Last Sunday, the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Palestinian Arabs who had left Israel while the Arab world tried to murder our state at birth, attempted a symbolic “return,” with varying degrees of success, across the Syrian, Lebanese, Jordanian and Egyptian borders, and from the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
They were warmly praised in this effort by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, the ostensibly moderate successor to Yasser Arafat with whom Israel has been trying for almost eight years to make peace. Abbas -- who later in the week, in a New York Times op-ed, rewrote the history of Israel’s reestablishment to air-brush out the Arabs’ rejection of what would have been their independent state alongside ours -- movingly praised those who had died in Sunday’s “Nakba Day” assault on Israel’s borders (most of them killed by Lebanese Army forces) as the latest “martyrs” to the Palestinian cause.
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Sunday’s Nakba onslaught against sovereign Israel, and its moving endorsement by Israel’s putative Palestinian partner, was the latest bleak demonstration of the Palestinians’ insistent refusal, for close to two-thirds of a century, to internalize the fact that the Jews have a historic claim to this sliver of land, and that their demands for statehood cannot be realized at the cost of ours.
Amid all the “differences” that Binyamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama on Friday acknowledged in their visions for the way forward to Israeli-Palestinian peace, it is the president’s evident incapacity to appreciate the uncompromising Palestinian refusal to countenance Israel’s legitimacy that is most damaging the vital American-Israeli relationship and most dooming his approach to peacemaking.
An indication of his failure to internalize that Israel, in any borders, is regarded as fundamentally illegitimate by much of the Palestinian leadership and public was evident in Obama’s 2009 Muslim world outreach speech in Cairo. He failed, before that most vital of audiences, to mention Israel’s historic tie to this land – the fact that this is the only place where the Jews have ever been sovereign, the only place where the Jews have ever sought sovereignty, a place we never willingly left and one to which we always prayed to return.
No Palestinian leader will advocate viable compromise with Israel until this sovereign Jewish connection is accepted, and yet the president opted not to utilize that extraordinary opportunity to emphasize our sovereign rights here, and thus to encourage the necessary compromise.
Two years on, the president all too obviously has not changed. There were positives for Israel in his Thursday speech on the Middle East – including the insistence that a Palestinian state be demilitarized, and the criticism of Palestinian moves to seek UN support for statehood without negotiating peace with Israel. These were outweighed by the negatives, however. And common to those negative formulations -- from a president who may well truly believe that he is being fair to Israel, and that we are hamstrung by a prime minister incapable of taking the decisions necessary to ensure Israel’s Jewish and democratic future – is the refusal to acknowledge Palestinian intolerance for Jewish sovereignty, and press urgently for the measures needed to reduce and eventually eliminate that intolerance.
It is immensely troubling for many Israelis to recognize that our most important strategic partner is now publicly advocating, before any significant sign of Palestinian compromise on final status issues has been detected, that we withdraw, more or less, to the pre-1967 lines – the so-called “Auschwitz borders” -- from which we were relentlessly attacked in our first two fragile decades of statehood. But only a president who ignores or underestimates Palestinian hostility to Israel could propose a formula for reviving negotiations in which he set out those parameters for high-risk territorial compromise without simultaneously making crystal clear that there will be no “right of return” for Palestinian refugees.
Obama is urging Israel – several of whose leaders have offered dramatic territorial concessions in the cause of peace, and proven their honest intentions by leaving southern Lebanon, Gaza and major West Bank cities, only to be rewarded with new bouts of violence – to give up its key disputed asset, the biblically resonant territory of Judea and Samaria, as stage one of a “peace” process. But he is not demanding that the Palestinians – whose leaders have consistently failed to embrace far-reaching peace offers, most notably Ehud Olmert’s 2008 offer of a withdrawal to adjusted ’67 lines and the dividing of Jerusalem – give up their key disputed asset, the unconscionable demand for a Jewish-state-destroying “right of return” for millions, until some vague subsequent stage, if at all. He merely suggests that the refugee issue, along with Jerusalem, be addressed later on.
Our prime minister and the president of the United States may not get on terribly well. They may mistrust each other. Each may well think that the other is unrealistic, naïve, arrogant or worse. But the common interest and values shared by our two countries ought to dwarf any such antipathies, and bilateral communications should be coherent enough for vital messages and concerns to be effectively conveyed and addressed.
Yet the president’s new formula for Israeli-Palestinian peace is so unworkable and so counter-productive as to indicate a complete breakdown in such communication. No international player, and certainly no Palestinian negotiator, is now going to defy the Obama framework and declare that the Israelis cannot possibly be required to sanction a dangerous pullback toward the ’67 lines unless or until the Palestinians formally relinquish the demand for a “right of return.” And so we can look ahead to another period of diplomatic deadlock, of an Israel appearing recalcitrant in not meeting the publicly stated expectations of its key ally, of the Palestinians garnering ever-greater international legitimacy even as they are freed of the requirement to acknowledge the legitimacy of Israel by withdrawing their demand to destroy it by weight of refugee numbers.
Some commentators are suggesting that, in his public remarks alongside Netanyahu at the White House on Friday, Obama was trying to show greater empathy for Israel, attempting to reduce some of the frictions caused by his Thursday speech. The president did move just a little on the matter of the Fatah-Hamas unity deal by invoking the Quartet principles in connection with Hamas’s viability as a partner.
For the most part, however, Obama returned to the parameters he had set
out on Thursday, coming back to some of what he’d said using very
similar wording, and declining to introduce elements that he had chosen
not to include a day before.
Most gallingly, as on Thursday and now again at this most obvious of
opportunities, he chose not to state clearly and firmly – as there can
be no doubt predecessors like George W Bush and Bill Clinton would have
done in such a context – that the Palestinian refugee problem will have
to be solved independently of Israel. He did not make clear that just as
Israel built a vibrant state absorbing the hundreds of thousands of
Jewish refugees from the Middle East and North Africa six decades ago, a
new “Palestine” would finally have to resolve its assiduously
perpetuated refugee crisis and abandon the dream of a “return.” The
repeated omission will have delighted all of Israel’s uncompromising
enemies. The dream lives on.
Netanyahu, of course, filled the breach. Netanyahu spoke about the
impossibility of a “right of return.” “It’s not going to happen,” he
said, as the president sat impassive alongside him. “Everybody knows
it’s not going to happen. And I think it’s time to tell the
Palestinians forthrightly it’s not going to happen.”
But Obama did no such thing. For the second day in succession the
president, in the same week as the Nakba assault on Israel’s borders,
when it came to this central demand by the Palestinians that simply
cannot be accepted because it would spell the demographic demise of our
state, was dismayingly, insistently, resonantly silent.