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Explaining the Everlasting Palestinian “No”

It is an axiom of conventional wisdom about the Middle East that the government of Israel is a hard-line opponent of peace that must be pressured and cajoled to deal with the Palestinians for the sake of the survival of its people. This chestnut is an evergreen of foreign policy discussion used against Prime Minister Netanyahu’s predecessors that has always been false. But the persistence of this canard in the face of contrary evidence is testimony to the strength of anti-Israel prejudices among the chattering classes.

If this notion could survive the Palestinian leadership’s decision to turn down offers from Israel in 2000, 2001 and 2008 that would have given them a state in virtually all of the West Bank, Gaza and a share of Jerusalem, then it will certainly outlast today’s refusal of the Palestinian Authority of Netanyahu’s offer of peace talks without preconditions. Nevertheless, those wondering why such an ardent supporter of the Palestinians like President Obama has abandoned them in the last year can’t blame it all on election year politics. Having staked out positions and picked fights with the Israelis to tilt the diplomatic playing field to the Palestinians directly, even he understands there’s no point getting into arguments for the sake of a group that simply won’t talk, let alone make peace, under any conditions.

The Palestinians claim their refusal of negotiations is based on the idea that it is pointless to talk if Israel isn’t going to concede every point of contention such as borders and settlements in advance. Part of this is, however, Obama’s fault. Since he demanded three years ago that Israel freeze settlement building as a precondition to negotiations — something that not even the Palestinians had thought of prior to 2009 — it is difficult for PA leader Mahmoud Abbas to insist on anything less. But since Israel already froze building in the West Bank in 2010 and Abbas still wouldn’t talk, the point is moot.

The fact is, neither Abbas or his Hamas coalition partners have any intention of ever signing a piece of paper that recognizes the legitimacy of a Jewish state and therefore end the conflict for all time. This is something that even Obama is beginning to understand, but it is one that many liberals and others who think the struggle over this tiny plot of land is about borders find inexplicable. Yet, it is actually quite easy to understand.

Palestinian nationalism flowered in the last century not as an attempt to recreate an ancient ethnic or national identity or to recover a dying language or culture, as was the case with nationalist revivals in places like Ireland, the Czech Republic or even the Jewish movement of Zionism. Rather, it was a reaction to the Jewish return to the land. Though apologists for the Palestinians contend that it was not a purely negative movement, it is impossible to understand Palestinian nationalism as anything but an effort to prevent Zionism from succeeding. Its essence is the illegitimacy of the Jewish state, and any effort to wean it from that belief constitutes a contradiction that the Palestinian grass roots and its vast refugee diaspora simply cannot accept.

It is this everlasting Palestinian “no” that is the basic fact of the Middle East conflict that cannot be talked out of existence. Nor can it be charmed away by Israeli concessions that stop short of the destruction of the Jewish state.

Anyone who doesn’t comprehend this will never be able to explain this latest Palestinian refusal to talk, those that came before it, and the inevitable “no’s” that will follow.


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