Back to Basics


While the current Palestinian-Israeli crisis threatens to spin out of control drawing both peoples and the region as a whole towards a new cycle of unbridled conflict, it has already generated sufficient spin and verbal distortions that have become a dangerous component of and motivation for violence.

The issue is not that of the chicken or the egg question, but one of a self-feeding and self-fulfilling dynamic: mindsets and attitudes determine the nature of the discourse and public debate, while public utterances and presentations are simultaneously the forces that shape perceptions and outlooks.

To the Palestinians, the intifada is an expression of the most basic reality of a people under occupation and their desire for freedom, dignity, and sovereignty; as such it is an uprising that represents a human will to endure, to resist, and to reject enslavement and brutality. It is a fundamental cry for justice and dignity.

Hence, to many Palestinians it is inexplicable that in most Israeli public discourse the issue has reverted to the fundamental question of survival and a return to the existential issue of Israels right to exist as a Jewish state. The legitimacy of Israel debate and its acceptance by the Arab world (let alone its regional integration) is once again being brandished as a motivation for the return to the beleaguered or fortress mentality in Israel. The subsequent closing of ranks represented by the current hard-line coalition government in Israel is simultaneously an outcome of this mentality and the major driving force behind its policies, while the government itself is directly perpetuating the mindset of insecurity and hostility to serve its own ideology and longevity.

Totally absent from this deceptive paradigm are several essential facts that have shaped contemporary Palestinian realities and political strategies. The most significant of these is the Palestine National Council resolution of November 15, 1988 (motivated primarily by the previous Palestinian intifada in the Occupied Territories) accepting the partition of historical Palestine and recognizing the two-state solution, hence recognizing Israel.

Another turning point was the commitment to the terms of reference of the Madrid Peace Process, particularly UN resolutions 242 and 338 and the land-for-peace formula. To the Palestinians, the historical compromise of accepting the June 4, 1967 boundaries (i.e. 22% of historical Palestine) has never been fully appreciated by Israel and its allies; in addition, it constitutes the minimal requirement for a viable state and consequently for a lasting peace. Any further loss of land would render both statehood and peace unattainable. Claiming all of historical Palestine or even the Partition Plan of 1947 for the nascent Palestinian state, let alone denying Israels existence, has long been dropped from Palestinian discourse and policy. Israels shortsighted and dangerous attempts at reviving past questions of legitimacy and survival could become a self-fulfilling prophecy by resurrecting such elemental questions among Palestinianand Arabpublic opinion.

Another absent factor is the existence of signed agreements that are legally binding on all parties, including interim agreements with the Palestinians and peace accords with two Arab statesEgypt and Jordan. A partial negation of realities and obligations vis–vis the Palestinians is liable to encompass the rest, particularly within the Arab and regional Palestinian context. If Israel is seeking to isolate and defeat the Palestinians, it will only destabilize the whole region and jeopardize security on all fronts, including its own.

A revival of individual fear and insecurity, along with hostility towards and distrust of all Arabs and Muslims (directed most immediately towards the Palestinians), has been a major political instrument of extremist right wing governments in Israel. Its moral repugnancy is compounded particularly when employed as a means of maintaining control through the politics of fear and insecurity. An anachronistic regression to the most ardent Zionist ideology is finding expression both in the dangerous expanded land confiscation and settlement drive as well as in the resurgence of undisguised racist formulations on demography as a means of legitimizing ethnic cleansing advocating forced birth control among the Palestinians and collective expulsions of Palestinians from both Israel and the West Bank. While most Israelis had viewed such schemes previously as being evil and unconscionable, they are now being thinly disguised as pseudo-respectable academic studies in defense of purist Zionism (cf. Interdisciplinary Centers conference on Israeli National Security, Hertzelia, March 2001).

The manipulation of facts and a mindless repetition of misleading spin and processed language to hammer home a message of evasion of responsibility and misplaced allocation of blame compound the present danger. The orchestrated rhetoric of labels, mudslinging, and dehumanization is being exploited by the Sharon government and its hyper active PR machine as a convenient and self-serving political tool. In the long run, however, it is serving only to destroy the very foundations on which peace is to be built. If bulldozers demolishing Palestinian homes and building illegal Israeli settlements are responsible for destroying the chances of peace on the ground, Israeli official rhetoric and rationalizations are destroying the logic of peace in the minds of both peoples.

