Battle of narratives
This month’s brief flare up of Palestinian rocket
attacks against Israel and Israeli counterstrikes hardly detracted from this
understanding. On the contrary the attacks enabled Hamas to burnish its
credentials as a resistance movement and fend off criticism from more militant
Palestinian factions that accuse it of having gone soft and allowed Israel to
project it as a continued terrorist threat, maintain its refusal to formally do
business with Hamas and ensure that the peace process remains in a deep coma.
further undermine the centrality of the Palestinian issue that has been
significantly diminished by the wave of popular revolts sweeping the
Middle East and North Africa as well as the split between Hamas and the
Al Fatah-led Palestine Authority on the West Bank, Israel supported by
Jewish leaders is equating Palestinian rights with those of Arab Jews
who once lived in the Arab world but were forced to leave their
homelands. It is a move perceived by Palestinians and even a minority of
Jews as a cynical manipulation of a justified cause.
Israeli move adds one more dimension to the Palestinian-Israeli battle
of narratives that has served to camouflage the real intentions of
Israel and Palestinian leaders since the inception of an
Palestinian-Israeli peace process. It is part of a larger campaign that
aims to reduce, if not delegitimise Palestinian rights by opposing
Palestinian efforts to upgrade their status at the United Nations and
calling for the dismantling of UNWRA, the UN agency responsible for the
welfare of Palestinian refugees. The move further seeks to mend chinks
in the armour of US public support for Israel.
core of the battle of narratives lies a definition of rights that has
allowed both parties to ensure that peace negotiations do not produce
the kind of painful compromises on both sides needed to achieve a
definitive resolution of their deep-seated conflict.
everything else that is on the negotiation table, the solution to the
plight of Palestinian refugees as well as that of Arab Jews is evident
to all. Palestinians would get an independent state of their own
alongside Israel and be compensated for losses suffered in territories
that are part of the Jewish state. Similarly, Arab Jews would be
compensated for their losses. Few, if any, Palestinians are likely to
want to physically return to Israeli rule and even fewer Arab Jews would
opt for a return to their ancestral homelands.
Devil in the details
Nevertheless, the devil is in the details. Palestinians would settle for
compensation and a state of their own but insist on doing so on the
basis of an Israeli recognition of their right to return to their
ancestral homes. Such recognition would amount to Israeli
acknowledgement of Palestinians being the original owners of historic
Palestine. In effect, it would deny Israel’s narrative that it
represents the resurrection of the Jewish state in lands that always
belonged to the Jews.
reinforce that narrative and reject the Palestinian right of return,
before raising the rights of Arab Jews Israel has insisted in recent
years that Palestinians upgrade their recognition of Israel’s right to
exist by acknowledging its right to exist as a Jewish state – a demand
that transcends accepted diplomatic protocols. In doing so, it prepared
the ground to use Arab Jewish rights as a tool to further undermine
Palestinian demands for recognition of their right to return, by
rejecting Palestinian suggestions that Arab Jews too should have the
right to return to their Arab countries of origin rather than Israel.
Israeli effort to portray the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as one of
competing refugee claims also serves to counter Palestinian efforts to
upgrade their United Nations observer status to that of a non-member
state as well as a rupture in crucial American Christian support for
Israel. Palestine Authority officials are confident that the UN General
Assembly will next month vote in favour of the upgrade. Israel is likely
to argue that Palestinian rights cannot be viewed independently of those
of Arab Jews.
As Palestine pushes for
recognition, leaders of the Presbyterian Church this month urged US
Congressional leaders to reconsider aid to Israel because of its alleged
violations of human rights. In seeking to shift the conflict’s paradigm,
the Israeli focus on Arab Jewish rights calls into question the emphasis
on the Palestinians of one important faction of the bedrock of US
support for Israel.
Palestinian issue at stake
campaign for recognition of the rights of Arab Jewry could not come at a
more politically opportune moment for Israel. It reinforces pro-Israeli
support in Congress to limit the definition of a Palestinian refugee to
those who were physically displaced when the Jewish state was created in
1948. The definition would deprive a majority of Palestinians born after
the founding of Israel of any possibility to put forward a claim. It
coalesces with proposals in Congress to equate Arab Jewish rights to
those of Palestinians.
bottom line, the absence of a credible peace process has created a
vacuum in which the very definition and importance of the Palestinian
issue is at stake. It is a process in which Israel is benefitting from
an Arab world that increasingly is preoccupied with either regime
survival or post-revolt transition, a deeply divided Palestinian polity,
and an international community that mistakenly believes that Palestine
has taken a permanent backseat to more pressing issues such as Iran and
the calls for political change.
Palestine may well for now be on the
backburner; it is however unlikely to remain there.
James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of
International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University and the
author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog.