I know Palestinians who reject that assault on the Jewish narrative and are prepared to accept the indigenousness of the Jewish people in the land we share. But voices affirming the legitimacy of the Jewish story are excluded from the official Palestinian discourse.
The international community has tended to downplay or ignore altogether this deep-rooted denial of the Jewish story. But the impact on the Israeli public has been profound. Zion denial is one of the most effective arguments of the Israeli right, which portrays the greatly diminished left as hopelessly naive.
It could have been different. By the early 1990s, many Israelis were beginning to come to terms with the ruinous consequences of the occupation on their own society. The turning point occurred during the First Intifada, the five-year Palestinian uprising that began in 1987. I served then as a soldier in the Gaza refugee camps and, like many of my generation, concluded that we had to find another way. Many Israelis, including on the right, came to realize that ruling over another people was a long-term disaster for Israel. The teenagers confronting armed soldiers with rocks proved that Palestinians were no less willing to sacrifice for their sovereignty than we were.
This realization was a historic departure from the mainstream Israeli denial of the legitimacy of Palestinian national identity. “Palestine denial” was notoriously summed up by Golda Meir, the former prime minister of Israel, who in 1969 said that, under the British Mandate, Jews and not Arabs had been called Palestinians and that, in effect, there was no such thing as a Palestinian people. For Meir, Palestinian nationalism was merely a ruse invented by the Arab world to undermine Israel.
Palestine denial remains pervasive within the Israeli right. But there are also those Israelis who have long since come to terms with the right of the Palestinian people to self-definition—a prerequisite for achieving the right to self-determination.
The widespread Israeli awakening during the First Intifada led to the election of Labor Party leader Yitzhak Rabin as prime minister in 1992, followed by the Oslo peace initiative, which was initially supported by a majority of Israelis. The premise of Oslo was a rejection of the old Israeli attitude conveyed by the Hebrew adage, Ein im mi l’daber—there’s no one to talk to, no partner for compromise.
But that hopeful moment vanished in 2000 with the Second Intifada, four years of suicide bombings that turned Israel into a nation of shut-ins, afraid to congregate in public places. No less traumatic than the terrorism was the fact that it followed Israeli overtures to end the occupation. We tried to make peace, many Israelis concluded, and in return suffered the worst wave of terrorism in our history. Whether or not one accepts that normative Israeli version of why Oslo failed, Israel today cannot be understood without grasping the impact of the Second Intifada. Many Israelis remain convinced that the Palestinian leadership’s rejection of peace in 2000 was an inevitable consequence of its rejection of Israel’s right to exist. The conviction that “there is no one to talk to” returned with full force.