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Two States for Two Peoples Requires Recognizing Israel’s Legal Rights

{Previously published in The Jerusalem Post}

Ten years ago, I was briefing a senator and her chief of staff about the complex nature of international law regarding the building of Israeli communities, i.e., settlements over the 1949 Armistice line (1967 Line or Green Line), in land claimed by the Palestinian Arab people as their future national home. They thanked me for new information, which surprised me, telling me that the leading pro-Israel groups almost never mention anything about settlements, not even the militarily essential ones in the Jordan River Valley that are supported by many Israelis. So I filled in the blanks.

Does Israel have any legal rights over the 1967 Line?

Is every Israeli settlement over the 1967 line a violation of the international law, including Judaism’s holiest site, the Western Wall?

What does international law say about settlement in non-populated areas of disputed territory acquired in a defensive war?

When I was a guest lecturer in a Middle East Studies class at a major university and when I began explaining what I thought was a straight-forward explanation of UNSC Resolution 242, the basis for all international agreements and negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians, the Lebanese professor who invited me to speak told me that I mistranslated the text. I said the text said Israel was to withdraw from “territories” it captured during the 1967 Six Day War, the authors specifically leaving out the indefinite article “the” to imply it didn’t have to return from 100% of the occupied area.

The professor said the correct translation in Arabic was “the territories” meaning Israel must completely withdraw, so I retorted that it was written in English, citing the words of the authors of the resolution who explained that it was written purposely without “the,” as they never expected or required Israel to return to the indefensible borders of 1967. He was unpersuaded, but students who came up to me afterward thanked me for adding some gray to the black or white picture the professor had painted regarding Israel and the territories in question.

When US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently announced that Israeli settlements are not per se illegal, it touched off a political firestorm with partisans going into their corners citing international law without actually looking at the complexities of the issue or what a non-politicized version of international law actually says.

Whether it is wise for Israel to have their current settlement policy is a different question. But not differentiating between settlements based on security issues like the Jordan River Valley, or rather, as defined by the professor as any Jewish presence over the ‘67 line, which would include the Western Wall of the old Jewish quarter of Jerusalem, makes an eventual resolution of the conflict almost impossible.

Adding to the complexity was President Barack Obama’s parting shot at the end of his term to Prime Minister Netanyahu, with the American orchestration of UNSC Resolution 2334, which declared an Israeli presence of one centimeter over the 1967 line as a “flagrant violation of international law,” contradicting UNSC 242, and hardening the Palestinian position.

SO WHAT does international law actually say about the issue? A recent Democrat-penned letter that garnered more than 100 signatures cited a 1978 opinion by State Department legal counsel Herbert Hansell that said Israel’s settlements violate Article 49 of the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention, prohibiting the deportation of its civilian population into the disputed area.

What he chooses to ignore is that this prohibition was specifically written because of what the Nazis did during World War II, where they forcibly transferred their populations into occupied lands that they ethnically cleansed of Jews for colonization and for racial reasons. Comparing Israel’s settlement policy to a policy designed to prevent a recurrence of Nazi fascism is not only inaccurate but obscene.

According to Alan Baker, defenders of Israel’s settlement policy have international law on their side, citing Article 80 of the UN Charter, which memorialized the Balfour Declaration, the San Remo Declaration and the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine, granting Israel rights in today’s contested territories over the 1967 Line (West Bank or Judea and Samaria).

In addition, from 1949 to 1967, the area was claimed by Jordan, but the international community, with the exception of Pakistan and Britain, did not recognize that claim. Since the last legal stakeholder of the land was the Ottoman Empire, which had dissolved after World War I, the land was best described as disputed after Israel captured the territory during the Six Day War.

Why is this important even if you believe the eventual resolution of the conflict is two states for two peoples and an Israeli return to the 1967 lines with land swaps, which is what many of those who signed Congressional letter believe?

Because if Israel in a negotiated settlement with the Palestinian Authority is ceded any territory over the 1967 line, whether for defensive reasons or part of a land swap, it will always be viewed as a burglar returning only part of his ill-gotten gains, setting up a pretext for future generations of Palestinians to undermine any settlement in the future.

