Palestinian - Israel Normalization: betrayal or peace?

Daniel Barenboim and his West-Eastern Divan orchestra comprising Arab and Israeli musicians thank the audience during a free concert in Buenos Aires (photo credit: MARCOS BRINDICCI/REUTERS)
Daniel Barenboim and his West-Eastern Divan orchestra comprising Arab and Israeli musicians thank the audience during a free concert in Buenos Aires
For the hard-line supporters of the Palestinian cause, “normalization” (or “tatbia” in Arabic) is the worst political sin any Palestinian can commit. It has been adopted as a term of abuse by the Palestinian leadership and by organizations that support them – including the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement – to stigmatize any form of joint Palestinian-Israeli activity.
In June, the Palestinian Authority (PA) sacked a man from its Education Ministry and removed him as council chief of the West Bank village of Deir Kadis after a social media video showed four Israeli neighbors joining in the celebration at his son’s wedding.
In December 2018, a Palestinian court in Ramallah sentenced a Palestinian-American to life imprisonment for brokering the sale of a house in the Old City of Jerusalem to an Israeli organization.
In September 2016, the PA arrested four Palestinians for sharing a cup of coffee with Jewish community members in the West Bank town of Efrat, claiming that it was a crime for Palestinians to meet socially with Jewish settlers because it promoted normalization.
In short, in the view of the anti-normalizers, no form of joint activity, cooperation or dialogue with Israelis is acceptable, even engaging with Israeli peace activists who have the best of intentions toward them. All such undertakings must be viewed as collaboration with the enemy, the “colonial oppressors” of the Palestinian people.
The elephant in this room is that every day some 130,000 Palestinians cross into Israel from the West Bank to work for some 8,100 employers. They engage in a whole variety of jobs, and their employment is an important part of the West Bank economy. Palestinians working in Israel bring home about NIS five billion ($1.4 billion). Their average salary is two-and-a-half times the average salary in the Palestinian autonomous areas.
In addition to the Palestinians who work in Israel, around 36,000 are employed in Israeli firms in the West Bank, many earning up to three times the average Palestinian wage. Israel has established several industrial zones there, comprising around 1,000 businesses in all.
This ongoing demonstration of Palestinian-Israeli joint activity on a massive scale is rarely referred to by the anti-normalization activists, perhaps because of the sheer number of Palestinians involved, multiplied by their families, or perhaps because of the economic benefits the Palestinian community undoubtedly derives from it. Attempts by the anti-normalizers to interfere with this would probably result in a political backlash from the substantial numbers of Palestinians whose livelihood depends on their Israeli jobs.
So turning a blind eye to this inconvenient aspect of the issue, the anti-normalization campaign has devised a long and detailed rationale for its program. Produced in 2011 by one of the founding organizations of the BDS movement, the paper (republished as “What is Normalization?”) seeks to define the term in relation to its most important manifestations. The arguments are deployed in a mainly calm and reasoned manner, designed to convince the intelligent reader of their validity. Their cogency, however, is entirely dependent on acceptance of the document’s core assumptions: that Israel is, in their terms, both a “colonial oppressor” and an apartheid state.
The “colonial oppressor” charge, made repeatedly in the paper, is shorthand for the anti-Zionist argument that Israel was created as the result of invasion and occupation by Western colonialists, and that the Jewish people have no historic connection to the Holy Land.
“It is helpful to think of normalization,” runs the paper, “as a ‘colonialization of the mind’.” This view ignores how the League of Nations and the United Nations, with the world’s approval, endorsed establishing a Jewish homeland in the area once known as Palestine. (The official wording of the Mandate handed to Great Britain includes: “…recognition has thereby been given to the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine and to the grounds for reconstituting their national home in that country.”)
Ignoring or rejecting the internationally approved basis for the creation of Israel, the essential call of the paper is for resistance to Israel’s existence. Any joint project, it says, “that is not based on a resistance framework serves to normalize relations.” However the paper does not venture into any definition of “resistance,” nor offer any assessment of what the limits of such action should be. So it has no room for considering that the steps taken by Israel to protect its citizens against decades of terrorist activity, often termed “resistance,” are largely what explain the “oppressor” tag.
The authors attempt to persuade Arab-Israelis – that is, Palestinian citizens of Israel who form some 20% of the population – that they are living in an apartheid state. This argument, at least, must fall on deaf ears. As voters, tax-payers, workers and citizens in a fully functioning multi-ethnic state, it is patently obvious to Israel’s Arab population that apartheid philosophy forms no part of the democratic functioning of their country.
The authors go on to argue that when Israeli-Arab citizens participate in international events – they cite as an example the Eurovision song contest – they contribute to what they call a “deceptive” appearance of tolerance, democracy and normal life in Israel. In short, the authors assert that Israel is an intolerant and undemocratic country where a normal life is impossible. Such an assertion clearly at odds with reality – just as the constantly repeated apartheid charge – can gain hold only with people who have no direct knowledge of Israel, and are prepared to believe whatever they are told.
