Palestinian Arabs continue to learn the wrong history lesson. On May 15, as they do every year, they relive the sorrow of 1948, when they remind themselves of all the terrible things that happened to them as a result of the creation of modern-day Israel. Their narrative of a martyred people who were driven from their homes and made stateless victims is more than a political statement; it’s a faith that is integral to their identity. The yearly vow to “return” to all that they lost 72 years ago—to reverse the verdict of history—is so deeply embedded in their consciousness that it has made it impossible for any of their leaders to even consider formally giving it up.
This is an old story that has been retold so many times that even many of those who sympathize with the Palestinian cause have grown bored with it. Indeed, although talk of the nakba—the “disaster” or “catastrophe” of 1948—is still enough to fire up radical foes of the Jewish state in the West, much of the Arab world has changed the channel and is more interested in cooperation with Israel than in relitigating the events of the war in which it won its independence.
But it is of particular importance in 2020 because with the debate about Israel extending its law to some settlements in the West Bank, they are once repeating the mistakes that led to the nakba in the first place.
To point this out is generally considered insensitive. The suffering of the Palestinians—the one refugee population out of the hundreds of millions who were rendered homeless throughout the world since 1945 that has refused to be resettled—has always been the most powerful weapon in their possession. As such, they have nurtured their status as perpetual victims and jealously guarded it the way others defend their faith, literature or musical cultures. That means that under no circumstances will they ever concede that the fault for the catastrophe that befell them was largely their own.
From the start of the modern Zionist project in the late 19th century to the moment when it reached its fruition with the creation of the State of Israel, the steadfast position of the Arab population was that they would never acquiesce to the creation of a “national home for the Jewish people” in the territory that was then known as Palestine. They opposed the Balfour Declaration in 1917 and the subsequent British Mandate for Palestine tasked with the job of creating such a home, even if their right to stay and live in peace there was never threatened by the Jews.
In the subsequent decades, they manifested that opposition with riots, bloody pogroms and a consistent refusal to consider any plan that might give the Jews sovereignty over even a small part of the country.
That included the 1947 U.N. partition plan that, in addition to recommending the creation of a Jewish state, also called for an Arab state inside the borders of the former mandate with Jerusalem being governed by an international authority. The Arab leadership rejected the plan.
The war that would decide the fate of the country began the morning after the U.N.’s adoption of the partition resolution. Local Arabs, as well as others who came from surrounding countries, began a campaign of terrorism, attacking isolated Jewish communities and besieging Jewish Jerusalem. Their goal was to drive out the Jews, hoping that once the armies of five neighboring countries invaded the country on May 15, 1948, they would do just that.
Of course, that’s not the way things worked out, and the embattled Jewish state won this fight for its life. And far from celebrating the demise of the Jews, approximately 700,000 Arabs fled their homes, either because they feared what would happen to them under Jewish rule or in a few cases because they were driven out.
Rather than being resettled in the surrounding Arab nations or elsewhere in the Muslim world, they were kept in place in refugee camps. The United Nations created a refugee agency to deal with them—UNRWA—distinct from the single agency that helped the many millions of other homeless peoples throughout the world so as to aid the effort to use them as a weapon against Israel’s legitimacy. Meanwhile, approximately 800,000 Jews fled or were forced to flee their homes in the Arab world and found new lives in Israel or the West.
The Palestinian Arabs could have compromised and gotten a state. But they refused to accept anything less than their maximal demands, and as the years went by, their options in terms of territory and support from the rest of the Arab world, dwindled. Not even after Israel repeatedly offered the Palestinian Authority a state would they agree to end their century-old war.
At any point in this narrative, the Palestinians could have accepted one of the deals offered them. If so, there wouldn’t be any Jewish communities in the territories for Israel to seek to annex.
But even now, with their cause largely abandoned by much of the Arab world, they refused to negotiate with the administration of President Donald Trump over its “Peace to Prosperity” proposal that would also give them a state, albeit not as large a one as they could have gotten in 2000 or 2008, let alone 1948. And the official newspaper of the Palestinian Authority this week published a front-page article again vowing Israel’s destruction as a religious imperative.
The lesson of the nakba is not one of the world’s indifference, Israel’s alleged sins or even the suffering of the Palestinians. It is, instead, the folly of maximalism, in which by seeking everything, they consistently wind up with nothing. What will happen this year with the settlements is just more proof of the fact that if all you care about is preserving a victim status, the price of intransigence will continue to rise.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.