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October 15th Israel and the World – The Dialogue of the Deaf

by Marc Schulman


How can Israel and the rest of the world so misunderstand each other? After all, Israel is one of countries in the world that receive consistent and extensive news coverage; more reporters, more articles than almost anywhere else in the world. How is it possible that the world still does not understand Israel. As for Israelis, they travel widely and are generally well-educated and reasonably well-read. So why do Israelis misunderstand so much of the world?

This past week there was a classic example of that misunderstanding. Israelis were astounded to see the British House of Commons spend hours debating whether or not to recognize Palestine as a full state. British politicians cautiously stated in support of their favorable votes that "the only thing Israel responds to is pressure". Even the British ambassador to Israel, Mathew Gould warned in interviews on Israeli radio yesterday that Israel was loosing the support of the British government, largely as a result of the summer Gaza War. Israelis are not dense. They all realize that the images of death and destruction in Gaza this summer did not help its public image. Nonetheless, they still scratched their heads yesterday in confusion, thinking – We did not want a war. We kept on accepting ceasefire after ceasefire agreement, which Hamas continually rejected. Yet, we are the ones who have lost support?

Then, yesterday there were reports that, US Secretary of State Kerry urged Israel to return to negotiations (based on 1967 lines), stating that as the only way to blunt the Palestinian actions at the U.N (completely ignoring the fact that the Palestinians are the ones who have put preconditions on resuming any talks.) Kerry believes Israel should make a very large public concession to restart the talks. Israelis ask themselves – What concession have the Palestinians made since Arafat's original recognition of Israel's existence?  

Israelis listen in amazement when the Palestinian (who everyone claim is moderate) Mahmud Abbas accuses Israel of "genocide against the Palestinian people for its action in Gaza last summer" – despite the fact that he himself criticized Hamas for fighting a self-defeating war against Israel, and despite the fact that if Israel had been unconcerned about civilian casualties, after a 50 day war there would have been tens of thousands of Palestinian civilian casualties, instead of the tragic approximately 1,000 killed.

Israelis look at the world around them in amazement. Last Spring, as ISIS was gaining traction the US, and some  Europeans spent their energy trying to revive the moribund Palestinian Israeli negotiations – as if it was the most important event taking place in the world. Israel watches with amazement as a “great coalition”, including the United States has been barely able to hold back ISIS as it advanced on Baghdad and tries to capture Kobani, the last major Kurdish city in Syria. Today, the Muslim voices that were once considered extreme are now thought to be moderate, compared to the extremist version of Islam presented by ISIS. Iran who hangs people from cranes is now the “moderate” opponent of ISIS

Israelis do not understand why the world does not understand Israel's security concerns, given it’s recent history. Israel withdrew from Lebanon and got rockets; withdrew from Gaza and got rockets; and now the world wants Israel to agree to withdraw some more?  

Israelis simply don’t get the world, and so they revert to their tried and true worldview – the entire world is against us, so why should we care? – an approach that the Israeli right-wing repeatedly uses well to gain support.

This brings me to my second point – i.e. how the world misunderstands Israel.There have been no more inaccurate statements made regarding Israel than the recent declaration by the British MP, who claimed "the only way to influence Israel was through pressure". This is a fallacy shared by many – including numerous American Jewish critics of Israel's policies (such as: Peter Beinhart, as well as groups like J-Street.) These critics summarily ignore the fact that any peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, Israel will be obliged to give up very tangible assets, (e.g land, control over holy places etc.), in return for something utterly intangible – i.e. the words by Palestinian leaders promising we will live at peace; that the conflict is over and there will be no further demands. One Arab leader succeeded in convincing Israel to give up real assets for words, and that was Egypt's Anwar Sadat. Sadat had the courage to come to Israel and speak to the Israeli people from the Knesset. He declared there would be no more wars. Israelis supported giving up the Sinai in return to peace –  Once they believed Sadat was sincere, and represented the will of the majority of the Egyptian people.

Israelis today do not believe or trust the Palestinian leadership when it says it wants peace – because they are not willing to say what Israelis need to hear. The Palestinian leadership is not willing to say that an Israeli withdrawal will end the conflict and any future claims.   Israelis will continue to elect right wing government as long as they believe that the whole world is against them and that there is no hope for actual peace. Until such time that this change takes place, even those Israelis who would gladly give up all of the territories in exchange for peace will shake their heads and wonder – is this the most auspicious time to try reach an agreement?

Of course the situation are absolutely not as simple as I have outlined it above. Israel has been occupying most of the West Bank for 47 years. Israel's current government contains parties and ministers who oppose ever giving up any part of that land. That being said, the majority of Israelis would gladly give everything back in return for one thing – i.e. peace. However, that peace is not something Israelis can achieve alone, and most fear (based on years of bombing and missile fire), that they have no partner on the other side that can promise them true peace. That means that Israelis and their friends abroad will continue having a hard time understanding each other.

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