Tag Archives: peace

Yes, Israel will be blamed

Maybe it’s a bit late in the new year to make predictions, but anyone still looking for a safe bet might want to agree with an anonymous European diplomat who reportedly told his Israeli counterpart towards the end of last year that Israel will lose “the blame game” if the current peace negotiations end in failure. According to a Ha’aretz report, the European diplomat also threatened Israel with “a deluge of sanctions” in case “the negotiations with the Palestinians run aground,” irrespective of the reasons for the failure to reach an agreement.

For the Palestinians, this is of course good news – though it’s really just more of the same: after all, the UN has designated 2014 as “Year of Solidarity with the Palestinian People” and a number of events decrying “the unprecedented historical injustice which the Palestinian people have endured since ‘Al-Nakba’ of 1948” have already been held at the organization’s headquarters in New York. The UN’s willingness to show “solidarity” with a people that has rejected a state of their own for 65 years illustrates that the anonymous European diplomat quoted above is merely following the long established practice of rewarding the Palestinians for their refusal to come to terms with the re-establishment of the Jewish state.

It seems that the Palestinians intend to stick with their rejectionist stance. In a candid interview with Asharq Al-Awsat , the Palestinian foreign minister Riyad Al-Maliki recently boasted that the Palestinians “previously said no 12 times to the Americans” and he proudly declared that they were “prepared to continue with this when it comes to our principles.” Among these “principles” is apparently the refusal to accept the fundamental idea that a peace agreement will establish two states for two peoples. When asked what the “most intractable” issue in the negotiations was, Al-Maliki replied:

“This is the issue of recognizing the Jewish nature of the Israeli state. This is a sharply contentious issue. It would be dangerous to recognize this because this would mean our acceptance of the dissolution of our own history and ties and our historic right to Palestine. This is something that we will never accept under any circumstances. Acceptance of this would also raise fears about the fate of the 1.8 million Palestinians living in Israel. They are already second-class citizens, so how will they be affected by the Judaization of the state? This also raises questions about the [Palestinian] refugees and the right of return. So this is something that we absolutely cannot accept.”

This short statement provides an excellent illustration of the fantasies that underpin some of the central Palestinian negotiating positions. The most notable point is arguably the admission that recognizing Israel as the Jewish state implies acknowledging the millennia-old Jewish history in the region, which according to Al-Maliki would be tantamount to “the dissolution” of Palestinian history and the resulting claims. While Binyamin Netanyahu demonstrated in his Bar-Ilan speech in June 2009 that it is perfectly possible to stick to one’s own history and still concede that the present time requires difficult compromises, Al-Maliki is providing here a rare admission that Palestinian history is too flimsy to back up the Palestinian narrative of being an “indigenous” population that is fighting for their ancient rights against a foreign intruder.

The second noteworthy point is Al-Maliki’s worry about the “fate of the 1.8 million Palestinians living in Israel.” The PLO has always upheld the fiction that it represents all Palestinians, whether they want it or not, and wherever they reside, even if they are citizens of other states. Therefore, it probably doesn’t matter much to Al-Maliki that not all Arabs in Israel define themselves as Palestinians, and that even those who do are apparently not very enthusiastic about living under Palestinian rule. Indeed, as a recent poll showed, even among those who like to complain loudly about being a minority in the Jewish state, many prefer this status to being citizens in a Palestinian state.

Finally, there is Al-Maliki’s point about the “refugees and the right of return.” Apparently he feels that recognizing Israel as the Jewish state would somehow complicate the demand that millions of descendants should “return” to the places that previous generations of Palestinians left to escape the war fought on their behalf against the fledgling Jewish state. While this demand is anyway completely unrealistic, Al-Maliki reaffirmed – as many Palestinian officials have done before – that the Palestinians would continue to insist on this imaginary “right” to turn the Jewish state into yet another Arab-Muslim state.

An even clearer rejection of the two-state solution and a negotiated peace was conveyed in a recent New York Times op-ed by former Palestinian Authority minister Ali Jarbawi.  Under the title “The Coming Intifada,” Jarbawi started out by claiming that the Palestinians have long wanted a state of their own and were eager to see the peace negotiations succeed. However, according to Jarbawi, the Palestinians made a “strategic mistake” at the beginning of the Oslo process in 1993 when they supposedly conceded “78 percent of the land of historical Palestine.” Jarbawi probably knows full well that this argument is as good as if a former Israeli minister were to claim that Israel conceded Jordan to the Arabs, but he needs this fictitious concession to justify the very real rejection of any realistic two-state solution.  According to Jarbawi,

“Israel’s current conditions for a Palestinian state would shatter Palestinians’ basic demands for liberty and independence. The promised Palestinian state will be nothing but a shadow entity completely ruled by Israel. And the price that is being demanded for this state is so exorbitant that the Palestinian Authority cannot sell it, nor can the Palestinians accept it.

These pockets of land would be demilitarized, and Israel would have control over the borders, skies and natural resources. To get this, Palestinians must give up the right of return of diaspora Palestinians, and publicly declare that Israel is a Jewish state. This is a toxic cocktail perfectly mixed to produce a Palestinian uprising against the Israeli occupation, and the Authority as well — if the latter accepts these Israeli demands and yields to American pressure.”

Jarbawi’s article is arguably an important read, because it shows a former Palestinian minister declaring once more quite openly that a demilitarized Palestinian state comprising most of the previously Jordanian-occupied West Bank and Egyptian-controlled Gaza is simply completely unacceptable to the Palestinians. Unintentionally, Jarbawi also illustrates how Palestinian propaganda works: while he clearly says the Palestinians would violently reject any realistic two-state solution, he also deviously claims that it’s their shattered hopes for a two-state solution that would result in an explosion of violence – and he can probably expect quite a bit of sympathy for this “explanation” from his New York Times readers.

Just from the past few weeks, there are plenty of additional examples illustrating that the Palestinian leadership is also preparing its own public for the failure of the current negotiations and the possible resumption of violence. Some senior Palestinian officials who are close to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas have recently called the current peace talks “futile,” advocating instead a return to “all kinds of resistance.” Barely two weeks ago, Abbas was listening and applauding when his Minister of Religious Affairs gave a speech urging jihadis fighting in Syria to turn to Jerusalem:

“Whoever wants resistance, whoever wants Jihad, the direction for Jihad is well-known and clear… Those who send young people to Syria or elsewhere to die for a misdirected cause must stop and understand that Jerusalem is still waiting. Jerusalem is the direction, Jerusalem is the address.”

A week later, the official Facebook page of Fatah publicized a clip that shows members of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades vowing that they will “turn Tel Aviv into a ball of fire.”

Tel Aviv Fatah threats

Palwatch screenshot

But it’s not just in the UN “Year of Solidarity with the Palestinian People” that Palestinian rejectionism and calls for violence are politely overlooked and even rewarded. If the negotiations don’t produce any results and the Palestinians once again resort to terrorism, they can count on the UN and much of the international media to get plenty of attention and sympathy for their continuing efforts to blame and delegitimize Israel.

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First published at my JPost blog; also at the Polish blog Listy z naszegu sadu

Netanyahu and the fundamentals of peace

Under the title “Netanyahu the fundamentalist,” David Landau grimly predicted in a recent Ha’aretz column that “History will damn the Israeli prime minister’s obsessive demand for the Palestinians to commit heart and soul to the idea of Israel as the ‘Jewish State’ as a precondition for peace.” Needless to say, this was not the first Ha’aretz article opposing Netanyahu’s stance – and needless to say, blaming Israel in general and Binyamin Netanyahu in particular for the lack of peace is always a crowd pleaser for the audiences Ha’aretz caters to.

But Landau’s piece was so weak and contradictory that it only helps to make the case for Netanyahu’s demand.

