Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s op-ed in favor of Palestinian statehood in Tuesday’s New York Times shouldn’t be controversial—building a future state of Palestine is the man’s job, after all—but it got Prime Minister Netanyahu pretty steamed. And while Netanyahu is better known as prime minister than pundit, he has a point. Abbas is quite knowingly disingenuous—or engaging in what might even be called lying—in retelling the narrative of Israel’s 1947-48 founding. And the point is not merely academic, or for pundits: Abbas is attempting to rewrite history in a fashion that calls into question Israel’s right to exist anywhere in what was once known as British Mandatory Palestine and to set up a parallel between the Jews’ situation in 1947 and the Palestinians’ situation in 2011 that doesn’t exist, the better to establish a right of return.
Here he is:
It is important to note that the last time the question of Palestinian statehood took center stage at the General Assembly, the question posed to the international community was whether our homeland should be partitioned into two states. In November 1947, the General Assembly made its recommendation and answered in the affirmative. Shortly thereafter, Zionist forces expelled Palestinian Arabs to ensure a decisive Jewish majority in the future state of Israel, and Arab armies intervened. War and further expulsions ensued. Indeed, it was the descendants of these expelled Palestinians who were shot and wounded by Israeli forces on Sunday as they tried to symbolically exercise their right to return to their families’ homes.
Minutes after the State of Israel was established on May 14, 1948, the United States granted it recognition. Our Palestinian state, however, remains a promise unfulfilled.
This story omits large chunks of what happened and, even worse, pulls a sneaky chronological switcheroo.
Netanyahu himself noted the most obvious lacuna in Abbas’s account: That the Jews accepted the General Assembly Partition Plan while the Palestinians and Arab governments firmly rejected it. If you are going to mention the Partition Plan as the foundation of the promise of a Palestinian state, you are obliged to mention the germane detail that the Palestinians and their Arab backers rejected that plan in favor of launching a war; and if you are editing a piece that doesn’t, you’re obliged to insist it be included.
But that’s not the biggest problem. The biggest problem is that Abbas’s narrative goes, roughly, like this:
1. U.N. called for partition.
2. “Shortly thereafter,” Jews began expelling Palestinians.
3. Arab armies then “intervened” in order to prevent more expulsions.
4. There was war—the 1948 War of Independence—and “further expulsions.”
At best, this is extremely strained, and overall it’s basically crap.
A couple decades ago, the Israeli “New Historians” revised our account of Israel’s independence to show that the creation of approximately 750,000 Palestinian refugees was in some very real part the product of a deliberate and premeditated Zionist policy of expulsions, and that the notion that essentially all the Palestinians who fled did so because five Arab countries invaded is a myth.
However, even the most hardcore New Historians would dispute Abbas’s narrative. Here is the actual chronology (and I’m relying on the ultimate unimpeachable source, Wikipedia, and am deliberately using a New Historian reading of the events, that is, an interpretation that would be most favorable to Abbas’s case):
1. In November 1947, the Partition Plan was approved. The Jews accepted it; the Palestinians rejected it.
2. From December 1947 to March 1948—Abbas’s “shortly thereafter”—about 100,000 of 750,000 refugees left Israel proper. They did so for a variety of reasons, ranging from active expulsion of non-combatants by Arab forces, to fear that war would break out, to responding to active intimidation by Israelis, and to, in exceedingly few cases, active expulsion by Zionist forces. This was a time of civil war; some of the New Historians argue the Jews had the power advantage (a fact which hardly seemed evident to most Zionist leaders at the time). But no matter who was winning the war, to imply, as Abbas does, that it was a time of peace is false. Arab forces closed the roads between Jewish settlements, leaving many communities isolated and under constant attack, and besieged the Jewish sectors of Jerusalem, cutting them off from the sea. Plan Dalet—in which Zionist forces actively and deliberately expelled Palestinians from major Jewish population centers—was dreamed up by Ben Gurion and his military advisers after the warfare had been going on for several months, and was not implemented until April, once it became clear that Britain was terminating the Mandate and that Arab armies would invade.
3. In April, Plan Dalet began, mainly to lift the Arab Siege of Jerusalem; you could argue, in other words, that at this point the war started. Pre-invasion, still, no more than one-quarter of the Palestinian refugees had been created.
4. May 14, 1948: Britain ended the Mandate; Israel declared independence; the United States recognized the new Jewish state.
5. May 15, 1948: Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, backed by Saudi Arabia and Yemen, invaded in response to the declaration of independence, not, as Abbas alleges, in response to expulsions.
6. “War and expulsions follow.” There were deliberate and in some cases premeditated expulsions of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. There were also thousands, even hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who fled because there was war, because five Arab countries invaded.
This is really important! Abbas frames the events of 1947-48 as one in which Israel set out to ethnically cleanse its land of Palestinians, and neighboring countries tried to stop it. But while ethnic cleansing did occur, it is not remotely the whole story. The Arab armies could not have “intervened” in order to stop further expulsions, because those expulsions did not truly begin in earnest until after they invaded. The Arab armies invaded, rather, in order to establish a single, Palestinian state in the entire area of the Mandate. (It also bears mentioning that they expelled every Jew living in the territories reserved for the Arab state of Palestine that fell under their control.)
In one sense, it is important that Abbas’s false version of the history not be accepted, because if, indeed, the Palestinian refugee crisis was created exclusively by Israeli expulsions, then it calls into question whether these refugees and their descendants should not indeed all have the right to return to Israel proper—which would end the state of Israel as we know it.
If you can accept, however, that basically a whole lot of bad stuff was committed by all sides in the 1947-48 conflict, then you can begin to work pragmatically toward the only just outcome of the conflict that persists to this day: The partition of the land into two states, one of them being Israel. People who want to work toward that outcome tend not to spend their time focused on what happened in 1947-48, unless they are forced to respond to outlandish op-eds that distort history in the cause of further strife.