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Israeli Intransigence? Try Palestinian Rejectionism

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. 

Relevant Links
The Real Obstacle  Yossi Kuperwasser, Shalom Lipner, Foreign Affairs. Nearly two decades of peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians have failed miserably because the Palestinians have refused to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.
No Higher Honor  Condoleezza Rice, Random House. The former Secretary of State gives her version of conflicts in the world and in the White House.
A Century of Palestinian Rejectionism  Fred Siegel, RealClearPolitics. Current Palestinian rejectionism has roots in an obsession with Jews and a refusal of political compromise, inspired by Islamic teachings—and European fascism.

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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Jacob Silver on November 17, 2011 at 8:01 am (Reply)
Mahmoud Abbas was deputy to Yassir Arafat in the Palestine Liberation Organization. It therefore should not be surprising that he reflects similar views. What is needed is for Israel, discreetly, to select and encourage a new leader who is not opposed to the recognition of a Jewish State of Israel alongside the Palestinian State. Marwan Barghouti, who is in prison, might be such a leader; I am not sure. But if investigation determines he is, then he should be released and supported.
Larry Snider on November 17, 2011 at 10:10 am (Reply)
It is not so difficult to see and even understand what the government of Israel wants as its standard in conducting a reasonable barter with the Palestinian Authority. Of course, the PA does not always speak for the PLO, and the refugee community in the West Bank and Gaza and outside the borders of Israel/Palestine does not always agree with its representation by either one. Then there is Hamas, and then there is the Arab League and the influence of the Saudis, the Egyptians, the Turks, and others. None of this obscures the focus of the Netanyahu government, which is clear. But unless and until the international community helps the Palestinians and the Israelis alike to deal with these multiple constituencies in a positive fashion, peace will remain a dream beyond the reach of both peoples, even when they try to realize it.
hanan sher on November 17, 2011 at 11:24 am (Reply)
Encouraging a new leader sounds like a wonderful idea, but it isn't. Israel has gone that route before. Those of us who were around in the late 1980s remember that many Israelis saw the rise of a new organization to rival the then-demonized PLO as the path to new leadership for the Palestinians. "It's a religious roganization," one prominent journalist told me at the time, "that will be concerned with schools, social services and developing a better life for the Palestinians, an organization with which we can make peace." That alternative turned out to be Hamas. Res ipsa loquitir. The Netanyahu-Kupferwasser-Lipner thesis is similarly porous, certainly vis-a-vis the current Israeli government. The demand for Palestinian recognition of Israel "as a Jewish state" is a relative newcomer, raised only by Netanyahu in the last few years. Not only does it fail to take into account the nearly 20% of Israelis who happen not to be Jewish, it was a tactical move designed to make it more difficult for any Palestinian leader to make a deal with Israel. As for a possible deal with Olmert, there was absolutely no Palestinian upside to accepting an agreement with him, no matter how generous it might be, since at the time he had one foot (or more) out the door of the Prime Minister's Office. Beyond all that, if the Netanyahu argument as expressed by two of his subordinates is correct, there would be great tactical advantage from stopping settlement expansion, calling the Palestinian bluff, and entering into negotiations. Under those conditions, the blame for the failure of talks would fail squarely on the Palestinians. Of course that is not going to happen. Even if Netanyahu wanted to do so (his past record and statements clearly indicate otherwise), his right-wing coaltion partners, not to mention at least half of his own party, would never permit such a heresy.
PJW5552 on November 17, 2011 at 1:55 pm (Reply)
The best way to understand whether or not your opponents are being unreasonable is to imagine how you would respond if you were in their shoes. Suppose, for a moment, that Palestinians control all of Isael, Gaza and the West Bank. They have taken all the land along the Mediterranian, so that Israel is land-locked and can not trade except by the grace of the Palestinian leadership, which collects taxes from Jews but refuses to turn the funds over if Jews make trouble for them. Palestinians are building and encroaching on Israeli cities, pushing Jewish people off their land, and doing little to stop Palestinian settlers from carrying out acts of violence against Jewish people. The Palestinians also demand that Israel recognize them as an Islamic state and refuse any right of return for the three million Jews they kicked out--although, according to the Palestinians, the Jewish people really left on their own, and their houses weren't bulldozed until after they were gone. The Palestinian leadership continues to lament, "We want peace with our Jewish neighbors, but they must first come to the peace table to talk and recognize us as an Islamic state." The Palestinians also decide that the Jewish people will not get all their land under the 1949 UN declaration establishing Israel, because Palestinians have already been settled on large tracts of what was originally to be Israel. Furthermore, Palestine, to make sure it doesn't have any future problems with its Jewish neighbors, has decided to keep a large contingent of Palestinian security forces in the area where Jewish people live in order to keep an eye on them. Would Israelis talk peace under those conditions? Would they embrace the magnanimous gestures the Palestinians were making toward peace? If they didn't jump at this opportunity, would you call the Jewish leadership "rejectionists?" Would you say it was the Jewish leadership that was failing to take peace talks seriously? Look again at where the responsibility lies for fostering the conditions necessary to give peace roots. Is it with the side that has few cards or the side that controls the deck?
