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.