It’s a rather ordinary, run-of-the-mill piece of Israeli government propaganda – an op-ed in The New York Times, October 14, by Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren. Precisely because it is so typical, it’s a fine specimen to deconstruct, to see how Israeli propaganda works.
Oren’s theme is that “the Palestinians are still denying the Jewish nature of the state.” His evidence? One sentence in one Israeli newspaper: “According to the newspaper Haaretz, [Palestinian] chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said that the Palestinian Authority will never recognize Israel as the Jewish state.”
But that may not be what Erekat said. No one knows exactly what he said, because Haaretz offered no direct quote, only a paraphrase of his words: “The Palestinian Authority will never recognize Israel as a Jewish state, senior Palestinian officials said on Tuesday, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu proposed to freeze settlement construction in exchange for that condition. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said that demand could never be accepted… “
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But note the rest of that sentence: “while his colleague Nabil Sha’ath added that the government in Ramallah would not tolerate a partial construction freeze and that the moratorium must also be applied in East Jerusalem.”
Perhaps, then, Erekat and Sha’ath were just saying that the Palestinian government would never recognize Israel as a Jewish state in return for something as measly as a partial construction freeze for just a couple of months. For recognition, their biggest bargaining chip, they want a lot more.
In fact, the very next day, another top Palestinian official, Yasser Abed Rabbo, made it clear that the Haaretz paraphrase was a distortion. Rabbo said (again according to Haaretz, but this time with direct quotation): “We want to receive a map of the State of Israel which Israel wants us to accept. If the map will be based on the 1967 borders and will not include our land, our houses and East Jerusalem, we will be willing to recognize Israel according to the formulation of the government within the hour…. The Palestinians will be willing to recognize the State of Israel in any way that it desires.”
This was not some off-hand, casual remark. At least the US government did not treat it that way. Within hours, State Department spokesman Philip Crowley responded: “This is exactly the right conversation that the Israelis and Palestinians need to have, to be exchanging ideas on how to advance this process to a successful conclusion.”
Rabbo was merely repeating, with some more specific elaboration, what the top Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has been saying all along. Indeed, Oren quoted Abbas’ often repeated comment at the outset of his op-ed: “Israel can name itself whatever it wants.” Rabbo’s elaboration makes it clear that, for months, Abbas has been implying acceptance of Israel’s claim to be the Jewish state.
Yet, Oren twists the Palestinians’ words to make them say just the opposite of what they were meant to say. As a diplomat, Oren knows perfectly well that diplomatic negotiations are carried out, in public, in code. He knows that he had a choice: to interpret the Palestinians’ coded message in the best or the worst possible light. He chose the worst.
Now, it’s possible that Oren’s op-ed was already fixed in print before Rabbo’s statement was published. There’s no reason to expect the Times op-ed managers to be following events that closely. But Oren must have known of Rabbo’s words. Considering how crucial the timing was, he could have asked the Times to add a one- or two-sentence addendum. As it is, the Palestinians could easily take this op-ed as a public snub of their conciliatory offer – especially if they go on to read the rest of the column, which is packed with diplomatically honey-coated fighting words.
Oren leaves no doubt where all the blame for the continuing conflict lies: “The core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been the refusal to recognize Jews as a people, indigenous to the region and endowed with the right to self-government.” Not 47 years of brutal occupation of the West Bank, nor the ever-expanding Jewish settlements on the West Bank now housing nearly half-a-million Jews, nor 42 years of brutal occupation of Gaza followed by five years of economic strangulation – no, it’s all the Palestinians fault.
And why will the Palestinians not (purportedly) recognize Israel as a specifically Jewish state? Oren claims to know: because “many Palestinians hope [for] Israel’s dissolution” and want to “render us more vulnerable to terrorism and susceptible to unending demands.” That hardly sounds like a diplomat who is trying to negotiate a reconciliation with his opponent.
How does Oren know the secret intention of “many Palestinians”? He offers a series of arguments, all dubious at best. First and most important is the claim, repeated endlessly by the Israeli government and media, that Palestinians really want to return to Israel – “millions of them,” in Oren’s fear-inducing words.
In fact, there is a widespread understanding that only a small, token number of Palestinians would actually enter Israel to reside there under any realistic peace agreement, as Oren knows perfectly well. Nearly nine years ago, Yasser Arafat, the last Palestinian leader who spoke for all his people, wrote on the Times’ op-ed page: “We understand Israel’s demographic concerns and understand that the right of return of Palestinian refugees … must be implemented in a way that takes into account such concerns.”
Oren invokes Arafat to make another dubious argument: “‘I will not allow it to be written of me that I have … confirmed the existence of the so-called Temple beneath the Mount,’ Yasir Arafat told President Bill Clinton in 2000.” Like all Muslims, Arafat wanted to safeguard the Islamic claim to control the Temple Mount, on which sit two of Islam’s holiest mosques. That claim would be recognized according to all reasonable plans for dividing Jerusalem.
Palestinians won’t endorse the idea that Jews have some God-given right to the land; that argument, when offered by religious Jews, typically implies a claim to the West Bank as well, leaving no possibility of a Palestinian state. Of course, Arafat rejected that. But he never suggested that Muslim control of the Temple Mount implied rejecting the right of Israel to exist. On the contrary, he accepted the existence of Israel in a two-state solution, as long as Israel accepted all of the West Bank and Gaza as the Palestinian state – a solution that former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, in his negotiations with Arafat and Clinton in 2000, pointedly rejected.
