“Do you believe I exist?” my friend Summer asked me. This may sound like a bizarre question, but I immediately understood the basis behind her question. Summer is from Gaza City and we recently met in Washington D.C. Although I am the first Israeli she met, she is familiar with the rhetorical tool of dismissing Palestinians’ rights by referring to them only as “Arabs”. Therefore, after I, referred to Palestinians as Arabs, even in a specific context, all she heard was: “There is no such thing as the Palestinian people, and they have no claim to any land.”
Historically, Palestinians didn’t always choose to emphasize their Palestinian identity. In the past, most perceived kicking Israel out of the region as a shared goal of a unified “Arab nation”. However, this was before the Israelis won the 1967 war, making their intention to stick around clear, and the Arab commitment to claiming the land began to disintegrate, leaving the Palestinians more or less alone in their struggle. Or, as Daniel, a 55-year-old Palestinian scholar I met at a gas station once put it: “Arab Nationalism?” He spat on the ground to show his contempt, “They all sold us cheap”. The Arabs, many Palestinians believe betrayed them and were ridiculously ineffective in aiding their cause.
This disappointment remains today. My friend Summer is not excited for her trip back to Gaza, even if only because it is via Cairo. Palestinians many times feel unwelcome in Egypt and other Arab countries. The rarely told truth in Israel is that Palestinians suffered and are still suffering from hostility all over the Arab world. In some Arab countries they are not recognized as citizens, deprived from jobs and even persecuted. A former US ambassador to multiple countries in the Middle East summarized it well when we spoke few weeks ago; he said: “The Arabs love the idea of the Palestinian cause, but they don’t care for the Palestinians.”
Thus, the reason my friend Summer rightly didn’t want me to simply call her Arab is three fold: First, it is because emphasizing her Arab-ness intimidates her peoples’ claims for sovereignty and recognition. Second, it is a result of her disappointment in the Arab countries that didn’t not help her nation. Third, Arab countries continue to mistreat Palestinians, fueling their desire to distinguish themselves as a people.
Although this is not big news for some, it is very relevant now, when the Israeli and Palestinian officials are about to sit down at the negotiating table.
One of Israel’s biggest fears is that if a Palestinian state comes into being its leadership will immediately unite with “the Arabs” and attempt to destroy Israel. However, any agreement that PM Netanyahu signs will tackle this issue. For instance, it seems like he will insist on having 40 years of Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley to assure Israel’s security. Nonetheless, the unique Palestinian identity that also (but not only) defines itself as “not merely Arab” suggests that Palestine, if it will come into being, will have a different character than any other Arab countries in the region. And thus not likely to become a country that aims to unite with its neighbors to destruct Israel.
There is one more reason I believe this is the case (even without directly addressing the occupation). As much as many Palestinians hate Israel, many also secretly admire Israel’s institutional and economic success. Despite some caveats, Israel constructed a well functioning civil society that accommodates its citizens much better than most other countries in the Middle East. Therefore, if the negotiators seal an agreement correctly, it is likely that Palestinian entrepreneurs will leverage their close ties with Israel. The social-economic structure in to-be-Palestine will be an anomaly in the region in that it is very much influenced by Israel.
Last year, in his eulogy dedicated to former Prime Minister Shamir, PM Netanyahu mentioned his predecessor’s statement, “The sea is the same sea, and the Arabs are the same Arabs”. Now, twenty-two years after the late PM made this statement, we are facing new opportunities. The lesson my friend tried to teach me by telling me, “don’t call me Arab” must be learned: the Palestinians today are not the same people they were 20 years ago, and even 10 years ago. A person who doesn’t notice that the face of the Middle East is changing is stuck in the past, and ignoring reality is bad for politics, bad for business, and frankly just bad in general. While it is true that the Palestinians did not suddenly became Israelophiles, they are also not, “the same Arabs”. Regardless, the Greeks already discovered that it is impossible to dip twice in the same river or for that matter, sea.