Sometimes we make the most fundamental errors. When large numbers of people make mistakes — even monumental ones — it is almost impossible to challenge the resultant prevailing view. It was once the conventional wisdom that the earth is flat. In ancient times if anyone dared to claim that the earth was round, they would have been denigrated as being detached from reality. When, in the 16th century, Nicolaus Copernicus dared suggest that the sun was the centre of the solar system and not the earth, he was regarded as a heretic.
In today’s world any attempt to explain the Arab-Israeli conflict in terms other than “Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian land” and the “denial of Palestinian nationalist aspiration” is often regarded like a declaration that the earth is flat and the center of the universe. But what if this view is wrong? What if, in terms of understanding the Arab-Israeli conflict, we are living in pre-Copernican times? What if the Jewish State that is considered to be the root of all evil in the Middle East were instead the victim?
South Africa’s Apartheid history is often invoked against Israel both internationally – by former President Carter amongst many others – and in South Africa – by trade union leaders and politicians. But what if the real Apartheid of the Middle East is the one directed against the Jews? And what if Israel is more akin to the African National Congress (ANC) – the famous South African liberation organization led by Nelson Mandela and now the governing party? In South Africa the conflict was caused by a white racist Apartheid regime. The ANC was always ready to talk peace, but the regime refused to talk and so the conflict could not be resolved, and the ANC was forced into an armed struggle. Like the ANC, the Israeli government has always been ready to talk peace but has been forced since the birth of the Jewish State into an armed defensive struggle because the anti-Semitic Arab world has not been prepared to talk peace. The ANC had to wage an armed struggle for many years until finally white South Africans were ready to talk, and then the long-standing conflict was resolved relatively quickly. Unlike the ANC, Israel has not found genuine negotiating partners. And so its struggle continues, and peace remains a distant dream. What if Zionism is not colonialism but rather an ancient people’s deep connection to their native, historical and covenantal land? What if the real colonialism is Arab expansionism, which contests a Jewish state on even 1/520th of the area of Arab lands? Nearly 4000 years ago the forefathers of the Jewish People, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob lived in the land of Israel, which God had promised to them and to their descendants forever. That promise was confirmed at Mount Sinai, and was delivered upon by God through Joshua, after the death of Moses, more than 3 300 years ago when the Jewish People entered the land after being liberated from Egyptian slavery and oppression. About 3000 years ago King David established Jerusalem as the capital city of the Promised Land. The Jewish people lived in the Land of Israel for 850 years until their expulsion by invading Babylonians. They returned in large numbers seventy years afterwards and remained for many centuries until their eviction by the Roman Empire. Despite unremitting anti-Semitism and persecution some Jewish communities managed against great odds to remain in Israel during the long interval between the Roman dispersion and the events leading to the re-establishment of the Jewish State in 1948.
What if the dispute has never been about Palestinian statehood but really about the destruction of the Jews and the only Jewish State on earth? In 1917, the Balfour Declaration, confirmed later by international law through the League of Nations, declared the British Mandate of Palestine to be a National Homeland for the Jewish People, recognising 4000 years of Jewish connection to the land, and the injustice of the destruction of ancient Israel by the Romans and the forced removal of the Jewish people. In 1922 the British took 76% of the land designated for a Jewish state in Palestine and allocated it instead to the Arabs, creating east of the Jordan River a new country than called Transjordan, and later, to be known as Jordan, which to this day has a Palestinian majority. In 1947 the United Nations voted to establish two states – one Arab and one Jewish – west of the Jordan river on the remaining 24% of the original portion of land allocated for a Jewish State by the international community. In spite of this reduction to their original portion the Jews accepted the offer, which was then rejected by the Arabs. This was the beginning of a long history of Arab rejectionism. And so, in 1948 the newly reborn State of Israel was invaded by Arab armies from Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and the Arab Legion, all of which made it quite clear that they intended to destroy the tiny Jewish state its at rebirth and to massacre its citizens, many of whom were Holocaust survivors.
Israel survived the war, and from 1948 to 1967, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip were in Arab hands and there was no “occupation” of these territories then. If the cause for the Arab-Israeli conflict is the “occupation” of the West Bank and Gaza then why did the conflict rage throughout these years unabated, with continued Arab refusal to recognise Israel and to make peace with its Jewish neighbour? Why was it that in mid-1967 just before the 6 Day War, and before the West Bank and Gaza fell into Jewish hands that Arab leaders called for the destruction of Israel? What “occupation” was at issue? Why at that time did Syrian President Hafiz al-Assad order his soldiers to attack Jewish civilian targets to “pave the Arab roads with the skulls of Jews”?
For the19 years that Jordan controlled the West Bank and Egypt the Gaza Strip, the Arab world had the opportunity of establishing another Palestinian State in those territories, and chose not to. Why not? If the conflict is about Palestinian Statehood, then why was there no talk whatever of a Palestinian State for all those 19 years? After the Six-Day War, Israel immediately tried to enter into negotiations with the Arab world about the political future of the West Bank and Gaza. The response came from the Khartoum Conference of all the Arab States on 1 September 1967 in the form of the infamous 3 No’s – “No Peace, No Negotiation, No Recognition”. And so, when in 2000 at Camp David, Yassar Arafat rejected without making a counter-offer at all, Israel’s proposed 95% of the West Bank and Gaza as well as land compensation for the remaining 5%, his rejection was wholly consistent with Arab rejectionism of any Jewish presence at all.
If the Arab-Israeli conflict is about a Palestinian State then there has always been an obvious solution of two states living in peace side by side. The conflict is more fundamental and therefore, all the more intractable, and is really about Arab rejection of the very presence and existence of a Jewish State, and probably any Jews at all, in the heart of the Middle East. And so the very charter of Hamas calls for the murder of all Jews world-wide. And rockets from Gaza continue to target Israeli civilians even after Israel evacuation. And threats of genocide and a second holocaust, together with denial of the first, emanate from Iran. And the Arab world is awash with the most rabid and pernicious anti-Semitism.
What if the war directed against the State of Israel is really the global war of fundamentalist tyranny against freedom and democracy? Then indeed all of those who believe, with the best of intentions, that they are defending a vulnerable victim, are actually being complicit in one of the worst injustices in the history of human civilization. They will have sided with the forces of death and destruction, of fear and prejudice. What if the world is siding against the only beacon of freedom and democracy in the Middle East, thereby endangering us all, because the fate of Jews is often a sign portending the future? Hitler came after the Jews first, and then he attacked the world. Suicide bombings began in Jerusalem and then migrated to New York, Bali, Madrid, London and Nairobi. We need clarity to understand these tumultuous times. We also need an ultimate vision of peace and reconciliation between Arab and Jew. The conflict in the Middle East is between brothers, and that is the real tragedy. We are all the children of Abraham; Jews are the children of his son Isaac, and Arabs the children of his son Ishmael. The Talmud tells us that, although the sons of Abraham fought for many years, when Abraham was buried in Hebron, Isaac and Ishmael were reconciled at his grave. Let us all pray to God that we will merit to see the day when brother will once again be reconciled with brother in the Middle East.
Originally published in the Sunday Times