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The Uncompromising Palestinians

One could have expected a different response to Trump’s announcement on Jerusalem from Palestinian leadership, if only it was attentive to claims other than its own

Shlomo Avineri
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Palestinian protesters burn pictures of US President Donald Trump at the manger square in Bethlehem on December 5, 2017.
Palestinian protesters burn pictures of US President Donald Trump at the manger square in Bethlehem on December 5, 2017. Credit: MUSA AL SHAER/AFP
Shlomo Avineri

Prof. Elie Podeh discussed the Palestinian and Arab refusal to accept the UN Partition Plan of November 29, 1947 in his article (“Their biggest missed opportunity,” Opinion, November 30), and even provided a long list of other Palestinian missed opportunities – all of which have led the Palestinian national movement to its nadir of today. Even if Abba Eban’s statement “The Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity” is too much of a generalization, it is still worth going back and reflecting on it these days.

It is clear that the Palestinians were disappointed by U.S. President Donald Trump’s announcement that the United States recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and that he will move the U.S. Embassy there. But the official Palestinian response reflects once again a number of failures that have led to politically catastrophic decisions.

While the Israelis are celebrating, justifiably, over Trump’s decision, it is impossible to ignore that his speech included statements that without a doubt displease the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Trump said explicitly that recognizing Jerusalem and moving the embassy do not in any way determine the borders and the United States supports the two-state solution – if it is acceptable to both sides.

The Palestinian response ignored these two statements, which in practice say that as far as the final agreement is concerned, the Trump administration’s stance is not significantly different than the position of previous American administrations. Without a doubt, they were included in Trump’s announcement to soften Arab opposition, especially that of Saudi Arabia.

A responsible Palestinian leadership that strives to reach an agreed upon solution and does not make do with aggressive rhetoric could have seized on these statements. Only the Palestinian unwillingness to understand that if a solution is found, it will realistically have to be a compromise formula and not the fulfillment of all their demands, prevented the Palestinian leadership from relating to these aspects of Trump’s speech, which were actually quite opportune for them.

One could have expected a different response from the Palestinian leadership, if only it was attentive to claims other than its own. It could have praised Trump for mentioning for the first time – yes, the first time – the two-state solution and expressing his support for it. Moreover, from the Palestinians’ perspective it was also possible to applaud the statement that the recognition and moving of the embassy did not mean the determination of borders. They could have interpreted this as American willingness to accept the division of Jerusalem.

They could even have added that in such a case, Jerusalem could be the capital of two countries, Israel and Palestine, and the Palestinians would happily promote the establishment of an American embassy in their state in East Jerusalem.

Instead, the Palestinian leadership attacked the United States and its president, declared that America cannot be an honest broker, threatened to boycott the visit to the region by Vice President Mike Pence, and announced that Trump’s speech irreversibly buried the two-state solution.

Every rookie diplomat and politician knows that the first thing that must be done in response to the statements of an external body is to emphasize those aspects that are convenient for you and only afterward disagree with what is unacceptable. The Palestinians did exactly the opposite, and in doing so bolstered the Israeli achievement.

This response, which joined a long list of historic missed Palestinian opportunities, was not the result of stupidity or a lack of experience. It seems its roots can be found in the inability to live with compromise, which characterizes the Arab political discourse in general.

The absolute faith in its own righteousness is what prevented the Arab world from accepting the UN Partition Plan in 1947, and it is what prevented Yasser Arafat from accepting Anwar Sadat’s pleas to join him on his visit to Jerusalem and his speech to the Knesset. One can only imagine how history would be different if Arafat, too, had come to the Knesset in November 1977.

Zionism’s moral legitimacy is encapsulated in Chaim Weizmann’s canonical statement that the conflict isn’t between justice and injustice, but between two parties which both have justified claims, and therefore compromise is the only possible fair solution.

The Palestinians sometimes claim that they have already made their compromise, and the proof of this is their willingness to accept the 1967 lines. But this, of course, is a deception: The 1967 lines weren’t the result of a Palestinian willingness to compromise, but of the failure of their attempt to prevent implementation of the partition plan. It’s just like the Israeli claim that Israel’s compromises should be limited to its concession of the land on the other side of the Jordan River. That, too, is arrant nonsense, because this wasn’t a Zionist concession, but the result of Britain’s decision not to apply the Balfour Declaration’s principles, which were incorporated into the Mandate for Palestine, to the other side of the Jordan.

Concessions are made in the here and now, over something you actually possess. That is what Israel needs to do; hence the debate within Israeli society. And that’s also what the Palestinians will need to do if and when it becomes possible to reach an agreement, one in which both sides will consent to difficult compromises. 

This unwillingness to make compromises also explains Arab societies’ failure to develop democratic systems of government, which are based entirely on compromise, on the understanding that there is more than one legitimate opinion and that people who think differently than you must be respected. In the Arab political conversation, anyone who disagrees with you is too often considered a traitor or a foreign agent or part of a conspiracy. This makes it hard to accept a multiparty system or a compromise between two national movements. The Palestinians are demanding that Israel give up control over the West Bank and East Jerusalem, but they insist that their demands be accepted in full (including their demand for a “right of return”). This doesn’t bode well for the future of the negotiations, and the uncompromising Palestinian response to Trump’s announcement also does nothing to advance a historic compromise between the two national movements.

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