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Tel Aviv University
TAU Yehouda Shenhav: The skeleton in the closet is not limited to the ethnic cleansing of 1948 "The Arabs of 1948: The Skeleton in the “Peace Process” Closet"

Jadal  1                     Mada al-Carmel
Jadal Issue no.10, June 2011 www.mada-research.org
The Arabs of 1948: The Skeleton in the “Peace Process” Closet
Yehouda Shenhav *

For some two decades, with massive international support, liberal Israeli Jews have 
attempted to pursue the two-state solution–the state of Israel and the state of 
Palestine–based on the Green Line border in one version or another (“separation,” 
“border adjustments,” “with, or without, the settlement blocs”) as a territorial 
marker of the end of the conflict. But while the two-state idea is romping around the 
capitals of Europe and North America as a tempting solution, from a political 
perspective, the idea is an empty slogan, without sufficient substance. Evidently, all 
the spectacular conferences and peace negotiations–Oslo, Camp David, the Taba 
talks, and finally the Annapolis Conference–have failed. In Jewish eyes, the common 
explanation for these failures is the absence of any Palestinian “partner.” However, 
the “peace discourse” is not at a dead-end because of the lack of a Palestinian 
partner; rather, a perpetual dead-end results from the Israeli regime’s political 
theory, which time and again, leads to futile discussions.

According to this theory, the state of the Jewish nation must maintain an exclusive 
monopoly on territory and on the means for employing violence within it. This 
regime requires tools of oppression, among them an ongoing state of emergency, to 
ensure the homogeneity of Jewish national identity over the territorial spatial 
sphere, free from Palestinians with a collective identity. The Jewish state was 
established based upon this idea, and it continues to drive its all-out war against the 
Arabs of 1948 (Palestinians who carry Israeli passports) who aspire for an 
independent collective identity. Such a regime cannot possibly be democratic.

The Arabs of 1948 are the ultimate impediment to this regime inasmuch as they 
serve as a constant reminder of the skeleton it keeps in the closet: the ethnic 
cleansing of Palestine in 1948–the expulsion, the expropriation of land, the 
obliteration of towns and villages, and  the inaccuracy of the historiographic 
narrative aimed at justifying all these actions. The fact that the cleansing of the 
Jewish sovereign territory–achieved by expelling Palestinians, by frightening them, 
and by forcing them to flee–remains incomplete leaves the ongoing presence of 
Palestinians in Israel as profound testimony to the undemocratic nature of Israeli 

While the historical narrative on these actions may be complicated, there is no 
question that the Israeli sovereign state prevented the refugees from returning after 
the war and confiscated Palestinian land and property in order to establish 
territorial sovereignty for the Jewish collective. A political theory of this kind leaves 
no room for maintaining an independent collective Palestinian identity. The proof of 
this fact is that the Arabs of 1948 have never been perceived as partners in any of 
the various peace processes. The paradigm regards them as subjects of the Jewish 
state or as ancillary to the conflict, but never as principal players in it.
To cope with this anomaly, the year 1948 must be set as the turning point in the 
history of the conflict, and the 1967 paradigm, in which the occupation of the West 
Bank and Gaza is the central issue, must be rejected. The 1967 paradigm, which 
primarily serves the interests of the Jewish liberal elite, disseminates the illusion 
that Israel is a democracy that went astray due to a regrettable historical accident 
that took place in 1967, and that it will again become a democracy, once the “end of 
the occupation” is achieved. Viewed this way, the 1967 paradigm obscures the 
ethnic cleansing on which the Israeli regime is founded.

The skeleton in the closet is not limited to the ethnic cleansing of 1948. It is 
embodied in political theory itself.  This theory has determined all conceptions of 
war and peace, and has been to a great extent responsible for the unending spilling 
of blood. The theory’s main inherent danger, including for the Jews themselves, is 
the belief that it is possible to create a  homogeneous ethno-national identity on a 
hermetically-sealed territorial space. A “Jewish and democratic” Israel needs to cope 
with this skeleton in order to create a new political theory that does not demand a 
constant state of emergency, dispossession, and political oppression.
A new Jewish political theory must return to 1948 as an Archimedean point for 
thinking about the conflict. Contrary to the peace discourse that removed the Arabs 
of 1948 from the conflict equation, it is necessary to return to negotiations that 
include the Arabs of 1948, and also the Palestinians as a whole (including those 
living in refugee camps in Lebanon and Syria) on defining sovereignty in a new 
format. My basic assumption is that division of the land into two state units with a 
wall separating them is not possible; it is also immoral and destructive along 
political, geographic, economic, civic, and religious lines.

Rather than regarding sovereignty as an exclusive monopoly over territory and over 
national identity in the format of the Westphalia peace treaties of the mid seventeenth
century, I suggest considering a post-Westphalian sovereignty, a 
sovereignty that is, in essence, porous, non-contiguous, and multiple. It assumes the 
existence of cross and joint sovereignties organized in a complex manner in 
different spheres of a common spatial region. In a post-Westphalian sovereignty, the 
Jews will have to forgo the privileges they attained by means of the violence of their 
new sovereign in 1948 and in the decades that followed, in favor of a decentralized, 
fluid, and more just political structure. 

In addition to the conflict between the Jews and the Palestinians, a structure of this 
kind would take into account the gigantic gaps among the Jews themselves in 
matters of ethnicity, religious identities, and class differences. It would also require 
a radical change in the land regime in Israel. For example, the liberal Jews, who live 
in Tel Aviv and comprise a privileged class, will have to contribute their share in 
solving the conflict, just as poor residents of the illegal settlements of Ariel or Ma’ale 
Adumim will have to. 

Within such a political structure of decentralized sovereignty and of open spatial 
movement, it will be possible to allow the return of the Palestinian refugees, not as a 
symbolic action in recognition of the injustice, but as a real political action. Although 
the return of the refugees will be based on the pre-war (1948) geography as a 
vision, it will simultaneously ensure that the moral and political injustice of the past 
is not mended by means of new injustice. I believe that only within a sovereignty 
structure of this kind will it be possible to also ensure the Jews’ rights in the spatial 

* Yehouda Shenhav is a professor of sociology at Tel Aviv University and senior research fellow at 
the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute. This article is based on his book, Entrapped by the Green Line (2010, in Hebrew), forthcoming in English with Polity Press

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