Misnomers and Idealism in the Palestinian Question

As the Palestinian Authority prepares to request statehood from the United Nations, this essay will highlight a few terms which serve to obscure the public debate, as well as idealize the best way forward. It will not propose an answer to the ‘yes –no’ question faced by the United States at the UN, as either answer falls short of what will be offered as ideal.

The Right to Exist

This expression is often put forward to explain Israeli difficulties in securing peace with the Palestinians. To be sure, the official proclamation of Hamas to seek elimination of the Israeli state is an overwhelming obstacle to relations. Yet by seeking ‘the right to exist’ Israel overreaches.

Part of the difficulty this expression causes Palestinians and Hamas in particular is that the phrase not only establishes the Israeli state, it provides it positive moral approval. Before the prevalence of Zionism as a world Jewish movement there were limited numbers of Jews in the current geographical territories in dispute. There were also limited numbers of Palestinians, but this should not overshadow the fact the vast majority of current Jews in Israel came from elsewhere. Some of their land was purchased, some was taken through violence, terrorism, and displacement, and some was conquered through war.

Palestinians assert, rightly, that the majority of this land used to belong to them. That it does no longer is a political fact, but Israel does not simply demand recognition of their state, but also the right of its existence. Such moralistic language is a slap in the face to the thousands of Palestinian refugees forced from their homes.

Furthermore, the ‘right to exist’ expression is not the language of diplomacy and international relations. Do the Kurds have a right to exist? Do the South Sudanese? Do the French? Awkwardly, in light of American ‘Manifest Destiny’ history, does the United States? Countries come into existence through political norms of various means, and sometimes disappear. Israel is constituted among the number of legitimate states by the only organization with jurisdiction to declare in the nation-state system – the United Nations. Palestinians should admit to this reality and recognize Israel. They should not be forced to admit the morality of its existence.

Negotiated Settlement

It is right and proper that the outcome of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict be decided through negotiation. The basis for peace rests upon mutually agreed decisions taken to bring parties closer together. Ultimately, there is no substitute for this inevitability.

Yet the popular discourse in discrediting the Palestinian effort to achieve UN recognition in favor of a ‘negotiated settlement’ overlooks certain realities in the equation. First and foremost is Israel’s own status as a sovereign nation. This was not accomplished through a negotiated settlement, but by Jewish immigration, their armed militias, and ratification by the United Nations. Arab nations stood opposed to the decision, which was forced upon them by the international community. Improperly, they responded in war, which only hurt their cause further. Israel achieved its recognized status through the international means available. It is now seeking to deny Palestinians access to the same means.

Yet a further aspect of ‘negotiated settlement’ obscures the issues at hand. Israel has treated its settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem as a topic for negotiation. It similarly treats the issue of the right of return for Palestinian refugees. In doing so, however, it seeks to negotiate two items which stand patently against international law. Yet during recent ‘negotiations’ not only has Israel sought to balance its expropriated settlement territories with traded land elsewhere, it has continued expanding its settlement claims. It is fair enough for Palestinians to consider land swaps if they so choose, but they should not be forced to. The settlements are illegal, however much they may be facts-on-the-ground. Yes, human Jewish lives reside there, and after all this time their displacement would be problematic. Yet Israeli culpability in establishing the settlements should not be a subject of negotiation, but of condemnation. How can Palestinians negotiate over that which is illegal to begin with?

If Palestinians gain access to UN membership, they will have access to file suit against Israel in the International Court of Justice. Israel has successfully resisted UN resolutions to withdraw from the occupied territories. It has successfully resisted negotiations with the Palestinians to cede full control over the territories. Israel does face the thorny issue of Hamas-led resistance to mutual recognition, but it should also be noted that only sovereign nations can recognize each other. Recognition of Israel is a proper negotiating carrot for the Palestinians, one they cannot even offer until they receive a state of their own. Member status at the United Nations, even on observer basis, may achieve this through the international court.

De-legitimize Israel

This phrase has also been utilized in the rhetoric to discredit the Palestinian effort at the United Nations. Closer examination, however, reveals the exact opposite to be true. This explains the reticence of Hamas to support the UN process initiated by the Palestinian Authority.

If anything, the creation of a Palestinian state immediately legitimizes Israel. No longer will Palestinians be able to refuse recognizing Israel without threatening their credibility in the international community. Hamas and others still maintain international justice should discredit the very establishment of the Israeli state. With a UN recognized Palestine, this claim goes by the wayside. In all likelihood, with it will go the right of return for Palestinian refugees as well. They will now have their own state to return to, even if their original home was on the other side of the 1967 border.

What the Palestinian bid at the UN does do, however, is de-legitimize Israeli policies in the occupied territories. This, though explained above, includes also disproportionate Israeli access to West Bank resources and criss-crossing the territory with settler-only lines of transportation. By moving these issues to an international forum, Palestinians do bring into question issues of legitimacy. Their overall message, however, legitimizes the Israeli state, as is proper and good.

