Apr 9th 2013

Obama’s Lesson: “Look at the World Through Their Eyes”

by James J. Zogby

Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of Arab American Institute

President Obama got it just about perfect in his Jerusalem speech when he urged Israelis to see the world through the eyes of Palestinians. That portion of his remarks was so compelling it deserves to be quoted in full:

 “But the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination, their right to justice must also be recognized. And put yourself in their shoes. Look at the world through their eyes.

It is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of their own—living their entire lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements, not just of those young people but their parents, their grandparents, every single day. It’s not just when settler violence against Palestinians goes unpunished. It’s not right to prevent Palestinians from farming their lands or restricting a student’s ability to move around the West Bank or displace Palestinian families from their homes. Neither occupation nor expulsion is the answer. 

Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land.

I’m going off script here for a second. Before I came here, I met with a group of young Palestinians from the age of 15 to 22. And talking to them, they weren’t that different from my daughters. They weren’t that different from your daughters or sons.

I honestly believe that if any Israeli parent sat down with those kids, they’d say, I want these kids to succeed. I want them to prosper. I want them to have opportunities just like my kids do.  I believe that’s what Israeli parents would want for these kids if they had a chance to listen to them and talk to them. I believe that." 

A powerful challenge for Israelis, to be sure, but one that should be listened to by U.S. policymakers and policy analysts, as well. The problem of failing to see Palestinians as equal human beings—of refusing to see the world through their eyes—has long characterized Western and U.S. approaches to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

If I were to reduce the West's understanding of the conflict to an equation, it would be: Israeli humanity vs. the Arab/Palestinian problem. Israelis are seen as real people, with whom we can identify. They have hopes and fears and aspirations to live secure and at peace. Arabs, on the other hand, are reduced to one-dimensional objects—as pawns on a chess board to be moved about to satisfy the needs of the Israelis or, merely, as a problem to be solved. 

Dismissing the full humanity of Palestinians goes back to the very beginning of the conflict. After World War I, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson countered British and French imperial designs to carve up the Middle East, with a call to recognize the right of Arabs to self-determination. To better understand what Arabs really wanted, Wilson commissioned the first-ever survey of Arab opinion.

The results were quite clear—Arabs overwhelmingly rejected British and French control, their plans to carve up the Arab East and to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine. What Arabs wanted was independence and a unified Arab State. On hearing of these results, Lord Balfour, the British Foreign Secretary, dismissed them out of hand saying:

"We do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the inhabitants of the country...Zionism...[is] of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that land."

For the past 90 years it has been Balfour's understanding, not Wilson's vision, that has characterized the West's handling of the conflict.  The West has consistently deferred to Israel's needs, expecting the Arabs to understand. U.S. diplomats have argued with Palestinians that they must deal with "political realities" in Israel or in the U.S. Palestinians have been told that they must recognize the constraints imposed on U.S. Presidents and Israeli Prime Ministers by a difficult Congress or Knesset. And, in recognition of these circumstances, Palestinians have been told to be realistic and not make unreasonable demands. 

U.S. policymakers say they want negotiations without preconditions leading to a two-state solution. At the same time, they accept, and want Palestinian leaders to accept, Israeli "settlement blocs" (as “established facts”), reject the rights of Palestinian refugees (“it’s unrealistic”), and acknowledge Israel as a "Jewish State” (ignoring the fact that 20% of Israeli citizens are Arabs). All of this is done in the name of "realism" and the need to understand the fears and concerns of the Israeli public and the constraints they impose on Israeli leaders. 

But what of the fears and concerns of the Palestinian public and the constraints they impose on Palestinian leaders?  By ignoring this reality, U.S. demands have often placed Palestinian leaders in compromising positions, weakening their political standing with their constituents.  

If President Obama's observations in his Jerusalem speech are correct, then not only the Israeli public needs to heed his injunction "to see the world through their [Palestinian] eyes". U.S. policymakers need to do the same. This is especially important as Secretary of State John Kerry visits the region in a renewed effort at peacemaking. 

If Kerry is to succeed where others have failed, Palestinian humanity must be recognized. As the victims of occupation, they, the weakest party in the conflict, should not be asked to do the heaviest lifting to make peace possible. And before the U.S. asks President Abbas to take risks, which he can ill afford to do given his already weak position at home, we should challenge our own domestic political constraints and press Prime Minister Netanyahu to do the same in Israel.

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