The tragedy of the Palestinians

Speeches made by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Thursday at the United Nations sum up the state of Israeli-Palestinian relations.

Led by Abbas, the Palestinians are too weak to make peace, and Israel is too strong to need to make any concessions to reach peace.

Netanyahu can usually be counted on to provide a dour, pessimistic oration, warning of the dangers facing Israel. This time, he gave a positive speech extolling Israel’s achievements.

Though Netanyahu did attack the U.N. for its biased attitude toward Israel, he said that was going to change soon. Netanyahu proudly stated:

Today, Israel has diplomatic relations with over 160 countries. That’s nearly double the number that we had when I served here as Israel’s ambassador some 30 years ago. And those ties are getting broader and deeper every day.…

Because of our unmatched experience and proven capabilities in fighting terrorism, many of your governments seek our help in keeping your countries safe.

Many also seek to benefit from Israel’s ingenuity in agriculture, in health, in water, in cyber and in the fusion of Big Data, connectivity and artificial intelligence—that fusion that is changing our world in every way.

That was the tone of much of Netanyahu’s generally uplifting address—in contrast to Abbas, who said:

Here, I must once again appeal to you to provide international protection for the Palestinian people, suffering under occupation since 1967 in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. If you do not ensure for us protection, then who will?

Abbas later set off on a strange, but telling, tangent:

By the end of this coming year, 100 years will have passed since the Balfour Declaration, 70 years since Al-Nakba of the Palestinian people and 50 years since Israel occupied the West Bank, including East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.

Yes, 100 years have passed since the notorious Balfour Declaration by which Britain gave, without any right, authority or consent from anyone, the land of Palestine to another people.

This paved the road for the Nakba of Palestinian people and their dispossession and displacement from their land. As if this were not enough, the British Mandate interpreted this declaration into policies and measures that contributed to the perpetration of the most heinous crimes against a peaceful people in their own land, a people that never attacked anyone or partook in a war against anyone.

Leaving aside the various historical inaccuracies of Abbas’s statement, its preoccupation with historical grievances acutely reflects the Palestinian mind-set and explains why this conflict seems so unsolvable.

Last night, at dinner, a friend who just came back from the Balkans related a sorrowful story about children who cannot safely go to school because their relative killed relatives of a rival clan three generations ago.


This dismal anecdote reminded me of the Palestinians, who are unable to make the concessions that might lead to peace since they continue to be overwhelmed by perceived historical transgressions perpetrated upon them—which has been the case throughout the conflict.

The first Arab-Israeli war took place because the Arabs/Palestinians obsessed about their perceived rights. They were not willing or able to accept reality. They did not accept the partition, or a Jewish state in part of Palestine.

As a result, Israel won the war and Jordan annexed the West Bank. This remains the story today: Israel is a strong Western country whose economy is among the strongest in the West, while Palestinians have an impoverished proto-state in Gaza that lives off aid and a series of cantons in the West Bank where Palestinians maintain limited sovereignty.

Abbas is an 81-year-old leader without electoral legitimacy. Netanyahu has been elected four times and heads a strong coalition of people who mostly share his ideological views.

This is not to say that Israel or Netanyahu are blameless. There can be no doubt that Israel’s policy of establishing settlements throughout the West Bank has made reaching a peace agreement more difficult—and the existence of Jewish settlements that need to be defended close to Palestinian population centers have made Palestinian life more onerous.

Netanyahu’s speech did include one new element (in addition to its positivity). Netanyahu called on Abbas to stop speaking over the heads of the Israeli people and come to Jerusalem to speak at the Knesset.

President Anwar Sadat of Egypt understood the psychology of the Israeli people. When he came to Israel and addressed the Knesset, boldly declaring “no more war,” he effectively ended Israeli-Egyptian wars. It took time to negotiate the details, but after that speech, Israelis were willing to withdraw from every inch of the Sinai in return for peace.

If Abbas accepts Netanyahu’s challenge and delivers a speech proclaiming, “We end our state of war with Israel, accept the 1947 Partition Plan with modified borders and will agree to monetary compensation settlement for the refugees,” the conflict would end.

There would be those on the Israeli side who would do their best to stop any withdrawal, believing that God gave this land to Israel and it is therefore a sin to withdraw from any of it. However, today, Israelis who hold that ideology are still in the minority. In five or 10 years, who knows what the situation will be.

That being said, when Sadat delivered his famous speech, he was the leader of the largest Arab state and was perceived to have fought Israel to a standstill in the 1973 war. He had the gravitas and personal stature to end the conflict single-handedly.

Abbas, who has never had the standing that Yasser Arafat enjoyed, is not in a position to give such a speech, even if he wanted to do so. So, for now, it appears Israelis and the Palestinians are destined to continue their tortured relationship.

This is a tragedy for both sides, but more so for the Palestinians. The Palestinians are, by far, the weaker party. They have watched their one strength (i.e., international support) slip away as the world worries about more pressing problems. And Israel, as Netanyahu stated, is an essential ally in the fight to combat those catastrophes.

For Israel, the tragedy is more subtle but no less potent. Fifty years of unintended occupation have damaged Israeli society. However, after withdrawing from Lebanon and Gaza only to see barrages of missiles repeatedly fired at Israeli population centers, most Israelis prefer the damage done by the occupation to the danger any further withdrawal might bring.

The world has moved on from the Israeli-Palestinian problem. The world cannot solve the conflict for these two parties. Which means that only Israelis and Palestinians can accomplish that. Regrettably, neither side is ready.



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