The Original 'No': Why the Arabs Rejected Zionism, and Why It Matters

Neither Israelis nor Palestinians should be asked to embrace each other's historical narrative – but both parties must know enough about them to avoid making unacceptable demands that might sabotage negotiations.

Natasha Gill
Natasha Gill
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Natasha Gill
Natasha Gill

Middle East analysts can find many reasons why U.S. Secretary John Kerry’s efforts to revive Israeli-Palestinian negotiations might fail. But what will need to be done if the process gains momentum?

Of particular urgency is the need to forge a greater public awareness of how each side sees the origins of the conflict. For while parties will never be able to “recognize each other’s narrative,” it is essential that they have a minimal understanding of how the historical perspective of their adversaries will influence their approach to negotiations in the present: their willingness to come to the table, the kind of peace process they can embrace, the conditions they can accept and the trade-offs they can sell to their people.

In the beginning there was the no

When it comes to the pro-Israel camp, one issue that needs to be tackled is the blind spot that is the pre-1948 origins of the conflict.

For a remarkable number of Israel’s supporters, Arab rejectionism has served as the equivalent of a cosmological argument: “In the beginning there was the no.” The history of the conflict is traced to 1947 and 1948, when the Arabs rejected the UN partition plan and launched a war against the recently declared Jewish state. The underlying assumption is that the Arabs had no logical reason to reject Zionism, and their rejection is interpreted as a consequence of their inherent anti-Semitism, natural tendency toward violence, or self-destructive intransigence.

For more than 70 years this credo has been sustained by a stunning lack of inquisitiveness about what caused the original "Arab No." As a result, many Israel supporters have engaged in a form of culpable ignorance that weakens the credibility of their case, and creates a chasm between the public view of the conflict and the understanding necessary to prepare the ground for a genuine peace process. Addressing the pre-48 blind spot is not merely a matter of historical detail; it is germane to any future peace agreement.

Confronting the 'Arab No'

The right of return

While the Arabs did not deny the Jews’ biblical ties to Palestine, they said "no" to the idea that highly secularized Jews arriving from Europe, who seemed to abjure religious life, could use the Bible to support a political project of a Jewish state in an already populated and long settled land. Similarly, the Arabs did not deny that Jews were being persecuted in Europe, but they rejected the idea that the Jews' humanitarian plight granted them special political and national rights in Palestine, and that those rights should trump the rights of Arabs who lived there for more than a millennium.

National identity and rights to land
The Arabs rejected the idea that their national identity should be linked to land rights. It is quite irrelevant whether “there was such a thing as a Palestinian,” or whether the Arabs of Palestine identified as Arab, Ottoman, Muslim or otherwise: whether “a people” or simply “people” they lived in and had profound religious, historical, cultural and sentimental ties to the land. They rejected being represented as individuals who were accidentally living on Jewish land, rather than people who inhabited Palestine and the surrounding areas long before the Zionists arrived.

The economic fallacy and the blooming desert
The Palestinian Arabs rejected the economic arguments put forward to justify Zionism. They said "no" to the exchange of political for economic rights: that they should welcome the economic prosperity Zionist brought to Palestine as compensation for the loss of their land and national aspirations. They did not accept that their land was barren and untended, and strongly objected to the implications behind the slogan "making the desert bloom": that the Zionists had a superior moral right to the land simply because they had superior agricultural methods. Long before illegal West Bank outposts or settlement expansion in the West Bank, the Arabs said "no" to the idea that land in Palestine should be transferred from Arabs to Jews, whether by force, partition schemes or sales.

The generous offers
They rejected the Balfour Declaration because although only one-tenth of the population of Palestine in 1917 was Jewish, the declaration identified the Jews as a “people” with political rights to a national home in Palestine, while the 90 percent Arab majority was described almost incidentally as the "non-Jewish communities" in Palestine, with only civil and religious rights. Palestinian Arabs subsequently rejected a variety of "compromise" proposals because they were premised on accepting the terms of the Balfour Declaration, thus giving their consent to the idea that their land would be bequeathed to another people. Similarly, they said "no" to the partition schemes of 1937 and 1947 because the plans were fashioned with little concern for rational land distribution or demographics: In 1937 the Jews owned no more than 6 percent of the land but were offered 20 percent of Palestine; and in 1947 they owned only 7 percent and were offered 55 percent of Palestine for their state, with one third of the Arab population (400,000) destined to live in a Jewish state with a Jewish population of about 500,000.

It’s time to talk about pre-'48

In defense of contemporary Israeli actions, the Jewish community still relies on the bedrock theory of Arab rejectionism: if the Arabs of Palestine had accepted Zionism 130 years ago, there would never have been any cause for bloodshed.

Supporters of Israel must move beyond this refrain and launch a genuine debate about the origins of the conflict, one that will allow them to develop a realistic assessment of what can rightfully be demanded of their opponents if a peace process is to be viable.

Palestinians might accept Israel’s right to exist in peace and security within mutually agreed, final and inviolable borders, renounce violence as a means of resolving disputes, agree on security measures that address Israeli concerns, establish diplomatic relations with Israel after the Palestinian state is established, and even sign an "end to all claims" clauses.

But if a two-state solution is still possible, it should not be premised on mutual conversion for either side. For even those Palestinians who accept Israel’s de facto existence will continue to reject the moral legitimacy of Zionism, implicit in the demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as the “homeland of the Jewish people.” This demand essentially requires Palestinians renounce their history and convert to Zionism in order to qualify as partners for peace – an approach no more likely to succeed than requiring Jews to denounce the State of Israel as a crime in order to earn a seat at the table.

The sooner Israel’s supporters accept this and stop trying to change the unchangeable, the sooner they can determine what steps might be taken in the interests of their own peace and security. An encounter with the original "no" might provide them with the tools they need to move beyond pre-digested talking points, construct their own interpretation of what took place in the beginning, and formulate a vision of what can be done to further the prospects of peace today.

Dr. Natasha Gill is founder and director of TRACK4, which runs negotiation simulations for diplomats, mediators, journalists, policy makers, students and community leaders.

The full version of this article was published here.

Palestinian refugees returning to their village after its surrender during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.Credit: Wikimedia commons
Crowds celebrating the UN General Assembly's decision to end the British Mandate and adopt the partition plan, Nov. 29, 1947.Credit: GPO

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