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October 15, 2011

On claims of Palestinian anti-Semitism

The Economist

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Robert Berstein is one of the founding figures of Human Rights Watch, and for the last several years he's been criticising the group he helped found for what he says is an anti-Israeli bias. Today he has an op-ed in the Washington Post that extends the indictment, rather more plausibly, to the United Nations.

Mr Bernstein calls on the UN to acknowledge and condemn what he says is a constant stream of hateful, anti-Zionist, often anti-Semitic and genocidal propaganda generated in the Arab media and by Arab leaders, which he thinks lays the groundwork for endless conflict. The UN, he says, is "fueling discord and anti-Semitism" by "granting legitimacy to Hamas, a terrorist Islamic group, and the Palestinian Authority headed by Mahmoud Abbas." And he provides an example of Mr Abbas, widely viewed even in Israel as a peace-seeking believer in non-violent negotiations, engaging in what sounds like some pretty violent rhetoric:

[T]hose who would accept the position Abbas has taken, even as recently as Friday, when he submitted to the United Nations an application for statehood, should be aware of the work of Palestinian Media Watch. The group, an Israeli research institute focused on monitoring the messages of all aspects of Palestinian media, has detailed some of the deception of the Palestinian Authority, even during moments of peace talks. For example, while portraying himself to the West as a man of compromise, Abbas said flatly last October that “we refuse to recognize a Jewish state.”

Whoa. That's a doozy. Mahmoud Abbas, saying Palestinians refuse to recognise Israel? Is Mr Abbas concealing a secret eliminationist agenda? Well, no. Take a look at MEMRI's translation of what Mr Abbas actually said. (MEMRI is the same pro-Israeli Arab media-monitoring organisation to which Mr Bernstein himself refers.)

With regard to (Palestinian recognition of) a Jewish state, or whatever, this has never been an issue. Throughout the negotiations between the Israelis and us, from 1993 until a year ago, we never heard the words 'Jewish state'. Now they have begun to talk about it, and our response was, 'Go to the UN and call yourselves whatever you want. We are not the party to address. Not only that—we refuse to recognise a Jewish state. Try to wrest it out of the UN or anyone else.' Why does Israel insist on demanding this from us, and us alone—it did not demand this from the Arabs, from Egypt, from Jordan, or from any Arab country with which it negotiated? Only from us. We know the reason, and we say, 'No. We refuse.'"

What Mr Abbas is objecting to here is Israeli insistence that the Palestinian Authority recognise its character as a Jewish state as part of any peace agreement. He's not saying the Palestinians will not recognise Israel. He's not even saying they won't recognise its right to exist. He's saying the Palestinians refuse to be singled out, as Egypt and Jordan were not when they signed peace deals with Israel, and forced to approve the religious Jewish character of the state.

Israel never demanded this recognition during peace negotiations in the 1990s or early 2000s. They're not part of the Clinton administration-mediated Taba agreements or the Bush administration-brokered "road map" for peace. The Israelis first introduced the demand in 2007. Here is the response, laid out in the talking points of the Palestinian negotiating team in 2007, made public by Al-Jazeera's transparency project:

In response to Israeli demands for recognition of Israel as a Jewish state and/or as a state of the Jewish people, the Palestinian negotiations team should refuse to engage on the issue and assert that the traditional terms of reference of the peace process and existing agreements serve as the basis of peace. These terms of reference and agreements do not contemplate Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state as a basis for peace or at all. They are based on the model of two sovereign states living side-by-side in peace and security and a just settlement of the refugee issue (Resolution 242, 338, [194] and Road Map).

In addition, the Jewish state as currently constituted formally discriminates against the non-Jewish population. Palestinians cannot recognize a situation which violates basic norms of international law.

Hussein Ibish made similar points earlier this year in Foreign Policy. Some people may disagree with these arguments, but they're hardly anti-Semitic or violent. The issue of the Jewish character of the Israeli state is a profoundly difficult one even for liberal Zionist Jews, who wrestle with how such a legal character can be squared with the principles of secular government and equality for all citizens before the law. It's certainly understandable that Palestinians refuse to condone what they consider an objectionable aspect of Israeli governance as part of a peace deal.

Would America have agreed to recognise the right of Vietnam to exist as a Communist state in the Paris peace talks in 1972? If Mr Bernstein wants to make a case that by recognising a Palestinian state the UN would be sanctioning anti-Semitic or violent anti-Israeli propaganda, he'll need to find some better examples.

Sept 28, 2011

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M. Elmasry

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