Past, Present, Future: 1948 and 2011
“This is not a conflict about 1967 but about 1948, when the State of Israel was established,” said Netanyahu. “The Palestinians call this a day of catastrophe, but their catastrophe is that their leadership has not managed to reach a compromise. Today, they still don’t have a leadership that is ready to recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people.” – Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, addressing the Knesset on May 16, 2011
As we creep toward September and a potential vote on Palestinian statehood by the United Nations, one issue will become increasingly important, whether or not it is recognized as such by the parties involved: recognition of Israel’s 1948 establishment of a Jewish state. In one respect, this would mean a vote and a plan by the United Nations that continues to accept, or perhaps reaffirms, Israel’s continued existence as Israel. (That the UN might need to “reaffirm” the right of one of its member states to exist—well, that’s a topic in and of itself…)
This would also mean that, going forward, the Palestinian Authority agrees that the 1948-49 war ended over six decades ago, and looks toward its present—and, more importantly, its future. Or, put more bluntly, this means Palestinian acceptance of terms that do not deny the legitimacy of Israel’s founding. The “Nakba” has long troubled me not because it protests Israel’s policies—there is much to protest; and even where I would not, I would respect their right to do so—but because it is, in essence, a protest of Israel’s establishment. That, less than six months before a possible vote on Palestinian statehood, it coincided with attempts to break through the borders of a sovereign state en masse and the introduction of Hamas into the PA’s leadership, should make one pause before claiming it has become a day that is primarily about anything other than the questions at stake in the 1948 war and its immediate aftermath.
Moreover, Mahmoud Abbas’ NY Times op-ed this morning is disturbing in both its insistence on making issues of 1948 the primary questions of whatever remains of the “peace process” and/or a new Palestinian state, and its shameless muddling of previously-established facts about Abbas’ own history. This is Abbas’ account of Israel’s creation today:
It is important to note that the last time the question of Palestinian statehood took center stage at the General Assembly, the question posed to the international community was whether our homeland should be partitioned into two states. In November 1947, the General Assembly made its recommendation and answered in the affirmative. Shortly thereafter, Zionist forces expelled Palestinian Arabs to ensure a decisive Jewish majority in the future state of Israel, and Arab armies intervened. War and further expulsions ensued.
The account above implies that rather than allow Palestinian Arabs to establish their own state, Jewish forces engaged in an ethnic cleansing of the whole territory, and Arab armies came to their defense. This, of course, was not what happened. A rough timeline is as follows:
- November 29, 1947: The UN approves the Partition Plan, which is accepted by Jewish leadership and rejected by Palestinian leadership.
- November 30, 1948—May 15, 1948: Civil war in the British Mandate as various Jewish and Palestinian factions attack and defend others. Violence broke out in the immediate aftermath of the Partition Plan and continued to grow and become more coordinated. This is the period in which Abbas and his family fled Safed; at the same time as this initial flight, Arab forces were blockading Jerusalem and its Jewish population.
- May 14, 1948: Israel declares independence
- May 15, 1948: Overnight, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria send forces into the former British Mandate.
The Arab League’s war against the newborn Israel was not sparked by the flight of civilians like Abbas and his family. It was a response to the creation of a Jewish state in the former British Mandate; their stated aim was not to protect civilians, but to create a single, Arab Palestinian state and threatening—whether or not they were sincere in this regard is, frankly, irrelevant—to massacre Jews and destroy Jewish settlements. Whatever one thinks of the war, it is clear it was not a peace-keeping mission; further, it was a war and I will not assert that the hands of either side were clean. War, after all, is hell.
But what, other than a refusal to lay down the arms of 1948 (even in exchange for the arms of 2011) is the purpose of this revised record of that war and of Abbas’ personal history? (In 2007, he admitted that he was not “forced to leave” his home, but that his family, along with much of the Arab population of Safed, fled pre-emptively in fear of retribution for the 1929 massacres of Jews by the Arab residents of the city. War is hell, and they were caught in its cycle.)
I’m with Jeffrey Goldberg when he writes:
Reciting this history is depressing, of course, because it means the two sides are still battling it out over what happened in 1948. A more constructive discussion would center on the aftermath of the 1967 war. Mahmoud Abbas won’t be returning to Safed. But he could be president of an independent state of Palestine on the West Bank and Gaza with a capital in Jerusalem. If only he — and, of course, Prime Minister Netanyahu — could find a way to avoid rehearsing old grievances and instead work toward a future in which both parties don’t get all that they want, but get enough to live.
There is, of course, much that Israel must change and concede in order for there to be peace. But just as Israel will need to remove many of its settlers from the West Bank, and withdraw to a total territory roughly equivalent to that of 1967, the Palestinian leadership and people will need to acknowledge that Israel exists, and cease pressuring the international community to retroactively deem illegitimate its 1948 establishment as an independent state.
Come September, if the UN does vote to recognize Palestinian statehood, it will need to attach this as a condition to its recognition—or else such a declaration will, at best, be fruitless; at worst, a significant step backwards in the quest for a peaceful solution.
(To come: My hopelessly optimistic take on one possible scenario regarding Netanyahu, Obama, and a September vote.)