At the beginning of his column, Landau notes that the “United Nations spoke of a Jewish state and an Arab state back in the 1940s. That was the accepted vocabulary ever since the principle of partition made its appearance in the 1930s. Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, uses the same vocabulary today.”

If it was true that Abbas “uses the same vocabulary today,” it should hardly be a problem for the Palestinians to recognize Israel as the Jewish state.

However, Landau then goes on to explain that

“Abbas can never extend recognition to Israel as ‘the Jewish state,’ because there are close to 20 percent of Palestinians among Israel’s citizens and the recognition that Netanyahu demands of Israel as ‘the Jewish state’ would be considered, in Palestinian opinion, a betrayal of them.”

Landau probably knows all too well that the problem is not just “Palestinian opinion,” but rather the fact that the PLO claims to be “the sole legitimate representative of the entire Palestinian people” – which, as far as the Palestinians are concerned, includes Israel’s Arab citizens (irrespective of the question whether they regard themselves as Palestinians and want to be represented by the PLO). It is important to realize that Palestinian advocates have even used this claim to argue that a Palestinian state is not all that desirable since it could only represent its own citizens and not Palestinians who are citizens of other countries, including Israel. Similar notions about statehood requiring the Palestinians to give up on various claims and all sorts of imaginary “rights” are reflected in the views of many “one-state” proponents and in the vicious anti-Israel propaganda of sites like the Electronic Intifada.

Unfortunately for Landau, the fact that the Palestinians oppose the recognition of Israel as the Jewish state because they insist on representing Israel’s Arab citizens doesn’t really show that it is Netanyahu who is the “fundamentalist” here…

After all, there are plenty of states that define themselves in no uncertain terms as the nation state of a particular group, and as far as I know, nobody has yet thought of withholding recognition because there may also be minorities in this state that do not identify as part of the nation. Moreover, when we look around in the region, Israel is for sure the best place to live when you belong to a minority. Like minorities everywhere – including in Europe – Israel’s Arab citizens may have reason to complain about various disadvantages, but most are arguably better off than if they lived in a neighboring state as part of the Arab majority. In this context it’s also interesting to note that Palestinians don’t seem to have similar demands and claims towards Arab states with sizable Palestinian populations. Is it acceptable that Jordan is the “Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan” when at least two thirds of its population is Palestinian? Well, maybe Jordan doesn’t count, since it has already a Kuwaiti-born Palestinian queen… And indeed, we do know that the Palestinians didn’t demand a state while the West Bank was annexed by Jordan and Gaza was administered by Egypt. One could almost think that the Palestinians only start to have problems when Jews are involved.

Given Landau’s reference to the fact that the “United Nations spoke of a Jewish state and an Arab state back in the 1940s,” we might also recall – as Israel’s UN Ambassodor Ron Prosor recently noted – that “General Assembly resolution 181 (II) dividing the British Mandate over Palestine referred to the creation of a Jewish State 25 times.” It didn’t mention a Palestinian state because at the time, only few had ever heard of a “Palestinian people.” Even today, official Palestinian documents insist that “Palestine is part of the large Arab World, and the Palestinian people are part of the Arab Nation.”

Yet, Israel’s “fundamentalist” Prime Minister is willing to acknowledge that nowadays, the Palestinians regard themselves as a people that should have a state of their own. At a recent meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry in Rome, Netanyahu said: “peace is premised on mutual recognition, of two states for two peoples, of the Palestinian state for the Palestinian people mirrored by the Jewish state for the Jewish people.” Admittedly, he also mentioned the f-word, adding: “I think that’s fundamental for any peace”…

But while Netanyahu probably can’t say anything that would cause his left-wing critics to let go of their convenient bogeyman, Haviv Rettig Gur has recently argued – rightly, in my view – that Netanyahu’s demand that the Palestinians make peace with Israel as the Jewish state must be understood in the context of the well-documented Palestinian demonization of Israel as fundamentally illegitimate and evil.

As it turns out, not even a veteran Israeli dove like Jerusalem Post columnist Gershon Baskin can argue on a Palestinian website in favor of the demand to recognize Israel as the Jewish state. Baskin writes that he can’t quite understand why the Palestinians would find it so difficult to recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. But it’s not so hard to explain: the two major components of Palestinian identity are the very recent secular one which depends almost exclusively on implacable hostility to Israel, and the religious one which is based on centuries of Islamic imperialism and supremacism. Acknowledging that an ancient people like the Jews have any rights in their historic homeland will inevitably undermine both the secular and the religious component of Palestinian identity.

Two states for two peoples is a nice-sounding formula, but unfortunately, it’s not clear that the Palestinians have a strong enough identity to really feel as a people that can pull together for the difficult task of building a functioning state. Of course, Gaza is already a statelet, and the vast majority of Palestinians in the West Bank are living under the rule of a Palestinian administration that is recognized by most UN members as representing the Palestinian state. The bizarre make-belief quality of this UN recognition may well carry over to any future “peace” agreement; yet, since it would mean the end of Israel as we know it – and the end of Israel as the Jewish state – to absorb the Palestinians on the West Bank as Israeli citizens, I’m all for a solution that would somehow resolve the problem of Palestinian statelessness.

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First published at my JPost blog on October 25, 2013

Quote of the day

“Many people want to embrace the happy fantasy that the Palestinians are ready today to make peace if those nasty Israelis would just stop provoking them by building new settlements, and that if we in the West press Israel enough on the settlement question, peace will quickly come. […]

In our view, the real reason the peace process hasn’t succeeded in producing real peace is not that Israeli settlements keep Palestinians away from the table.

The real problem is exactly what it has been for sixty years: deeply rooted Palestinian opposition to a two-state solution. While many Palestinians are ready to accept that solution, many of those see it as only a temporary step on the road to a single, Palestinian state, and a very large group of Palestinians stands with the Hamas leadership in rejecting the legitimacy of Israel on any terms.”

Walter Russell Mead in a piece that should be required reading for the hordes of clueless pundits and politicians – first and foremost European politicians – who have been refusing to see what has been plain for a long time: “The Key to Peace: Selling The Two State Solution in Palestine.”

Over the years – yes, I’ve been blogging since late 2006 already – I have often written about Palestinian rejectionism, which is not only reflected in numerous opinion polls, but also in countless statements by Palestinian officials and intellectuals. A Guardian op-ed by Ahmad Samih Khalidi, who once served as a Palestinian negotiator, states the case perhaps most concisely under the apt title “Thanks, but no thanks.

Mead gives his own summary of Palestinian rejectionism and concludes:

“It may be that for these reasons, real peace is out of reach for now. In that case, the rational course might be to go for a lasting truce in which neither side gives up ultimate claims but accepts a pragmatic, medium term ‘cease fire in place.’ If carefully designed, that kind of practical arrangement could buy time while the search for a conclusive peace treaty continued.”

Maen Rashid Areikat wants you to imagine Palestine

Maen Rashid Areikat, who is the Chief PLO Representative to the US, has marked the 45th anniversary of the Six Day War with an article in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), where he asserts that “The Time for a Palestinian State Is Now.”

I largely agree with the concluding statement, where Areikat argues:

“It is in Israel’s vital interest to come to a complete resolution of the conflict between it and the Palestinian people sooner rather than later, relieving the weight of this tragic conflict from both of our peoples’ shoulders.”

However, pretty much everything else that Areikat writes in his relatively short article illustrates in my view why it is unfortunately unlikely that this conflict will be resolved any time soon.

The first part of Areikat’s article is taken up by what he describes as Palestinian achievements under an occupation that “only grew more inhumane with each turn of the year.” Areikat then invites his readers: “Imagine what Palestinians would accomplish if they were freed from the current constraints.”

