation. The Dome of the Rock commemorates this miracle,
making Jerusalem the third holiest Muslim city and establishing for Islam a
strong religious claim to the Holy City.
Israeli/During their centuries of homelessness, the Jews were often
discriminated against, forbidden to practice their faith or even killed because
of the world's hostility toward them.
During the 19th century, European Jews, led by Theodor Herzl, concluded that
gentile hostility was so intractable that the Jews would be wiped out or suffer
eternally unless they had their own land. The Zionists sponsored and organized
a peaceful regathering of the Jews in their ancient homeland.
Palestinian/The Palestinians have always been invisible to the West. For
centuries the West viewed Palestine as an empty land awaiting some Western
project to convert it into something worthy of its place in Judeo-Christian
history. The Crusades were the most famous example of this before Zionism.
In the late 19th century, European Jews developed the notion that the brief
existence more than two millennia earlier of a Jewish kingdom in Jerusalem
entitled them to Palestine. If every people on Earth laid claim to every land
they once owned hundreds or thousands of years ago, the Arabs would be entitled
to Spain, the Chippewa to Minnesota and the world would know no peace.
Yet the fundamental Zionist idea that the Jews are "entitled" to Palestine is
embedded in the Western consciousness. Even the Palestinian Arabs, the
dispossessed victims of this idea, are expected to recognize its justice. Their
attitude, rather than their homelessness, is said to be the root of the
Israeli/During World War I, Britain captured Palestine from the Ottoman
Turks. In 1917, Britain adopted the Balfour Declaration, stating that Britain
favored the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
There may have been many reasons for this British policy. It grew out of their
political and military needs in the middle of a world war, out of a sense of
shared values with the Jews, out of a moral obligation. But from a Zionist
perspective, it meant that their centuries of homelessness might be coming to
an end and that their seriously endangered people might be saved.
Palestinian/During World War I, Britain promised the Arabs
independence if they would help defeat the Ottomans. The Arabs kept their
promise. The British broke theirs.
But at the same time, the British promised Palestine to the Jews. How does one
country presume to promise the homeland of another people to a third party?
Israeli/During the 1920s and 30s, the British blew hot and cold about
their obligation to support a Jewish home in Palestine. Under pressure from the
Arabs, the British took steps to impede the flow of Jewish immigrants.
But after the Nazis murdered six million, many more Jews were willing to
emigrate and even the Christian world could see the need for a Jewish
Palestinian/Israel portrays the Arabs as the chief tormentors of
the Jews. This is historical nonsense. In fact, the Jewish minority was
generally treated better by Muslims than by Christians. When Islam ruled Spain,
Jews enjoyed a golden age of tolerance and peaceful coexistence. When the Roman
Catholics drove the Arabs out, the Jews of Spain were persecuted under the
Inquisition. It was the Christian czars and Cossacks of Russia and the
Catholics of Poland who carried out pogroms against the Jews. German Christians
perpetrated the Holocaust.
After the Holocaust, the Christian West was moved by guilt and pity to favor
the establishment of a Jewish homeland. But by what logic or justice should the
Palestinian Arabs have to pay with their homeland because the European
Christians mistreated the Jews?
Israeli/In 1947, the United Nations decreed the partition of
Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state.
The territory assigned by the United Nations to the Jews was small--much
smaller than many Zionists had in mind. Yet the Jews accepted the proposed
partition and were prepared to live in peace with their Arab neighbors. They
are still prepared to do so.
But the Arabs rejected the plan, as they have rejected Israel's existence ever
since. This constant rejectionism by the Arabs, contrasted with Israel's
constant openness to peace, is one reason Israel occupies the moral high ground
in the dispute.
Palestinian/In 1947, despite 50 years of Zionist immigration,
Arabs still outnumbered Jews 2-1 in Palestine. The United Nations, acting under
tremendous U.S. pressure on behalf of the Zionists, nonetheless proposed to
partition Palestine into separate Arab and Jewish states and assigned the
majority of the land to the Jewish state. Despite its purported devotion to the
principle of self-determination, the United Nations did not conduct elections
to ascertain the desires of the local population because the local population
opposed the partition and the creation of a Jewish state.
