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The problem with the peace process has been too much empathy, not too little

A call for the Trump administration to show more sympathy for the Palestinian perspective demonstrates the flaw in the thinking of peace advocates.

Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas delivers a speech on the Middle East peace plan at P.A. headquarters in Ramallah, Jan. 28, 2020. Photo by Flash90.
Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas delivers a speech on the Middle East peace plan at P.A. headquarters in Ramallah, Jan. 28, 2020. Photo by Flash90.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

Treating the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians as a zero-sum game guarantees that peace can’t be made. The only way to create mutual understanding, and hopefully, a path towards peaceful coexistence is via mutual empathy.

That’s the sort of anodyne sermon that we’ve been hearing for decades from advocates for Middle East peace. While that is something of a cliché, there is also truth to it. People who don’t recognize each other’s common humanity and the legitimacy of their existence aren’t going to be able to compromise and learn to live alongside each other.

Nevertheless, a call for more empathy for the Palestinians from Jodi Rudoren, the new editor of The Forward, is not only wrongheaded; it also illustrates everything that has been mistaken about the efforts of those Americans who have been most devoted to bringing about a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

Rudoren is a new edition to the ranks of editors of Jewish publications. She came to the Forward after a long career at The New York Times, including a stint in one of its most difficult and controversial posts. Rudoren served as the Times’ Israel bureau chief from 2012 to 2015. In that role, she became—as was the case with all of her predecessors and successors—the focus of intense interest from media critics (including myself). She was seen as part of a tradition of tendentious Times’ reporting on Israel and for mixing her opinions, which seemed to reflect her affinity for the mindset of the Jewish state’s left-wing political parties, in with her news coverage—a concern that doesn’t apply to her new role as an opinion columnist.

In her most recent column about what she felt were the shortcomings of the Trump administration’s Mideast peace plan, Rudoren resurrects one of the points she often invoked when she was reporting from Israel and claimed that criticism from both sides to the conflict testified to her fairness. In one instance, she was taken to task by a Palestinian official who complained about a piece in which she noted the suffering of a parent of an Israeli soldier who had been killed while defending his country. Even though the soldier had been killed fighting Egypt along the Suez Canal, the Palestinian said that her piece demonstrated a “lack of empathy for Palestinians.”

Rudoren says the complaint infuriated her, particularly since she had received a great deal of criticism from friends of Israel for what many considered to be her disproportionate sympathy for Palestinians, who claimed ill treatment at the hands of the Jews. But advocates for the Palestinians saw empathy as a zero-sum game. They viewed any concern for the rights or even the grief of Jews to be a distraction from their efforts to support Palestinian claims and to demonize Israel.

It is in that same context that Rudoren sees the Trump peace plan and why she asserts that its primary shortcoming is a lack of empathy for the Palestinians. She thinks it wrong that no Palestinians were present at the White House ceremony when the plan was unveiled. More than that, she thinks that the substance of the scheme reflects a lack of interest in listening to Palestinian views, as well as to their needs and perspective.

According to Rudoren, a true peace plan would empathize with both sides, rather than being predicated (as she disparagingly notes) on an effort to force the Palestinians back to the negotiating table. The Trump administration made it clear that they would have to deal with the reality of the conflict, instead of their fantasies about undoing the history of the last century.

The problem with her analysis is not just that it ignores the adamant refusals of the Palestinians to deal with the Trump administration—or to consult about the peace plan and discuss its terms. Like so much of the Times’ coverage of the conflict over the years, Rudoren treats the long history of Palestinian refusals to compromise or consider peace offers as unworthy of mention, and not as important as the American obligation to be honest brokers whose empathy for the Palestinians should be unquestioned.

Yet while it’s easy to sympathize with any call for people to, in essence, be nicer to each other, the problem with her formula is that the efforts of past administrations to promote peace were rooted in far too much empathy for Palestinian sensibilities, not too little.

What Trump’s team figured out was that any peace process that was primarily focused on empathizing with the mindset of the Palestinians was one that inevitably sent the message that their desire to eliminate the one Jewish state on the planet was somehow reasonable or at least negotiable. Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and both George Bushes and the diplomats who were tasked with promoting peace were too busy empathizing with Palestinian grudges and making allowances for their promotion of hatred for Jews and Israel to make it clear to them that they first needed to give up their century-old war on Zionism.

Trump’s wake-up call for Palestinians to realize that if they truly want an independent state—and after so many refusals of one if it meant recognizing the legitimacy of Israel, no matter where its borders would be drawn, it’s arguable that they don’t really want one—they must negotiate now may not seem very empathetic. But it is the best advice Palestinians can get. Those who, like Rudoren, have concentrated on empathizing with their hurt feelings about the indignity of having to live with the reality of a Jewish state have actually set back the cause of peace by enabling the Palestinian rejectionism that has perpetuated the conflict.

In the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, empathy of that sort is neither kind nor helpful.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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