Palestinians Without Palestine

“Obama Welcomes Netanyahu Acceptance of Palestinian State,” the headlines blared. Well, at least that’s settled. With the U.S. president having shown the Israeli prime minister who is boss, both are headed toward the same long-term goal of a two-state solution – or so it seems.

But the devil, as always, is in the details. Before anyone attacks all the messy political details on how to reach a settlement, there are the details of exactly what the two leaders have said in the past two weeks. A closer looks reveals rather less agreement than has met the media’s eye.

A People Without a State?

“Just as Israel’s right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine’s,” Barack Obama said in Cairo. A two-state solution is “in Israel’s interest, Palestine’s interest, America’s interest, and the world’s interest.” No previous president has created such a strong image of an evenhanded broker guiding the two parties to peace. No previous president has pronounced the once-taboo name “Palestine” in public.

No Israeli leader has pronounced it yet – and certainly not the current prime minister. As he publicly bowed to the politically inevitable, Binyamin Netanyahu chose his words very carefully. He used the word “Palestinians” 27 times, but “Palestine” not once. He would go only so far as to say: “In my vision of peace, there are two free peoples living side by side.” One of those free peoples is absolutely certain to live in a state named Palestine. So why not come out and say it?

The answer, for a politician heading up a rather precarious coalition, may lie buried in a survey conducted by Israel’s independent Institute for National Security Studies (recently named that nation’s top think-tank). Among Israeli Jews, acceptance of a “Palestinian state” has grown astonishingly, from 21 percent in 1987 to 53 percent in 2009. But fully 64 percent support the concept that their prime minister now supports too: “two states for two peoples.”

Whoops! Nearly two-thirds want a two-state solution, which obviously means a Palestinian state. But only a bit over half say they will accept a Palestinian state? The think-tank pollsters find a hidden logic behind this seemingly illogical disparity: “The term ‘Palestinian state’ still has a negative connotation for many Israelis, while ‘two states for two peoples’ is seen by a clear majority of Israelis as the only viable solution.”

If “Palestinian state” is too much for a lot of Israelis to handle, “Palestine” is even more upsetting. So an Israeli leader can hold on to his shaky coalition by using the acceptable formula of “two states for two peoples.” He can even risk mentioning “Palestinian state” as long as it is in a safe context. But actually pronouncing the name of the new state might spell political death.

Power of Symbolism

One intensive research project suggested an answer when it found the same surprising result on both sides of the Israel-Palestine border: The real conflict is over symbolism. People care about the key issues in the dispute – land, resources, political control, and the like – not because they have material value in themselves but because they are symbols of sacred values. Nothing is too big or too small to serve as a symbol – not even the tiny difference between “Palestinian” and “Palestine.”

What’s more, the crux of the conflict isn’t about symbolic content but about symbolic concessions. Most of the respondents on each side demanded a settlement “that involved their enemies making symbolic but difficult gestures.” The respondents said they would make concessions as long as “the other side agreed to a symbolic sacrifice of one of its sacred values.”

To stay in power, Netanyahu (like every other Israeli leader) has to keep on inflicting symbolic defeats on the Palestinians. The real news in his speech is that he will now wage the battle of symbols at the negotiating table as well as on the ground in the West Bank and Gaza – and in public speeches where he courts voters by studiously avoiding the word “Palestine.”

Here’s another example of the power of symbolism: In a poll just completed, only one out of five Israeli Jews believed that Iran “would attack Israel with nuclear weapons with the objective of destroying it” and that their own lives would be affected if Iran gets the bomb. Yet three out of five supported a preemptive strike on Iran should Western diplomacy fail to curb its uranium enrichment. So fully 40 percent want a strike, with all its unpredictable consequences, even though they see no practical value in it. As always in this conflict, smart observers will look beyond the practical value of the issues in dispute and see them all as symbolic weapons.

Wrangling Over Demilitarization

Though Netanyahu would not pronounce the symbolic word “Palestine,” he did use the term “Palestinian state” three times in his speech. But the context, which was the same all three times, shows how carefully he is attuned to symbolism.

“We cannot be expected to agree to a Palestinian state without ensuring that it is demilitarized,” Netanyahu said. “This is crucial to the existence of Israel.” He went on to clarify “demilitarized” by saying that “we don’t want them to bring in missiles or rockets or have an army, or control of airspace, or make treaties with countries like Iran, or Hezbollah.”

Of course this precondition is only one of several that ensure Netanyahu’s offer to negotiate Palestinian statehood will go nowhere. He “spoke about a Palestinian state,” said chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, but he “placed security outside negotiations when he spoke about a demilitarized Palestinian state. He will have to wait 1,000 years before he finds one Palestinian who will go along with him with this feeble state.”

Netanyahu must have known that linking the words “Palestinian state” and “demilitarized” would pose a major obstacle to peace. But his speech, which seemed to be about protecting his nation, was first and foremost about protecting his fragile coalition and his political career. He was probably right when he said: “There is broad agreement on this [demilitarization] in Israel.” And anything that most Israelis agree on is good enough for most of its political leaders.

According to Netanyahu, this broad agreement reflects “a real fear that there will be an armed Palestinian state which will become a terrorist base against Israel.” The fear is as real, no doubt, as it is unrealistic. If either party has a claim on protection from the other side’s violence, the Palestinians surely have the more reasonable claim. They have suffered by far the most violence in the long conflict. And Israel will certainly keep a massive margin of military superiority no matter what the future brings. Imagine the United States insisting that Cuba or Haiti must be demilitarized because its army might threaten the very existence of America. That’s how absurd this Israeli fear seems to most Palestinians.

