Arguing with each other about what we think of Palestinian intentions is fruitless. So let’s ask them.
It’s getting harder and harder these days to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with people who disagree with you, without a thunderous argument erupting. What I’ve noticed about these arguments is that the anger is directed not at the left, not at the right, not at the Palestinians and not at Israel’s leadership, but at the person you’re talking to.
And so, within minutes, we’re drowning in the conversational quicksand of ad hominem attacks, yelling “You’re a suicidal traitor!” and “Well, you’re a murderous fascist!” — which helps absolutely nobody.
You won’t learn anything more about somebody’s political views by talking like that; you’ll only learn more about how much they hate being called a traitor (or a fascist), by someone they think is a fascist (or a traitor).
And each side, it goes without saying, thinks the other unspeakably arrogant. Well, they’re both unspeakably arrogant, as long as they presume to put words into the Palestinians’ mouths.
Sadly, I’m not talking about conversations with ill-informed people in Europe or America; that’s a separate thing. I’m talking about conversations with well-informed Israelis, local to the conflict, who have the same depth of experience as you.
For every IDF veteran who says one thing, I can show you another — more senior, from a more elite unit, whatever — who asserts the opposite. The argument, “I know the Palestinians because I served in Gaza and I sat in their homes and spoke with them!” works both ways.
When the inflated vocabulary finally dies down, and both parties end the argument — either because they’re exhausted, or because they’ve run out of time and need to get on with their lives — what we’re left with is a basic difference in how the Right and the Left perceive the Palestinians’ intentions.
Lefties think that the Palestinians, given a chance, would make friends with Israel and build a peacefully coexistent state. Righties think that given half a chance, the Palestinians would slit the throats of every Jew they could get their hands on.
Your assessment of what the Palestinians would do, given the chance, defines your assessment of what Israel’s policies should be. No matter how you think Israel ought to behave based on her own values, practical policy suggestions are always filtered through the lens of how the Palestinians would react to one or other policy if it became reality.
And that, I contend, is the only substantive difference between left and right. From this central question grow all of the other differences, which rapidly become personal.
Both assessments are correct. The Palestinians would like to live in peace and partnership with us, and they’d like to slaughter us. It’s just a question of which Palestinians we’re talking about.
We know very well that the leaders, those who represent the Palestinians in public, would slit our throats, because they take every opportunity to tell us so. We just don’t know what the others, who aren’t in charge, would do — mainly because they don’t have much of a voice.
Opinion polls mean little, because unless you see how the questions are phrased and sequenced, and you know the context in which the respondent believes the questions are being asked, the answers mean whatever you want them to mean.
The nicest, gentlest, most pacifist Palestinian in the world wouldn’t hesitate to say “Kill ‘em all!” if she thought the research was being administered by Hamas, especially if it’s a phone interview, where she’ll assume they know who and where she is. This isn’t her real opinion — it’s self-preservation in a totalitarian society.
And we can’t take the TV interviews with proud mothers of suicide bombers to be indicative of the population as a whole. They get on the news because they’re newsworthy.
You never see interviews with the majority of Palestinians whose actions aren’t newsworthy: “Abdul al-Masri, 17, a nice kid from Jabalya, didn’t blow himself up today. Here’s an exclusive interview with his mother.”
In this sense opinion polls are used, as David Ogilvy said, like a drunkard uses a lamppost: for support, rather than illumination. And emotive, sample-of-one footage from TV interviews just adds to the confusion.
Lefties find it very easy to believe that the Right doesn’t want what the Left wants: peace. Of course, they do; and Righties convince themselves that the Left doesn’t want what they want: to live in security. But, of course, they do.
If you waver between left and right, as I do — sometimes my views are Gandhi-like, and sometimes I find myself slightly to the right of Attila the Hun — then it’s probably got something to do with a lack of clarity about what you believe the Palestinians’ intentions are.
Palestinians are never involved in these arguments, and so watching two Israelis arguing about it is like watching two climbers arguing about what’s at the top of a mountain nobody has climbed. And they accuse each other of being terrible climbers; of trying to get other climbers killed; of being ignorant about geology.
After I worked with mixed groups of Israelis and Palestinians in Beit Jala on behalf of OneVoice, an Israeli right-winger told me, “they’re using you. They want to kill you; they’re just using you.”
Well, I didn’t hypnotise them to get to the truth, but at least I can say that I met them and he didn’t. There was no murder in their eyes; there was fear, confusion, and a degree of cautious hope — and no murderousness. I’ve seen more malice in the eyes of right-wingers who think I’m a treasonous hippy, and, it must be said, in the eyes of left-wingers who think I’m a fascist.
But then, I’m just a sample of one — like everyone else.
Einstein once said, “If I had an hour to save the world, I’d spend 59 minutes defining the problem, and one minute on the solution.”
I don’t know the answer to the question of what the Palestinians would do to us given the chance. But I do know that we need to find a way to ask the question, and obtain a meaningful and statistically robust answer, because it’s the only question that matters.
By trying to answer it ourselves, we’re ripping ourselves apart.
I’ve now started asking, “Can you know for sure what the Palestinians would do to us if they had the power?” and the answer, inevitably, is “Yes, of course,” followed by “well… no, not really,” and my discussions have become a lot more civilized.
We’re Jews. We’re smart. But we’re not that smart. Let’s stop deciding for ourselves what the Palestinians think, and find a way to ask. Surely we’re smart enough to do that?