THIS WEEK, the Prime Minister of Canada made a dramatic statement in Parliament: he apologized to the indigenous peoples of his country for the injustices done to them for generations by successive Canadian governments.
This way, White Canada tries to make peace with the native nations, whose country their forefathers conquered and whose culture their rulers have tried to wipe out.
APOLOGIZING FOR past wrongs has become a part of modern political culture.
That is never an easy thing to do. Cynics might say: nothing to it. Just words. And words, after all, are a cheap commodity. But in fact, such acts have a profound significance. A human being - and even more so, a whole nation - always finds it hard to admit to iniquities performed and to atrocities committed. It means a rewriting of the historical narrative that forms the basis of their national cohesion. It necessitates a drastic change in the schoolbooks and in the national outlook. In general, governments are averse to this, because of the nationalistic demagogues and hate-mongers who infest every country.
The President of France has apologized on behalf of his people for the misdeeds of the Vichy regime, which turned Jews over to the Nazi exterminators. The Czech government has apologized to the Germans for the mass expulsion of the German population at the end of World War II. Germany, of course, has apologized to the Jews for the unspeakable crimes of the Holocaust. Quite recently, the government of Australia has apologized to the Aborigines. And even in Israel, a feeble effort was made to heal a grievous domestic wound, when Ehud Barak apologized to the Oriental Jews for the discrimination they have suffered for many years.
But we face a much more difficult and complex problem. It concerns the roots of our national existence in Israel.
I BELIEVE that peace between us and the Palestinian people - a real peace, based on real conciliation - starts with an apology.
In my mind's eye I see the President of the State or the Prime Minister addressing a special extraordinary session of the Knesset and making a historic speech on the following lines:
MADAM SPEAKER, Honorable Knesset,
On behalf of the State of Israel and all its citizens, I address today the sons and daughters of the Palestinian people, wherever they are.
We recognize the fact that we have committed against you a historic injustice, and we humbly ask your forgiveness.
When the Zionist movement decided to establish a national home in this country, which we call Eretz Yisrael and you call Filastin, it had no intention of building our state on the ruins of another people. Indeed, almost no one in the Zionist movement had ever been in the country before the first Zionist Congress in 1897, or even had any idea about the actual situation here.
The burning desire of the founding fathers of this movement was to save the Jews of Europe, where the dark clouds of hatred for the Jews were gathering. In Eastern Europe, pogroms were raging, and all over Europe there were signs of the process that would eventually lead to the terrible Holocaust, in which six million Jews perished.
This basic aim attached itself to the profound devotion of the Jews, throughout the generations, to the country in which the Bible, the defining text of our people, was written, and to the city of Jerusalem, towards which the Jews have turned for thousands of years in their prayers.
The Zionist founders who came to this country were pioneers who carried in their hearts the most lofty ideals. They believed in national liberation, freedom, justice and equality. We are proud of them. They certainly did not dream of committing an injustice of historic dimensions.
ALL THIS does not justify what happened afterwards. The creation of the Jewish national home in this country has involved a profound injustice to you, the people who lived here for generations.
We cannot ignore anymore the fact that in the war of 1948 - which is the War of Independence for us, and the Naqba for you - some 750 thousand Palestinians were compelled to leave their homes and lands. As for the precise circumstances of this tragedy I propose the establishment of a "Committee for Truth and Reconciliation"' composed of experts from your and from our side, whose conclusions will from then on be incorporated in the schoolbooks, yours and ours.
We cannot ignore anymore the fact that for 60 years of conflict and war, you have been prevented from realizing your natural right to independence in your own free national state, a right confirmed by the United Nations General Assembly resolution of November 29, 1947, which also formed the legal basis for the establishment of the State of Israel.
For all this, we owe you an apology, and I express it hereby with all my heart.
The Bible tells us: "Whoso confesseth (his crimes) and forsakes them shall have mercy" (Proverbs 28:13). Clearly, confession does not suffice. We have also to forsake the wrongs we have done in the past.
It is impossible to turn the wheel of history back and restore the situation that existed in the country in 1947, much as Canada - or the United States, for that matter - cannot go back 200 years. We must build our common future on the joint desire to move forwards, to heal what can be healed and repair what can be repaired without inflicting new wounds, committing new injustices and causing more human tragedies.
