Speak Plainly to Israel? How to Speak Plainly to the Palestinians, Too
Israel's prime minister, Benyamin Netanyahu, recently complained that the whole world makes demands upon Israel in the name of Middle East peace, but nobody demands anything of the Palestinians. We could add that Netanyahu's predecessors, too, demanded little of them. The Israeli approach to peace negotiations was to offer piecemeal concessions to the Palestinians, hoping for reciprocity.
Yet even Netanyahu has merely asked for Palestinian recognition of Israel as the nation state of the Jews. That is, he asks for a statement of words, which the Palestinians could ignore later on. By contrast, Israel faces demands to establish facts on the ground, such as the removal or at least the freezing of settlements. Thus Netanyahu, too, has not yet overcome the disproportion of demands.
In order to know what to demand of the Palestinians, one must first know what they want to get. Surprisingly, what exactly the Palestinians want is little known even in Israel. This is because the Israeli media pay little attention to Arab affairs in general. The average Israeli hardly hears more about the neighborhood, the Arab world, than does the average European or North American. This applies also to Israeli politicians and peace activists.
In the Palestinian media, by contrast, Palestinian wishes and intentions are made very clear. The fundamental Palestinian stance and negotiating strategy is found in countless speeches and articles. So I shall explain, first, what that Palestinian stance is. Second, why the Palestinians now refuse to negotiate. As we shall see, this is because the Quartet (US, EU, Russia and UN) has already conceded to them as much as they wanted to get from negotiations. Third, what demand has to be made of the Palestinians in order to oblige them to negotiate after all.
Already in the Palestinian parliamentary elections of 2006, all the competing parties, Hamas as well as Fatah, proclaimed their allegiance to what were called the three "national issues." These were: 1) Israel must withdraw to the lines preceding the Six Day Way; 2) the Palestinian state must be created with Jerusalem as its capital; 3) all the Palestinian refugees of 1948 and 1967, together with their millions of descendants, must be allowed to return to where they were living up to 1947.
There are only small differences of wording between those three "issues" and the so-called Arab peace initiative, adopted at the 2002 meeting of the Arab League in Beirut. The real difference is that the Arab initiative was not intended to be a basis of negotiations between Israel and the Arab states, but as a cop out. That is, the Arab leaders had long been pestered, especially by the US, to make some "contribution" to the peace process. Since 2002 they have been able to say: "We have made our statement, now stop bothering us and let us concentrate on our internal affairs." Their peace initiative reflects their unwillingness to take more than a token interest in the Palestinian cause, let alone open embassies in Israel.
Of those three Palestinian "issues," the so-called "international community" is obviously sympathetic to the first two but does not take the third one seriously, regarding it as absurd. So the Palestinian negotiating strategy has been to gain universal recognition of the first two "issues" while conceding nothing regarding the third. That would enable them to establish an internationally recognized state whose supreme aim would be to work for the return of the refugees, whether in international forums or by a return to violence.
That Palestinian strategy made steady progress, as Israel leaders vainly offered more and more concessions. It was crowned with success when Barack Obama made his recent statement that the borders of a Palestinian state would be the pre-1967 lines with "mutually agreed swaps." Echoed quickly by EU leaders, Obama made that statement in good faith but in ignorance.
The Palestinians can embrace that formula because they regard the reference to "mutually agreed swaps" as immaterial. The Palestinian strategy now is to feign acceptance of the formula, but to refuse any specific proposal for swaps. (Indeed, such proposals were already made by Israeli PMs Barak and Olmert, but always rejected.) So no amount of international cajoling in the present style will bring the Palestinians back to the negotiating table. For they have now achieved everything they wanted from going through the motions of negotiating.
So much is clear. But the situation is more problematic, because the Palestinians by no means mean what the "international community" thinks they mean by their three "issues."
Let us consider the first "issue," withdrawal. The official text of the Arab peace initiative explicitly demands withdrawal "to the June 4, 1967 lines" and this is the unbending Palestinian demand. It means the removal of hundreds of thousands of Jews not merely from Judea and Samaria but specifically from Jerusalem. The city currently has some 790,000 inhabitants. About a third of them consists of Jews within the 1967 lines, another third is Jews beyond those lines, and the last third is Arabs.
