No doubt it is true, as the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth reported on Sunday, that among the Palestinian protesters seeking to force their way into Israel there were some with humbler aims than reclaiming "historic Palestine."
"We've crossed the border in order to stay with our families, away from all the killing in Syria," the paper reported one of the infiltrators as saying. "We ask the powers that be in Israel to help us stay and not send us back."
No doubt it is also true, as White House spokesman Jay Carney noted yesterday, that the attempted breach was an effort by Damascus "to distract attention from the legitimate expression of protest by the Syrian people." The border between Israel and Syria has been quiet for 37 years; it's no accident, comrades, that the embattled regime of Bashar Assad, perhaps advised by Iran, would choose this particular moment to shift violent energies toward a more opportune target.
But here's something about which there should also be no doubt: People don't scamper over barbed wire, walk through mine fields and march toward the barrels of enemy soldiers if they aren't fearless. And if they aren't profoundly convinced of the rightness of what they are doing.
For many years it has been the conventional wisdom of Arab-Israeli peace processors that the conflict was, at heart, territorial, and that it could be resolved if only Israel and its neighbors could agree on a proper border. For many years, too, it has been conventional wisdom that if only the conflict could be resolved, other distempers of the Muslim world-from dictatorship to terrorism-would find their own resolution.
If the Arab Spring has done nothing else, it has at least disposed of the latter proposition. From Tehran to Tunis to Tahrir Square, Muslims are rising against their rulers for reasons quite apart from anything happening in Gaza, the West Bank or the Golan Heights. This isn't to say they've abandoned their emotional commitments to Palestinians, or their ideological ones against Israel. It's simply to say that they have their own problems.
But just as the West has consistently misunderstood the Muslim problem, so too has it failed to grasp the Palestinian one. And what it has failed to grasp above all is the centrality of Palestinian refugees to the conflict.
The fiction that is typically offered about the refugees by devotees of the peace process is that Palestinian leaders see them as a bargaining chip in their negotiations with Israel, perhaps in exchange for the re-division of Jerusalem. But listen in on the internal dialogue of Palestinians and you will hear that the "right of return" is an inviolable, inalienable and individual right of every refugee. In other words, a right that can never (and never safely) be bargained away by Palestinian leaders for the sake of a settlement with Israel.
In this belief the Palestinians are sustained by many things.
One is the mythology of 1948, which is long on tales of what Jews did to Arabs but short on what Arabs did to Jews-or to themselves. Another is the text of U.N. resolution 194, written in 1948, which plainly states that "refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date." A third is UNRWA, the U.N. agency that has perpetuated the Palestinian refugee problem for generations when most other refugees have been successfully repatriated. A fourth is their ill treatment at the hands of their Arab hosts, which has caused them to yearn for the fantasy of a homeland-orchards and all-that modern-day Israel succeeds in looking very much like. A fifth is the incessant drone of Palestinian propaganda whose idea of Palestinian statehood traces the map of Israel itself.
Other things could be mentioned. But the roots of the problem are beside the point. The real point is that a grievance that has been nursed for 63 years and that can move people to acts like those witnessed on Sunday is never going to allow a political accommodation with Israel and would never be satisfied by one anyway.
No wonder Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas's prime minister, can say he would be prepared to accept the 1967 borders-but that establishing those borders will never mean an end to the conflict. The same goes for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who praised Sunday's slain protesters as martyrs who "died for the Palestinian people's rights and freedom." This from the "moderate" who is supposed to acquaint his people with the reality and purpose of a two-state solution.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is due in the U.S. soon to deliver what is being billed as a major policy address. What should he say? I would counsel the same wisdom that sailors of yore used to tattoo to their knuckles as a reminder of what not to forget on the yardarms of tall ships in stormy seas. Eight easy letters:
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