ENCINITAS, California—I was asked recently "What is your understanding of the status of the peace process? As you see them, what are the prospects for success, and what are the obstacles for success?"
I think the order of the questions need to be changed. The first question to ask is what are the obstacles to the peace process? The second one is what is the status of the peace process? And the third one is what is needed for the peace process to become a success?
But before I address these three questions, I need to explain where my own perspective regarding the Middle East conflict is coming from. I was born and raised Catholic. For most of my life, I knew little or next to nothing about the Middle East, except for Biblical imagery. When I went through law school, I was like so many students of my generation uncrititically supportive of the Palestinians, whom I was told had been victimized by the Israelis. That was the "in" thing to do, and peer pressure did the rest.
After law school, I went to work as a lawyer for the International Committee of the Red Cross (a.k.a. ICRC). That's where my perception of the Middle East conflict started to shift. I was astonished to hear the ICRC harp so much on Israel when it seemed obvious to me even then that terrorism as it had been introduced by Palestinian groups was the real problem (that was in the 70s).
I left the ICRC after 16 years, and being a Red Cross man for so long left me with three important principles. The first one is neutrality. As relative a term as it is because it is in fact a very difficult attitude to maintain, it remains fundamental if we want to remain fair and balanced vis-à-vis both sides. The second one is the legal perspective. When I look at a conflict, I ask myself what are the rules that are applicable and who follows them or doesn’t. The rules are to be followed and applied by all and to all equally. One cannot have a just society if only some people are asked to respect the law and the rest are allowed to ignore it and get away with it. The third one is impartiality, which is not the same thing as neutrality. To be neutral means to refuse to take sides. To be impartial is akin to practicing triage, giving your attention to who needs it the most urgently. One can remain neutral but help one side more because that side needs more help. In the case of the Arab-Israeli conflict, I remain neutral but my legal perspective forces me to demand that whichever side is behind in respecting international law rules is the one that needs to work harder to catch up. That side is the Palestinians. It is clear that to them international law is of relevance only to the extent that they can accuse Israel of violating it, while they themselves systematically ignore it.
With this triple perspective as framework, I discovered, much to my surprise, that the Palestinians and their supporters have succeeded over the years to re-write history and weave together a fictional narrative that has little to do with the actual, historical facts of the conflict. In other words, they have created a remarkably imaginative story that has allowed them to reject all responsibility for the situation they're in, and to convince themselves that they're entitled to everything while having to give nothing in return. To them, the situation is simple: all their problems can be traced to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank (Gaza having been vacated), and as far as they are concerned, they have done nothing wrong.
Let me also clarify that when I speak here of "the Palestinians," I am not referring to all the Palestinians, especially not the ones who have had it with the madness of this unending conflict and the corruption of their leaders. I believe that something like 50% or more of the Palestinian population just wants to live in peace, send their kids to school and develop their businesses, like everybody else on the planet. The problem is that we almost never hear from those Palestinians. The ones we keep hearing from are the demanding and uncompromising voices of their corrupt leaders, who are the ones I am referring to here.
So how did I get from there to here? Simply by checking the facts. Each time a statement was made by either the Israelis or the Palestinians, I checked it, and that's how my opinions regarding the conflict have taken shape.
I found out that in almost all cases the information provided by the Israelis checked while the one provided by the Palestinians did not. For instance, they've been telling the world for years that they have a "Right of Return." When asked what it's based on, they tell you it's enshrined in “Resolution 194," adding that it is therefore international law, which means that it has force of law. Most people accept this statement because they have neither the time nor the knowledge to question it. But when you actually read Resolution 194, you find out that a) it is a United Nations General Assembly Resolution, which means that it does not have force of law and it is not international law. Only some UN Security Council Resolutions have force of law. b) it mentions the possibility of return for some refugees under several conditions, which were never met by Israel's enemies, rendering Resolution 194 moot. c) when Resolution 194 was voted, the Arab countries voted against it! and d) nowhere in that Resolution nor anywhere else in international law do the words "Right of Return" appear.
The inescapable conclusion is therefore that the Palestinians misrepresent the facts. When someone distorts the truth about one thing, you can safely assume that he or she is likely to do the same about other things as well. You become understandably more careful and don't take what they say at face value any more. And the more it went, the more I found that such misrepresentations and omissions by the Palestinians are not accidental, but systematic. It's reached the point where I look at whatever they say with utmost skepticism and caution.
What are the obstacles to the peace process?
The first and most fundamental obstacle to peace is Palestinian and Arab rejectionism, the stubborn refusal to accept that Israel not only exists and has a right to exist like any other country, but must be recognized as the only Jewish state in the world. As long as the Arabs do not accept this reality, all the rest will remain a cacophony of futile steps and gestures.
