The Nation / January 30, 2020
From the administration’s perspective, Palestinian suffering doesn’t count because Palestinians themselves don’t count.
Almost nothing of substance in the Trump-Kushner “peace plan” unveiled this week differs very markedly from the mouldering heaps of plans, proposals, initiatives, road maps, visions, and other miscellaneous memos trotted out by one US administration after another since the original Oslo framework of the early 1990s; what’s different are the crude assumptions the document bluntly expresses.
The substance—such as it is—is essentially jerry-rigged from previous documents and drafts going all the way back to Oslo via Camp David. Like them, the most this plan countenances is a “two-state solution” that comprises one actual state and then a random collection of disconnected bits and pieces of territory dressed up as at most a potential proto-state. This precarious entity would have no control over its own water, airspace, borders, or even the tunnels and bridges supposedly stitching it together. It would be entirely disarmed except for a token “security” force, whose sole function would be protecting not itself but the other state (at whose sufferance alone it could continue to cling to its miserable existence). And it would have a kind of “capital” provisionally scrabbled together from a clutch of besieged suburban ghettos to the east of Jerusalem that could be called whatever the Palestinians like as long as it’s not “Jerusalem.” As an outline of a genuine peace between Palestinians and Israelis, this document amounts to little more than a badly written joke with a dud punch line.
What’s striking about it, then, isn’t the recycled substance, but the language in which the substance is couched. It’s stated more bluntly, with none of the attempts at equivocation, hair-splitting, and prevarication attempted by previous documents.
At first glance, it might look like the problem with the document’s rhetoric is its attempt to draw a political and moral equivalence between Israeli and Palestinian suffering—as though this is a conflict in which both sides have been equally at fault, or paid approximately equal prices over the years. It doesn’t take long, however, to see that the text isn’t interested even in such a false equivalence between occupier and occupied, dispossessor and dispossessed, bulldozer and bulldozed. On the contrary: Israelis have, in its estimation, clearly suffered more, have been more threatened, and have more urgent and therefore more legitimate security concerns. Israel faces “existential threats,” after all, whereas not only do Palestinians—who have been driven from their homes by the hundreds of thousands, massacred, besieged, bombarded, interrogated, exiled, curfewed, shot at, imprisoned, tortured, and starved—not have any existential threats; they are the existential threat.
Take Gaza, for example; or rather what the document repeatedly refers to as “the problem” of Gaza, as though its authors were carefully examining a petri dish holding a particularly unpleasant bacterium. “For over a decade, Gaza has been ruled by Hamas, a terror organization, responsible for the murder and maiming of thousands of Israelis.” It is “as a result of Hamas’ policies” that Gaza “is approaching a humanitarian crisis.” The point here isn’t that the document poses the harm to the Palestinians of Gaza as merely potential, compared to the actual murder and maiming of Israelis. Nor is it even that Israeli agency is altogether removed, as though there have been no siege, bombardments, incursions; as though whole densely packed urban neighbourhoods haven’t been wiped from the surface of the earth along with the men, women, and children huddling in them; as though children have not deliberately had their eyes shot out or teenagers their limbs shattered by distant army snipers; as though there is no methodical, scientifically calculated, down-to-the-last-calorie smothering of an entire population. No, the point is that Palestinian suffering—referred to in the most anodyne way in the opening statements—simply doesn’t count when the time comes to actually tally up the toll.
And Palestinian suffering doesn’t count because Palestinians themselves don’t count.
“Reciting past narratives about the conflict is unproductive,” the document states. But it does recite past narratives, chapter and verse, from Gaza’s rockets and the miracles of the 1967 war all the way back to the Bible. It’s just that it doesn’t recite Palestinian narratives. Palestinian narratives don’t count any more than Palestinian bodies or Palestinian minds. Again and again, the text makes it clear that only one people counts; as for the other people—well, they’re at most an impediment, an inconvenience, a “problem” to be dealt with somehow or other, moved around as needed to suit a “reality” that has been manufactured and sustained at their expense for over six decades.
