Commentary Magazine


Topic: Middle East peace

Democracy is Not an Obstacle to Peace

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has been a piñata for those who think he should make even more concessions than his country has already made to the Palestinians even if the other side has shown no willingness to negotiate, let alone sign an agreement. But Thursday, he was assailed on another issue relating to the peace process. During a media session with a visiting foreign minister, he made it clear that if peace ever were to be signed, he would insist on the accord being submitted to the people of Israel for a vote.

This suggestion, made in the course of a discussion with Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter, whose nation is well known for its use of referendums, prompted some on the Israeli left as well as other Netanyahu critics to cry foul. Indeed, as the New York Times noted, even a member of his own government doesn’t like the idea:

Left-leaning Israeli supporters of a peace deal have long argued that a referendum could impede the leadership’s ability to seal a treaty with Palestinians.

[Tzipi] Livni, a former foreign minister and chief negotiator with the Palestinians under the government led by Ehud Olmert, Mr. Netanyahu’s predecessor, has publicly opposed the idea of a referendum. Ms. Livni now leads her own party, which is considered dovish on peace issues. She told Israel’s Army Radio a few days ago, “At the moment, a referendum is a way to forestall decisions approved by the Parliament and the cabinet.”

But rather than impeding peace, Netanyahu’s support for a referendum on any agreement with the Palestinians is the only way it can be implemented with the full support of the vast majority of Israelis.

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Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has been a piñata for those who think he should make even more concessions than his country has already made to the Palestinians even if the other side has shown no willingness to negotiate, let alone sign an agreement. But Thursday, he was assailed on another issue relating to the peace process. During a media session with a visiting foreign minister, he made it clear that if peace ever were to be signed, he would insist on the accord being submitted to the people of Israel for a vote.

This suggestion, made in the course of a discussion with Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter, whose nation is well known for its use of referendums, prompted some on the Israeli left as well as other Netanyahu critics to cry foul. Indeed, as the New York Times noted, even a member of his own government doesn’t like the idea:

Left-leaning Israeli supporters of a peace deal have long argued that a referendum could impede the leadership’s ability to seal a treaty with Palestinians.

[Tzipi] Livni, a former foreign minister and chief negotiator with the Palestinians under the government led by Ehud Olmert, Mr. Netanyahu’s predecessor, has publicly opposed the idea of a referendum. Ms. Livni now leads her own party, which is considered dovish on peace issues. She told Israel’s Army Radio a few days ago, “At the moment, a referendum is a way to forestall decisions approved by the Parliament and the cabinet.”

But rather than impeding peace, Netanyahu’s support for a referendum on any agreement with the Palestinians is the only way it can be implemented with the full support of the vast majority of Israelis.

It should be conceded that Livni is correct when she points out that the only thing necessary for any Israeli government to legally implement any measure is to get a bare one-vote majority in the Knesset. But she should learn from her nation’s experiences in the last 20 years when such razor-thin margins were used to implement the most far-reaching changes in security policy.

Israelis well remember that the late Yitzhak Rabin secured the passage of the Oslo II agreement with the Palestinians in 1995 by bribing members of the opposition to cross the aisle and back it by offering them offices and other perks. Ariel Sharon promised his Likud Party that he would submit his plan to withdraw unilaterally from Gaza to a party vote and then ignored the result when it went against him. In each of these cases, the use of tricks that were intended to thwart the will of the people undermined the legitimacy of the cause they bolstered.

It is true that if a peace agreement were to be submitted to a vote, that would raise the possibility that Israel’s voters would reject it. But if a deal was truly in Israel’s best interests, what exactly are advocates of a two-state solution worried about?

While foreign leaders have often lectured the Jewish state about the need for it to take risks for peace, Israelis know that is exactly what they have been doing for 20 years since the first Oslo Accord was signed and paying heavily for it in blood. But it is a truism that any time the Palestinians show any signs of actually wanting peace, they know there is a solid majority of Israeli voters that will back efforts to make it a reality. That was why the original Oslo deal was greeted euphorically by so many in the country. If the parties that staked their political future on peace have collapsed, it is solely because the Palestinians exposed those hopes as a cruel hoax that was a prelude to a war of terror. But were Mahmoud Abbas to go to Jerusalem, as Anwar Sadat did, and declare himself ready to accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state, give up on the dream of its destruction and negotiate borders, it’s likely that the old pro-Oslo majority would be resurrected.

More to the point, if Israel is expected to give up territory and uproot at least some of the communities it has planted in the West Bank on land that is integral to Jewish history, the path to such an outcome must not be the result of parliamentary tricks. The only way to get the majority of Israelis to make such a painful sacrifice is by giving every one of them a choice via the ballot. Livni, who apparently still hopes to one day sit in Netanyahu’s seat, should have more respect for the voters whom she wishes to lead.

