Shortly after 9/11, I heard an American diplomat smugly state that, while the United States had differences with the Muslim and Arab worlds over Palestine, it was just one of several equally important issues.
A Saudi friend of mine, voice trembling, of barefoot Bedouin origin, U.S. educated Ph.D., replied, “In my heart, and in the heart of every Muslim and Arab, our Palestinian brothers and sisters are what we think about when we first wake and when we fall asleep. Do not separate us from them.”
Around the room, every non-Western head nodded agreement.
In the early days of Islam, Muslims prostrated toward Jerusalem in their daily prayer. Later, after the arrival of the Muslims in Medina, qibla, direction of prayer, was changed toward Mecca.
Today, bowing toward Jerusalem is most reflexive, among non-Jews, in the United States Congress. There, amidst the hallowed halls of the world’s greatest and most successful democracy, fealty toward Israel is unquestioned. During his address to a joint session of Congress, Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu received so many standing ovations it became a pep rally.
Netanyahu’s insistence that Palestinian President Abbas state, “I will accept a Jewish state,” is unacceptable. Arabs, including Palestinians, have accepted on several occasions the right of the State of Israel to exist. Israel’s new demand, first articulated by Netanyahu in May 2009, for recognition of a “Jewish State” disenfranchises the non-Jewish 25 percent of Israeli citizens, mostly Muslim, some Christian. Domestically, Israel can determine for itself whether it is a Jewish state or a democratic state — I believe it can’t be both — and should it someday decide to adopt a constitution protecting the rights of all its citizens, it can define its own character.
The United States is part of the problem. During Congress’ summer recess, 81 members took “fact-finding” free trips to Israel from AIPAC. The “threat” of Palestinian independence has inspired members to introduce resolutions designed to hamper U.S. mediation efforts. Nationwide, anti-Palestinian and anti-Muslim rhetoric drown out voices of reason.
Domestically, President Barack Obama is in no position to pressure Palestinians and Israelis to negotiate. Although there are now about 500,000 Israeli settlers in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, Obama no longer pressures Israel to stop building colonies. Such obeisance to Israeli intransigence constrains formulation of a balanced Middle East policy.
The Christian evangelical community, who believe the Messiah will return only after Biblical Israel has been re-established, is another obstacle. In their world view, Muslims and Arabs have neither authority nor rights. The Israeli Lobby, who know that these evangelicals are no real friends of the Jews, cynically accepts their support, creating an alliance that can effectively challenge a two-state settlement west of the Jordan.
There is a certain ironic symmetry to the Palestinian request for United Nations recognition. In 1947, after failed attempts to negotiate a two-state partition of Palestine, the U.N. created Israel, with the United States taking the lead. Arab land was partitioned. The Arabs, believing they were being asked to give up their lands to pay for the Holocaust, for the sins of the Europeans against the Jewish people, resisted partition. War broke out between Israel and the Arabs. Israel, with superior motivation, numbers, technology and training, survived, and armistice lines were formed, which persisted until 1967. More than 400 Arab villages were destroyed and at least 750,000 Palestinians were displaced, unable to return to their homes and equally unwelcome in neighboring Arab countries, themselves newly independent, poor and without the resources to support their own citizens, much less the new refugees.
After the 1967 war, Israel annexed Jerusalem, extended control over the West Bank and Gaza, annexed the Golan Heights from Syria, and began establishing colonies on land that was not theirs in violation of the Geneva Convention rules of war. Negotiation in Madrid, Oslo, Camp David, Taba, Wye, etc., have provided no solutions and have only prolonged the suffering of the Palestinians under occupation.
Wars, terrorism, boycotts and other destabilizing events have scarred two peoples — scars that will take years to heal. Voices of intolerance have been empowered. Failure to find peace will have great existential costs: the character of both peoples is under assault, and their survival is each dependent on the other.
The United States supported the Arab Spring. It sympathized with movements that toppled dictators and challenged oligarchs. It recognized the promise of regional transformation. A critical link to those movements is the Palestinian demand for sovereignty. Independence will marginalize movements like Hamas. Granting sovereignty to Palestinians will diminish, if not eliminate, demands for the return of refugees. Peace with the Palestinians, and diplomatic relations with its neighbors, will compel Israel to become a more Middle Eastern nation and less a quasi-Western outpost amidst the Middle East. Finally, the potential for combining Israeli knowledge and technology, Arab land and manpower and Arab wealth and resources can bring new opportunity to the region.
I believe the road to Middle East peace goes through Jerusalem, not through Baghdad, Cairo or Washington. I support the attempt of the Palestinians to achieve statehood through the United Nations. The United Nations was founded on the ideal of national self-determination. Article 1 of the U.N. Charter enshrines those rights. Rights, which were extended to Israel in 1947, should be extended to Palestinians today.
Next week, failed peace plans, and I propose a solution.
This column first appeared in the Portsmouth Herald.