History Matters

Is the peace process doomed until Mahmoud Abbas hangs a portrait of Theodor Herzl in his office?


Aluf Benn asserts that contradictory historical claims have trapped Israelis and Palestinians in their mutual antagonism ("Understanding History Won’t Help Us Make Peace," January/February 2011). Not so fast. The conflict in the Levant is not just about competing Israeli and Palestinian narratives. It is also about whether the Palestinian narrative allows for an Israel alongside Palestine, as the Israeli narrative allows for a neighboring Palestinian state. If Palestinians regard Jews as modern-day "Crusaders" and "interlopers" with no ancestral ties to the land, then they do not accept the Jewish people’s right to sovereignty, a position that undermines the chance for durable peace.

Benn also claims that debates about the past at the Camp David summit between Yasir Arafat, Ehud Barak, and Bill Clinton resulted in "failure" and "led to the bloodbath of the Second Intifada." But Barak and Clinton are not even partially to blame for any bloodshed. They offered peace, and got violence in return. That seems to be the conclusion drawn by Clinton. In his presidential memoir, My Life, Clinton recounted that when Arafat complimented him by calling him a "great man," the president replied: "I am not a great man. I am a failure, and you have made me one." Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan took a similar view of Arafat. In March 2003, the New Yorker reported that Bandar thought "Arafat’s failure to accept the deal in January of 2001 was a tragic mistake — a crime, really." And Palestinian Communications Minister Imad al-Faluji revealed to the Lebanese paper as-Safir in March 2001: "This intifada was planned in advance, ever since President Arafat’s return from the Camp David negotiations."

So let’s not dismiss history so quickly, much less gloss over facts relevant to the search for peace.

David Harris
Executive Director
American Jewish Committee
New York, N.Y.

Aluf Benn replies:

I would love to live in a world where the Palestinians, and all other Arabs and Muslims, accept "the Jewish people’s right to sovereignty." Or better, in a world where no one doubts or argues against Zionism, just like nobody questions the right of Swedes to live in Sweden. I agree with David Harris that such acceptance would be a better foundation for "durable peace" than the current Palestinian narrative, which views Israelis as modern-day Crusaders.

But I live in the real world, where my country has had to contend with rejection and animosity since its pre-state inception. And in the real world, we need to find realistic ways for dealing with problems. Rather than wish hopelessly for Palestinian re-education and cling to the growingly unbearable status quo until Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas hangs Theodor Herzl’s portrait on his office wall, we should seek ways to better coexistence knowing that the other side tells a very different story. Israel made peace with Egypt and Jordan, whose peoples have not accepted "Jewish rights" either.

Camp David was ill-prepared and bound to fail. Arafat’s position was known in advance, and he viewed the Barak-Clinton peace proposal as too timid. Obviously, this does not justify the ensuing intifada and destruction. But what should be the lesson? Never trust the Palestinians and occupy the West Bank? Or should we instead find better ways of engagement? Even Clinton overcame his insult: Today, he calls for Israeli and Palestinian leaders to fulfill the broken legacy of Yitzhak Rabin.

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