The Middle East is embroiled in appalling religious and cultural conflict, ranging from persecution to mass murder. While ISIS has revolted the civilized world by its seeming competition with itself to reach ever new levels of outrage in the name of its version of Islam, sectarian-based conflict is hardly a new phenomenon in the region, nor is it limited to ISIS.
Yet, there is one conflict in the Middle East that Israel’s Western detractors refuse to comprehend in any religious or cultural terms, but insist is essentially a real estate dispute. That, of course, is the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, where Israel is viewed simplistically as playing the role of the greedy landlord and the Palestinians star in the role of the victimized tenant. If only Israel would stop its “land grab” and pull back to the 1967 lines, all would be fine.
Israel’s Western antagonists view Israel and the Palestinians as a conflict apart from the rest of the Middle East. The notion that the Israel-Palestinian struggle has roots in the refusal to accept Jews controlling what is otherwise understood to be “Islamic lands” or “Waqf,” is incomprehensible – even though the Hamas Charter (Article Eleven) says so explicitly. Less dramatic, but emanating from the same source, Mahmoud Abbas, the anointed “moderate,” refuses to accept the Jewish character of Israel and regularly accuses Israel of attempting to “Judaize” or “attack” Muslim holy sites. He glorifies “shaheeds” (martyrs) and insists that Palestinians have a personal right to return to pre-1967 Israel.
Masking deep seeded religious and cultural issues underlying Palestinian rejection of the Jewish state, Palestinians promote a narrative of oppression and occupation that touches all the right buttons for their Western audiences: “We are an indigenous people (check) ethnically cleansed (check) from our homes by Western colonial interlopers (check) who, in furtherance of their nationalistic (check) and racist (check) zeal to steal our land (check), have created an apartheid state (double check).”
The narrative, however false, obscures essential elements of the conflict. The “cause” of a people portrayed as seeking to throw off the yoke of occupation overwhelms the historical record.
Yet, the record is as unequivocal as it is ignored or rationalized away. For decades, Arab and Palestinian leaders have refused repeated opportunities to establish an independent Palestinian state. They rejected partition in 1947 and did not seek statehood between 1948 and 1967 when there was no Israeli occupation (only Jordanian). When offered an end to occupation and statehood in 2000 and 2008, first Yasir Arafat and then Mahmoud Abbas walk away. They had to. Had they formed a state and made lives for the refugees (as the world made lives for millions of other post-World War II refugees, including Jews from Arab countries), the weapon of suffering refugees would have disappeared.
The open sore of 1948 just might have healed.
The Palestinians followed the same pattern in the recent failed U.S.-sponsored negotiations. In his December 23, 2014 New York Times column, Roger Cohen recounted his interview with Israel’s lead negotiator, Tzipi Livini. Livini said that Benjamin Netanyahu indicated willingness to proceed based on the U.S. settlement framework, despite having reservations. According to Livini, however, who is otherwise a bitter critic and political rival of Netanyahu, Abbas “declined to give an answer.” As Cohen (himself a consistent critic of Israeli policies) recounted Livini’s assessment, “Palestinians caused [the talks’] failure at a critical moment.” Abbas went on to attack Israel in international bodies and reconcile with Hamas.
It is almost as if the Palestinians did not want the occupation to end.
Then there is Gaza. Palestinians and their supporters accuse Israel of using “disproportionate” force in response to rocket attacks from Gaza and intentionally targeting civilians. It simply does not register in the minds of Israel’s Western critics that Palestinians turned Gaza into a rocket base when Israel withdrew in 2005, causing the blockade (joined by Egypt) and three wars. They know it, but it does not register. And little does it matter that Palestinians attack Israel from Gaza with no conceivable purpose other than to instigate the Israeli retaliation – and resulting civilian casualties. The focus of concern is the wrenching made-for-TV results, not the causes. The bitter lesson of Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza is met with blinders and rationalizations.
Painfully, there are Western and Israeli Jews taking prominent roles in adopting the Palestinian narrative and blaming Israel for the continuing conflict. While pouncing on Israel’s real and perceived missteps, they ignore or rationalize away Palestinian violence, incitement and rejectionism.
For Israel’s critics, the notion that the perceived weak and downtrodden could possibly be the perpetrator is beyond their realm of comprehension.
Israel’s detractors simply cannot or will not see how Palestinians have become expert in weaponizing their own misery, fulfilling Yasir Arafat’s guiding maxim that “all Palestinians are martyrs.”
Israel is indeed connected to the rest of the Middle East. The religious and cultural elements of the Israel-Palestinian conflict can no more be ignored than the religious and cultural underpinnings of the conflicts raging within and among Israel’s neighbors. These issues must be acknowledged and addressed if any meaningful Israel-Palestinian peace process is to ensue.
By remaining blind to the underlying religious and cultural forces at work and embracing the Palestinian narrative, Israel’s critics – media, academics, NGOs, UN bodies and European parliaments – actually enable Palestinian dysfunction and energize the conflict.