A Reality Check as Israel Turns 60

The Arabs who bemoaned the loss of Palestine were in truth made uneasy by the Palestinian refugees.

The Arabs who bemoaned the loss of Palestine were in truth made uneasy by the Palestinian refugees.

The Arabs who bemoaned the loss of Palestine were in truth made uneasy by the Palestinian refugees.

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Of all that has been said and written by Arabs about their encounter with Zionism and Israel, nothing I have seen approximates the truth and poignancy of what a distinguished Moroccan historian, Abdallah Laroui, has written: "On a certain day everything would be obliterated and instantaneously reconstructed and the new inhabitants would leave, as if by magic, the land they had despoiled; in this way will justice be dispensed to the victims, on that day when the presence of God shall again make itself felt."

The Arab imagination could never reconcile itself to the permanence of the Jewish state. No victories could secure this state the acceptance of its neighbors. It was a fluke of history, they believed, and history itself provided the means of evasion, a way of stubbornly refusing to accept the verdict of what happened in 1948. Modern-day Arabs took to the history of the Crusader Kingdom that had risen in the Levant, lasted for two centuries (1099- 1291), then pulled up stakes and left on the soil its castles and bridges and ruins. This, too, shall pass, it was believed, and the weight of demography and the brutal geographical facts shall prevail.

In its short history, Israel has held up a mirror for the Arabs, who have not liked what they have seen. In the first Arab-Israeli war, in 1948, the paramilitary and volunteers of the new state turned back Arab armies. Although outgunned and outnumbered, the Jews prevailed. There was the embarrassment of the numbers. The population of the new state was a mere 650,000, while that of the surrounding Arab states was approximately 40 million. No Arabs had been prepared for what had unfolded: The war was thought to be a routine endeavor, the defeat of the Jewish state preordained. There were men of public affairs in these Arab states who knew better, but they hadn't had the courage to tell the truth to the unsuspecting crowd.

When the dust of battle settled, the Arabs could see the harvest of their history. The Palestinian upper classes had abandoned their towns, left the destitute and the peasantry to their fate. In their fantasy, the Arabs were a martial people, while the Jews they had known in Baghdad and Cairo and Damascus had been timid souls keen to avoid the dangers of politics and the envy of the crowd. These were different Jews, the Zionists, steeled by the horror of the Holocaust, who would hold their own in the field of battle.

In the succeeding decades, the prophecies of calamity for this Jewish state would not materialize. On a barren, small piece of land, the Zionists built a durable state. It was military but not militaristic. It took in waves of refugees and refashioned them into citizens. It had room for faith but remained a secular enterprise. Under conditions of a long siege, it maintained a deep and abiding democratic ethos. The Arabs could have learned from this experiment, but they drew back in horror. The Arab militaries and the demagogues stepped forth and claimed that they would win the war lost by the old order. But they would fare no better.

Arab perfidy. In their utterances, the Arabs were bound by a code of brotherhood, and the "restoration" of Palestinian rights was the creed of their political world. But in the mirror, Arabs could see their fratricide, the chasm between what they said and what they did. The rulers who professed fidelity to Palestine helped themselves to the fragments of Palestine unclaimed by the Zionists. The Arabs who bemoaned the loss of Palestine were in truth made uneasy by the Palestinian refugees. It would have been the humane thing to tell the refugees that huge historical verdicts are never overturned. But it was safer to offer a steady diet of evasion and escapism.

Israel's 60th anniversary suggests what might have been. In those days of battle, when history was fluid, partition of Palestine was the way out—a Jewish state and an Arab state, side by side. The Zionists opted for moderation and rescue; they would take a state, said their legendary leader Chaim Weizmann, even if it were the size of a tablecloth. The Palestinians held out for the whole thing. This month's festivities marking the return of the Jews to the world of nations should be an occasion for some honest Palestinian (and Arab) retrospect on how Arab history has played out in the intervening decades.