It’s no surprise, then, that although the Trump-Kushner document seems to relish brandishing the word “compromise,” the only real compromises it expects to be made are by the Palestinians. They have to renounce ideologies of “destruction, terror and conflict” (which, naturally, the Israelis don’t traffic in, given their blameless and altruistic commitment to peace). They have to reject terrorism (again). They have to recognize Israel for the umpteenth time (a gesture that has never once been reciprocated, and that has indeed been rejected out of hand over the decades since Golda Meir said that Palestinians don’t even exist). There’s a long and detailed list of reforms and other actions that the Palestinians must pledge to undertake. And if they do all those things to Israel’s satisfaction, then perhaps, under the right circumstances, the Israelis might consider forming a committee to prepare plans for deliberating over the possible arrangements for discussion of the potential feasibility of planning for the implementation of further frameworks for the negotiation of a possible state. Maybe.
This is a throwback to a US-Israeli “negotiating” style that in a sense skips right past Oslo and goes all the way back to the 1970s: The Palestinians must prostrate themselves in abject surrender in order for the Israelis to even think about talking—and even then only to those handpicked Palestinians who meet their specific criteria for admission to the table. In fact, it goes even further back than that, all the way back to John Stuart Mill’s version of old-school colonialism, with Palestinians cast in the role of unruly brown “children” whose slow and painful progress toward civilization and possible statehood will be evaluated by their benevolent white Israeli master.
It would be tedious to go through the entire document deconstructing its absurdities along the way: its careful and explicit definition of what it calls “the Palestinian State” not as an actual state but as “areas” with severely limited sovereign powers; its dismissal of international law and the United Nations; its obsession with Israeli “security”; its blanket rejection of Palestinian refugee rights; its repeated insistence on “the State of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people” (a claim that not only ignores the rights of the Palestinian citizens of that state but that also, channelling the rankest forms of anti-Semitism, undermines the desire of Jews around the world to be nationals and citizens of other states, free from Israel’s claims on them); its laughable proposition that “withdrawing from territory captured in a defensive war is a historical rarity.”
It’s worth reiterating that precious little of this wretched document is genuinely new, other than the nakedly racist sentiments expressed in its clumsy schoolboy prose. It would, in other words, be a grave mistake to look at this text, bemoan Trump and his pompous narcissism or the glassy stare of Jared Kushner, and hark back to the supposedly more serious days of Clinton and Obama and their draftsmen Martin Indyk, Dennis Ross, and Aaron David Miller—partisans to a man who may have been somewhat more circumspect in their statements but were and are also dismissive of fundamental Palestinian rights, above all the right of return—and the entire two-state-solution industry of suits in well-furnished Washington offices. The two-state solution is done and dusted, and it’s not coming back from the dead.
This document is the product of a certain form of arrogant racist drunkenness, a blind and grotesque self-regard and utter contempt for a battered and occupied—but steadfast and resilient—people. If the Palestinians reject his plan, Kushner told CNN, “they’re going to screw up another opportunity, like they’ve screwed up every other opportunity that they’ve ever had in their existence.” He hardly needed to add, “…the wretched, unregenerate, ungrateful brutes.” The Israelis and their American supporters—Sheldon Adelson among them—seem to think that because they have got hold of a US president who simply doesn’t care about anything other than himself and is perfectly happy to subcontract his administration’s stance on the question of Palestine to his son-in-law and his associates, they can now dictate terms to the Palestinians.
But the Palestinians aren’t listening. They have moved on from the farce of American-sponsored initiatives to a different and more effective strategy, in pursuit of a far more noble objective than a nominally independent bantustan: a single democratic and secular state of equal citizens—a struggle that this document and any further Israeli maximalism and annexations that it encourages will only make that much stronger.
Saree Makdisi, professor of English and comparative literature at UCLA, is the author of Palestine Inside Out: An Everyday Occupation (Norton) and Tolerance Is a Wasteland: Palestine and the Psychogeography of Denial (forthcoming from the University of California Press).