On May 24, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a speech to a joint session of the US Congress, a speech that I find endlessly fascinating. I previously posted four installments of my analysis of this speech, trying to decipher (with some help from George Orwell) Netanyahu’s use of such words as “peace,” “friend,” “security,” and “state.” If you assumed that my discussion of Netanyahu’s speech was over, you were not alone; I too thought that there was nothing more to be said — until I realized that I hadn’t addressed the crux of the matter.
There is one last point that I still need to make, and that point relates to the original context of Netanyahu’s speech, i.e., the Palestinian initiative to get United Nation’s recognition for a Palestinian state. It is precisely this possibility, this “threat,” that motivated the Israeli Prime Minister to visit the United States in the first place and to speak not only with the US President but also address the US Congress. There may not have been such a flurry of diplomatic initiatives if the United Nations’ recognition of Palestine were not a real possibility that his government genuinely feared.
If your opponent advises you not to use a particular strategy, you can be sure that that’s precisely the strategy you need to use!
This is what Netanyahu said about the Palestinian initiative:
The Palestinian attempt to impose a settlement through the United Nations will not bring peace. (Applause.) It should be forcefully opposed by all those who want to see this conflict end. I appreciate the president’s clear position on these — on this issue. Peace cannot be imposed. It must be negotiated. (Applause.)
Notice the word “impose.” According to the dictionary, the word “impose” means to force (something unwelcome or unfamiliar) to be accepted or put in place. To paraphrase Netanyahu, Palestinians are trying to force a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a way that Israel is unwilling to accept. If anyone wants to see the end of this conflict, Netanyahu says, they must oppose the Palestinian initiative since it “will not bring peace.” This is because, he goes on to emphasize, “Peace cannot be imposed. It must be negotiated.”
I find this to be a very convincing statement, and I don’t know if any rational person would disagree with Netanyahu on this issue. A peaceful settlement of any conflict must be one in which the needs of both parties are satisfied, so that both parties have equal stakes in ensuring the success of the settlement. In contrast, any settlement in which the needs of one party are met at the cost of the needs of the other party will never lead to a lasting peace. Sounds like a perfectly fair and just principle.
Several problems arise, however, as we look at this matter closely.
First, whenever there is a conflict between two unequal parties — especially when one of them is many, many times more powerful than the other — it makes perfect sense to use the word “impose” with respect to the stronger party, but it makes no sense to use it with respect to the weaker one. If anyone has been “imposing” its will in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it can only be the party that has the ability to do the “imposing.” For the stronger party to blame the weaker one for trying to “impose” its own brand of settlement is not only unjustifiable, it is also disingenuous. This use of the word “impose” distracts the audience from the issue of the difference in power between the two sides. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict can neither be understood nor resolved if the issue of unequal power is kept off the table. In many ways, the entire conflict is about power. The belief that it’s a conflict between equal parties is itself the result of an unfair exercise of power; such an assumption is not conducive to a just settlement.
Second, consider the word “negotiation” which is used by Netanyahu in contradistinction to “impose.” The Israeli Prime Minister is adamant that you cannot unilaterally “impose” a settlement and thus achieve peace. You must, on the contrary, enter a process of “negotiation” with the other side and arrive at a mutually agreed-upon settlement, for only such a settlement can produce peace. The two concepts are mutually exclusive. If you are trying to “impose” your will, you are obviously not trying to “negotiate,” and vice versa. As a general principle, most people would agree that it is always better to “negotiate” than to “impose.”
Yet, the text of the same speech reveals the main reason why the two decades worth of “negotiations” between the Israelis and the Palestinian have been unsuccessful: the Israelis are not truly “negotiating,” mainly because they are the stronger party and can get away with “imposing” their will. As the Israelis continue to “impose” their will, Palestinians are being asked to give up more and more of their rights through “negotiation.” If it’s true that “imposing” is the exact opposite of “negotiating,” then Israel is guilty of “imposing” its own version of the settlement for several decades while blaming the Palestinians for not “negotiating” (i.e., for not being sufficiently submissive).
