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Signs of a Thaw in the Middle East

By Andrew Wilson

The early signs of a spring thaw are upon the Middle East. Although they are overshadowed by the Palestinian gambit for recognition at the UN and Israel’s retaliatory announcement of new settlement construction, both governments are beginning to make quiet efforts toward bridging gaps and preparing their people for a peace agreement. 

The UN gambit is not working as the Palestinians may have hoped. President Abbas’s undertook the UN initiative as a strategy to pressure Israel into making concessions it was unwilling to make at the negotiating table, an attempt to overcome a moribund peace process. Abbas most likely did not mind Israel’s harsh retaliation, believing that as the world sees Israel punishing Palestine for merely insisting on its natural rights, the international community would be moved to righteous indignation and support for the Palestinian cause.

This is non-violent political action taken from the playbook of the U.S. civil rights movement against the segregationist South: Insist on your rights, accept the punishment of the oppressor, and thereby move the conscience of the public. But there is one fundamental difference, something that Martin Luther King Jr. epitomized but which has so far been absent from the Palestinian cause: the ethos to love one’s enemy, to have goodwill towards one’s adversary. As King said in Stride Toward Freedom, non-violent resistance “does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding.”

The civil rights movement was effective because African Americans schooled themselves to have goodwill towards white people. Whites could sense this, and therefore many cooperated and supported King, even walking hand in hand with him into harm’s way. The legislative steps to overcome racial discrimination were successful because many whites cooperated in what they saw as a movement beneficial for the whole nation.

In this regard we can ask: In their UN initiative, did Palestinians successfully frame themselves as partners for long lasting peace rather than Israeli adversaries? 

Part of Israel’s frustration with the Palestinians stems from the inability of Palestinians to recognize and appreciate Israel’s gestures of good will. The recent prisoner exchange of over 1,000 prisoners for captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit could be considered a step toward peace with Palestine. Instead of showing appreciation, Gazans resumed missile attacks. It was a reminder of Gaza’s reaction after Israel halted settlements in 2005: Prime Minister Ariel Sharon took considerable political risks, yet Israel received nothing but missiles. Such expressions of unremitting hostility dishearten the Israeli left who long for peace with Palestine  and strengthen the Israeli right, which argues that making concessions to the Palestinians is a fool’s bargain.

Even as the UN gambit winds its course, both sides are now being pressured by the international community to resume negotiations. President Abbas, who represents Palestinians living on the West Bank who do not feel such hostility and would welcome the chance to live in a peaceful Palestine, knows that he needs to find a new methodology for negotiation. It would require him to demonstrate a different ethos from Hamas, an ethos that can encourage more cooperation and trust from the Israeli side.

The character and content of this new ethos will be up to Palestinians themselves. The Israeli leadership, too, is challenged to be more generous towards the Palestinians. As the two sides grope to find a modus vivendi, each will have to find the way to show a more generous spirit while remaining true to its community’s beliefs.  

The first sign of a new ethos is apparent in an interview last week with President Abbas on Israel’s Channel 2. There he made the startling admission that his people had made a serious error by rejecting the UN partition plan in 1947. This statement was highly appreciated by Ha’aretz columnist, psychologist, and philosopher Carlo Strenger:

In doing so, Abbas is the first Palestinian leader to change a sacrosanct element of the Palestinian narrative: self-representation as pure victims. Palestinians have always spoken of the expulsion of more than 700,000 of their fellow nationals in 1948 as the Nakba, the catastrophe that befell them.

While it would be both inhuman and stupid to deny the Palestinian tragedy…Abbas’ admission that the Palestinian people’s fate could have been dramatically different if they had made wiser decisions is crucially important, because the Palestinian denial of responsibility for their own fate has led them to a state of freeze. Instead of moving toward compromise with Israel, too many Palestinians have waited for too many years for a reversal of history. They forget that they joined an all out war against Israel in 1948 and that they need to accept the consequences of their decision.

Abbas’ admission of historical responsibility presents Israel with an ethos that demonstrates humility and honesty. It indicates that the Palestinians are willing to accept responsibility for their role in the conflict. 

Furthermore, Abbas had the interview aired on Palestinian prime time TV for educational purposes. Israelis often complain that Palestinians speak differently to their own constituency than to the outside world. But in this matter, Abbas demonstrated the sincerity of his admission. He is willing to change the Palestinian narrative of victimhood in effort to obtain buy-in from his own people.

Furthermore, by this admission, Abbas may be preparing the Palestinians to accept a negotiated settlement that is less than what many would desire. The narrative of Palestinians as victims is the basis of the expectation of the Right of Return for Palestinian refugees displaced from villages and homes in Israel by the events in 1948. By accepting a portion of responsibility for the history that led to the refugee problem, Abbas may be preparing the Palestinian people to accept the difficult reality that in any conceivable peace agreement, the refugees will have to settle for less.

In Israel, Prime Minister Netanyahu may be preparing his right-wing constituents in the Israeli settler movement to accept much less as well. At a speech to the Knesset members of his Likud party on Monday, he spoke of his intention to dismantle outlying settlements deep within the West Bank while building more housing within the large settlement blocs such as Ma’ale Adumim and Gilo, which are much more likely to become part of Israel in a peace agreement. “Last week I ordered the acceleration of construction in [East] Jerusalem, Ma’ale Adumim, and other places in Judea and Samaria. We are talking about 2,000 units,” he said. “That is the best way to strengthen settlements that will most certainly remain under Israeli sovereignty in any future agreement.” Referring to the outlying settlements that are likely to be dismantled, he said, “We do not need to build on land that belongs to someone else.”

With Netanyahu’s implicit affirmation of Palestinian sovereignty over interior settlements in the West Bank and with Abbas’s statement that refugees will have to accept less, the conflict is beginning to transform into a negotiation. We can see the initial steps towards the same initiatives of “friendship and understanding” displayed during America’s civil rights movement. If these efforts continue they will foster an environment ripe for peace.

But as with any early spring thaw, there may still be more frozen winter days to come before the ice starts to break in earnest. 

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Andrew Wilson is co-author of the Citizens Proposal for a Border between Israel and Palestine (www.israel-palestine-border.org), an independent initiative to draw a map based on the principles of fairness, contiguity, access, minimizing dislocation of the population, and enhancing conditions for economic development.

[Photo courtesy of looking4poetry ]

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