'Palestinians' without 'Palestine'

welcomes Netanyahu acceptance of Palestinian state," the headlines
blared. Well, at least that's settled. With the U.S. president having
shown the Israeli prime minister who is boss, both are headed toward
the same long-term goal of a two-state solution - or so it seems.

But the devil, as always, is in the details. Before anyone attacks
all the messy political details on how to reach a settlement, there are
the details of exactly what the two leaders have said in the past two
weeks. A closer looks reveals rather less agreement than has met the
media's eye.

A People without a State?

"Just as Israel's right to exist cannot be denied, neither can
Palestine's," Barack Obama said in Cairo. A two-state solution is "in
Israel's interest, Palestine's interest, America's interest, and the
world's interest." No previous president has created such a strong
image of an even-handed broker guiding the two parties to peace. No
previous president has pronounced the once-taboo name "Palestine" in

No Israeli leader has pronounced it yet - and certainly not the
current prime minister. As he publicly bowed to the politically
inevitable, Binyamin Netanyahu chose his words very carefully. He used
the word "Palestinians" 27 times, but "Palestine" not once. He would go
only so far as to say: "In my vision of peace, there are two free
peoples living side by side." One of those free peoples is absolutely
certain to live in a state named Palestine. So why not come out and say

The answer, for a politician heading up a rather precarious coalition, may lie buried in a survey conducted by Israel's independent Institute for National Security Studies (recently named that
nation's top think tank). Among Israeli Jews, acceptance of a
"Palestinian state" has grown astonishingly, from 21% in 1987 to 53% in
2009. But fully 64% support the concept that their prime minister now
supports too: "two states for two peoples."

Whoops! Nearly two-thirds want a two-state solution, which obviously
means a Palestinian state. But only a bit over half say they will
accept a Palestinian state? The think tank pollsters find a hidden
logic behind this seemingly illogical disparity: "The term
'Palestinian state' still has a negative connotation for many Israelis,
while 'two states for two peoples' is seen by a clear majority of
Israelis as the only viable solution."

If "Palestinian state" is too much for a lot of Israelis to handle,
"Palestine" is even more upsetting. So, an Israeli leader can hold on
to his shaky coalition by using the acceptable formula of "two states
for two peoples." He can even risk mentioning "Palestinian state" as
long as it is in a safe context. But actually pronouncing the name of
the new state might spell political death.

Power of Symbolism

One intensive research project suggested
an answer when it found the same surprising result on both sides of the
Israel-Palestine border: The real conflict is over symbolism. People
care about the key issues in the dispute - land, resources, political
control, and the like - not because they have material value in
themselves but because they are symbols of sacred values. Nothing is
too big or too small to serve as a symbol - not even the tiny
difference between "Palestinian" and "Palestine."

What's more, the crux of the conflict isn't about symbolic content
but about symbolic concessions. Most of the respondents on each side
demanded a settlement "that involved their enemies making symbolic but
difficult gestures." The respondents said they would make concessions
as long as "the other side agreed to a symbolic sacrifice of one of its
sacred values."

To stay in power, Netanyahu (like every other Israeli leader) has to
keep on inflicting symbolic defeats on the Palestinians. The real news
in his speech is that he will now wage the battle of symbols at the
negotiating table as well as on the ground in the West Bank and Gaza -
and in public speeches where he court voters by studiously avoiding the
word "Palestine."

Here's another example of the power of symbolism: In a poll just
completed, only one out of five Israeli Jews believed that Iran "would
attack Israel with nuclear weapons with the objective of destroying it"
and that their own lives would be affected if Iran gets the bomb. Yet
three out of five supported a pre-emptive strike on Iran should Western
diplomacy fail to curb its uranium enrichment. So fully 40% want a
strike, with all its unpredictable consequences, even though they see
no practical value in it. As always in this conflict, smart observers
will look beyond the practical value of the issues in dispute and see
them all as symbolic weapons.

Wrangling over Demilitarization

Though Netanyahu would not pronounce the symbolic word "Palestine,"
he did use the term "Palestinian state" three times in his speech. But
the context, which was the same all three times, shows how carefully he
is attuned to symbolism.

"We cannot be expected to agree to a Palestinian state without
ensuring that it is demilitarized," Netanyahu said. "This is crucial to
the existence of Israel." He went on to clarify "demilitarized" by
saying that "we don't want them to bring in missiles or rockets or
have an army, or control of airspace, or make treaties with countries
like Iran, or Hizbullah."

Of course this precondition is only one of several that ensure
Netanyahu's offer to negotiate Palestinian statehood will go nowhere.
He "spoke about a Palestinian state," said chief Palestinian negotiator
Saeb Erekat,
but he "placed security outside negotiations when he spoke about a
demilitarized Palestinian state. He will have to wait 1,000 years
before he finds one Palestinian who will go along with him with this
feeble state."

Netanyahu must have known that linking the words "Palestinian state"
and "demilitarized" would pose a major obstacle to peace. But his
speech, which seemed to be about protecting his nation, was first and
foremost about protecting his fragile coalition and his political
career. He was probably right when he said: "There is broad agreement
on this [demilitarization] in Israel." And anything that most Israelis
agree on is good enough for most of its political leaders.

According to Netanyahu, this broad agreement reflects "a real fear
that there will be an armed Palestinian state which will become a
terrorist base against Israel." The fear is as real, no doubt, as it is
unrealistic. If either party has a claim on protection from the other
side's violence, the Palestinians surely have the more reasonable
claim. They have suffered by far the most violence in the long
conflict. And Israel will certainly keep a massive margin of military
superiority no matter what the future brings. Imagine the United States
insisting that Cuba or Haiti must be demilitarized because its army
might threaten the very existence of America. That's how absurd this
Israeli fear seems to most Palestinians.