Turning to the international context, the paper urges its BDS supporters to refrain from participating in any event that “morally or politically equates the oppressor and oppressed” since such an event “normalizes Israel’s colonial domination over Palestinians.” The authors repudiate all efforts at fostering reconciliation, healing or dialogue unless such initiatives explicitly aim “to end oppression,” as they conceive it.
They pick out two Palestinian-Israeli bodies dedicated to dialogue and joint action aimed at achieving a peaceful solution to the Israel-Palestinian dispute: OneVoice and IPCRI (the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information). Both are roundly excoriated because in the authors’ view, their purpose is too limited. They do not embrace the need to struggle jointly against “Israel’s colonial and apartheid policies,” and they ignore “the rights of Palestinian refugees.” In short, the paper asserts that such joint cooperative initiatives aimed at fostering peace “serve to normalize oppression and injustice.”
As for the two-state solution, specifically promoted by IPCRI, the BDS authors reject it out of hand. In their view, acknowledging Israel’s right to exist at all “advocates an apartheid state in Israel that disenfranchises the indigenous Palestinian citizens,” and ignores the “right of return” of the Palestinian refugees.
In passing, it should be noted that in 1948, up to 750,000 Palestinian Arabs fled their homes. Over the years the UN body dealing with the problem, UNRWA (UN Relief and Works Agency) developed a unique method of counting them – they passed on the refugee status to their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, regardless of whether these people had acquired citizenship in their host countries. For example, 1.8 million Jordanian citizens are still classified by UNRWA as Palestinian refugees.
As a result, UNRWA asserts that today there are more than five million Palestinian refugees – a number growing exponentially, year by year. The figure is seized on by BDS, which demands the “right of return” for all of them, without explaining how the dwellings that 70 years ago housed 750,000 people could today accommodate five million.
It seems clear from what BDS and its supporters write and say that in their minds, the Arab-Israeli conflict is not over, and the sovereign state of Israel is a temporary phenomenon that will be overthrown, given sufficient time and effort. Any attempt at reconciliation, at normalization, undermines this objective. It is a sad fact that by refusing to accept that Israel is a permanent presence in the Middle East, by advocating continuing resistance and turning their backs on any attempt at reconciliation, they are essentially condemning generations of Palestinians, as well as Israelis, to a perpetual state of conflict.
To avoid this outcome, the anti-normalization campaign would need to reassess the political situation taking account of current realities, and reshape its objectives into achieving something politically feasible.
The Abraham Fund is a leading non-partisan, nonprofit Israeli organization working to advance coexistence and equality among Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens. On August 29, it published the results of a research study among Jewish voters in the recent election, targeting those who had voted for Center-Left parties. The research showed that a party highlighting issues of concern to Arab communities suffered no deleterious effect on the level of its support, while including a message about equality between Israelis and Arabs increased its support by 11%. The study concluded that there is a base of positive attitudes among left-leaning Israeli voters on which to build future Arab-Israeli cooperation.
There is also already a plethora of positive action. All across Israel, people of good will are reaching out to their Arab neighbors in a whole range of joint ventures aimed at fostering friendship and ending decades of hostility. There are literally hundreds of organizations and groups in every field – economic, educational, industrial, commercial, agricultural – actively encouraging cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians.
To pluck out just a few examples: Tech2Peace brings Israeli and Palestinian young people together to learn tech skills; The Palestinian Internship Program (PIP) provides young Palestinian graduates with work experience at leading Israel-based companies; the Hand in Hand: Center for Jewish-Arab Education in Israel is a network of integrated, bilingual schools for Jewish and Arab children; the Hagar School is an integrated, bilingual educational institution for Jewish and Arab students in the Negev; Olives of Peace is a joint Israeli-Palestinian business venture to sell olive oil; Daniel Barenboim has created a world-class orchestra – the East-Western Divan – by bringing together young Israeli and Arab musicians without regard to ethnic or political affiliations; The Peres Center for Peace and Innovation runs an impressive wide range of programs fostering joint Israeli-Palestinian cooperation across business, agriculture, education, health, culture and sports.
The list of such joint Israeli-Arab ventures aimed at breaking down barriers and promoting understanding is very long. All such efforts are condemned out of hand by anti-normalization campaigners, and their influence reaches deep into the Palestinian political leadership.
Clearly they fear that normalization is the thin end of a wedge that will promote mutual understanding and eventually end the age-long Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
But this total rejection of normalization could prove to be their Achilles heel. If those who seek peace – both Israelis and Palestinians – began promoting the concept of normalization with the same zeal as those who expend so much energy opposing it, they might find themselves beating the rejectionists at their own game.
The writer is Middle East correspondent for Eurasia Review. His latest book is The Chaos in the Middle East: 2014-2016. He blogs at: