Encountering Peace: This piece is for the Palestinians

A couple of weeks ago I was approached by a popular Palestinian news website with the request that I write a regular column for them.

Palestinian woman with flag 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Ammar Awad)
Palestinian woman with flag 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Ammar Awad)
A couple of weeks ago I was approached by a popular Palestinian news website with the request that I write a regular column for them. As with my column in The Jerusalem Post, it would be without pay, but because of the unique opportunity to speak directly to the Palestinian public, I immediately agreed.
They published my first column in English and Arabic, in which I called to task those Palestinians who falsely accuse Israel of making plans to destroy al-Aksa Mosque and rebuild the Temple in its place. These accusations are extremely dangerous and could easily lead to violence.
My second column took the Palestinians to task on the issue of recognizing Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. Unlike the first article, this was too difficult for them. They proposed a whole series of edits, some of which I agreed to, but in the end it was too difficult for them to publish the article.
I told them I had been writing for The Jerusalem Post regularly since February 2005 and I never had the Post tell me that they would not publish something I wrote, even though my articles often anger a majority of the Post’s readers.
Palestinians pride themselves on their democratic values and intentions. I recognize that they are the underdog, living under Israeli control and not enjoying democratic rights from Israel. Nonetheless, I had expected them to publish this piece. I notified them that I would not write for them again.
In his speech opening the winter session of the Knesset this week, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu asked a very good question. “Instead of asking why Israel should be recognized as the nation-state of the Jewish people,” he asked, “why it is so hard for the Palestinians to do so?” As I said, this is a good question, and worthy of an answer.
I could ask Netanyahu why Israel requires such recognition.
On September 13, 1993, on the White House lawn, Yasser Arafat gave prime minister Yitzchak Rabin a letter which stated: “Mr. Prime Minister, the signing of the Declaration of Principles marks a new era in the history of the Middle East. In firm conviction thereof, I would like to confirm the following PLO commitments: The PLO recognizes the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and security...
” Nonetheless, many Israelis, including the current prime minister, believe that the Palestinian leader and the Palestinian people, then and today, do not really accept the legitimacy of Israel’s existence and are not really prepared to make genuine, lasting peace.
Many Israelis speak about a “two stage solution,” and not a “two state solution,” referring to the idea that the Palestinians are willing to make peace with Israel today because Israel is strong and the Palestinians are weak. But one day soon, they suggest, that will change, and then Israel will be wiped off the map.
Those Israeli views are empowered by the continuation of incitement against Israel and Jews in the Palestinian media and in textbooks.
Dr. Yuval Steinitz, Israel’s minister of intelligence and international affairs, writing in The New York Times this week, stated: “The Palestinian Authority’s television and radio stations, public schools, summer camps, children’s magazines and websites are being used to drive home four core messages. First, that the existence of a Jewish state (regardless of its borders) is illegitimate because there is no Jewish people and no Jewish history in this piece of land.... And until it [the incitement] ends, the current round of talks cannot hope to reach a successful outcome.”
The issue of incitement against Israel and the Jewish people is of real, serious concern to the Israeli government and the Israeli people, and must be confronted by Palestinian leaders and by the Palestinian people.
Palestine Media Watch is an Israeli organization that I don’t particularly like, due to its own form of incitement, which is very anti-Palestine. Nonetheless, PMW has an enormous collection of examples of incitement on their website. A lot of the official Israeli documentation of incitement comes from this source. Their website can and should by examined by all Palestinians who question Israel’s concerns about Palestinian incitement against Israel (www.palwatch.org).
I know that the reality of occupation is harsh and that there is a great deal of daily suffering for Palestinians. I am very aware of the thousands of Palestinians in Israeli prisons.
It is clear that every aspect of life for Palestinians is under Israeli control and domination.
There is no argument that the Palestinian people must gain their freedom and liberation from Israeli occupation.
But there are many questions regarding Palestinians’ true willingness and readiness to live in lasting peace next to Israel that must be addressed.
SO WHY is it so hard for Palestinians to recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people? I know that the concept “Jewish” is complex. Most Palestinians, and many non-Jews for that matter, confuse Judaism, the religion, with Judaism, the people. Why should there be a Jewish state, they ask – referring to Israel as a theocracy.
Israel’s Jewishness, though, is much more than that. In fact, Israel is a civil state, not a religious one. While laws of personal status (inherited from the Ottomans – also in Palestine) are controlled by the religious clergy and communities, the laws of the State of Israel are civil laws, not religious laws.
I am Jewish. I am completely secular yet I am very Jewish and very much feel a part of the Jewish people, in Israel and around the world. For me, Israel is my national home, not only because of religion, but because I feel myself to be part of the Jewish people. I know that this is confusing. But it is very true.
