In a stucco building in Tel Aviv, standing beneath a dusty portrait of Theodor Herzl, David Ben Gurion proclaimed Israel's declaration of independence 50 years ago this week. It was a short document, just 19 brief paragraphs, two of which were a plea for peace.
"We appeal ... to the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to preserve peace and participate in the building-up of the state on the basis of full and equal citizenship and representation in all its ... institutions.
"We extend our hand to all neighbouring states and their peoples in an offer of peace and goodwill, and appeal to them to establish bonds of cooperation and mutual help with the sovereign Jewish people settled in its own land."
The Arabs responded to that plea with all-out war. Within hours of the ceremony in Tel Aviv, the armies of Egypt, Syria, Transjordan, Lebanon, and Iraq had crossed Israel's borders. "This will be a war of extermination and a momentous massacre," exulted Azaam Pasha, secretary-general of the Arab League, `"which will be spoken of like the Mongolian massacres and the Crusades!"
The territory of the new Jewish state had been determined by the United Nations, which had voted a few months earlier to divide Palestine between its Jewish and Arab inhabitants. The partition map was drawn so as to restrict the Jews to those parts of Palestine in which they were a majority. It gave them three separated blocs of land, linked only at two narrow choke points. Sixty percent of the Jews' portion was desert, and it excluded all the historic Jewish sites in Jerusalem, in the Judean Hills, and around the Sea of Galilee. It was far less than the Jews had hoped for.
But however modest and fragile, it represented the first chance in 1,900 years for a sovereign Jewish state. For that reason, the Zionist leaders accepted the UN partition. The Arab leaders, FOR THE VERY SAME REASON, rejected it.
The Israeli-Arab dispute has never been about occupied territories or settlements or Palestinian refugees. At the end of the day, it has always been about one thing: the refusal of the Arab/Muslim world to tolerate a Jewish neighbour. It doesn't matter that Israel is tiny. (It takes up less space than Lake Michigan). It doesn't matter that Israel is outnumbered. (There are two dozen Arab/Muslim states, stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Himalayas.) It matters only that Israel is Jewish, and therefore intolerable.
Occupied territories? Israel no longer holds the Sinai Peninsula. It has repeatedly offered to return the Golan Heights to Syria in exchange for a peace treaty. The Gaza Strip has been handed over to Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority, along with every Arab population center on the West Bank. More than 95 percent of Palestinian Arabs are now ruled by Arafat, not Israel. All the Islamic holy sites in Jerusalem are under Islamic control. Benjamin Netanyahu has even floated schemes for Israel's unilateral withdrawal from the narrow security belt it patrols in southern Lebanon.
There is no more "occupation". On its 50th anniversary, Israel is more or less back to where it was before the Six Day War. Namely, inside skimpy borders, surrounded by nations that have always wished to see it wiped out.
It can be difficult for Americans, who are not a race of haters, to grasp the pervasiveness and intensity of the Arab world's hostility. But it is not possible to make sense of Israel's first 50 years without being aware of the virulent anti-Semitism of its neighbours.
In the 1940s, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem urged Hitler to deal with the "problem'" of Palestine's Jews by "the same method that the question is now being settled in the Axis countries".' In the 1960s, Egyptian ruler Gamal Nasser declared: "Our basic objective will be the destruction of Israel."
In the 1990s, Saddam Hussein swore to "burn half of Israel with fire", and launched Scud missiles at Israeli apartment buildings.
In the Palestinian Authority today, it is a crime punishable by death to sell land to Jews. The unrepealed Palestine National Covenant still calls for the "liberation" of Israel by violence. Little girls on Palestinian TV sing songs glorifying suicide bombers. And the current senior mufti in Jerusalem, an Arafat appointee, denounces Jews as the "sons of monkeys and pigs".
The reasons why so many Arabs despise Israel are complex. In part, it is that Islam portrays Jews as infidels and the enemies of Allah. In part, it is the feeling of inferiority brought on by the long centuries of Arab decline. In part, it is the need for a unifying passion -- hatred of Israel helps hold together Arabs who so often hate each other.
But what a pity. The Arab world has been so busy assaulting and anathematising the Jewish state when it could have benefited richly from a neighbour with so much to offer. In their own back yard occurred one of history's astonishments -- the return of the Jewish people to its never-forgotten homeland.
What the prophets foretold millennia ago, the Arabs were privileged to witness up close. Secure in their numbers, in their vast territory, in their petro-wealth, they could have opened their arms in welcome. Some, like the courageous Anwar Sadat, eventually did turn to peace. For his pains, he was assassinated.
On Israel's 50th anniversary, its neighbours are as lost in bitterness and backwardness as ever. Perhaps, before the next 50 years slip by, they will finally grasp the hand of friendship they were offered in 1948.
© The Boston Globe