Israel’s legal rights over the 1967 line must be recognized for there to be a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Counterintuitive, yes, but considering the failures of all previous negotiations, it is something that should be championed for those who want both a Jewish state and an Arab state.The writer is the director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network. Dr. Mandel regularly briefs members of the Senate, House, and their foreign policy advisers, as well White House advisers. He is a columnist for The Jerusalem Post, and a contributor to The Hill, i24TV, JTA, Defense Post, JNS, The Forward and has appeared in RealClearWorld.

Should the Flawed Iran Deal Alter U.S. Interest in Regime Change? 

{Previously published in the Jerusalem Post}

With Obama’s out, what happens next with Iran?

It has become painfully clear that former US president Obama’s desire to make the Islamic Republic of Iran a “very successful regional power” has come to fruition. Iran is on the verge of creating its long-sought Shi’ite Islamist land corridor from Tehran to the Mediterranean.

Unfortunately, Obama’s goal to develop “an equilibrium…between Sunni states and Iran in which there’s competition…but not an active or proxy warfare” has utterly failed. Just look at Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

This is an important moment to reassess American foreign policy in the region, as we mark the second anniversary of the still unsigned Iran agreement (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA).

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has persuaded President Donald Trump to again recertify Iran, fearing that pursuing full compliance would endanger his fragile cease-fire in Syria and his working relationship with Russia and its Iranian ally. Appeasement is rarely a successful strategy in this part of the world.

Iran has violated both in spirit and the law the JCPOA and UN Security Council resolutions by exceeding heavy water limits, testing intercontinental ballistic missiles, and refusing to grant full access to international inspectors.

As German Intelligence recently reported, Iran has continued to seek “products and scientific know-how for developing weapons of mass destruction as well missile technology.”

The JCPOA was a transactional set of understandings that was sold to the American people as strictly about nuclear weapons, after it became clear that none of the moderation promised by the deals supporters had materialized. The Iran agreement was supposed to be vigorously enforced, while not inhibiting consequences for violations of UN Security Council resolutions, human rights abuses, terrorism, or destabilization and threats against its neighbors.

Yet Iran’s supreme leader’s rhetoric and actions against American interests have only increased and worsened since July 2015. Iran is now planning a naval port on the Mediterranean, is entrenched in Syria, and is more hostile than ever to America and its allies.

American foreign policy advisers should be asking:

• Would American national security interests be better served by a change in the Iranian government?

• Can America openly desire a peaceful regime change, while not being accused of wanting to start a new war?

• Wouldn’t the Iran agreement more likely be adhered to, if the regime in Iran were not the Islamic Republic of Iran?

In 1983, then-president Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union an “evil empire.” In 1987, in the name of freedom and American interests, he unapologetically called for regime change in the brutal authoritarian communist expanse by famously declaring, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Yet, like the JCPOA, he continued to seek transactional agreements with that evil empire. There is little doubt that what Reagan wanted to achieve was a regime change in the Soviet Union and the collapse of communism, yet no bullet was ever fired.

Could the same approach work with the Islamist theocracy, if the Iranian people were given moral encouragement to take charge of their own destiny? Today, the Islamic Republic of Iran, like the former Soviet Union, poses one of the most consequential threats to American security interests in the 21st century.

Its aspirations are megalomaniacal, and it is on the threshold of irrevocably changing the character of the Middle East against American interests.

As Saeed Ghasseminejad and Emanuele Ottolenghi wrote in The Huffington Post last year on the first anniversary of the JCPOA: “In the administration’s telling, the agreement would help loosen hard-liner’s grip on power in favor of more moderate forces…

the sad truth is unavoidable: the very opposite has occurred.”

Iranian ascendancy was validated and supported by Obama’s Iran agreement, which purposely ignored its hegemonic ambitions to reach a legacy agreement that almost certainly guarantees Iran an industrial-size nuclear program with full international approval in just 10-15 years.

When a pro-peace, pro-Israel progressive organization on the second anniversary of the JCPOA claimed that the agreement had “utterly defanged” Iran, it strained credulity.

It is troubling to see so many progressive groups act as Iranian advocates while Iran still remains the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, routinely imprisons and tortures its opponents, treats women as second class citizens, and is openly antagonistic to LGBTQ.

The JCPOA has betrayed the people of Iran. Ironically, Iran’s citizens would be among the most Western- oriented people in the Muslim Middle East, if only they could unshackle themselves from their repressive Islamist leadership. This would give them the opportunity to vote in a truly representative election, not one controlled by the Guardian Council, which disallowed 99% of presidential candidates in the last election and does not allow a women to be elected president.

As Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations said, the “Islamic republic… features a constant struggle between an authoritarian regime and restive population seeking democratic empowerment…. one thing certain about Iran’s future is that another protest movement will rise at some point seeking to displace the regime.”

Nothing could have been so contradictory to American values than the Obama administration’s abandonment of the Iranian people in 2009 during their Green Revolution, when Iranians by the millions rose to challenge their repressive Islamist government.

In 2015, when Iran was on the threshold of collapse from congressional sanctions with an economy in free-fall, Obama rescued the supreme leader and the fortunes of the Revolutionary Guard with front-loaded sanctions relief, undermining the Iranian people’s chances for more freedom.

So is it wise for an American administration two years into the JCPOA to publicly state that it is in the interests of the Iranian people and American security, to view with favor an eventual change in the leadership of the Islamist Republic, one that is representative of its people while not endangering its neighbors? With the blood of so many Americans directly staining the hands of Iran, ranging from its 1983 orchestrated bombing that murdered 241 American servicemen in Beirut to the untold number of American servicemen maimed and killed by Iranian supplied IED’s in Iraq, America does not have to be apologetic to state the obvious – that Iran is a menace to the world and its people.

It’s time to be there for the Iranian people if they again rise up against the fascists who now control their country. This does not mean military intervention, but it does mean that, at least rhetorically, America would welcome new leadership in Iran. Maybe that is all the Iranian people need to hear.

Unlike all of the Arab peoples who rose up during the failed Arab Spring, the Iranian people is Western oriented and is more likely to democratize in a non-Islamist fashion. But they won’t be free until the regime is gone, and it won’t be gone without a revolution of its indigenous Persian people. They will fail again if America abandons them.

The writer is director of MEPIN™, the Middle East Political and Information Network™. Dr. Mandel regularly briefs members of Congress and think tanks on the Middle East and is a regular contributor to The Jerusalem Post.




American Re-Engagement in the Middle East 3.0

{Previously published in the Jerusalem Post}

Can Trump overcome his isolationist instincts and look anew at the Middle East?

Do US President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson believe that the “Middle East is and will remain a region of strategic importance to the United States,” as Richard Fontaine and Michael Singh wrote in The National Interest?

Do they agree with US Central Command commander Gen. Joseph Votel, who told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the threats in the Middle East “continue to pose the most direct threat to the US homeland and the global economy… [and] Iran poses the greatest long-term threat to stability for this part of the world”? If they do agree, they need to begin to formulate a new vision of American engagement, or reengagement, that learns from the lessons of the past.

Some suggestions:

Rule 1: Remember that unilateral concessions in the Middle East are rarely reciprocated. Totalitarian Islamist and secular authoritarian regimes view unilateral concessions as weakness, an opportunity to gain influence and power. Just ask Israel.

Rule 2: Construct quid pro quo deals to make sure American interests aren’t shortchanged. For example, the Saudis want advanced tanks and precision guided missiles, a hard sell at Congress now. Tillerson could try tying Saudi arms sales to tangible steps to promote US-Israeli-Saudi open cooperation. It would be a stabilizing step, aligning American allies with shared American security interests, rebalancing versus the ascendancy of Iranian influence.

Rule 3: Warn American adversaries that they should expect consequences when they double-cross us.

Rule 4: Communicate to the American people that Iranian hegemony is the most dangerous threat to American national security for the foreseeable future.

Rule 5: Stabilize the region with humility, but with the confidence of a superpower.

Rule 6: Engage in the region with realistic expectations and have multiple fall-back strategies.

Rule 7: Realize that completely solving conflicts is usually not a realistic goal.

Rule 8: Do not rely on unsigned agreements. The most consequential American agreement of the 21st century, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the Iran Agreement) was never signed by the Iranians and its companion, UNSC 2231, is continually violated by the Iranian regime.

Tillerson should use the platform of the secretary of state to address the world with a coherent foreign policy for American reengagement in the Middle East that balances American realist security interests with American value-based foreign policy.

From 2009 to 2016, American foreign policy was one of deliberate retrenchment and apology for past sins, with the goal to reduce the world’s unipolar superpower to one among equals, hog-tied by international organizations whose goal was, more often than not, to humble the United States.