In reality, there is no such thing as “negotiation” unless there is a relative parity between the two sides. In cases where one side is significantly stronger than the other, we need a third-party, a mediator, to ensure that no bullying or “imposing” takes place. This is precisely the principle on which our legal systems are based. If a stronger party, such as a government agency or a corporation, is perceived as “imposing” its will on a weaker party, such as an individual or a group of individuals, the latter cannot possibly have any hopes of receiving justice through direct “negotiation,” and must, therefore, take its case to a third, objective party, i.e., the courts. At least in theory, the courts are supposed to act in an impartial way and to ensure that no one’s rights are violated. In other words, the disparity of power between the two sides in a given conflict is precisely the reason why we have set up legal systems in the first place. A conflict between unequal sides is the breeding ground for injustice, for unfair consequences are likely to result through one side “imposing” its will without the other side’s consent. Given the tendency of unchecked power towards corruption, the impartiality of the judiciary is meant to level the playing field by empowering the weaker party, so that genuine “negotiation” can become possible.
In the case of “negotiations” between the Israelis and Palestinians, the problem is that the mediator has traditionally been United States, a superpower that is hardly a neutral party in this conflict. If it is true, as Netanyahu says in the same speech, that “Israel has no better friend than the United States,” then this “special relationship” between the two countries already puts an end to any hope that the US can act as an impartial mediator. Consequently, Palestinians have every right to take their case to an authority that they believe is capable of acting impartially, i.e., the United Nations. They would do so not to “impose” their will on Israel but to ensure that Israel is not able to “impose” its will on the Palestinians.
Third, Netanyahu is demanding the Palestinians to follow a principle that he would himself find unacceptable should it be applied consistently. Take a look at the history of this conflict. The state of Israel came into being not through a process of “negotiation” but as a result of a unilateral declaration that was, literally, “imposed” on an unwilling population against their will.
According to Netanyahu, the problem has always been the Arabs’ refusal to accept a “Jewish state.” He said the following in the same speech:
In 1947, the U.N. voted to partition the land into a Jewish state and an Arab state. The Jews said yes; the Palestinians said no.
Here, the Israeli Prime Minister is referring to the United Nations resolution 181, also known as the “Partition Plan,” that was adopted on November 29, 1947. The resolution was adopted by the General Assembly, not by the Security Council. As such, it was a non-binding recommendation, which meant that its legal status depended on acceptance by the relevant parties. It so happened, as Netanyahu informs us, that the Arabs categorically rejected the resolution. Consequently, according to Netanyahu’s own standards, such a resolution should never have been implemented. Since only one party to the conflict accepted it and the other did not, the resolution had obviously failed to meet the needs of both parties. To implement such a resolution meant that one party would have to “impose” it on the other, unwilling party.
But isn’t “imposing” something that Netanyahu dislikes a great deal? That depends on who is doing the “imposing.” While the Israeli Prime Minister abhors the Palestinian initiative to “impose a settlement,” he seems to have no objection against Israel having “imposed” (its own interpretation of) the “Partition Plan” on an unwilling population.
This brings me to my final point. Netanyahu knows his history but is playing games with logic; yet, truth has a tendency to make itself known, loud and clear. To repeat his statement: “The Palestinian attempt to impose a settlement through the United Nations will not bring peace.” How does he know? Netanyahu is implying, inadvertently and unconsciously, that the Palestinian attempt to impose a settlement through the United Nations will not bring peace just as the Jewish attempts to impose a settlement on the basis of a United Nations resolution have failed to bring peace. Yet, he would not dare to make that comparison. His implied but unacknowledged reasoning goes like this: The Palestinian attempt in 2011 to “impose a settlement” will not work because Israel is unwilling to accept it; this is almost identical to the case that the Israeli efforts to impose a settlement since 1947 have failed to work because the native Palestinians have been unwilling to accept it. What can we infer from this line of reasoning? Both sides must accept a settlement in order for it to work. This is a compelling argument, except that it goes against everything that Netanyahu publicly stands for. The argument is present in the very structure of his reasoning, but he won’t acknowledge it mainly because he is a politician.
