Trapped In Their Public Narrative

by Alon Ben-Meir Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is an expert on Middle East politics and affairs, specializing in peace negotiations between Israel and the Arab states. For the past twenty five years, Dr. Ben-Meir has been directly involved in various negotiations and has operated as a liaison between top Arab and Israeli officials. Dr. Ben-Meir serves as senior fellow at New York University's School of Global Affairs where he has been teaching courses on the Middle East and negotiations for 18 years. He is also a Senior Fellow and the Middle Eastern Studies Project Director at the World Policy Institute. Dr. Ben-Meir hosts "Global Leaders: Conversations with Alon Ben-Meir," a series of debates and conversations with top policy-makers around the world. He also regularly holds briefings at the US State Department for international visitors. Dr. Ben-Meir writes frequently and has appeared in numerous newspapers, magazines and websites including the Middle East Times, the Christian Science Monitor, Le Monde, American Chronicle, the Week, the Political Quarterly, Israel Policy Forum, Gulf Times, the Peninsula, The Jerusalem Post, and the Huffington Post. He also makes regular television and radio appearances, and has been featured on networks such as CNN, FOX, PBS, ABC, al Jazeera (English and Arabic), and NPR. He has authored six books related to Middle East policy and is currently working on a book about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Dr. Ben-Meir holds a masters degree in philosophy and a doctorate in international relations from Oxford University. He is fluent in English, Arabic, and Hebrew. 11.12.2014

The Palestinians’ constant acrimonious public narrative against Israel has and continues to damage their credibility in the eyes of many Israelis. The Palestinian Authority, not to speak of Hamas, seems to want to win the public relations campaign with their own people more than winning the peace. They are now increasingly focused on evoking international sympathy to their cause, but have failed time and again to appeal to the Israeli public, which matters the most to realize their stated objective of a Palestinian state.*

The Palestinians appear to be trapped in their rancorous public narrative against Israel, even during the peace negotiations. Coupled with widespread anti-Israeli teaching in schools, regular media attacks, and indoctrination in many public and private institutions, this is what the Israelis see, hear, fear, and believe.

The Palestinians fail to understand that they have nurtured pervasive anti-Israeli sentiment among the Palestinians and strong anti-Palestinian feeling among the Israelis, which is to the detriment of peace.

It is time is for the Palestinians to reexamine the shifting political landscape in Israel and among themselves and change course now, however incongruous that may be, because it is indispensable to their overall objective.

The Palestinians need to recognize that there is a psychological dimension to their conflict with Israel, traced back through decades of mutual hatred and distrust. The frequent verbal attacks and the characterization of Israel as a racist and apartheid state only reinforce the Israelis’ resentment and distrust of the Palestinians.

The PA seems to ignore the fact that their constant anti-Israeli public sentiments play into the hands of the powerful right constituency while weakening the hands of the center and left-of-center, which represent the majority of Israelis.

Leave it to hardcore Israeli leaders such as Netanyahu to point out the Palestinians’ tenacious enmity toward Israel in order to justify his obdurate policy toward them.

The Palestinians haven’t learned that they cannot have it both ways: demand a state of their own and threaten Israel’s very existence.

The limited moderate voices of Palestinians are drowned out by the extremists, especially Hamas and Islamic Jihad, who seek popular support while undermining the Palestinians’ quest for statehood.

The Israeli political parties from the center and left want to hear a language of reconciliation, a language that focuses on legitimate rights and claims rather than threats and ultimatums and be encouraged to rally the Israeli public around the single most critical issue—ending the debilitating Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Palestinians cannot expect the Israelis to dismiss their public onslaught as empty rhetoric intended only for public consumption. Only the Palestinians themselves can change the Israeli public perception—not by mere political slogans, but by demonstrating that they can be trusted and a worthy negotiating partner.

The upcoming March 2015 Israeli elections provide the Palestinians a momentous opportunity to engage in reconciliatory public narratives by stating their readiness, willingness, and ability to negotiate in earnest to achieve a lasting peace based on a two-state solution.

The Palestinians must separate between the Israeli government and the people. Every single Palestinian leader must carefully think about how his or her public utterances affect the Israeli electorate, especially during national elections. There is a steady shift to the right, and maligning Israel during the campaign will only further strengthen the right and weaken the center and left.

I am not naive to suggest that by merely changing their public narrative positively, the Palestinians will instantly and dramatically alter the political map in Israel in favor of the left and center.

But if the Palestinians want to realize statehood, they must change their rancorous narrative sooner rather than later, and the Israeli elections offer a unique opportunity to begin this shift. The prerequisite here is that the Palestinians remain true to what they are stating and continue with this path far beyond the Israeli elections.

Moreover, Abbas should wait until after the Israeli election before he turns to the UN Security Council to establish a date for the Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank for two reasons: a) there is a strong likelihood that a center-left government will be formed that would be committed to negotiate to reach an agreement; b) it would deprive the extremist right in Israel from making any gains that such a move may precipitate.

This would not be seen as a change of heart on the part of Abbas, but rather a strategic adjustment to the changing political landscape in Israel. In any case, Abbas can turn back to the Security Council if the peace process doesn’t resume in earnest, although this time around his appeal will resonate far more forcefully, especially with the US.

The PA must also prepare their own public to accept inevitable concessions (as do the Israelis), as long as such concessions advance the process toward the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Notwithstanding the growing support of the international community, the Palestinians will be mistaken to assume that the international community will solve their conflict with Israel.

Neither the Europeans nor the US, who enjoy certain leverage with Israel, will be able to force the hand of any hardcore right wing Israeli leader such as Netanyahu, as he has resisted such pressure in the past, with significant Israeli public support.

It is not easy, and certainly not popular, for the Palestinians to stop their antagonistic statements against Israel while under occupation. Stemming the barrage of public attacks does not dilute the Palestinians’ claim of their legitimate rights; on the contrary, it strengthens their claim which will benefit the Palestinians, not the Israelis.

There will be many radical Palestinians, especially Hamas, who will view such a change of strategy on the part of the PA as akin to surrender. But following the latest war with Israel, Hamas is still licking its wounds, having lost much of the adulation now that the dust has settled and the massive devastation is taking its toll.

Moreover, the so-called unity government is all but dead, and there is nothing that should stop President Abbas from pursuing a new strategy. Every Palestinian must remember that by clinging to the narrative of the past, they have achieved next to nothing.

Changing their course now is not surrender. On the contrary, it can only enhance the Palestinians’ credibility, strengthen their bargaining position, and hasten the resumption of peace negotiations.

* Israel’s contradictory public narrative to its actions on the ground will be examined next week.

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