Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said professor of Modern Arab Studies at my alma mater, Columbia University, had this to say on the pages of The New York Times (March 12) before Barack Obama arrived in Jerusalem: “For Mr. Obama, a decision is in order. He can reconcile the United States to continuing to… bankroll an unjust status quo that it helped produce. Or he can begin to chart a new course based on recognition that the United States must forthrightly oppose the occupation and the settlements… There is no middle way.”
Mr. Khalidi is wrong. There is, in fact, a middle way. It is the way that the Obama administration should have adopted long ago. In this middle way, Israel makes concessions, but Palestinians formally accept the permanence of a Jewish State in the Middle East and own up to their role in the creation of their miserable reality.
Israelis, sadly, are infinitely more likely to do their share. When Khalidi writes that the United States is “continuing to uphold and bankroll an unjust status quo that it helped produce,” he conveniently omits any mention of how Israel’s presence in the West Bank began. He says nothing about Jordan’s foolish decision to join the losing fray in 1967 and omits entirely the famous Khartoum Conference at which the Arabs responded with “no peace, no recognition and no negotiations.”
That, I assume, is also the fault of the US? And of Israel? The middle way, which Khalidi would have us believe does not exist, begins with adults taking responsibility for their past actions and saying what has to be said so that life can move forward. How does the following quote by Nabil Shaath, head of foreign relations in the Fatah movement, which aired on ANB TV in July 2011, move us forward? “The story of ‘two states for two peoples’ means that there will be a Jewish people over there and a Palestinian people here. We will never accept this – not as part of the French initiative and not as part of the American initiative. We will not sacrifice the 1.5 million Palestinians with Israeli citizenship who live within the 1948 borders… We will not accept this, whether the initiative is French, American, or Czechoslovakian.”
So there, we have it. No Palestinian responsibility for 1967, no Palestinian willingness for there to be a Jewish state. That is what Khalidi would like Obama to endorse? Those who care about a better future in this region can only pray that Obama had the sense to tell the Palestinians, in no uncertain terms, that there is always a middle way, and it is never too late to grow up.
Behind the closed doors that have had Jerusalem traffic snarled these past few days, one can only hope that Obama might also have said something along these lines to the Palestinians:
“Mr. Khalidi and Mr. Shaath, we Americans hear you. We understand that you would like a better life, and we’d like you to have one. But not only do we hear you, we also see you. And what we see, we don’t like so very much. America stands for certain things, and quite frankly, the society in your region that embodies the values which we consider sacred is not yours, but Israel’s.
“Democracy, for example. Israel has again proven that its democratic system is robust and energetic. When was the last time you had a real election, with real opposition? Or how about freedom of the press? You still believe that jailing people who poke fun at Mahmoud Abbas on Facebook does your society credit? We don’t. And why is it that gay Palestinians are desperate to get into Tel Aviv? Have you considered staying out of people’s private lives and protecting them rather than tormenting them?
“How about freedom of association? Can you imagine protests in Ramallah anything like those that regularly take place in Tel Aviv? Why not? “Or freedom of religion. Even if life as a Muslim is not ideal in Israel, it’s infinitely better than life as a Christian in Gaza or the West Bank, isn’t it? Why is that? And why does ‘Palestine’ still insist on becoming a Jew-free state? Do you really think that America can, in good conscience, promote the creation of a state that does not want Jews as citizens? And what about the rights of women and the ongoing phenomenon of family honor murders [in which fathers have their adult daughters executed for having sex outside of marriage] that still take place in both Gaza and the West Bank? You’re not ashamed? Well, we, for our part, are horrified.
“Mr. Khalidi, when you wrote in the Times that ‘An even bigger obstacle is Mr. Netanyahu’s right-wing government, hellbent on territorial expansion,’ did it not make any impression on you that despite the rants of people like Mr. Shaath, Israelis just voted en masse for the center and clipped Netanyahu’s wings? Does that tell you anything about them? It’s beginning to tell us quite a bit.”
Sadly, we’re not terribly likely to hear anything like that from President Obama, now or in the near future. But it’s the only thing that would work.
Calm (not a treaty to which so many are addicted, but enduring calm) will come to this region when the Palestinians recognize that time is not on their side, that the world will help them create a state when they embrace the values that the West believes make for human life with infinitely greater dignity.
When, in our “debate” a couple of weeks ago, I asked Jeremy Ben-Ami, of J-Street, why he does not believe Nabil Shaath and why he continues to think that Israeli departure from the West Bank would change anything, he had no answer. He simply refused to address that issue. Obama is thus in good company. Too many people, including politicians, some American rabbis, Jeremy Ben-Ami and others, are so fixated on a “deal” that they’ve forgotten entirely about values and fairness.
It’s time for a middle way. Netanyahu said again this week that he’s ready for a historic compromise. Is Shaath? Is Khalidi? Why is there no middle way? Because Khalidi and the Palestinians reject it: “The overwhelming dominance of Israel over the Palestinians means that the conflict is not one that demands reciprocal concessions from two equal parties,” Khalidi wrote in the Times.
“Reciprocal concessions” are out of the question? Then so, too, is any hope for progress.
One can only hope that behind all of this week’s gridlock, the Americans were clear and that they said something akin to: “There is a middle way, even though you reject it. And when the Palestinians begin embracing it, they’ll have a future. Until they do, however, they won’t. And the responsibility will be exclusively theirs.”
What are the chances that anything like that actually happened?