Israeli, Palestinian leaderships must heed wake-up calls
In foreign affairs, as in domestic politics and indeed life, reality bites. It can puncture a narrative with which we have become overly familiar to the point of complacency, forcing us to confront a narrative that challenges our assumptions. It is bad enough that we know the new reality to be truer than the old; it is even worse to know that, at some stage, we have to admit it. That is until we realize that acceptance offers opportunities that our previous beliefs were stalling.
You could argue that the signing of the Abraham Accords last year was such a moment for the Palestinian leadership. The agreements highlighted a collision between the deeply held beliefs of justice and righteousness, and the frustration of those who wanted a new direction for the Middle East and saw an opportunity to achieve that, not by sacrificing the Palestinian cause but by seeking to resolve it in a new way, rather than accept an eternal veto over progress. It must have stung in Ramallah and Gaza, but few could argue that the agreements did not represent the reality of relationships in a changing region that, despite the importance of the Palestinian issue, could no longer be solely defined by it.
It is also possible that last month’s Ben & Jerry’s moment might represent the bucket of cold water of reality that Israel deserves. It has not been unreasonable over the years for Israel to detect anti-Semitism in the attacks made upon it, but a rejectionist narrative that any criticism of Israel must inevitably have anti-Semitism at its base has, for some time, been distorting the kind of forensic analysis that policy decisions require. Friends have been telling Israel for years that its international reputation has been changing for the worse, that its policy choices, particularly the occupation of the West Bank, were deeply harmful and getting progressively worse. Virtually all such remarks have been rebuffed and a series of reasons offered as to why we “didn’t understand” the realities of life in a tough neighborhood.
The comments of Bennett Cohen and Jerry Greenfield deserve better than to face the routine attacks of those who fail to distinguish between support for the existence of the state of Israel and criticism of the policies of the government of Israel. It is impossible to dismiss as hostile those who describe themselves as “proud Jews” and “supporters of the state of Israel” when they endorse the ending of sales in the Occupied Territories, “which the UN has deemed an illegal occupation.” It is especially so when they further describe the act as “advancing the concepts of justice and human rights, core tenets of Judaism.” They are not the only prominent Jews throughout the world who are now saying so.
The narrative the Ben & Jerry’s analysis punctures is that Israel can continue its policies of occupation, settlement expansion and ignoring international orders with impunity without cost. But it is not just the external cost. Watchers of Israel have, over the years, seen the damage being done to Israeli society through the occupation. Young people drafted to defend the state of Israel only see their young Palestinian counterparts when they are in uniform and on patrol, not to deal with a single incident, but for years and years. The barriers being built between peoples are not just physical, but also psychological, distorting the normal reactions of people to one another.
From Nabi Saleh to Jerusalem checkpoints, endless unexplained losses of young life become routine, accepted in a manner that would not be tolerated in the sort of societies to which Israel compares itself. The belief that ignoring opposition to occupation will eventually lead to a weary acceptance is surely no longer credible.
The belief that ignoring opposition to occupation will eventually lead to a weary acceptance is surely no longer credible.
Israel should not fear that the comments of the Ben & Jerry’s founders will open the floodgates to this kind of criticism, but instead urgently use them as an opportunity to act now to avoid a future that was inevitably only going one way. In this, it is essential it is joined by the other element of the equation: Those who had reality pointed out to them through the Abraham Accords. The Palestinian leadership has equally felt compelled to stick to an outdated narrative that — no matter how rooted in losses of land and the pain of history — ignored the growing reality of the undemocratic and corrupt nature of life in Ramallah and Gaza, and the increasing frustration of everyday Palestinians due to the hopelessness of their situation.
Today’s Middle East is not 1948, 1967 or 2007 — it faces very different challenges, but it boasts new, young talent with the ambition to overcome them. It can no longer afford to have this unresolved issue at its heart. There are plenty of friends of Israel and Palestine, those who have wept with families of victims in every quarter, who long to see them at the heart of that new Middle East.
- Alistair Burt is a former UK MP who has twice held ministerial positions in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office — as parliamentary undersecretary of state from 2010 to 2013, and as minister of state for the Middle East from 2017 to 2019. Twitter: @AlistairBurtUK