The problem with this call to imagine a bright future for Palestine is that whatever the constraints imposed by the Israeli occupation, Areikat’s article illustrates all too well that the Palestinians are in no way ready to give up one all-defining and entirely self-imposed constraint: the idea that their identity centers in one way or another on being the long-suffering victim of a cruel and militaristic Israel which stands against everything that is good and right – and the implication is inevitably that everyone who is as good and right as the Palestinians must stand against Israel.

Thus, the PLO delegation’s stated dedication to “educational efforts aimed at fostering a better understanding of Palestine and Palestinians amongst the American public at large” is obviously viewed by Areikat and his staff as requiring them to present Israel in starkly negative terms.  It’s the same simple calculus that inspires much of the so-called pro-Palestinian activism: you will have a “better understanding” of how wonderful the Palestinians are once you understand just how utterly depraved the Israelis are…

Accordingly, the delegation’s website currently features – in addition to what is described as “Op-Ed by Ambassador Areikat” – two statements about the anniversary of the 1967 “naksa” (i.e. the setback of Israel’s victory) and the 1948 “nakba” (i.e. the catastrophe of Israel’s establishment), supplemented by a report on a BBC poll that shows Israel as ranking third among nations perceived as having a negative influence on the world; additional offerings include monthly reports monitoring supposed Israeli incitement.

Areikat’s  WSJ op-ed provides yet another variation on the implicit theme of a struggle between the Palestinian forces of light and the Israeli forces of darkness. Echoing the usual propaganda of anti-Israel activists, Areikat breezily claims that “Israel has hailed its victory as divine providence, a testament to its superiority that kindled a misplaced sense of entitlement for regional hegemony.” Areikat then claims that Israel’s military rule over the territories occupied in the wake of the war “only grew more inhumane with each turn of the year.” But according to him, the Palestinian faced all this in the most admirable way imaginable:

“Palestinians […] forged ahead to take charge of their own fate and reclaim their rights with determination and zeal. A relentless pursuit of education and self-empowerment became our telltale sign. Widely recognized as hard-working, educated, resourceful and entrepreneurial, Palestinians became the preferred candidates by employers across the Arab world and wherever else they migrated in search of opportunity.”

While Areikat wants his readers to imagine Palestine on the basis of this glowing picture, the glow quickly fades when the pathos-laden narrative is replaced by historical facts.

It is perhaps instructive to start with Areikat’s own official biography, which states that he was born on “October 12, 1960 in Jericho in the occupied West Bank.” However, in 1960, very few Palestinians would have regarded Jericho or the West Bank as “occupied.” After all, in late 1948, a group of Palestinian leaders had officially asked for the incorporation of the West Bank into the Jordanian kingdom, and Jordan annexed the area in April 1950.  (An English translation of an interesting Knesset debate on this issue in May 1950 is available here.)  The annexation also meant that the people living in the West Bank — as the area was then named by Jordan — became Jordanian citizens. Anis F. Kassim, an international law expert and practicing lawyer in Jordan, explained in an interview published in February 2011 by the Electronic Intifada (which, incidentally, is listed among the useful links on the website of the PLO delegation):

“on 20 December 1949, the Jordanian council of ministries amended the 1928 citizenship law such that all Palestinians who took refuge in Jordan or who remained in the western areas controlled by Jordan at the time of the law’s entry into force, became full Jordanian citizens for all legal purposes. The law did not discriminate between Palestinian refugees displaced from the areas that Israel occupied in 1948 and those of the area that the Jordanian authorities renamed the West Bank in 1950.”

So Maen Rashid Areikat was born in what most, if not all, residents of the West Bank – all of them Jordanian citizens – then regarded as a part of Jordan. It was only in July 1988 that Jordan ceded its claims to the West Bank in favor of the PLO – using the opportunity to deprive West Bank residents of their Jordanian citizenship. As Kassim put it:

“more than 1.5 million Palestinians went to bed on 31 July 1988 as Jordanian citizens, and woke up on 1 August 1988 as stateless persons.”

Just a few years later, in the framework of the Oslo process of the 1990’s, Jericho was, together with Gaza, designated to come under the administration of the newly established Palestinian Authority (PA) – indeed, the relevant agreement of April 1994 is also known as the “Gaza and Jericho First”-agreement, and it was in Jericho that Arafat was sworn in as head of the PA. Jericho is now one of the 16 administrative districts ruled by the PA.

One could be tempted to wonder if the establishment of the PA is one of the developments that motivated Areikat to claim that Israel’s occupation “only grew more inhumane with each turn of the year.”

But there are more inconvenient historical facts that Areikat prefers to ignore. As Ephraim Karsh  highlighted in an essay published 10 years ago, the supposedly “inhumane” Israeli occupation brought “astounding social and economic progress” for the residents of the former Egyptian- and Jordanian-ruled territories:

“At the inception of the occupation, conditions in the territories were quite dire. Life expectancy was low; malnutrition, infectious diseases, and child mortality were rife; and the level of education was very poor. Prior to the 1967 war, fewer than 60 percent of all male adults had been employed, with unemployment among refugees running as high as 83 percent. Within a brief period after the war, Israeli occupation had led to dramatic improvements in general well-being, placing the population of the territories ahead of most of their Arab neighbors.

In the economic sphere, most of this progress was the result of access to the far larger and more advanced Israeli economy: the number of Palestinians working in Israel rose from zero in 1967 to 66,000 in 1975 and 109,000 by 1986, accounting for 35 percent of the employed population of the West Bank and 45 percent in Gaza. Close to 2,000 industrial plants, employing almost half of the work force, were established in the territories under Israeli rule.

During the 1970’s, the West Bank and Gaza constituted the fourth fastest-growing economy in the world — ahead of such “wonders” as Singapore, Hong Kong, and Korea, and substantially ahead of Israel itself. Although GNP per capita grew somewhat more slowly, the rate was still high by international standards, with per-capita GNP expanding tenfold between 1968 and 1991 from $165 to $1,715 (compared with Jordan’s $1,050, Egypt’s $600, Turkey’s $1,630, and Tunisia’s $1,440). By 1999, Palestinian per-capita income was nearly double Syria’s, more than four times Yemen’s, and 10 percent higher than Jordan’s (one of the better off Arab states). Only the oil-rich Gulf states and Lebanon were more affluent.

Under Israeli rule, the Palestinians also made vast progress in social welfare. Perhaps most significantly, mortality rates in the West Bank and Gaza fell by more than two-thirds between 1970 and 1990, while life expectancy rose from 48 years in 1967 to 72 in 2000 (compared with an average of 68 years for all the countries of the Middle East and North Africa). Israeli medical programs reduced the infant-mortality rate of 60 per 1,000 live births in 1968 to 15 per 1,000 in 2000 (in Iraq the rate is 64, in Egypt 40, in Jordan 23, in Syria 22). And under a systematic program of inoculation, childhood diseases like polio, whooping cough, tetanus, and measles were eradicated.

No less remarkable were advances in the Palestinians’ standard of living. By 1986, 92.8 percent of the population in the West Bank and Gaza had electricity around the clock, as compared to 20.5 percent in 1967; 85 percent had running water in dwellings, as compared to 16 percent in 1967; 83.5 percent had electric or gas ranges for cooking, as compared to 4 percent in 1967; and so on for refrigerators, televisions, and cars.

Finally, and perhaps most strikingly, during the two decades preceding the intifada of the late 1980’s, the number of schoolchildren in the territories grew by 102 percent, and the number of classes by 99 percent, though the population itself had grown by only 28 percent. Even more dramatic was the progress in higher education. At the time of the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, not a single university existed in these territories. By the early 1990’s, there were seven such institutions, boasting some 16,500 students. Illiteracy rates dropped to 14 percent of adults over age 15, compared with 69 percent in Morocco, 61 percent in Egypt, 45 percent in Tunisia, and 44 percent in Syria.”

