An Open Letter to Yasser Arafat

Dear Abu Ammar (Yasser Arafat):

At this critical moment, I am sure you are receiving advice from all over the world on what you ought to do next to achieve statehood for the Palestinian people. I was amongst those present at the United Nations in New York on Nov. 13, 1974, when you took your first giant step toward achieving your life’s goal. In addressing the General Assembly, you stated:

“We are struggling so that Jews, Christians, and Muslims may live in equality and enjoy the same rights and assume the same duties, free from racial or religious discrimination. “

You must adopt a bold initiative which can bring to your side many influential non-Zionist Jews who heretofore have allowed organized Jewry to speak in their name.

There were those who then and still now totally oppose the achievement of such a noteworthy objective. No student of the history of the Palestinian-Zionist conflict can help but appreciate the Herculean job you have been doing, first in bringing together, and then in striving to keep all Palestinian factions under the one umbrella of the Palestine Liberation Organization. As a soldier, commando, and diplomat you breathed life into a moribund PLO, restored Palestinian dignity, and transformed the Palestinian fight for individual survival into a collective struggle for a national identity.

In the face of continued interference by powerful outside forces and intense individualism among some in your own camp, this has been a miraculous achievement. Whatever the final outcome, history will accord you a secure place for this alone.

Now, however, you may have to cross your Rubicon and advance with only some rather than all Palestinian patriots at your side. The maximalists, who can only envision a Palestinian state that includes what is now the state of Israel and who therefore reject a two-state solution embracing coexistence, side by side, are totally unrealistic. The intifadah, which television has brought into the homes of millions of Americans, has given birth to a new, deep sympathy for the Palestinian people and a readiness to accept Palestinian nationalism and statehood. This must not be lost.

In the world of geopolitics, one can dream, but even dreams must have some basis of reality. As much as you, and I, too, as a Jewish American who has fought Zionism for more than 40 years, might prefer to push back the clock and opt for the solution of one secular bi-national Palestinian state, I believe this is no longer feasible and could endanger the achievement of any kind of Palestinian self-determination, inasmuch as it makes it ever so much easier for Zionists to win acceptance of the noxious label, “terrorists,” which they have affixed to your liberation movement.

In 1947, Chaim Weizmann, as head of the Zionist movement, had to turn his back on Jabotinsky’s revisionists, the maxinialists. He opted for a portion of partitioned Palestine. One of Jabotinsky’s successors, Menachem Begin, was to seize more. For you to succeed, you will have to stand strong against the Palestinian maximalists in their insistence that “we will not surrender one inch of Palestine, and Haifa must be ours.”

However understandable this feeling may be, we must recognize that world opinion will never tolerate the disappearance of the state of Israel. Because it is the only way to reconcile Zionist claims with Palestinian rights, a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza is not beyond realization.

To overcome the formidable Zionist opposition, even to a minimalist position, you must adopt a bold initiative which can bring to your side many influential non-Zionist Jews who heretofore have allowed organized Jewry to speak in their name. The legitimate fears of Israelis and Jewish Americans must be allayed without, of course, any sacrifice of principle. The Palestinian declaration of independence ought to contain assurances along the following lines:

“Those Jews who are at present living within the borders of our state of Palestine are welcome to remain with us and will be endowed with equal rights as other Palestinians. In accordance with the holy Koran, we have always regarded the Jews, along with the Christians, as ‘people of the Book.’

“Jews have lived among us for centuries as equals. The holocaust, unfortunately, has caused a total misreading of history, blocking out the reality of the long, intimate relationship under which Jews and Judaism thrived in the Arab-Muslim world. We have never in the past nor shall we in the future ever discriminate against any people on the basis of their religion. That is why we empathized with those Jews who, with so many millions of others, were victims of the Nazi scourge which ravaged the Western world 45 years ago.

“We shall, nevertheless, as Palestinians and Arabs, continue to make the vital distinction between Judaism, our sister monotheistic faith, and Zionism, the oppressive and expansionist political movement. While we wig always uphold freedom of conscience as part of the struggle for human dignity, we cannot tolerate a second nationalist loyalty in the guise of re4ion. We are, therefore, asking Jewish Palestinians at all times to keep their metaphysical practices, essential to the worship of God, separate from national activities related to any foreign state. Our grave past differences with the government of the United States stem in part from the failure of Jews in America to live by such vital guidelines.”

Such a statement in your declaration will immeasurably help improve the Palestinian image in the United States and the West, as well as set right the historical record. Your battle for justice will be won. And do not forget that a Palestinian victory-with a show of magnanimity, of course also means a triumph for Americans of Jewish faith, who, like myself, still insist on maintaining the vital distinction between religion and nationalism.

Dr. Alfred M. Lilienthal is the author of The Zionist Connection, What Price Israel? and other major works.