The heart of the matter:
Israeli Perceptions of Palestinian Nationality
How to talk to Sharon who said (20 years ago) in an
interview with Amos Oz: "Call Israel by any name you like, call
it a Judeo-Nazi state as does Leibowitz. Why not? Better a live Judeo-Nazi
than a dead saint. I don't care whether I am like Ghadafi. I am not
after the admiration of the gentiles. I don't need their love. I don't
need to be loved by Jews like you either. I have to live, and I intend
to ensure that my children will live as well. With or without the blessing
of the Pope and the other religious leaders from the New York Times.
I will destroy anyone who will raise a hand against mychildren, I will
destroy him and his children, with or without our famous purity of arms.
I don't care if he is Christian, Muslim, Jewish or pagan."
There is a growing suspicion that Israel's endless - and deplorably
aimless - fighting and occupying has not so much to do with political
or security considerations but with something more personal: an identity
problem. Which must remains unsolved by any military or otherwise violent
By Linda Benedikt
The disparity between "there is no such thing as a Palestinian
people" and the "the legitimate right of the Palestinian people"
- two statements made by two different Israeli Prime Ministers at different
points in history - indicates a massive change in Israeli perceptions
of Palestinian nationality and of the Palestinians per se.
The latter one implies a clear departure of the dominant Zionist narrative
which held for a very long time the myth of "a people without a
land and a land without a people" and thus negated the presence
(and rights) of any other people but the Jewish one in the land formerly
And indeed, from Golda Meir's comment of the late 60s to Yitzchak Rabin's
Declaration of Principles (DoP) in the early 90s, it was a long way
that did involve a change in Israelis attitude towards the Palestinians.
Or as Amal Jamal put it, "the Israeli recognition of the legitimate
right of the Palestinian people [as stated in the DoP, was] the first
genuine recognition in the history of Zionism that the Palestinians
are "a people".
Moments of Truth
Israel's trip from Camp David to Camp David
The first attempts of finding a political solution to a problem which
has mainly been perceived as being a security one, were made in the
late 70s. It culminated in the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty in 1979
sealed on the 17th September in Camp David.
Yet, it was an approach for peace between Israel and an Arab state.
Thus implying - despite its provision within a "Framework for Peace"
for "full autonomy" for the Palestinians - that the main focus
of Israeli politics was on the conflict resolution with the Arabs surrounding
Israel rather then with the Arabs residing within Israel. And accordingly,
nothing much came out of it with regards to the Palestinians. (As for
the following years of futile attempts of arriving at a peace settlement:
political divisions within the Israeli government made a consistent
policy simply impossible. Too divide and unwilling were the various
governments and the unity governments after 1984 did nothing to change
But Israel - its people and their opinions - increasingly began to change.
It had to in the face of stone throwing youths, violent demonstrations
and a growing number of fatalities on the one hand and mounting discomfort
helplessness among then Israelis. Who either fell victims to stones
and stabbing or who could not bear their sons, fathers and brothers
being abused as some kind of police force within the occupied territories
by a government which saw fit to equip its soldiers with nothing much
but various, often contradictory but never consisted ideas of how to
deal with a popular uprising of a populace which, to put it quite pungently,
was supposed to either enjoy the benefits of Israeli presence, and if
that was not possible, at least to quietly resent but certainly not
to openly oppose it.
But Israel - that is in this case its public opinion as presented by
its governments and their respective politics - was not only by the
Intifada forced into a re-assessment of Palestinian nationality. There
were also marked other circumstances and influences which brought about
a change of perceptions and a willingness to act upon it.
To mention them only briefly: The Cold War came to an end, thus the
close of super power support tactics which followed its peculiar logic,
Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi dictator lived through (and survived) his
own personal and political Waterloo, dragging with him the entire Palestinian
leadership (and people) who made a gross misjudgement in siding with
him against the United States and their Arab alliance and an American
administration (that realised through its involvement in the Gulf how
the Arab-Israeli conflict was connected to vital US political and military
interests) which pushed the Israelis just a little harder into the direction
of seeking peace with its neighbours and fellow inhabitants.
These developments led eventually to Madrid, to Oslo, to the solemn
Declaration of Principles in 1993 and yet again, to Camp David.
But it also led right into the second round of hell, the Al-Aqsa Intifada.
And this was due to the fact that Israeli perception - despite all peace
talks, peace negotiations, peace meetings - of the Palestinians did
only change superficially. Israel embarked on its "road to peace"
without having done its homework: self-transformation, the sine qua
non for a reconciliation with the Palestinians.
