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The Palestinians deserve better friends

Supporters of Islamic political party Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) take part in an anti-Israel protest rally in Islamabad on May 21, 2021. (Photo by Aamir QURESHI / AFP) (Photo by AAMIR QURESHI/AFP via Getty Images)
Supporters of Islamic political party Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) take part in an anti-Israel protest rally in Islamabad on May 21, 2021. (Photo by AAMIR QURESHI/AFP via Getty Images)

For decades, Palestinian nationalism has taken two forms: territorial compromise or politicide. Many Western supporters – like myself – have advocated for the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. According to this line of thinking, the path to peace rests on Arab diplomatic recognition and Israel’s withdrawal from the territories it currently occupies. A second, more pernicious approach dates the “occupation” not to 1967 but to 1948, when Israel was founded. By this argument, the Palestinians do not bear any burden for the peace process. They are deemed entitled to demand that all Jewish Israelis leave their homes, laying the foundation for a Palestinian state that is both Judenrein and maximalist in territory.

Beyond the patent antisemitism inherent in calls for Israel’s destruction, those who adhere to the second narrative are not doing the Palestinians any favors. They are dangling hopes that will never be realized before the eyes of a people suffering in misery. Instead, constructive efforts should be made to deal with their problems in the real world – a place where communities learn to cope, even in the face of displacement and other scourges on humanity.

In the 20th century alone, tens of millions of refugees were compelled to find new homes. The end of World War II ushered the expulsion of some two million ethnic Germans from Central and Eastern Europe, primarily from Czechoslovakia. Large numbers of Hindus and Muslims moved after the partition of the sub-continent into two independent nations, India and Pakistan, in 1948. In fact, I do not have to look far to understand the refugee crises of our times – and the inter-generational trauma that they produce. My grandfather and his parents were all refugees. They escaped Nazi Germany in the late 1930s. Yet, instead of wallowing in their victimization, they started anew, focusing their efforts on creating a better life for their grandchildren. They did not retain the keys to their home in Frankfurt. They did not root themselves in a refugee camp, invoking a right to return to every inch of the land they were forced from. And they decidedly did not vow to “annihilate” the German neighbors that displaced them and murdered their relatives.

Indeed, the Jewish people suffered the worst humanitarian catastrophe in world history, but still managed to transcend the debilitating temptation of isolationism and seething resentment. We did not seek revenge for our many Nakbas, but instead created a state – and a thriving one at that. Seventy-five years on from its establishment, Israel has fulfilled its raison d’être by serving as a safe haven for Jewish refugees from Ethiopia, the Soviet Union and a host of other countries ravaged by antisemitism. It has also become a military powerhouse and its technology sector has become the envy of many developed countries. All this was made possible by the pragmatic and visionary leadership of those charged with establishing and sustaining the Jewish state. In stark contrast to the Palestinians, Israel’s leaders have centered their efforts on building a viable nation, which has at times required cooperation, compromise and dialogue with past enemies. They have signed peace treaties with Arab nations responsible for the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Jews and embraced warm diplomatic relations with European nation-states who were complicit in the Holocaust. Only seven years after the gas chambers, David Ben-Gurion signed an historic trade deal with West Germany. Though the agreement was controversial, especially with Israeli citizens who had survived the Nazi enterprise, the prime minister did not equivocate because he valued the survival of his country more than he wished to avenge the injustices of the past.

Tragically, the same level of resolve and vision has so far eluded the Palestinian leadership, which has consistently vied for violence and terrorism at the direct expense of their own people. In 1947, the United Nations divided the land of Eretz-Yisrael – or what the Romans named Palestine as an act of colonization against the Jewish natives – into two separate states. It provided a sliver of land along the Mediterranean and a non-arable desert to the Jews, who were a majority in that area, and a much larger arable area to the Arabs.

The Jews declared statehood on their land and the surrounding Arab nations declared war. The Arabs lost and the Jews captured more land, though it failed to capture the Holy City of Jerusalem. One consequence of the war was an exchange of populations: hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs either left or were forced out of Israel, and hundreds of thousands of Jews either left or were forced from Arab countries. Whereas Israel accommodated its new immigrants with full citizenship, the surrounding Arab states confined the Palestinians to refugee camps, guaranteeing that a soluble refugee problem became a genuine humanitarian crisis that continues to this day.

Again, in 1967, the surrounding Arab nations threatened to destroy Israel, which preemptively attacked and tripled its size in territory. Israel subsequently offered to withdraw from the conquered territories, in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 242. While Egypt and Jordan have since accepted Israel’s existence and signed peace treaties on the basis of the “land-for-peace” formula, the Palestinians have not yet accepted Israel’s numerous offers for a two-state solution and a chance at statehood. In 2000, PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat balked at a generous offer of statehood on 97% of the West Bank, with its capital in east Jerusalem and a large compensation package for Palestinian refugees displaced during wars started by Israel’s neighbors. He did not even offer a counter-proposal and instead ordered preparation for renewed terrorism, which escalated into a second and deadlier intifada. Eight years later, Ehud Olmert offered the Palestinians a deal which would have granted them sovereignty over even more territory, only to be met with no response from Arafat’s successor, Mahmoud Abbas.

