Hey, Israel! Want To Stop Losing Friends? Stop Insulting Our Intelligence.

How you look at things.
Dec. 3 2012 8:26 AM

Get Real, Israel

Want to stop losing friends in the United Nations? Stop insulting our intelligence.

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announcing new West Bank settlements after the U.N. vote on Palestine

Photo by Lior Mizrahi/Pool/Getty Images

Four days ago, the United Nations General Assembly voted to accept Palestine as a non-member observer state. The vote was 138 to 9, with 41 abstentions. Israel tried to squelch the resolution, then tried to defeat it, then scoffed that the vote meant nothing, but punished the Palestinians anyway by announcing new settlements and withholding Palestinian tax revenue. Now even the United States is ticked off. How has Israel managed to lose the vote in a landslide and alienate its friends? By blowing its credibility on ludicrous complaints.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

1. Unilateralism. Ever since Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas announced his plan to seek statehood through the U.N., Israel has denounced the move as “unilateral.” “Going to the UN with unilateral declarations and unilateral actions is not negotiations,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu protested on Oct. 31. A week later, Netanyahu argued that “peace may be advanced only around the negotiating table and not via unilateral decisions in the UN General Assembly.” Israel’s U.N. ambassador, Ron Prosor, warned the U.N. Security Council, “Every Member State that lends its hand to supporting Palestinian unilateralism at the UN will be responsible for the grave consequences that follow.”

Shlemiels! The phrase “every Member State that lends its hand to supporting Palestinian unilateralism” is a contradiction in terms. If most of the General Assembly’s nearly 200 members approve something, that something is, by definition, not unilateral. How did the Palestinians win the support of all those countries? By negotiating. They just weren’t negotiating with you. That’s how negotiation works: You have to offer the other side a better deal than they can get elsewhere.

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That’s where you failed. Not just because the Palestinians didn’t like your offer, but because 138 countries lost faith in you and voted for Palestinian statehood themselves. Granted, plenty of governments hate you just for being Jewish or Zionist. But to get to 138, with only 9 countries on your side, took real effort. How did you achieve this debacle? By continuing to build settlements, even as you bellyached about the “one-sided” U.N. resolution. And how did you thank the U.S. and the other eight countries that stood with you? By announcing yet more settlements after the vote, this time in a West Bank sector that would largely bisect a potential Palestinian state. What was that again about unilateralism?*

2. Incitement. Netanyahu claims that in his U.N. speech, Abbas “incited against [Israeli] soldiers and Israeli citizens.” The Israeli cabinet says that Abbas’ remarks “included expressions of severe incitement” and that an Israeli investigation has found further “incitement in the Palestinian Authority,” such as “calls for a return to Jaffa and Haifa” and “complete ignoring of Israel on official maps.” According to Netanyahu, such incitement precludes serious peace talks: “As long as the Palestinian Authority educates the younger generation to hate, how is it at all possible to talk about peace?”

Give me a break. Yes, Abbas’ speech was full of purple invective about apartheid, colonialism, racism, and ethnic cleansing. That’s how an advocate talks when he’s pitching the plight of his people to an assembly full of countries that have suffered apartheid, colonialism, racism, and ethnic cleansing. Abbas thinks Israel has done a lot of evil things. Rebut him if you like. But you can’t just label this rhetoric “incitement” and claim that it makes peace talks impossible.

Any honest look at Palestinian history will tell you two things. One, there’s been plenty of real incitement to violence against Israel. And two, this speech wasn’t part of it. While Hamas has championed violence, Abbas has steadily preached negotiation. “Our people cling to the right to defend themselves against aggression and occupation,” he told the General Assembly, but “they will continue their popular, peaceful resistance.” That’s a speech of incitement? Please.

3. Jewish state. Since 1993, the Palestine Liberation Organization has acknowledged “the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and security.” Abbas has reaffirmed that commitment. “We did not come here seeking to delegitimize a State established years ago, and that is Israel,” he told the General Assembly. What Palestinians demand, he stipulated, is the right “to live in peace and security alongside the State of Israel.”

But Israel refuses to take yes for an answer, because Abbas fails to include the magic word Jewish. “You still refuse to recognize the Jewish state,” Ambassador Prosor chided Abbas in a rebuttal address before the General Assembly. On Sunday, Netanyahu said, Palestinians’ “unwillingness to accept a Jewish state in any borders whatsoever is the root of the conflict. … The Palestinian Authority is unwilling to move towards accepting the existence of the State of Israel.”

Oy. Here’s how recognition works. You acknowledge the other state. You don’t tell it whether to be Jewish, Muslim, or Zoroastrian. Nor do you whine about Palestinians failing to call you a Jewish state, or failing to ensure that you’re named on every map, while you flagrantly withhold the same courtesy. In official Israeli statements since the U.N. vote, I find no acknowledgment of Palestinian territory. Instead, I find repeated references to “Judea and Samaria,” coupled with an assertion that “Israel, as the state of the Jewish People, has a right and claim to areas, the status of which is under dispute, in the Land of Israel.” That’s some chutzpah.

4. Diplomatic terrorism. Several months ago, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman and Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon came up with the charming idea of calling Palestinian initiatives in the U.N. “diplomatic terrorism.” This perversion of language alarmed other Israeli officials, but it hasn’t stopped. Two weeks ago, Liberman again accused Abbas of "diplomatic terrorism." And on Sunday, Netanyahu called Abbas’s U.N. statehood bid an attempt “to use the diplomatic process in order to bring about the end of the State of Israel.”

Vey iz mir. After so many Israeli deaths at the hands of real terrorists—people who orchestrate and perpetrate violence against civilians—how could you forget the meaning of the word? How could you stoop to cheapening it? You just fought a war with Hamas in Gaza over rocket attacks on your citizens, while Fatah’s leadership in the West Bank pursues diplomacy instead. But instead of doing what Jewish values demand—resolutely distinguishing peaceful dialogue from indiscriminate violence—you deliberately conflate them. You demean our heritage and the memory of the dead.

I’m not here to defend Abbas or his U.N. address on every point. His account of Palestinian history was whitewashed. His portrayal of Israel was cartoonish. His description of what happened in Gaza was pathetically misleading. His failure to repudiate Hamas’ violence was gutless. Israel also has good reasons to demand, as part of any statehood agreement, security mechanisms and the renunciation of further Palestinian legal claims. But nobody hears any of that when Israel goes on building settlements and saying ridiculous things. All we hear is that you’re insulting our intelligence.

Correction, Dec. 4, 2012: This article originally stated that Israeli construction in West Bank sector E1 would "make a contiguous Palestinian state impossible." This was based on the linked New York Times article, which described E1 construction as "dividing the West Bank in two" and "making the contiguous Palestinian state endorsed by the United Nations last week virtually impossible." This is incorrect. An interactive map from the pro-Palestinian Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem indicates that an Israeli barrier round E1 would close non-barriered Palestinian access to East Jerusalem and would block direct access between Ramallah and Bethlehem, but it would leave a 10-mile-wide eastern strip connecting the northern and southern portions of the West Bank. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

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