Still waiting to be acknowledged
Israeli's defiant refusal
What is needed to make peace, to resolve a conflict? According to Amal
Jamal, who wrote about the Palestinians within the Israeli Peace Discourse
in no uncertain words, it is the recognition of "equal worth",
a term he borrowed from the Canadian Philosopher Charles Taylor which
in turn requires the taking of responsibility and, equally important,
Israel and the Israelis are still far from taking full responsibility
of their actions. Only some acknowledge the states's doings and amenability
after 67. On the other hand, great agreement prevails concerning the
"just" war and results of 1948.
That is not to say that the heated debate that developed in the late
80s due to the competing claims of "Old" versus "New"
Historians concerning the War of Independence, Israel's victory, the
Palestinian refugees, consecutive wars and Israel's genuine attempt
to solve the conflict, did not have any impact whatsoever on Israelis'
self-understanding. On the contrary, this debate contributed greatly
to "challenging fundamental belief in the creation of the State
of Israel" of the Israeli public. Yet, only a minority seriously
questioned Israel's action then and doubt were never expressed in the
political sphere. In fact, the FAQ site of the Israel Embassy still
postulates that the refugee problem is entirely the Arabs' fault, that
the Palestinians left voluntarily, following either the calls of Arab
leaders or their lower instincts, i.e. fear, when confronted with armed
Jews. All implying that "if the war had not been forced upon Israel
by the various Arab countries and the local Arab population, the refugee
problem would not exist".
This is also reflected in an opinion poll in 1999 which asked Israeli
Jews, among other things, who was responsible for the refugee problem,
one of the major obstacles in a peaceful settlement between Palestinians
and Israelis. Only 4.8% of those questioned saw Israel as being responsible
for it. With 29.9% of Israeli Jews believing that the Palestinians left
voluntarily. And only 18.3% believe that Israel should compensate those
refugees. (When asked who should compensate Jewish immigrants to Israel
who lost property in Arab countries, 43.1% said that the Arab states
should compensate them) This surely does not indicate a sense of responsibility
on the side of the Israelis towards the Palestinians.
When the Israeli government, under the Premier ship of Yitzhak Rabin,
and aided by Shimon Peres, recognised the PLO as the sole representative
of the Palestinian people and started to negotiate for a peace settlement,
the underlying idea was peace for Israel, for the Israeli people. Rabin
came to power, for the Israeli electorate "expressed the view that
the isolation and conflict with the outside world, in general and America
in particular, was unnecessary and self-destructive". It was not
a break with old sentiments and long held perceptions or a true change
of attitude towards the Palestinians. It was merely the realization,
that the price the Israelis had to pay for the occupation was too high
(internally and externally). Like their politicians, the Israelis wanted
peace for their sake, but not because they recognised or had internalised
the Palestinians' legitimate right to the very land the Israelis perceived
as being theirs and theirs alone. This assumption was always prominent.
It was Israel's "generosity" which was asked for. From the
beginning the peace process as it was negotiated either by the Labour
party and the Likud from 1992 onwards, was perceived through the narrow
prism of Israel's needs.
Even Shimon Peres, the visionary of a "New Middle East" only
with hesitation and somewhat reluctantly attributed the status of a
nation to the Palestinians. He rather called the Palestinians "a
group who has never been a people (who) could now be a people among
people". Thus this statement is done in the same spirit as Israel's
general denial of causal connection between the creation of Israel and
the present situation of the Palestinians.
True enough, since Madrid and especially since Oslo, the Palestinians
do exist in the Zionist narrative. But recognising their existence has
been accompanied by blaming them for a century of conflict and thus
again acquitted Israel from responsibility (and accused the Palestinians
as being an obstacle to the realisation of legitimate Israeli aims).
Especially when things went wrong, the blame for failure was laid in
front of the Palestinians, who substantially "exploited" Israeli
"generosity". The incomplete recognition of the Palestinians,
led into an absurd situation of blame and counter blame. Where the Israelis
perceived themselves as the one who give and the Palestinians as the
ones who want it all. Thus showing that the Israelis did acknowledge
the Palestinians as a people but not with a people who has as much rights
as the Israeli themselves possess. Israeli opinion as reflected in its
governments dealing with the PLO maintained nothing but the distinction
between the Palestinian people and their rights (otherwise how is one
to understand Israel's continued settlement policy and its rhetoric?)
Particularly since the outbreak of second Intifada, the Palestinians
are once more the culprit. They are depicted by politicians and the
people alike as the sole guilty part. And once more could be heard that
Israel was willing to give it all, whereas the Palestinians were too
greedy and to stubborn to accept Israel's generous offer (this can also
seen in the language used. When the return of the West Bank was discussed,
politicians were juggling with words like: 90%, 95% or even 98%. What
was hardly even mentioned that the West Bank comprised only 20% of traditional
Palestine. Thus it was 90% or whatever percent of 20%).