While it would probably be too much to expect Areikat or any other Palestinian official to acknowledge the facts listed by Karsh, the apparent Palestinian determination to demonize Israel can only cast a shadow on how we imagine the Palestinian state. What will happen with all the hatred against Israel that Palestinian officials like Areikat stoke even when they try to conjure a future Palestinian state in the brightest colors?

Palestinian officials don’t really have an answer to this, and that is arguably one reason why so far no Palestinian leader has been willing to accept the offers of statehood presented to the Palestinians at several occasions: anyone seen as responsible for negotiating a compromise with Israel has to fear for his life.

Leila Hilal’s bizarre defense of UNRWA

The question of who should qualify as a Palestinian refugee has recently received renewed attention due to an initiative by US Senator Mark Kirk (R-Illinois) that will require the State Department to report how many of the roughly five million Palestinians serviced by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) were actually displaced during the Arab war against Israel in 1948 and how many are descendants.

Alluding to the ensuing controversy, Zvika Krieger, Senior Vice President of The S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace and an Atlantic contributor, posted a tweet recommending a piece by Leila Hilal “on why UNWRA services refugee’s descendents .”

It is indeed useful to know Hilal’s views on the matter, because as a former legal adviser to the Palestinian Negotiations Department, she is now often quoted when the subject of Palestinian refugees comes up.

Given Hilal’s background, it is perhaps not surprising that the piece recommended by Krieger is entitled “Israeli Leader Wrongly Blames UN and Arab States for Palestinian Refugees.”

Hilal begins her piece with a somewhat lengthy attempt to discredit the Israeli leader mentioned in her title: Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon is described as a “Knesset member representing Yisrael Beitenieu [sic], an ultra-nationalist party” and Hilal claims misleadingly that Yisrael Beitenu “advocates the transfer of Palestinian citizens of Israel as part of a political settlement.” Presumably, this is meant as a reference to the so-called Lieberman Plan that envisages a land swap including populated areas – an idea that was first formulated in the mid-1990s by a left-wing researcher who, like many Israelis back then, mistakenly believed that all the rhetoric about how strongly Israel’s Arabs identified with their Palestinian brethren meant that they would be eager to become citizens of a Palestinian state.

Hilal then takes aim at Ayalon’s You Tube clip about the plight of Palestinian refugees, noting that it was removed from a French website for supposedly “violating guidelines against racist postings” – though, as Hilal’s own link to a post on the Point of no return blog  shows, this is again a somewhat misleading claim, because the French website failed to explain what was “potentially defamatory” or “potentially racist” about the clip.

Once Hilal gets around to spelling out her specific objections to Ayalon’s video, her readers encounter quite convoluted arguments. Let’s look at her first point:

“Ayalon’s primary criticism of the UNRWA is that it has failed to resolve a single case of Palestinian displacement, and that responsibility for the refugees should be handed over to the global refugee agency — the United Nations High Council for Refugees (UNHCR) — so that Palestinians can be treated somewhat like refugees from other crisis areas such as Bosnia, Congo, or Darfur. This would actually subvert his own argument for resettlement, though; UNHCR’s long-standing policy, based in international law, is that the preferred durable solution for refugees is voluntary return. […] In other words, if Palestinians were to be treated like refugees from Bosnia or other conflict zones, the international community would be forced to address their long-standing demand to choose whether to return to their place of origin — namely Israel.”

The first problem with this argument is that Israel is not considered the “place of origin” of the UNRWA-serviced Palestinians. UNRWA itself provides this definition:

“Under UNRWA’s operational definition, Palestine refugees are people whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, who lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict.”

UNRWA’s definition of refugees is of course unique because it requires only two years of residency and confers refugee-status even on people who actually remained in “Palestine” – that is to say, they would usually be considered internally displaced persons. But irrespective of the designation, the fact of the matter is that the Palestinians who fled the Arab war against Israel’s establishment since late 1947 left an area that became the territory of a state whose existence Palestinian and Arab leaders violently opposed for decades – up to now. This precluded their “right of return,” which is based on the willingness to “live at peace with their neighbours.”

Moreover, given UNRWA’s definition of “Palestine refugees”, one could argue that also Jews “whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, who lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict” should qualify for UNRWA assistance, since “[no] Jews were allowed to live in territories held by the Arab forces. Therefore the remaining Jews of Jerusalem, and those of Gush Etzion, Atarot, Neve Yaakov and kibbutzim in the Gaza strip were forced to evacuate their homes and leave their property without compensation.”

But unsurprisingly, Hilal objects to arguments “equating Jewish and Palestinian refugees” and at one point, she even asserts that there is a “fundamental distinction between the vast majority of Jews who left Arab countries and Palestinian refugees: whether Jews fled out of a fear of persecution or out of a desire to settle in Israel, they did not face a similar denial of the option of return.”

What she is trying to say here remains a riddle, since she cannot possibly be trying to claim that the Jewish refugees from Arab countries had “the option of return” to the ancient communities they fled due to officially sanctioned efforts to drive them out.

Hilal’s point is not much clearer when she claims that Ayalon’s criticism of UNRWA “ignores the fact that the agency is not mandated to find solutions for Palestinian refugees. UNRWA’s authority, given to it by the UN General Assembly, is limited to providing humanitarian and development assistance.”

Of course, this is exactly the point of Ayalon’s criticism: UNRWA isn’t there to find solutions for the Palestinian refugees; instead, the agency’s work allows the Arab states – whose war against Israel created the refugees – to dodge their responsibilities and maintain them as refugees for generations.

Hilal also complains that Ayalon “relies on archaic public statements from former pan-Arabist Egyptian President Gamel Abdel Nasser and long-passed UNRWA commissioners. Rather than quoting Arab leaders in 1969 or UN officials from the 1950s, Israeli officials should be honest about where the political conflict on the refugee question lies today.”

Again, it remains unclear what she means. I think many Israelis would agree that when it comes to “the political conflict on the refugee question…today,” the views expressed at the beginning of this year by Israeli politician Einat Wilf are not only “honest”, but also realistic:

“MK Wilf shared her own experience as a member of the peace camp who has grown skeptical in recent years, saying that when she hears Palestinian leaders insist that there exist five million refugees possessing a ‘right of turn’ into the sovereign state of Israel, she questions whether the Palestinians truly desire peace and accept the idea that the two state solution means two states for two peoples: Jews and Arabs.”

Moreover, when it comes to the question “where the political conflict on the refugee question lies today,” it is revealing that veteran Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat reportedly feared for his life in early 2011 when the leaked “Palestine Papers” seemed to indicate that among some other compromises, the Palestinian negotiating team considered “limiting the number of Palestinian refugees returning [to Israel] to 100,000 over 10 years.”

In this context, it is also interesting to note that both Europe’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Commissioner-General of UNRWA Filippo Grandi recently emphasized that UNRWA was proud to instill a sense of identity among the “refugee” children who are educated by the agency – and the context of the two relevant speeches leaves no doubt that both officials referred to a distinct “refugee” identity that would forestall the children’s desire to seek assimilation in the states they were born. This is particularly ironic given the fact that the Palestinian constitution of 2003 prominently asserts in Article 1:

“Palestine is part of the large Arab World, and the Palestinian people are part of the Arab Nation.”

If this is the case, what is wrong with calling on the “Arab Nation” to integrate the Palestinian refugees who have been living in their midst for generations?

Yet, Hilal concludes her piece by claiming:

“Ayalon’s video series simplifies and distorts the conflict with the hope of manipulating public perceptions in favor of rightist Israeli views. […] Whether Ayalon’s criticism is part of the traditional Israeli narrative on the refugee question or signals an intention to escalate attacks against the UN agency [i.e. UNRWA], his extremist interpretations and misrepresentations of the historical record and international law are a dangerous addition to the discourse on the conflict.”