As John Bolton wrote in The Wall Street Journal, international organizations’ “unspoken objective is to constrain the US and to transfer authority from national governments to international bodies… submitting the United States to authorities that ignore, outvote or frustrate [our] priorities.”

Perhaps in some utopian world this makes sense, but certainly not in the real world of the Middle East.

The Trump administration is unlikely to be fooled into believing international organizations are going to stabilize the world order. The idea of a peaceful multi-polar world with a weakened America, was, is and for the foreseeable future will be a chimera that will endanger America and its allies.

Re-engagement 3.0 should reflect the realties of today, not resurrect the failed assumptions of the past.

So which actions would jump-start this new vision?

• America interests are the polar opposite of Iranian interests. Therefore the administration should recognize Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights.

According to The Washington Post the “Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps are now present along the 1967 cease-fire line with Israel in the Golan Heights, putting them directly opposite Israeli troops for the first time.”

Can you imagine the danger if the Iranians were on the shores of the Galilee, if Israel had listened to John Kerry and given up the Golan? American interests are aligned with Israel’s permanent control of the Golan, a bulwark against Iranian expansionism.

• Stabilize American allies Jordan and Egypt with loan guarantees, tax incentives and upgraded border security.

• Reevaluate and develop a new relationship with Turkey. The Islamization of Turkey, its precarious role as the eastern flank of NATO and its support of terrorist entities must be addressed. Waiting a generation for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to pass from the scene will be too late.

• An independent Iraq not controlled by Iran is an important American interest. Additional economic support of Iraq should be tied to its distancing itself from Iran. America should leverage the Persian Shiite condescension towards Iraqi Arab Shiites to build a better US-Iraq relationship.

• American policy 3.0 should state unambiguously that when groups like Hezbollah or Hamas use civilian areas as staging groups to attack civilians or use human shields to create self-inflicted humanitarian propaganda, America makes clear to international organizations that the harm that comes to those civilians is the responsibility of the terrorist organizations themselves.

Re-engagement 3.0’s goal should be multilateral, but only if America is firmly in charge of its destiny. If multilateralism is used as a façade for a withdrawing, isolationist foreign policy, American interests will be at the mercy of others.

Israel does not enjoy any of the luxuries of a unipolar superpower or even a regional superpower. It is judged against a standard no other democratic nation in its position would be asked, or even rationally expected to adhere to. The new Trump administration should reiterate every time the UN and EU stigmatize and delegitimize Israel that America views Israel as a primary American security interest that won’t be abandoned.

But the real question is, can Trump overcome his isolationist instincts and look anew at the Middle East, not through the prism of the Iraq War? American security for the next decade depends on it.

The author is director of MEPIN™, the Middle East Political and Information Network™. He regularly briefs members of Congress and think tanks on the Middle East. He is a regular contributor to The Jerusalem Post.

What US Ambassador David Friedman Should Do in 2017

{Previously published in The Jerusalem Post}

If Friedman were interested in my advice, I would recommend he use the ambassador’s pulpit to clearly articulate why the new administration has chosen a different path forward.

Last week, while I was speaking with foreign policy experts in Washington, I received a text from my millennial- age son Adam asking about the newly nominated US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman. “Aside from The New York Times painting him as the devil, and J Street portrayed as the moral saviors of Jewish America, what is the real story?” he asked.

Then began the emails from friends, skeptics, and news media wanting to know if Friedman’s nomination is unnecessarily provocative, whether he is a “far-right” extremist, and are his past statements representative of what the Trump administration will actually do? Leaving aside the apocalyptic hyperventilating by the New York Times lead by their J Street allies, my impression of the importance of this nomination was tempered by my bipartisan meetings in Congress and with foreign policy think tanks after the nomination.

Congress’ main concern is not the nomination. It is overwhelmingly focused on Iranian ambitions of hegemony affecting American interests, what to do with the disastrous JCPOA, how to respond to Iranian/Russian complicity in the Syrian genocide, and the delegitimization of Israel.

With the American abstention of the UN Security Council Resolution condemning all settlements over the 1949 Armistice Line as having “no legal validity,” Obama in one stroke did what no president has ever done. When I warned Israeli and American officials early in 2016 about this possibility, I was told it would not happen. So it was no surprise when State Department spokesman John Kirby recently said Israeli settlements are now illegal, a first for any administration.

