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A Cultural Gulf Between Israel and Palestine

Last night there was a big party in Ramallah. As the Times of Israel described it, the gathering at the Muqata, the Palestinian Authority’s government compound in the city, was festive as people gathered to welcome home 21 of the 26 convicted terrorist murderers who were set free by Israel this week as part of the deal that got the Palestinians to agree to peace talks. Loudspeakers blasted songs, friends and relatives of those released danced, and PA leader Mahmoud Abbas proudly held their hands aloft in a victory gesture.

By contrast, the mood in Israel was somber as the relatives of the people who had been killed by those treated as heroes in Ramallah mourned anew. The New York Times described the difference between the two reactions as “an emotional gulf” and that is, to some extent, certainly true. One group of people was happy as murderers went free while others wept. But the gulf here is more than emotional or merely, as the Times seemed to describe it, a difficult process that is part of the price Israel must pay for the chance of peace. In fact, the “emotional gulf” is indicative of a vast cultural divide between these two peoples that explains more about the absence of peace than any lecture about history, borders, or refugees. Simply put, so long as the Palestinians honor murderers, there is no reason to believe they are willing to end the conflict.

The accounts of the aftermath of the release sought to balance the embarrassing ceremony in Ramallah by highlighting the decision by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to allow the building of 1,500 apartments in Jerusalem. There’s no question that the move was motivated by a desire on Netanyahu’s part to pacify the anger felt by many of his supporters about the release of terrorists. Even members of his coalition called it cynical and they are probably right about that, even though they, like most Israelis, see nothing wrong with Israel building in 40-year-old Jewish neighborhoods in their capital that would remain in the Jewish state even if there were a peace treaty that created a Palestinian state. Some would have preferred a building freeze to the disgrace of allowing the killers out of jail and that, too, is understandable.

But the lesson here isn’t so much about whether Netanyahu is playing political games or the false charge that building in Jerusalem is any way an obstacle to peace. It is that the two peoples in this conflict seem to be driven by values that are not merely at odds but which represent a gulf between civilizations.

The focus of Palestinian nationalism is not on building up their putative state, making it a better place to live, or even in creating a political process that would allow them to express their views freely. None of that was on display in Ramallah as a “president” serving the ninth year of the four-year term to which he was elected did his utmost to identify his political fortunes with people who had stabbed, shot, and blown up Jews in cold blood. Abbas did so because the political culture of the Palestinians still venerates the shedding of blood as the essential bona fides of any patriot. That is why terrorists are Palestinian heroes rather than shameful remnants of a violent past that is supposedly finished. He successfully demanded the release of the killers because that is something that makes him more popular.

Among Israelis, there is a debate about the wisdom of West Bank settlements even though few dispute the right of their country to build in any part of their capital. But Israelis don’t treat that tiny minority of Jews who have committed acts of lawless violence against Arabs as heroes. They are punished, not cheered. Until the same is true of the Palestinians, peace is nowhere in sight.


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