Of course, so long as the Palestinians are divided between the Islamists of Hamas, who are open about their commitment to violence and Israel’s destruction, and the so-called moderates of Fatah, who talk of peace but do everything to foment hatred and avoid peace talks, this discussion is purely theoretical.

Those who wish to ignore the reality of Palestinian rejectionism often say that the preservation of Israeli democracy requires the nation to divest itself of the West Bank. But even if that is so, that cause cannot be secured by undemocratic means. If the sea change in Palestinian culture that would enable a peace deal ever does occur, the agreement that would stem from that development must be submitted to the Israeli people for approval in an unambiguous manner. Those who oppose this idea cannot do so without forfeiting their right to lecture the Israelis about democracy.

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Peace Means Justice for Jewish Refugees

The tragic fate of Palestinian Arab refugees has always loomed over the Middle East conflict. The descendants of those who fled the territory of the newborn state of Israel in 1948 have been kept stateless and dependent on United Nations charity rather than being absorbed into other Arab countries so as to perpetuate the war to extinguish the Jewish state. The refugees and those who purport to advocate for their interests have consistently sought to veto any peace plans that might end the struggle between Israelis and Palestinians. They have refused to accept any outcome that did not involve their “return” to what is now Israel, an idea that is tantamount to the destruction of Israel. The Palestinians have gotten away with this irresponsible behavior because they retained the sympathy of a world that saw them as the sole victims of Israel’s War of Independence. But the historical truth is far more complex.

Far from 1948 being a case of a one-sided population flight in which Palestinians left what is now Israel (something that most did voluntarily as they sought to escape the war or because they feared what would happen to them in a Jewish majority state), what actually occurred was a population exchange. At the same time that hundreds of thousands of Arabs left the Palestine Mandate, hundreds of thousands of Jews living in the Arab and Muslim world began to be pushed out of their homes. The story of the Jewish refugees has rarely been told in international forums or the mainstream media but it got a boost today when the first United Nations Conference on Jews expelled from Arab Countries was held at the world body’s New York headquarters. While Palestinian refugees deserve sympathy and perhaps some compensation in any agreement that would finally end the conflict, so, too, do the descendants of the Jews who lost their homes. As Danny Ayalon, Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister rightly said today:

We will not arrive at peace without solving the refugee problem – but that includes the Jewish refugees. Justice does not lie on just one side and equal measures must be applied to both.

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The tragic fate of Palestinian Arab refugees has always loomed over the Middle East conflict. The descendants of those who fled the territory of the newborn state of Israel in 1948 have been kept stateless and dependent on United Nations charity rather than being absorbed into other Arab countries so as to perpetuate the war to extinguish the Jewish state. The refugees and those who purport to advocate for their interests have consistently sought to veto any peace plans that might end the struggle between Israelis and Palestinians. They have refused to accept any outcome that did not involve their “return” to what is now Israel, an idea that is tantamount to the destruction of Israel. The Palestinians have gotten away with this irresponsible behavior because they retained the sympathy of a world that saw them as the sole victims of Israel’s War of Independence. But the historical truth is far more complex.

Far from 1948 being a case of a one-sided population flight in which Palestinians left what is now Israel (something that most did voluntarily as they sought to escape the war or because they feared what would happen to them in a Jewish majority state), what actually occurred was a population exchange. At the same time that hundreds of thousands of Arabs left the Palestine Mandate, hundreds of thousands of Jews living in the Arab and Muslim world began to be pushed out of their homes. The story of the Jewish refugees has rarely been told in international forums or the mainstream media but it got a boost today when the first United Nations Conference on Jews expelled from Arab Countries was held at the world body’s New York headquarters. While Palestinian refugees deserve sympathy and perhaps some compensation in any agreement that would finally end the conflict, so, too, do the descendants of the Jews who lost their homes. As Danny Ayalon, Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister rightly said today:

We will not arrive at peace without solving the refugee problem – but that includes the Jewish refugees. Justice does not lie on just one side and equal measures must be applied to both.

It is true that the descendants of the Jewish refugees are not still living in camps waiting for new homes. Though the process was not without its problems, rather than abuse those Jews who were dispossessed and using them as political props as the Arabs did, refugees from the Arab world found homes and lives in Israel and the West with the help of their brethren. But that does not diminish their right to compensation or a fair hearing for their grievances.