President Obama in essence legitimized the delegitimizers, the supporters of BDS, breathing new life into this most heinous antisemitic movement. That officially puts the Obama administration on record condemning the Jewish presence in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, in Gilo, in Gush Etzion, in French Hill, and so many other areas that were supposed to be part of land swaps.

The UN abstention, along with the JCPOA, completed President Obama’s long planned vision of realignment for his new Middle East. It both empowered the Islamic theocracy of Iran, a radical Islamist regime, while creating his long sought “daylight” fraying the US-Israel relationship.

If Friedman were interested in my advice, I would recommend he use the ambassador’s pulpit to clearly articulate why the new administration has chosen a different path forward, and explain that past presidents of both parties have failed because they have viewed the conflict as a dispute over borders, an argument about territory, which misses the point: Israel’s neighbors don’t care where Israel’s borders are. They want it not to exist at all.

Friedman needs to make clear that President Obama’s successor does not agree that Israeli settlements are illegal, and is against unilateral UN actions demanding that Israel “immediately and completely cease all settlement activities in Palestinian territory, including east Jerusalem,” as stated in the one-sided UN resolution. This will only embolden those who want to destroy Israel.

Here are three important ideas Friedman should communicate to the international community in his first year in office: 1. Explain that US policy is committed to interpreting international law as it was written, not politically interpreted.

The US believes that Israeli building over the Green Line is not illegal, but is more accurately described as disputed territory. This does not mean territorial concessions are not part of a final resolution, but it does mean Israel has legitimate legal rights that must be weighed in the balance.

2. Explain that the international community has willfully misinterpreted what the authors of UNSC Resolution 242 actually meant: Israel was never supposed to return to the indefensible 1949 lines, and since 242 is the definitive statement about the conflict, the new American administration will interpret this document the way it was intended.

3. Explain that US policy will now insist UNWRA must redefine its definition of refugees to the UNHRC definition of refugees, where no one is counted as a refugee after one generation. American policy is about supporting humanitarian aid, not perpetuating the refugee charade.

I don’t know Friedman, nor do I know if his previous statements regarding the status of communities over the 1949 Armistice Line, or the transfer of the US Embassy to Jerusalem, will come to fruition any time soon. President Trump’s senior aide, Kellyanne Conway, said that the embassy move is a “very big priority” for Trump, yet Trump’s foreign policy adviser Walid Phares walked it back.

Like any presidential appointee, you serve at the president’s pleasure, or you won’t serve very long. But this is an unconventional president, and Friedman’s potential influence in American policy is a complete unknown.

The real question is why should moving the embassy to the western side of Jerusalem cause such outrage, as every plan favoring the two-state solution agreed that the western part of Jerusalem should be Israel’s capital.

Promises and timing are always fungible. It would be very easy for the American decision on the embassy to be postponed, as the area the United States owns for a future embassy in Jerusalem is now a hotel housing elderly immigrants from the former Soviet Union, whose lease runs another four years.

So will Friedman change US-Israeli policy? Only Donald Trump can make that happen. But what Friedman’s presence in Israel will do is change the hostile tone that has emanated from the US Embassy toward Israel into something more appropriate for a valued American ally.

The author is the director of MEPIN™. He regularly briefs members of Congress, their foreign policy advisers, members of the Knesset, and journalists on issues related to the Middle East.

What the Next American President Needs to Understand About the Middle East

(Previously published in The Jerusalem Post)

A change in America’s Iran policy is the key to promoting American national security interests. 

When the absurdity of the 2016 US presidential race comes to an end, the new president will be confronted with agonizing problems across the Middle East, from Syria to Lebanon, from Yemen to Pakistan, from Israel to Iraq.

The first lesson for the next president is humility. America is indispensable for regional stability, while at the same time incapable of solving its difficult problems. The new president will be severely handicapped by the Obama administration’s foreign policy choices, which set precedents that neither an alliance with the US nor American ultimatums are sacrosanct.

The Israelis, Saudis, Egyptians, Kurds and the Sunni world, which represent 85 percent of Islam, are unsure about American support, especially after the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran. Islamic State (ISIS) distracted the administration from understanding that in the long term, Iran, more than ISIS, is the most dangerous threat to regional stability. Sunni nations and Israel believed US President Barack Obama would keep his word never to allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon.

America must re-engage in the Middle East for American interests, and must begin by reassuring our allies.