I already mentioned another big obstacle: if you cannot trust your negotiating partner to tell the truth about both history and admit its own role in it, you have a problem. New nations cannot be built on lies. The so-called Palestinian narrative needs to be struck and replaced by a common history that both sides will agree on as based on facts. The Palestinians are very opposed to such an idea because it would lay bare their own responsibilities for the condition they're in today, responsibilities which they refuse to acknowledge.
The next issue is the Palestinians' chronic inability to honor the promises they make and to implement the agreements they sign on to. In both the Oslo Accords and the Road Map documents that they signed with Israel, the first two commitments mentioned are that they will abandon terrorism and dismantle the apparatus that nurtures and perpetuates the culture of hate. To this day they have done nothing to implement these pledges.
These fundamental obstacles render largely futile any attempt to address other issues, which by definition will remain peripheral. But I don't want to harp on the Palestinians alone. The responsibility for the current dead-end rests also squarely on the shoulders of both Israel and the international community. It is Israel's fault to a degree because, instead of pulling all the stops as long as the Palestinians did not honor their commitments, especially regarding the use of terrorism, the Israelis closed their eyes and pretended that the Palestinians had done their part, pursuing a fictitious peace process that was in fact already corroded and largely invalidated. Why did they do that? For the same reason so many Israelis are hell-bent on making concessions after concessions in a desperate hope that it will bring them peace at last, even though it should be clear by now that it hasn't. The Netanyahu government currently in power is the first one in a long string of Israeli leaders who seems to be waking up from this self-induced delusional bad dream, realizing that projecting their way of thinking and their values on the Palestinians and expecting them to behave as they themselves would has proved to be a recipe for disaster.
The international community is equally guilty of not holding the Palestinians up to their commitments. Even though foreign nations inevitably all have their own agenda when it comes to the Middle East conflict, the fact of the matter is that they have followed the universal tendency to harp on Israel, which is easy and doesn't entail any risk of retaliation, and gone soft or even silent on the Palestinians, whose unpredictability and ever-present self-righteous rage gives them pangs of anxiety. The result? For all intents and purposes, the international community has been behaving like enablers of alcoholics or drug addicts. Always finding excuses for Palestinian misbehavior, buying all too easily into their distortions and manipulations instead of challenging them and demanding drastic behavioral changes. And as we all know, enablers never solve the problems they’re saddled with. They only make them worse.
For the record, since I know that a lot of people nowadays have bought into the idea that the main obstacle to peace is the Israeli settlements in the territories, let me be clear about that one: they are one of those peripheral issues I was alluding to above, not the central obstacle to peace. For one thing, the West Bank was
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occupied by Israel as a result of a defensive war imposed on it by its Arab neighbors. As such, since Israel was not the aggressor
but the aggressed, under international law it has every right to keep whatever territory it seized from the aggressor. The irony here is that Israel does not want to keep these territories. It has tried several times to give them back to the Palestinians against peace. But therein lies the crucial difference between the two sides: Israel is craving peace, while the Palestinians are really not interested in it. For all their blustering about participating in the peace process, even the most distracted observer cannot escape the conclusion that their real agenda is not to make peace with Israel, but to replace Israel.
One additional wrinkle to add to the whole picture is the fact that Israel has no real interlocutor to negotiate and make peace with. Neither Fatah nor Hamas can be called in good faith "partners for peace" given their relentlessly aggressive behavior, but it does complicate, and maybe even stall, the whole process. Let's face it, Hamas is not interested in peace, so that puts them out of the equation right off the bat. What to do with them is the question. They can be admired for their honesty (they have only one goal in mind, destroy Israel, and they say so at every opportunity) and for their focus, but one can't help noticing that they clearly have a death wish. The recent demise of the Tameels in Sri Lanka should be a warning as to what Hamas’ fate could end up like. Without some serious compromise, they are condemning themselves to destruction and oblivion. As for Fatah, and contrary to Hamas, they are dishonest, pretending to be Israel's partners for peace, but in fact still supporting terrorist groups such as the Al Aksa Martyrs Brigades, and otherwise never honoring any concessions towards Israel. And why should they? The rest of the world is doing for them the dirty work of twisting Israel's arms into making one concession after another, ignoring in the process that the Palestinians never reciprocate. As Mahmoud Abbas famously declared recently, "All I need to do is sit tight and wait for the Americans to force the Israelis' hand". Peace is not going to happen with that kind of duplicitous partner.
So as you can see, as much as I may have had some degree of sympathy for the Palestinians initially, I was soon discouraged to discover that their narrative is unreliable and that their words have little value.
What is the status of the peace process?
Given what was mentioned above, it is probably more accurate to ask if there is a peace process left at all. Since so many steps of what could have been a real peace process were ignored or intentionally not implemented, what we have instead is smoke and mirrors, a comedy of intentional errors meant to thwart the very process the actors were supposed to implement. In a nutshell, the peace process is moribund.
What is needed for the peace process to become a success?