Yet the idea of "existential threat" is at the heart of the symbolic narrative
that most Israeli Jews rely on when talking about their nation. For the
domestic audience, the main point of Netanyahu's speech was to reaffirm
that narrative. Most of the text was a hymn to Israel's innocence and
moral purity, "proven" by blaming all the problems and all the
wrongdoing on the Palestinians - the only ones (Netanyahu flatly
declared) who are guilty of using immoral and illegitimate force.

However, even more than protecting their belief in their own
innocence, many Israelis want to inflict symbolic defeats on the
Palestinians. To deprive Palestine of an army - and the rights to
import weapons, control its airspace, and have veto power over its
foreign treaties - would all be tremendous symbolic victories. If
Netanyahu is going to follow in the footsteps of Menachem Begin as a
right-winger who makes peace, as Begin did with Egypt in 1978, he has
to deliver to his supporters these symbolic victories and more.

Part of his strategy to win victories at the negotiating table
involves weakening the opposition by keeping it divided. The first rule
of Israeli foreign policy is always, "Never let our enemies unite."
Having torpedoed efforts
at Hamas-Fatah unity in the past, Israeli leaders will attempt to
consolidate their gains by embracing Fatah as a negotiating partner
while excluding Hamas.

The demand for demilitarization fits perfectly into that pattern.
Hamas is bound to refuse it. That's not because they want weapons to
destroy Israel. Even The New York Times acknowledges that Hamas leader Khaled Meshal has de factoaccepted the
existence of Israel. Hamas insists on Palestine's right to militarize
as a matter of principle. Every other nation has, and must have, that

As Max Weber explained long ago, the very definition of a nation
state is its legitimate claim to use physical force. No legitimate
force, no sovereign state. Fatah notable Saeb Erekat seems to agree
when he says that such a "feeble state" is a non-starter in any

Splitting the Opposition

But not all of Erekat's Fatah compatriots agree with him, at least
publicly. Here Netanyahu must see a chance to weaken his opponents even
further by driving a wedge between top Fatah leaders themselves. Nabil Abu Rudeinah,
spokesman for Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas, said: "Our main demand is the
end of the occupation and finding a fair solution for Palestinian
refugees and halting settlements. Other details should be resolved in
negotiations" - including, apparently, the military and treaty rights
of the new Palestinian state.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak,
Fatah's strongest ally, similarly blasted Netanyahu's demand that
Palestinians recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people, saying
that it "scuttles the chances for peace." But he ignored the call for
demilitarization. Knowing that Hamas could control a future Palestinian
state, Mubarak might well be more than happy to see it demilitarized.
Plenty of other Middle Eastern governments, as frightened as the
Egyptians of internal Islamist political forces, would agree.

Palestinian notables who joined with liberal Israeli leaders to hammer out a draft settlement accord at
Geneva in 2003 agreed to the words "Palestine shall be a
non-militarized state" (though they left the exact meaning of those
words for later discussion). Even when Fatah and Hamas members locked
up in the same Israeli prison developed a plan for
national unity in 2006, outlining their vision of an independent
Palestine, they said nothing explicitly about its right to arm itself.

Looking to Washington

But the opponents that the Israeli leader fears most now are not in
the West Bank or Gaza. They are in the White House. Though no one knows
what new plan, if any, the administration has in mind for a peace
settlement, the president's words in Cairo certainly created a new kind
of narrative: "It's easier to blame others than to look inward," Obama
said. "It's easier to see what is different about someone than to find
the things we share. But we should choose the right path, not just the
easy path."

That's quite a different story from the old one that Netanyahu
recited yet again in his response. On Obama's "right path" - a term
full of profound sacred meaning for Muslims - no one scores points by
inflicting symbolic defeats on their enemies. All the points go to
those who build bridges between enemies.

Can any Israeli government that follows the new Obama script survive
politically - or any Palestinian government, for that matter? The New York Times man in Israel, Ethan Bronner,
casts doubt: "Despite Mr. Obama's assertion that all sides would
benefit from peace, the idea of a win-win outcome is foreign to the
tribal mentality. In this region, when you win, your opponent loses."
Bronner's impression, though laced with lamentable racism, confirms the
research on how Israelis and Palestinians view their conflict.

However, when he wrote those words he was talking about conflict not
only between the two nations but within each nation. Israeli and
Palestinian hard-liners are still intent on winning symbolic victories.
They face stiff opposition from those who accept Obama's narrative.
Knowing that the two sides must live as neighbors forever, they see the
negotiating table as a place to win new friends rather than inflict new

The world looks to Obama's eloquence to build enough support for his
narrative to break the political grip of the hard-liners. In Israel, at
least, he has real leverage. According to the INSS think tank poll, for
example, 42% of Israeli Jews already oppose expansion of the
settlements. Another 41% support further development of settlements,
"but not if it will result in a confrontation with the United States."
By sticking to his words, the president can remove major roadblocks in
the path that leads to a sovereign Palestine.

But the challenge is not his alone. It falls to all of us. The
proven formula for promoting a new narrative is a two-pronged strategy.
One prong is to debunk the old narrative. We can constantly point out
that Israeli insistence on "natural growth" in settlements, "Jerusalem
undivided," and other such slogans - including "demilitarized
Palestinian state" - offers no practical value, and certainly no
security, for Israel, since it is bound to keep the conflict going.

The other, equally important, prong is to use the new narrative all
the time. We can talk about the major shift in public opinion underway
on this issue, especially in the U.S. Jewish community and in Washington.
Talk about the real possibility for a just settlement bringing peace
and security for both sides. And call both sides by their rightful
names: Israel and Palestine. Speak the once-forbidden name of the
country now coming to birth, over and over again, until it seems so
perfectly ordinary that no one can remember a world without Palestine.

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