In 1857, the British consul in Palestine, James Finn, told his government that Palestine "is in a considerable degree empty of inhabitants and therefore its greatest need is that of a body of population."
Ten years later, Mark Twain visited the Holy Land, recording his impressions in The Innocents Abroad. Jericho was "a moldering ruin," he wrote. About the Galilee, he noted "a desolation ... that not even imagination can grace with the pomp of life and action." Which is pretty desolate. As for the land around Jerusalem, "The further we went ... the more rocky and bare, repulsive and dreary the landscape became," Twain wrote. "There was hardly a tree or shrub anywhere. Even the olive and cactus, those fast friends of a worthless soil, had almost deserted the country."
Things hadn't changed much by 1881, when British cartographer Arthur Penrhyn Stanley observed, "In Judea it is hardly an exaggeration to say that for miles and miles there is no appearance of life or habitation." To be sure, there were at this time Arabs (and Jews) living in Palestine, but 1881 hardly marks the shimmering highpoint of civilization Yasser Arafat would describe to the United Nations in 1974 when he conjured visions of "a verdant land, inhabited mainly by an Arab people in the course of building its life and dynamically enriching its indigenous culture."
Why it is that the world came to accept the mendacious vision of a terror-kingpin over a wealth of historical impressions recorded by writers, scientists and officials is a tantalizing question. (On another memorable U.N. occasion, this same terrorist-fabulist hallucinogenically said, "Jesus Christ was the first Palestinian fedayeen" -- or Muslim fighter of Christians.) Somehow, the weight of the world's collective understanding of history flipped: Myth turned to fact, and the facts were forgotten. I don't know when this happened. I just know I never came across such vivid eyewitness accounts of 19th-century Palestine as those above until I read them (and others) in the 2000 edition of Benjamin Netanyahu's excellent Middle East primer A Durable Peace: Israel and Its Place Among the Nations.
Mr. Netanyahu, current Israeli finance minister and former prime minister, also exemplifies a hairpin turn of historical perception. The reason he didn't accompany the Israeli delegation to the recent Aqaba summit, he told CNN, was his concern about the Palestinians' ability to follow the so-called road map.