Stop Palestinian denial of Jewish peoplehood

The debate over incitement may seem sterile. Distinctions can be made between naming schools and summer camps after suicide bombers, as Palestinian leaders do, and Israeli leaders speaking about Arabs in a disparaging, even violent way. But these distinctions often sound like debating points that have little relevance to the practical pursuit of peace…

AN ISRAELI VIEW by Saul Singer

Incitement, however, is much more important than it looks. It impacts on two levels–creating a climate of violence, and preventing fundamental movement toward peace. Incitement is not just a barometer that can predict inclement weather ahead, but a significant factor at seeding the storm clouds that it measures.

To see this, we must compare the climates for peace on each side. Israel, over the years, has gone through a sea change. As late as 1990, the Israeli consensus believed that an independent Palestinian state was an existential threat. Even the Labor party would not speak of it openly. Outgoing US Secretary of State George Shultz reflected this consensus when he predicted in 1988 that there would never be a Palestinian state because this would be too great a threat to Israel.

The 1993 Oslo accords set in motion a process that, by 2005, turned the Israeli consensus on its head. Even the right’s iconic champion, Ariel Sharon, essentially said that a Palestinian state, far from a threat, had become an Israeli interest necessary to preserve the state’s democratic and Jewish character. More importantly, Sharon risked tearing the nation apart by putting a down payment on this vision in the form of the total evacuation of Jewish settlements, Israeli troops and even graves from Gaza.

Israeli opponents of a two-state solution certainly exist, and retain some political strength, but they are almost as marginal now as the peace movement was in 1990. Then, no major Israeli politician could endorse a Palestinian state; now no serious Israeli leader can abstain from endorsing one.

What has happened on the Palestinian side during this same period? At first it might seem that Palestinian support for a two-state solution is a given. On closer examination, however, it is hard to compare the Israeli and Palestinian climates because it is so hard to find a real Palestinian peace movement.

What would such a movement look like? Just as the Israeli embrace of a two-state solution was all about accepting a Palestinian state, the comparable Palestinian Rubicon is acceptance of Israel. A Palestinian peace movement would therefore argue, at least, for the practical need to accept Israel. In concrete terms, such acceptance would mean abandoning the Palestinian „right of return“ to Israel, which is designed as a backdoor negation of Israeli statehood, much as part of the settlement movement was designed to negate a Palestinian state.

As it turns out, there is a Palestinian advocate of giving up the „right of return“ to Israel in the name of peace: Sari Nusseibeh, the president of Al-Quds University. It took extreme intellectual, moral and physical courage for Nusseibeh to take this position, not completely unlike those Israelis who advocated for Palestinian statehood when doing so bordered on treason. But unlike in Israel, where the two-state paradigm has become mainstream, among Palestinians Nusseibeh remains an extreme exception, essentially a lone voice.

This is the context in which the incitement debate must be considered. The problem is not just the glorification of terrorism on the Palestinian side, it is the denial of Jewish peoplehood, of Jewish history and of any legitimate Jewish connection to any part of Israel. At the 2000 Camp David summit, President Bill Clinton was shocked that Yasser Arafat baldly denied that there ever was a Jewish temple in Jerusalem. Yet to this day no Palestinian politician, including in the „peace camp“, can publicly say otherwise.

Some might note here that Israelis, including those who back the two-state paradigm, only perfunctorily accept the notions of a Palestinian people or their right to a state. But there is a big difference. The Palestinian narrative is that Jews stole their land, so accepting such a theft would be dishonorable and a terrible defeat. Israelis, by contrast, danced in the streets when the UN partition resolution was announced in 1947, and have come around again to see Palestinian statehood as a conduit to securing the Zionist dream.

The Palestinian equivalent of the Zionist dream remains stuck deep within a narrative of Israel’s destruction. The first sign of change will be when Palestinians start denying their denial of the facts of history. Palestinians do not have to become Zionists, but they do have to start openly convincing themselves that they are not capitulating to thievery but rather compromising with a sufficiently legitimate competing claim to sovereignty. Stopping incitement is a critical first step in a long process that, on the Palestinian side, has barely begun.- Published 26/4/2010 ©

Saul Singer is co-author, with Dan Senor, of „Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle“ (Twelve, 2009).