If Israel’s Supporters Want the World's Empathy, They Must Give It Themselves

Netanyahu considers himself a master at public diplomacy, but he’s losing the propaganda war to Abbas, who speaks English like a Bulgarian diplomat from the 1980s.

Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart
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Rachel Fraenkel, left, speaking with Sara and Benjamin Netanyahu at the Prime Minister's residence in Jerusalem, June 20, 2014.
Rachel Fraenkel, left, speaking with Sara and Benjamin Netanyahu at the Prime Minister's residence in Jerusalem, June 20, 2014.Credit: Kobi Gideon / GPO
Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart

Thane Rosenbaum may be a well-known American Jewish novelist. But he has a thing or two to learn about irony.

Earlier this week in Haaretz, he penned a column entitled, “The world’s cruel indifference to Israel’s plight.” The subtitle began, “For Americans and Europeans, there’s no room for sympathy for Israeli children.” That’s a bit over the top. After all, numerous Members of Congress have expressed heartache at the kidnapping of Naftali Frenkel, Gilad Shaar and Eyal Yifrach and their plight has been front-page news in the United States. But let’s agree with Rosenbaum that it would be wonderful if more people in America, Europe and around the world cared about the fate of these three Israeli teens.

Let’s also agree that if you want others to care about the suffering of your people, it’s a good thing to care about the suffering of others. In his column, Rosenbaum associates Palestinians with “airline hijackings, Black September’s Munich massacre, Fedayeen night raids on Israeli villages, letter bombs detonating at Israeli embassies, explosions on commuter buses and in pizza shops.” He waxes nostalgic for the good old days, when Westerners outraged by Palestinians’ “savage” behavior asked, “What kind of people were these ‘so-called Palestinians?’”

In a column pleading for empathy, he describes Palestinians solely as terrorists. Except in the final paragraph, where he writes that “at polite cocktail parties and on college campuses it is fashionable to regard Palestinian suffering as the human rights abuse du jour—no matter what happens to Israelis, no matter what else happens around the world.” In other words, our suffering should matter. Theirs should not.

That’s pretty much Benjamin Netanyahu’s attitude too. This April, Mahmoud Abbas called The Holocaust “the most heinous crime to have occurred against humanity in the modern era.” Last week, in Saudi Arabia of all places, he described the three abducted Israelis teens as “human beings just like us” who “must be returned to their families.”

A few days later, after Israeli soldiers killed three Palestinian teenagers, a visibly distraught Abbas asked Netanyahu to show some compassion of his own. “What does Netanyahu have to say about the killings? Does he condemn it?” the Palestinian leader asked Haaretz. “What will I tell the families of the three Palestinian teens who were killed? Why were they killed? We’re human beings, just like you. Can the Israeli government demonstrate the same feelings and say they are human beings and deserve to live?”

Netanyahu did later say he appreciated Abbas’ comments about the missing Israelis teens but when it came to Palestinian deaths, he responded only, “We have no intention of deliberately harming anyone, but our forces are acting as necessary for self-defense and from time to time there are victims or casualties on the Palestinian side as a result of the self-defense actions of our soldiers.” Pretty empathetic, huh?

No one who knows Netanyahu’s record should be surprised. When discussing Palestinians in his major work, A Durable Peace, the most recent edition of which was published in 2000, Netanyahu puts the phrases “plight” and “all they have suffered” in quotation marks. He calls Israel’s control of the West Bank “a liberal policy aimed at radically improving the lives of the Arabs.” He says Arabs, and only Arabs, are responsible for the Naqba. (“In several cases…the Jews pleaded with their Palestinian Arab neighbors to stay. This was in sharp contrast to the directives the Palestinian Arabs were receiving from the Arab governments, exhorting them to leave in order to clear the way for the invading armies.”) Nor does he acknowledge that the flight of roughly 700,000 human beings from their homes might be a subject worthy of moral concern. No wonder at the Wye River negotiations in 1998, according to Dennis Ross, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told Bibi, “You treat the Palestinians with no respect and no dignity.”

The irony is that Bibi considers himself a master of public diplomacy. He’s on Meet the Press more often than John McCain. He’s forever coming up with catchy phrases designed to resonate with Americans. Yet he’s losing the propaganda war to Abbas, who speaks English like a Bulgarian diplomat from the 1980s. The reason: Abbas is capable of conveying some basic decency when it comes to the other side. Bibi is not.

In word and deed, he radiates contempt for Palestinians, and that contempt undermines his carefully crafted phrases about Israel’s glorious human rights record and its yearning for peace.

The kidnapping of Naftali Frenkel, Gilad Shaar and Eyal Yifrach is a terrible crime. And given our history, I understand why some Jews worry that when our children suffer, the world shrugs. But the difference between this era of Jewish history and past ones is that today, Jews are capable not only of suffering pain, but of inflicting it. Which means that we too have a responsibility not to shrug. Three Palestinian teenagers died last week. Hundreds more languish in administrative detention, where they can be held indefinitely without trial. Yes, some of them may have thrown rocks, which is wrong. (Some may have done worse things than that). But I suspect that if our children grew up without the basic rights that their neighbors took for granted, some of them would throw rocks too.

Abbas’ point was more basic. It was that these young Palestinians are “human beings just like us.” They too have mothers and fathers ravaged by grief. Like Thane Rosenbaum, I want the world to remember the names of Naftali Frenkel, Gilad Shaar and Eyal Yifrach. But why is so hard for us to remember theirs?

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