The Arab leadership did reject the partition, which was so fundamentally
unjust. But to portray the Israelis as having peacefully accepted the U.N. plan
and trying to live in harmony with the Arabs is an oversimplification to the
point of falsehood.
Israel accepted the creation of a Jewish state. It did not accept the
boundaries of the U.N. partition plan despite the excessive generosity of those
boundaries to the Jews. Ben-Gurion himself stated that these borders should not
be considered final. Israel immediately began a war of conquest during which it
seized much of the territory designated by the United Nations for the Arab
Israeli/In 1947-48, the Arabs launched the first of three wars intended
to drive Israel into the sea. Despite the overwhelming numerical superiority of
the Arabs, Israel won the war and established its independence.
During that war, thousands of Arabs living on land within the Jewish state left
their homes. Some fled to avoid the fighting. Many more left at the urging of
the Arab leadership. They became refugees, many of whom, along with their
children, still inhabit refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza, as well as
across the Arab world.
Palestinian/According to Israeli mythology, the Palestinians who left
Israel in 1947-48 did so voluntarily. In reality, they were chased out by the
Israeli military. Numerous Israeli massacres of innocent Arab villagers were
committed to demonstrate what would happen to Arabs who didn't flee.
But even if you accept the Israeli propaganda that the Arabs left voluntarily
in 1947-48, by what legal principle does a family that flees its home in the
middle of a war forfeit its right to return after the armistice or to be
compensated for land and property lost in this fashion? Yet Israel refused to
let them return and didn't even pay compensation for the land they
expropriated. Israel declares a 'law of return" allowing any Jew in the world
to make a home in Israel. But any Arab who suggests that the Arabs should have
a right to return to their ancestral villages is called a radical, a terrorist
or a rejectionist.
Israeli/During this period, Jews living in Arab countries were subjected
to brutal persecution and most of them fled. Israel took them in, as it has
always taken in any Jew in the world who wants to come or has nowhere else to
go. The Jews do not claim the right to return to those countries, nor the right
to be compensated for property left behind when they fled.
The Arabs often claim that they are one great nation that has been divided
against itself only by the machinations of outsiders. Yet the Arab countries
have never been willing to take in the Palestinians for whom they profess such
familial devotion. The problem of the Palestinian refugees would be solved if
the Arabs would do for their displaced brethren what the Jews do for theirs.
Arabs who remained in Israel have been accepted as citizens and enjoy the
benefits of living in the freest and most democratic nation in the Middle East.
The exemplary treatment of the Arab minority within the Jewish state testifies
to the sincerity of Israel's oft-expressed wish to live in peace with the
Palestinian/The early Zionists had in mind much more territory
than the current borders of Israel even including all of the occupied
territories. And they had in mind a purely Jewish state. This is on the record
and indisputable. Everything Israel has done has been guided by these
ambitions--to expand their territory and drive out the Arabs. Yet every time
they take more territory or squeeze out more Arabs, they portray it as a
defensive war or a security policy and U.S. public opinion accepts their
Israeli/During the 1947-49 war, Jordan occupied much of the territory
that was designated by the United Nations to be the Palestinian state. Egypt
did the same to the Gaza Strip. Jordan and Egypt occupied those territories for
19 years without granting statehood. So it was not Israel that first denied
statehood to the Palestinians. Yet Egypt and Jordan were not reviled by the
world for imposing statelessness on the Palestinians, as Israel is now, nor
does anyone even mention the hypocrisy of those states when they join the cry
for a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.
Palestinian/In 1956, Israel invaded Egypt and captured the Sinai.
Not even the Israelis can claim that this unprovoked act of aggression was a
defensive war. In fact, Israel acted in league with Britain and France to
reestablish Western control of the Suez Canal, which had been nationalized by
President Nasser. How can anyone doubt that Zionism is an agent of Western
Israeli/During the Six-Day War of 1967, Israel again defeated the
combined forces of their far more numerous Arab neighbors. Israel took the Gaza
Strip and the Sinai from Egypt, East Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan
and the Golan Heights from Syria and still controls all but the Sinai.