But very different from what Krieger suggested when he recommended Hilal’s piece, her attacks against Ayalon in no way explain why UNRWA should be supported in the efforts to keep generations of Palestinians as “refugees” with only limited rights in the countries they were born. In one of the most candid and substantive articles published on this issue in the mainstream press in recent years, Judith Miller and David Samuels argued in 2009 in the Independent:

“After 60 years of failed wars, and failed peace, it is time to put politics aside and to insist that the basic rights of the Palestinian refugees in Arab countries be respected – whether or not their children’s children return to Haifa anytime soon. While Saudi Arabia may not wish to host Israeli tourists, it can easily afford to integrate the estimated 240,000 Palestinian refugees who already live in the kingdom – just as Egypt, which has received close to $60bn in US aid, and has a population of 81 million, can grant legal rights to an estimated 70,000 Palestinian refugees and their descendants. One can only imagine the outrage that the world community would rightly visit upon Israel if Israeli Arabs were subject to the vile discriminatory laws applied to Palestinians living in Arab countries. Surely, Palestinian Arabs can keep their own national dream alive in the countries where they were born, while also enjoying the freedom to work, vote and own property?”

For UNRWA supporters like Leila Hilal, these are apparently “extremist” views.

Last but not least, given the fact that Zvika Krieger is now Senior Vice President of The S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace and that he recommended Hilal’s bizarre defense of UNRWA, it is interesting to note that in August 2008, Ha’aretz columnist Akiva Eldar published a fascinating profile of S. Daniel Abraham under the title “In the business of peace – U.S. billionaire pursues his dream of Mideast peace.” Eldar claims that during a meeting with Abraham, he was shown two documents:

“One described a fascinating conversation Abraham had held with one of Israel’s leading rabbis. The second was a record of a meeting Abraham held half a year ago in the United States with a senior, influential Arab figure. The Israeli prime minister himself [i.e. Ehud Olmert] is very familiar with this document. Without violating the promise to keep its contents a secret, it can be said that it contains a practical, financial proposal for solving the Palestinian refugee problem – an offer even Benjamin Netanyahu would have trouble refusing.”

Sounds good – pity that it is kept a secret.

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Cross-posted from my JPost blog.

A professor holds forth on Israeli paranoia

Peter Beinart, author of the widely discussed – but apparently less widely read – book “The Crisis of Zionism,” can’t be held responsible for what his admirers write in their reviews. However, if an author tweets a review and highlights its complimentary character, I think it’s fair to conclude that he welcomes this review.

The review in question is published in the June issue of The New York Review of Books (NYRB) under the title “Israel in Peril.” It is written by David Shulman, Professor of Humanistic Studies at the Hebrew University;  as Shulman’s biographical note at NYRB adds, he is also “an activist in Ta’ayush,” a group that describes itself as “a grassroots movement of Arabs and Jews working to break down the walls of racism and segregation by constructing a true Arab-Jewish partnership.”

Shulman begins his review by ridiculing Israel’s response to a planned “Air Flotilla”  organized by various supposedly “pro-Palestinian” groups adamantly opposed to Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. Ignoring the fact that the “Air Flotilla” organizers were hoping to bring some 2000 activists to Ben Gurion airport, Shulman asks why “a handful of harmless demonstrators” should “elicit so severe a reaction” and he then proceeds to answer his own question by claiming that there is a “logic—that of the endless war between the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness—[that also] underlies Netanyahu’s constant dwelling on the Holocaust in relation to Iran.”

Shulman then goes on to claim:

“Like many Israelis, he [Netanyahu] inhabits a world where evil forces are always just about to annihilate the Jews, who must strike back in daring and heroic ways in order to snatch life from the jaws of death. I think that, like many other Israelis, he is in love with such a world and would reinvent it even if there were no serious threat from outside.”

So here you have it, from a professor of humanistic studies, no less: Those Jews – at least most of those Israeli Jews – are paranoid idiots who just love to imagine a world full of terrible threats that allows them to fantasize about their “daring and heroic ” defense against these threats. Moreover, in their stupidity, those paranoids don’t realize that it is their own policies – specifically the capital O Occupation of the West Bank – that pose the greatest peril for Israel’s continued existence as a Jewish state.

To be sure, I largely share the concerns about a one-state scenario that Shulman professes to have. However, it is not entirely clear if Shulman’s enthusiastic activism for Ta’ayush really reflects his commitment to a two-state solution. According to the organization’s own website, “Ta’ayush” is the Arabic word for “living together” and the group was founded in the fall of 2000 – that is to say at the beginning of the so-called Al-Aqsa intifada, about which I could find as little on the group’s website as about Palestinian terrorism and rejectionism in general. Indeed, it seems that Ta’ayush believes that its supposed goal of “constructing a true Arab-Jewish partnership” is best pursued by focusing exclusively on denouncing Israel’s policies in the West Bank, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the group also counts among its supporters an extremely controversial activist like Neve Gordon.

There is absolutely nothing on the Ta’ayush website that would contradict the conclusion that “the walls of racism and segregation” which the group wants to “break down” are all Israel’s fault. It should thus hardly come as a surprise that most of the Palestinians presented by David Shulman in his NYRB piece are helpless and destitute victims of Israel’s “malevolent campaign” to make their lives “as miserable as possible.” NYRB readers encounter a desperately poor “Palestinian widow with nine orphaned children” who, on a “freezing, rainy day,” is left “standing barefoot, still shocked and traumatized, in a neighbor’s tent” because Israel cruelly demolished her “ramshackle hut.” Then there is a cave-dwelling friend of Shulman, who – thanks to “benevolent” and generous European donors whose projects are opposed by Israel – gets to use a light bulb in his cave. According to Shulman, this prompted him to declare gratefully: “For the first time in my life, I feel like a complete human being.”

The message is clear: Palestinians are wonderful, simple, innocent people whose struggle to eke out a meager living is cruelly sabotaged by a malevolent Israel.

This one-dimensional view betrays not only hostility towards Israel, but also a profoundly patronizing attitude towards the Palestinians. A story posted by Shulman on the Ta’ayush website in April provides an excellent illustration.  After a detailed account of a day spent helping Palestinians to challenge Israeli restrictions on the use of land near a settlement, Shulman concludes his post by describing an encounter with some “village boys:”

“We linger in the wadi together with the sheep and the village boys. […] The village boys are into theology. “What’s your name?” they ask me. “Da’ud,” I say. “Named for the Prophet Da’ud! Are you a Muslim?” “No, I’m a Jew.” “Do you know how to pray?” “Maybe a little.” I can recite the Fatiha, the opening to the Qur’an. This makes a positive impression. “Sing it,” they say to me, “like the Mu’ezzin does.” I try. They correct me. It’s not so easy to get my voice to the upper register you need for the second phrase, but they seem happy with my efforts. “So why don’t you become a Muslim?” they ask me. “I don’t want to,” I say; “I already told you I’m a Jew.” “But on the Day of Judgment, yaum al-qiyama, only Muslims will go to Paradise, Al-Jannah, Firdaws; the rest will be burned in fire.” “I like the fire.”

They laugh. This has to be put to the test; they borrow a cigarette lighter and hold it to my finger. I fail the test. “Well, maybe we Jews won’t be thrown into the fire,” I say. “Maybe it will be cold there in Hell.” “No way!” They’re very certain. “Fire means fire. The believers and only the believers don’t get burned.” “OK,” I say, “but couldn’t a Jew also be a believer of some sort?” “Absolutely not.”

Now again: “So why don’t you take on Islam?” I’m having trouble explaining, in halting Arabic, the rationale of my choice. […] One thing we can all agree on: on the Day of Judgment, the settlers will be sent to the fire. The boys laugh again in the relief that certainty brings. Sinners are sinners, and God knows right from wrong.