The truth about the Jewish refugees is something that foreign cheerleaders for the Palestinians as well as the Arab nations who took part in the expulsion have never acknowledged, let alone refuted. As Ron Prosor, Israel’s UN ambassador, pointed out in his speech at the conference, what occurred after Israel’s birth was nothing less than a campaign aimed at eliminating ancient Jewish communities. Arab leaders “launched a war of terror, incitement, and expulsion to decimate and destroy their Jewish communities. Their effort was systematic. It was deliberate. It was planned.”

Indeed, not only did Jews lose billions of dollars in property but were deprived of property that amounts to a land mass that is five times the size of the state of Israel.

This is something that a lot of people, especially those to whom the peace process with the Palestinians has become an end unto itself don’t want to hear about. They believe that the putting forward of Jewish claims from 1948 is merely an obstacle to negotiations. But such arguments are absurd. Peace cannot be built merely by appeasing the Palestinian claim to sole victimhood. Just as the dispute over territory is one between two peoples with claims, so, too is the question of refugee compensation. Peace cannot be bought by pretending that only Palestinians suffered or that only Arabs have rights. Indeed, such a formulation is a guarantee that the struggle will continue indefinitely since the Palestinians are encouraged to think that they are the only ones with just claims.

For far too long the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has been cast as one pitting the security of the former against the rights of the latter. Framed this way, it is no surprise that the more emotional appeals of the Palestinians have often prevailed over the arguments of Israelis. Rather than asserting their historic rights, the Jews have often allowed themselves to be cast in the false role of colonial oppressor. The Palestinian pose as the only victims of the war enables them to evade their historic responsibility for both the creation of a refugee problem in 1948 as well as their refusal to accept Israeli peace offers.

Let’s hope today’s conference is the beginning of a serious debate about the issue as well as a turning point in discussions about Middle East peace. Peace requires respect for the rights of Jewish refugees as well as those of the Palestinians.

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Obama, the Self-Proclaimed Visionary

President Obama has received some well-deserved mockery for his factually inaccurate swipes at President Rutherford B. Hayes (yes, really) and Christopher Columbus’s contemporaneous critics. But his comments, made during his campaign-rally-esque energy address yesterday, are also revealing because of what they indicate about Obama himself. From his speech:

“Of course, we’ve heard this kind of thinking before.  If some of these folks were around when Columbus set sail, they must have been founding members of the Flat Earth Society.  … There always have been folks who are the naysayers and don’t believe in the future, and don’t believe in trying to do things differently.  One of my predecessors, Rutherford B. Hayes, reportedly said about the telephone, ‘It’s a great invention, but who would ever want to use one?’ That’s why he’s not on Mt. Rushmore because he’s looking backwards.  He’s not looking forwards.  He’s explaining why we can’t do something, instead of why we can do something.”

In Obama’s mind, his critics aren’t just wrong, they’re idiots. Obama, in contrast, is a grand visionary of epic capacity – the type of man who in the past would have ended up on Mt. Rushmore or captaining the voyage that led to the discovery of America.

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President Obama has received some well-deserved mockery for his factually inaccurate swipes at President Rutherford B. Hayes (yes, really) and Christopher Columbus’s contemporaneous critics. But his comments, made during his campaign-rally-esque energy address yesterday, are also revealing because of what they indicate about Obama himself. From his speech:

“Of course, we’ve heard this kind of thinking before.  If some of these folks were around when Columbus set sail, they must have been founding members of the Flat Earth Society.  … There always have been folks who are the naysayers and don’t believe in the future, and don’t believe in trying to do things differently.  One of my predecessors, Rutherford B. Hayes, reportedly said about the telephone, ‘It’s a great invention, but who would ever want to use one?’ That’s why he’s not on Mt. Rushmore because he’s looking backwards.  He’s not looking forwards.  He’s explaining why we can’t do something, instead of why we can do something.”

In Obama’s mind, his critics aren’t just wrong, they’re idiots. Obama, in contrast, is a grand visionary of epic capacity – the type of man who in the past would have ended up on Mt. Rushmore or captaining the voyage that led to the discovery of America.

And yet, where has this amazing foresight been in the years since Obama took office? His advisors claim they underestimated the impact of the economic crisis and miscalculated federal deficit projections. Obama’s attempts to mend the Israeli-Palestinian peace process only drove the two sides further apart, and his administration was caught off guard and woefully unprepared by the Arab Spring.

Then there’s energy policy. There are plenty of blunders to criticize, but let’s focus on a major one: the collapse of Solyndra. Here’s what Obama had to say when ABC News asked whether he regretted pouring over $500 million in taxpayer funds into a now-bankrupt company that he once lauded as the model of his green-jobs program:

“Hindsight is always 20/20,” Obama told “Good Morning America” anchor George Stephanopoulos in an interview broadcast online Monday. “It went through the regular review process and people felt that it was a good bet.”

