Understanding Palestinians and Zionists

I once had a teacher of French who tried to motivate his students to read literature in the original. He liked to say, “there are three kinds of translators: those who do not know French, those who do not know English, and those who know neither English nor French.”

Similarly, I think that with a few exceptions there are three kinds of  Western Middle East experts:

  • Those who do not understand Arabs
  • Those who do not understand Jews
  • Those who understand neither Arabs nor Jews

Martin Indyk, who was Ambassador to Israel twice and a Mideast specialist on the National Security Council in the Clinton Administration, who writes and lectures on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is certainly considered an expert. But in a recent interview, I think he displays a poor understanding of Palestinians and Zionists (if not Arabs and Jews in general).

Q: Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak responded to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s speech at Bar-Ilan’s Begin-Sadat Center by saying that demanding of any Arab leader to recognize Israel as a Jewish state aborts the peace process. Given your diplomatic dealings with Mubarak, what do you think about that statement?

MI: It’s a pity that this issue has been raised in this way, because of course Israel is the state for the Jewish people. I mean, if it’s not that, what is it? In a two-state solution, with one of those states for the Palestinians, what is the other one for?

What indeed? If it were as self-evident as Indyk seems to think, then why do the Palestinians furiously deny it? Because, like everything about the Middle East, the idea of a two-state solution is ambiguous. Israelis see it as a compromise — a very painful one, because of the importance of the land to Jewish history and the need to evacuate Jewish residents. They see it in the traditional formulation as relinquishing land for peace, and the land that Israel gives up will belong to the Arabs.

The Palestinians see it as a compromise too, but an entirely different one: they are willing to permit Jews to live in part — but only part — of their land. They will not give up title to it, something which they would perceive as a massive humiliation. Here’s a comment made by Omar al-Ghul, an advisor to Palestinian Authority PM Salam Fayyad, which makes this crystal clear:

“No Palestinian leader can ever accept this demand [for recognition as a Jewish state] even if the whole world recognizes Israel as a Jewish state,” he stressed. “The state of Israel belongs to all its citizens, the Palestinians [sic] owners of the land and the Jews living there.”

Indyk continues,

So, while Israelis are trying to get a clear understanding of what exactly the Arabs are recognizing, the Arabs – whose narrative enables them to accept Israel as a state in general – do not accept the Zionist narrative. They therefore find it very hard to accept that kind of add-on to the requirement that they recognize Israel. They don’t accept that Israel was created, on the backs of the Palestinians, as an answer to the problem of the Holocaust – the very narrative that Obama talked about in his speech…

What they do not accept is Jewish sovereignty over any of the land between the river and the sea, although they might compromise on some Jewish occupancy. As is so often the case, Western wishful thinking has led many to attribute a position to the Palestinians that is far more advanced than anything they have actually contemplated agreeing to. Here is how I imagine the thinking of the ‘moderate’ wing of Fatah about the two-state solution:

Although the Zionist position that they have legitimate title to any of Palestine is false, for practical reasons we will agree to allow Jews to live in a strictly limited part of Palestine. But we think that any limitation on where Palestinians (including refugees) can live in Palestine is absurd. Therefore we will accept two states in the area, one which will be Palestine and where only Palestinians can live, and one which will be Israel, where Jews as well may live. 

This formulation explains the PA negotiators’ demands to not recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people, to insist on right of return and to expel every last Jewish resident from the Palestinian state.


There are practical matters that need immediate attention, particularly the need to resolve the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. In this context, it’s much more important to get the Palestinians to give up the right of return than to say that they accept Israel as a Jewish state.

What he misses is that these demands are inextricably linked in the ‘moderate’ Palestinian conception of the two-state solution, in which all of Palestine belongs to Palestinians, even if Jews live in part of it. In this scheme, refugees can ‘return’ to Israel because Israel is simply the part of Palestine where Jews are entitled to live.

It’s certain that they also think that the ultimate outcome of  such a two-state solution would be the absorption of Israel into Palestine.

And it’s also obvious that Indyk does not understand the Palestinian point of view.

What about Zionists? I am not sure exactly what Indyk thinks constitutes the “Zionist narrative”, but what he says

…that Israel was created, on the backs of the Palestinians, as an answer to the problem of the Holocaust – the very narrative that Obama talked about in his speech…

is far from being part of it. Israel may be the answer to the Holocaust in the sense that, for Zionists, a Jewish state is the ultimate insurance against future holocausts. But the idea that this constitutes the justification for the creation of the state of Israel as Obama suggested, is a profoundly non-Zionist concept.  If this is what Martin Indyk thinks Zionists think, then he does not understand them any better than he does Palestinians.

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2 Responses to “Understanding Palestinians and Zionists”

  1. Shalom Freedman says:

    There are certain ‘experts’ on the Middle East conflict who seem to be so off the mark, who seem to so ‘not get it’ that one wonders how it is they ever attained their positions of eminence. Indyk certainly falls in that category. Itamar Rabinowitz who used to endlessly speak about Hafez Assad’s readiness for Peace is another one. They all belong to what might be called ‘The Wishful Thinking School of Middle East experts’. Unfortunately it seems that President Obama is very much surrounding himself with people who fall into this camp. How otherwise would he be insisting on a Palestinian state in two- years.

  2. Grandma says:

    I am wondering what then, is the answer? What does Israel do? I saw a good explanation at the JP on the difference between the “outposts” and the “settlements”, but why does everyone keep harping on those settlements? That’s not going to solve anything. That seems to me to be only the first concession and more would follow. This is very upsetting.
    It is not right that Israel is not at the G8 or in the meeting with the ME Quartet. What is REALLY going on here? I have a lot of questions and not enough answers. I have always wondered if the ordinary, everyday Palestinian is as driven on the subject of Palestine-v-Israel as the terrorist organizations that lead them.