The Arguments for No

If the above reasoning is correct, it is difficult to imagine why Israel is opposing the measure, unless it wishes to annex the territories of Judea and Samaria entirely. By granting Palestinians their state, it wins the international community as a partner to resisting any terrorism which issues from it, which would now be state-sponsored unless rigorously opposed. Perhaps more importantly to many, it also safeguards the status of Israel as a Jewish state, as the overwhelming Jewish majority would not be threatened demographically by the inclusion of additional Palestinians, either refugees seeking return or original residents in the occupied territories.

Should then the United States, with enthusiastic Israeli support, vote yes? There are a few problems lingering to suggest no. The ideal solution offered as well aims beyond it, however much it might threaten the advantages of yes.

In addition to the intransigence of Hamas, the Palestinian people suffer from a lack of true representation on the part of all their leaders. While a recent poll does suggest that 83% of Palestinians favor the move for statehood, neither Fatah nor Hamas has received a mandate through elections in quite some time. The only protests in Palestine during the Arab Spring have been against their nominal leadership, refusing their stridency in maintaining a political division. If Palestine receives statehood would the people be able to transcend this division? Would Fatah and Hamas allow them to? It remains to be seen.

Secondly and more seriously, immediate statehood would likely cement the animosity between Israel and Palestine, establishing a cold war even if there is official peace. Such a war could quickly get hot as the new Palestinian government would face the question of what to do with the Jewish settlements within its borders. Would it consider them Palestinian citizens? Would it violently uproot them? Would the settlers institute violence to seek maintenance of their now bygone privileged societal position? It is a thorny issue.

Thirdly and problematically, how do the West Bank and Gaza represent a functioning state given the lack of geographical congruity with Israel in between? As a tiny, landlocked entity save for the Gaza strip, Palestine would be barely a political district in the makeup of many countries. How could it function as an independent nation?

To vote no in the UN would throw these questions back to the negotiating table, and it is not certain a solution would be found there, either. Yet which outcome is more dangerous, yes or no?

An Ideal Solution?

It is admitted that the move away from negotiations is a move away from the ideal. A unilateral action towards statehood threatens to put the Palestinian question into the hands of the international court. While this step may greatly improve the Palestinian negotiating position, it hardens hearts and relationships, as true peace can only come from mutual embrace.

Calling for an ideal mutual embrace, however, moves the discussion from the realm of geopolitics into the realm of morality. Does the current situation in Israel/Palestine represent morality? Certainly not, on all sides. Would an imposed two-state solution represent morality? Sadly, no. Could a negotiated settlement represent a moral position? Perhaps, but these efforts have been underway for decades, and the political will seems to be lacking on both sides.

A mutual embrace, for now, purposely sidelines the fact that two peoples are largely in hostility. A solution of mutual embrace will assume the very difficult work of reconciliation. Yet the core of this idea is the undoing of two mutually contradicting narratives: A state for the Jews, and a state for the Palestinians. Roughly speaking, it calls for a one state solution.

Label this state what you want, though in fact its name will be one of the contentious issues to solve. ‘Israel’ – ‘Israelistine’ – ‘Paliel’ – ‘Israel-Palestine’ – ‘Palestine-Israel’. The very exercise of naming demonstrates the deep ethno-centrality of both sides. It is good for a people to have their own state. Is it better – more ideal – for an intermixed people to live together in one state, peacefully?

Admitting to this notion would require Zionist-inclined Jews to give up the idea of a Jewish state. Though deeply challenging, not all Jews are Zionists, and for most of history many Jews believed it a sin to seek reestablishment of a state before the appearance of the Messiah. That there is a current Jewish state is a political fact, may be the will of God, and is not immoral. But is there something better?

Admitting to this notion would require anti-Semitic Palestinians (and other Arabs) to give up the idea of a Jew-free Middle East. Though deeply challenging, not all Palestinians are anti-Semites, and for most of history many Arabs have lived peacefully side-by-side with Jews. That there are Palestinians who question Zionism-as-racism is a political fact, may be the will of God, and is not immoral. But is there something better?

What is better is the ideal of a civil democratic state with equal rights for all its citizens. Jew, Christian, and Muslim would each contribute to the success of the nation. Significant biases and economic disparities would need to be overcome. This was challenging with the reunification of Germany; it would be doubly so in this case. Yet as an ideal – that men might live together and form a representative government accountable by law – this is a more sublime goal for which to strive. In contrast to the current clamor at the United Nations, it is nearly heavenly.

Alas, ideals fall easy prey to politics and reality. Yet men of ideals can change both their politics and their reality. What is necessary is vision and commitment. Few so far have adopted the vision of one-state reconciliation; perhaps in the outcome of the UN process, if the United States does indeed vote no, more will find it.

I myself lack the full vision and courage to advocate the ideal. Even the attempt to define an ideal is subjective and often naïve. Problems in application are myriad and obvious.

Yet resistance to an ideal is often a refuge in the baser instincts of human nature. No ideal can come to be in willful ignorance of human depravity, yet the human struggle calls for virtue and sacrifice in pursuit of worthy ideals. Peace between Jews and Palestinians should certainly qualify. This is but one solution, perhaps more hopeful, in the path to its reality.


Related Post: 1967 and the Right of Return

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