Commentary Magazine


Who Marginalized the Palestinians?

For decades, the chattering classes have been working hard to teach us that the central issue of the region was not the Shia-Sunni conflict or the struggle for freedom by Arabs longing to rid themselves of autocratic monarchs or dictators. The belief in the centrality of the Palestinian issue was so strong that every other consideration had to be subordinated to the cause of trying to assuage the anger of the Muslim world at their plight. But in the past year, the main subjects of discussion have been the Arab Spring revolts and the debate over how best to stop the Iranian nuclear threat. The result is that the world is getting on with its business these days without obsessing about the Palestinians. Even President Obama, who had picked an annual fight with Israel, chose this year to abandon his usual attempt to pressure Israel into concessions to the Palestinians.

All of which has left the Palestinians and their foreign cheerleaders mighty upset. As one Palestinian told the New York Times today, “The Arab world is busy. The Palestinians are becoming secondary.” The question is who’s responsible for this state of affairs? Predictably, the Palestinians blame everyone but themselves. Yet if they want the answer, they need only look in the mirror.

Having refused Israeli peace offers of a state including a share of Jerusalem three times from 2000 to 2008 and with the Palestinian Authority now allying itself with the Islamists of Hamas, the Palestinians have effectively painted themselves into a diplomatic corner. Though many, including some Israelis, expected their attempt to get the United Nations to grant them independence without first making peace with Israel to be a diplomatic “tsunami,” it turned out to be a dud. Even their erstwhile supporters in Europe and the Third World largely abandoned them. Though many continue to pay lip service to their cause, there is a widespread realization that whatever sympathy one may feel for their plight, there is no helping people who won’t or can’t help themselves.

While a campaign for more pressure on Israel continues on the left, even the Obama administration, which did more to tilt the diplomatic playing field in the Palestinians’ favor than any of its predecessors, has discovered their efforts in that direction went for naught. All of Obama’s initiatives to push the Israelis to give in on Jerusalem, settlements and the 1967 borders have been rendered moot by the Palestinian refusal to negotiate. At this point, and with his campaign staff worried about shoring up his popularity in an election year, any further attention paid to the Palestinians is not only bad policy but also a waste of time. Though the Palestinians’ erstwhile European friends have no such worries, even they have figured out there are other more pressing issues.

Complaining about the attention given to the possibility that the Arab Spring is turning into a despotic winter or the worries about Iranian nukes (which are largely shared by both Israelis and most neighboring Arab states) does the Palestinians little good. But it is worthwhile pointing out that the notion of Palestinian centrality was always absurd. The Arab world did its best to keep the conflict alive and refused to resettle Palestinian refugees the way Israel did a nearly equal number of Jewish refugees from the Middle East after its birth. They promoted the false idea that theirs was the one post-World War II refugee problem that could not be dealt with without redrawing borders and creating a new state. The Arabs cared little for the Palestinians, but their rulers did find the notion of a permanent war to destroy the one Jewish state in the world useful in distracting their people from focusing on their own problems. That cause, which builds on a ready audience for the themes of Jew-hatred among Muslims, lives on, and will, no doubt, be revived by newly empowered Islamists. But the notion that Israel’s existence is a unique injustice around which all the world’s foreign policy problems must revolve is not one that can be credibly sustained when other more obvious problems present themselves.

The Palestinian answer to their dilemma is much like that of a child who threatens to hold his breath until he turns blue. That’s the substance of the Times article in which PA leaders hint darkly at renewed terrorism or a simple refusal to go on governing themselves under the autonomy agreements negotiated with Israel at Oslo. But even if the Palestinians decide to sacrifice their economic well being as well as their children on the altar of never-ending conflict with Israel (something that fits in nicely with the Islamist ideology of the PA’s Hamas partner), there is little the world can do for them unless they decide to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn. Until they do so — and that seems unlikely for the foreseeable future — they are going to have to reconcile themselves to being marginal players on the world stage rather than the focus of the world’s sympathy.

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