Word for Word: Who's Throwing Who Into the Sea?

Reflections on threats - real and imagined - a week after the death of Israel's former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.

Yitzhak Shamir, the seventh prime minister of Israel, passed away this week, at 96. The current premier, Benjamin Netanyahu, eulogized him at the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday, saying, among other things, that although it is possible that Shamir's "statements about [Israel's] neighbors, about the distinction between the sea and the land ... unleashed a torrent of criticism at the time, even contempt, today there are of course many more people who understand that this man saw and understood basic and genuine things."

The statements Netanyahu was referring to - "the sea is the same sea, and the Arabs are the same Arabs" - are etched in the collective memory. Shamir used this phrase in 1996, following the Oslo accords, quoting himself (according to a book, in Hebrew, called "It's Inconceivable," which contains quotes and expressions coined over the years by Israeli politicians, compiled and put in context by Rafi Mann in 1998 ).

What Shamir originally said, on January 24, 1989, was actually more explicit and nuanced. He was addressing a convention of Israeli hoteliers, and remarked (this is the closest we can come to an accurate English translation ): "Once they were speaking about throwing us into the sea. Nowadays they do not say that. They've become more sophisticated - self-determination for Palestinians - and they get the sympathy. But if we look at reality, it has not changed. The Arabs are Arabs, ruling over 22 states. Israel is a small state with many problems, the sea is the same sea, and the aim is the same aim: extermination of the State of Israel - even if you call it 'self-determination.'"

Shamir was referring here to yet another expression that also dwells in our consciousness in the Middle East - about how one of the sides in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict hopes to throw the other into the sea. The "death by drowning" imagery is not surprising when we remember that both adversaries have historically vied over a narrow strip of land between the river (Jordan ) and the sea.

Anyone who grew up in Israel in the early 1950s did not have any doubt that the Arabs - including the seven states that fought with Israel in 1948, and the local population which either fled or was expelled during that war - wanted to throw "us," the Israelis, into the sea.

Indeed, that is how David Ben-Gurion phrased it when presenting his new government to the Knesset on November 2, 1955: " ... and they plan, as many of them say openly, to throw us all into the sea; in simpler words, to exterminate the Jews of the Land of Israel."

Nowadays there are quite a few critics of Israeli policies past and present - both Palestinians (naturally) but also some Israelis - who claim that attribution of insidious plans or intentions to the Arabs was (and is ) no more than a figment of a frightened Jewish imagination, if not actually part of a strategy intended to throw the Palestinians into the sea.

I doubt whether a statement by a leader that carries a threat of collective drowning constitutes proof of the existence of such an intent on any side of the conflict. However, in view of the fact that Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood was sworn in this week as the new Egyptian president, it is interesting to recall the words of the founder of that Islamic movement, regarding Arabs, Palestinians, Jews and the sea, in an interview printed in The New York Times on August 2, 1948.

Interviewed the previous day by the Times' correspondent Dana Adams Schmidt in Cairo, Sheikh Hassan al-Banna declared: "If the Jewish state becomes a fact, and this is realized by the Arab peoples, they will drive the Jews who live in their midst into the sea."

Schmidt hastens to write that the sheikh, who was referring to the quarter-million Jews living in Arab countries at the time, said that he was merely using a "figure of speech," even though he added, "facetiously, that 'of course, if the United States send ships to pick them up, that would be all right.'"

By the end of the interview al-Banna, then in the penultimate year of his life, offered a solution to the Arab-Israeli dispute over the Land of Palestine. He suggested that the Jews should settle in the empty areas of Australia: "We sympathize with the homeless Jews, but it is not humane that they should be settled in an area where they render homeless other people who have been settled thousands of years."

The Times did not print a response from the Australians.

Anyone who has had a serious relationship with another person knows how presumptuous it is to profess knowledge about what the other side wants, and what disastrous results may arise when acting upon a premise based upon baseless (if not base ) information. This is doubly true when a national leader, or politician, makes an assumption as to what people on either side of a conflict want. Ben-Gurion is usually credited (although an exact quote is nowhere to be found ) with saying, about the people of Israel: "I don't know what the people want. I know what they need (or what they are in need of )."

It seems, according to Yitzhak Shamir's assessment of the situation in the Middle East, and based on what he would have done were he in the Palestinians' shoes, that he believed that what they need, from their point of view, is to throw the Jews into the sea. Hardly a basis for peace (or indeed any other kind of ) negotiations, especially when the other side's reasoning is, sadly, strangely similar.

But the key point in Shamir's remarks - and what Netanyahu thinks constitutes "basic and genuine things" - has less to do with Palestinians and Israelis per se, and more to do with a general situation in which things remain the same (or not ). To grasp that one has only to consider the Mediterranean, which has throughout time been referred to variously as Mare Nostrum ("our sea," in Latin ), yam hatichon (literally, "the middle sea," in Hebrew ) and as adkeniz ("the white sea," in modern Arabic ). All those refer to the same body of water, which actually does change: With its ebbs and flows, the sea can rise between 3 and 100 centimeters, plus in the last 64 years it has become much more polluted and has significantly fewer fish.

Along these same lines, one recalls that, "All the rivers run into the sea, yet the sea is not full," according to Ecclesiastes (1:7 ). Heraclitus (535-475 B.C.E. ) supposedly said "everything flows," and Plato referenced him in "Cratylus": "Everything changes and nothing remains still... and... you cannot step twice into the same stream." Thus, supposedly, you cannot be thrown twice into the same sea.

If you insist on holding the view - with which Prime Minister Netanyahu seems to agree, judging by his eulogy of Shamir - that some things do not change, you may yet have to pay a heavy price for your beliefs. And be left with small change, if any.

Or, to phrase it differently, Netanyahu and Shamir notwithstanding, nothing changes but change itself. And the only way to deal with that is to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them.