By Khaled Abu Toameh
The Palestinian Authority leadership’s hysterical, hasty and clearly miscalculated response to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s speech at Bar-Ilan University on June 14 is likely to boomerang because it makes the Palestinians appear as “peace rejectionists”.
The PA, perhaps, has every right to be angry with Netanyahu’s statements. However, its leaders should have been more careful in choosing the right words to express their sentiments.
Even before he completed his speech, several PA officials and spokesmen used every available platform to declare their total rejection of Netanyahu’s ideas, especially with regards to the establishment of a demilitarised Palestinian state and recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.
Some went as far as hurling personal insults at Netanyahu, branding him a liar, a fraud and a swindler. Others hinted at the possibility that, in the wake of his strategy, the Palestinians would now have to resort to another intifada.
PA representatives are now saying that Netanyahu “cannot even dream of finding one Palestinian to talk to.”
One senior official in Ramallah announced shortly after the prime minister finished his address that the Palestinians won’t resume peace talks with Israel for at least a thousand years.
The harsh response of the PA is the direct result of high hopes that its leaders have pinned on the administration of US President Barack Obama.
Reports about a looming crisis between the administration and Netanyahu over the future of the Middle East peace process, combined with Obama’s conciliatory approach toward the Arab and Muslim worlds, created the impression in Ramallah that the Israeli government had no choice but to accept all the Palestinian demands.
Briefing reporters on the eve of Netanyahu’s speech, some of PA President Mahmoud Abbas’ top aides predicted that, in the wake of increased US pressure, Netanyahu would be forced to give in, freezing settlement construction and accepting the two-state solution.
By completely rejecting Netanyahu’s offer of a demilitarised state and his demand to recognise Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people, the PA leadership has climbed a high tree from which it will find it difficult to climb down.
The fact that Netanyahu is even prepared to talk about a Palestinian state is in itself a major achievement. And so what if the future state of Palestine doesn’t have an army and an air force? Why would Palestine need tanks and warplanes? Don’t the Palestinians already have enough security forces and armed militias?
The future state of Palestine will have to invest in government institutions and infrastructure instead of weapons.
True, Netanyahu’s speech does not fulfil the entire aspirations of the Palestinians. But it would have been wiser for the PA leadership to also look at some of the positive elements in the speech, such as Netanyahu’s acceptance of the idea of a Palestinian state.
Whether Palestine would be demilitarised or not is an issue that the two sides could always continue to discuss through negotiations. But the PA leadership has chosen to say no to this idea, thus playing into the hands of those who have long been arguing that the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.
When Yasser Arafat accepted the “Gaza-Jericho First” formula, he knew that he would subsequently receive more territory in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip through negotiations.
Netanyahu has outsmarted the PA leaders in Ramallah by dragging them into the debate over Israel’s Jewish character – a demand that the Palestinians have also totally and vehemently rejected.
If anyone has reason to be worried about Israel’s desire to be a Jewish state, it’s the 1.4 million Arab citizens of the state. But this is an issue that should be solved through dialogue between the Israeli establishment and the Arab citizens. The Palestinians, after all, are fighting for separation from Israel, while the Israeli Arabs are fighting for integration.
It’s also unclear why PA representatives are surprised to hear about the demilitarised state and Israel’s Jewish character. Former US president Bill Clinton also mentioned the idea of creating a demilitarised state for the Palestinians, as did all of Netanyahu’s predecessors. And the demand that the Palestinians recognise Israel as a Jewish state is also not new.
Had the PA leadership responded positively to any of Netanyahu’s offers, or at least used a less harsh tone in rejecting the entire speech, it’s highly likely that they would have triggered a political crisis in Israel – one that would have even threatened the prime minister’s coalition. PA leaders and officials should have taken into account the fact that a majority of Israelis – according to recent public opinion polls – favour the two-state solution, regardless of Netanyahu’s stance on the issue.
Khaled Abu Toameh is Palestinian Affairs writer for the Jerusalem Post. © Jerusalem Post, reprinted by permission, all rights reserved.