The 29th of November, Then and Now

There was a time when Israelis and Palestinians refused to speak to one another. All that is behind us. Most Israelis and most Palestinians agree in principle to dividing the country between them.

On Saturday night, November 29, 1947, many of the Jews in the Land of Israel went out to dance in the streets of the cities. They were celebrating the United Nations decision to establish a Jewish state in part of the country. The Arabs were also supposed to get a state, but they went to war.

In his new book, Yoav Gelber, a professor of history at the University of Haifa, ponders what would have happened had the Arabs agreed to the Partition Plan adopted by the UN 60 years ago today. "We can only guess," writes Gelber cautiously.

Such guessing fires the imagination: It is possible that everything would have happened as it did, from one war to the next. The Zionist movement invested great efforts into attaining a majority in favor of partition, but the borders proposed by the UN were far from being an answer to its yearnings. Had the Arabs agreed to those lines, the Zionists might have rejected them.

In any case, everyone knew that it was not the UN that would determine the borders of the country, but rather the outcome of the war. Israel today controls an area about twice the size of the area it was allotted on November 29, 1947. The partition resolution can therefore be seen as the mother of all the ensuing diplomatic fictions, from Security Council Resolution 242 to the "road map."

In recent months, we have marked a number of significant dates that offered an opportunity for similar pondering: the 90th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, the 70th anniversary of Lord Peel's partition plan, the 40th anniversary of the Six-Day War, the 30th anniversary of Anwar Sadat's visit. There is no point in asking who is to blame, the questions which usually dominate such discussions. There is a point to trying to understand why it is so difficult for the two sides to end the conflict, and where they erred.

It is not easy to understand why so many Israelis still believe that a large Israel without peace is better than a small Israel with peace, and why Israeli patriotism is usually identified with expanding borders rather than with the desire for Jewish and democratic borders. But the really important question is this: Who has more to lose in the present situation? The answer is clear: Israel. Not only because of Iran, Hamas and the weakness that was revealed in the Second Lebanon War. With every settler who moves to the territories and with every Palestinian child who is killed by Israel Defense Forces fire, Israel loses some of the moral justification that led to the decision on the 29th of November 60 years ago. The Palestinians have already lost almost everything they had.

The partition resolution reflected the assessment that Jews and Arabs cannot live together. The fact is that most of them really do not believe today that they will see the advent of peace; Annapolis has not changed that. But from a historical perspective, the gap between the basic positions of the sides seems to have been gradually reduced over the years. There was a time when Israelis and Palestinians refused to speak to one another, the Palestinians refused to recognize the State of Israel and Israel refused to agree to the establishment of a Palestinian state. All that is behind us. Most Israelis and most Palestinians agree in principle to dividing the country between them.

There are some who believe that a Palestinian state on the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip will be unable to survive. That may be true, but Gaza and the West Bank could also be part of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. The decision to make peace with King Hussein without returning the West Bank to him can thus be considered a mistake that we will regret for a long time to come.

In the time that has passed since the November 29 resolution, generations of politicians, legal scholars and economists have arisen, who have thought about alternatives to partition. There were Arabs who wanted to throw Israel into the sea, there were Israelis who wanted to expel the Arabs to the desert. The idea of living in some kind of binational framework has also come up repeatedly. There are people who believe in it now. Most are neither Israelis nor Palestinians, but pundits in other countries. They suggest to the Israelis that they give up their state and to the Palestinians that they give up the state they don't yet have. That is a nice post-Zionist idea, for the End of Days.