Israel and the dignity of the Palestinians

Israel’s friends cannot afford to sit back and watch passively.

Palestinian protester near Palestinian riot police 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Darren Whitesid)
Palestinian protester near Palestinian riot police 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Darren Whitesid)
As President Barack Obama embarks on his visit to Israel, the Jewish state’s friends need to step back from the daily unfolding of events and think a bit about the underpinnings of the problems it faces today. Two underlying factors stand out for me as contributing enormously to Israel’s predicament: dignity and time.
Dignity is one of the prime motivations in most people’s lives. It has a lot to do with respect. It has a lot to do with justice. It has an impact on our decisions, on who we are, on whether we move forward or not – and it motivates us politically.
Among some Israelis and some of Israel’s friends, it has become routine to denigrate the Palestinians’ political culture, their achievements, their comparative per capita income, and then to conclude on these bases that negotiations are futile. Such overt disrespect is self-defeating and dangerous. How do you get somebody to the table with this kind of contempt? Why should they show up at the table if that’s the perceived attitude? If we’re deciding how to split a pizza and on the way to the table I ate three pieces, you’d start to wonder why you should bother.
The Palestinians are people.
Some do things sometimes that we don’t understand.
Some of these things are more than unacceptable, others are beyond abominable – a pure evil for which there is no justification, or excuse or moral equivalence. It’s worth thinking about why. As a lover of Israel, and the Jewish values for which it stands, for the longest time I wondered how a Palestinian mother could celebrate her son simultaneously committing suicide and mass murder with a vest full of explosives. It made no sense to me. Mothers, I thought, don’t do such things. It cannot be justified. It should be understood.
Suicide is a derivative of hopelessness, steeped in desperation.
A mother’s hope was gone. Her dignity was gone. As was her sense that somewhere in this world she had a place – that her future was here; that her people had a future; that her child had a future. All gone. Only such desperation explains a mother believing that her child would be better off in some other world because he didn’t have a chance for dignity, or a sense of legitimacy, or self-respect in this one.
Yes, there is plenty of vicious anti-Semitism, mindless Israel hatred and militant religious zealotry out there too. But generations of statelessness and occupation have reduced too many Palestinians to that sense of total desolation, and from there to the moral descent into horrific, inexcusable violence. And this dynamic will not abate on its own. People need a sense of dignity.
And then there is time.
Despite the extraordinary successes of the IDF and of Israel’s security services, time is running out. And the hourglass that Israel faces can’t just be turned over when the sands run out. In any kind of race, time is essential, and if you’re winning, you want the race to end. You don’t want to move the finish line further out.
You want to break the tape and lock in the result.
Israel’s advantages over the Palestinians and the other Arabs are only going to get smaller. The longer the peace process is dragged out, the louder the voices of dissent and hate and misunderstanding and intolerance will get, and the more frustrated and hopeless people will become. Weapons technology proliferates; it doesn’t recede. The bomb is out there to beg, borrow or steal.
The demographic trends only work to Israel’s disadvantage.
The regional security environment is not likely to spontaneously improve.
Israel’s economic, diplomatic and educational advantages are all likely to diminish in relative terms. It’s easy to see how things get worse. Your imagination can make an endless list.
Imagining, on the other hand, good things that would unexpectedly be a great aid to making peace and that would enhance Israel’s security and developmental advantages is much harder. Counting on the Messiah coming (or coming back, if that’s what you believe) is an article of faith, not a foreign policy. Yet, there are voices here and in Israel insisting that time is on Israel’s side, arguing that the status quo can be extended indefinitely.
But it isn’t so. Time is the enemy. And when you’re ahead, that is the time to cut your deal.
Israel’s friends cannot afford to sit back and watch passively.
In the wake of Obama’s visit, we must press for change and work against complacency.
We must challenge our own thinking, set aside despair, reject contempt for the other and demand clarity from leaders about their vision of the endgame. When attacked, we must not give ground on moral boundaries and objections, or allow ourselves to be bullied by the selfrighteous and the narrowminded.
But most of all, we must keep the end in sight: two states for two peoples recognizing the rights of minorities, living in peace and security as neighbors. Just like the original Zionist cause, “if you will it, it is no dream.”
The author, who just retired after 30 years in the House of Representatives, was the ranking member and prior chairman of the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia. This column is based on his remarks at an Israel Policy Forum symposium.