What David Ben-Gurion Could Teach Dennis Ross About Israel, the Palestinians and the ICC

Zionists didn’t win statehood by making their opponents comfortable. And the Palestinians won’t gain freedom on their knees.


Good editors are good skeptics. Writers assert; editors are supposed to demand evidence that their assertions are true.

Since Dennis Ross, a former American envoy to the peace talks, did not encounter such an editor before publishing his recent New York Times op-ed denouncing the Palestinian bid to enter the International Criminal Court, let’s imagine how such a conversation might have gone. We’ll take the op-eds’ four main points in turn.

1) The ICC bid is useless

In his first paragraph, Ross declares that seeking membership in the ICC “will produce Palestinian charges and Israeli countercharges but not alter the reality on the ground.” A decent editor would notice several things. First, that Ross offers no evidence for this claim. Second, that he later contradicts it by declaring – again with no evidence – that the bid “will strengthen [Israeli] politicians who prefer the status quo.” So, according to Ross, the ICC bid that will “not alter reality on the ground” may in fact alter reality on the ground by producing an Israeli government more committed to settlement growth. The one thing it absolutely won’t do is scare Israel into making concessions. How does Ross know this? He doesn’t say.

2) The Palestinians are never held responsible

In his second paragraph, Ross declares that, “It’s time to stop giving the Palestinians a pass,” which implies that they’ve been getting one so far. Really? In 2007, the United States halted direct aid to the Palestinian Authority after Hamas won legislative elections. In 2011, Congress cut $200 million in aid after the PA sought statehood recognition at the UN. Last summer, the House Appropriations Committee passed legislation cutting assistance to the Palestinian Authority by the amount the PA paid the families of prisoners in Israeli jails. And now that the Palestinians are applying to join the ICC, Congress is considering cutting off aid again. 

An editor with access to Google might ask how exactly all this qualifies as “giving the Palestinians a pass?” He or she might also ask – since Ross declares that, “peace requires accountability on both sides" – when the United States has responded to Israeli transgressions by cutting its aid. Did the Obama administration publicly threaten aid cuts in 2010 when the Netanyahu government humiliated Joe Biden by announcing new settlement growth while he was in Israel on a fence-mending trip? Or in 2011 when Benjamin Netanyahu flew to the White House to publicly reject Barack Obama’s proposal for a peace deal based on the 1967 lines plus land swaps? Or in 2012 when Netanyahu practically campaigned for Mitt Romney? No, no and no. “So who, exactly,” the editor might ask, “is getting the pass?”

3) It’s the Palestinians' fault that there’s no two-state deal

In paragraph number three, Ross declares: “Since 2000, there have been three serious negotiations that culminated in offers to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Bill Clinton’s parameters in 2000, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s offer in 2008, and Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts last year. In each case, a proposal on all the core issues was made to Palestinian leaders and the answer was either ‘no’ or no response.”

A smart editor would notice the silences right away. Offer number two came from Olmert, an Israeli prime minister. Ross slams Mahmoud Abbas for not accepting it without acknowledging that Abbas had a proposal too, which Olmert didn’t accept. Offers one and three came from the United States. Ross blasts the Palestinians for not answering to them more positively but, strikingly, never mentions the Israeli response. In January 2001, after Clinton unveiled his parameters, his press secretary declared “that both sides have now accepted the president’s ideas with some reservations.” Both sides. Israeli – and some U.S. – officials believe the Palestinian reservations were more problematic. Maybe so. But Ross lets Israel off the hook entirely.

His rendition of the Kerry talks is even worse. It’s true that Abbas did not respond positively to a proposal the Americans made last March. (Although since that proposal – unlike the Clinton parameters – is secret, it’s hard to judge its merit). What Ross doesn’t say is that Israel never accepted the American proposal either. As Martin Indyk, Kerry’s special envoy for the peace process, told me, “We went beyond where Netanyahu was prepared to go to get Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) into the zone of a possible agreement. So the U.S. proposal that Abu Mazen did not respond to had not yet been agreed to by Netanyahu.”

And in a post-mortem two months later, a senior administration official said that “There are a lot of reasons for the peace effort’s failure, but people in Israel shouldn’t ignore the bitter truth – the primary sabotage came from the settlements.” Ross leaves that out too.

4) The Palestinians are professional victims

In his fourth paragraph, Ross offers a cultural explanation for the Palestinians’ refusal to make peace: They’re whiners. “Palestinian political culture,” he writes, “is rooted in a narrative of injustice; its anti-colonialist bent and its deep sense of grievance treats concessions to Israel as illegitimate.” To which our friendly editor might reply: Yikes! In the West Bank, Palestinians are denied citizenship and the right to vote in the country in which they live. They live without free movement and under martial law. Yet according to Ross, they’ve concocted a “narrative” of injustice. If only they weren’t so post-modern.

Then there’s Ross’ idea that “Palestinian political culture” sees “concessions to Israel as illegitimate.” The Palestine Liberation Organization publicly recognized Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign state 22 years ago. Benjamin Netanyahu publicly rejected the Palestinians’ right to the same thing last summer. Yet it’s the Palestinians who suffer from a pathology of intransigence.

Reasonable people can debate the timing of the Palestinians’ UN and ICC bids. But beneath these tactical questions lies this core truth: The Palestinians will get nothing while on their knees. If Benjamin Netanyahu’s prime ministership has done anything, it has borne out the truth that Frederick Douglass spoke long ago: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” As a liberal, I want the Palestinians to demand nonviolently. As a Zionist and a pragmatist, I want them to demand a state alongside Israel, not in its place. But as a Jew who this week begins reading the Book of Exodus – which calls us to “remember the heart of the stranger” – I cannot deny the Palestinians’ right to demand the same freedoms that we demand for ourselves. And I cannot ask them to wait.

It would be wonderful if Palestinians could win those freedoms without causing Jews discomfort. But it hasn’t happened that way because it never happens that way. People are not given freedom; they take it. “What matters is not what the goyim say,” said David Ben-Gurion, “but what the Jews do.” Mahmoud Abbas is finally taking that maxim to heart. He’s tired of relying on the benevolence of Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama. He’s doing it the Zionist way. Were Dennis Ross in his place, I suspect he would too.