Thus the replacement of Jews beyond the 1967 lines by Arabs would create a sizable Arab majority in Jerusalem. The remaining Jewish neighborhoods would be hemmed in by Arabs ones to north, east and south. For almost all the new Jewish neighborhoods, which the media misleadingly describe as in "East Jerusalem," actually lie to the north and south of the pre-1967 city.
This explains how the Palestinians understand their second "issue." Whereas the Arab peace initiative speaks of "East Jerusalem" as the future Palestinian capital, the Palestinians themselves habitually talk of "Jerusalem" without qualification. For they envisage a time when Jerusalem will be wholly under their sway. Indeed, as I have pointed out elsewhere, Palestinians readily refer even to pre-1967 Israeli Jerusalem as "occupied" and to its Jewish inhabitants as "settlers."
This was confirmed recently in an opinion poll conducted by famed pollster Stanley Greenberg, with Palestinian help, for the Israel Project. When asked about Jerusalem, only 3% of Palestinians said that it should be the capital of both Israel and Palestine; a full 92% said that it should be the capital of Palestine alone.
That opinion should not be dismissed as a one-time anomaly, but taken most seriously: it is the long-established position of Palestinians in general. They will not settle for less, except as a temporary concession to be overcome later, as one of the priorities of the Palestinian state as soon as it exists. Like Israel, the Palestinians desire an undivided Jerusalem, but as their own exclusive capital with an Arab majority.
In that same poll, 66% of Palestinians said that their "real goal should be to start with a two-state solution but then move to it all being one Palestinian state." This brings us to the third "issue." The Palestinians commonly define it in the same words as the Arab peace initiative: "Achievement of a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem to be agreed upon in accordance with U.N. General Assembly Resolution 194."
To understand what they mean, here is the relevant clause of Resolution 194 of 1948. It reads: "Resolves that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible..."
Most people today, whether Israelis or the "international community," assume that this clause treats return and compensation as alternatives. Thus a few refugees might be permitted to return while the rest would be compensated.
The official Palestinian position, however, reads this clause differently. It is taken to mean that all of the refugees and their descendants must both be permitted to return and be fully compensated by the Israeli government. Moreover, if one studies the wording of the clause carefully, the Palestinian reading cannot easily be dismissed. The words "and for loss of or damage to property," etc., can be understood to refer to those who do return.
I first came across the Palestinian reading in an article in the Jerusalem Times of October 13, 2000, entitled "Compensation: no alternative to right of return." This was an interview with Jamal Al-Shati Al-Hindi, the President of the Refugee Committee of the Palestinian Legislative Council (parliament). In view of his official position, his definition of the "issue" is authoritative.
He stated: "I would like to stress that the Palestinian stance is unchanged and that we cling to all national issues, especially the issue of refugees. We want everybody to benefit by the right to return as outlined in UN Resolution 194. The national rights that we demand are the minimum we are entitled to, not the maximum... We as Palestinians confirm that the issue of refugees is the foremost one and confirm that the right to return is a sacred right subject to no change. Resolution 194 is clear and reveals undeniable human rights... Compensation is complementary to return, not an alternative to it. Talk about compensation as an alternative to return is a challenge to the will of the Palestinian people. The right to return is a sacred one and any agreement that does not include it is void."
This interview was given just as the second Palestinian intifada was breaking out, but before negotiations between Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat broke down in January 2001. Barak later affirmed that the refugee issue was the ultimate sticking point. Unusually, the interview with Al-Hindi stated the Palestinian position in English, but the same position can be found in statements in the Palestinian Arab media by similarly authoritative figures. Every Palestinian is supposed to know it.
Needless to say, to grant the Palestinians this "issue" would be to bankrupt the State of Israel in order to create an Arab majority there, not merely in Jerusalem. And the long-term aim and commitment of Palestinian policy is nothing less.
So what blinds the "international community" to the real position and intentions of the Palestinians? The culprit is what I termed the "Dogmatic Chant" in an article published eight years ago. The Dogmatic Chant is the sum total of popular wisdom about the Arab-Israeli conflict and runs as follows: "The Palestinians must end terrorism, the Israelis must totally freeze settlement activities, then there can quickly arise a Palestinian state whose borders will approximate the 1967 lines and the Middle East will know peace at last!"
