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What the West gets wrong on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Netanyahu’s oft-heard statements asking the Palestinians to prove they want peace reveals a fundamental disconnect in the Western world’s approach to the conflict: Israelis want peace, but Palestinians are struggling for freedom.

By Mitchell Plitnick

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) stands with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, at his residence in Jerusalem, Israel, Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2010. (Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) stands with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, at his residence in Jerusalem, Israel, Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2010. (Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

On April 21, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that the Palestinians must prove that they want peace. “I think the first test of peace is to say to them, ‘Hey, you want peace? Prove it,” Netanyahu told Fox News’ Sean Hannity.

This is very typical of Netanyahu’s statements on peace over the years. But perhaps it’s time to consider the issue too rarely discussed by those of us who work for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. The government’s actions aside, most Israelis do very much want peace. But on the Palestinian side, again setting aside the statements of Palestinian Authority leaders, peace is not at the top of the agenda.

This is one of the biggest, most fundamental disconnects in the Western approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Palestinians are not struggling for peace; they are struggling for freedom. That struggle may be against second-class citizenship for Palestinian citizens of Israel, the expansion of settlements and land confiscation in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, or the strangling siege in Gaza. But in all cases, it comes down to a struggle for freedom and a future where today’s Palestinians and future generations can forge their own future outside the yoke of Israel.

This goes beyond the obvious hypocrisy Netanyahu displays on a regular basis. His occasional statements of support for two states are empty, as he makes clear when he routinely accompanies them with qualifiers such as the need for Israel to maintain control over the Jordan Valley.

Indeed, many Palestinians hear Israeli desires for peace as nothing more than a preference for Palestinians to acquiesce in their own oppression. That view may ring false for many Israelis, but when Israel issues extraordinary demands on the Palestinians, it’s an unavoidable interpretation.

One such demand is that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Not only is this unheard of in the annals of diplomacy, it is also a demand not being made of anyone but the Palestinians—the one group of people for whom it has the meaning of justifying their own dispossession and suffering for the past 69 years. Israel makes this demand simply to obstruct any progress toward resolving the conflict.

What Trump fails to understand

This is what Donald Trump fails to understand: there are many good reasons why there is no peace between Israel and the Palestinians. We can discuss the difficulties presented by a negotiating framework that treats an occupying power and an occupied people equally. We can discuss Israel’s strategic importance to many other countries, not only the U.S., while the Palestinians offer little. We can discuss the power of the all-too-justifiable global guilt over the Holocaust, the idea of “Never Again,” a slogan that seems to have, tragically, lost all of its universalism.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with President Donald Trump in Washington, D.C., February 15, 2017. (Avi Ohayon/GPO)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with President Donald Trump in Washington, D.C., February 15, 2017. (Avi Ohayon/GPO)

But all of these reasons come back to the same point: Israeli and Palestinian goals are not the same. Moreover, both sides fear the realization of the other’s goals. Palestinians have noted that settlement expansion has continued apace regardless of the level of violence. Thus, they fear that peace will just bring more dispossession while the world is satisfied with the quiescent region.

Israelis, meanwhile, fear that Palestinians want not only their own freedom but to control the entire area that was Mandatory Palestine under British rule before 1948 and, therefore, to limit or even eliminate the Jewish presence there today. They worry that a Palestinian state on the West Bank would be much worse than the Hamas-run Gaza Strip and could serve as a launching pad for much larger attacks, in coordination with other Arab states, on Israel’s main population centers.

An outside arbiter has always been necessary

It doesn’t really matter, for these purposes, how realistic the fears of either side may be. What matters is the political force that they have. This is why an outside arbiter has always been necessary. When push comes to shove, both Israelis and Palestinians need to be alternately prodded and reassured if there is to be a resolution of this conflict.

But to be effective, such an arbiter must also be cognizant of the realities. Such an outsider must understand that Israel is a highly valued member of the global economy and the global military-industrial complex. It must be dealt with on that level, but even then, any realistic arbiter must also understand that Israel still needs its allies more than its allies need it. That is true for the United States, and for other countries as well.

That arbiter must also understand that, in order to resolve this conflict, Palestinian freedom must be valued as highly as the freedom and rights of any other people. Palestinians are certainly aware of the far greater military, diplomatic, economic, and political power Israel has. But they have demonstrated that, although willing to compromise, they are not willing to accept second-class status just because they have the weaker hand.

A successful arbiter will understand that the fears of each side do not diminish the rights of the other. Whatever the Palestinians believe about Israeli motives and plans, they do not have the right to attack Israeli civilians and kill or injure them. Whatever Israelis think about Palestinian intentions in the long run, they do not have the right to continue depriving millions of innocent people of the basic rights and freedoms we all take for granted.

Abbas and Trump

This week, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas came to Washington to meet with President Donald Trump. Abbas’ ambassador to the United States, Husam Zomlot, recently said, “When you have a president who from day one commits himself to peace, and invests time and effort in reaching a solution, that’s the definition of a historic opportunity. President Trump has the political capital, the relationships with all the parties involved, and the will to actually achieve this goal.”

The Palestinian leadership is understandably desperate in believing there is hope with Trump. But whether one agrees with Zomlot’s assessment or not, Trump certainly does have more political space to arbitrate this conflict than his predecessor, Barack Obama did. Trump is not likely to face the kind of attacks from the Right Obama did. And if he makes any credible progress, it would be difficult for Democrats and even pro-Israel lobbying groups to stand against him.

But few, aside from Abbas’ government, seem to believe that is what Trump actually intends. His close relationship with Netanyahu and recent actions by both Israel and the United States seem to suggest otherwise.

