The Unbearable Lightness of Mainstream Thinking on Israel-Palestinian Issues

By Barry Rubin

Recently I appeared on a panel. I gave what I thought was a devastating and detailed analysis on why there wouldn’t be an Israel-Palestinian peace: the PA wasn’t ready Fatah was led by radicals; the Palestinian people hadn’t been prepared for peace (and had been prepared to see any compromise as treason); Hamas might take over or would use any PA compromises to attack and defeat its rival; there were too many problems with what would happen after a two-state solution was implemented.

Afterward, another participant was asked what he thought of my presentation. He said that, of course, peace wouldn’t be easy but it was really important to make peace, that time was against Israel, and that we should keep trying. Five things struck me about the response.

First, he made no attempt to refute a single point I made. In other words, the we-must-make-peace-right-away types never tell you about these problems. Why? Because they cannot answer this analysis since it is accurate. If they honestly presented these things to an audience, the audience would be convinced that there isn’t going to be any peace.

I call this “lying for peace.” Yasir Arafat once said something like this: “If I’m willing to die for Palestine I’m certainly willing to lie for Palestine.” Thus, instead of being an analyst one who twists the facts to “help the cause of peace” becomes an activist, deliberately withholding information because it undermines what one wants to happen. In addition, of course, this becomes an “analysis” based on wishful thinking.

But lying doesn’t bring peace, just like distorting any situation achieves a goal that is otherwise unachievable. Lying about the economy doesn’t help solve the problems of the economy. Lying about health care isn’t going to improve health care. Pretending that Communism (or Islamism today) was not so bad neither ended the conflict with that ideology nor spread the cause of freedom.

Israelis aren’t going to take risks and make concessions on the basis of lies. They prefer peace but don’t start out by saying that peace—meaning a piece of paper--is the only goal and nothing else matters. The goal is national survival, the country’s flourishing, and individual benefit.

Second, the person in question withheld in the later remarks what he had said before: that the two sides were very close and that PA leader Mahmoud Abbas was eager for peace. In essence, these statements were—according to the later position—lies told in order to help the cause of peace, supposedly. Either you have to admit that the PA does not want a compromise peace with Israel or prove that the PA leadership really wants peace and is eager to obtain it. You can’t have it both ways.

Third, there’s nothing more ridiculous than the notion that Israel must make peace before the situation gets worse. It’s like saying that the British and French should make concessions to Hitler because he’s about to go to war. If we know Egypt is turning radical, Lebanon has a Hizballah-dominated government, that Hamas is getting stronger, and that the current U.S. government cannot be trusted those are all arguments against Israel making concessions at this time!

Fourth, he had said that Mahmoud Abbas, the PA leader, really wants peace. Near the end of his career, he seeks to leave a legacy of having created a Palestine state for his people. That’s what they used to say about Arafat. Precisely. And it wasn’t true then either.

But if peace is desperately needed then Israel must be forced to bring about peace “for its own good” and whether it wants to accept the terms or not. In other words, ignorant people who aren’t telling the truth want to press Israel into a situation that suits neither its interests nor the will of its people.

And if peace is desperately needed and the PA really wants peace, then Israel must be at fault for the lack of peace. Therefore Israel must be pressured and possibly punished.

Here we have the three premises of the Obama Administration: The status quo is untenable and peace is desperately needed; the PA wants peace and cannot be pressed since it won’t listen while Arabs and Muslims won’t stand for it; Israel is stubborn and doesn’t know what’s good for itself.

And what is meant by peace? A paper signed by everyone whose terms quickly fall apart? A new equivalent of the Oslo accords? A celebration that lasts a while and soon dissolves into more bloodshed and a new generation of conflict? A new equivalent of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty that would be renounced by a new regime or when a new balance of power makes that possible?

Finally, as for the demographic argument, it is a ridiculous joke, a straw man. Who cares how many Palestinians there are in the West Bank and Gaza Strip? Israel will never annex those territories .But it is also a perfect symbol for the absurdity of the argument. In effect, it says:

Quick! Make peace because there are more and more Palestinians!

But if Israel makes huge concessions in an agreement won’t the Palestinians tear it up when they increase in number even more and feel stronger? And then won’t Israel be much worse off than it is now, having turned over territory and full sovereignty to a more powerful enemy?

Here’s what bothers me most: I have no problem with people arguing that it is important to pursue peacemaking efforts despite all the problems of Palestinian intransigence, Fatah extremism, Hamas’ power, the radicalism of Palestinian public opinion, and the tremendous problems that would occur in a post-two-state-solution situation.

But if they tell people that the Palestinian leadership is eager for a comprehensive peace agreement and leave out all of these problems that is called lying. And lying will only produce failure. First, it will produce the failure of its own efforts, since conducting a diplomatic campaign without accurate analysis is a game of blind man’s bluff. Second, if they were ever actually to “succeed” that would lead to disaster since a peace agreement made on false premises will not stand.

Thomas Friedman is another example. He's one of the leaders in the lying-for-peace movement. He can make as his main argument that it's bad for Israel to occupy the West Bank permanently because the demographic shift will make Israel into an apartheid state. First, Israel isn't occupying the West Bank at all in the post-1967 sense because the Palestinian Authority governs the population there. Second, Israel has accepted in principle that its presence in the West Bank is temporary, pending a real peace settlement. Third, the demographic gap is far smaller than is being presented. Fourth, demography doesn't matter since Israel has no interest in annexing, or even running directly, the West Bank and thus the number of Palestinians is no more significant than the number of Egyptians or Jordanians. And finally the apartheid argument has no actual relevance whatsoever since West Bank Palestinians aren't subject to any Israel rules of this sort.

In other words, an argument repeated in the largest newspapers, television, classrooms, and so on, is totally false but is never subjected to the test of a serious critique that points out the flaws and the need to respond to it.

Some of the people who repeat such mantras are merely ignorant or simply imitating. Others are leading the lying for peace movement. Many or most are also promoting their careers by saying what might be "politically correct" but is actually factually incorrect. Lying for peace, just like lying to prevent "Islamophobia" are nominally good causes but are realy lying for bloodshed and political disaster.

Is it rude to point this out? It would be if this were just a game. But the lives of millions of people are involved.

This experience has confirmed my belief that the hegemonic arguments in Western governments, academia, and mainstream media are not only wrong but are so weak that they can only be kept from collapsing by making sure most people never hear cogent critiques. These premises—on which we are supposed to bet our lives—have no basis in reality.