Karl on November 17, 2011 at 6:42 pm (Reply)
Hanan, do you mean the "then-demonized PLO" was unfairly blamed for hundreds of terrorists attacks targeting civilians, in buses , schools, ships, airplanes? Or wrongly blamed for trying its best, since its founding in 1964 (three years before the "occupation”), to destroy and occupy the lands of a legitimate member country of the UN? Otherwise, supporting Hamas, was a mistake--not unlike to the United States' supporting the Taliban against the Soviet Union, or Saddam Hussein against Iran, or maybe Saudi Arabia and Egypt against Iran (or maybe it's not such a mistake)? In hindsight these look like big mistakes; but a country is entitled to take extreme measure against extreme enemies. Beyond this, the main problem is Arab chauvinism--which does not yet recognise the rights of Jews other minorities like Kurds, Berbers, Coptic Ethnic Egyptians, Assyrians, and other Middle Eastern ethnic and religious groups and their legitimate claims to independence or statehood. Most “Arab Land” is a result of imperialism and the colonisation of vast land areas that were not “Arab Land,” in which the previous owners still live under Arab occupation. Every peace deal and “return of land” to the Arab side should start with the Arab side's acknowledgement of their long history of injustice toward other nationalities in the Middle East.
Karl on November 17, 2011 at 7:06 pm (Reply)
PJW5552, regarding "the best way to understand whether or not your opponents are being unreasonable is to imagine how you would respond if you were in their shoes:" I think most Israelis--including Rabin, Ehud Barak, and Jews including myself--have done this exercise since we were teenagers. I first imagined that there are 22 Jewish states on a vast land "from Ocean to Ocean." This vast land was actually occupied by Moses and his followers by sword, creating a “Jewish Religion of Peace” in a vast Jewish Empire. Two major streams of Judaism often kill each other and blow up each other’s synagogues. Those 22 modern Jewish states have been in a state of war with each other or their own populations since they were created by European colonisation in the last century. They are all contributing to the creation of another Jewish Palestinian state in the Land--which the UN allocated for the returning Arabs, who were the indigenous population of Palestine. In the last century, those returning Arabs created settlements on their old land by buying it from Jews--but it was only fair to attack them before they become a majority. Also, the Jewish leadership thought it was the right thing to collaborate with the Nazis, so our Great Rabbi went to meet Hitler to settle the Arab problem once and for all. . . .
Charles Blattberg on November 18, 2011 at 8:37 am (Reply)
Yes, the Palestinians refuse to recognize Israel as a Jewish state and this has been a major obstacle to a negotiated settlement, but we knew that already. The question is, what to do about it? Kuperwasser and Lipner's answer--which appears to be no more than that Israel continue to "demand to be recognized as a Jewish state"--is not only insufficient, it is counter-productive. Recognition, which is a matter of cognition, of knowledge, is not something that can be demanded or negotiated over on the basis of reciprocity. One cannot demand that another know something, nor can they be pressured to do so; the only effective route is to try to convince them. The authors say that Abbas "is going to have to do the hard work of accepting that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people and convincing his people to do the same." Why? Why leave this fundamental task to him? Is there nothing we Zionists can do? A look at Israel's miniscule hasbara effort towards Arabs and Muslims suggests that we have already answered that question. It is the wrong answer.
Ellen on November 18, 2011 at 10:06 am (Reply)
The Palestinians are in a no-win situation and have been so ever since they lost all the wars of military conquest in which they engaged. There is no diplomatic solution to this conflict that will be remotely acceptable to both sides. That has been obvious for a long time. The people in the "peace process" community who have made careers out of this endless exercise in futility can't admit their failure without putting their whole resumes in jeopardy.

Ultimately, this conflict will be decided by the usual methods, which decide most historical quarrels over pieces of land: military might, economic strength, and demographic predominance. Israel has always held the military superiority card because of the utter corruption of the surrounding Arab states, which have been unwilling and unable to "help" the Palestinians in their conquests. For a long time, the economic card favored the Arab boycott states, from which the Palestinians expected to get some "help;" but it no longer does, since Israel is now the economic power in the region.

