Palestine, Israel, and the United States: Reframing the Dominant Narrative
The “spat” between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu during the latter’s visit to the United States in May 2011 ended with Obama’s abject surrender in his speech before AIPAC to Israel’s hard-line Prime Minister. Obama tried to explain away the differences between Netanyahu and himself by arguing that both of them had Israel’s best interests at heart and that he was only trying to serve those interests better. There was hardly any mention of Palestinian suffering under occupation and the right to self-determination of the Palestinian people in Obama’s justification of the two- state solution.
This episode clearly demonstrated how totally American policymakers have bought into the Israeli narrative of the Israel-Palestine conflict and their unwillingness or inability to question the basic premises of Israeli arguments. Even those commentators who have been critical of Netanyahu’s approach have argued from the premise that by not doing a two-state deal within the very near future Netanyahu is harming long-term Israeli interests thanks to the ticking demographic time-bomb that would render Jews a minority between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River thus putting paid to the Zionist dream of a Jewish state.
Very little attention has been paid to Palestinian rights, their plight under occupation and in exile, and their search for dignity as a people. In the final analysis, the Palestinians are seen merely as inconvenient bit players in a narrative centered on the fate of the Jewish state. The objective is to expunge them from the Israeli narrative by creating a Filistinostan that is demilitarized and hemmed in by all sorts of conditions and qualifications that drastically derogate from its sovereignty. The ultimate goal of this exercise seems to be to force the Palestinians to live in a state of perpetual political limbo while no longer posing a demographic challenge to the Jewish character of the Israeli state.
By accepting the Israeli narrative hook, line and sinker the United States has not only become complicit in Israeli violations of international law, which explicitly forbids demographic transformations in occupied lands, but is also rendering itself irrelevant as far as finding a just and durable solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict is concerned. No wonder the Palestinian leadership has decided to ask the United Nations in September to endorse Palestinian statehood. While President Obama has threatened to veto such a resolution in the Security Council, the General assembly is expected to pass it with a comfortable majority. One should not forget that Israel bases its international legitimacy on a similar resolution passed by the General Assembly in November 1947. It is illogical to presume that the Palestinians can be forced to desist from the same strategy especially when such a resolution is likely to open up the whole issue of Israel’s borders by harking back to the boundaries endorsed by the United Nations General Assembly in 1947 in its resolution recommending the division of Palestine between an Arab and a Jewish state.
The endorsement of “land swaps” by President Obama, which is a euphemism for the annexation by Israel of major Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank, is one demonstration of the unquestioning acceptance by the United States of the Israeli narrative of the conflict. By accepting the “land swap” argument, President Obama has in effect declared that it is legitimate for the occupying power to settle and colonize occupied lands. This suits the settler-colonial mentality of the Israeli establishment for, despite arguments to the contrary, Israel itself is a product of settler colonialism with the British mandate over Palestine acting as its midwife. It was British rule that facilitated Jewish migration from Europe to Palestine and laid the basis of the demographic transformation of the mandated territory with the Jewish population in Palestine rising from approximately 10 percent at the beginning of the mandate to roughly 30 percent at its end.
To many Israelis, especially on the right, the colonization of the West Bank appears but a natural extension of the original Zionist strategy of settlement that led to the establishment of Israel. They are not inclined to lose any sleep over the fact that such settlements are a major obstacle to peace with the Palestinians. One must admit that there is a certain internal consistency to the argument that denying the right of Jews to settle in the West Bank delegitimizes the original Zionist enterprise of colonizing Palestine and, therefore, Israel itself.
However, it does not behoove the United States to endorse the position that Israel can keep large blocs of Jewish settlements in occupied Palestine since such an action violates international law and sets a bad precedent. Moreover, such colonization of occupied land is unacceptable to the large majority of countries, especially those that have emerged in the recent past from under the yoke of colonialism and indeed, as in the case of South Africa, of settler-colonialism. An American position endorsing Israel’s annexation of settler colonies is bound to put it at odds with the majority opinion in the international system.
No one can deny the extent and intensity of Jewish suffering during the past several centuries in Europe that culminated in the Holocaust. The Holocaust was the greatest atrocity ever committed in human history. The pogroms in Central and Eastern Europe that preceded the Holocaust and paved the way for it by making the persecution and extermination of Jews acceptable in the eyes of many Europeans remain a major blot on the history of Christendom side by side with the ethno-religious cleansing resulting from the Spanish Inquisition that targeted Jews and Muslims alike. However, to link these atrocities to Palestinian resistance against Jewish colonization and Israeli occupation is an atrocious misreading of history, especially when it is done deliberately to justify or at the very least condone continued occupation and dispossession.
While it is valid to take account of Jewish suffering in Europe, it is equally essential to take account of the Palestinian experience of expulsion, dispossession and occupation, especially since the Palestinians were the innocent victims of a historical process that they had no hand in shaping. They were the objects rather than the subjects of history who paid the price for the atrocities committed against the Jews in Europe by European Christians. Such atrocities were used not only by Zionists but also by European anti-Semites interested in denuding Europe of its Jewish population to justify the creation of a Jewish state in the heart of the Arab world.
This is not an argument for challenging the legitimacy of the Israeli state in its pre-1967 borders. The state of Israel is an incontestable part of the political landscape of the Middle East. It is an argument for the simultaneous recognition of Palestinian sufferings and of their rights as a people to a state of their own enjoying sovereignty and the right to selfdefense on a basis equal to that of Israel. It is an argument above all for the recognition of the Palestinian search for dignity and the legitimacy of their demand for repatriation (even if circumscribed by current day realities) and reparation, including an apology by all parties involved, for the humiliation and dispossession inflicted upon the Palestinian people from the beginning of the British mandate until today. It is time that this Palestinian narrative is given equal weight with the Israeli narrative in the American consciousness, especially the consciousness of American policy makers engaged in finding a resolution to the Israel-Palestine conflict and in protecting and enhancing American interests in the Arab world and in the greater Middle East.
Without an appreciation of the Palestinian narrative, which is part and parcel of the larger narrative of the colonized world, no American administration will be able to help the two sides reach an amicable and just solution to a conflict whose roots go back to the Balfour Declaration of 1917. Once Washington is able to empathize with this narrative as it has come to do with the Israeli narrative, it will be possible for American policy makers to understand issues such as those of Jewish settlements, Hamas’s non-recognition of Israel, the Palestinian demand for the right of return, and the centrality of Jerusalem to Palestinian identity in their proper historical perspective. Finally, as Daniel Levy has pointed out so forcefully, an approach that goes beyond merely negotiating borders is essential to bring the conflict to a conclusion and this cannot be done without understanding the full historical context of the conflict. This is especially the case because limiting discussion to boundary lines has proved to be a non-starter since Oslo given the disparity in power between the two sides.
It is only when Washington comes to acknowledge the legitimacy of the Palestinian narrative and treat it on par with the Israeli narrative that the United States will be able to advance creative ideas that are likely to provide solutions to what currently appear to be intractable problems. If the United States fails to appreciate the Palestinian narrative it will become increasingly unable to influence the future course of this conflict thus putting in jeopardy its larger security and economic interests in a rapidly democratizing Middle East.
Mohammed Ayoob is University Distinguished Professor of International Relations and Coordinator of the Muslim Studies Program at Michigan State University. He is also an adjunct scholar at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU).
This article was originally published by openDemocracy.