Imagine a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict: a Jewish state living alongside a Palestinian state in permanent peace, with open borders, and even economic union. Sound like fantasy? It wasn’t, 63 years ago tomorrow, when the U.N. General Assembly voted in favor of Resolution 181, dividing what was then known as Palestine into independent Jewish and Arab states. The Arab world was to welcome the Jews, after 2,000 years of exile, back to their homeland. There would have been no Arab-Israeli conflict, no Palestinian refugees, and no suicide bombers. The Middle East would have looked much different. If only.
While the Zionist leadership accepted Resolution 181, and Jews throughout the world danced ecstatically in the streets, the Arab states rejected it. Worse, they swore to annihilate the reborn Jewish state and drive its inhabitants – many of them Holocaust survivors – into the sea. Attacks began the next day, cutting off the Jewish communities in the Galilee and leaving the 100,000 Jews of Jerusalem without food and water. Nevertheless, six months later, the Jewish state known as Israel declared its independence. President Harry S. Truman made the United States the first nation in the world to recognize Israel, but the Arabs were determined to destroy it. Six armies descended on the weakly-armed Israeli defenders. Yet, after a brutal war in which 1 percent of the Israeli population – the equivalent of 30 million Americans today – were killed, Israel triumphed.
The conflict, though, had only begun. Still, after multiple wars and countless terror attacks, Israel remains committed to the two-state solution. Indeed, in 2000 and again in 2008, Israel offered full statehood to the Palestinians in both the West Bank and Gaza, only to be once again rejected and subjected to violence. Most recently, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu joined with President Barack Obama in urging Palestinian leaders to return to the negotiating table. So far, their invitation has gone unanswered.
This is a tragedy – not only for Israelis who must continue to send sons and daughters to defend our homes, but also for the Palestinians.
Israel is a success story. Having absorbed more than a million Jewish refugees from the Middle East, Europe, and Africa and forged them into a Hebrew-speaking nation, Israel is the region’s only functioning democracy. We publish more poetry and more scientific papers, per capita, than any other country in the world. And Tel Aviv was recently ranked the third-most exciting city on the planet. We have all of this without peace. Picture what we could have with it.
The Palestinians, by contrast, have spent much of the past six decades striving to defeat Resolution 181. Instead of building viable democratic institutions and investing in their children’s education, they instilled hatred and glorified “armed resistance.”
Recently, though, a new generation of Palestinian leaders has emerged and begun to emulate Israel’s model of state-building. Law and order has been restored to West Bank cities, which only a few years ago were the scenes of vicious fighting, and the Palestinian economy ranks among the world’s fastest-growing. But numerous obstacles remain, above all the subjugation of the Palestinians of Gaza by Hamas, an Islamic extremist group dedicated to the murder of all Israelis – indeed of all Jews worldwide. The moderate leadership in the West Bank, meanwhile, still refuses to join Israel at the negotiating table.
We are still waiting. Our founding fathers and mothers were willing to divide our homeland with another people that also regarded it as their homeland and to live side-by-side in peace, and so are we. We are willing to put the past aside and join with the Palestinians in creating a fruitful future for our peoples. We want the Palestinians to experience the independence we have enjoyed so that together we can beat our swords into plowshares and invest our resources into technology rather than arms.
But the first step to realizing that vision requires the Palestinians to sit face-to-face with us and begin the serious work of peacemaking. Sixty-three years later, in spite of the tragedies and bloodshed, our hand remains outstretched.
Michael B. Oren is Israel’s ambassador to the United States.