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Is the Zionist state legitimate? Is the “Palestinian state” legitimate? Most Arabs deny the legitimacy of Israel. The Arab argument grew more passionate earlier this year as it became clear that the PLO’s expressed willingness to negotiate with Israel was not leading to a Palestinian state, and many Palestinians concluded that Israel remained implacably opposed to Palestinian nationalism. When I spent some time this summer on the West Bank, even before Saddam Hussein became the hero of the Palestinians there, the young people with whom I talked were no longer listening to their parents, or even to the supposed leaders of the intifada.
The mood in Israel, too, was changing radically, in the direction of more intense nationalism. Even the left was adopting the language of fervent patriotism. The main reason for this change was the vast new immigration of Jews from the Soviet Union. The Zionists in the Labor party and the parties further left refused to join the Palestinians in proposing limits to the new immigration, which the Palestinians feared was tipping the balance against the possibility of the Palestinian state. Most of the Russian Jews would have preferred to come to the United States and few were moving to the West Bank. But they were rapidly occupying scarce housing in Israel, and the cheaper, government-subsidized housing on the West Bank was becoming more attractive to other Israelis.
In the encounter between Israelis and Palestinians the divisive issue was still—as it had been throughout the history of the conflict since the 1870s—the question of Jewish immigration. One of Israel’s best-known left-wing polemicists, the journalist and politician Uri Avnery, who has been advocating a Palestinian state since 1948 when he was a soldier in Israel’s war of independence, wrote this summer that his mother had come to Israel from Russia and he could not now say to his cousins from Pinsk that they should not be allowed to come to Israel, too. If he were to agree to such a policy, Avnery wrote, he would be declaring his mother’s arrival to have been illegitimate and his own presence in Israel to be the result of usurpation. Throughout Israel the “right of return,” which guarantees that unrestricted numbers of Jews can settle in Israel, was again being asserted as a fundamental principle that all Zionists share.
This Zionist principle was not extended to the Palestinians. Even the most outspoken members of the Zionist left, such as Shulamit Aloni, the leader of the Civil Rights party, could not accept the possibility that a large number of Palestinians would return to Israel; and many were not at all sure that they would welcome a totally unrestricted return to the West Bank, though Aloni recently has been bold enough to ask: “Why should the Palestinians not hail Saddam Hussein? What have we, even in the ‘peace camp,’ done for them?” Aloni was responding, in an interview with Ha’aretz (August 27, 1990), to the news that Yossi …
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Israel and the Palestinians: An Exchange March 7, 1991