Yet the idea of “existential threat” is at the heart of the symbolic narrative that most Israeli Jews rely on when talking about their nation. For the domestic audience, the main point of Netanyahu’s speech was to reaffirm that narrative. Most of the text was a hymn to Israel’s innocence and moral purity, “proven” by blaming all the problems and all the wrongdoing on the Palestinians – the only ones (Netanyahu flatly declared) who are guilty of using immoral and illegitimate force.

However, even more than protecting their belief in their own innocence, many Israelis want to inflict symbolic defeats on the Palestinians. To deprive Palestine of an army – and the rights to import weapons, control its airspace, and have veto power over its foreign treaties – would all be tremendous symbolic victories. If Netanyahu is going to follow in the footsteps of Menachem Begin as a right-winger who makes peace, as Begin did with Egypt in 1978, he has to deliver to his supporters these symbolic victories and more.

Part of his strategy to win victories at the negotiating table involves weakening the opposition by keeping it divided. The first rule of Israeli foreign policy is always “never let our enemies unite.” Having torpedoed efforts at Hamas-Fatah unity in the past, Israeli leaders will attempt to consolidate their gains by embracing Fatah as a negotiating partner while excluding Hamas.

The demand for demilitarization fits perfectly into that pattern. Hamas is bound to refuse it. That’s not because they want weapons to destroy Israel. Even the New York Times acknowledges that Hamas leader Khaled Meshal has de facto accepted the existence of Israel. Hamas insists on Palestine’s right to militarize as a matter of principle. Every other nation has, and must have, that right.

As Max Weber explained long ago, the very definition of a nation-state is its legitimate claim to use physical force. No legitimate force, no sovereign state. Fatah notable Saeb Erekat seems to agree when he says that such a “feeble state” is a non-starter in any negotiation.

Splitting the Opposition

But not all of Erekat’s Fatah compatriots agree with him, at least publicly. Here Netanyahu must see a chance to weaken his opponents even further by driving a wedge between top Fatah leaders themselves. Nabil Abu Rudeinah, spokesman for Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas, said, “Our main demand is the end of the occupation and finding a fair solution for Palestinian refugees and halting settlements. Other details should be resolved in negotiations” – including, apparently, the military and treaty rights of the new Palestinian state.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Fatah’s strongest ally, similarly blasted Netanyahu’s demand that Palestinians recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people, saying that it “scuttles the chances for peace.” But he ignored the call for demilitarization. Knowing that Hamas could control a future Palestinian state, Mubarak might well be more than happy to see it demilitarized. Plenty of other Middle Eastern governments, as frightened as the Egyptians of internal Islamist political forces, would agree.

Palestinian notables who joined with liberal Israeli leaders to hammer out a draft settlement accord at Geneva in 2003 agreed to the words “Palestine shall be a non-militarized state” (though they left the exact meaning of those words for later discussion). Even when Fatah and Hamas members locked up in the same Israeli prison developed a plan for national unity in 2006, outlining their vision of an independent Palestine, they said nothing explicitly about its right to arm itself.

Looking to Washington

But the opponents that the Israeli leader fears most now are not in the West Bank or Gaza. They are in the White House. Though no one knows what new plan, if any, the administration has in mind for a peace settlement, the president’s words in Cairo certainly created a new kind of narrative: “It’s easier to blame others than to look inward,” Obama said. “It’s easier to see what is different about someone than to find the things we share. But we should choose the right path, not just the easy path.”

That’s quite a different story from the old one that Netanyahu recited yet again in his response. On Obama’s “right path” – a term full of profound sacred meaning for Muslims – no one scores points by inflicting symbolic defeats on their enemies. All the points go to those who build bridges between enemies.

Can any Israeli government that follows the new Obama script survive politically – or any Palestinian government, for that matter? The New York Times‘ man in Israel, Ethan Bronner, casts doubt: “Despite Mr. Obama’s assertion that all sides would benefit from peace, the idea of a win-win outcome is foreign to the tribal mentality. In this region, when you win, your opponent loses.” Bronner’s impression, though laced with lamentable racism, confirms the research on how Israelis and Palestinians view their conflict.

However, when he wrote those words he was talking about conflict not only between the two nations but within each nation. Israeli and Palestinian hard-liners are still intent on winning symbolic victories. They face stiff opposition from those who accept Obama’s narrative. Knowing that the two sides must live as neighbors forever, they see the negotiating table as a place to win new friends rather than inflict new defeats.

The world looks to Obama’s eloquence to build enough support for his narrative to break the political grip of the hard-liners. In Israel, at least, he has real leverage. According to the INSS think tank poll, for example, 42 percent of Israeli Jews already oppose expansion of the settlements. Another 41 percent support further development of settlements, “but not if it will result in a confrontation with the United States.” By sticking to his words, the president can remove major roadblocks in the path that leads to a sovereign Palestine.

But the challenge is not his alone. It falls to all of us. The proven formula for promoting a new narrative is a two-pronged strategy. One prong is to debunk the old narrative. We can constantly point out that Israeli insistence on “natural growth” in settlements, “Jerusalem undivided,” and other such slogans – including “demilitarized Palestinian state” – offers no practical value, and certainly no security, for Israel, since it is bound to keep the conflict going.

The other, equally important, prong is to use the new narrative all the time. We can talk about the major shift in public opinion underway on this issue, especially in the U.S. Jewish community and in Washington. Talk about the real possibility for a just settlement bringing peace and security for both sides. And call both sides by their rightful names: Israel and Palestine. Speak the once-forbidden name of the country now coming to birth, over and over again, until it seems so perfectly ordinary that no one can remember a world without Palestine.

Reprinted courtesy of Foreign Policy in Focus.

Author: Ira Chernus

Ira Chernus is professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, author of Monsters To Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin, and a Foreign Policy in Focus contributor. Read more of his writing on Israel, Palestine, and the U.S. on his blog.