Taking Yes for an Answer:

The PLO Is Reading to Talk If We’re Ready to Listen


The Washington Post, November 20, 1988


Algiers—After I wrote an essay this year urging the Palestinians to issue a unilateral declaration of independence, people began calling me “the Jewish father of the Palestinian state.” That’s silly, of course. But I am proud that I, an American Jewish academic, could play a small role in encouraging the important events that took place here last week.

            No one should minimize the importance of the declaration approved by the Palestine National Council (PNC), The state of Pal­estine now exists. The occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza are now an oc­cupied country. Several million stateless Palestinians are now citizens of the state of Palestine. And an important move towards peace has been made. Unfortunately, at the very moment that the Palestinians have signaled their desire for peace, Israel is moving toward formation of a new govern­ment that would oppose any exchange of land for peace.

            We are now at a very dangerous moment. The United States could play a creative role, but our leaders lack the courage to reverse the errors of the past.

            Starting in 1975, the United States em­braced an Israeli policy to exclude the Pal­estine Liberation Organization—and thus the Palestinians—from any independent role in the peace process. Instead, the Is­raelis (and the United States) wanted to deal with Jordan’s King Hussein. Rather than saying that the door is open, rather than saying that whenever the Palestinians want to talk peace we will talk with them, we invented formulaic hoops for them to jump through. And for years, this policy succeeded in keeping the Palestinians out.

            The problem is that today, we a1l know that peace requires that they be brought in. To their credit, the Palestinians meeting in Algiers have finally given us the opportunity to say that they have met the various American conditions. They have not met them to the satisfaction of State Department I and AIPAC lawyers. But they have gone far enough to give us an opening if we have the wit to seize it. Specifically:


  • Their declaration of independence af­firms the 1947 partition resolution as a piece of international law and notes that it provided for both an Arab and a Jewish state. Thus Israel’s legal right to exist has implicitly been recognized.
  • Their declaration of independence says: “The state of Palestine...rejects the threat or use of force, violence and terrorism…against the territorial integrity of other states.” This can be read as provid­ing the required renunciation of terrorism.
  • Their political resolutions, for the first time, have accepted United Nations Security Council resolutions 242 and 338 as part of the basis for an international peace conference.


            None of this is airtight or problem-free. There are ambiguities in each case. But what they have given, they have given prior to negotiations. Common sense tells us that we should take yes for an answer and move to the next phase. Test their sincerity at the negotiating table. Alas, it is unlikely that we will do this. Instead, we make the Palestin­ians bear the entire burden of the process. We accept Israeli negativism. We accept American passivity. Tragedy lies ahead and history will curse us all for our foolishness.

            I believe that we Americans—most of all American Jews—must do what we can to avert this tragedy. We must adopt a new stance—one of active engagement—in an effort to bring the two sides together. The simplest way for me to communicate this is to summarize how I personally became so involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

            My relationship to Israel began before I had ever heard of the Palestinians, and cer­tainly prior to any understanding of the his­tory and nature of the conflict. I grew up in a totally Jewish neighborhood in the Bronx. After I finished regular school hours, I would go for an extra hour of instruction at the local Yiddish school. The instruction was not of a religious nature. We were there to learn Jew­ish history, to learn to read, speak and write in Yiddish, to learn Yiddish songs and a smat­tering of Hebrew. In a word, we were there because our parents wanted to make sure that we developed a strong Jewish identity.

            There was a time every year when we went door-to-door in the neighborhood sell­ing stamps and collecting money that would be used to plant trees in Israel. It never oc­curred to anyone to ask why we were doing this, or what our relationship to Israel was. Israel wasn’t a central preoccupation; it was part of the landscape. Raising money for Is­rael was just an accepted part of childhood.



When the 1967 war occurred, I was no longer a child. For three years I had participated with millions of oth­ers in the effort to extricate the United States from Vietnam. I had published and lectured on the nature of moral agency and on selective conscientious objection. Philosophically, I was broadly critical of any form of soldiering. I saw it as a process whereby one participated in the dehumanization of the other, where one made oneself into someone indifferent to or even proud of causing the deaths of other young people little different from oneself.

            Yet when the Six-Day War occurred, these philosophic conclusions evaporated. I found myself thrilled by Israel’s victories. I reacted to the news reports of fighting in the Middle East with full enthusiasm for an Israeli tri­umph; mine was the kind of total identification with war that I found appalling when I encountered it anywhere else.         

            Fifteen years later, when Israel invaded Lebanon, I joined with other Jews to protest in front of the Israeli Embassy in Washington. I protested not merely because the Lebanon war was an optional war. And it was not mere­ly that I expected the war to be a disaster for Israel. It was something much stronger—a growing sense that Israel had gone astray. It was the realization that the Palestinians also have rights and valid claims, and that as a people they have been and continue to be the primary victims of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It was the realization that the conflict continued in large part because something very sig­nificant was wrong in the American Jewish community and within Israel: We were refus­ing in principle to extend to others the same rights we claimed for ourselves.

            It was then in 1982, that I became active in the Jewish peace movement in the United States.

            My involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict turns on an essentially conceptual point: Jewish identity and Jewish history have become hostage to this conflict. Who and what we are will be determined by this conflict and the relationship we bear to it.

            The Palestinians know that there is little they can expect from the Shamir government. Their hopes are based on the United States. In their eyes, they have given us what we have asked for. As Arafat said, “The ball is in the American court.”

            Rather than debating the fruitless ques­tion: “Has the PLO met the American con­ditions?” why not use a little imagination? Why not ask the United Nations’ secretary general to convene an international peace conference. Have him send out invitations with an RSVP box stating: “Attendance re­quires that the participants accept Resolu­tions 242 and 338, renounce terrorism and accept a ceasefire covering all acts of vio­lence.”

            At Algiers, PLO leader Yasser Arafat was asked how he would respond if he received ­such an invitation? He replied, “You’ll know when they send it to me.”

            Let’s do it.