So what should the next president do? In the first week after the election, invite the Israeli, Saudi and Egyptian leaders together to the White House.

The president should explain that American foreign policy interests are not about empowering an Iranian- controlled Shi’ite crescent from Tehran to Baghdad, and from Damascus to Beirut.

The new president on day one should send a clear message to Congress that the time of marginalizing it on foreign policy by executive actions is over. Congress would welcome an opportunity to ensure that the JCPOA is strictly enforced, and on a bipartisan basis would be supportive against Iranian- supported terrorism and destabilization of our allies.

President Obama’s premature withdrawal from Iraq evaporated the hard fought American advantages of postsurge Iraq, where a new American president must now confront an Iranian- dominated Iraq. The rise of ISIS is directly related to the American vacuum that created an Iranian-dominated Shi’ite Iraq.

Both candidates must keep their eyes on the primary causes of long-term regional instability: Iran, Russia, Hezbollah and Syria. Sunni Islamists from the Muslim Brotherhood to al-Qaida are also of long-term concern, but they will be much harder to deal with if Iran is in ascendancy.

The new administration needs to understand how differently the Arab and Muslim world view themselves, especially in contrast to how Westerners self-identify, primarily by nationality.

Most Arab and Muslim people see themselves aligned by clan and tribe, with nationality a secondary identity.

They only use nationality as a primary identity when speaking to Western foreign policy experts, a prescription for miscommunication and bad policy choices.

An assessment of allies must include the Kurds, a people who truly deserve their own nation-state. The Iraqi Kurds are our friends, and will be lost as future allies if we continue to treat them as we treated the Syrian Kurds, whom President Obama abandoned at the request of the Islamist Turkish government.

Turkey will at best be an unreliable ally for the foreseeable future, as it only recently changed sides to support attacks on ISIS. The next American president needs to tell the Turks that the Kurds in Iraq are our friends, and that we will not abandon the Kurds in Syria.

Russia will certainly take advantage of this situation, but Turkey is already an ambivalent member of NATO that shouldn’t be trusted until the Islamist Erdogan regime is gone. Iran and Turkey are in rapprochement, and we need to make our displeasure known with tangible actions.

As far as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, if the administration wants to truly make progress it should abandon the idea that the settlements are most of the problem, when in reality no part of Israel is really less objectionable to its enemies.

The next secretary of state should read an unbiased analysis of international law, acknowledging that the West Bank is technically disputed occupied territory, where Israel has rights that it has been willing to abandon in whole or in part for peace.

Without this, a true peace or longterm cease-fire will be illusory. The best approach to manage the conflict is to find a way for the Sunni states to diplomatically recognize Israel.

The bywords for American Middle East foreign policy in 2017 should be: • Clearly achievable goals • Stabilization • Reassurance to Israel and Sunni allies • A harder line with Iran, the one player in the region that can most harm American interests • Unilateral concessions are considered a sign of weakness.

And finally remember that political Islam, Islamism, is the problem, not Islam. Identify your enemy and you will gain many moderate Muslim allies who share your interests in the region.

The author is the director of MEPIN™. He regularly briefs members of Congress, their foreign policy advisers, members of the Knesset and journalists. He regularly briefs Congress on issues related to the Middle East.

Is a Lasting Israel-Palestinian Peace Achievable if Only One Side Accepts the Legitimacy of the Other’s Narrative?

(Previously published in The Jerusalem Post)

 “When you say ‘accept Israel as a Jewish state,’ you are asking me to change my narrative.” – Palestinian Authority negotiator Saeb Erekat.

“Every state has created narratives which help its citizen to identify with national culture. These narratives are the foundation on which the state is built.” – Erica Mukherjee, Perspectives on Global Issues

Secretary of State Kerry’s well-meaning attempt to forge a framework agreement between the Israeli and Palestinian governments is based on the conventional Western perspective of conflict resolution. Western democratic nations that sign treaties overwhelmingly respect the words on the paper they sign.

But what happens when western democracies ask a democratic nation to sign a western- style treaty with an adversary that values tribe and clan over the nation-state? What happens when one party’s narrative is almost totally based on the negation of the other? While the media look through conventional glasses at the prospects for an Israeli- Palestinian framework agreement and pose certain questions, the view for those truly interested in a lasting peace should be through a more nuanced lens. Such an analysis raises questions that are more difficult.

