Last week, Haaretz, the liberal leaning Israeli newspaper hosted a conference of other NGOs and governmental leaders and political pundits in Manhattan to discuss Israel: its challenges and opportunities.
President of Israel, Reuven Rivlin was in New York and spoke at the event. So did US Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power as well as representatives from other organizations. But, the friction ignited when Saeb Erekat, an invited guest speaker, refused to address the plenary while the Israeli flag waved on the podium behind him.
I was not at the event. I was not invited to attend. I did not witness the event first hand.
My understanding is that stage hands went on stage and removed the flag before Erekat was introduced and ascended to the podium.
Upon hearing this, I was confused and then enraged.
I posed a question on social media with sincerity and earnestness trying to unpack the situation. I asked (clearly stating my curiosity and not my intent to be adversarial or instigating), what happened and why.
The only two replies I received, both from respected colleagues were:
1) This was not an official conference sponsored by the State of Israel.
2) The other stated, “Why would one of the leaders of the Palestinian Authority stand behind a flag of a country that ‘occupies’ his people?”
Have you ever been so upset or frustrated that words escape you? Even for a pretty articulate fellow, I find myself unsuccessfully searching for words that match my emotions.
According to the United Nations and it protocols on flags, each member state of the UN is entitled to a flag to be flown, and when displayed at the United Nations, it should be ordered based on English alphabetical order. In essence, a flag is to statehood what a heartbeat and breath is to life.
Saeb Erekat, as part of systematic and long-term delegitimizing efforts towards the state of Israel, tried to take that emblem, state-hood and very life away. Sadly, Israel supporters stood by silently when it happened. Regardless of whether you are conservative or liberal, a hawk or a dove, the flag of a nation that represents its right to breath and exist, need not be questioned.
Take your memory for a jog with me to the years, 2007 and 2008. Ariel Sharon suffered a crippling stroke and Ehud Olmert assumed responsibilities as Israel’s Premier. We know today from Condoleezza Rice and Mahmoud Abbas himself, that Olmert made fantastic concessions towards ending the decades long conflict with the Palestinians.
Ignore the overtures and offers for a moment and focus on the photo opportunity. When Olmert met with Abbas during these years for official talks, mainly in Jerusalem, Olmert insisted that the Palestinian flag be waiving in the background next to and equal to the Israeli flag. He did this at every official meeting and photo opportunity. Bear in mind, in those years, the Palestinian Authority had no role at the United Nations. It did not even hold, Observer State Status until less than 3 years ago. Still, Olmert, in an effort to create equanimity and peace, had the Palestinian flag in the backdrop, (see pictures on inset).
Contrast that to Prime Minister Olmert meeting in Ramallah during that same time frame with PA President, Abbas, and no Israeli flag was in sight. Ever. Not at any meeting or press opportunity.
A fundamental code in politics is, do not feed the narrative. If many Israelis and Zionists feel that the Palestinians are not sincere partners for peace and are indeed, only looking to drive Israel towards the sea, and that no land, including Tel Aviv, is acceptable for Jews to call home, denying a breath and life — its nation flag to waive — is to fuel that account and arm the cynics. And the vicious cycle renews.
Even if Erekat says something different at the podium, the demand of having the flag removed feeds that narrative and contradicts his rhetoric.
This never-ending struggle between the Palestinians and Israelis seems less like a shared desire of two states for two people and more like a quest to get the other to waive a white flag of surrender. The stakes are far too high and the consequences way too severe for either side to give up. Nor, should they.
Still, I am pretty sure, that in lieu of the white flag waving, the only way that dream both sides envision will come to fruition is when we can stand underneath the flag of the other and accept its right to stand freely in the very peace we speak about.