Today's question: Could Arabs and Israelis have done anything differently before 1948 that would have laid a better foundation for the Middle East? Later in the week, Pearl and Bisharat will discuss relations with Hamas, their personal connections to the Holy Land and more.

Point: Judea Pearl

Until fairly recently, I believed that the Zionist movement ignored signs of national awakening among Palestinians in the early 20th century. I believed that if only it had done more to acknowledge and accommodate that awakening, much of the animosity between the two peoples could have been avoided.

Yet a short journey through the worn and dusty pages on my history bookshelf unveiled a different story, evidently unavailable to English readers. Zionists were both aware and respectful of Palestinian aspirations and made persistent attempts to reach reciprocal recognition and accommodation.

For example, David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, wrote in the Yiddish newspaper Yiddishe Kemper in 1918: "The land of Israel is not an empty country. ... West of Jordan alone houses three-quarters of a million people. On no account must we injure the rights of the inhabitants." The next year, Chaim Weizmann wrote in Haaretz (Dec. 15, 1919): "If indeed there is among the Arabs a national movement, we must relate to it with the utmost seriousness."

Most revealing yet was a fiery speech given by Ben-Gurion in November 1930 in which he said: "We ought not to diminish the Arabs' freedom for self-determination for fear that it would present difficulties to our own mission. The entire moral core encapsulated in the Zionist idea is the notion that a nation -- every nation -- is its own purpose and not a tool for the purposes of other nations. And in the same way that we want the Jewish people to be master of its own affairs, capable of determining its historical destiny without dependence on the will -- even goodwill -- of other nations, so too we must seek for the Arabs."

The Middle East would look significantly different today had Arab leadership been able to reciprocate Ben-Gurion's offer with some recognition, however mild, of the Jewish right for self-determination. Unfortunately, the idea of Jews returning to rebuild their ancient homeland, a notion that inspired worldwide Zionists with infinite energies of sacrifice and creative development, was dismissed by the Arabs as a fabrication designed to serve European imperialism.

This clash of paradigms came to a juncture in July 1937, when the British Peel Commission recommended the partition of Palestine into two separate states, leaving Jews about 20% of the land. The Arabs flatly rejected the partition plan, arguing that they should not be turned into a minority in any part of Palestine, however slender the margin. Had this plan been accepted, much of European Jewry could have been saved, and Israel would have become a thriving Hong Kong-type enclave, home to 10 million Jews and neighbor to an equally thriving Palestinian state four times its size.

A second juncture presented itself in 1947, when the United Nations General Assembly voted 33 to 13 in favor of a partition plan that allotted 55% of the land for a Jewish state side by side with a Palestinian state twice the size of the present-day West Bank and Gaza Strip. Arab leaders rejected this plan as unfair, citing 1947 demographic figures that did not factor in the millions of Jews in Europe and Arab countries who were waiting to emigrate.

Had the partition plan been accepted, the humiliating defeat of the five Arab armies that attacked Israel in May 1948 would have been avoided, fears of Arabs' genocidal designs would not have settled into the Israeli mind-set, the Palestinian refugee problem would not have emerged and efforts toward reconciliation and collaboration would have moved the region to a new era of dignity and prosperity.

Sixty years later, the world, the region and two bleeding nations are still awaiting the first Arab leader, intellectual or spokesperson to publicly accept Jews as a nation, equally indigenous to the land and equally deserving a sovereign homeland.

Judea Pearl, a professor of computer science at UCLA, is a frequent commentator on the Arab-Israeli conflict. He is the president and co-founder of the Daniel Pearl Foundation -- named after his son -- a nonprofit organization dedicated to dialogue and cross-cultural understanding.
Counterpoint: George E. Bisharat


You imply that if Palestinians had packed up and abandoned their homes, fields and communities to make room for a Jewish state in Palestine, then conflict would have been avoided and much of European Jewry might have been saved. That is quite a moral responsibility to shift to Palestinians -- and it is unfair.

Imagine that a foreign government were granted authority over California against our expressed will. With its aid, a persecuted people from elsewhere immigrated here in great numbers. Imagine further that these immigrants aspired not to live among us as equals, but to displace us and establish a state to serve their interests but not ours. Finally, an international organization endorsed this plan. Wouldn't we respond with outrage? That is exactly how Palestinians responded. Their efforts to defend their independence have been sometimes valiant and sometimes crude. But they follow a tradition of struggles for freedom against foreign domination that we must respect.

No one has ever answered satisfactorily why Palestinians should have paid the moral debt that Christian Europe incurred for its centuries of persecution of Jews. In fact, no answer is possible. When the British, and later the United Nations, proposed awarding part of Palestine to Jews, they and other Western nations that dominated the organization at the time let themselves off cheaply. In the name of justice for Jews, a great injustice was perpetrated against the Palestinians.