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In Israel's History Are Seeds of Hope


April 07, 2002|TOM SEGEV | Tom Segev, a columnist for the Israeli daily Haaretz, is the author of "One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs Under the British Mandate" and, most recently, "Elvis in Jerusalem--Post-Zionism and the Americanization of Israel."

JERUSALEM — When the first Palestinian suicide bombers appeared, they seemed to be mad loners. Today, they form a movement. Israelis can no longer avoid asking themselves what made so many young Palestinians so hateful and so desperate as to blow themselves up in the midst of Israeli shopping malls, restaurants and streets. Surely, their oppression and humiliation must have something to do with their decision to become martyrs. But not all Palestinians seek to destroy Israel. Most of them long for independence, alongside Israel. Unfortunately, they cannot get that, not now, for the current conflict seems intractable.

Still, all hope must not be lost, for, historically, both sides have been moving closer to each other, albeit so slowly that the movement has hardly been recognizable.

There was a time when no Arab country would accept Israel's very existence. Two of these countries, Egypt and Jordan, have since signed peace agreements with Israel. And late last month, the Arab League endorsed Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah's peace plan calling for "normal relations" with Israel.

The Palestinians at one time maintained that all Jews who settled in Palestine after 1917 should return to their countries of origin. Dropping that position, the Palestinians then demanded that, instead of a Jewish Israel, a "secular and democratic" state should be established, meaning a state with no Jewish majority. Next, the Palestinians adopted the two-state solution and signed the 1993 Oslo peace accords with Israel.

Israel, too, has come a long way. Prime Minister Golda Meir maintained that there is no such thing as a Palestinian people. At one time, it was illegal for Israelis to meet members of the Palestine Liberation Organization, even unofficially, and some Israeli peace activists served prison terms for doing so. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was elected on the basis of a solemn promise never ever to negotiate with the PLO. He did.

Israel always maintained that it would never ever give back any part of the territories it occupied in 1967, unless as part of a final peace agreement. But it evacuated Palestinian towns without a final peace agreement. In 1997, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu handed over 80% of Hebron to Palestinian rule. Israel said that it would never ever agree to the establishment of a Palestinian state; it has. Even Prime Minister Ariel Sharon no longer rules out the possibility of Palestinian independence at some time in the future. Israel proclaimed that it would never ever agree to power sharing in Jerusalem. Prime Minister Ehud Barak broke that sacred taboo.

It is unfortunate that progress is so slow, but perhaps it cannot be faster. At this time, the Palestinian refugee problem cannot be solved, nor can the problem of Israeli settlements. Jerusalem has been a problem without solution for the past 3,000 years, and it may well remain one for the next 3,000 years.

But today, many Israelis feel they have returned to square one. Sharon has repeatedly described the present wave of terror as one more battle in Israel's 1948 War of Independence. In reality, it is another round in the Palestinian War of Independence, not Israel's.

With almost daily terrorist attacks, life in Israel is closer today than ever before to the wave of Arab terrorism that swept the country during the 1930s. Palestine was then ruled by the British, and the Arabs wanted to get rid of them and hit as many Jews as possible as well. They did not use religiously indoctrinated suicide bombers in those days, but Arab terrorists were as determined to achieve their goal then as they are now. They were able to convince most of the British that they had better go home, and were left with the Jews.

If the present situation takes us back to the days of the first intifada in the 1930s, the next step could well be another mass evacuation of Palestinian Arabs. In fact, more and more Israelis, including Cabinet ministers, are openly talking about the need to "transfer" Arabs out of Palestinian territories. The idea, which was part of the Zionist ideology, had largely been suppressed--until recently when it reappeared in the public discourse, mostly as a result of the suicide bombings. This is the main danger of terrorism: It doesn't threaten the existence of Israel but it does affect the ability of many Israelis to think rationally and to take the risks of peace.

With its 54th anniversary approaching, Israel is strong enough to defend itself against its enemies, but, once again, it seems in need of help to defend itself against its own follies. This is the role the Unites States must take upon itself, as it has so often in the past.

History shows that virtually all the national-liberation movements of the 20th century prevailed, and virtually no regular army has ever defeated popular national terrorism. The best deal Israel can expect is the two-state solution. This basic truth was recognized long ago, which makes the latest wave of violence so tragic not only because of the loss of life, but also because it's a waste of time.

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