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Israel and the Palestine Papers: An Exercise in Etymology

By Gili Vidan

The Israeli discourse following events in Egypt can be characterized as varying from pessimistic concern to hysteric paranoia. Speculations about the future stability of the region are flooding the newspapers so much that it seems like Israel has forgotten it has played a major role in the region’s most infamous destabilizing factor, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. With such an active public debate, it is perplexing to see that in the week prior to the protests in Egypt, Israelis were rather apathetic in response to the Palestine papers, recently leaked confidential documents from Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in the past 10 years.

There are several potential reasons why these controversially leaked papers have not garnered as much press as they ought. The papers—leaked to al-Jazeera and published in collaboration with The Guardian two weeks ago—reveal surprising concessions made on the Palestinian side and rejected by the Israelis in the 2007-2008 peace talks. This revelation undermines the cornerstone of Israel’s sense of moral superiority. Growing up in Israel in the 2000s, I have come to know all-too-well the oft-repeated mantra of self-affirmation that “there is no partner for peace talks.” In light of these documents, it is time for Israelis to reexamine this mantra.

Indeed, the image of the peace-refusing Palestinian runs so deep in Israel that for many it is now a presupposition for approaching negotiations. In his article “An Exercise in Empathy” of Feb. 1st, Avishai D. Don ’12 describes how participating in a negotiation simulation between Israeli and Palestinian delegates helped him understand the different paradigms each side brings to the negotiation table. Don draws the two different mindsets of the parties in rather broad strokes. For him, the Israeli mindset is concerned with “pragmatism and security,” while the Palestinian mindset seems more concerned with human rights and justice. Don’s conclusion that this basic difference in paradigms is why the peace talks in his simulation—as well as the ones in real life—failed presents us with a rather simple equation: Israel is here to talk business and put an end to the conflict, while the Palestinians are stubbornly upholding the banner of uncompromising justice.

Yet, the Palestine papers throw this analysis of the Israeli and Palestinian psyches into question.  In fact, as these papers reveal, Israel takes the lead in becoming the region’s top peace refuser. It turns out that Saeb Erekat, chief Palestinian negotiator at the time, recognized Israel as a Jewish state, comparing it to other Middle Eastern states which define themselves as Arab or Muslim. This could have presented Israeli negotiators with a golden opportunity to get past some of the ideological barriers and discuss the practicalities of a feasible agreement. However, Erekat’s Israeli counterpart, Tzipi Livni, then Israeli foreign minister and now opposition leader, decided to redefine the Jewish state and promote a radical agenda of population swaps.

Formerly associated with far-right groups, the support for a transfer of Arab-Israeli citizens to the future Palestinian state as a part of a long-term agreement is particularly alarming coming from Livni. Livni—leader of the opposition and current chair of the largest party in the Knesset, Kadima—has positioned herself to represent the left in Israel’s ever-narrowing political spectrum. The recent collapse of the Labor party, the traditional torch-carrier for the Zionist-left, has left a void that could not be filled by the marginal leftist parties, and Livni seemed to find her way into that void. She did so conveniently without changing her position on key issues and without expressing reservations about oppressive government policies. In fact, Livni was placed in this position simply by virtue of not joining a coalition—composed of Netanyahu and Lieberman.

After having redefined the term “left” by means of contrast—not Netanyahu—Livni continues with her etymological endeavor and redefines the Jewish state—not Arab—by means of population swaps. The main issue is that Israel has long been defined as a Jewish and Democratic state. The dissonance between the two ideological pillars of Israel is the main reason that it has failed for nearly 63 years to adopt a constitution, and the attempt to strike a balance has been the main debate between the left and right in national political discourse. In the past year, the democratic movement in Israel suffered several hard blows from the Netanyahu-Lieberman government, but having the so-called representative of the left blatantly disregard democratic values was, up until recently, still somewhat of a novelty. The line dividing opposition from the government has been blurred to the extent that even several progressive columnists, such as Aluf Benn, now regard autonomy in settlement blocks a non-issue in internal Israeli discourse.

The Palestine papers are groundbreaking documents in more than one way. They show that Palestinian negotiators approached the negotiations with a set of serious propositions. But they not only demonstrate that Israel in fact has a partner for peace talks—they also present Israel with a choice. Indeed, Israel can either reclaim its democratic values and drop the transfer plan, or it can drop the pretenses and assert its position as the regional peace refuser.

Gili Vidan ’13, a Social Studies concentrator, lives in Pforzheimer House.

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