Can Obama recognize the ‘Nakba’ nakba?

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 5-17-11

Center Field: The harsh realities of the Middle East have contradicted President Barack Obama’s fanciful notions.

Obama and Netanyahu
Photo by: REUTERS

President Barack Obama came to town riding on a series of assumptions about the Middle East. But the region’s harsh realities have contradicted his fanciful notions. Demanding a settlement freeze increased Israeli mistrust and Palestinian extremism. The “Arab spring” proved that the Palestinian problem was not the keystone to Middle East progress, or world peace. This week’s Nakba Day violence revealed that Israel’s existence since 1948, not its occupation since 1967, remains the Palestinians’ target. Obama must recognize that this “Nakba” nakba – the Palestinians’ catastrophic reading of Israel’s founding as a catastrophe – damages peace prospects. Yet again, Palestinians seem more committed to destroying Israel than building their own state.

Although outsiders cannot tell Palestinians to ignore their anguish over Israel’s founding, Nakba Day is a new, post-Oslo, 1990s phenomenon. Yasser Arafat inaugurated the day in 1998. It feeds Palestinians’ worst instincts – freezing time, distorting history, wallowing in victimhood, dodging responsibility, vilifying Israel, treating the conflict as a zero-sum game. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s New York Times op-ed on Monday epitomizes these vices with ahistorical lies claiming that “shortly” after the 1947 UN Partition declaration, “Zionist forces expelled Palestinian Arabs to ensure a decisive Jewish majority in the future state of Israel, and Arab armies intervened.” Reversing chronology and causation, Abbas ignores that Palestinians rejected the partition plan; that many Palestinians fled voluntarily; and that Arab armies attacked as Israel became a state, not because of any Israeli action.

Yet the Palestinians have snookered the world, seeking a free pass for violence, incitement, delegitimization, exterminationism and intransigence. World leaders function as the great enablers of Palestinian dysfunction, rationalizing Palestinians’ political culture of negation and hatred while according them special treatment – including treating their refugee status as hereditary, whereas tens of millions of other refugees from the 1940s have settled down.

Every president must make post-inauguration adjustments, replacing outsiders’ presumptions with the insider’s perceptions. Obama’s Middle Eastrelated rigidity is not some idiosyncratic shortcoming. He is imprisoned in a groupthink reading that is popular and resistant to reality.

Too many elite Americans mistakenly compare the Palestinians’ struggle for statehood with African-Americans’ struggle for civil rights (when most Europeans hear “occupation,” they think Nazi or Soviet, which is even more inaccurate and problematic). In his Cairo speech, by reminding Palestinians that American blacks rarely resorted to violence, despite “suffer[ing] the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation,” Obama made the comparison. Condoleezza Rice was more explicit, equating her childhood miseries in the segregated South with Palestinian suffering, while comparing Abbas to Martin Luther King, Jr.

This analogy is sloppy, perverse, yet irresistible to many Americans who usually view the world through homemade prisms, with the civil rights movement looming as a compelling, heroic and digestible historical standard.

Additionally Palestinian propaganda has pushed this comparison for decades. The UN’s New Big Lie in 1975 labeling Zionism racism implicitly cast the Palestinians as noble blacks and the Israelis as oppressive rednecks.

The false analogy distorts the story into one of racial oppression, not national conflict. This reading sanctions Palestinian violence, given our abhorrence of racial tyranny.

Perpetuating the Nakba treats Israel’s very founding as its original sin, like slavery is America’s original sin, which had to be undone violently by Civil War. This falsehood also views Palestinians as passive, less responsible players, feeding into a modern liberal condescension empowering those perceived as white rather than those labeled black (ignoring the light-skinned Palestinians and dark-skinned Israelis).

