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Thursday, October 7, 1999

Regret, Ltd.

By Meron Benvenisti, Ha'aretz

The regret expressed by the prime minister over "the suffering the conflict caused not only to us alone but to all the Arab nations that fought against us, including the Palestinian people" deserves to be placed on the lowest rung of the world apologies scale. Ehud Barak, or his research assistants, should have been aware of the fact that the fashion of apologizing and asking forgiveness for historical conflicts, which has spread among leaders (and which Barak was copying), has engendered sincere and emotionally charged documents - compared to which the prime minister's expression of regret was pale and uninspired. Suffice it to peruse the mutual declarations of regret and solicitation for forgiveness issued by the leaders of the Czechs and the Germans for the Nazi invasion of 1938 and the expulsion of the Sudeten Germans in 1945, in order to understand that if you have a desire to inject an emotional dimension as a confidence-building measure to a process of historical reconciliation, you have to try harder. The precedents are binding.One expresses regret for an act that one's nation has committed out of malice or has done unintentionally. But what does it mean to express regret for suffering "caused by the conflict"? As though the conflict is the cause and not the effect of the acts and blunders that are to be regretted or for which responsibility - full or partial - is to be assumed. Everyone knows that the Arab-Israeli "conflict" is at its source a brawl between the members of the Jewish-Israeli people and the members of the Palestinian people over sovereignty in their common homeland, and that most of the suffering has accrued to the Palestinians. Why did Ehud Barak choose to note the Palestinians as an afterthought to the Arab nations that fought against us? And did we not fight against them? This very formulation hints that they, by "their war against us," are responsible for the conflict that caused the suffering which Ehud Barak regrets. It's no wonder that he divests himself of any "feeling of guilt or taking of responsibility for the emergence of the conflict and its results." So out of this whole sensationalist declaration of regret all that remains is the crocodile tears for the actions of others, as "we did not want the conflict and did much to prevent it."

The Palestinians crave some expression of the assumption of moral responsibility, even partial, for the calamity that was visited upon them. The more clear it becomes that "the return" is not a realistic proposition and will never be realized, the more potent becomes the demand to recognize the injustice that was done. MK Azmi Bishara wrote: "For the victim to forgive, he must be recognized as a victim; that is the difference between a historic compromise and a ceasefire."

In 1992, Shlomo Ben Ami, then the chairman of the Israeli delegation to the working group on the refugees, declared: "The refugee problem was created when the country was partitioned by the sword and not in the wake of any prior intention of Jews or of Arabs. It was largely the result of fear by Jews and Arabs and of bitter and protracted fighting."

That balanced statement is remembered to this day by the Palestinians, who view it as entailing recognition of a "symmetry of responsibility." Why is it so hard to regret explicitly the suffering of the victims while demanding partnership in responsibility for the past?

And if an expression of regret along those lines is not possible because the Jewish public will view it as "undermining the justness of Zionism," let the prime minister wait for the verdict of history; let him allow the historians to cast the blame on whoever deserves to bear it.

An apology for the past usually follows the resolution of a conflict, and if it deals only with actions that were done in the past and not with deeds of the present, it is rank hypocrisy. Anyone who regrets the suffering that was caused in the past because of the "conflict" should refrain from causing additional suffering, because on the face of things the conflict has not been resolved and the state of emergency remains intact. A reminder: Ikrit and Biram, continued expropriation of land, discrimination "against a security background," the imposition of political settlements on the weak side.

Expressions of regret and the assumption of responsibility for the past are not idle matters. The leaders who took this road signified thereby that the reprehensible norms of the past were done away with for all time. Anyone who wants to emulate them should bear that in mind

(c) copyright 1999 Ha'aretz. All Rights Reserved

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