This is a dogma, since it is asserted irrespective of the true intentions of the Palestinians, as revealed above, and indeed irrespective of anything that ever happens in the Middle East and all facts whatsoever. And it is chanted in unison in thousands upon thousands of speeches by politicians and articles by journalists and academics. I quoted recent examples from Thomas L. Friedman, George W. Bush, Tony Blair and Jack Straw. But the reader will find her own examples everywhere. In many cases, the reader himself has joined in the chant.
It was also the basic assumption of the Road Map, which therefore led nowhere, and it underlies the ineffectual discussions of the Quartet. But as long as it guides all thought about Middle East peace, there will be no peace.
The Dogmatic Chant is also what misled Barack Obama into the wild goose chase of a freeze on Israeli settlement activity. After Hamas seized control of Gaza, terrorist activity in the West Bank almost disappeared, because the Palestinian and Israeli security services now cooperated closely against Hamas. In the absence of Palestinian terrorism, according to the Dogmatic Chant, the last remaining obstacle to peace is any Jewish settlement activity. Hence the escalating worldwide frenzy against settlements.
Hence, too, the lack of response by Mahmoud Abbas to the ten-month freeze on settlements implemented by Netanyahu and Barak. Likewise, a permanent freeze on settlements would lead to a permanent boycott of negotiations by the Palestinians. For they would know that further negotiations could bring them no further gains. Further negotiations would mean tackling the refugee issue, where the Palestinian position lacks international support except from the Arab states and NGOs.
The fundamental flaw of the Dogmatic Chant is that it takes no account of the Palestinian understanding of their "national issues." So what should replace that chant as the basis of the search for peace? Our cue should be taken from Al-Hindi's statement: "We as Palestinians confirm that the issue of refugees is the foremost one..."
It will not be enough, however, to persuade the Palestinians to say something different about the refugees. Already the moribund Geneva Accord, which survives merely as an online data bank of wishful thinking, contained a formulation on the refugees which could be differently understood by Palestinians and Israelis. Nor will it be enough, though it is necessary, to oblige the Palestinians to remove from their constitution the clause that asserts the right of return of all refugees.
Rather, the Palestinians must be demanded to do something on the ground that constitutes abandonment of the claim of return. And what they have to do is, actually, easy to say.
Nearly two million officially designated refugees live in the areas of the Palestinian Authority (PA), but of these about half a million in Gaza and two hundred thousand in the West Bank are located in the nineteen refugee camps. The rest are already living amid the general population.
So this is what should be plainly said to the Palestinian Authority: that it must agree to begin, now, the rehabilitation of the remaining camp dwellers. But if it refuses, then forget about any further freezing of Jewish settlement. That is, the counterpart of Jewish settlement is not Palestinian terrorism, as the Dogmatic Chant claims, but the insistence of the PA on maintaining refugee camps. Let this be the new chant.
The smallest camps have a mere two thousand inhabitants, so a start can be made by choosing one of them. Once this rehabilitation program begins, the PA itself will have negated the principle of the right of return and the spell will be broken.
It is in any case disgusting that the PA keeps these people living in squalor. This is actually the greatest violation of human rights in the area, but no Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch or Christian Aid cares to mention it.
Moreover, the means of persuading the PA are available. It is variously estimated that between 50% and 80% of the Palestinian economy depends on foreign donors. Right now, the PA is so short of donations that it is paying its employees only half salaries. This, after exhausting its ability to pay overdue salaries by borrowing from banks.
Also the US and EU are the main financers of the refugee camps via UNWRA. It would be enough for the donors to make donations dependent on using their money to rehabilitate the camp populations, instead of spending the same money on perpetuating the camps – and thereby perpetuating the conflict.
Where Palestinians are living under a Palestinian government in Palestine, the role of UNWRA should be phased out. UNWRA's function should be restricted to where Palestinian refugees live as foreigners in other Arab countries.
Ideally, the "international community" (or its local agent, Tony Blair) would adopt that approach on its own initiative. The idea was already broached by Andrew Whitley in November 2010, when he was about to retire as the director of UNWRA's New York office.
It is unlikely to happen, however, unless one – or preferably both – of Netanyahu and Tzipi Livni make that demand first. Unfortunately, Israeli political leaders prefer to blame each other for the absence of peace negotiations rather than cooperating in the general interest.
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