Lost Opportunities for Peace: Reassessing the Arab-Israeli Conflict

Article excerpt

Among the most enduring and potent of the conventional beliefs about the Arab-Israeli conflict--an article of faith in Israel widely accepted by the outside world as well--is the view that until very recently the Palestinians and most Arab states refused to recognize the existence of Israel, rejected all compromise, and sought its destruction. Israel, by contrast, has always been ready to negotiate peace, but, in Abba Eban's famous epigram, "The Arabs never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity."

But a new wave of Israeli historical scholarship, emerging in the last decade or so, has revealed that the conventional history is wrong or seriously exaggerated in its account of the 1948-56 period. Although it focuses primarily on the origins and early years of the Arab-Israeli conflict, this new Israeli historiography strongly suggests that Israel has been at least as responsible as the Arabs for the ongoing enmity from 1948 through the present. In fact, the Israelis have been far less ready for genuine compromise on the central issues of the conflict-the status of the Palestinians and the final borders of the Israeli state-than the dominant mythology implies. And there is now considerable evidence that the policies of the most important Arab states and the mainline Palestinian leadership have been considerably more complex and differentiated than was previously understood. Neither Yassir Arafat and the PLO nor the most important Arab states have been uniformly "rejectionist" throughout the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict; at various times, most of the Arab actors have been open to the possibility of genuine compromise.

Despite widespread interest in the new Israeli historiography, the conventional version of the Arab-Israeli conflict still prevails among Israelis and American Jews. And setting the historical record straight on this emotional issue involves far more than intellectual debate; the conventional account has spawned myths, misperceptions, and attitudes that continue to block the changes in Israeli thinking that are essential if there is to be a comprehensive, just, and stable settlement in the region.

To be sure, there has always been dissent from the prevailing orthodoxies. Aspects of mainstream Zionist and Israeli policies have been challenged by religious leaders, philosophers, and educators such as Martin Buber, Judah Magnes, J.C. Talmon, and Yishayahu Leibowitz; intellectuals and writers such as Simha Flapan, Amos Oz, and Amos Elon; Zionist leaders such as Nahum Goldmann; retired military men such as Mattiyahu Peled and Yehoshafat Harkabi; and leading foreign office officials and diplomats such as Eliyahu Sassoon and, more recently, Abba Eban. Even a few major government leaders, especially Moshe Sharett and to a considerable extent Levi Eshkol, acknowledged Israel's share of responsibility for the conflict with the Palestinians and argued for more conciliatory policies. Nonetheless, the hardline policies of the dominant Labor leaders--David Ben-Gurion, Moshe Dayan, Golda Meir, etc.--invariably prevailed as government policy, even before the rise of the Likud.

Moreover, until the emergence of the new historians, most Israeli academicians reinforced rather than challenged the orthodoxy. As a result of the recent declassification of Israeli, American, British, and United Nations documents from the 1948-56 period, as well as, perhaps, a less ideological approach among the younger generation of Israel scholars, the conventional account of the Arab-Israeli conflict has been radically challenged. As Benny Morris, Avi Shlaim, and other new historians have convincingly argued, the Zionism of the "old historians" led them, consciously or subconsciously, to craft their accounts to accommodate the nation-building process in Israel. Thus, they ignored, downplayed, or even failed to recognize the darker side of the Israeli experience, creating a history, in the judgment of Morris and Shlaim, "indistinguishable from Israeli propaganda" or "the propaganda of the victors. …


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