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Which War To Tackle? ’48 or ’67?

Does history matter?

At first blush, the question is — well, to blush for. Obviously, history matters. July Fourth is history, and so is Pesach, and Simon Bolivar and the Great Depression and Galileo and on and endlessly on.

Still, much depends on how we define words. I leave for another time discussion of what we mean by “history” and of the tension between history and memory. Here, my concern is with the word “matter.” And what calls this urgently to mind is an Op-Ed essay by Hussein Agha and Robert Malley in The New York Times of August 11.

There, the authors, veteran analysts of Israeli-Palestinian affairs, argue that no resolution of the Israel/Palestine conflict is possible until both sides come to grips with the events of 1948. The demands of both sides, the authors assert, implicitly recognize that the original dispute has not been resolved. Both sides agree that the problem did not start with the occupation of 1967, but with Arab rejection of the newborn Jewish state and the dispossession and dislocation of Palestinian refugees.

Sweeping the underlying issues under the carpet will no longer do; it is largely because they have been so willfully ignored that the post-’67 problems have yet to be dealt with successfully. The hope, they say, “was that, somehow, addressing the status of the West Bank and Gaza would dispense with the need to address the issues that predated the occupation and could outlast it.” Instead, peacemakers must take account of “the hearts and minds of Israelis and Palestinians,” for whom “the fundamental question is not about the details of an apparently practical solution. It is an existential struggle between two worldviews.” History does matter.

Agha and Malley lead the readers up to the water, and there encourage them to drink. But there is, they powerfully imply (yet never flat-out say), only one flavor drink available: a binational Israel.

To be sure, Agha and Malley dutifully acknowledge that the “ultimate territorial outcome almost certainly will be found within the borders of 1967.” But then they quickly add a caveat: “To be sustainable, it will need to grapple with matters left over since 1948.” And they conclude, ominously, “the heart of the matter is not necessarily how to define a state of Palestine. It is, as in a sense it always has been, how to define the state of Israel.”

In the 1930s a number of Jewish intellectuals proposed a binational state. But a binational state is an idea whose time never came. Yet now, hint Agha and Malley, we must prepare to resurrect it, albeit within Israel’s pre-1967 borders. What exactly this would entail is unclear: Do they want Israel to permit the return of the Palestinian refuges from 1948? Or would declaring Israel a “state of its citizens” rather than a Jewish state suffice? What, in their view, does history require?

Did not the Baal Shem Tov teach us that “Forgetfulness leads to exile, but in remembrance lies the key to redemption”? And did not Santayana teach us that “those who forget history are condemned to repeat it”? But those who love aphorisms must acknowledge their aphoristic opposites — in this case, “Those entrapped by history cannot move beyond it.”

Those who would “solve” ’48, for which there is no thinkable solution, before turning to ’09, preach a counsel of despair. The most that can — and should — be said regarding ’48 belongs in the “whereas” section of the ’09 or ’10 or whenever end-of-conflict agreement, a compendium of acknowledgments in which both sides own up to their mistakes, their excesses, their deafness to the other. Such acknowledgments may, indeed, be necessary ingredients of a final resolution, as might a commission of historians from both sides charged with developing, over the course of a decade or so, a serious history of the early years.

Arrival at a cobbled two-state solution will not be easy, to put the matter very, very mildly. But those who first seek closure on ’48 must understand that a two-state solution is a precondition for the necessary accounting and not a barrier to it. Dealing with ’48 in the absence of promising progress toward a two-state solution is dealing with an aggravating abstraction, in which each side is bound to come up with an interpretation that will give it an advantage when negotiations finally happen. It will inevitably be an interpretation based on grievance, hence not at all conducive to resolution or reconciliation.

Agha and Malley, like many of us, are fatigued by the endless and so far fruitless quest for an acceptable two-state solution. But while their analysis may be sophisticated, their prescriptions are dangerously naïve. Unless, that is, they simply do not care that there be a Jewish state.

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