I hope He does, though sometimes I’m not sure. Or maybe this is the definition of God, which we’ve arrived at together, gently teasing one another on this hill of rocks and thorns. It’s midday: a fierce sun offers a slight, still bearable taste of hellfire. I promise them that, infidel that I am, I’ll be back here next week or the one after.”

Just imagine what Shulman would write about an encounter with a group of Jewish village boys who would be “into theology” the same way these Muslim village boys are… Well, actually, there is no need to imagine much: if the boys came from a village in Judea or Samaria, Shulman already agreed with the Muslim village boys that “on the Day of Judgment, the settlers will be sent to the fire.”

That should count for something, coming from the Renee Lang Professor of Humanistic Studies at the Department of Comparative Religion at the Hebrew University…

It’s really a pity that the readers of Shulman’s piece in the NYRB will not know that this fierce critic of Israel reacts with amusement – and even seems enchanted – when he meets Muslim village boys who “are into theology” and are absolutely certain that non-Muslims deserve to burn in hell. Outside the Ivory Tower, many understand that millions of Muslim youngsters are brought up with this certainty, and that this has grim implications for minorities in the Muslim world and the well-documented endemic Muslim hostility towards Jews.

In stark contrast to Professor Shulman’s baseless assertions about the supposed eagerness of many Israeli Jews to indulge into paranoid fantasies about living in a hostile world, most Israelis dream of the day when Muslim youngsters will be brought up to accept Jews at least as believers “of some sort” who don’t deserve eternal hellfire.

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Cross-posted from my JPost blog.

Think Progress on preconditions for negotiations

A recent piece on the ThinkProgress blog offers a very critical take on the views expressed by US Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) about the negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. Graham had declared in a Fox News interview that he would like the US to “tell the Iranians, no negotiations, stop enriching, open up the site on the bottom of the mountain, a secret site. Then we will talk about lifting sanctions. You are not going to get to enrich uranium any more, period.”

Ali Gharib, national security reporter for ThinkProgress, characterized this as a “curious take on what it means to negotiate” and argued: “Graham’s position prompts one to ask: What’s the alternative to negotiations, since Graham is proposing pre-conditions that Iran would never meet?”

It is not clear if this is always Gharib’s view when it comes to preconditions for negotiations. A few days before he posted the piece on Graham, he wrote about the EU condemnation of Israel’s settlement policies. While he also noted that Palestinian Authority President Mahmood Abbas had “rebuffed” Israeli offers for talks without preconditions and was insisting on an Israeli settlement freeze, he didn’t highlight the continued Palestinian insistence on preconditions as particularly problematic. Indeed, since the piece concluded by noting that the “international community and the U.S. consider the settlements ‘illegitimate’” and that there had been many calls for “halting settlement activity,” the implication was that the Palestinian insistence on preconditions was ultimately justified.

The persistent obsession with the barely two percent of West Bank territory taken up by Israeli building beyond the so-called “Green Line” since 1967 has long been skillfully fed by the Palestinians and their supporters, who understand very well that the myth of the “ever-growing settlements” is an easy sell to audiences around the world eager to blame Israel for the lack of a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

By contrast, there is precious little interest in the fact that ever since former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert was left without a response to his far-reaching proposals in 2008, the Palestinians have done everything possible to avoid the resumption of negotiations. Insisting on preconditions has been part of their strategy.

Blogger Michael Koplow has an interesting post on this subject – even though his title “The Pitfalls of Preconditions” already indicates that he starts from the assumption that the Palestinians actually do want to negotiate. Koplow argues that the Palestinian “preconditions gambit” is a “negotiating mistake” and he points out:

“the Palestinian Authority committed the crucial mistake of setting preconditions before coming to the negotiating table. As every first year law student required to read the seminal negotiation treatise Getting To Yes can tell you, setting preconditions to negotiating is a tactic that almost always fails. The book’s very first lesson is not to bargain over positions as it is inefficient, damages the relationship between parties, and leads to bad agreements. Tactics such as setting preconditions and refusing to negotiate until they are met are fated to backfire if the objective is to reach an agreement, as the other side is likely to dig in and paint the refusal to negotiate as evidence of bad faith. Over time, the party setting the preconditions will become hostage to the perception that it has no interest in reaching a deal, and will then be forced to maintain its principled position even when events on the ground put it at a disadvantage or give up credibility and leverage by dropping its demand entirely. In short, setting preconditions before agreeing to negotiate an agreement is rarely going to be a winning strategy.”

However, at the end of his post, Koplow notes:

“The question is whether the PA actually wants to have serious negotiations at this point in time or is just looking to win a p.r. battle with Israel. If it’s the latter, then setting preconditions makes sense since it highlights Israeli settlement activity […] If the objective is to actually negotiate though, Abbas and Erekat need to wake up to the fact that setting preconditions is a terrible negotiating strategy that is fated to fail from the start.”

It is noteworthy in this context that by now, the list of Palestinian preconditions includes not only another freeze on construction in the territories Israel captured in 1967, but also the release of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails and the official recognition of the pre-1967 lines as basis for negotiations, implying their acceptance as a legitimate de-facto border.

Taken together with the repeated Palestinian rejections of serious offers to enable them to establish a state, this growing list of preconditions points to the conclusion that it’s not the Palestinians who “need to wake up to the fact that setting preconditions is a terrible negotiating strategy that is fated to fail from the start” – it’s the politicians and pundits who lazily ignore every indication that the Palestinians have no interest whatsoever in a negotiated two-state solution which would require them to give up on the fantasy of a “right of return.”

Pity the Palestinians

This past week, supporters of the Palestinian cause were once again out in full force to prove that with friends like them, Palestine needs no enemies.

The target of the assorted “friends” of Palestine was the American Task Force on Palestine (ATFP), which is arguably the one Palestinian-American organization with the most clout in Washington. I’ve written before about ATFP and the hypocrisy of its critics. The latest incident that got ATFP’s opponents all worked up are two photos showing ATFP president Ziad Asali attending an event hosted by Israel’s US Ambassador  Michael Oren to mark Israel’s Independence Day.

Inviting Asali to this event obviously implies respect, if not outright recognition for the agenda pursued by his organization. But since the ATFP advocates the establishment of a Palestinian state through negotiations, supporters of the Palestinian cause couldn’t care less. To show their displeasure with Asali, they are circulating a pathetic petition demanding his resignation.

This petition could well serve as a great illustration of much of what is wrong with popular “pro-Palestinian” activism, and in a response to the criticism against him, Asali puts his finger on one of the most important points. Under the title “The Lessons of the Nakba,” Asali recounts the experience of his own family and points out:

“I recount this not to bewail my fate, or to dwell in the past. The four generations of Palestinians who have lived and died in refugee camps are the real face of the Palestinian tragedy. It is fitting and proper to honor historical truths, but also to learn the lessons they teach us.

Israelis and Palestinians alike are two peoples who have experienced traumatic histories. We must never forget them. But we must not be held hostage by history either. We must care more about the future of our grandchildren than the past of our grandparents, or even ourselves.”

No doubt many Jews will have reservations about the equivalence between the “traumatic histories” of Israelis and Palestinians implied by Asali. But such entirely justified criticism should not distract from the fact that Asali’s broader vision is one that is largely shared by the Israeli mainstream and the vast majority of Jews in the US and elsewhere in the diaspora:

“We must work together to build a future in which both peoples can enjoy the rights, responsibilities and dignity of citizenship and self-determination. There is only one way to actually accomplish this: ending the occupation and creating a Palestinian state to live alongside Israel. Palestinians must recognize and accept Israel, which is a legitimate member state of the United Nations. The Palestinians must have one place on earth, the territories occupied in 1967, where they can live freely as first class citizens in their own independent state. There is no other way to end the cycle of bloodshed, pain and hatred has that lasted for so long.