Although Israel struck the first overt blow in the 1967 war, it was a
preemptive strike. Egypt's Nasser was planning a Pan-Arab invasion to eradicate
Israel. In fact, Israel's strike actually followed acts of war committed by
Egypt, such as the closure of the Strait of Tiran. Thus it was a war of
defense, which is important to the question of Israel's moral or legal
obligation to give back the land captured in the war.
Palestinian/In 1967, Israel provoked the Six-Day War. Then the
Israelis fired the first shots and seized territory from Egypt, Jordan and
Syria. Much of it (the West Bank and Gaza) was territory inhabited by the
refugees they had dispossessed in 1948. The United Nations has called, in
Resolutions 242 and 338, for Israel to withdraw to its pre-war borders. For 25
years Israel has refused, while making clear with its settlement policy its
intention to permanently occupy the territory. Yet Israel claims the war in
which it conquered these territories was defensive?
Israeli/After the war, the U.N. Security Council adopted
Resolution 242, which calls on the Arab states to recognize Israel and to
guarantee the security of Israel's borders. Israel has always stood ready to
talk to any or all of the neighboring states about a settlement based on 242.
But the Arab states replied with the "Three Noes: no peace; no recognition; no
negotiations;" further evidence of the persistent rejectionism of the Arabs.
In 1973, Egypt led another Pan-Arab war on Israel, launching a surprise attack
on Yom Kippur, the holiest and most solemn day of the Jewish calendar. Israel
suffered early losses and was on the brink of defeat before the tide of the
battle turned, thanks partly to the U.S. decision to resupply Israel's army.
After the tide turned, Israel could have marched on to Cairo but was restrained
by the United States and the United Nations. Instead, Israel agreed to a
cease-fire and gained no territory. Israel's conduct in this situation clearly
rebuts the persistent Arab lie that Israel is an imperialistic, expansive power
that won't rest until it stretches from the Nile to the Euphrates.
Palestinian/In 1973, the Arabs tried to get back the territory
they lost in 1967. And they would have succeeded if not for U.S. military and
diplomatic aid to Israel. Israel, of course, gets away with portraying this as
a war to wipe it off the map.
Israeli/In 1975, the U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution
declaring that Zionism is a form of racism. This hateful vote symbolized the
fundamental hostility of the U.N. majority to Israel and confirmed Israel in
its belief that it could afford to rely only on itself and its military for
survival. Since then, the United Nations has consistently showed an
anti-Israeli bias. Small wonder that Israel is reluctant to agree to a
negotiating format with the Arab states that would place the United Nations in
a position to impose a settlement.
Palestinian/Zionism is a form of racism. That is, the
implementation of Zionism's drive to create a Jewish state has led Israel to
adopt many laws, policies and practices that discriminate between Jews and
non-Jews. Most basic is the law of return, which grants entry and citizenship
to anyone of Jewish descent (note that they don't have to be practicing Jews,
just Jews by race).
Israeli/In 1977, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat broke ranks with
the rejectionists, visited Israel and agreed to negotiate. This led to the 1979
Camp David accords, brokered by President Jimmy Carter. By returning the Sinai
peninsula to Egypt in exchange for nothing more than normal diplomatic
relations with its most powerful adversary, Israel proved that it has been
ready all along to live in peace with its neighbors.
Palestinian/In 1982, Israel again took the initiative of war,
this time against Lebanon, a nation so weak that not even the Israelis could
claim that it threatened their existence. Instead, they said they only wanted
to secure a zone on their border that they claimed was used for "terrorist"
attacks against them. Of course they broke their promise of a limited war,
drove all the way to Beirut, and caused the massacre of thousands of civilians
at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. Israel tried to install a Lebanese
government that would take orders from them. They failed, but the Israeli
invasion unleashed a level of chaos that has never yet ended.
Israeli/Responding to years of provocative, terrorist PLO assaults on northern
Israel from across the Lebanese border, Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982. This
war turned into a quagmire from which Israel withdrew, retaining only a small
security zone in southern Lebanon to prevent the use of that area as a staging
ground for terrorist attacks. During the Lebanon war, a tragedy occurred in
which hundreds of refugees were killed by Lebanese Christian militiamen. Israel
bears some responsibility, because the killings were carried out by Israel's
allies in an area that Israel controlled at the time. But even in this dark
chapter, Israel showed some of the basic values that differentiate it from its
neighbors. Hearings were held on a democratic basis and the guilty parties were
punished. Much of the world displayed its continuing hostility to Israel by
portraying it as an Israeli atrocity, virtually ignoring the fact that it was
committed by Christian Phalangists.
