The Turning Point?

Yitzhak Shamir and Yasir Arafat
Yitzhak Shamir and Yasir Arafat; drawing by David Levine


On Sunday night, July 31, Israelis throughout the country were watching Jordanian television. King Hussein’s speech was broadcast twice, once in Arabic and again with a voice-over in English. I watched and listened with special interest, for just a few hours before I had crossed the Allenby Bridge to Israel after a three-day visit in Jordan. Immediately after the speech Israeli commentators outdid one another in finding hidden political ploys in the king’s declarations. By the following weekend the analysis had become less clever, and more somber. The most serious newspaper commentators had come to understand that King Hussein had not made just another move in a continuing game of simultaneous chess with Israel, the PLO, the United States, and the many forces in the Arab world.

The king had gone back to the basic lasting issues of the conflict between Israel and the Arabs. The very staging of his speech conveyed that message. Hussein had spoken while sitting behind a simple desk in a bare room, or so it seemed to the eye of the camera, with a large portrait of his grandfather, King Abdullah, on the wall behind him. Forty years earlier, at the end of the war with Israel, Abdullah had made the fateful decision to annex the West Bank. Hussein was now reversing this decision—but clearly, sitting under Abdullah’s portrait, he could not have thought that he was betraying what he had learned from the grandfather whom he revered. To understand this paradox one must recall the events of 1948–1949.

At the end of the war against the nascent state of Israel, all of the invading Arab states signed armistice agreements with Israel, but they continued to regard the Zionist state as a usurpation of Arab land and to announce that they were waiting for the moment when they would join with the aggrieved Palestinians to reverse al-nakba, “the disaster.” In September 1948, when the war was already lost, the Arab Higher Committee, which was then based in Gaza and was supported by the Egyptians, created the Government of All Palestine. As its name proclaimed, this body was waiting to rule a land regained from the momentarily victorious Jews.

Those months were indeed a great disaster for the Palestinians. At least 600,000, perhaps up to 760,000, fled their homes inside the border that Israel was to establish through war, and only slightly more than 100,000 people remained. Whether the Palestinians fled of their own accord or whether they were expelled by the Israelis has been argued about ever since. Most Israelis prefer to believe that the Arabs left to join the armies and the guerrilla bands that were fighting the Jews, presuming that they would soon return in triumph; the Palestinians insist that very few left of their own will, and that most were either expelled directly or frightened by the…

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