Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu proposed a peace plan so ingenious it is a wonder that for six decades of bloodshed no one thought of it. Some people might have missed the true brilliance of his ideas presented in a speech at Bar Ilan University on 14 June, so we are pleased to offer this analysis.
First, Netanyahu wants Palestinians to become committed Zionists. They can prove this by declaring, “We recognize the right of the Jewish people to a state of their own in this land.” As he pointed out, it is only the failure of Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular to commit themselves to the Zionist dream that has caused conflict, but once “they say those words to our people and to their people, then a path will be opened to resolving all the problems between our peoples.” It is of course perfectly natural that Netanyahu would be “yearning for that moment.”
Mere heartfelt commitment to Zionism will not be enough, however. For the Palestinians’ conversion to have “practical meaning,” Netanyahu explained, “there must also be a clear understanding that the Palestinian refugee problem will be resolved outside Israel’s borders.” In other words, Palestinians must agree to help Israel complete the ethnic cleansing it began in 1947-48, by abandoning the right of return. This is indeed logical because as Zionists, Palestinians would share the Zionist ambition that Palestine be emptied of Palestinians to the greatest extent possible.
Netanyahu is smart enough to recognize that even the self-ethnic-cleansing of refugees may not be sufficient to secure “peace”: there will still remain millions of Palestinians living inconveniently in their native land, or in the heart of what Netanyahu insisted was the “historic homeland” of the Jews.
For these Palestinians, the peace plan involves what Netanyahu calls “demilitarization,” but what should be properly understood as unconditional surrender followed by disarmament. Disarmament, though necessary, cannot be immediate, however. Some recalcitrant Palestinians may not wish to become Zionists. Therefore, the newly pledged Zionist Palestinians would have to launch a civil war to defeat those who foolishly insist on resisting Zionism. Or as Netanyahu put it, the “Palestinian Authority will have to establish the rule of law in Gaza and overcome Hamas.” (In fact, this civil war has already been underway for several years as the American and Israeli-backed Palestinian “security forces,” led by US Lt. General Keith Dayton, have escalated their attacks on Hamas).
Once anti-Zionist Palestinians are crushed, the remaining Palestinians — whose number equals that of Jews in historic Palestine — will be able to get on with life as good Zionists, according to Netanyahu’s vision. They will not mind being squeezed into ever smaller ghettos and enclaves in order to allow for the continued expansion of Jewish colonies, whose inhabitants Netanyahu described as “an integral part of our people, a principled, pioneering and Zionist public.” And, in line with their heartfelt Zionism, Palestinians will naturally agree that “Jerusalem must remain the united capital of Israel.”
These are only the Palestinian-Israeli aspects of the Netanyahu plan. The regional elements include full, Arab endorsement of Palestinian Zionism and normalization of ties with Israel and even Arab Gulf money to pay for it all. Why not? If everyone becomes a Zionist then all conflict disappears.
It would be nice if we could really dismiss Netanyahu’s speech as a joke. But it is an important indicator of a hard reality. Contrary to some naive and optimistic hopes, Netanyahu does not represent only an extremist fringe in Israel. Today, the Israeli Jewish public presents (with a handful of exceptions) a united front in favor of a racist, violent ultra-nationalism fueled by religious fanaticism. Palestinians are viewed at best as inferiors to be tolerated until circumstances arise in which they can be expelled, or caged and starved like the 1.5 million inmates of the Gaza prison.
Israel is a society where virulent anti-Arab racism and Nakba denial are the norm although none of the European and American leaders who constantly lecture about Holocaust denial will dare to admonish Netanyahu for his bald lies and omissions about Israel’s ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians.
Netanyahu’s “vision” offered absolutely no advance on the 1976 Allon Plan for annexation of most of the occupied West Bank, or Menachem Begin’s Camp David “autonomy” proposals. The goal remains the same: to control maximum land with minimum Palestinians.
Netanyahu’s speech should put to rest newly revived illusions — fed in particular by US President Barack Obama’s Cairo speech — that such an Israel can be brought voluntarily to any sort of just settlement. Some in this region who have placed all their hopes in Obama — as they did previously in Bush — believe that US pressure can bring Israel to heel. They point to Obama’s strong statements calling for a complete halt to Israeli settlement construction — a demand Netanyahu defied in his speech. It now remains to be seen whether Obama will follow his tough words with actions.
Yet, even if Obama is ready to put unprecedented pressure on Israel, he would likely have to exhaust much of his political capital just to get Israel to agree to a settlement freeze, let alone to move on any of dozens of other much more substantial issues.
And despite the common perception of an escalating clash between the Obama administration and the Israeli government (which may come over minor tactical issues), when it comes to substantive questions they agree on much more than they disagree. Obama has already stated that “any agreement with the Palestinian people must preserve Israel’s identity as a Jewish state,” and he affirmed that “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel and it must remain undivided.” As for Palestinian refugees, he has said, “The right of return [to Israel] is something that is not an option in a literal sense.”
For all the fuss about settlements, Obama has addressed only their expansion, not their continued existence. Until the Obama administration publicly dissociates itself from the positions of the Clinton and Bush administrations, we must assume it agrees with them and with Israel that the large settlement blocks encircling Jerusalem and dividing the West Bank into ghettos would remain permanently in any two-state solution. Neither Obama nor Netanyahu have mentioned Israel’s illegal West Bank wall suggesting that there is no controversy over either its route or existence. And now, both agree that whatever shreds are left can be called a “Palestinian state.” No wonder the Obama administration welcomed Netanyahu’s speech as “a big step forward.”
What is particularly dismaying about the position stated by Obama in Cairo — and since repeated constantly by his Middle East envoy George Mitchell — is that the United States is committed to the “legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.” This formula is designed to sound meaningful, but these vague, campaign-style buzzwords are devoid of any reference to inalienable Palestinian rights. They were chosen by American speechwriters and public relations experts, not by Palestinians. The Obama formula implies that any other Palestinian aspirations are inherently illegitimate.
Where in international law, or UN resolutions can Palestinians find definitions of “dignity” and “opportunity?” Such infinitely malleable terms incorrectly reduce all of Palestinian history to a demand for vague sentiments and a “state” instead of a struggle for liberation, justice, equality, return and the restoration of usurped rights. It is, after all, easy enough to conceive of a state that keeps Palestinians forever dispossessed, dispersed, defenseless and under threat of more expulsion and massacres by a racist, expansionist Israel.
Through history it was never leaders who defined rights, but the people who struggled for them. It is no small achievement that for a century Palestinians have resisted and survived Zionist efforts to destroy their communities physically and wipe them from the pages of history. As long as Palestinians continue to resist in every arena and by all legitimate means, building on true international solidarity, their rights can never be extinguished. It is from such a basis of independent and indigenous strength, not from the elusive promises of a great power or the favors of a usurping occupier, that justice and peace can be achieved.
Hasan Abu Nimah is the former permanent representative of Jordan at the United Nations.
Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada, Ali Abunimah is author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse (Metropolitan Books, 2006).
A version of this article first appeared in The Jordan Times and is reprinted with the authors’ permission.