Putting 'Palestine' on the map?

That a movie about suicide bombers is up for an Oscar on Sunday is disturbing enough.

paradise film 298 (photo credit: )
paradise film 298
(photo credit: )
For many Jewish groups, it was bad enough that Paradise Now, a film about two Palestinians undertaking a suicide mission, was nominated for an Oscar. But then the reel provocation became real: The official Academy Awards Web site listed the film's country of origin as "Palestine." The designation sparked protests from some organizations and Israeli officials, arguing that, at the very least, the term is inaccurate, as no state of Palestine exists. That doesn't seem to have moved the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
John Pavlik, the academy's director of communications, told The Jerusalem Post that "Palestine" was the country listed on the submission form. He added, "We referred to the submission as being from the 'Palestinian Authority' when we announced the nominations. That and 'the Palestinian territories' are under consideration for use on the March 5th telecast." The Web site, though, continues to label the submitting country as "Palestine" and notes that, "This is the first Academy Award nomination for Palestine." While it might be the first Palestinian nomination, the Web posting is hardly the first Israeli loss on the battlefield of terminology. Especially the terminology of "Palestine." Other international cultural icons have listed Palestine as a country of origin before - notably the Athens Olympics in 2004. And assorted media personalities, non-governmental organizations and activists have made it standard practice to use the term. Even political leaders and diplomats, who used to be more cautious in their use of the politically charged word, have been heard to utter it across Europe and even in North America. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, for example, gave a speech on terrorism before the United Nations Security Council in September of 2005 in which he said: "There are real injustices in our world: poverty, that it is our duty to eradicate; conflicts, not least that between Israel and Palestine, it is our duty to help resolve; nation building as in Iraq and Afghanistan that it is our responsibility to help deliver." Former Foreign Ministry director-general Alon Liel estimates that a decade ago, only one out of 10 diplomats would dare vocalize the word Palestine in the company of an Israeli official, who was supposed to object and leave the room. Now that ratio is much higher. "In every third meeting it happens," he says. "How much can you protest? It would be ridiculous." As Gideon Meir, the Foreign Ministry's deputy director-general for media and public affairs, puts it, "We don't jump every time we hear it." He considers the issue to be one of "semantics" that simply needs correcting when it arises. "I don't see a big problem with it because it's being done out of ignorance, not on purpose." BUT MANY Israel advocates say it's a mistake to dismiss the phenomenon. "Unfortunately, Israel often concedes the struggle over terminology and then pays the price in negotiations later," asserts Dore Gold, a former Israeli ambassador to the UN. He points to the widespread application of the phrase "occupied territories" rather than "disputed territories" to the West Bank and Gaza. (Some argue the same is true of using even the latter designation rather than "Judea" and "Samaria.") "It may be happening again with the term Palestine," Gold suggests. According to Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the problem with using the term Palestine is that "it really short-circuits the process that could lead to a peaceful solution." Why, he asks, would Palestinians compromise if they feel there are "getting everything," including international recognition, already? Alan Schneider, director of the B'nai B'rith World Center, is worried not just about what the word "Palestine" means for on-the-ground negotiations, but how it fits into a wider international campaign against Israel. B'nai B'rith, he says, was the first organization to protest the use of "Palestine" at the last Olympics. "It perpetuates the lie that there was [historically] a Palestinian state. You undermine Israeli sovereignty at some point," he says, explaining that, "If you insist that there's a state in this area called Palestine, it has to overlap Israel. Where is it? Where's its capital?" In short, he says, "It's part of the disinformation campaign. It's part of the deligitimization campaign." A campaign that on some levels seems to be working. "Well-informed individuals are starting to believe that there was a Palestinian state before 1947," Gold notes. Gold points to 1988 as a watershed in the use of "Palestine." That was the year the UN passed a resolution renaming the PLO mission as that of Palestine, though the change meant nothing when it came to prerogatives. Back then, according to Liel, when a diplomat use the word Palestine when speaking to an Israeli, it was done in order to annoy or embarrass the latter. Turkey and the Scandinavian countries were chief offenders, he says, as was Nelson Mandela, who always used the term whenever they met while Liel was the ambassador to South Africa. Today, he says, the practice is so widespread, it's done merely as a matter of course - forethought now means consciously using "Palestinian Authority" when in the presence of Israelis. And when Palestine is used on purpose, Liel explains, there is another goal: "They want to make the point that this is what the world is absolutely expecting, that there will be a Palestinian state." He calls the use of the word a "trial balloon" for assessing Israel's acceptance of that geopolitical reality. And indeed, he continues, Israelis have accepted it. "When you say the word 'Palestine,' it's not as shocking to the Israeli public as when you said it 10, 15 years ago. Because the question is not whether there will be a Palestinian state, but how big will it be, how will it look," Liel says. "This is a waste of time, to try to battle against the use of this term when the majority of the Israeli public accepts the creation of a Palestinian state."