April 20, 2010
Seeking Honesty in the Middle East
Of all the players that took part in the recent Israel-United States flair-up, I find President Obama to be the most straightforward.
My interpretation of what the president was telling Israel is as follows:
“I am prepared to live with a nuclear Iran, but, to contain it, I need the cooperation of the Arab rulers. As you know, cooperation in this part of the world sways with street tantrums and news broadcasts — this is the reality on the ground. We lost the war of ideas to Al Jazeera rhetoric, and we must pursue an appearance of an ongoing peace process.
“I said ‘appearance’ because I am not naive, and I know that the Arabs are not prepared to accept the idea of a permanent Israel; perhaps they never will — it goes against everything they have been taught.
Still, I now need their support and your cooperation.
“You see, the only thing that will tame anti-American sentiments in this part of the world, at least partially, is the prospect that American pressure will bring about a Palestinian state and the delusion that such a state will become a sheltered launching pad for a renewed armed struggle against Israel, for the ‘liberation of all of Palestine.’ I read what they are saying, and I will not let this happen, but, in the meantime, we need to act as though a peace process has a chance to succeed.”
We may disagree with the president’s assessment of his ability to prevent the creation of a perpetually hostile state next to Israel, or anyone’s ability to protect Israel once such an entity is formed, but he was at least straightforward in his assessment, priorities and goals.
The Palestinians were not as honest as the president. Empowered by his overtures, they immediately blamed Israel for spoiling the very negotiations that they refused to enter. From Morocco to the Gulf states, a heart-wrenching outcry emerged: “SOS! Israel has just killed the two-state dream!” One would think that Arabs had been yearning for this dream since 1947 but somehow kept it secret from Israel and their children.
Netanyahu, too, was less than honest. Instead of expressing the genuine eagerness of the Israeli public to extend every gesture of goodwill needed to evoke a reciprocal gesture from the other side, he made it appear as though the very notion of a two-state solution is a novelty to Israeli society, a painful concession extracted under pressure. Instead of shifting the spotlight toward a meaningful Palestinian concession, one that the world would deem necessary to jumpstart direct negotiations, he dug himself in even deeper behind imaginary red lines and has kept world attention focused on Israel’s next move.
The Israeli public is prepared to give Netanyahu a mandate to offer an air-tight, albeit temporary, freeze on all construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, if that would lead to direct negotiations toward an “end of conflict.” A strictly enforced all-inclusive freeze, even for a period of two weeks, would have given a clear signal that Israel means business and that the ball is in the Palestinian court to come up with reciprocal trust-building signals.
Two weeks may sound like a meaningless concession. It is not. A conditionally extendable two-week freeze can jolt international reporters into the realization that Palestinians, too, need to transmit trust-building signals of intention, something the world has ceased to expect.
Two weeks is not a short time if the conditions for extension are compelling, symbolic and clearly spelled out. For example:
1. A one-week extension for every program on Palestinian TV that features a moral or historical justification of the two-state solution.
2. A two-week extension for every refugee camp that is converted into a West-Bank settlement of permanent housing for its residents.
I do not know anyone who would regard such trust-building demands to be “excessive” or “unrealistic,” considering that the declared purpose of the negotiations is a lasting peace and that the main obstacle
so far has been Palestinians’ total silence, in fact blackout, on what “lasting peace” means to them. Such demands would go a long way toward focusing world’s attention on the real, unspoken elephant of the conflict — the inability of one side to utter the words “end of conflict.”
Seeking honesty, there is in fact a way to find out what Palestinians mean by “peace”; they express it in English, here in America.
Last month, I had the surrealistic experience of listening to a debate on NPR between Omar Barghouti, a founding member of the anti-Israeli divestment campaign (BDS), and Rabbi Arthur Waskow, director of the Shalom Center, who objects to divestment from Israel because it hampers other efforts to lift the occupation. Barghouti had no qualms whatsoever divulging the real aims of the boycott effort. “It is aimed against the occupation, as well as Israel’s system of apartheid against its non-Jewish citizens, and the third and foremost [aim] is Israel’s denial of the Palestinian refugees right to return to their homes.” Rabbi Waskow kept talking about lifting the occupation, and Barghouti kept reminding him: “This is not just about the occupation, the main issue is the refugees; simply ending the occupation is not acceptable.”
And so the conversation continued, with Rabbi Waskow promising an end to occupation and Barghouti demanding an end to Israel. One cannot but admire the capacity of Jewish peace seekers to not hear Palestinians when they clearly state their demands and freely confess their intentions.
Readers may have had a chance to witness the intentions of Palestinians in recent days, as editors of American newspapers use Israel’s Independence Day as an occasion to invite Arab intellectuals to tell us why Israel should not exist, an annual journalistic ritual on which I have written in the past (Jewish Journal, “The Down With Israel Syndrome,” August 2008).
On April 20, the day following my writing of these words, I expected to be witnessing Palestinian intentions at UCLA’s annual celebration of Israel’s birthday, where protesters usually carry anti-Israel hate posters. I usually enjoy their company, and this year I planned to tell them why.
“Dear cousins,” I would say, “I can’t tell you how much your presence adds to this celebration. We have gathered here, faculty, students and the general public, to celebrate the greatest miracle of the 20th century and the moral consciousness of the 21st. It is a triple miracle for us: rebirth, survival and creative accomplishments.
“Your presence here makes the achievement of Israel doubly impressive. First, because it reminds us that her accomplishments took shape under 62 years of relentless denial of normalcy.
“Second, your efforts to delegitimize Israel unveil to the world the core reason why this conflict has been lingering on for 62 years, when it could have been resolved in November of 1947, with no refugees and a Palestinian state roughly the size of Israel.
“Finally, your presence reminds us that the Zionist dream is not over yet, and that the historical process that led to Israel’s rebirth in 1948 must go on until peace is achieved between our two people. And your posters reveal to us precisely what needs to be done.
“Let us hope that next year, at this very plaza, your posters will match ours and will say out loud: ‘Two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side, equally legitimate and equally indigenous.’
“Please repeat with me if you want this dream to become a reality, ‘equally legitimate and equally indigenous:’
“Shehechyanu vekiyemanu vehigianu lazman hazeh.”
Judea Pearl is a professor at UCLA and president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation (danielpearl.org), named after his son. He is a co-editor of “I Am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl” (Jewish Lights, 2004), winner of the National Jewish Book Award.