x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

West must treat Palestinians as people, not as pawns

If the US is to succeed where others have failed, Palestinian humanity must be recognised.

President Obama got it just about perfect in his Jerusalem speech last month when he urged Israelis to see the world through the eyes of Palestinians.

"And put yourself in their shoes," he said. "Before I came here, I met with a group of young Palestinians from the age of 15 to 22 ... 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."

The problem of failing to see Palestinians as equal human beings - of refusing to see the world through their eyes - has long characterised western and US approaches to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

If I were to reduce the West's understanding of the conflict to its simplest, it would be: Israeli humanity versus the Arab/Palestinian problem. Israelis are seen as real people, with whom we can identify. They have hopes and fears and aspirations to live securely and at peace.

Arabs, on the other hand, are reduced to one-dimensional objects, as pawns on a chess board to be moved about.

Dismissing the full humanity of Palestinians goes back to the very beginning of the conflict. After the First World War, US president Woodrow Wilson countered British and French imperial designs to carve up the Middle East with a call to recognise 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 Arthur Balfour, then 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, Balfour said, is "of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land".

For the past 90 years it has been Balfour's understanding, not Wilson's vision, that has characterised the West's handling of the conflict. The West has deferred to Israel's needs, expecting the Arabs to understand. US diplomats have argued with Palestinians that they must deal with political realities in Israel or in the US. Palestinians have been told that they must recognise the constraints imposed on US 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.

US 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 settlements as "established facts", reject the rights of Palestinian refugees because do otherwise would be "unrealistic", and acknowledge Israel as a Jewish state, ignoring the fact that 20 per cent 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.

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". US policymakers need to do the same. This is especially important now, with Secretary of State John Kerry visiting the region in a renewed effort at peacemaking.

If Mr Kerry is to succeed where others have failed, Palestinian humanity must be recognised. 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.


James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute

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