In a meeting I had this week with a congressional candidate, I was reminded of the power of the myths that define conventional wisdom about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the challenge they pose for rational discourse. In rapid succession my visitor rattled off a number of statements revealing how much he didn’t know about the conflict and how steep the climb for those who seek a just peace.
My guest’s views of the conflict were both distorted and unshakable. They also reflected the attitudes of too many lawmakers in Washington. He was convinced, for example, that “Arafat turned down the best offer ever and turned to violence;” that “Palestinians would never accept to live at peace with Israel;” and that “President Abbas was incapable of selling any peace agreement to his people.”
Despite holding firm with these mind-numbing negative views, my visitor insisted that he was a “peacenik” and expressed hope that US Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts would bear fruit, helping to bring about an end of the conflict. As disconcerting and irrational as this disconnect might be, it represents for many candidates an easy way out. It puts them in a position where they don’t have to challenge the most hardline elements among pro-Israel voters, while at the same time still feigning support for peace.
I argued, for a time, with my visitor knowing full well that I wouldn’t make a dent. After deciding I’d had enough, we parted and I resolved to write about this frustrating encounter.
My first observation is that the myths that defined my visitor’s views of the conflict are ahistorical. A prime example is the fervently held notion that “Arafat turned down the best offer ever and turned to violence.” This was first put forward by then President Clinton in 2000. It was a great applause line, but it just wasn’t true. Rob Malley (a Clinton NSC official who was at the Camp David negotiations) debunked this “best offer ever” myth in his brilliant debate with former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak in the New York Review of Books (August, 9, 2001). The Mitchell Report (commissioned by Clinton and presented to President Bush in 2001) put to rest the “turned to violence” portion of this myth.
Reality is far more complex than the myth would allow. Barak’s offer at Camp David was never clear — he wouldn’t commit it to writing. Nevertheless, despite the impasse at Camp David, Israeli and Palestinian teams continued to engage in prolonged negotiations at Taba that came quite close to an agreement. But with elections looming, Barak suspended the Taba talks. He lost the election and that was the end of the negotiations. Arafat didn’t reject a “deal;” negotiations were aborted before they could conclude with a “deal.”
Arafat did not start the violence in response to Camp David. The spark that ignited the second Intifada was Sharon’s provocative demonstration at Jerusalem’s Haram ash-Sharif. After Palestinian demonstrators were killed by Israeli guards, the Palestinian street erupted, quite spontaneously, owing largely to pent up frustrations with the hardships of the occupation and failure of the peace process to deliver much hoped-for change.
The myths are also disturbingly racist since they imply that Palestinians are, by their nature, angry, violent and not to be trusted. The pervasiveness of this myth is, by itself, one of the major impediments to peace. The reality is that Palestinians are real people who have endured dislocation, dispossession and decades of a cruel occupation. Of course they are bitter and angry — not by their nature, but by the reality of their circumstance. By suggesting that it is the Palestinian nature, the myth absolves the Israelis of any responsibility and implies that no matter what changes might occur, Palestinians will always be a threat.
My visitor’s myths are also apolitical, implying that the conflict is existential and not a political matter that can be resolved. The problem, in the way the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been framed in the West, is that Israelis are seen as the full human beings with hopes, rights and the need for security, while the Palestinians are seen only as a problem to be managed and dealt with so that the Israelis can live in peace.
If Palestinian rights are acknowledged, then just solutions can be found to issues like property rights, sovereignty and self-determination. To the extent that these rights are trumped by Israeli concerns, then Palestinian concerns are ignored or given short shrift. To the extent that proposed solutions only address the needs of Israelis, Palestinians will reject them and no self-respecting Palestinian leader will be able to “sell crumbs” to his constituency.
In the end, these myths are also self-justifying and self-defeating. If we say we want peace, but treat Palestinians as less deserving of rights than other people and, therefore, offer them “take it or leave it” proposals that are humiliating, then, of course, they will be rejected. The believers of the myths can then feel justified in their conviction that Palestinians really don’t want peace and the conflict will continue. That is why holding these views about Palestinians while still claiming to support peace and a “two state solution” is also self-defeating.
The real challenge for peacemakers is to reflect on the vision projected by President Obama in his Cairo and Jerusalem speeches — to recognize the equal humanity and rights of both peoples and to forge solutions based on that reality and not on myths.