There has been much media ire surrounding Haaretz’s decision to remove an Israeli flag from its event, after Saeb Erekat made it clear he would refuse to speak if the flag remained on the stage. I’d rather save my anger for Saeb Erekat himself: By refusing to speak at an event because of the presence of an Israeli flag, he exemplified the petty attitude of so many Palestinian leaders. Now, instead of debating the content of Erekat’s speech and discussing the oppression of the Palestinian people, the Israeli public is caught up in a campaign against Haaretz. All Erekat did was stir up Israeli anger against the major Israeli publication that devotes a substantial portion of its newspaper to making the Israeli public aware of the realities of the Occupation, taking full advantage of Israel’s freedom of the press in order to do so.
Some might argue that this is the price to be paid for standing up for one’s values. But what values would those be, exactly? The value of ignoring the reality of Israel’s existence, the value of symbolically refusing to engage with Israel, or the value of not standing on a stage with symbols that make you uncomfortable?
The first value is clearly ridiculous — as ridiculous as it is for Israelis to ignore the fact of Palestinian nationalism or the realities of the Occupation.
The second value is similarly silly. An end to the conflict is only possible if both sides engage with each other — all those who argue against “normalization” are in fact perpetuating the conflict and the damage that it causes the Palestinian people — not least by making the Israeli public feel besieged, which translates into right-wing victories on election day. They also ignore the plight of Palestinians, who often rely on Israeli employers, due to the weakness of the Palestinian economic infrastructure. This weakness will be a major problem facing a newly nascent Palestinian state, and Palestinian leaders would be wise to focus on it instead of the presence of Israeli flags or lack thereof.
This unwillingness to acknowledge Israel is also what causes the Palestinian leaders of East Jerusalem to discourage Palestinians from voting in municipal elections, which contributes to a situation in which Palestinian neighborhoods are not granted proper municipal resources. And of course, the reticence of Israeli Arab parties to actively vote in favor of a government lest it legitimize the Zionist state is arguably an obstacle to the establishment of a left-wing Israeli government – you know, the type that would actively pursue a Palestinian state.
On to the third value: Discomfort. Peace is largely about stepping out of our comfort zone. It is about challenging ourselves, and trusting the other side. Erekat had a chance to embody that by walking onto a stage with an Israeli flag. Instead, he rejected it entirely.
His action is reminiscent of MK Ayman Odeh’s recent decision not to talk to the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish American Organizations because it was in the same building as the Jewish Agency. MK Odeh explained that he couldn’t go in there as a representative of the Israeli Arab public. But surely, as a leader of the Israeli Arab public, he could have also chosen to set an example about the importance of dialogue.
Similarly, a Palestinian leader of the BDS movement, Omar Barghouti, boycotts Israel to the extent where he refuses to even give an interview to the Israeli media. (Last year, he gave an Arabic-language interview to a Palestinian journalist with permission for it to be printed in a left-wing English-language Israeli publication later on, but that’s as far as he was willing to go.) But if Palestinians are forbidden from telling Israelis their stories, how exactly are Israelis supposed to understand the full gravity of the Occupation? How can there be peace when you refuse to talk to the side you would have to sign a peace agreement with?
Some might argue that much of my criticism against Palestinian leaders can be addressed to Israeli leaders as well – and they have a point, however, the Israeli Knesset has numerous voices in favor of peace and dialogue (after all, Netanyahu’s government only has 61 seats out of 120), whereas those voices seem to be less on the other side — or at the very least, quieter. Part of this stems from Israel’s status as a modern democracy with freedom of speech, and the West Bank’s status as an authoritarian state — many Palestinians fear for their lives if they openly speak out in favor of peace or engagement with Israel – including, possibly, Abu Mazen himself.
I was trying to think about what an Israeli Jewish leader would do if they were invited to speak at a conference from a Palestinian publication with a Palestinian flag, and then I realized the idea was preposterous, because Israeli Jewish leaders don’t get invited to nationalist Palestinian events, and because having an event like the Haaretz conference presupposes the existence of the types of publications that only flourish in societies that have a free press — something sorely lacking in both the West Bank and Gaza.
I also wonder what it means that in New York, the terra santa of politically neutral ground, all of a sudden the decision of which buildings to enter and which stages to stand on has become politicized. I’m used to space being politicized in Israel — after all, in some ways, that’s what the conflict is all about. The decision to walk or not to walk into different parts of Jerusalem or the West Bank comes with its own political implications. But New York always seemed beyond that, a place where Broadway and Riverside park don’t connote thousands of years of longing and bloody battles that are still seared into the modern collective consciences of two nations. Does the new politicization of Manhattan geography mean that the Palestinian and Israeli Arab leadership has become more hardline when it comes to refusing to engage with Israel?
I say to Saeb Erekat: Please don’t focus on the flag. Please focus on freedom of speech and democracy in Palestinian society, and strengthening the Palestinian economy. Please focus on trying to make life better for the Palestinian people, instead of on small symbolic victories that are likely to alienate the Israeli public from the publications and organizations that are working to encourage peace and the establishment of a Palestinian state – after all, in a democracy, public opinion often becomes public policy.
And I say to both Israelis and Palestinians: Don’t we have better things to discuss than the presence of flags on stages? Please, let’s start talking to each other.