This portrayal was typical of the double standard the world applies when
judging Israel and the Arabs. When an Arab state commits an atrocity, such as
Syria's annihilation of its own city of Hama, or Iraq's gassing of its Kurdish
minority, the world pays scant attention. But when Israel--the only state in
the region that is truly fighting for its existence--is implicated in any act
of violence against an Arab, the world media and the United Nations treat it as
the crime of the century.
Palestinian/The Arab perspective has never gotten a fair shake
from the U.S. media. Arabs are caricatured as religion-crazed, war-loving
despots and terrorists. Arab culture and the Muslim faith are used as symbols
of backwardness. No other culture in the world can be disparaged with such
impunity. Any effort to treat Palestinians with respect is immediately
denounced as anti-Semitic.
Israeli/In 1987, the intifada was launched, a campaign of
terrorism against Israel by the population of the occupied territories. Israel
responded with counterterrorism measures, based on a policy of using the least
force necessary to pacify the territories. Some expulsions, some detentions,
the dynamiting of some houses and some loss of life have occurred. But even in
this difficult situation, Israel has differentiated itself from the way such a
campaign would be handled if it occurred in any of the Arab nations.
Palestinian/Equating any Palestinian action to liberate their
homeland with "terrorism" is one of the favorite tricks of Israel's leaders. It
is doubly ludicrous considering that the two dominant Israeli political leaders
of the past 15 years--Prime Ministers Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir--were
veteran terrorist leaders in the years leading up to 1948.
When Palestinian children, armed with rocks, seeking to fly their national
flag, clash with Israeli soldiers, armed with high-tech weapons, seeking the
permanent subjugation and disenfranchisement of two million Arabs, Israel acts
hurt and indignant. But of course it is Israel that prevents the Palestinians
from expressing their legitimate grievances and aspirations in any peaceful or
democratic way. When Israel, with the strongest military in the region, with
U.S. arms and subsidies, with a nuclear arsenal, kills far more Arab civilians,
women and children in bombing raids against refugee camps, it is only defending
Then, of course, the terrorist Shamir refuses to negotiate with the PLO, which
the whole Arab world and the United Nations recognizes as the sole legitimate
representative of the Palestinian people. He refuses on the grounds that the
PLO is a terrorist organization.
Israeli/During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the rest of world got a clear
glimpse of what Israel has been up against all these years. The brutality of
Saddam Hussein, his missile attacks against the civilian population of a
nonbelligerent Israel and the widespread support for Saddam within the
Palestinian population of the territories demonstrated anew that Israel is a
nice country in a nasty neighborhood and should convince the Western world it
is not the source, but the victim, of the instability in the region.
Now the world--even its good friend the United States --presses Israel to make
concessions, to "take chances for peace." What other country in the world is
pressured to take chances when its very survival is at stake?
But Israel attended the peace conferences in Madrid, Washington and Moscow and
demonstrated again that it is ready to live in peace with all of its
Palestinian/After decades of unflinching financial, military and
diplomatic support of Israel, the United States asked that the Palestinians
accept it as an honest broker in a round of peace talks. As the price of
admission to these negotiations, the Palestinians were required to concede in
advance that the Israeli annexation of Jerusalem is permanent; to acknowledge
in advance that Israel has a "right to exist," which means to permanently
occupy three-fourths of Palestinian territory; to permit the Israelis to choose
negotiators for Palestinians, which means that the PLO, the only group that
does represent Palestinians, can't represent them. In exchange for this
Palestinians were permitted to negotiate with their oppressors, who announced
in advance that they will not make any territorial concessions nor consider
permitting the creation of a Palestinian state.
And yet the Palestinians agreed to Israel's unfair preconditions and
participated in the conference because the status quo is unacceptable and
because Palestinians must seize every opportunity to focus the world's
attention on its legitimate aspirations for peace with justice and dignity.