The tired, depressing scripts too many of us follow regarding the Middle East have been on full pathological display these last two weeks. Unfortunately, during this time, neither the Palestinian Authority’s Mahmoud Abbas nor Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu displayed the grace, vision, or creativity needed to move forward. Both seem more worried about offending the extremists among them than turning toward the center, seeking compromise, transforming the region’s dynamics.
As an historian, I am not supposed to traffic in “ifs” but as a peace activist and citizen I must. So let us imagine what might have happened if Mahmoud Abbas, knowing he was facing an overwhelming victory at the U.N., had decided to evoke the institution’s long-forgotten founding spirit and given a Palestinian “I have a dream speech.” Imagine if, instead of recycling the ugly little speech he had already given once this fall and has given repeatedly before, he had given a speech without the tired, offensive, incendiary racist-apartheid-ethnic cleansing false analogies. Imagine if he had reached out to the world with his vision of what Palestine should be, offering a new, affirmative approach to getting there.
As I write these words, laced with disappointment, I confess there is also fear—one fears that those words of delegitimization against Israel, implicitly hoping for Israel’s demise, were indeed expressing his deepest desires, his and his people’s real dream. Until Palestinians figure out how not to approach this conflict as a zero sum game, turning every victory for them into a defeat for Israel, Israelis will remain justified in being wary, mistrustful, cautious.
At the same time, even after Abbas took his predictable—and by now clichéd—latest opportunity to miss an opportunity, Bibi Netanyahu also took the opportunity to miss an opportunity. Imagine what would have happened if Netanyahu had taking his own advice, as reported in the buildup to the vote, not to overreact, not to instinctively respond by pushing the world’s and the Palestinian’s buttons by touching the “settlement” question in any way. In fairness, it would not have been as dramatic a game changer, but it would not have made things worse—and it might have perpetuated his two-week streak in improving relations with the Barack Obama Administration.
Netanyahu was coming off two very good weeks. During the Gaza war, he showed discipline, leadership, vision, in punishing Hamas, degrading their military capabilities, limiting civilian deaths and then not going in, avoiding more deaths and possible quagmires. Netanyahu’s restraint made it easier for the Obama administration to stand tall in the U.N. against the majority pile on against Israel.
But, alas, apparently, just as Abbas had to appease his extremists by trash-talking Israel, Bibi had to prove to his extremists that he was no “frier,” no sucker, by stirring the settlement issue—an issue on which subtleties are lost and hysteria is rife. So all the supporting arguments, most of which I accept, are true but irrelevant. No, this does not end the two-state solution, contiguity and access to Ramallah are still achievable, and Ma'aleh Adumim is not going away so quickly. Yes, other Israeli governments left and right have approved building in E1. No, this is not creating another settlement in an unpopulated Palestinian area, and so on.
I will be even more controversial. I believe it is a mistake for both sides to talk about “the settlements” as if an unauthorized group of caravans on a hilltop, a demographically outnumbered Jewish community in the historic Jewish community of Hebron, a suburban town just over the Green Line outside Tel Aviv, and the restored Jewish life in Gush Etzion are all the same. And when Israel’s Prime Minister responds to a Palestinian “provocation” by building in one of the areas that actually might be closer to the international consensus regarding which territories might remain Israeli after a peace treaty, he is undermining his own cause by treating them all as “settlements,” all as pawns not people’s homes, all as part of the toxic politics of the Middle East rather than the more human side of the story, which will require an approach committed to maximizing both people’s rights of self-determination while minimizing individual disruption.
And I should point out, while I note some parallels i do not indulge in moral equivalences. Even if both Netanyahu and Abbas fear extremists in their ranks, in democratic Israel the threat mostly comes from ballots, in autocratic Palestine, the threat mostly comes from bullets.
Still, in both political cultures, the political gravitational forces too frequently propel toward the extremes rather than toward the center. And we are once again stuck with what I think of as Delegitmization Donkey Kong, where, as in the never-ending video game, the obstacles keep coming at you, each scenario dissolves into the next one, and the pace becomes faster and more dizzying.