Opinion |

Trump Would Be Proud of Netanyahu's anti-Palestinian Ethnic Cleansing Canard

Even if you ignore history, the prime minister's suggestion that contemporary Israelis would never dream of expelling Palestinians is painfully false.

Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a special cabinet meeting to mark Jerusalem Day in Ein Lavan, on the outskirts of Jerusalem, Thursday, June 2, 2016.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a special cabinet meeting to mark Jerusalem Day in Ein Lavan, on the outskirts of Jerusalem, Thursday, June 2, 2016. Credit: Abir Sultan, AP
Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart

In recent weeks, Donald Trump has adopted an odd strategy. He’s begun accusing Hillary Clinton of possessing the very deficiencies that he displays himself. So Trump, who proposed banning Muslims from entering the United States, calls Clinton a “bigot." Trump, who has repeatedly mused about using nuclear weapons, calls Clinton “trigger-happy.” Trump, who accused Ted Cruz’s father of involvement in the assassination of John F. Kennedy, calls Clinton “unstable.”

Where could Trump have learned this form of rhetorical jujutsu? Maybe from Benjamin Netanyahu.

Consider the video Netanyahu posted last week. In it, the Israeli prime minister makes two arguments. First, that Palestinian leaders support ethnic cleansing. “The Palestinian leadership,” Netanyahu declares, “actually demands a Palestinian state with one pre-condition: No Jews. There’s a phrase for that. It’s called ethnic cleansing.” Netanyahu’s second argument is that this makes Palestinians morally inferior to Israeli Jews, who would never contemplate such a thing. No Jewish Israelis, Netanyahu declares, “would seriously claim that the two million Arabs living inside Israel, that they’re an obstacle to peace.”

Somewhere, Donald Trump is smiling.

Let’s start with argument No. 2: that ethnic cleansing is alien and abhorrent to Israeli Jews. During Israel’s creation between 1947 and 1949, roughly 700,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homes. (Although American Jewish organizations often blame this departure on the Arab states’ decision to declare war on the nascent Jewish state in May 1948, perhaps one-third to one-half of the refugees left before then).

Did this exodus constitute Israeli “ethnic cleansing?”

In 2004, Haaretz’s Ari Shavit discussed the point with Benny Morris, the Israeli historian who has won international renown for his research into the roots of the Palestinian refugee problem. Morris noted that, “In the months of April-May 1948, units of the Haganah were given operational orders that stated explicitly that they were to uproot the [Palestinian] villagers, expel them and destroy the villages themselves.”

Shavit then introduced exactly the phrase Netanyahu uses in his video: “They perpetrated ethnic cleansing.” To which Morris replied, “There are circumstances in history that justify ethnic cleansing. I know that this term is completely negative in the discourse of the 21st century, but when the choice is between ethnic cleansing and genocide – the annihilation of your people – I prefer ethnic cleansing.” Clearly disturbed, Shavit replied that, “the term ‘to cleanse’ is terrible.” Morris’ answer: “I know it doesn’t sound nice but that’s the term they used at the time. I adopted it from all the 1948 documents in which I am immersed.”

Israel is hardly alone in having committed ethnic cleansing on its path to nationhood. So did the United States. Countries born brutally don’t forfeit their right to exist.

But even if you ignore this history, Netanyahu’s suggestion that contemporary Israelis would never dream of expelling Palestinians is painfully false. When the Pew Research Center asked Israeli Jews this March whether “Arabs should be expelled or transferred from Israel,” 48 percent, a plurality, agreed. Among Israeli Jews who, like Netanyahu, locate themselves on the political right, the figure was 72 percent.

Nor is forced removal alien to Israeli policy. Between 1967 and 1994, Palestinians who left the West Bank via Jordan for more than two-and-a-half years were not allowed to return. In this way, Haaretz reported in 2011, Israel revoked “the residency status of 140,000 West Bank Palestinians.” To this day, Palestinian residents of Jerusalem who leave for more than seven years are denied reentry.

“No one,” Netanyahu declares in the video “would seriously claim that the two million Arabs living inside Israel, that they’re an obstacle to peace.” Really? In 2003, Netanyahu himself called “Arab Israelis” (who generally call themselves Palestinians) “a demographic problem.” In 2007, he boasted that when he cut child welfare payments as finance minister, “the unexpected result was the demographic effect on the non-Jewish [i.e. Palestinian] public, where there was a dramatic drop in the birth rate.” Netanyahu called this outcome “positive.”