Hindsight may be 20/20, but you’d have to be blind to miss all the warning signs that Solyndra was a dangerous investment.

And this is the person we’re supposed to trust as the brilliant diviner of our energy future? For someone with a track record of placing losing bets, Obama really does put a remarkable amount of stock in his own visionary prowess. Then again, it’s always easier when you’re gambling with somebody else’s money.

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Non-Violent Protests No Substitute for Palestinian Will to Make Peace

On today’s New York Times op-ed page, Palestinian parliamentarian Mustafa Barghouti makes the argument that what his people need to do is to eschew terrorism and to concentrate their efforts on promoting peaceful protests against Israel. Barghouti believes the limited success of a hunger strike by a Palestinian imprisoned by Israel ought to show the way for an escalation of non-violent demonstrations that will embarrass the Jewish state and pave the way for statehood for his people.

This is something supporters of the Palestinians have long wished for because the obsession with violence that has characterized the Arab national movement’s politics has been difficult to defend. Israelis would also cheer an abandonment of terrorism even if it would boost the international standing of the Palestinians. But the notion that a new round of peaceful protests against Israel has anything to do with the promotion of peace or the creation of an independent Palestinian state is pure fiction. That’s because the Palestinians need not resort to terror or to non-violent demonstrations or protests of any kind in order to achieve those goals. All they have to do is have their leaders negotiate with Israel and to be willing to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state, no matter where its borders are drawn. Unfortunately, that is the one thing no Palestinian leader or activist such as Barghouti appears willing to do.

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On today’s New York Times op-ed page, Palestinian parliamentarian Mustafa Barghouti makes the argument that what his people need to do is to eschew terrorism and to concentrate their efforts on promoting peaceful protests against Israel. Barghouti believes the limited success of a hunger strike by a Palestinian imprisoned by Israel ought to show the way for an escalation of non-violent demonstrations that will embarrass the Jewish state and pave the way for statehood for his people.

This is something supporters of the Palestinians have long wished for because the obsession with violence that has characterized the Arab national movement’s politics has been difficult to defend. Israelis would also cheer an abandonment of terrorism even if it would boost the international standing of the Palestinians. But the notion that a new round of peaceful protests against Israel has anything to do with the promotion of peace or the creation of an independent Palestinian state is pure fiction. That’s because the Palestinians need not resort to terror or to non-violent demonstrations or protests of any kind in order to achieve those goals. All they have to do is have their leaders negotiate with Israel and to be willing to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state, no matter where its borders are drawn. Unfortunately, that is the one thing no Palestinian leader or activist such as Barghouti appears willing to do.

What makes Barghouti’s appeal so disingenuous is that it ignores the fact that the Palestinians have repeatedly turned down Israel’s offers of peace and statehood. Whereas once it could have been argued that the Jewish state had to be persuaded to contemplate a two-state solution, in the wake of the Palestinian Authority’s refusal to accept independence in almost all of the West Bank, Gaza and a share of Jerusalem in 2000, 2001 and 2008, it is impossible to claim the obstacle to statehood is anything other than a Palestinian political culture that cannot accept peace with Israel.

Barghouti’s piece draws comparisons between the situation of the Palestinians and the Arab Spring revolts against autocracies throughout the Middle East. He also cites the philosophy of Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., as inspirations for the Palestinians and throws in the tactics of Irish Republican Army terrorists for good measure. Yet the only thing Mubarak’s Egypt, Northern Ireland, British-ruled India and the segregation-era American South have in common is that none of these examples are remotely analogous to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

If, as their repeated refusal to contemplate a peace that includes their recognition of Israel’s legitimacy makes clear, the Palestinians’ ultimate goal is the Jewish state’s destruction, the debate about the use of violence or non-violence merely becomes one of which tactic is more useful to obtain that end. That is an interesting discussion, but it is one that has little to do with peace.

Indeed, rather than focus their non-violent protests against an Israel that is willing to compromise on territory (though perhaps not quite so much as the Palestinians may wish) to obtain peace, what Barghouti and other like-minded Palestinians should do is to conduct a civil disobedience program whose purpose will be to persuade PA President Mahmoud Abbas and his new Hamas allies to go back to the negotiating table and sign a peace that will end the conflict.

Considering the nature of a Palestinian political culture that has always glorified violence and treated the murder of Jews as a source of prestige and legitimacy, such a campaign would be an uphill struggle. And given the ruthlessness with which Abbas and Hamas have always stamped out any dissent from their rule, Barghouti’s reluctance to try their patience with a Gandhi-like campaign is understandable. But anyone who thinks non-violent protest against Israel will help bring peace or Palestinian independence is ignoring the reality of the conflict.

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