Is a lasting Israel-Palestinian peace achievable if only one side accepts the legitimacy of the other’s narrative? To begin to resolve the conflict, American and Israeli negotiators should consider a western-style treaty only with concurrent recognition of the narratives of both parties. Diplomatic maneuvering, no matter how well meaning, can not lead to a lasting peace in this region without addressing the fundamental narratives of the adversaries.

For the sake of peace, would Israel be willing to express compassion and remorse publicly for the suffering of Palestinians without accepting primary responsibility? Would they acknowledge that there is merit to the Arab world’s disillusionment with the West because of the broken promises made to them by the British and French 100 years ago? Can Israelis, for the possibility of a genuine peace, acknowledge understanding and compassion for the descendants of Palestinian Arab refugees who have been used as pawns by autocratic Arab regimes? Convincing the Israelis would be the easy part. Most of the heavy lifting must come from the Arab side, which considers itself the victim of an illegitimate Zionist movement.

It is essential to understand how Palestinian Arabs think and what they believe. The Palestinian Arab national identity is almost exclusively defined by negating the Israeli narrative, including Israel’s legitimate right to exist as a Jewish state, with precious few positive Palestinian nationalistic qualities.

Palestinian Arabs mark their historical time by memorializing what others perpetrated upon them. The quintessential narrative marked in time is the “Nakba,” the catastrophe of the creation of the State of Israel.

Delegitimizing Jewish historical connections to the land extends from mosques to school textbooks, from the PA press to the PA leadership.

They view the Jewish historical narrative as at best exaggerated, but more likely fabricated.

On a recent trip to the Middle East, I interviewed members of the PA, PLO, Hamas, the Jordanian Parliament, and the Muslim Brotherhood.

They all shared the same talking points about the Jews living in Israel. Uniformly, Israel is considered a colonialist enterprise – illegally imposed, and populated by foreigners with no legitimate right to the land. Almost all believe that Israel continually commits “war crimes,” targets Arab civilians, and oppresses defenseless native Palestinians.

Violence committed against Jewish civilians is rationalized as the only legitimate avenue available to an oppressed people.

This troubling narrative is not confined to Hamas, but is part of the DNA of Palestinian Arabs whether they reside in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Judea, or Samaria.

Compounding the problem is the western belief that all peoples of the world share its universalistic perspective. It is certainly true that Palestinians want to feed their families and prosper, but the West simply cannot comprehend that any people in the 21st century would choose self-defeating options over economic opportunity.

If choosing a better life means giving up on the goal of erasing Israel from the map, then unfortunately too many would choose ideology over prosperity.

Israel may be a reality, but to most Palestinians, it is not one that can be accepted for the long-term. That is why the United States and Israel must insist on an acknowledgment of the rights of the Jewish people to a homeland in whatever dimension are agreed to by the parties themselves. This would be one of three game-changing events, if published in Arabic and articulated publicly by their leaders.

The second game-changer would be if the international community could acknowledge that Israel has legitimate rights beyond the Green Line.

It must be acknowledged that Israel has been willing to relinquish almost all of its legal territorial rights in Judea and Samaria over the past 65 years for a lasting peace. Without this acknowledgment, Israel will continue to be branded a “thief,” forced to return stolen land. If not acknowledged, anything Israel retains in a future land swap will be viewed throughout the Arab and Muslim world as illegitimately gained territory. Occupation of disputed territory from a defensive war is not an outdated theory; it is an essential ingredient for a sustainable peace.

The third game-changer is the preparation of the Palestinian Arabs and the Arab world for compromise. America must insist on clear and unambiguous public statements in Arabic on all of the lighting-rod issues.

If Palestinian Arabs and their supporters are unwilling or unable to accept these three public pronouncements, then the negotiation should transition to how best to improve the lives of Palestinians without endangering Israeli security.

Israel and the West need to reset their clocks to Islamic time and think in decades and centuries. Americans and Israelis cannot succumb to the false narrative that this is the last best time for Israel to negotiate with its adversaries.

Imposing artificial timelines tilts the negotiation playing field toward an Arab advantage.

We will know when the Palestinians and Arab worlds are ready to embark upon a path to true peace when Arab leaders prepare their people for compromise and end the incitement to delegitimize the Israeli narrative. Until then, negotiate not only on territory, but also on accepting the other’s narrative.

The author is founder of MEPIN™, the Middle East Political and Information Network™.