By John Bunzl, Israeli Occupation Archive – 24 Oct 2011
The following examines major themes of Benjamin Netanyahu’s UN speech (September 23, 2011). I consider this matter important as the speech includes assumptions and perceptions which in themselves constitute serious obstacles for rational conflict-analysis, not to speak of solutions. Even in the West almost irrespective of political positions our understanding of the conflict is deeply affected by some internalised notions we often are not really aware of.
(The text of the speech is taken from: Jerusalem Post, September 25, 2011)
The speech includes a strange statement: “The settlements are a result of the conflict”. The blurring of cause and effect is a constant feature of dominant Israeli rhetoric, not only Netanyahu’s. And when he says, correctly, that the conflict began before a single settlement was established in the West Bank, he implicitly refers to the fact that, all along, the conflict’ core was the clash between a settler movement (Zionism) and the original inhabitants. The founding father of Netanyahu’s own movement Binjamin Zeev Jabotinsky understood already in 1923 (!): ”It is utterly impossible to obtain the voluntary consent of the Palestine Arabs for converting ‘Palestine’ from an Arab country into a country with a Jewish majority … there is no solitary evidence of any colonization being carried on with the consent of the native population.”
Frequently “Bibi” refers to the lacking Palestinian recognition of Zionist Israel as the “core” of the problem: “The refusal of the Palestinians to recognize a Jewish state in any border”, ” “Palestinians should first make peace with Israel and then get their state”, “Recognize the Jewish state and make peace with us”. The underlying assumption here: Palestinian behavior is responsible for the conflict and therefore could be overcome by a change of that behavior. But Zionist-Israeli aims and goals were always independent of the needs, wishes or aspirations of the Palestinian Arabs. Of course they constituted part of the circumstances that had to be taken into consideration and dealt with.
The demand for recognition is a recent phenomenon and resulted from diplomatic tactics. It is not surprising that an eventual Israeli counter-recognition of Palestinian rights was never spelled out in detail because such a recognition could put the essential historical gains of Zionism/Israel achieved by unilateral force into question. The relationship of forces was the crucial factor here. It is no coincidence that neither Palestinian recognition of Israel (from the 70’s readiness to limit territorial aspirations and prefer diplomacy over armed struggle, to the specific recognition in 1988, from the Oslo accords 1993 to the present day) nor the changes in PLO tactics or ideology (renounce violence, abrogate the “charter”, accepting UN Resolutions 242 and 338 et. al.) have resulted in relevant policy changes of the Israeli state.
The Palestinians tried (also because of their relative weakness) to fulfill these demands only to be confronted by new ones. At the UN Netanyahu asked to recognize Israel as “The Jewish State”, which also could be interpreted as a state with a Jewish majority. But in Israeli-Zionist parlance the meaning of the concept is clear. To quote Bibi himself (MFA, April 20,2009): “Recognition of Israel as the national state of the Jewish people is a matter of substance and principle … without which it will not be possible to advance the diplomatic process and reach a peace settlement”. According to the “Palestine Papers” the same demand was raised in off the record meetings. Tzipi Livni (Minister of FA) told Ahmad Qurei (Abu Ala, Palestinian negotiator): ”Israel is the state of the Jewish people … Israel was established to become a national home for Jews from all over the world” (Al Jazeera, Guardian starting January 24, 2011).
Such demands are raised in the imlipicit hope that they would be rejected by the Palestinians and thus the stalled “Peace Process” could be blamed on them. Even if Mahmoud Abbas himself would become a Zionist, sing the Hatikva (Israeli national anthem) or wear a kippa – this would not lead to granting of Palestinian national rights.