The Palestinians were the victims of a grave injustice seventy-five years ago – and Israel undoubtedly bears some responsibility for the Palestinian refugee crisis and its solution. Yet the perpetuation of their plight is more the product of irresponsible leadership than the actions of Israel, imperfect as it is. Abba Eban put it succinctly when he observed that “the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” The Palestinian leadership – be it Arafat or Abbas – could have established a state on a few different occasions, but they were never willing to make the requisite compromises for peace. To do so would have required that they stand in front of their own people, especially the refugees of 1948, and tell them the hard truth: that Israel’s existence was a fait-accompli and that they were not going to return to their homes in Haifa, Yafo and Ashkelon. Just as hundreds of thousands of Jewish-Israelis would not be returning to the countries they were displaced from in the 1940s and 50s, the Palestinians would have to give up on their fantastical aspiration of a Palestinian state “from the river to the sea.” That they have failed to do so is primarily the fault of their own leaders, amongst other enablers.

For decades, the Palestinian cause has attracted international sympathy, much of it to the detriment of the Palestinian people themselves. Along with the burden of Israeli occupation and intransigent leaders such as Arafat and Abbas (not to mention the Hamas terror leaders that currently occupy the Gaza Strip), the Palestinians have suffered from bad friends in the international community who have done them more harm than good through their latent racism. While detractors of Israel insist on holding the only democratic state in the region to an impossible standard of perfection, these same detractors excuse any Palestinian aberration as the natural and justified response of a people presumed incapable of pragmatic compromise. In so doing, they subject the Palestinians to what President George W. Bush once described as the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” They assume that the Palestinians cannot be expected to behave in accordance with Western standards of morality (as the Jews did after their own displacement from European and Arab countries) and that their continued avowal of terrorism and rejection of the two-state solution is permissible.

This approach is not simply a whitewash. It portrays Palestinian leaders as victims forever being acted upon by Israel and other outsiders, denying them agency and absolving them of moral responsibility for the tragic condition of their own people. Observed through this lens, Palestinian leaders had no other choice but to reject the peace agreements of 1937, 1948, 1967, 2000 and 2008. After all, none of these deals fulfilled the dream of a Palestinian state that annexes the entirety of Eretz-Yisrael. Moreover, it also follows from this perverted worldview that the Palestinian people had no other choice but to elect Hamas – a genocidal, homophobic and neo-Nazi terrorist organization – after Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005. How else could the Palestinians respond to a genuine olive-branch and chance at sovereignty? How else could the wrongs of the past be avenged, and the rights of the Palestinians fully restored?

Whatever their intent, the so-called “pro-Palestinians” on the streets of London and other Western cities are compounding the suffering of the people they purport to advocate for. In their blind support for Hamas and affiliated Palestinian factions, they are providing cover for the egregious human rights abuses committed by these groups against both Israelis and Palestinians alike, which include rape, torture and the use of children as human shields. Worse still, their soft bigotry indirectly jeopardizes the peace process by encouraging Palestinian recalcitrance. Put simply, it convinces Palestinian leaders that they do not have to negotiate with Israel and can simply equivocate until enough people around the world are propagandized to believe that Israel has no right to exist ipso-facto.

An end to the cycle of violence can only be achieved through Israeli and Arab leaders who understand the value of compromise and the necessity of moving on from the past. It will require Israelis and Palestinians who are willing to give up on their most lofty dreams regarding territory – and friends in the international community who are willing to have honest conversations with both sides. American officials and supporters of Israel will have to warn its leaders about the inevitable result of their settlement enterprise in the West Bank: a binational state – the antithesis of a Jewish democracy and a prescription for continued conflict. Yet at the same time, the academic left and the young people who have assumed the mantle of the Palestinian national movement will have to do what Arafat and Abbas never could and urge the Palestinian public to accept Israel’s existence on at least part of the disputed territory. History is lived forward, not backward, and the objective of Palestinian leaders should be to secure a more prosperous future for their people, even if that requires compromise and reconciliation with past enemies. David Ben-Gurion heeded this fundamental truth of statesmanship shortly after Israel’s establishment. The time has come for the Palestinian leadership to do the same.

About the Author
Joe Beare is an alumnus of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. He served as the President of Emory's Meor club and worked with the Institute for the Study of Modern Israel on a range of Israel-related papers, articles and educational initiatives. Along with his commitment to Israel advocacy and scholarship, Beare captained Emory's Varsity Soccer Team and won a gold medal at the European Maccabi Games in 2019.
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