To accomplish this, half measures and partial acknowledgment are insufficient. Both people must fully recognize each other’s national rights and states.”

And make no mistake: it is exactly this vision of two states living side by side in peace that most of Asali’s critics reject. It’s no coincidence that the petition against Asali was drawn up by Sa’ed Atshan, a Harvard Ph.D. candidate who is a proponent of the so-called “one-state solution” that aims at Israel’s abolition in favor of a bi-national state.

In this context, it’s interesting to note that the campaign against Asali and the ATFP is not only supported by the usual suspects from the lunatic fringes – see e.g. this piece at Mondoweiss, and the hate-filled comments that follow – but also by MJ Rosenberg, who is no longer with Media Matters and therefore free to write without even minimal constraints.

A state for everybody who needs one

I think I’ve made a startling discovery: The eminent political philosopher and public intellectual Michael Walzer is a Revisionist like Jabotinsky – at least when it comes to his views about the rights of a people to have a state of their own.

Writing in the Huffington Post series “Liberal Zionists Speak Out,” Walzer describes the central tenets of his own Zionism under the title “The State of Righteousness.”

“It is first of all the emotion-laden belief of someone who grew up during World War Two that the Jews need a state, and that this need is so critical and so urgent that it overrides whatever injustices statehood has brought. We still have to oppose the injustices with all the resources we can muster, but we can’t give up the State. So I participate vicariously in Israeli politics by supporting my social-democratic and peacenik friends. I want the state to be as good as it can be, but above all I want it to be.

My Zionism is also a universal statism. I think that everybody who needs a state should have one, not only the Jews but also the Armenians, the Kurds, the Tibetans, the South Sudanese — and the Palestinians. The modern state is the only effective agency for physical protection, economic management and welfare provision. What the most oppressed and impoverished people in the world today most need is a state of their own, a decent state acting on their behalf. I feel some hostility, therefore, toward people who want to ‘transcend’ the state — and I am especially hostile toward those who insist that the transcendence has to begin with the Jews.”

By coincidence, I came across Walzer’s piece on the same day I read an article by Oren Kessler who explored the legacy of Benzion Netanyahu’s political views for his son Binyamin Netanyahu. Since the elder Netanyahu was a follower of the Revisionist leader Zeev Jabotinsky, Kessler outlined Jabotinsky’s views and quoted from his famous “Iron Wall” article published in 1923:

“To Jabotinsky, a Jewish home in Palestine was justified by events past and present. The Romans had expelled the Jews from their homeland two millennia prior, condemning them to an eternity of wandering and depending on the sufferance of other peoples. Virtually every inhabitable corner of the globe was populated by someone, he wrote, and the Jews had historical, spiritual, and emotional ties to one land alone.

‘[S]elf-determination does not mean that if someone has seized a stretch of land it must remain in his possession for all time, and that he who was forcibly ejected from his land must always remain homeless,’ Jabotinsky wrote in his best-known work, the 1923 essay ‘The Iron Wall,’ which remains central to Revisionists’ ideas about Israeli defense policy to this day. ‘Self-determination means revision — such a revision of the distribution of the earth among the nations that those nations who have too much should have to give up some of it to those nations who have not enough or who have none, so that all should have some place on which to exercise their right of self-determination.’”

While Jabotinsky’s Revisionism is nowadays usually described as promoting hardline right-wing positions, his idea that there should be “a revision of the distribution of the earth among the nations” arguably reflects solid left-wing principles of fairness: those who have plenty “should have to give up some of it to those nations who have not enough or who have none, so that all should have some place on which to exercise their right of self-determination.”

One noteworthy aspect of the kind of national self-determination advocated by Jabotinsky here is that he obviously has no sympathy for the blood-and-soil nationalism that became so devastatingly popular among right-wing and fascist groups and that, unfortunately, is also a dominant theme in Palestinian nationalism. Instead, Jabotinsky’s call for a “revision of the distribution of the earth among the nations” ultimately reflects the same principle as Walzer’s liberal “universal statism” which envisages a world where “everybody who needs a state should have one.”

That the Jews needed a state should hardly be controversial given the long history of antisemitism in Europe and the Christian world. Similarly, Jews who lived in the Muslim world usually had to accept the second-class status of dhimmitude, and there are plenty of examples that document arbitrary persecution and anti-Jewish violence throughout the centuries. Eventually, it was the Arab League that provided yet more proof that the Jews did indeed need a state of their own when the organization proceeded in early 1948 to draft laws that, by singling out Jews for discriminatory measures, were reminiscent of the infamous anti-Jewish Nuremberg laws of the Nazis.

It is important to realize that the Jews who felt they needed a state – that is to say, the Zionists – wanted a state mainly for the reasons Walzer lists when he says:

“The modern state is the only effective agency for physical protection, economic management and welfare provision. What the most oppressed and impoverished people in the world today most need is a state of their own, a decent state acting on their behalf.”

By contrast, most Palestinians had, and continue to have, markedly different ideas about why they would like to have a state. The Arabs rejected the UN partition plan in 1947 because for them, a state alongside a Jewish state in Palestine was not worth having – in other words, for them, territorial demands and notions of basically feudalistic ties to land took precedence over all other considerations.

While this understanding would usually be thought of as right-wing, Palestinian demands are nowadays most ardently championed by the left – even if Palestinians openly describe their hardly progressive views. One of the most striking examples is an article by Ahmed Khalidi – a Senior Associate Member of St Antony’s College, Oxford, and former advisor for the Palestinian peace negotiators – who explained the Palestinian ambivalence about statehood in a 2007 Guardian article aptly entitled “Thanks, but no thanks”:

“But statehood as such is a relatively recent addition to Palestinian aspirations. The main Palestinian impetus after the disaster of 1948 was that of ‘return’; it was more about reversing the loss of Arab land and patrimony, than the fulfilment of classical post-colonial self-determination, via statehood.

Driven into national concussion by the catastrophic forced displacement of 1948 and up until the mid-1960s, the sense of a separate ‘Palestinian’ national identity all but disappeared. This ‘lost consciousness’ was only reversed by the emergence of Fatah under Yasser Arafat in the Arab diaspora in the late 1950s.

It was only after the 1967 debacle that a new Palestinian national identity began to take shape. At its core was the notion of the armed struggle as a galvanising force. Armed struggle, according to Fatah, restored Palestinian dignity and gave the Palestinians a say in determining their future.

Statehood and state building had no real place in this scheme. Indeed, the first tentative proposals to establish a state in Palestine (ie the West Bank) were rejected as defeatist and a betrayal of the national cause. This was certainly not an exercise in institution building, land acquisition and state building by stealth, as in the Zionist movement before 1948. After the 1973 war, Fatah’s leaders turned to the notion again. This was largely the result of a realistic reading of the balance of power and a recognition of the limits of what force, on the part of the Arab states or Palestinian irregulars, was likely to achieve. Eventually, in 1988, Arafat himself backed the idea of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders as a historic compromise […]

Today, the Palestinian state is largely a punitive construct devised by the Palestinian’s worst historical enemies; Israel and its implacable ally, the US. The intention behind the state today is to constrain Palestinian aspirations territorially, to force them to give up on their moral rights, renege on their history and submit to Israel’s diktats on fundamental issues of sovereignty.”

Khalidi concludes his piece by arguing that “Palestinians could simply continue to say no to a state that does nothing to address its [sic] basic needs. Either way, it’s hard to see how Israel can win this struggle in the long term.”

For Khalidi, the idea to prevent Israel from “winning” is apparently still crucial, and when he mentions Palestinian rights, territorial “aspirations” remain a central consideration. Khalidi also suggests that the Palestinians might be best off “by demanding equal civil rights to those of the Jews themselves” – not from the government of a state of their own, but from Israel, which, by granting those rights to millions of Palestinians, would of course cease to exist as a Jewish state.

