Encountering Peace: If I were the Palestinian leader...

Your freedom from Israeli occupation is my freedom as an Israeli from occupying you. I need to be free from this occupation just as you need to be free from it.

A Palestinian man smokes a cigarette beside Israeli soldiers after minor clashes with Palestinian stone-throwers in the West Bank city of Hebron February 23, 2010 (photo credit: REUTERS/AMMAR AWAD)
A Palestinian man smokes a cigarette beside Israeli soldiers after minor clashes with Palestinian stone-throwers in the West Bank city of Hebron February 23, 2010
(photo credit: REUTERS/AMMAR AWAD)
This column is usually directed at the pro-Israel, Jewish audience. I have been spending a lot of time lately with young, smart, ambitious and thoughtful Palestinians from all over the West Bank. We have had a lot of deep and challenging discussions. I would like to direct this column toward them.
Recently I was asked: “If you were Abu Mazen [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas], what would you do?” This is what I told them: The first thing I would do is call for new national elections. Abbas is serving the 12th year of a four-year term and he lacks public and political legitimacy. Personally I like Abbas a lot, have a lot of respect for him and genuinely believe he is a man of peace. But all of that is irrelevant. The Palestinian people must be given a chance to make a decision regarding who they want to lead and represent them. The internal Palestinian divisions can no longer serve as an excuse for not allowing the people to elect their leaders and return Palestine to the path of building a democratic society. If Hamas does not allow the elections to take place in Gaza, then hold them only in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
There are no doubt lots of risks involved in new Palestinian elections. Nonetheless, elections must be held. There should be an election law that would enable a democratic process to exist and to prevent this from being the last time elections are held. The election law should state clearly and explicitly that participation is based on adhering to several guiding democratic principles; parties which support the use of violence would not be allowed to participate.
Parties that do not support the principle of equality for all Palestinians regardless of religion or gender would not be allowed to participate. Parties which seek to disband and eliminate the principles of democracy would not be allowed to participate. A national elections commission must be established with strong independent commissioners who are not operatives of any of the parties or any of the current leaders or candidates.
The Palestinians must review and rewrite their textbooks and remove all of those elements which deny the existence of Israel, contain antisemitic content, teach and foster a culture of hate and encourage martyrdom and death instead of encouraging young people to live a productive and constructive life for themselves, their family and their nation. They do not have to rewrite history. Israel has been their enemy and history is history. The Nakba did take place and Palestinians have suffered and continue to suffer greatly.
But if they continue to teach that the occupation began in 1948 and that the Jews are invaders, conquerors and foreign elements that never had any connection to this land, we will never have a fair chance at reaching peace. The denial of Israel’s existence in Palestinian textbooks and the implicit message that Israel should not exist is a distortion of fact and reality and teaches Palestinian young people to oppose any deal that supports a two-state solution and any peace with the State of Israel. This is a disservice to Palestinians themselves.
Yes, there are reforms and revisions which are necessary to make in Israeli textbooks as well, but this is not a legitimate excuse to continue to use textbooks in Palestine which not only teach hate but send a very clear message to Israelis that Palestinians are not honest and genuine when they say that they are a partner for peace.
Likewise, I think that the Palestinian leadership must remove from the table the whole issue of recognition of the Jewish identity of the State of Israel. Palestinians lose nothing by stating that when negotiations are complete and Israel and Palestine reach agreements on all of the issues including borders, settlements, Jerusalem, refugees and mutual security, and when there are guarantees for the equal rights of the Palestinian citizens of Israel, there will be no reason not to recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish People. Palestine should be equally recognized as the nation-state of the Palestinian People. Stating this would remove one more significant reason most Israeli believe Palestinians do not want peace. And yes, Israel should also recognize Palestinians’ rights to statehood. But one side should not have to wait for the other to take the first step and do the right thing.
Lastly, I believe that the Palestinian leadership must seek real engagement with Israeli society, including with businesses that are interested in investing in Palestine, with people interested in working together to build peaceful relations, in cultural exchanges, in encouraging Palestinians to learn Hebrew and Israelis to learn Arabic. The BDS and “anti-normalization” strategy lacks coherence, has no stated political goal of supporting Israeli-Palestinian peace and is counterproductive to enlisting the most important audience for supporting Palestinian rights (the Israeli people).
I don’t believe in normalizing with occupation and a big part of me has always hoped that the Palestinians would have the solidarity and willingness to endure the suffering that would come from a strategic decision in favor of total non-violent non-cooperation with the occupation. But that solidarity is not present and in any case would be very costly in Palestinian lives, as well as bringing about the arrest and incarceration of tens of thousands of Palestinians (in fact that would be one of the goals of this strategy). In the absence of the preparedness of Palestinian society to take that step and the lack of leadership to guide the people on that road, I believe that Palestinians need to do a U-turn and seek to engage with as many Israelis as possible.
I know that these ideas are not popular among Palestinians. But since you asked me what I truly believe, this is what I have to tell you. Your freedom from Israeli occupation is my freedom as an Israeli from occupying you. I need to be free from this occupation just as you need to be free from it. Your security is my security and your prosperity and good life is my prosperity and good life. No walls or fences will ever enable our two people to live without regard for the other. Those walls must come down, but that will only happen through engagement and real peace between Israel and Palestine and not from Palestine in place of Israel.
The author is the founder and co-chairman of IPCRI – Israel Palestine Creative Regional Initiatives. (www.ipcri.org)