In effect, it is grossly illogical for Netanyahu to accept the legitimacy of the Jewish state on the basis of a UN resolution while denying the feasibility of the same process in case of the Palestinian state. Here, Netanyahu’s reasoning runs into what must be the bane of all political discourse — consistency. If it’s wrong for the Palestinians to seek a unilateral settlement through the United Nations, why has it been right for the Israelis to claim that privilege since 1947?
Let’s read the above statement once again, and this time let’s look for unacknowledged assumptions:
In 1947, the U.N. voted to partition the land into a Jewish state and an Arab state. The Jews said yes; the Palestinians said no.
The connotations of this statement are clear as daylight: In 1947, when the Jews said “yes” to the UN resolution, they were making the right choice; when the Palestinians said “no” to the same resolution, they were making the wrong choice. This is the plain sense meaning of Netanyahu’s statement. Now the question that remains unanswered, and even unmentioned, is this: Why? Why was accepting the “Partition Plan” a good thing and rejecting it was a bad thing? It was, after all, a human document that was produced through imperial politics and much arm-twisting. If a group of people thought that the recommendation of the UN General Assembly did not meet their needs, what could possibly be wrong with rejecting it? Netanyahu does not answer this question explicitly, and neither does any of the other pro-Israel commentators who keep referring to the UN resolution of 1947 as if it were as sacred and infallible as the tablets of divine law.
It is crucial to understand this aspect of Netanyahu’s reasoning. What, exactly, made the Jewish choice right and the Palestinian choice wrong?
Let me suggest two possible assumptions, one of which must underlie the Israeli Prime Minister’s reasoning. Netanyahu either believes that (a) the UN is a legitimate authority and its resolutions should always be accepted by all parties; or he believes that (b) you should accept the UN resolutions if they are in your interest and reject them if they are not.
If we assume the former, then it contradicts Netanyahu’s position against the Palestinian initiative. Obviously, if Netanyahu believes that the UN is the legitimate authority in international conflicts, then he should have no objection against the Palestinians taking their case to the UN. In fact, he should be eager to accept whatever the UN decides. If the UN General Assembly gave the right verdict in 1947, it can give another right verdict in 2011.
If we assume the latter, then it contradicts Netanyahu’s position that the Palestinians made the wrong choice when they rejected the UN resolution back in 1947. Obviously, if Netanyahu believes that you should only accept those resolutions that are in your own interest, then he cannot criticize the Palestinian choice since they had found the UN resolution 181 to be against their interest.
As we can see, both of my attempts to answer the “why” question run into irresolvable contradictions, suggesting that there are some deep problems with Netanyahu’s reasoning. But is it really possible that a leader of this stature is illogical in his thinking? I find such a conclusion difficult to accept.
Thankfully, we don’t have to believe that Netanyahu is being illogical. Here’s my solution.
The Israeli Prime Minister believes that his nation is unique and special, so much so that the difference between right and wrong does not depend on any moral or legal principles, but entirely upon whether or not something is in the immediate interest of his people. Consequently, (a) the Palestinian choice in 1947 was wrong because it was against the interest of Israel; similarly, (b) the Palestinian initiative in 2011 is wrong because it is against the interest of Israel. In both cases, the interest of the Palestinian people does not count.
I know that this sounds really harsh, but I can’t think of any other way of explaining Netanyahu reasoning. He is either inconsistent and therefore illogical; or he is fully consistent and therefore a racist. I will go with the latter option, since I find it hard to believe that a Prime Minister of Israel is unable to think logically.