5/17/11

Can Obama recognize the “Nakba” Nakba?



President Barack Obama came to town riding on a series of assumptions about the Middle East. But the region's harsh realities have contradicted his fanciful notions. 
 
Demanding a settlement freeze increased Israeli mistrust and Palestinian extremism. The "Arab spring" proved that the Palestinian problem was not the keystone to Middle East progress, or world peace. This week's "Nakba Day" violence revealed that Israel's existence since 1948, not its occupation since 1967, remains the Palestinians' target. Obama must recognize that this "Nakba" nakba – the Palestinians' catastrophic reading of Israel's founding as a catastrophe – damages peace prospects. Yet again, Palestinians seem more committed to destroying Israel than building their own state.
 
Although outsiders cannot tell Palestinians to ignore their anguish that resulted from Israel's founding, Nakba Day is a new, post-Oslo, 1990s phenomenon.  Yasir Arafat inaugurated the day in 1998. It feeds Palestinians' worst instincts – freezing time, distorting history, wallowing in victimhood, dodging responsibility, vilifying Israel, treating the conflict as a zero-sum game. Mahmoud Abbas's May 16 New York Times op-ed epitomizes these vices with ahistorical statements claiming: "Shortly" after the 1947 UN Partition declaration, "Zionist forces expelled Palestinian Arabs to ensure a decisive Jewish majority in the future state of Israel, and Arab armies intervened." Reversing chronology and causation, Abbas ignores that: Palestinians rejected the partition plan; many Palestinians fled voluntarily; Arab armies attacked as Israel became a State, not because of any Israeli action.
 
Yet the Palestinians have snookered the world, seeking a free pass for violence, incitement, delegitimization, exterminationism, and intransigence.  World leaders function as the great enablers of Palestinian dysfunction, rationalizing Palestinians' political culture of negation and hatred, while according them special treatment, including only treating Palestinians' refugee status as hereditary, whereas tens of millions of other refugees from the 1940s settled down.
 
Every President must make post-inauguration adjustments, replacing outsiders' presumptions with the insider's perceptions. Obama's Middle East-related rigidity is not some idiosyncratic shortcoming.  He is imprisoned in a groupthink reading that is popular and resistant to reality.
 
Too many elite Americans mistakenly compare Palestinians' struggle for statehood with African-Americans' struggle for civil rights (when most Europeans hear "occupation" they think Nazi- or Soviet- which is even more inaccurate and problematic). In his Cairo speech, by reminding Palestinians that American blacks rarely resorted to violence, despite "suffer[ing] the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation," Obama made the comparison. George W. Bush's Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was more explicit, equating her childhood miseries in the segregated South with Palestinian suffering, while comparing Mahmoud Abbas to Martin Luther King, Jr.
 
This analogy is, in my opinion, sloppy, perverse yet irresistible to many Americans. Americans usually view the world through homemade prisms, with the civil rights movement looming as a compelling, heroic and digestible historical standard. Additionally, Palestinian propaganda has pushed this comparison for decades. The UN's New Big Lie in 1975 labeling Zionism racism implicitly cast the Palestinians as "noble blacks" and the Israelis as "oppressive rednecks."
 
The false analogy distorts the story into one of racial oppression not national conflict. This reading sanctions Palestinian violence, given our abhorrence of racial tyranny. Perpetuating the "Nakba" nakba treats Israel's very founding as its original sin, like slavery is America's original sin, which had to be undone violently by Civil War. This falsehood also views Palestinians as passive, less responsible players, feeding into a modern liberal condescension empowering those perceived as white rather than those labeled black (ignoring the light-skinned Palestinians and dark-skinned Israelis).
 
By contrast, recognizing the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as a national conflict – linked to the Arab-Israeli conflict – restores balance. It makes Palestinians responsible for their choices. It highlights their power, as part of the broader Arab assault against Israel, which, unlike the Civil Rights movement, threatens Israel, seeking its destruction.  Understanding this fight as a national struggle among more evenly-balanced forces also explains Israeli sensitivity to Palestinian rhetoric. Calling Israel's founding, its very existence, a catastrophe, delegitimizes Israel and dehumanizes Israelis, justifying violence against this supposedly disaster of a state.
 
Restoring historical balance and moral accountability would also restore mutuality. Imagine the outrage if Israeli leaders spoke about Palestinians the way leading Palestinians speak, write, teach, preach, and broadcast about Israel. Imagine the scandal if Israel ever proposed let alone adopted anything paralleling the Hamas Charter's anti-Semitic and genocidal wording.  Note that, this month, while Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is volunteering new concessions, President Abbas is embracing Hamas terrorists.
 
Jews' culture of acute self-criticism juxtaposed against the Palestinians' culture of self-righteous condemnation creates absurd imbalances. While Jews, mired in guilt, anguish over how to validate detractors like the playwright Tony Kushner who is accused of spreading Palestinian lies alleging Israel committed sins like "ethnic cleansing;" Palestinians, in their enforced no-criticism zone, feel their biased accusations are justified, yet again dodging any responsibility. Similarly, minor Israeli abuses are treated as major human rights crimes; major Palestinian abuses are ignored.
 
The multi-dimensional war between Israelis and Palestinians includes a clash of narratives. As America's story-teller-in-chief, President Obama can shape a narrative that brings the parties closer -- or divides them further. Obsessing about Israel's settlements, exaggerating the conflict's international significance, excusing Hamas's genocidal rhetoric, or encouraging the "Nakba" nakba intensifies Palestinian intransigence and Israeli insecurity. Barack Obama must affirm that "Threatening Israel with destruction – or repeating vile stereotypes about Jews – is deeply wrong, and only serves to evoke in the minds of Israelis this most painful of [Holocaust] memories while preventing the peace that the people of this region deserve."
 
He said that in Cairo. Now, Obama should show he means it, by insisting that all parties, especially the Palestinians, end incitement, stop demonizing others, and learn to preserve their own national stories, including tales of woe, without using words that reveal a collective desire to destroy those whose trust you need to achieve peace.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of "Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today," his latest book is "The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction."giltroy@gmail.com

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