I urge you to accept our apology in the spirit in which it is offered. Let us work together for a just, viable and practical solution of our century-old conflict - a solution that may not fulfill all justified aspirations nor right all wrongs, but which will allow both our peoples to live their lives in freedom, peace and prosperity.
This solution is clear for all to see. We all know what it is. It has emerged from our painful experiences, hammered out by the lessons of our sufferings, crystallized by the exertions of the best of our minds - yours as well as ours.
This solution means, simply: You have the same rights as we. We have the same rights as you: to live in a state of our own, under our own flag, governed by laws of our own making, ruled by a government freely elected by ourselves - hopefully a good one.
One of the fundamental commandments of our religion - as of yours and every other - was pronounced 2000 years ago by Rabbi Hillel: Do not unto others, what you do not want others to do to you.
This means in practice: your right to establish at once the free and sovereign State of Palestine in all the territories occupied by Israel in 1967, which will be accepted as a full member of the United Nations.
The borders of June 4, 1967, will be restored. I hope that we can agree, in free negotiations, to minimal exchanges of territory beneficial to both sides.
Jerusalem, which is so dear to all of us, must be the capital of both our states - West Jerusalem, including the Western Wall, the capital of Israel, East Jerusalem, including al-Haram al-Sharif, which we call the Temple Mount, the capital of Palestine. What is Arab shall be yours, what is Jewish shall be ours. Let us work together to keep the city, as a living reality, open and united.
We shall evacuate the Israeli settlements, which have caused so much suffering and iniquities to you, and bring the settlers home, except from those small areas which will be joined to Israel in the framework of freely agreed swaps of territory. We shall also dismantle all the paraphernalia of the occupation, both physical and institutional.
We must approach with open hearts, compassion and common sense, the task of finding a just and viable solution for the terrible tragedy of the refugees and their decendants. Each refugee family must be granted a free choice between the various solutions: repatriation and resettlement in the State of Palestine, with generous assistance; staying where they are or emigration to any country of their choice, also with generous assistance; and yes - coming back to the territory of Israel in acceptable numbers, agreed by us. The refugees themselves must be a full partner in all our efforts.
I trust that our two states - Israel and Palestine, living side by side in this beloved but small country, will quickly come together on the human, social, economic, technological and cultural levels, creating a relationship that will not only guarantee our security, but also rapid development and prosperity for all.
Together we will work for peace and prosperity throughout our region, based on close relations with all the countries of the area.
Committed to peace and vowing to create a better future for our children and grandchildren, let us rise to our feet and bow our heads in memory of the countless victims of our conflict, Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians - a conflict that has lasted far too long.
SUCH A SPEECH is, to my mind, absolutely essential for opening a new chapter in the history of this country.
In decades of meeting with Palestinians of all walks of life, I have come to the conclusion that the emotional aspects of the conflict are no less - and perhaps even more - important than the political ones. A profound sense of injustice permeates the minds and actions of all Palestinians. Unconscious or half-conscious guilt feelings are troubling the souls of the Israelis, creating a deep conviction that Arabs will never make peace with us.
I do not know when such a speech will be possible. Many imponderable factors will have an impact on that. But I do know that without it, mere peace agreements, reached between haggling diplomats, will not suffice. As the Oslo agreements have shown, building an artificial island in a sea of stormy emotions just will not do.
THE PUBLIC apology by the Canadian Prime Minister is not the only thing we can learn from that North American country.
43 years ago, the Canadian government took an extraordinary step in order to make peace between the English-speaking majority and the French-speaking minority among their citizens. That relationship had remained an open wound from the time the British conquered French Canada some 250 years ago. It was decided to replace the Canadian national flag, which was based on the British "Union Jack", with a completely new national flag, featuring the maple leaf.
On this occasion, the Speaker of the Senate said: "The flag is the symbol of the nation's unity, for it, beyond any doubt, represents all the citizens of Canada without distinction of race, language, belief or opinion."
We can learn something from that, too.
Uri Avnery is an Israeli writer and peace activist with Gush Shalom. He is a contributor to CounterPunch's book The Politics of Anti-Semitism.