The tasks of a modern state listed by Walzer don’t seem to figure much in Khalidi’s thinking and in the way he views Palestinian aspirations.

It is also noteworthy that the views and positions expressed by Khalidi are widely shared by most of the so-called pro-Palestinian activists campaigning for the Palestinian “cause” in the West – which means that most of them don’t campaign for a Palestinian state alongside Israel, but focus instead on delegitimizing Israel as a Jewish state and on insisting that the Palestinians should have “equal civil rights to those of the Jews themselves” in a state that would do away with Israel as a Jewish state.

Palestinian ambivalence about a state of their own is rarely taken into account when pundits ponder the reasons for the failure of the peace process. Arguably, this is not only because it is always easy and popular to blame Israel, but also because it is fairly awkward to acknowledge that there is little that can be done about this ambivalence:  the price of a Palestinian state alongside Israel would indeed mean giving up the “anti-Zionist” struggle that Khalidi rightly describes as so central for Palestinian national identity; at the same time, Palestinians have little reason to believe that they would then get “a decent state acting on their behalf,” because unfortunately, neither the Palestinian experience with Fatah or Hamas nor the experience in other Arab states encourages such hopes.


Wishful thinking for peace

In the wake of the death of Benzion Netanyahu a week ago, several excellent articles provided a welcome antidote to the ideological caricatures that have all too often passed as sensible writing about the political background of the elder Netanyahu and his son, Israel’s current prime minister.

The nonsense peddled by highly-paid pundits like Andrew Sullivan and Roger Cohen about the primitive racist hatred against Arabs that supposedly characterized the home in which Binyamin Netanyahu grew up was challenged already shortly before Benzion Netanyahu passed away, when Jordan Chandler Hirsch explained in a recent Tablet Magazine article that Sullivan and Cohen were getting Jabotinsky “all wrong”:

“As eager as Jabotinsky was to establish Jewish sovereignty, he was just as eager to make peace with the Arabs once they recognized the inevitability of the Jewish state.

Of course, you wouldn’t know any of this from recent critics, who, by reading history backwards from the present, have demonized and simplified Jabotinsky’s legacy to attack their current political foe, Netanyahu. But if Jabotinsky really is central to Bibi’s thinking, then perhaps those critics are as wrong about the present as they are about the past.”

Among the articles that addressed this subject after Benzion Netanyahu passed away, Yossi Klein Halevi’s piece – again in Tablet – offers another clear-headed and knowledgeable assessment of “Bibi’s Political Inheritance.” Outlining the debate between Revisionists and left-wing Zionists, Klein Halevi writes:

“All Zionists agreed that the Jewish character had been distorted by exile; the question was what aspects of that personality needed to be changed. Labor advocated a total overhaul: a secular socialist Jew, freed of piety and economic marginality, a farmer and a worker. Revisionism, though, had only one demand on the new Jew: Become a soldier. Jabotinsky didn’t care whether Jews were Orthodox or atheist, workers or businessmen—so long as they knew how to defend themselves.

A key component to self-defense is the ability to perceive threat. And with the rise of Nazism, Revisionism’s insistence on Jewish power became a war against Jewish complacency and self-delusion. In speeches across Eastern Europe, Jabotinsky urged young Jews to learn to shoot and prepare to get out. Es Brent a fire, he warned, a fire is burning. Destroy the exile before the exile destroys you. Jabotinsky’s opponents mocked him as a fear-monger.

Of all the divides separating Revisionism and Labor, the failure of the mainstream Zionist movement to sense the approaching abyss and attempt to rescue Europe’s Jews remained perhaps the most bitter. Zionism, the antidote to Jewish wishful thinking, had, under Labor, been guilty of that worst Diaspora character flaw, and at the worst moment in Jewish history.”

With the establishment of Israel, the Revisionists lost their fight against accepting only a part of the historic Jewish homeland, and according to Klein Halevi, what came to characterize Revisionism, “wasn’t so much ideology but sensibility”:

“Jewish naivete, Revisionists insisted, had been the indispensable partner of the Final Solution. That is what kept the victims from listening to Jabotinsky and fleeing in time. The Nazis played on Jewish hope, reassuring their victims through a series of linguistic deceptions that ended with the showers [i.e. euphemism for gas chambers]. What remained of Revisionism was its 11th commandment: Don’t be a fool. […]

The war between the heirs of Labor and the heirs of Revisionism is no longer over ideology, but sensibility. Labor won the debate over partition: A strong majority of Israelis backs a two-state solution. Yet that same majority wants the Labor ideology of partition to be implemented by the Revisionist sensibility of wariness. And that is what Benzion’s son has committed himself to do. Not to preserve greater Israel at all cost, but to negotiate a safe partition if that becomes possible. A partition without wishful thinking.”

It is arguably first and foremost the Israeli peace camp’s wishful thinking that has caused its downfall in the wake of the failed Camp David negotiations in 2000. While Israel’s left-wing critics at home and abroad like to complain endlessly about a supposed right-wing shift of the Israeli electorate, polls have long shown that there is broad Israeli support for a peace agreement that would create a Palestinian state in accordance with the Clinton parameters.

But as acknowledged in some recent articles, the Israeli public had much reason to give up on the promises of “peace now.” Earlier this year, Ha’aretz columnist Ari Shavit argued that “the old peace is dead” and that it had to be replaced by a new, “realistic peace.” Perhaps even more remarkable was a series of posts by Ha’aretz blogger Carlo Strenger. In an “Open Letter to Hamas,” Strenger observed in mid-March that Israelis have understandably concluded “that, in the end, there will always be a Palestinian group that will initiate violence.” In a post later in March, he turned to Peter Beinart, author of the recently published “Crisis of Zionism,” arguing that Beinart was wrong not to realize that

“the current situation […] reflects the mindset of Israel’s mainstream, including the moderate left. Most Israelis don’t like the occupation. Two thirds of Israeli citizens would leave the West Bank tomorrow if they thought they would get peace in return. But the combination between the second intifada and the shelling of southern Israel has made Israelis unwilling to take further risks for peace. They think that Palestinians cannot be trusted to maintain the safety of Israel, particularly since Hamas continues to be officially committed to Israel’s destruction.”

In early April, Strenger called on Jewish Liberals to “liberate themselves from self-righteous utopianism,” and he went so far as to argue:

“The left became a hated minority, and it is easy to explain psychologically why. Abraham Maslow, one of the founders of humanistic psychology, once argued that human needs are organized in a pyramid: First we take care of food, shelter and safety; after that we want to belong to a group; then we want to achieve status in this group; and only then we care about self-actualization and strive for lofty ideals.

Israelis accuse the left of demanding of them to think of lofty ethical ideals when they feel that the most basic need of safety is not assured.

It is, therefore, no wonder that they have not listened to us. The hatred for human rights organizations stems from this mistake [of the left]: You can’t ask people to compromise on their security in the name of lofty ideals.”

Then, writing on the occasion of Israel’s Independence Day, Strenger argued that, even though Israelis had every reason to look with pride at their state’s achievements in 64 years, the political debate was too often dominated by “hysteria:”

“The right thrives on it, but the left has been guilty of its own forms of hysteria. In its desire to reach peace now, the left often wanted too much, too quickly and didn’t take into account either the complexity of Israel’s internal composition or the complex, painful reality of the Arab world’s developmental problems.”

I think these posts offer a pretty frank and accurate assessment of the reasons for the decline of Israel’s left and the associated peace camp. What should perhaps be added to Strenger’s observation that the left “became a hated minority” is that there is another side to the coin: the left came to regard mainstream “Middle Israel” with hate and despise because, for good reason, it didn’t go along with the wishful thinking about “peace now.”

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Cross-posted from my JPost blog.