As to Israeli self-transformation one is entering an equally difficult
situation. There is no doubt about the fact that Israel and the Israelis
underwent great change since 1948. The early years which were dominated
by the state- and nation-building and the pride of Israel were slowly
replaced by a more realistic attitude towards the state and its people.
The all powerful Labour party which moulded the country according to
its vision of it lost in influence. Slowly but surely the predominance
of the collective was replaced by the emerging individual which had
it rights next and equal to the one of the collective.
This was expressed among other things by the emergence of outspoken
criticism of Israelis concerning their State's policies. Groups like
Ad Kann, Yesh Gvul, Dai LeKibush and Shalom Achshav emerged as early
as in the 70s. They openly opposed the occupation, the Lebanon war and/or
advocated a two-state solution like Shasi, which was established in
1975 and the Civil Rights Movement (1973) which stressed the importance
of the individual and Human Rights. These groups are the result of this
slow transformation of Israeli society from conformity towards individualism,
which with regards to the Palestinians allowed the Israeli to view their
Palestinians counterparts "not just as Arabs,
but as a nation
living in our midst"
However, once the peace process started, that is with the signing of
the DoP in 1993, it "reawakened a dominant ambivalence regarding
Israeli identity". This became more than obvious in the months
before and especially after the assassination of Rabin. It revealed
"a malaise of the public at large" where the national consensus
was disrupted and could not any longer be ignored. A people living in
a democracy needs a basic consensus of citizens regarding their distinct
identity. A democratic state does not work by force but by compliance
of its citizens. And the compliance with laws and norms depends on consensus
regarding the core values from which those laws and norms derive. And
those in turn must rely on the culture of the society in question. And
the Rabin government broke the link between Israel's core values without
supplanting it with new ones. His policies contradicted the very values"
on which the majority of the Israeli citizens based their identity"
that is their perception of the self. But never offered a substitute
Israeli identity is extremely complex. Democratic values are inadequate
to serve as the sole basis for its identity. And at the very core stands
the moral right of the Israelis to be where they are. Zionism generally
justified Jewish presence in now Israel by quoting the bible as to reassert
the "older" right of the Jews to the land as opposed to the
other claimant of the land, the Palestinians. And in order to cover
up, particular after 67 "the inherent dilemma of a secular people
basing the justification of their territorial rights on Divine will,
this Israeli identity was heavily augmented by security arguments"
while conceding Palestinians residential rights but no other. Until
the outbreak of the first Intifada, Israelis could delude themselves
that their occupation was benevolent. But the rifts within Israeli society
became more pronounced, between the ones who believed in Israel's right
to the land and those who wanted to adhere to Israel's secular, democratic
However, even those who postulated a two-state solution did so in the
name of Israel, that is as to preserve Israel's adherence to some secular
values (that is universal laws), its need to preserve its Jewish character
(hardly sustainable with an ever growing non-Jewish population). No
mention was made of the Palestinians' right to self-determination. The
same holds true for Israel's politicians. They never committed themselves
to the Palestinians rights, either their Human rights or their collective
right as a people. The various governments since the peace process started
have continued to give contradictory messages and direct counter-productive
policies that implied an unabated hostility or at best, expressed an
ambivalence towards Palestinians with whom peace was to be established.
Israelis have, to this day, not come to terms with their identity. Whether
they want it to be based on democratic and secular values or on their
Jewish, biblical past. The way Israel conducted the peace negotiations
(generosity as opposed to sheer greed) and its treatment of the Palestinians
(closures, expulsion, assassinations, confiscation of land) all imply
that Israeli has not really changed its perception of Palestinian nationality
and their rights. The Israeli-Palestinian negotiation and rhetoric were
not between partners, but between giver and petitioner. Israelis are
torn. If they handed back what they believe is theirs, if they conceded
the right of self-determination (which comes along the moment a nation
is acknowledged since the end of World War I) it would ostensibly question
its own legitimacy. And this can only be done when a new formula of
legitimacy is found. Till then, Israeli perceptions of Palestinian nationality
will neither truly alter in its foundations nor in its results.
In the story "The Prisoner", Israeli writer S. Yizhar, a
member of the so-called Palmach generation, whose writing were mainly
influenced by Israel's War of Independence, describes the dilemma of
a Jewish soldier, who has helped to capture an unarmed Palestinian shepherd,
and now has to hand him over to his superiors, even though he doubts
its rightfulness and rather perceives of the Palestinian as a fellow
human being, not different from himself:
"The choice is yours. A great day it is. A day of revolt. A
day when you have the choice in your hands at last, and the power to
turn it into a decision, to give life back to the misused man. Think
it over. To act as your heart desires. In full accordance with your
own love and your own truth, in accordance with the greatest of all
things- the liberation of man.
Let him go. Be a man. Let him go!"
In this respect, one has to conclude, the Israeli nation is not
a man yet.
4. April 2002
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