After his Bar-Ilan speech (2011) where Netanyahu mentioned the words “Palestinian State”, his father Benzion, told Israeli TV Channel 2 News about a private conversation with his son: ”He does not support it (Palestinian state, JB). He supports it under conditions that they (“the Arabs”, JB) will never accept”. (S. Masalha, Haaretz, Sept. 19, 2011)
Bibi Netanyahu advocates “Direct negotiations without preconditions”. At the same time he and his predecessors insist on several “no’s”: No return to the 1967 borders, no “partition” of Jerusalem, no right of return for Palestinian refugees. Although the PA/PLO have been (out of weakness) flexible on these issues, in endless direct negotiations (officially since 1991), they could not achieve any substantial move on the Israeli side. Nevertheless, Netanyahu advocates “only … direct negotiations” and claims: “so far the Palestinians have refused to negotiate”(!) Although these words were spoken on the occasion of the Palestinian bid for recognition of statehood at the UN, they represent a long-term strategy. Ever since the Mandatory period, negotiations were not rejected but also not seen as an instrument for the solution of the conflict between the two communities in Palestine. Priority rested with gaining time for the promotion of the Zionist project. Negotiations were therefore conducted either to improve conditions for this project or as a result of outside pressure. Nethertheless, failures were attributed to the intransigence of the other side. Netanyahu himself gives as an example the 2000 Camp David summit. He claims that a “generous offer” by then Prime Minister Ehud Barak (which he opposed) was totally rejected by Arafat who subsequently started the Second Intifada. Although this narrative was questioned by participants and refuted by scholars, it became a rationalisation for the refusal to continue negotiations “because we have no partner on the other side”.
Since the Palestinians have, according to official Israeli discourse, no legitimate political/national claims and since they are considered guilty of sabotaging peace efforts the question remains: Why do “they” behave that way, what are “their” motives?
The answer has a long history and many variations which amount to the contention that Palestinians were driven not by real grievances but rather by factors like ancient hatreds, culture, Islam, racism, fanaticism and – anti-Semitism. Ancient enmities against Jews are presented as the source Arab hostility. Netanyahu gives a shocking example by insinuating that the Palestinians wanted to make the country “judenrein” (a Nazi-terminology meaning “clean of Jews”). Palestinians (and Israelis) in fact talked since decades about a political separation between the two peoples. They don’t say Jews should not be allowed to live in Palestine (something Bibi calls “Apartheid”), they challenge their status as settlers , as instruments of another power to prevent independence and statehood in (actually 22% of Mandatory) Palestine. According to frequent statements of Palestinian officials, and even some settlers, Jews could live in Palestine as long as they take Palestinian citizenship and accept Palestinian sovereignty. Israeli discourse seems to be driven by something Freud called “projection”: your own experiences, intentions and actions being attributed to the Other. Continuing on his usage of the term “judenrein”, Bibi gives another meaning to this expression: “ethnic cleansing”. This is a strange insinuation coming from the head of a state that came about through massive ethnic cleansing (Nakba) which is in fact continuing (on a lower scale) until today; similar things could be said about the term “Apartheid” which is usually associated with the separation wall in the West Bank and the status of the settlements. Hardly an adherence to Netanyahu’s call in his speech: “Let’s listen to one another”!
A basic justification of Zionism is the claim that Jews were exiled by the Romans (in 70 CE ) and are now “returning” to their ancient homeland. Historical research does not substantiate this narrative. There was no violent expulsion by the Romans, two thirds of the Jewish people lived outside Palestine at the time and Judaism spread mostly through conversions. The idea of “exile” as a fateful condition was originally not Jewish. It was rather a Christian interpretation of exile as punishment for the rejection of Jesus. Here is not the place to dwell on this important subject. But Netanyahu tries to give a personal confirmation of the Zionist story. He talks about an ancient seal from Biblical times where the inscription of the name Netanyahu was found. This is understood as historical proof for the ” exile and and return” narrative. To uphold the myth his family’s name Miliekovski had to be changed and re-invented.
John Bunzl heads the Middle East desk of the Austrian Institute for International Affairs and is professor for Political Science at the University of Vienna. He has worked and published on the Middle East since the late 1960s.