Words matter. I’m thinking specifically about the brouhaha concerning President Barack Obama’s words to Benjamin Netanyahu and the prime minister’s response a few weeks ago. In his State Department speech, the president said that the borders of Israel and a Palestinian state “should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps,” and went on to speak of “secure and recognized borders.”
Netanyahu responded furiously that Israel could not return to the “indefensible 1967 borders,” and repeated that assertion thereafter. Many of Netanyahu’s supporters jumped on his “indefensible” borders bandwagon. Of course, they, like he, ignored the president’s reference to “mutually agreed swaps,” a proposal put forth by several previous presidents and Israeli leaders.
Even after the president’s AIPAC speech, a few days later, in which he again mentioned those land swaps and other necessary conditions for Israel, Netanyahu did not let up on his “indefensible” borders lament. It aroused emotions, and he was not going to drop it, even though he — and the rest of the world — knew that the White House was not pushing him to the country’s 1967 frontiers.
Israel has plenty of legitimate concerns about negotiating with the Palestinians, not least of them the unity agreement between Fatah and Hamas. But here’s the thing: When the prime minister of Israel distorts or disregards the words of the president of the United States, it’s hard to demand straight talk from the other side.
Before this Obama-Netanyahu drama, I had been stewing about the most recent round of dishonest language on that side. I still am. My anger grew from the commotion about whether City University of New York should give Tony Kushner an honorary degree in light of his many anti-Israel statements. The controversy itself interested me less than his attacks, and especially his accusation that the Israelis had used “ethnic cleansing” in creating their state. That term implies that Israel systematically expelled the Arabs from the country in 1948, a concept that has been bandied about more than ever lately. The concept, without the specific term, appeared again in a New York Times op-ed piece by Mahmoud Abbas, chair of the PLO. He wrote that after the United Nations agreed to partition Palestine, “Zionist forces expelled Palestinian Arabs … and Arab armies intervened. War and further expulsions ensued.”
Amazingly, none of the letters responding to Abbas spelled out what really happened in 1947 and 1948 (or maybe The Times didn’t print them). One letter maintained that since nobody can agree on past history, there is no point arguing over it. But for people who care about Israel there is every point in knowing the facts — and there are facts — and being able to refute false accusations. So, in a nutshell: after the General Assembly voted on Nov. 29, 1947, to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, armed bands of Palestinian Arabs began attacking and murdering Jews in the land, in what some historians call “the war before the war.” They ambushed convoys of trucks and cars along the roads and set off bombs in major urban centers, including the Jewish Agency building in Jerusalem. At first the Jews reacted only defensively, but after some months of severe losses, the Haganah (pre-cursor of the Israel Defense Forces), took the offensive. By early May 1948, it had subdued the Palestinians.
Yes, troops did expel some Arabs from their villages in the course of combat. At times they probably went too far in forcing people out. For the most part, however, they felt themselves fighting life-and-death battles against an enemy that had assaulted them. And in Haifa and other towns, the Jews pleaded with the Arabs to stay. Still they fled, fearful of being branded traitors by their leaders, whom they expected to return and “liberate” their cities.
On May 15, 1948, a day after the Jewish state was declared, Arab armies from five neighboring countries invaded it, beginning the actual war. Again, many Palestinians fled from their villages out of fear during the war’s fierce fighting; some were driven out to prevent their aiding Arab forces. But Israel had no organized policy of expelling Palestinian Arabs, no “ethnic cleansing” agenda, no Arab-free Israel. In fact, today Israeli Arabs make up more than 20 percent of the country’s citizens.
In the spring of 1949, armistice agreements between Israel and the Arab countries drew the lines that, with some exceptions, represented military positions at the end of the 1948 war. These essentially are the “1967 lines” that Obama urged as a basis for negotiations, not as final borders. There are enough people maligning Israel and enough dishonesty among its attackers that we cannot afford to blur or distort reality. We make that country’s case best when we speak honestly and straightforwardly.
Words do matter.
Francine Klagsbrun’s most recent book is “The Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath Day.”