Within this mental-verbal political context, it has become convenient and facile to mislead the Israelis with the representation (and perception) of the intifada as a form of gratuitous violence threatening the very existence of their state, let alone their personal security. Equally cynical is the depiction of previous Israeli proposals in the context of the peace process as a generous offer or concessions handed down from the strong to the weak, and somehow inexplicably rejected by those ungrateful Palestinians. In reality the Israeli generous offer meant granting Israel license to annex Palestinian land including most of occupied Jerusalem, to maintain settlement clusters that destroy the territorial unity of the West Bank and the viability of the Palestinian state, to abolish the Palestinian refugees right of return, to maintain Israeli security control and diminish Palestinian sovereignty, and to violate international law and UN resolutions.

Similarly, the misrepresentation of the intifada as an immediate and orchestrated resort to violence betrays a total lack of awareness of Palestinian conditions and the build-up of pain and anger at the continued victimization of the Palestinians in the course of a severely flawed peace process. To the Palestinians, the peace process had become a punitive process and an instrument of power politics designed to perpetuate their subjugation and Israels control and domination. Thus, it represented an absence of political will and a weakness in the moral fiber of Israel and the international community, particularly in their blatant disregard of international law and Palestinian rights. By refusing to acknowledge (and deal with) legitimate Palestinian grievances and Israeli excesses, Israel not only indulged in willful ignorance, but also compounded the injustice and persistently brought about the current tragic breakdown.

A steady supply of official Israeli erroneous justifications and deceptive rationalizations (including blaming the victim), served only to deepen hostilities and distortions. Also conveniently, it afforded the Israeli government a cheap means for the evasion of responsibility and accountability, with the Palestinians somehow deservedly bringing upon themselves the full force of Israeli military assaults while the Israeli army engaged in self defense. By the same illogic, defending the settlement of Psagot by shelling Palestinian homes and terrorizing whole families living in Ramallah-Bireh became synonymous with defending Tel Aviv and Haifa. Similarly, the siege and starvation of the Palestinian people became the justifiable price that the Palestinians had to pay for their insubordination, ingratitude, and terrorism. Assassinations, extra-judicial killings, and cold-blooded murder were legitimized as safeguards not only for the personal security of every individual Israeli but also for the survival of the state itself.

All the while, and with the relentless battering of the captive Palestinian population, the refrain Stop the Violence! hammered the Palestinians with painful monotony.

In the meantime, the essential fact of the occupation itself has been eradicated from the discourse and the blame-game. Sharons insistence on the language and tactics of war not only created the grand deception, but also provided him with the elements and cover for his anti-peace policies. His objective of achieving a state of non-belligerency and a prolonged transitional phase with the Palestinians once they stop the violence, is an attempt at normalizing and perpetuating the occupation by bringing about Palestinian acquiescence and submission to the fact of the occupation through military repression. The false symmetry in the illusion of warring parties also disguises the imbalance of power while justifying the rules of engagement fallacy that transforms every Palestinian into a legitimate target as a potential combatant. The Palestinians are thus instantly robbed of their humanity, their civilian status, the protection of the law (particularly international humanitarian law), the safety of moral norms, and the fact of their own victimization and suffering.

Such political and verbal machinations may serve to deceive international public opinion for a while; ultimately, however, they will backfire within Israel. The patronizing disappointment of some members of the Israeli peace camp at the Palestinian unwillingness to fit their preconceptions of a unilateral peace, or to play the grateful native role, or to acknowledge the Israeli version of whats good for them has (wittingly or not) played into the hands of the Sharons, Liebermans, and Zeevis of the Israeli government by providing justifications and fanning the flames of extremism while legitimizing Palestinian-bashing as a national pastime. Generating a culture of fear and distrust, with the inevitable claim to impunity and rejection of accountability, will not only taint Israels moral fiber; it will also demolish the requisite bridges that must be built between both peoples to maintain the prospects of future peace despite the current chasm.

Ultimately, once the dust settles and sanity is restored, there will be a need for interlocutors and constituencies for peace on both sides. Beyond ideology, racism, extremism, and militarization, a negotiated peaceful settlement is the only solution. Rather than indulging in the negation of the other, each side must engage in the process of rehumanizing the other. The painstaking and painful dialogue of the 1970s and 1980s provided a successful antidote to the then prevailing politics of hate. It also legitimized negotiations and prepared both publics for a culture of mutuality and inclusive politics (thus launching the Madrid process in 1991 in the midst of the earlier intifada). It became evident then, as it must be now, that there is no military solution. As one chapter in a predominantly painful history, it must not be driven out of our collective memory by the revival of past mindsets of absolutism and hate. Sharon and his partners must not be given the mandate to destroy the future with the worst policies and rhetoric of the past. If anyone must succumb to the urge to go back to the basics, what can be more basic than the essential humanity and equality of rights of all peoples and individuals?

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