Given this discouraging assessment, is there any hope? Of course there is! Any situation can be addressed with the right attitude and the right behavior. What kind of behavior is the question. Not one based on ideology, not one based on religion (from either side), but instead one based on realism, pragmatism, respect and determination to make meaningful concessions and to honor them.
In less lofty terms, what does that mean?
1. Recognition by the Palestinians that Israel is a sovereign nation that has the right to designate itself as a Jewish State. No one objects that Iran calls itself the "Islamic Republic of Iran". Why should anyone object then if Israel called itself the "Jewish Republic of Israel"?
2. The Palestinians must formally and completely abandon terrorism. They have tried for 80 years now to impose their will on Israel by killing innocent people, and this cowardly and ineffective approach has brought them nothing but grief in return. What would happen if they woke up from their self-inflicted nightmare? They would get everything they were hoping to get in the first place from a grateful international community and from Israel (except, of course, the elimination of Israel). The fact that they haven't followed this path yet is proof that for all their cries of being oppressed, their real intentions are not to make peace with Israel but to replace it altogether. And that is not going to happen. They must accept Israel and reject terrorism.
3. Next the Palestinians must abandon their despicable culture of hate. Generations of Palestinian children have now been raised to hate the Jews in the most repulsive anti-semitic terms the world has seen since the Nazis. This, too, must stop. Israeli children are not raised to hate Palestinians, but Palestinian children are raised to hate Israelis. This fundamental imbalance must be corrected before anything else, and an entire population re-educated to learn to live in peace with its neighbor.
Only once these three indispensable requirements have been met will it be possible to start negotiating in good faith about delineating the borders of two states living side by side in peace. All other talk is futile as long as these have not been addressed in full.
When Israel is reassured enough that it is accepted for who and what it is, and is not threatened with harm or annihilation any more, its amazing economic power can be unleashed to benefit the Palestinians more than any other Arab population in the region. They will be able to partake in the collective prosperity and become themselves a unique bridge between Israel and the Arab world. The potential is enormous for developing joint ventures in every field. The Arab world needs to create millions of jobs that their own economies are not able to provide. Marry Israeli know-how and Arab manpower and you can create an economic miracle in the region that will benefit everyone.
For that to happen, though, cool heads must prevail and the voices of hate must be silenced. For that to happen, too, three important concepts must be introduced in the Palestinian discourse, words that have been conspicuously absent from their mindset: responsibility, accountability, reciprocity. Responsibility for where they are today. What they refer to as their "plight" did not happen overnight and just because the Israelis find it amusing to "oppress" them. Israelis find no joy in being forced by Palestinian aggression to take the measures needed to protect themselves. They would much rather focus on living peaceful and normal lives. Accountability because as long as someone enjoys a free ride and faces no consequences for his or her actions, there are no incentives to change. And reciprocity because peace cannot and will not come as long as Israel is forced to make all the concessions and the Palestinians make none.
For the last 80 years, the Palestinians have chosen to play by a different set of rules than the rest of the world. If they want to join the community of nations, they need to understand that they have to abide by the same rules as everybody else. Despite the existence of many supporters fooled into believing that they are the victims, the world really does not need to add a new nation run by thieves, thugs and terrorists. In a word, they’ve got to get their act together and stop pretending to be martyrs when in fact they are the aggressors.
There is another negative aspect of the world's obsession for the "plight" of the Palestinians that must be highlighted. By practically cornering the market on victimology, the Palestinians have successfully managed to convince the world that theirs is the worst and most urgent case out of many other calamitous situations. Nothing could be further from the truth. A recent German study showed that, in terms of actual casualties, the Arab-Israeli conflict comes in position 49, way behind many more lethal situations where considerably larger number of people have died, and continue to die as we speak. From that perspective, the obsessive fixation of the world on Israeli settlements in the disputed territories while thousands of people are still dying every week in the Congo and in Darfur is nothing short of obscene. What is needed is a reassessment of the criteria used to measure where the greatest needs are. We shouldn't be paying attention to the ones that scream the loudest, but to the ones that lose the most. By that standard, the Arab-Israeli conflict should be relegated where it belong, to the back pages of every paper, while the front pages are dedicated to the real tragedies of the world.
It is also worth mentioning that while the media remain riveted on the secondary issue of the settlements in the disputed territories, the real danger that threatens everyone, including the Palestinians themselves, is the looming threat of a nuclear Iranian bomb. If Iran drops just one bomb on Tel Aviv, what do you think will become of the Palestinians, along with the Israelis? Nuclear weapons are equal opportunity killers and won't distinguish between Arabs and Jews and anybody else. We are at the 11th hour, and it is high time the attention of the world shifts from the insignificant Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the far more serious and crucial Iranian threat.
Finally, supporters of the Palestinians, for all their good intentions, need to realize that they are not doing them any favor by supporting their fanaticism, endorsing their fictional narrative, and justifying their terrorism and culture of hate. For their very sake, they would do much better by telling them that in order to become part of the international community, one must follow the same rules as everybody else, not claim immunity from them at every turn.