Redesigning the Peace Process
Ignoring cultural difference and overestimating politics has left us without a resolution. We can do better.
By constantly reinforcing a Palestinian sense of grievance against Israel, activists like the late Rachel Corrie, journalists like BBC’s Jeremy Bowen and CNN’s Ben Wedeman, and Israel-obsessed organizations like Human Rights Watch have unwittingly contributed to the very war that rages. And as a result of this consensus, Israel appears to most in the West as a terrible oppressor when the sad but redeeming truth is that the Israelis are the best enemies one could hope for, and they face the worst.
Nothing illustrates the cultural gap between Israel and Palestine better—and offers a more immediate and constructive way out—than the problem of Palestinian refugees. They are the symbol of Arab political priorities. When faced with the catastrophic humiliation of 1948, when the combined Arab nations, fully confident of a glorious victory, failed to destroy the upstart Jewish nation in the heart of the Muslim world, the Arab leadership unanimously chose to herd Arab refugees into prison camps so that they could serve as a symbol of Israeli crimes and a breeding ground or the counter-attack.
For over 60 years, Arab leaders have blocked any efforts to remove these people from these wretched camps because to do so would be a tacit acceptance of Israel’s permanence and would acknowledge the humiliating defeat. (By contrast, Israel rapidly moved the even larger number of Jews chased from the Arab world in 1948 out of their refugee camps.) The Arabs thus went from a zero-sum loss (the establishment of Israel) to a negative-sum solution: sacrifice your own people on the altar of your lost honor. No negotiations, no recognition, no peace.
Not only do Palestinian negotiators insist on the return of 5 million refugees to Israel (it was one of two key deal-breakers at Camp David), but the Palestinian ambassador to Lebanon recently explained that Palestinian refugees not residing in the future Palestine would not be citizens in that state. In other words, Palestinian refugees still captive in camps in Lebanon and Syria and Jordan only have a right to citizenship in Israel.
So, here’s my proposal to those who somehow feel we must revive the peace process now, before it’s too late. Call for the Palestinians to show their good intentions, not toward the Israelis, but toward their own people. Get those “refugees” out of the prison camps into which they have been so shamefully consigned for most of a century.
Begin at home, with the over 100,000 refugees in Territory A, under complete PA control. Bring in Habitat for Humanity and Jimmy Carter to help them build decent, affordable, new homes. Let us all participate in turning the powers of Palestinian ingenuity away from manufacturing hatred, fomenting violence, and building villas for the rich and powerful, while the refugees live in squalor as a showcase of Israeli cruelty, and start to do good for a people victimized by their own leadership.
To take this position, so aligned with progressive values, however, we would have to confront two obstacles. First, overcoming our immense reluctance to criticize and make demands on the Palestinians. That would also mean we’d also have to renounce the impulse to attack as racists or Islamophobes those making the demands. We also have to consider, especially true for journalists in the field, the possibility that we’re intimidated, afraid to criticize people with so prickly a collective ego. Second, it would mean overcoming the widespread hunger for stories of “Jews behaving badly.” After all, if it weren’t for the appetite for moral Schadenfreude, the whole idea of pinning the miserable fate of the Palestinian refugees on Israel rather than on their Arab jailors would never have taken hold in the first place.
Such introspection and self-criticism can be a little like chewing glass, but I can think of no more important communal task this Yom Kippur.
How often have I gone overboard, how often have I accepted a lethal narrative in order to save face with my friends who expect me to rise above being an “Israel-firster”? How often have I admitted to crimes on behalf of my people without checking to see if they were accurate? How often have I failed to speak out against the depravity of the Palestinian leadership, out of fear of being called an Islamophobe? In the answers to those questions lies the path to a real peace in this troubled, blessed land.
Do we outsiders who say we want peace want it badly enough to confront our own comfort zones? Let’s hope. Those Palestinians and Israelis who are ready to live in a win-win world depend on it.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
In Fortress Israel, journalist Patrick Tyler argues that the country’s warrior ethos impedes Mideast peace