Isaiah Berlin and Israel

On 16 October 1997 Sir Isaiah Berlin, who had been gravely ill since late July, made what turned out to be a final statement on the subject of the Israeli–Palestinian situation (he died on 5 November). To make a statement of this kind was unusual for him, since he rarely if ever made public statements on political topics, though, in the case of Israel, he was ready to be known as a supporter of Peace Now. On this occasion, however, he decided to take what might be his last opportunity to set out his strongly held views, which he sent in the form of a brief statement (dictated to his secretary) entitled ‘Israel and the Palestinians’ to his close friend Professor Avishai Margalit in Jerusalem. When it was received, Professor Margalit telephoned for permission to publish it, which Berlin gave on the day he died. The letter appeared in Hebrew in Ha’aretz on 7 November, on the front page, together with the announcement of Berlin’s death, and an interview with Professor Margalit.

These facts, and the text of the statement, were released on 12 November by Berlin’s Literary Trustees in view of the importance of the subject and the current state of the Israeli–Palestinian peace negotiations. The text of the statement follows.

Israel and the Palestinians

Since both sides begin with a claim of total possession of Palestine as their historical right; and since neither claim can be accepted within the realms of realism or without grave injustice: it is plain that compromise, i.e. partition, is the only correct solution, along Oslo lines – for supporting which Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish bigot.

Ideally, what we are calling for is a relationship of good neighbours, but given the number of bigoted, terrorist chauvinists on both sides, this is impracticable.

The solution must lie somewhat along the lines of reluctant toleration, for fear of far worse – i.e. a savage war which could inflict irreparable damage on both sides.

As for Jerusalem, it must remain the capital of Israel, with the Muslim holy places being extraterritorial to a Muslim authority, and a smallish Arab quarter, with a guarantee from the United Nations of preserving that position, by force if necessary.

16 October 1997

© The Trustees of the Isaiah Berlin Literary Trust 1997