Israel News

Why the Palestinian question won’t disappear

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas addresses a U.N. Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, on Oct. 28, 2015. Credit: UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas addresses a U.N. Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, on Oct. 28, 2015. Credit: UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré.

By Ben Cohen/

It’s been clear for a long time that there is little difference between the character of terrorist attacks in Israel and those in the West more broadly. Trucks ram into crowds—as they did in Nice, Berlin and Jerusalem. Terrorists blow up or shoot up nightclubs—as they did in Orlando, Tel Aviv and Bali. Knife-wielding Islamists dash into venues from shopping malls to police stations stabbing anyone in reach—as they did in Minnesota, Brussels and, yes, Tel Aviv.

Compared to 15 years ago, there is a much greater empathy with Israel’s existential position these days. European leaders like French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Theresa May have shown far greater readiness than even our own President Barack Obama to recognize that anti-Zionism is a form of anti-Semitism, that the campaign to boycott Israel is founded upon hatred and that Israel lives in a neighborhood where every day, someone influential somewhere calls for its annihilation.

Sadly, this understanding doesn’t carry over into the workings of diplomacy. The last days of the Obama administration have brought us the passage of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334, which paves the way for imposing a solution outside the framework of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and the Jan. 15 Paris Mideast conference, at which no less than 72 countries, including the U.S., are pulling up in the French capital to issue a statement so utterly divorced from reality that you can’t help laughing.

Leave aside the obvious objections: that this conference perpetuates the fallacy that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict lies at the heart of the Middle East troubles, or simply that the spectacle of 72 countries fixating on Israel—when neighboring Syria has been turned into a graveyard—is nauseating.

Look, instead, at the worldview expressed in the conference statement, a draft of which was distributed in advance of the conference. The tools for achieving and sustaining a “two-state solution,” it declared, are “economic incentives, the consolidation of Palestinian state capacities, and civil society dialogue.”

Alright then. Economic incentives: Forget about turning Gaza into a flourishing port city for as long as Hamas is running the place. Ignore the fact that Palestinian Authority (PA) corruption and nepotism have concentrated immense wealth around Ramallah with no trickle to the rest of the West Bank. Disregard the rampant scale of organized crime in the West Bank, as documented by the Palestinian academic Ali Qleibo. Just carry on believing that pumping “economic incentives” will usher in a new era of peace.

Palestinian state capacities—this is an interesting one. It sort of, kind of, hints that we shouldn’t automatically expect a Palestinian state to be like, y’know, Norway, from the get-go. And there are two reasons for that. First, that the PA has been thieving billions of dollars in international aid money from day one of its existence. Second, apart from a few exceptions like Jordan and the areas under Kurdish control, Middle Eastern states—of the Sunni and Shi’a, Arab, Turkish and Persian variety—are little more than dungeons with flags on top of them.

But hey, that’s nothing that a bit of “civil society dialogue” can’t fix, eh? I don’t want to be unfair here, because there have been some wonderful efforts to encourage dialogue between Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel, but for that approach to work, you need to first recognize the humanity in each other. What would actually get discussed at these dialogues, anyway? An Israeli asking a Palestinian, “Why are your preachers calling us sons of apes and pigs again?”

Maybe none of this matters anymore. Maybe Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is right when he says that the Paris conference is the “final gasp” of a failed strategy. He has good reason, after all, to believe that, especially having heard the condemnation of Resolution 2334 from Secretary of State-designate Rex Tillerson.

Yet while the change of administration in Washington may strengthen Israel’s diplomatic position for the immediate period, and while the Palestinians will have to get to the back of the line in terms of international priorities, the Palestinian question itself will not disappear. In many ways, it will find its status enhanced.

To begin with, there’s the public domain. And this brings us to something that the Europeans have never understood: The historic Palestinian strategy has never been about achieving statehood, but about preventing a negotiated solution in order to perpetuate the image of the Palestinians as the people to whom history has dealt the cruelest blow. It’s why the Palestinians make deliberately unrealistic demands, like the “right of return”—a goal the Palestine Liberation Organization originally pledged to achieve through violence—and suing the United Kingdom for the 1917 Balfour Declaration.

In terms of building up public support around the world, it’s a strategy that has worked. Hence, we can assume that if President-elect Donald Trump does a 180-degree turn on President Obama’s approach to the Israelis, the narrative of the Palestinians—ignored by America, facing 50 years of “occupation” under Israel—will become emblematic of public resistance to the foreign policies of the Trump administration. In the American context, the Democratic Party is now the most significant barometer of that process.

The Palestinians can also play power politics. They can carry on with their campaign to achieve membership in international bodies as an independent state. They can curry favor with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the next stage of his conflict with the West. And they can insert themselves into domestic issues—rising anti-Semitism, the political culture on university campuses, the legality of boycotts—in a way that few other foreign policy issues can do.

As I said, Netanyahu may well be right about the last gasp of Obama’s strategy to secure Palestinian independence. But none of us should believe that these battles are over.

Ben Cohen, senior editor of & The Tower Magazine, writes a weekly column for on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. He is the author of “Some of My Best Friends: A Journey Through Twenty-First Century Antisemitism” (Edition Critic, 2014).

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