Stephen D. Hayes
Arab News
December 21, 2007 - 3:36pm§ion=0&article=104842&d=21&m=12&y=2007

The Annapolis Middle East conference has now come and gone. There is not enough political capital or “time left on the clock” in Washington for this initiative to be of much value. But, the initiative can serve as a useful catalyst to showcase another dimension of the struggle in the region.

Israel is not only facing issues of borders, settlements, security and the status of Jerusalem. It is also facing two very difficult internal challenges. Israelis must look deep within their own national psyche and confront two images — the image of Israel past and the image of Israel future. The former involves the brutal and, at times morally indefensible, treatment of the indigenous Arab population who were residents of what is today the State of Israel. This troublesome past is being exhumed now, not by outsiders, but by Israelis themselves. Ilan Pappe, an Israeli historian and until recently a professor at Haifa University, has published an astounding, well-documented account, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, that chronicles the 1947-1949 systematic destruction and, in many cases, outright elimination of entire Palestinian villages at the hands of the Israelis. The Arabs refer to this period of village annihilation and mass expulsion as the “nakba”, or catastrophe. Pappe also describes the equally systematic subsequent process of “memoricide” — the attempt to eliminate of any physical or historical record of that portion of Israeli history.

Given the horrific Jewish experience of the Holocaust, it is ironic that Israelis would be, or could be, the perpetrators of the actions described in Pappe’s book. And it is doubly ironic that the Jewish community which has worked so diligently to keep alive the memory of their own suffering has been so systematic in trying to bury any memory of the “nakba”.

All nations have chapters in their histories they would prefer be forgotten. Certainly America’s treatment of the Indians and black slaves falls into this category. But societies are more healthy and stable when they are honest and open about their own past. Israel is no exception. The actions taken some 60 years ago cannot be undone. But a straightforward Israeli acknowledgement that they took place would help the process of reconciliation and peace immeasurably.

The image of Israel’s future is a separate but related matter. Since its creation in 1948, the country has suffered from a form of political schizophrenia. It can’t decide whether it wants to be a Jewish state or an equal rights-based democracy and the two options are mutually exclusive.

This is why the nation has no constitution; for to draft a constitution, Israel’s leaders would have to debate and decide the issue of full and equal rights for all its citizens. Since more than a million Israeli citizens are Arab Muslims and some 24 percent of the total population is today non-Jewish, this presents a real dilemma for the young nation. Given the higher birth rate among Israeli Arabs, the demographic ratio is trending away from the Jews. Meanwhile, the question of the essential nature of Israel — to be fully Jewish or fully nondiscriminatory democracy -— remains unresolved.

A new outbreak of this festering schizophrenic condition surfaced this past summer. The Knesset, Israel’s unicameral legislative body, is considering a law that would reserve 1,000 square miles (almost one-seventh of the nation’s land area) exclusively for Jewish purchase and ownership. This looming legislative and court battle pits the Israeli Jewish state advocates against the Israeli equal rights democrats. As the deliberations grind on in the halls of government buildings in Jerusalem, there lurk the two competing images of Israel’s future.

Meanwhile diplomats are busily preparing for the post-Annapolis meeting and negotiations. Palestinians are understandably anxious to “get on with it” and get the independent Palestinian state President Bush has been promising now for more than six years. And Israel cannot engage in wheel-spinning negotiating process forever. It will need to accept that it cannot keep all the land of a “Greater Israel”, and it must accept the equal humanity of the Palestinians who paid such a price for the creation of Israel. Eventually, it will need to face up to the prospect of a next-door neighbor state of Palestine.

But perhaps first, Israel needs to engage in some very hard introspection. It needs to acknowledge its past, all of it: The mighty struggle, the triumph, the heroics and the mistakes and ugly brutality. Israelis would rather ignore the latter, but must not. Someday in some way, an eastern border of Israel will be laid out and agreed upon by all concerned parties. The question remains, however: What kind of society will the Israelis have on the western side of that border?

— Stephen D. Hayes has served in the US military, on the international staff of the US Treasury Department and at the US Agency for International Development.E-mail at:


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