“The Palestinian people does not exist,” exclaimed the politician. The audacity of the statement shocked me, because it came from the mouth of Zahir Muhsein, a member of the Palestinian Liberation Organization executive committee, in a 1977 interview with a Dutch newspaper.
“The creation of a Palestinian state is only a means for continuing our struggle against the state of Israel for our Arab unity,” Muhsein continued. “In reality today there is no difference between Jordanians, Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese.”
When Republican candidate Newt Gingrich made similar remarks last week, calling the Palestinians an “invented people,” it caused a major uproar. Gingrich didn’t go as far as Muhsein — who claimed that the very reason for “inventing” the Palestinians was to wage war on Israel — but Gingrich still dropped the kind of bomb you rarely hear in polite company.
The real question is, so what? So what if the Palestinians are an invented people who keep fudging their narrative to make us believe their cause is as old as God? So what if they keep undermining the Israeli narrative to make us believe that the Jewish connection to the holy land is only as old as the Holocaust?
The point is, don’t we still need to make peace with them?
As my friends on the left argue: “The facts of history are not as important as the reality. The Palestinians are here to stay, and we must deal with this reality.”
For the past 20 years, this reality has been driven by one idea: Israel must reach a two-state solution with the Palestinians, or it will be forced one day to choose between being Jewish or being democratic — an impossible choice.
This scenario has created a virtual obsession with getting an agreement. Infused with pragmatism, peace seekers from the left and the right have generally ignored the importance of history and downplayed “inconvenient truths” such as a chronic inability on the Palestinian side to make peace with a Jewish state.
But pragmatism could get us only so far. The more concessions Israel made for peace, the further it got from an agreement. And the further it got from an agreement, the more pressure it got to make more concessions.
So, what went wrong?
In terms of the dynamics of negotiations, here’s my theory: When you allow the other side to undermine your narrative and to distort their own, you corrode the very process of negotiations. No amount of pragmatism can offset this corrosion.
Just look, for example, at the distorted narrative that Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) were “stolen from the Palestinian people.”
This kills any incentive for the Palestinians to make concessions. Why? Because if you believe something was stolen from you, what is there to negotiate? A thief must return what he stole — no questions asked. And if you’re the thief who must return the land, what “concessions” can you offer that would have any value?
Had Israel and its supporters clearly established the Jewish state’s historical claim to Judea and Samaria, this would have given real value to any Israeli concession regarding that land. Israel would be giving up land for the sake of peace, not giving back land because it is stolen.
Similarly, had Israel and its supporters clearly established the historical fact that the movement for a Palestinian state was a modern “invention” that began in earnest after the Israeli capture of Judea and Samaria in 1967 — and that the “Palestinian people” never asked for their “freedom” during the previous 19 years, when they were “occupied” by Jordan — this would have given real value to Israel’s concession of recognizing the very existence and nationalist rights of a Palestinian people.
Also, had Israel and its supporters pushed back against the Palestinian lies that undermine the 3,000-year Jewish connection to the holy land — and shown that they were deeply offended by these lies — they would have laid the foundations for mutual respect and improved the prospects for mutual reconciliation.
Instead, Israel chose to abandon history and focus on security, thus leaving the emotional high ground of historical justice to an enemy who has worked tirelessly to delegitimize the Zionist enterprise.
It’s noble to say, “Let bygones be bygones,” and, “Let’s put history behind us,” but that only works if both sides do it. If your rival uses distorted history as a weapon to undermine you, you must push back and assert your own narrative and your own rights; otherwise, all hope for mutual respect crumbles.
It’s also easy to say, “Each side has its own narrative, and they are equally valid,” but as Shlomo Avineri recently pointed out in Haaretz, it’s important to distinguish between narrative and historical truth.
When Gingrich had the audacity last week to challenge the Palestinian narrative with historical truth, he got skewered for being out of touch with reality. But what reality are we talking about? The reality of a peace process that is virtually dead and of a Palestinian society that has so little respect for the Jewish connection to the holy land?
You can skewer Gingrich all you want, but as The Journal’s new senior political editor, Shmuel Rosner, acknowledged on his blog, Rosner’s Domain, at least Gingrich got his “facts right.” And facts do matter.
Maybe the most practical thing we can do at this stage of the peace process is begin a debate that will hold all sides accountable for blatant lies and distortions.
If the peace process hasn’t set us free, maybe the truth will.