Israel's Biggest Mistake

06/10/2011 12:10 pm ET | Updated Aug 10, 2011

Almost everyone agrees about Israel's military superiority over its adversaries. After all, it has won all the conventional wars, as well as the less-conventional ones such as that with Hamas in 2008-09 -- Hamas's fantastic victory declarations, amidst the ruins of Gaza City, notwithstanding. But there is another war, an ongoing war, in which Israel clearly suffers nothing but defeat after defeat. And in the long term this war may well be even more important than the military wars, the economic wars, and the political wars.

That is the War of the Words.

On May 14, 1948, David Ben-Gurion proclaimed "the establishment of the Jewish State in Palestine, to be called the State of Israel." Despite the many historical and religious merits of that name, it seems now, from a purely strategic point of view, to be the first and perhaps most important of the new nation's linguistic blunders.

For everyone knows that the broader region has been known as Palestine for centuries. And Palestine is obviously the ancient homeland of people known as Palestinians. It therefore follows -- verbally, psychologically, and certainly in most of world opinion -- that "Israelis" don't belong in "Palestine."

The non-verbal reality is of course quite otherwise.

The Jewish people had settled in that region by about 1300 B.C.E.; the monarch David established Jerusalem as his capital around 1000 BCE, and his son Solomon built the Temple whose western wall is now the Western Wall. The northern portion of the kingdom (called Israel) lasted until the Assyrians destroyed it in 722 BCE, while the southern portion (called Judah) persisted until its destruction by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. Thus Jewish sovereignty in the region, a thousand years before even the birth of Islam, lasted over 400 years; and despite various forced exiles there has been a significant and continuous Jewish presence there for over three millennia, to this very day.

It was not until after the final Roman conquest in 135 A.D. that the emperor Hadrian coined the infamous name "Palestine." He derived it from the Philistines, an ancient Aegean people --Europeans, that is, not Arabs -- who had centuries before lived along the Mediterranean coast. His choice was quite deliberate: by naming it after this vanished people he was attempting to erase the memory of the Jewish presence in this land, and to destroy the connection of Jews to this land. The Catholic Church went on to adopt the name, and it was of course in common usage by the 20th-century; the British mandate, beginning after World War I, referred to the land on both sides of the Jordan River as Palestine, and that was simply the accepted term for several more decades.

But make no mistake: just as the name derived from the non-Arab Philistines, so too during the first half of the 20th century it had no particular Arab connotations. Everyone who lived in the land was equally a Palestinian: Jews, Arabs, Europeans alike. And Jews from afar longed to immigrate to Palestine, which was, for them, simply the name of their own ancestral homeland.

Indeed, no Arab state has ever existed in Palestine. Prior to the partition of 1947-48 (and especially prior to the 1967 Six-Day War whose anniversary people are now celebrating or lamenting respectively) Palestinian Arabs did not view themselves as a distinct people particularly related to Palestine: they were religiously, linguistically, economically, historically, and culturally indistinguishable from all other Arabs. It was only after partition, after Palestinian Jews became Israelis, that Palestinian Arabs became just "Palestinians." Yet with this simple verbal maneuver the land of Palestine suddenly became the ancient homeland of the Palestinians -- despite the fact that Jewish sovereignty and presence there predated the Arab presence by more than a millennium!

Ironically, in the original frenzied debate over the new Jewish state's name it was discussed how to translate the proposed name into Arabic. It was argued that the name "Israel" should be translated verbatim and not as "Palestine" because the Arabs might want to continue the name "Palestine" for their own anticipated state, which would cause all sorts of confusion. This simple verbal courtesy now seems, in retrospect, to have been the key mistake. Had they simply chosen to name their new state "Palestine"-- despite its Roman origin -- then the Jews would today be the Palestinians while the Arabs would be -- what -- the "Arabs"? And then it would be clear -- at least verbally, and perhaps psychologically -- that the true Palestinians were indeed living in their ancestral homeland after all.

Their military defeats notwithstanding, with respect to the first and most important battle in the ongoing War of the Word, the Arabs win and the Jews lose.