Veteran Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat may still feel the need to prove his “steadfastness” after Al Jazeera and Guardian commentators used the leaked “Palestine Papers” to accuse him of a despicable willingness to compromise in negotiations with Israel.
Erekat seized the opportunity to burnish his credentials when the Mideast Quartet announced after a recent meeting that it would not endorse a unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood. Erekat blasted this decision, claiming that “the West’s attitude toward Israel is ‘pushing the region toward violence, anarchy, extremism and bloodshed’.”
How about a little modification so that this sentence actually makes sense: the Arab world’s attitude towards Israel is pushing the region toward violence, anarchy, extremism and bloodshed.
It is, after all, the glorification of “resistance” and “jihad” against Israel that has been used for decades to radicalize the people of the Arab world in order to distract them from the dismal conditions created by autocratic rulers and regimes.
But there is yet another way to turn Erekat’s outburst into a realistic assessment: the West’s attitude toward the Palestinians is pushing the region toward violence, anarchy, extremism and bloodshed.
As the leaked “Palestine Papers” show, the Palestinians still demand “justice” for some seven million “refugees” – and nobody dares to point out that there is no such thing as a hereditary refugee status. Indeed, an UNRWA official who recently tried to challenge some of the illusions that have been created to keep generations of Palestinians in refugee camps was promptly punished for breaking a taboo.
A few weeks after this incident, Saeb Erekat used the 62nd anniversary of UN resolution 194 last December to advertise once again the “politically correct” line:
“Palestinian refugees constitute more than 7 million people worldwide – 70% of the entire Palestinian population. Disregarding their legitimate legal rights enshrined in international law, their understandable grievances accrued over prolonged displacement, and their aspirations to return to their homeland, would certainly make any peace deal signed with Israel completely untenable.”
To be sure, the leaked “Palestine Papers” show that behind closed doors, the Palestinian negotiators were willing to acknowledge that it was unrealistic to insist that millions or even hundreds of thousands of Palestinians could claim a “right of return” to Israel. But it is arguably a sad reflection of the absurdities that pass for political argument these days that many commentators felt that giving up on an entirely imaginary “right” should be described as some kind of major “concession.”
This illustrates that when it comes to the issue of Palestinian refugees, “narratives”, no matter how unrealistic, have long reigned supreme. One of the leaked papers that, according to Al Jazeera*, contains the minutes of a meeting between Saeb Erekat, Ahmed Qurei (Abu Ala) and Tzipi Livni on March 24, 2008, provides another revealing example for the difficulties that are created when narratives replace facts and reality in negotiations that are supposed to achieve a peace agreement.
(*It has to be noted that the papers published by Al Jazeera are a rather problematic source, because it is not possible to assess their authenticity, and it is impossible to know if the documents were altered or edited in any way.)
During the course of this meeting, Ahmed Qurei argued that it was important to define who was responsible for the Palestinian refugee problem. Qurei noted later on that he didn’t want “to go back to the past to become its slave but to pave the way for the future.”
Tzipi Livni responded by explaining that she believed that addressing historic questions like the responsibility for the refugee problem would do little to advance the negotiations, and though she tried hard to express her empathy with Palestinian suffering, she firmly rejected any acknowledgement of Israeli responsibility for the flight of Palestinians. Eventually, Saeb Erekat remarked:
“I don’t want to go into responsibility, etc. But as an individual, when I make a mistake I apologize. We raised the issue of responsibility because we are serious about peace. If I were Israeli, I would be asking will people forgive me? [i.e. what do I need to do to secure forgiveness?] I will not compare anything to the Holocaust but Merkel spoke in German in front of the Knesset giving an apology. On the moral level, what is the problem with saying sorry?”
Later on in this discussion, Udi Dekel, who also attended the meeting, noted that “No one will ever forgive Germany for the Holocaust, in spite of Merkel’s speech in the Knesset.” Livni added: “But he wants us to apologize when Palestinians will never forgive us!”
There is arguably a lot of wisdom in Qurei’s remark about not wanting “to go back to the past to become its slave but to pave the way for the future.” However, if we look to the past to provide the paving stones for the future, narratives won’t do, because historical facts matter – particularly if the future is to be peaceful.
So it’s worthwhile to address Erekat’s glib suggestion that Israelis shouldn’t have a problem “with saying sorry.” Even if we grant him that he did not want to “compare anything to the Holocaust,” he obviously felt that the Israelis should ask the Palestinians for forgiveness. But this means quite plainly that Erekat would like Israeli Jews to apologize for having been forced to fight a desperate defensive war for survival, which was actually Israel’s costliest war in terms of casualties.
To be sure, Arab residents of Palestine were also affected by this war, and many fled, either to avoid the fighting, or because they were indeed driven out by the Israeli forces. But the war had been declared on behalf of the Arabs of Palestine, and there can be little doubt that most of them fervently hoped that the Jewish defenders would suffer a devastating defeat. The man who was looked upon as a leader by many of the Arabs of Palestine had spent the years of World War II as a close and well-paid ally of the Nazis and he agreed very much with their ideas of a “final solution” for “the Jewish problem.”
The legacy of al-Husseini lives on in Hamas; indeed, according to an academic Palestinian biography, Husseini “was named a local leader of the Muslim Brotherhood after its establishment in Jerusalem in the mid-1940s by followers of Hassan Al-Banna, who founded the Brotherhood in Egypt in 1928.” It is also noteworthy that Husseini continued to be regarded as a prominent Islamic leader until his retirement from public life in the early 1960s.
Until this very day, much of the Arab and Muslim world remains convinced that there was nothing wrong with waging a brutal war of aggression to prevent the re-establishment of a Jewish state in a small part of the historic Jewish homeland. And few see anything wrong with the persecution suffered by Jews in Arab countries in retribution for the establishment of Israel.
How about acknowledging the profound injustice of this past to pave the way for a peaceful future?
Any problems “on the moral level,” Mr. Erekat?