By contrast, recognizing the Palestinian- Israeli conflict as a national conflict – linked to the Arab-Israeli conflict – restores balance. It makes Palestinians responsible for their choices. It highlights their power, as part of the broader Arab assault against Israel, which, unlike the Civil Rights movement, threatens Israel, seeking its destruction. Understanding this fight as a national struggle among more evenly-balanced forces also explains Israeli sensitivity to Palestinian rhetoric. Calling Israel’s founding, its very existence, a catastrophe delegitimizes Israel and dehumanizes Israelis, justifying violence against this supposed disaster of a state.

Restoring historical balance and moral accountability would also restore mutuality. Imagine the outrage if Israeli leaders spoke about Palestinians the way leading Palestinians speak, write, teach, preach and broadcast about Israel. Imagine the scandal if Israel ever proposed, let alone adopted, anything paralleling the Hamas Charter’s anti-Semitic and genocidal wording. Note that this month, while Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is volunteering new concessions, Abbas is embracing Hamas terrorists.

Jews’ culture of acute self-criticism juxtaposed against the Palestinians’ culture of self-righteous condemnation creates absurd imbalances. While Jews, mired in guilt, agonize over how to validate detractors like the playwright Tony Kushner, who spread Palestinian lies alleging Israel committed sins like “ethnic cleansing,” Palestinians, in their enforced no-criticism zone, feel their biased accusations are justified, yet again dodging any responsibility. Similarly, minor Israeli abuses are treated as major human rights crimes; major Palestinian abuses are ignored.

The multi-dimensional war between Israelis and Palestinians includes a clash of narratives. As America’s story-tellerin- chief, Obama can shape a narrative that brings the parties closer – or divides them further. Obsessing about Israel’s settlements, exaggerating the conflict’s international significance, excusing Hamas’s genocidal rhetoric, or encouraging the “Nakba” nakba intensifies Palestinian intransigence and Israeli insecurity.

Obama must affirm that “threatening Israel with destruction – or repeating vile stereotypes about Jews – is deeply wrong, and only serves to evoke in the minds of Israelis this most painful of [Holocaust] memories while preventing the peace that the people of this region deserve.”

He said that in Cairo. Now, Obama should show he means it, by insisting that all parties, especially the Palestinians, end incitement, stop demonizing others and learn to preserve their own national stories, including tales of woe, without using words that reveal a collective desire to destroy those whose trust you need to achieve peace.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman research fellow in Jerusalem. The author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today, his latest book is The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction. giltroy@gmail.com

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Three Steps to a Two-State Solution

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 4-6-11

I do not worry about the biased UN recognizing a Palestinian state. When Israel disengaged in 2005, Gaza became an independent Palestinian entity. Why not call it a state – and demand it act responsibly rather than blaming Israel for its failures? Similarly, much of the West Bank, even if you call it Judaea and Samaria, is fully Palestinian.  Vast swaths are inaccessible to even the most ideological, stereotypical, gun-toting, Brooklynese-speaking, big-kippah-wearing, payes-flowing settlers.   Oslo’s essential insight of having as few Palestinians as possible under Israeli control as quickly as possible has allowed millions to live under Palestinian rule for years now.  Given these realities, Israeli policy should focus on getting diplomatic – and American — credit for already ceding much territory, making Palestinian maximalism and Arab rejectionism of Israel’s existence the issues, not Israeli intransigence about borders.  Every attack on Israel’s legitimacy must be seen as a blow to peace. 

Despite calling terrorism counter-productive, Israel frequently rewards Palestinian violence by conceding under the gun.  Rather than waiting for populist Palestinian “Arab spring” protests, Israel should make a pre-emptive strike for peace by accepting the reality – and risks — of a Palestinian state. Inaction is also risky. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s conservative coalition may be best suited to make the best deal possible. Besides, it is immoral to control millions of unwilling non-citizens if there is an alternative which does not threaten Israeli lives. 

Accepting a state requires a third conceptual revolution for Israelis regarding Palestinians. The Oslo peace process in the 1990s forced mainstream Israeli opinion to acknowledge Palestinian national rights. A decade later, the wave of suicide bombings forced Israelis to admit they needed clear protected borders with Palestinians – rightists realized they could not keep everything, leftists learned that fences saved lives. 

