Israeli Intransigence? Try Palestinian Rejectionism

By Aryeh Tepper
Thursday, November 17, 2011

The conventional wisdom in diplomatic and media circles concerning the Israeli-Arab conflict is that Israeli intransigence—especially on the building of West Bank settlements—is the dead weight that prevents the achievement of a two-state solution in the Middle East.  The Netanyahu government has been trying to convince anyone willing to listen that the real cause of the conflict's persistence isn't Israeli intransigence but Palestinian unwillingness to accept a Palestinian state so long as that means accepting a Jewish state alongside it.  Unfortunately and unsurprisingly, these efforts haven't met with much success. 

But Israelis are nothing if not persistent; and two high-ranking officials in the Netanyahu government, Shalom Lipner and Yossi Kuperwasser, have just given it another try.  Their article in the current issue of the influential journal Foreign Affairs faithfully reflects the reasoning behind the government's position and does so with careful documentation and lucid argument.

Lipner is a long-time civil servant in the Prime Minister's Office; Kuperwasser is Director General of the Ministry of Strategic Affairs.  The head of the Ministry, former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff Moshe "Bogie" Ya'alon, is a soft-spoken, independent-minded kibbutznik who has been taking on conventional pieties ever since he was forced out of the IDF by Ariel Sharon for opposing, on strategic grounds, the "disengagement" from Gaza.  True to form, Ya'alon recently argued that a construction freeze in the West Bank would amount to an "ethnic cleansing" of the region's Jews.

Lipner and Kuperwasser, acknowledging that "two decades of peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians have failed miserably," state their thesis: that "Palestinian refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state stands at the root of the struggle and behind every so-called core issue, from determining borders to resolving the dispute over Palestinian refugees."  Since signing the Oslo accords, they explain, the Palestinians have pursued "two complementary approaches" to dealing with Israel, "one that rejects Israel outright and another that accepts Israel as a political entity but continues to refuse to accept its character as the homeland of the Jewish people."  In other words, the Palestinians have, on parallel tracks, pursued an explicitly rejectionist approach and an implicitly rejectionist approach.

It is unsurprising that Westerners remain unaware of the explicitly rejectionist approach, which is articulated in Arabic and reserved for domestic consumption.  What is sold to international audiences as the voice of moderation is the implicitly rejectionist approach, in which Palestinians appear to have recognized the State of Israel—but never actually accept the existence of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people.  They express willingness to recognize an entity called "Israel," but this entity does not possess a particular Jewish identity.  As Yassir Arafat made clear, this "voice of moderation" calculates that the recognized entity called Israel will in due time lose its Jewish majority, through both the Palestinian "right of return" and the "Palestinian womb"—i.e., demographics.

The authors, reflecting the Netanyahu government's strategy, say progress between the Israelis and the Palestinians will require a "daring paradigm shift."  And what is the character of this paradigm shift?  The present paradigm focuses on "land for peace" as the key to ending the conflict; therefore, the building of settlements assumes an importance far beyond its inherent significance.  The new paradigm would shift the focus to the mutual recognition of national rights.  Israel must recognize a nation-state for the Palestinian people, reflecting Palestinian culture.  As everyone with eyes in their heads can see, the founding of such a state will require the uprooting of Israeli settlements.  The Palestinians must recognize a Jewish state—that is, the nation-state of the Jewish people.  That means no Palestinian "right of return" to Israel proper, no Palestinian state encompassing all of mandatory Palestine, and an end to the conflict.

The article does not spell out all the implications of such mutual recognition, but they are clear enough.  The day the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state, the Israeli public will more than be willing to support compromise on other core issues.  If, however, the Palestinians cannot do this (and by all indications they can't), then again, everyone with eyes in their heads should see that this incapacity—this rejectionism—is the source of the conflict's continuation.

The logic of the argument would seem inescapable, but it isn't.  Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in her recent memoir, recounts a story of classic Palestinian rejectionism.  In 2008, then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert offered to hand virtually 100 percent of the West Bank over to the Palestinians, divide Jerusalem, appoint an international body to supervise the Holy Sites, and even allow some Palestinians into Israel.  Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas refused the offer because it didn't include a universal Palestinian "right of return."  And what lesson does Rice take from this incident?  Amazingly, but perfectly in line with the conventional wisdom, she concludes that an "Israeli-Palestinian deal is doable, but they can't keep missing opportunities."  The possibility does not seem to have crossed her mind that the Palestinians will continue to "miss opportunities" so long as those opportunities require acknowledging Israel as a Jewish state.

Has the possibility crossed President Obama's mind?  In his recent September speech at the UN, he termed the Jews' ancient connection to the land of Israel a "fact" and called on Arab governments to acknowledge this fact.  This constituted a significant departure from Obama's 2008 speech in Cairo in which he referred to the founding of the state of Israel as a response to the Holocaust, and it's reasonable to assume that Israeli diplomacy played a substantial role in the change. But declaratory rhetoric aside, Obama has done little to show he is willing to make the Arabs confront "difficult truths" in the same way he has been willing to make the Israelis confront settlement-building in the West Bank.

Lipner and Kuperwasser's goal is the goal of Netanyahu's government: to get the international community in general, and the United States in particular, to "pressure the Palestinians" into recognizing that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people.  But the Obama administration's behavior is proof, if proof were needed, that the conventional wisdom dies hard.  One wonders what measures the Netanyahu government will take, aside from diplomatic persuasion and the writing of learned articles, in order to achieve its goal.

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