Cocktail of Naivete

The notion that if Israel simply recognized Palestinian pain it 'may just unblock a peace effort' is a strange cocktail of naivete and misinformation.

Two weeks ago, Jonathan Freedland suggested on this page that "maybe Israel just needs to acknowledge Palestinian pain" (September 18), encouraging Israel to undertake a gesture that "may just unblock a peace effort which desperately needs unblocking."

Having drunk from the fountain of Israel's so-called new historians for over 20 years now, Freedland thinks the history debate is settled. Israel is guilty as charged - even though he may still think the moral foundations of a Jewish state are justified.

For Freedland, recognizing the pain of the other would have a healing effect on all sides. He dismisses Israeli fears that recognition of responsibility for the refugee problem would open the floodgates to a mass return of Palestinian claimants, and bring an end to Israel as a Jewish state. His Palestinian interlocutors, he tells us, have assured him they are not after Israel's demise, just an official apology.

Should Israel take Freedland's advice? If Israel could unburden itself of the guilt Freedland and his Palestinian sources attribute to it and obtain peace in exchange, it might be a price worth paying. But a closer look at this argument shows a strange cocktail of naivete and misinformation.

First, Israelis have already acknowledged the pain. From school textbooks to official historiography, from academic works to popular film series, the sorrow and the pain, the tragedy and the truculence of the 1948 war are in the public domain. What Freedland does not know - or refuses to accept - is that the historical debate about facts and causal correlations is still far from over, and any serious scholar who's escaped the facile temptations of propaganda will offer a very different picture from the one on which the demand for an apology rests. Even Benny Morris, the erstwhile hero of the new historians, has rewritten the same account of the refugee problem at least four times in the last 22 years - and his latest version looks very different from the first.

There will be more nuanced assessments in the future. Governments should not be made hostages to the present contentiousness of history. Peace must recognize reality and offer a better future. The past cannot be changed. Leave it to historians to assess, not for politicians to bargain over.

Freedland evokes the Truth and Reconciliation Commission model of South Africa, only to claim that it is less important to discuss how things are done and more important to ensure that they are done. But how things are done does matter. If his premise is that the Palestinian narrative is beyond scrutiny, then such a commission will only succeed in working out the minutiae of introducing Palestinian propaganda into Israeli textbooks, and in coming up with elaborate ways to muzzle historians who may presume to question what the commission will define as truth, and what Palestinians consider a precondition for reconciliation. In short, Israel sacrifices truth and the Palestinians concede reconciliation.Freedland incidentally omits that Israeli officialdom has already "acknowledged the pain." In his speech at the Annapolis conference in November 2007, prime minister Ehud Olmert did just that.

When referring to the "pain and deprivation" suffered by refugees, he said: "We are not indifferent to this suffering. We are not oblivious to the tragedies you have experienced." Is this not enough? If not, what more is needed?

Apparently, Freedland wants an official apology, too, as a basis for negotiations. Once Israel becomes unburdened of the injustice committed, he reasons, and Palestine's honor is restored, an equitable solution will be found. Palestinians, he promises, will be content with the apology and will not ask for their refugees to "return."

But this is naive. International law ensures that, once Israel's government takes responsibility for the displacement of hundreds of thousands of refugees, it will not escape a cascade of class-action suits intended to force Israel to repatriate refugees. An international community that castigates Israel for defending itself, as the Goldstone report just did, will surely bring Israel to an international tribunal, have it condemned and then isolate it until such a time that it complies. Such an admission will forever deny Israel's veto right on the refugee issue and therefore doom any peace deal.

Freedland may not see all of this, because, presumably, he thinks the burden of guilt is with Israel alone. That is why he only remembers to suggest, in passing, and at the very end of his column, that Palestinians too should engage in a similar act of contrition. But can they? Will they? Judging by the dearth of Palestinian scholarship even remotely resembling the Israeli self-flagellation inaugurated by the new historians in the 1980s, the lack of freedom and critical inquiry among Palestinian scholars, the militant devotion of its intellectuals to their national cause, and the glorification, among Palestinians at large, of terrorists past and present who have attacked civilians and killed innocents, it is hard to see how this could ever happen. And an Israeli endorsement of the Palestinian narrative will forever forestall the process of the introspection long overdue on the Palestinian side.

But history shows us that Palestinian demands are rooted in a grievance culture of victimhood, not in facts. Israel should not apologize for an injustice it did not commit and for which it does not bear primary responsibility. And it should certainly not offer comfort to its enemies before any claims- past, present and future - on final-status issues have forever been put to rest.

Emanuele Ottolenghi is the director of the Transatlantic Institute in Brussels and the author, most recently, of "Under a Mushroom Cloud: Europe, Iran and the Bomb" (Profile Books, 2009).