Finally, there is Oren’s odd claim that, if the Palestinians don’t affirm Israel as the Jewish state, Israel will be “susceptible to unending demands.” It’s odd because, in fact, it’s Israel that is making unending new demands.
As Oren himself admits, “Israel never sought similar acknowledgment in its peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan.” Nor did it seek similar acknowledgment from the Palestinians in the past. For years, Israel insisted that its neighbors recognize its right to exist as a state – no more. For years, it’s neighbors have been recognizing its right to exist as a state.
Only in the past two years has Israel insisted that, as Oren writes, “recognition of Israel as the Jewish state … would prove that the Palestinians are serious about peace.” He himself offers the most likely explanation for this shift: “Some analysts have suggested that Mr. Netanyahu is merely making a tactical demand that will block any chance for the peace they claim he does not really want.”
Haaretz, Israel’s most respected newspaper, sees it that way, according to a recent editorial titled “Netanyahu’s Distraction Maneuver.” The editorial suggests quite logically that “freezing the settlements is not a gesture deserving of recompense from the Palestinian side; it is a formal commitment the government of Israel took upon itself seven years ago under the road map for peace. The other side of the equation was a Palestinian commitment to take the measures necessary for stopping terror” – a commitment that the Palestinians have largely fulfilled.
There has been a drastic reduction in anti-Jewish violence in the West Bank. The small amount of it that still occurs is directed solely at Jews living there illegally, and often in direct response to settler-initiated attacks. This puts the lie to the fear of Israel being “vulnerable to terror,” which Oren raises in almost ritualistic fashion.
Yet, having offered the obvious explanation for the new demand to recognize Israel as a Jewish state – to stall the peace process – Oren quickly rejects it. Instead, he says merely, “Affirmation of Israel’s Jewishness is the very foundation of peace.” If that were true – if the Arab’s failure to affirm Israel’s Jewishness is such a threat – why did Israel never demand it before? The argument makes no sense.
Nor, by the way, does the title of Oren’s op-ed make any sense: “An End to Israel’s Invisibility.” Israel will never be invisible, even if the Palestinians refuse forever to recognize its right to exist. But their leaders – including Hamas head Khaled Meshaal – have repeatedly conceded its right to exist. To say that Israel is “invisible,” simply because those Palestinian leaders hesitate to concede its uniquely Jewish character, is not logical. Like the whole column under the title, it’s sheer propaganda.
Logic and facts seem to be irrelevant for someone like Oren, whose Israeli identity is founded on the old myth of “they want to drive us into the sea.” Once that myth is embraced as a foundational premise, as it has been by all Israeli governments, truth must be twisted to reinforce and supposedly “prove” the premise. And the same premise is invoked to justify every distortion of fact and logic, as long as they make effective propaganda.
Oren does offer one fact and one argument that deserve serious consideration. It is a fact that, as Oren writes, “In 1947, the United Nations authorized the establishment of ‘an independent Jewish state.'” (His citation of the 1917 Balfour Declaration and the 1922 League of Nations’ endorsement are disingenuous, since they were worded carefully to avoid endorsement of a Jewish state. And whether one UN resolution makes “the Jewish right to statehood a tenet of international law” must be open to question.)
The argument, “Just as Israel recognizes the existence of a Palestinian people with an inalienable right to self-determination in its homeland, so, too, must the Palestinians accede to … our right to sovereignty there,” makes a strong case for sharing the land – a case that Palestinian leaders conceded in the late 1980s when they endorsed the two-state solution.
Why, then, have the Palestinians hesitated so long to endorse the UN’s view of Israel as a Jewish state? They know what’s at stake, and they want a genuine assurance of independence and peace before they take such a drastic step. The ellipsis in the preceding quote from Oren reveals what’s at stake; that’s where he demands that the Palestinians accede to “the Jewish people’s 3,000-year connection to our homeland.” Again, that’s the formula right-wing Jews use to justify Jewish rule over the whole West Bank, as the Palestinians know very well.
What’s more, Palestinians know that the right wingers also want to use the “Jewish state” formulation to keep Palestinian Arabs living inside Israel second-class citizens. Who can doubt it after the Knesset recently passed a law requiring a loyalty oath to Israel as a Jewish state, not for all new citizens, but only for those who are not Jewish.
The perceptive Israeli journalist Aluf Benn suggests that this new law, all of the other anti-Palestinian laws now under consideration and the insistence that the world recognize Israel as a Jewish state are all motivated by a domestic political concern. Israeli Arabs usually vote on the left. So “the more the Arab community is pushed off the political playing field … the further away the left will get from the possibility of a majority, and right-wing governments will prevail for generations.”
You won’t hear anything like that from Oren. Instead, you’ll hear a continuing stream of ill-informed, illogical propaganda to perpetuate the myth of an implacable, anti-Semitic Palestinian people bent only on destroying Israel. That myth – not the understandable hesitation of Palestinians to embrace the idea of a Jewish state privileging Jewish people – keeps Israeli Jews locked in their self-made ghetto of perpetual insecurity.