However, the real trump card for the Palestinians has always been the demographic one, flooding Israel not only with the descendants of the 1948 refugees but with the high rate of natural growth of the resident population of the West Bank and Gaza, plus the Israeli Arab population. This last dream has now, finally, been shattered on the rocks of the unprecedented collapse in Arab fertility that has occurred across the Arab world, including the Palestinian Authority territory. This trend has been accompanied by the unprecedentedly high fertility of the Israeli Jewish population, also unpredicted by the usual collection of experts. David Goldman has recently written a book--How Civilizations Die--in which he outlines some demographic details of these two fateful trends.

The three factors mentioned--military, economic and demographic--will be the determinants of this conflict over the next 30 years, not any more ridiculous peace process charades.
Aryeh Tepper on November 18, 2011 at 11:22 am (Reply)
Thanks to all those who have responded. I'm very much enjoying the intlligent discussion. A question for Ellen: Let's say that you're right--that what will determine the conflict is generational, and that Israel has the upper hand. Nevertheless, Israel's leaders need to lead this people now, with all of their material needs. The peace process cannot be simply ignored (perhaps you think it can; if so, please explain). There will be real, human prices to pay if, for instance, trading agreements with the European Union are downgraded (such a scenario can translate into hundreds of thousands of newly unemployed), etc. So what do you, in the role of Israeli PM, do?
PJW5552 on November 18, 2011 at 11:23 am (Reply)
Whatever disagreements exist among nations or states, you are foolish to lead them to focus their hate on you. Forty years ago, you had Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq as neighbors that hated you and would have liked to remove you forcibly. Today, you have added Lebanon, Turkey, and Iran as enemies, not that any country in the region is particularly warm toward Israel. Israel isn't making progress toward reducing its regional alienation. Instead, its regional alienation is getting worse, as Israelis make excuses for it by blaming everyone else.
Let me put it this way, if I lived between the Crips and the Bloods in LA, my inclination would not be to pick a fight with both and then see if I couldn't egg on the Eight Tray, Black P Stones and Eighteen Street gangs for good measure thinking people would just accept that I was the good guy. To each his own. Just remember, you sleep in the bed you make.
PJW5552 on November 18, 2011 at 11:48 am (Reply)
Israel needs to encourage peace with its neighbors if it expects to survive. If a military solution remains its long-term strategy, the odds are against Israel's survival. With 7.5 million people, Israel is in no position to try to invade and dominate its much larger neighbors. That means the best Israel could ever do in a major conflict would be to try and defend its borders. Look at the Afghan war: Do you think safe havens have no affect on military conflicts? Ask Japan whether wiping out the U.S. Seventh Fleet at Pearl Harbor made Japan safe.
Karl on November 18, 2011 at 6:11 pm (Reply)
PJW5552: So there was no hate until Israel won the wars the Arabs launched? So the alternative would have been better--no Israel, no hate? When Israel offered land for peace (Khartoum, 1967), they got "no," and this is still the opinion of the majority of the Arab world and the democratically elected Palestinian Government--Hamas. The surrealistic situation is that the losing side of Arab-Israeli wars is putting conditions on the winner concerning peace and negotiations, while still playing the underdog.

But going back to Arie’s question what to do about current situation, any solution involving “return of land” (to Jordan or Egypt?) must include (1) a land swap of areas there is Jewish majority; (2) full recognition of the right of Jews to have a Jewish state; (3) the Arab side's acceptance of their blame in the conflict (including the history of injustice towards Jews in the last century in the Middle East and North Africa; (4) a grant of citizenship to Arab Palestinian refugees in the countries in which they live, in line with UN policies and resolutions for all other similar cases, or return to the Arab Palestinian state to be created (with financial compensation for the Arab refugees only as part of the compensation of other refugees, especially Jewish refugees from Arab countries); (5) an Israeli military presence at strategic points on the borders and the right to stop illegal weapon transfers (similar to the U.S. presence in Germany and Japan after World War II, with any hostilities like missile fire from the Palestinian side treated as casus belli).