I know that Palestinians are concerned about the welfare of the 1.2 million Palestinian citizens of the State of Israel. If Israel is recognized as the nation-state of the Jewish people, what becomes of them? Firstly, every country in the world which is recognized as a nation-state of one people has minorities in its midst. If those states are democratic there are guarantees for the protection of the rights of these minorities.
France is the nation-state of the French, yet there are many minority groups there (most of them Muslim) and no one questions the rights of the French people to define their state as such.
Germany is the nation-state of the German people, with a minority of millions of Turks. No one questions the right of the Germans to define their state as the nation-state of the German people, while at the same time guaranteeing the rights of the Turkish citizens who live there – the majority of whom were born in Germany.
It is true that the Palestinian people are native to Palestine, unlike the Turks in Germany, but today they are a large ethnic and religious minority in Germany.
The rights of the Palestinian minority in Israel must be protected. They are living on their land, in their country.
Unlike France and Germany, the overwhelming majority of Palestinian Israelis live in communities which are exclusively Palestinian. They study in schools in Arabic and have cultural institutions of their own developing Arabic culture in Israel, supported by the state.
Yes, there is discrimination against the Palestinian citizens in Israel, and full equal rights do not yet exist in practice, but the situation is constantly improving, most notably in education and employment.
NO ONE questions the right of the Palestinian citizens of Israel to live in exclusively Palestinian communities or to study in schools which are exclusively Palestinian.
The prime minister of Israel and the overwhelming majority of Jewish Israelis do not even contemplate the possibility that Palestinian recognition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people would open a door to claims that the Palestinian citizens of Israel should be forced to leave.
The only people I have heard speaking about the notion of “an exclusive Jewish state” are Palestinians.
This is simply not part of the Israeli discourse; if it were, there would be hundreds of thousands of Israelis in the streets to prevent it.
I also know that Palestinians are concerned that if they recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, they would forfeit any claims they wish to make in negotiations with Israel regarding the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to the homes they lost inside of Israel in 1948.
The refugee issue is on the table and the parties will negotiate it. It is true that there is a fundamental contradiction between the idea of the “two states for two peoples” solution and the right of return of any significant number of Palestinians to Israel proper.
It is highly unlikely that any government of Israel would ever accept the return of more than a symbolic number of refugees to Israel proper. From previous Israeli- Palestinian negotiations, the formulas that have been discussed (yet never agreed upon) all indicate that the number of returnees will be less than 150,000, which has been the number put on the table in the past by various Palestinian negotiators. Israel negotiators have never agreed to go above some 50,000.
The principle of return to the State of Palestine as an option open to all Palestinians everywhere always seems to be acceptable as one of the choices Palestinian refugees will ultimately be able to decide on. I believe that the vast majority of Palestinian refugees who want to return should consider going back to the “homeland,” referring to the State of Palestine, and not to their original homes, which in many cases no longer exist and in other cases have been lived in by others for the past six decades. This is certainly true for the Palestinians who originate from west Jerusalem, Jaffa, Acre, Ramle, Lod, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Yavne and dozens of other larger cities and towns.
That is a hard reality to swallow, I know. But that is the fundamental principle behind the strategic decision that Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian people made when on November 15, 1988, they declared independence of the Palestinian state on the lands occupied by Israel in 1967, supporting the two-state solution and thereby giving up their claim to the lands beyond in Israel proper. In all Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on permanent status, the PLO leadership has never made territorial claims beyond the June 1967 borders.
SO AGAIN I ask: why is it so difficult to recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people? I really don’t know.
Unless, as the right-wingers in Israel suggest, the Palestinian people are not really ready to make peace with Israel.
Here is what I propose. The Palestinian leaders, with the support of the people, should state the following: When Israel is prepared to recognize the rights of the Palestinian people for a nation-state of their own, based on the June 1967 borders with agreed-to minimal territorial swaps, with the Palestinian capital in Jerusalem and an agreed-solution to the refugee issue (as stated in the Arab Peace Initiative) and with adequate guarantees for the individual and collective rights of the Palestinian minority in Israel, then we, the Palestinian leadership and people will be prepared to recognize Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people.
That should not be too difficult to say, and the sooner the better.
The author is the co-chairman of IPCRI, the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information, a columnist for The Jerusalem Post and the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel for the release of Gilad Schalit. His new book, Freeing Gilad: the Secret Back Channel, has been published by Kinneret Zmora Bitan in Hebrew, and his The Negotiator: Freeing Gilad Schalit from Hamas has been published by The Toby Press.