Dear UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon

You have one of the toughest jobs in the world.

It can’t be easy to balance all the competing interests and pressures that come with being the head of a complex global body with 193 member states. You are constantly walking on a tightrope.

Moreover, too often observers fail to distinguish between your role and the will of the member states. You can’t be held responsible for every decision taken in each UN body. That’s determined by numerical majorities.

And I know you feel that your own work, often quiet and behind-the-scenes, is not always fully appreciated, as you often become a lightning rod for everyone’s criticism of the UN.

But when you speak, the words are yours. And given the prestige of your position, those words will inevitably be carefully read and weighed.

Thus, I was struck by one sentence in particular in your remarks at the recent Cairo Conference on Palestine.

You said: “Yet we must not lose sight of the root causes of the recent hostilities [in Gaza]: a restrictive occupation that has lasted almost half a century, the continued denial of Palestinian rights, and the lack of tangible progress in peace negotiations.”

Respectfully, Mr. Secretary General, in that one sentence, in those 39 words, you have illustrated, I believe, a fundamental misreading of the actual situation, both past and present.

Please understand. I don’t for a moment doubt your commitment to ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, achieving a two-state agreement, and building a new era of peace in the region. You have articulated that vision more than once.

I also want to believe that, as a South Korean, you have a special appreciation for Israel’s regional challenges. After all, having the likes of Syria and Hamas-ruled Gaza on Israel’s borders, with their anti-democratic regimes, lack of concern for human life, and lust for weapons, surely evokes thoughts of North Korea and the profound dangers it represents to democratic South Korea, the larger Northeast Asian region, and beyond.

Yet, by suggesting that the three root causes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are all seemingly linked to Israeli behavior, you not only miscast the history of the conflict, but also, however inadvertently, hurt the chance for ending it.

After all, why would Israel place its faith in those who fail to see any Palestinian responsibility for the “root causes” of the situation today?

Is absolving the Palestinians of their own unhelpful behavior going to prompt them to engage in the self-examination required to help move the process forward, or is it more likely, rather, to encourage them to continue the “blame game,” suggesting repeatedly that it is Israel, and Israel alone, that must change its way?

Indeed, such one-sided analysis only tends to infantilize the Palestinians, allowing them to believe they can act as they wish, without accountability and any consideration of a course correction.

But in truth, the “root causes” of the recent hostilities have a great deal to do with the Palestinians, and not just with the Israelis.

First, those “root causes” actually go back to 1947, when the Arab world rejected the recommendations of the UN Special Committee on Palestine and the language of UN General Assembly Resolution 181 calling for two states, one Jewish, the other Arab, in Mandatory Palestine.

Second, the West Bank and Gaza were occupied by Jordan and Egypt, respectively, until 1967, yet there was no clamor for Palestinian statehood and no murmur from the international community about the repressive conditions faced by the local populations.

Third, in 2000-1, and again in 2008, and, most recently, in 2013-14, Israeli leaders, supported by the United States, made valiant efforts to achieve a two-state agreement with the Palestinians, only to be rebuffed. Apropos, President Bill Clinton, in his autobiography My Life, is clear about who was principally at fault for the first round of failed talks—the Palestinian leadership.

Fourth, Israel withdrew all settlers and soldiers from Gaza in 2005, giving local residents their first chance in history to govern themselves. Israel’s main fear was that the vacated territory would become a terrorist enclave rather than an emerging Singapore. This is exactly what occurred in 2007, when Hamas ousted the Palestinian Authority in a violent coup and seized control of Gaza.

And fifth, Hamas to this day remains the principal authority in Gaza. Its charter, which calls for the destruction of Israel and uses classic anti-Semitic tropes, remains unchanged. Since joining with the PA in a “unity” government, it has yet to embrace the three conditions that the Quartet, including the UN, requires to become a legitimate partner for peace. And, as was graphically revealed this summer, it has chosen to divert considerable resources, intended for Gaza’s construction, into an elaborate infrastructure to harm Israel.

Only when world leaders of stature begin to hold seriously the Palestinian side responsible, and not just the Israelis, for the “root causes,” may we begin to see building momentum for a durable solution.

Palestinians must get the message that, like Israel, they will be judged by their actions. Otherwise, they will simply continue to act with impunity, while counting on others to do the heavy political and diplomatic lifting for them – and that, I dare say, is not a roadmap for a brighter regional future.

About the Author
David Harris is the CEO of the American Jewish Committee (AJC).