The last thing: Improve the Hasbara effort. The vast majority of the public is not aware of the basic facts of this conflict. Unfortunately, this includes many Israelis and Jews. The public opinion war is not easy, but neither were the real wars that Israel has won.
ellen on November 18, 2011 at 8:03 pm (Reply)
Aryeh, actually, the problem of Europe is possibly the most serious one that Israel has faced. Ironically, the European threat to Israel may have been more damaging in the past 30 years than the Arab threat. After all, the Palestinians' bargaining position, given their internal weakness relative to Israel, depends on their use of external levers of power. The Arab states have gradually become more decrepit since the 1980s, as shown by the current revolts against and possible collapse of some of these states. The former Soviet Union no longer gives a fig about the Palestinians.
The Palestinians' last remaining significant lever of power (other than the discredited Barack Obama) is the European Union and their hypocritical support for the Palestinians as a sanitized way of expressing their very genuine anti-Semitism. Luckily, economic collapse comes to the rescue every now and then; and, for the EU, the time is now. It is by all accounts in a state of terminal decline, and many individual states will literally go bankrupt in short order. The EU, therefore, is in no mood or condition to strike out at Israel economically. There are far more fateful things going on there; the Jewish question can wait.

Unfortunately, this is a just going to be a long drawn-out war of demographic attrition between Jews and Arabs. I believe the Jews will win, just as Ben Gurion believed it 100 years ago against much greater odds. But, that is a matter of faith, not an evidence-based prediction.
Marek S. on November 20, 2011 at 12:58 pm (Reply)
Israeli citizens, these politicians in particular, and the free World as a whole need to accept the only possible solution to these 63 years of conflict--and this is the Jordan option.
Ellen on November 21, 2011 at 2:13 pm (Reply)
It gets very tiresome to hear how isolated Israel is and how this will bring about the ruin of the country. Perhaps those who say this don't understand that isolation is a double-edged sword. Israel's Isolation from its Arab and Muslim neighbors has been the one and only saving grace of a Jewish state being stuck in the Middle East. Imagine for a moment, what would happen if Israel were not isolated from its neighbors: What an absolute calamity that would be! The Israeli economy would be intricately tied into networks of mutual co-dependence with the surrounding corrupt and collapsing Arab economies. Its borders--like the Texas-Mexico border--would be porous to illegal Arab immigrants, leading to a flood of illegal Arabs in a small country. Its more spineless left-wing types would be wined, dined, and bribed by a never-ending succession of oil sheikhs and businessmen offering money for land, just as one sees in all the western capitals.

Israel's isolation has prevented all of this and more. It has allowed the development of a flourishing Jewish national culture, mostly unperturbed by the pathologies of the Arab encounter with modernity, on display in every direction. It has forced Israel to develop a high-tech economy that today exports its products to every corner of the world, except to its Arab and Muslim neighbors. Hence, the ongoing collapse of these states has absolutely no ripple effect on the Israeli economy.

Israel's isolation from its Arab neighbors is an advantage, not a deficit, and should be compared to India's cultural and economic isolation from its Muslim neighbors, which is forcing India to become a global economic and military power, not a regional one. In fact, both Israel and India have leapfrogged over their degenerating neighboring states and are now strategic allies and partners in both economic and military matters. What possible outcome could be better than that?
PJW5552 on November 21, 2011 at 3:52 pm (Reply)
Karl, hate, fear, anger, distrust, and intolerance have always existed. However, feeding those emotions, which is what Israeli policies are currently doing, encourages more negative feelings--in a majority of people in the Middle East instead of a minority. Hamas is just one part of the Palestinian equation, albeit one strengthened by killing of Gaza citizens and imposing draconian conditions upon them.

Israel simply cannot afford to continue to irritate others in the region, where hatred toward Israel has not diminished but grown over the last 30 years. Instead of making excuses, Israelis need to start asking themselves why. More than any other nation, Israel needs to work with its neighbors and seek compromise, understanding, cooperation, trust, and peace. Blaming everyone isn't going to address or solve Israel's basic security needs. Moving more Israelis onto Arab land increases Israel's problems instead of decreasing them. That makes Israel not more secure but less so.

Israel needs to start reducing the tension, hate, and anger in the region. It needs to start building bridges instead of walls and start increasing dialogue instead of continuing inflammatory rhetoric. There is much that Israel can do to further peace and that it is not currently doing.

Israel will not survive if its neighbors decide to wipe it off the map at any cost. The reason lies in the numbers. Israel cannot dominate or control its neighbors' populations and land masses. If Israel's neighbors ever decided to carry out a protracted war against it, there is no way Israel could win in the end. Israel has never fought a protracted war. It has relied on the effectiveness of short, decisive conflicts. Israel cannot afford to gamble that all future wars will be the same. Thus, it is in Israel's best interest to work to ensure there is less chance of war, not to feed the flames that encourage war as a more likely outcome.

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