Palestinians need even more dramatic conceptual revolutions. They must end their addiction to delegitimization and terrorism. Beyond accepting Israel’s existence they must accept Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state. Finally, Palestinians will have to choose what they might consider an imperfect peace over perpetual war. 

Netanyahu’s government has already taken important strides which the world should respect as Step One to a Two-State solution. At Bar Ilan, Netanyahu recognized Palestinian national rights. His government has started no new settlements, dismantled Gilad Farms, and curtailed construction within existing settlements, even if reluctantly. In 2010 alone Israel’s Army eliminated 98 roadblocks. While relaxing security restrictions and issuing 42 percent more entry permits, the IDF invested millions improving Palestinian infrastructure to facilitate traffic flows. Palestinians now usually move freely between Jenin and Hebron. The Palestinian Authority controls a much larger contiguous area than at any time since Palestinians’ return to terror in 2000 triggered a necessary crackdown. 

As a result, Netanyahu’s “economic peace” is flourishing. The Palestinian economy is growing 9 percent annually. The average minimum wage increased 6.5 percent. Tourist traffic entering the much-less-occupied territories surged 49 percent. Israeli-Palestinian joint ventures are proliferating, with building permits up 23 percent.
Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad is the un-Arafat, a courageous technocrat more committed to building his people’s state than destroying the Jewish people’s home. He is cultivating the conditions that could lead to peace rather than fighting a perpetual war. 

President Barack Obama, along with the Europeans and the UN, should acknowledge this progress, celebrating this successful first step. The challenge is psychological and political. These new conditions should be publicized as bold moves, building confidence.  The second step should then emphasize mutual recognition to foster the trust needed for the final border discussions when Israelis will have to sacrifice land, as Palestinians sacrifice some of their longstanding demands. 

To prepare for that sensitive stage the second stage requires zero tolerance for incitement in any Palestinian institution, including mosques, the media, and schools. Serious international supervision should impose real punishments for violent words and deeds.  Every act of incitement or violence should delay Palestinian statehood by a month; rockets from Gaza should result in pushing the border back a few hundred meters each time. Similarly, Israel must dismantle all illegal outposts while starting a serious national conversation about which settlements to abandon to create new boundaries. 

Palestinians must take responsibility for Israeli fears – given the last decade’s unhappy track record when Israeli withdrawals brought Palestinian violence not peace. Israelis must take responsibility for Palestinian worries – given Oslo’s unhappy track record when Israeli settlements increased. Palestinians should acknowledge the Jewish state. And Israel should acknowledge Palestinians’ right of return, offering citizenship to any Palestinians who lived in Israel in 1948. Palestinians wishing to move back should be compensated for any homes others currently inhabit – but, as in the rest of the world, refugee status should not be inherited; their descendants will have to relinquish fantasies of “return” to fulfill realistic dreams of statehood. 

Israel’s actions should not be motivated by guilt. Israel has legitimate rights to Judaea, Samaria and Gaza – historically and based on the justified Six Day War. But having rights does not require exercising them. Sometimes, historical or demographic realities intrude. Israel should sacrifice some historical rights to achieve peace – without risking lives for an illusion of progress. 

Given Palestinians’ long history of rejectionism, this delicate second stage should take at least two years. During that time, the details of stage three, creating a peaceful Palestinian state, should be finalized. 

This brief column cannot detail an entire peace plan. But supporters of a two-state solution must start envisioning progress. And Israelis who reject compromise should explain – what do you do with millions of Palestinians sharing the same space, yearning for a state? Neither side can achieve its maximal demands. But Israelis have controlled too many Palestinians for too long – while Palestinians still cling to too many unrealistic demands and lethal desires. Many in the Middle East seem ready to take risks for war – true courage entails taking risks for peace. 

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGillUniversity and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of “Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” his latest book is “The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.” giltroy@gmail.com