The real reason behind 'Nakba Day'

So long as the real meaning of “Nakba,” i.e. 1948, serves as the Palestinians' main point of reference, negotiations are bound to fail. But as long as Israel refuses to address 1967, the Palestinians will continue reverting back to 1948.

Jaffa Nakba Day 311 (photo credit: Ben Hartman)
Jaffa Nakba Day 311
(photo credit: Ben Hartman)
The significance of "Nakba Day 2011" far transcends the here and now of contemporary Middle East politics.
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It provided breaking news for both the Israeli Left and Right. The Left learned that "Nakba Day" is not about Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's refusal to embrace the latest, beautifully structured two-state peace plan drawn up by some peace group in the home of a "concerned" businessman terrified of "September." For their part the Right may be shocked to discover that "Nakba Day" does not justify or validate the myopic foolishness called "settlements," and neither does it in any way prove that the status-quo is sustainable.
It is not even about the Palestinian right to define their own history and consciousness as an outcome of a catastrophe that occurred in 1948 (the closest literal translation of "Nakba").
Beyond the unpleasant images of unruly demonstrations, "Nakba Day" represents something much deeper. While we may fundamentally disagree with the Palestinians' interpretation of history and their selective manipulation of facts, it is entirely natural and legitimate for them to define it as they wish. That this interpretation is not only inaccurate but also constitutes the main source of their plight ever since 1948 is something that needs to be expressed by us, not them. But that this interpretation proved to be a contagion of ineptitude for generations of Palestinian terrorists-turned-politicians, and inflicted paralysis and unstatesmanlike demeanor, is their tragedy, not ours. Nevertheless, our proximity means that we suffer the consequences just as much.
Certain commentators and politicians chose to connect the generally peaceful demonstrations to the uprisings happening throughout the Arab world in the last five months. The Palestinians, so goes the somewhat lackadaisical comparison, have adopted the "Arab Spring" and will now consider marching through the Israel’s streets. Aside from the unfortunate fact that the term “Arab Spring” is commonly used erroneously, it also misses the point. While the modus operandi may have been borrowed from Tunisia or Egypt, these third-generation Palestinians are not protesting the same things. "Nakba Day" wasn’t merely an outburst of frustrations, emotions or anti-Israeli sentiments. The support and encouragement from the criminal Syrian regime experiencing its own uprisings should be enough to refute the “Arab Spring” analogy. But that, too, isn't the point.
The central point of "Nakba Day" is 1948 versus 1967.
Examining the peace process since the Oslo Accords of 1993, any analyst, diplomat or Arabist can come up with a multitude of reasons for its failures. But there is one common thread between them. In every stage of negotiations, resolving the core issues invariably came to an impasse over the right of return and Jerusalem. The territorial issue and the future of settlements, on the other hand, always carried more than one feasible solution.
Many on the Israeli Left will tell you that both the refugee issue and the future of Jerusalem also have sufficiently plausible solutions. They are right and wrong at the same time. Yes, there are solutions, but not one is acceptable to both sides. For a long time, the Left has erred when it tried to apply a rational, liberal-western rational mode of problem solving to the Palestinians' interpretation of the issues.
Equally delusional and dangerous is the Israeli right-wing, who for decades negated every solution by turning a contentious and complex political issue into an intractable cultural/religious/civilizational one.
The Israeli political spectrum, at one time a proud testament to the country’s democracy, has degenerated into a tiresome platitudacracy. Yet both ends of it still share one thing: for 18 years they’ve argued over the wrong set of issues.
Policies were devised and arguments made regarding the peace process based on 1967 issues, including territory, a Palestinian state and settlements. Without doubt, these are monumental issues and their resolution is a prerequisite to any final status agreement. Yet all the while, the Palestinians were preoccupied with 1948 issues, including the refugees’ right of return and not least of all, regarding Israel's very existence. True, the Palestinians have come a long way in recognizing Israel and agreeing to negotiate with it, but they never really changed “1948” as being the primary term of reference. Yes, the two-state model that the Palestinians ostensibly endorsed and are ready to accept is based on 1967 issues, but like it or not, their narrative remains rooted in the year of Israel’s birth.
This goes some way in explaining what transpired at Camp David in July 2000 and why it failed. It wasn't just former PLO leader Yasser Arafat's lack of courage and leadership; nor was it down to the then-prime minister Ehud Barak's style and pattern of negotiations; it also wasn't the absence of Arab support for a Palestinian compromise; and it wasn’t because of the US' policy. While all these factors indeed contributed to the failed endeavor, the thing that doomed it from the beginning was the incompatible narratives between Israel and the Palestinians.
The Israeli narrative, otherwise known as Zionism, is based on 2000 years of statelessness resulting in the acceptance of the UN Partition Plan of 1947. The Palestinian narrative is based on what they believe happened in 1948. 1948 predicates the irreconcilability of these narratives. In other words, did Israel's independence come at the expense of the Palestinians? It's that simple and that complicated.
Thus, the endless debates surrounding Barak’s “missed opportunity” at Camp David (including Israel’s "take it or leave it" approach and the US’ failure to enlist Egypt) are really of only marginal historical value, and in this context seem moot.
Arafat could not conceivably have accepted Israel’s two central tenets of "ending of conflict" and the "finality of all claims." This is because Camp David was about the "Nakba."
Notwithstanding, it would be remiss to wholly attribute determinism to the "Nakba" as if the Palestinian narrative is some immutable law of politics that condemns Israel. The need to separate from the Palestinians is imperative, not some do-good caprice. A Palestinian state is not a Zionist dream, and nor will it end the conflict as long as the “Nakba” serves as the main point of reference in self-determination.
Nonetheless, a bold Israeli strategy that addresses 1967, while it won’t be devoid of heartbreak and risk, is still the right policy. And herein lies the current tragedy: for the last two years Israel refused to present a plan and conned its way out of negotiations, making matters infinitely worse.
The refusal to address 1967 only exacerbated things, and has meant that the Palestinians instead evoked 1948 - turning it from narrative into policy. And lo, the world is being convinced that they have a point.
The writer is a diplomat who recently served as consul-general in New York.