In March 2015, Netanyahu rallied right-wing voters by warning that “Arab voters are coming out in droves to the polls.” And Netanyahu’s current defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has proposed paying Arab Israelis to leave the country. But other than that, no Israeli leader would dream of describing “Arab Israelis” as an “obstacle to peace.”

Then there’s Netanyahu’s first argument: that “the Palestinian leadership demands a Palestinian state with one pre-condition: No Jews.” Netanyahu never defines “Palestinian leadership.” But if he means Mahmoud Abbas and the PLO, he’s mostly wrong.

Abbas and his aides have at times said that they will accept no “Israelis” or “settlers” in a Palestinian state. Yet they’ve also said Jews are welcome. How is that possible?

The answer is that for PLO officials, “Israeli” or “settler” suggests retaining the structure that exists now, in which Jewish settlers live in communities from which Palestinians are barred, under a different legal system than their Palestinian neighbors. In 2014, for instance, PLO negotiator Saeb Erekat declared that, “No settler will be permitted to stay in a Palestinian state, not one, because the settlements are illegal and the presence of settlers on occupied lands is illegal.”

But he also declared that, “If Netanyahu argues that these positions are against Jews, we say to him that two Jews were elected in 2009 as members of Fatah’s Revolutionary Council Our position is against settlements, considering them illegal and contrary to all international laws.” PLO Executive Committee Member Hanan Ashrawi has argued that, “Any person, be he Jewish, Christian or Buddhist, will have the right to apply for Palestinian citizenship. Our basic law prohibits discrimination based on race or ethnicity.” But she added that a Palestinian state would not allow “ex-territorial Jewish enclaves,” where settlers do not live under Palestinian law.

Some may deride this as public relations. But Erekat and Ashrawi’s claim – that Jews are welcome so long as they live as equals in a Palestinian state – echoes what Palestinians have said behind closed doors.

According to the notes of a June 2008 meeting leaked to Al Jazeera, longtime PLO official Ahmad Qurei suggested to Israeli negotiators that the settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim could “remain under Palestinian sovereignty and it could be a model for cooperation and coexistence.” In May, Qurei declared that, “As for settlements, we proposed the following: Removal of some settlements, annexation of others, and keeping others under Palestinian sovereignty.” Erekat then asked Israeli negotiator Tzipi Livni, “Can you imagine that you accept for the sake of peace to have Jews as citizens with full rights in Palestine like Arab Israelis?”

Livni’s response was revealing. “How can I provide Israelis living in Palestine with security?” she wondered. Later she declared that, “I cannot bear the responsibility of their life in case they are exposed to danger and then the army will have to interfere.” The discussions were speculative but the clear implication is that Israeli negotiators had a bigger problem with Jews remaining in a Palestinian state than did their Palestinian counterparts.

After all, Israel sees itself as obligated to protect Jews around the world. That would include Jews across the border in a Palestinian state. Livni was understandably concerned that if those Jews found themselves in danger, Israel would be forced to militarily intervene. It would be easier, she implied, simply to make them leave.

To be sure, the statements quoted above are from members of the PLO. It’s far harder to imagine members of Hamas or Islamic Jihad allowing Jews to remain in a Palestinian state, and certainly not as equal citizens. Ultimately, Netanyahu could turn out to be right. A Palestinian state could oppress and even expel Jews. For that matter, it could oppress and expel Christians. Look at Iraq and Egypt. The fate of non-Muslims in much of today’s Arab world is bleak.

But a country’s potential future misdeeds do not justify holding its people as non-citizens under foreign control. If it did, the British had the right to retain Nigeria and the French to retain Algeria. After all, the nationalist movements in those countries displayed illiberal tendencies in the years before independence too. Palestinians, like Nigerians and Algerians and every other people who have won independence, have the right to make their own mistakes.

Near the end of his video, Netanyahu notes that, “In this moment Jewish schoolchildren in Judea and Samaria are playing in sandboxes. Does their presence make peace impossible?” No, it doesn’t. There’s nothing wrong with Jewish children living in the West Bank or anywhere else in the world. There is a problem with Jewish children and adults living as citizens with due process, voting rights, free movement and plentiful land, electricity and water along West Bank Palestinians who, merely by virtue of not being Jews, lack those things.

The problem isn’t Jews in the West Bank. It’s Jews and Palestinians living in the same territory under a different law. Despite Netanyahu’s endless attempts at obfuscation, it’s not that hard to understand.

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