Even if Zomlot and Abbas are correct about Trump’s intentions, does he have the understanding of the conflict that would be needed for success? He would need to understand that it is Israel that wants peace and the Palestinians who want freedom. That is an understanding that has generally eluded US leaders from the first. It is hard to imagine that Trump would be the one to break that pattern.

Mitchell Plitnick is former vice president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace. He is the former director of the U.S. Office of B’Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, and was previously the director of education and policy for Jewish Voice for Peace. This article was first published on Lobelog.com.

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    1. West is a culture, a civilization, and a way of life that is dangerously devoid of true faith in God, fear of God, and the sense of accountability on the Day of Judgment. As such, the West will never take the issue of honesty, sincerity, and commitment to promote and uphold these principles seriously. That is why the history of the West is full of injustice, brutality, exploitation in the name of expansionism, mercantilism, capitalism, colonialism, imperialism, secularism and democracy. They understand truth of everything, yet will not and could not uphold the rope of it effectively, sincerely, honestly and with 100% commitment.Thus, the world is experiencing a hopeless situation dealing with issues of life.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Lewis from Afula

      My solution is simple. End the 6 day war. This means sending ALL the Jordanian squatters back home. End the problem.

      Reply to Comment
    3. i_like_ike52

      Mitchell says: “The Palestinians are not struggling for peace; they are struggling for freedom.”
      He is quite right. The “progressive” Left has been deluding themselves for years that the Palestinians are struggling for “self-determination” and that giving them a claustrophobic, truncated state in the West Bank and Gaza will satisfy them. Mitchell is right. They are fighting for freedom. The question is “what does ‘freedom’ mean for the Palestinians’. It means getting what they believe is justice and dignity. As they see it, this can only be achieved by the eradication of Israel and the removal of the Jewish population of Israel.
      Even should Israel retreat to the pre-67 lines and should an independent Palestinian state arise in the West Bank and Gaza, the humiliation the Palestinians feel (and the rest of the Arab world for that matter) due to Israel’s defeat of the Arabs in the 1948 War of Independence would still be very real. Israel would still dominate them economically and they would look westward to the coastal plain and see the tall buildings of flourishing Tel Aviv which would only reinforce their feelings of inferiority when comparing this to their own situation.
      Thus, Mitchell is right, people do get the whole Arab-Israel conflict wrong, and he is one of them.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        Yup, Mitchell is right. And your reactionary negativism and fiction writing is as predictable as it is wrong.
        For all the reasons of elasticity and good will building and promotion of moderates in a different political and economic landscape, political evolution, realism, acceptance (by BOTH sides) that what you want and what you get are two different things, etc., you are wrong.
        As you were wrong here where you essentially do the same naysaying thing:

        It is very easy to make something not work. Israel wants to make things not work. Only outside pressure will change Israel’s calculus of the cost and benefits of the occupation.

        Reply to Comment
    4. Itshak Gordin Halevy

      It seems that Abbas is a negationist. What a shame. Can Israel speak with him?

      Reply to Comment
    5. You write a very curious, unreasonable thing, namely, that (some) Israelis fear that the Palestinians want this-and-that. Why would any Israeli fear any such thing? The Palestinians are powerless to bring anything about.

      That said, and nevertheless, there are things Israel could do if it truly wished to satisfy one particular Palestinian desire, namely, the desire to (re-) partition Mandatory Palestine into two states, both democratic, both non-discriminatory (as to religion, nationality, etc.), and both of which will provide a “right of return” to Palestinian refugees/exiles from 1948 and/or 1967 (PRoR), where PRoR means a right extended to a refugee/exile to return to the country whose borders embrace the village or other place from which the refugee/exile became a refugee/exile.

      Furthermore, they can do this in such a way as to assure themselves that one of these two states, which they may call “Israel”, would continue to have a decidedly Jewish-majority population. It could be what it is not today — democratic and majority-Jewish.

      Israel need not fear this desire by Palestinians. It can deal with it!

      “How?” you ask!

      Easily. Israel may select (within the greater territory of Mandatory Palestine) a small territory for the Jewish state, a territory from which relatively few refugees/exiles from 1948 & 1967 became refugees/exiles. And the Jewish Israelis from today’s greater Israel can move into this (smaller) territory, and the Palestinians can have all the rest of Mandatory Palestine, and the Palestinian exiles/refugees (now living in Gaza, in Lebanon, in Jordan, in Syria, etc.) can “return” to whichever of these two territories they came from originally. Since the territory of this smaller Israel will be far smaller even than Israel-48, the number of Palestinians eligible to return under PRoR to this smaller territory (to live as full citizens in a non-discriminatory state of Israel) will not overwhelm Israel’s Jewish majority there.


      Of course, many Israelis don’t want to live in a smaller state! They want a great big state, say a state as large as all of Mandatory Palestine, as large as the de facto apartheid state of Israel is today.

      But in any case, there was no reason, none at all, for Israelis to fear what Palestinians want. Israel is powerful enough to ignore/defeat whatever Palestinians may desire. They’ve been doing that since 1948. Nothing new in that story. Not peace. Not justice. Vicious, brutally imposed Apartheid — imposed violently at the end of an Israeli gun’s barrel.

      Reply to Comment
      • Itshak Gordin Halevy

        Why apartheid? A wide majority of “Palestinian” Arabs live in the “Palestinian” authority. There is also a “Palestinian” State in Gaza. A third one is Jordan where they are the 70 % of the population.

        Reply to Comment

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