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
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
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. George W. Bush’s
secretary of state 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
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.
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.
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
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.”
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 Wh
I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today, his latest
The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction. firstname.lastname@example.org
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