Historians speak of Israeli policy under Golda Meir as paralyzed by HaConceptzia, the “Conception” that the Arabs had no capacity to wage war and therefore Israel need only wait for their leaders to finally accept an Israeli dictate on borders and other political arrangements. There is an echo of this arrogance in Prime Minister Olmert’s pronouncement that the Palestinians have until the end of this year to negotiate with Israel or they will have no choice but to accept a unilateral shaping of Israel’s final borders.
I differ from the ultra-critics of Israel in understanding that the current stalemate is a two-way street, not only (maybe even not primarily) of Israel’s making. The Palestinian Authority needs to effectively combat terrorism, Hamas needs to change its spots and convince Israel that, whether via President Abbas or Prime Minister Haniyeh, negotiations may be resumed. But Israel should not be rushing to move unilaterally, which is not likely to improve conditions on the ground enough to pave the way toward peace. By redrawing borders in an ungenerous way (as projected in the news) — leaving the West Bank truncated, walled off, scattered and surrounded by Israeli settlements and soldiers — the Palestinians would be encouraged instead to renew their all-out intifada.
Allow me to return to my Jewish Currents article to clarify another point of controversy related to the historic Golda Meir:
Golda is infamous… for having called into question the existence of the Palestinians as a separate Arab nation, asserting that she was also a “Palestinian,” since that’s what her passport read during the British Mandate. To be fair, the Jews of Palestine used the “p” word freely, including it in such stalwart Zionist institutions as the Jewish Agency for Palestine (the pre-state Zionist government) and the “Palestine [now Jerusalem] Post.” The Arabs were relatively slow in calling themselves Palestinians, a term invented by the Romans to obscure the Jewish connection to Judea after the Jews massively rebelled against them twice….
Still, the transformation of the name “Palestinian,” to identify Palestine’s Arabs, exemplifies a truth argued by Prof. Rashid Khalidi in PALESTINIAN IDENTITY: The Construction of Modern National Consciousness (Columbia University Press, 1997): “that national identity is constructed; it is not an essential, transcendent given,” but evolves in the course of a “national narrative.” This is as true of the Jewish ethno-religious identity becoming a national one within 20th century Palestine/Israel, as it is for Palestinian-Arab consciousness evolving from local, regional, and imperial loyalties left over from Ottoman Turkish times. Alas, this would be too sophisticated and subtle a point for the very concrete-thinking Israeli politician…..
Based on the fair amount of reading I’ve done on the topic, I don’t think it’s accurate to say that Israeli politicians between 1967-73 were unable to grasp the development or ‘construction’ of a Palestinian national identity and narrative.
Three Labor politicians that understood this between 1967-73 were:
1. Arieh “Lova” Eliav; Eliav recognized an independent Palestinian identity, but called for a Jordanian-Palestinian political unit (confederation, federation) to represent it. (This was also the formula preferred by Mapam at the time.)
2. Yigal Allon: Allon underwent quite a transformation during the ‘tween-war years. But by 1971-72, his writings clearly refer to the slow emergence of a distinct Palestinian nation that was taking place at the time. But Allon, too, leaned towards the Jordanian option.
3. Moshe Dayan: In some respects, Dayan seemed to have the greatest sensitivity to Palestinian identity. He had no illusions about their (non-)desire to be occupied by Israel, and he recognized their unique identity, distinct from the non-Palestinian Arabs. Dayan even acknowledged that “Israeli Arabs” were part of the Palestinian nation – something which so many Israelis were trying (and are still trying) to deny.
But because Dayan regarded the Palestinians as determined to be rid of Green Line Israel as well (and he was referring to all Palestinians, not just the pro-PLO types, who became ascendant in the territories a couple of years after the occupation began), his operative political conclusion was: Create a benign occupation in which the Palestinians could feel as if they had an independent state (keep the IDF out of all population centers, e.g.), but for which Israel would control security.
But my bottom line is: It’s not that the Israelis couldn’t fathom the Palestinian identity. It’s just that they seemed to be unable to square the recognition of a Palestinian national identity with any practical plan. Since Israelis believed at the time that the Israeli and Palestinian claims to Israel/Palestine were mutually exclusive (sound familiar?), they needed to keep the Palestinian claim/narrative/identity out of the equation. Which meant needing a different Arab interlocutor that could not make claims to all of Mandate Palestine: The Hashemite Monarchy of Jordan.
This recognition/non-recognition of the Palestinians created quite a cognitive dissonance back then, and different Israeli leaders resolved it in different ways. Golda’s way (and she wasn’t alone) was by denying Palestinian uniqueness; Dayan’s way was noted above; and Eliav’s was by recognizing Palestinian self-determination, but apparently ruling out that this could be manifested in an independent Palestinian state.