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The “Generous” Offer

Given recent Palestinian initiatives at the U.N., it was only a matter of time until the usual Israeli apologetics appeared. Charles Krauthammer’s recent Washington Post op. ed. perfectly exemplifies the product.  He repeats, yet again, the story of the “generous offers” of statehood made by Israelis and rebuffed by Palestinians.

His arguments are specious on many levels.  He is wrong about important things – none of the proposed scenarios require the dismantling of the major settlement blocks.  He is deceptive and incomplete about others: yes, land swaps have been proposed, but usually these involve giving Palestinians desert in return for their aquifers; yes, a Palestinian East Jerusalem was, briefly, put on the table, but only as the ring of settlements severing it from the West Bank nears completion.

Krauthammer remains silent on the most significant problem of the allegedly generous offers: they are based solely on Israeli desires instead of international law.  For example, he has nothing to say about the likely loss of citizenship by Palestinian citizens of Israel in the event of land swaps.  He continues to mime faux bewilderment – why are Palestinians so recalcitrant in refusing further diminution of their homeland?

On the other side, the Palestinians also have a story about a “generous offer,” although they do not get prime space in the Washington Post for their narrative.  If the Israelis really want to live in peace, why have they rejected the Saudi (later Arab) Peace Initiative out of hand?  Ever since 2002, first Saudi Arabia and then all 22 Arab states have offered Israel full normalization of relations, provided that they comply with the basic two state deal: the 1967 borders, a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem, the right of return for refugees – provisions consistent with multiple UN Resolutions.

The credibility of the Arab Peace Initiative is bolstered by the donor-backed training of Palestinian security forces and by the fact that Hamas has announced its willingness to abide by the will of the majority in a peace referendum.

The Palestinian story of the “generous (Arab) offer” thus does far less violence to truth than the Israeli one.  Nevertheless, it fails to recognize the suspicion directed at the Arab Peace Initiative – was it not constructed primarily as a public relations effort in the wake of 9/11?  If it was meant seriously why did no one come to the Knesset as Anwar Sadat did, to talk directly to Israelis about the offer? Was the right of return for refugees meant to be a poison pill?  And how would the electorate for a peace referendum be defined – would refugees have a voice in determining their own fate?

Neither version of the “generous offer” entirely convinces: the Israeli one because it so obviously flies in the face of growing settlements and growing settler violence; the Palestinian one because, given Islamophobia, Arab narratives are simply dismissed rather than tested.

But perhaps there is also another force at work  – a dim and tentative perception that neither side currently acknowledges forthrightly.  Perhaps we all sense that  since the two state solution has been an ever-receding chimera for 44 years, neither side really wants it.

Zionists have never been circumspect about their desire to “judaize” the land. After all, with Palestinians in place, Israel cannot have all it desires: to be a Jewish state, to be a democracy, and to control all the land.  It can have any two of those three objectives together, but all three at once are impossible to reconcile.

Palestinians have never found it just that their historic homeland should be subdivided to rectify the murderous European hatred of Jews. Update the numbers a bit, and Lord Balfour’s revelatory statement is as good today as it was in 1917: “Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is … of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land. ” Why should Palestinians acquiesce to that?

Serious thinkers have already turned their attention to the challenges implicit in the death of the two state solution – for example, Salman Abu Sitta’s ground-breaking work showing how many Palestinian refugees come from Israel’s least settled areas and could return there with much less disruption than is generally supposed. What kind of legal formulas might safeguard the cultural and ethnic heritage of Christians, Muslims and Jews in a single state? Are there examples of successful bi-national states?  How might a bi-national state in Israel/Palestine become more like Canada or Belgium and less like Lebanon?

In trying to develop useful mental models of a one state solution, it is crucial to remember this:  National identity is socially constructed. It develops at the confluence of starting assumptions and present circumstances.  It changes over time. And, paradoxically, each new iteration of evolving national identity claims for itself the mantle of being ancient, immutable, and non-negotiable.  We do not need to accept this sleight of hand. 

Israelis and Palestinians each have romantic myths about their ancient identities.  Both also are faced with changing circumstances:  for Palestinians, the critical erosion of their territory and the abandonment of their refugees; for Israelis, their growing isolation, the decline of the Holocaust generation, the western hunger for oil, the Arab spring. From this confluence, the unthinkable needs to be thought about.

Let me be clear. I am not suggesting that building new, heavily contested national projects is simply a matter of mental gymnastics, without material determinants. At the same time, however, we must begin from what is true: that national identities are socially constructed and therefore mutable. The identities of the past need not constrain the future.  Now that is a generous offer.

Eve Spangler is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Boston College and a founding member of American Jews for a Just Peace. 

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