Obama Must Learn from History to Make History

By Gil Troy, The Jerusalem Post, 7-7-10

Despite the warm words and attempts at progress when President Barack Obama hosted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the “make up summit” Tuesday, Obama still does not get it. Stale ideas and boilerplate rhetoric are not enough. President Obama must learn from history to make history. To rebuild Israel’s confidence in him, and in peace processes, Obama should acknowledge the unhappy history of the last ten years – and explain what will change if Israel takes risks for peace, yet again.

The tone deafness of those who claim to seek peace is astounding. Their inability to see what Israelis see and to feel Israel’s pain blocks progress. Most Israelis are stuck. They feel burned by a decade and a half of peace-making and negotiation which yielded ten years of violence, harsh criticism, and attacks on Israel’s very legitimacy.

Israelis – and their supporters — connect the dots, seeing how Ehud Barak’s hasty, chaotic withdrawal from Southern Lebanon in May, 2000 and Barak’s generous offer during the Camp David negotiations that summer telegraphed weakness, resulting in Palestinian terrorism that murdered over one thousand innocent Israelis –many of whom lived within Israel’s Green Line, the post-1949 border. They remember that the 2005 Gaza Disengagement was supposed to bring peace but instead intensified the rain of rockets on towns and kibbutzim also within Israel’s Green Line. They resent that when Israelis finally defended themselves in Lebanon against Hezbollah attacks in 2006 and in Gaza against Hamas attacks in late 2008 and early 2009, they were pilloried. Just last week, the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who supports Israel, made the harsh, ahistorical, inaccurate and immoral comparison between Israel’s acts of self-defense in those two wars, and Syria’s systematic massacre of as many as 30,000 Muslim dissidents at Hama in 1982, by claiming Israel was following Syria’s brutal “Hama Rules.” If peace-making efforts result in war, terrorism, and delegitimization, most Israelis prefer safer stalemates to disastrous breakthroughs.

These recent traumas resonate with a deeper understanding of Israeli and Palestinian history. In his important new book, “Palestine Betrayed,” Professor Efraim Karsh of King’s College London demonstrates that the Palestinian violence which trashed the Oslo hopes of the 1990s was paralleled by the Palestinian violence which killed earlier hopes for peace in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. Professor Karsh is one of those annoying historians who researches in archives to recreate the past rather than simply regurgitating today’s conventional wisdom. He shows that the Arabs living in Palestine – many of whom enjoyed warm, productive, and profitable relations with their Jewish neighbors – were betrayed by radical leaders, especially the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini. Husseini’s harsh anti-Zionism laced with Hitlerite anti-Semitism rejected the Zionist calls for coexistence, triggering what Palestinians now call the “Nakba,” their catastrophe.

Neither the conflict nor the catastrophe was inevitable. “Had the vast majority of Palestinian Arabs been left to their own devices, they would most probably have been content to get on with their lives and take advantage of the opportunities afforded by the growing Jewish presence in the country,” Karsh proves. Instead, Husseini and others tapped into Islam’s radical potential, incited violence, and took a “zero-sum approach that assigned to the Jews no national or collective rights whatever.”

The result was a “repeated Arab resort to violence” which worked initially, securing British concessions. Ultimately, however, turning to terror and spurning compromises betrayed the Palestinian Arabs, as hundreds of thousands lost their homes due to the violence their leaders instigated. In the late 1940s, unlike today, Karsh shows, neither the Palestinians nor objective observers called “the collapse and dispersion of Palestinian Arab society … a systematic dispossession of Arabs by Jews.” As the British diplomat Sir John Troutbeck reported after his fact-finding mission to Gaza in 1949, the refugees “express no bitterness against the Jews” but “they speak with the utmost bitterness of the Egyptians and other Arab states. ‘We know who our enemies are,’ they will say … referring to their Arab brothers who, they declare, persuaded them unnecessarily to leave their homes…” Subsequently, Yasir Arafat, Hamas, and other Palestinian elites replicated their predecessors’ mistakes, preferring to target the Jewish State rather than accepting any compromise, which begins by first accepting a Jewish presence in a tiny geographic slice of the vast Middle East Arabs control.

Karsh’s must-read book reminds us how much of the Palestinian narrative delegitimizing Israel even Israel’s supporters have absorbed.

Reading history accurately does not negate Palestinian aspirations or frustrations. They must be addressed. Still, understanding their origins might help policy-makers ratchet down the rhetoric – and the demands. Moreover, by emphasizing that the conflict was not inevitable, Professor Karsh reassures us that the conflict might be solvable today.

Albert Einstein defined insanity as “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”  The Palestinians must stop trying again and again to destroy the Jewish State. Peace processors must stop trying again and again to demand Israeli concessions without explaining what has changed, what new understandings, what new safeguards, are in place this time. And Israelis must be open to seeing changes within Palestinian society and within a renewed peace process.

President Obama and his advisers must begin by acknowledging the last decade’s failures. They must help end Palestinian incitement. They and the Palestinians must prove that Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s initial steps toward state-building represent an historic change within Palestinian political culture from seeking Israel’s destruction to seeking Palestinian redemption.

For all their mistakes, most Israelis repeatedly have been willing to accept painful compromises, to risk for peace. If Obama wants a big Middle Eastern win, he must show he understands what went wrong in the past and offer substantive proposals guaranteeing future success.  All of us who seek peace should wish him luck. But none of us should settle for presidential rhetoric instead of new, constructive, Palestinian realities.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University in Montreal and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,”he is also the author of “The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.”

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