What Palestinians really want (A Western-Israeli obsession)

If you follow Israeli and American mainstream logic, all it takes for the occupation to end are a few nice words from Palestinian leaders.  

We have been asking the wrong questions: A popular debate in the days following the military escalation between Israel and Hamas had to do with the prospect of negotiations with Hamas, and whether the organization “has moderated.” In this conversation, evidence is tossed around from both sides in the forms of quotes from political figures, militants, supporters and spiritual leaders, followed by heated arguments over their meaning, context, quality of translation, status of the person in question, and so on.

Examples: The Times of Israel reported on a Gaza cleric who calls a violation of truce with Israel “sinful” and the Jerusalem Post reporting that Khaled Mashaal says he accepts a Palestinian state on ’67 borders; there is Jeffrey Goldberg in the New York Times, explaining why Hamas cannot be reasoned with, and a New York Times editorial reminding us that Hamas is “consumed with hatred for Israel.” These are just a few random links from recent days; such pieces – both reports and analysis – are everywhere, all the time.

I don’t claim to possess more knowledge than any of the above on the inner struggle within Hamas and the power balance between “moderates” and “hawks.” On a side note, the mere question betrays the real bias of the media: Even when criticizing Israeli policies, most journalists examine reality from the Israeli perspective, or more precisely, from the perspective of the Israeli elite. After all, nobody asks whether one should talk to Israel, or to certain parties who take part in the Israeli government, however extreme their opinions might be.

The desire to pick the “right” Palestinian leaders goes hand in hand with the obsession with things they say or think. Trying to crack the Palestinian mind is like a national sport in Israel: Is Hamas’ Khaled Mashaal ready to recognize Israel? Could his statement be translated and understood as permanent recognition, or just a temporary one? Did Mahmoud Abbas give up the Palestinian right of return? Will he recognize Israel? Will he recognize it as a Jewish state? And if he does, will he mean it?

In its most extreme moments, this discourse is driven by people who never met a Palestinian yet talk as if they have an intimate understanding of their psyche that only a Freudian shrink might claim to hold; at other times it’s the self-proclaimed advocates of peace who wonder “whether there is a partner.” There are NGOs and think tanks, journalists and publications who make it their goal in life to tell the world “what Palestinians really think,” with an emphasis on “really.”

These issues are not just discussed on the public level. I have witnessed this all too many times: The Israeli (or American) meeting a Palestinian in a “reconciliation” or “peace building” conversation which all too quickly takes the form of a political interrogation. The Palestinian might be a farmer whose problem is with the land he lost to the separation barrier, but he must have the “right” opinions regarding the final status of Jerusalem, the refugee problem and the historical legitimacy of Zionism before he can tell his story or state his claim.

In the saddest moments, the Palestinian will play along, hoping that if he does play by our rules, his claim will be recognized (it probably won’t, there are many other questions to answer). In other cases, the Palestinian refuses, and his interrogator can retreat to his comfort zone of self-righteousness. Mission accomplished.

The bottom line is that none of this matters. It’s all a huge red herring. Nothing a leader says now determines the way he will act in the future. Public statements are important only to a limited extent and agreements depend on the continued willingness of both sides to uphold them. As long as both parties feel that they benefit from a certain status quo, or that their interests are better served than by any alternative, the deal they reach could hold. If one party is coerced into signing but doesn’t have its interests and desires addressed, all the nice declarations won’t matter. Twenty years after the historic peace deal that should have ended the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but didn’t, you’d think that people would get it.

The arguments about the meaning and importance of the Hamas charter are all but identical to the decade-long debate over the PLO charter. How much effort and time was put into forcing Arafat to change it, and how little did it matter when negotiations collapsed in Camp David and violence returned. The same goes for today: Given the right pressure, a certain Palestinian leadership could be made to promise Israel anything. Yet none of it would matter if you don’t address the fundamentals of the conflict: The occupation, the refugees, the holy sites, the settlements, the access to land and to water. The leaders would change their minds and if they don’t new leaders (“more extreme”) will come. Reality will prevail over rhetoric.

The fact that the West – even many well-intentioned liberals – continues to put Palestinians through litmus tests before acknowledging their basic human rights is further evidence of how biased the political conversation is. Rights shouldn’t be conditioned – that’s why they are called “rights” – and if anything, it’s Israelis who should explain why they deny them from millions of people, not the other way around. Instead, again and again we hear demands regarding things Arabs say, or write, or think, or feel. Taken together, they all feel too much like an excuse to avoid treating the Palestinians like equal human beings.

In the next post: A better litmus test