October 17, 2019

Moral dimension of Palestinian statehood

I felt terribly guilty when Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas told the U.N. General Assembly: “Enough! It is time for the Palestinian people to gain their freedom and independence.” How can we deny to others what we claim for ourselves?

Let there be no misunderstanding; I am a daily listener to what Abbas’ television is telling his children about the fate of Israel. I, therefore, know what everyone else knows, that when Abbas speaks of “freedom and independence,” he is not talking about a two-state solution; he means freedom to demand the return of Tel Aviv to Palestinian hands and independence to pursue that demand from a position of power and legitimacy. Still, the words “freedom and independence,” evoked the age-old question of equity and justice: “Can we deny to others what we demand for ourselves?”

I was not the only one to have this reaction to the Palestinian bid for statehood. A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that more than 40 percent of Americans favor the United States recognizing Palestine as a state. True, only 10 percent of the respondents said that they are following the news closely on this issue, but this is exactly what we mean by the “moral dimension” — the level of consciousness that has no patience for sorting out facts, figures, intentions and consequences, but instead draws meaning from the force of certain words and their deep roots at the heart of human experience.

At that level, we must admit, Israel’s campaign has been a failure. Say what you will about Israel’s need for security, or the wisdom of entering direct negotiations before seeking statehood, it simply does not sound “right” to deny a people the right of self-determination. David Ben-Gurion expressed it quite clearly in 1931, at a time when he saw the Arabs as partners for coexistence:

“There is in the world a principle called ‘the right for self-determination.’ We have always and everywhere been its champions. … We ought not to diminish the Arabs’ right for self-determination for fear that it would present difficulties to our own mission” (Ben-Gurion, “Anachnu U’Shcheneinu,” Tel Aviv, 1931, p. 257).

The public debate preceding the U.N. session revealed a glaring asymmetry between the two sides. The Palestinian side spoke of human rights, historical justice, personal dignity and moral obligation, while the Israeli side, including its U.S. supporters, debated and agonized over pragmatic considerations: Will statehood truly advance the peace process? Will it change things on the ground? Will it lead to renewed negotiations? Will Hamas overrun or shun the new state, if created? Will the United States use its veto power? What will Abbas’ next move be?

This placed the Israeli side at a severe disadvantage. Impartial observers, even if convinced that the Palestinian bid is aimed to intensify, not resolve, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, preferred to keep silent and let the parties fight it out in the United Nations. No one wishes to appear insensitive to moral arguments or be on the wrong side of justice.

For some obscure reason, even the staunchest advocates of the Israeli position were not prepared to address the moral dimension head on and to frame their arguments in a context of universally compelling principles of ethics and justice.

The only one who did so was President Barack Obama in his speech at the General Assembly on Sept. 21.

The president said: “The Jewish people have forged a successful state in their historic homeland. Israel deserves recognition. It deserves normal relations with its neighbors.”

Note how the president speaks in the pre-1948 language of “deservedness” and “historical homeland-ness,” not in the post-1967 language of security needs, borders, settlements and other expediencies. In effect, what the president was doing amounts to a bold repudiation of Palestinian claims for sole ownership of justice and morality.

Here is my translation of Obama’s speech into the discourse over Palestinian statehood:

Obama: “A successful state in their historic homeland.” Translation: No society, no matter how oppressed, is entitled to what it denies to others. In particular, the Arab denial of a people’s homeland for 63 years is morally unacceptable.

Obama: “Israel deserves recognition.” Translation: Never in the history of nations has a society defined itself on the ruins of its neighbor, and never has such society sought recognition while admitting its intent.

Obama: “It [Israel] deserves normal relations with its neighbors.” Translation: Never in the history of human conflict did anyone ask for statehood while teaching its children of the inevitable demise of its neighbor and making no investment in education for peace.

In short, Obama is telling Abbas in no uncertain terms: “You simply do not deserve a state without first doing some elementary homework.”

It is not surprising that Obama’s speech angered Palestinians and their supporters; they are not accustomed to being challenged in the moral dimension, certainly not in public. “The humiliation of Barack Obama” Robert Grenier called the moment, in Al Jazeera (English). “No U.S. embassy will be safe,” warned a Muslim Brotherhood spokesman in Cairo.

It is also not surprising that Obama angered Jewish radicals on the left. Fringe organizations such as Jewish Voice for Peace will not forgive him for defining so clearly the immoral character of their anti-Israel activities.

What is surprising to me is that mainstream Jewish organizations did not seize on Obama’s speech as the moral manifesto of their objection to Palestinian statehood. Instead, we are hearing the all-too-expected praises of the speech, mixed with arguments on its impact on renewed negotiations, and questioning Obama’s political motivations.

It is all too easy to dismiss Obama’s words as part of an election campaign. But, as often happens in our history, it is not what the world means to say that counts, but what one makes of it. The Balfour Declaration, too, could have been dismissed as a campaign speech, or worse; instead, it was taken seriously by world Jewry and ushered Israel into being.

Let us not forget, most of those who question U.S. support of Israel see Obama as a beacon of moral courage for the 21st century. Excerpts from Obama’s speech should therefore be quoted and requoted by Israel advocates on television and radio shows. Copies of Obama’s words should decorate students’ walks on U.S. campuses, including the offices of my academic colleagues at UCLA. In short, Obama’s words should become Israel’s trust deed of moral justice in the court of world’s opinion.

I will end with an answer I gave to a friend who asked what I thought about the moral justification for a Palestinian state. “In the supreme court of world justice,” I answered, “the Palestinians will earn their right to statehood as soon as they can join Israelis in chanting: Two states for two peoples, equally legitimate and equally indigenous.”

Judea Pearl is a professor at UCLA and president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation (danielpearl.org), named after his son. He is a co-editor of “I Am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl” (Jewish Lights, 2004), winner of the National Jewish Book Award.