This piece originally published in Arabic translation by Al-Hayat
The sloppiness -- not to say outright misrepresentations -- that characterize the punditry of too many Israeli journalists is striking.
I was reminded of that reading Ari Shavit's claim in his Ha'aretz column of October 7 that in President George W. Bush's letter of April 2004 to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the American president promised that "the settlement blocs [will] remain in Israeli hands and the Palestinian refugees will not return to Israel."
That is a fabrication. In his letter to Sharon, Bush promised only that when Israeli-Palestinian negotiations get under way, these are Israeli demands that the U.S. will support. But he also noted in his letter that these demands must be negotiated with the Palestinians, and cannot be imposed by Israel or the United States.
Indeed, to make sure that Bush's letter would not be misrepresented the way Shavit and most other Israeli columnists -- not to speak of Israeli politicians -- have, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on February 8, 2006, following a meeting with the then Israeli foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, "No one should try and unilaterally predetermine the outcome of a final status agreement." She emphasized that Bush's letter to Sharon endorsing the need to take into consideration "new population centers" in the West Bank does not provide a license for anyone to "try and do that in a preemptive or pre-determined way, because these are issues for negotiation at final status."
It is not only Israeli columnists who have played fast and loose with the history of this conflict. So have Israel's leaders. This past week (October 6), during a visit to the city of Lod, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that "Palestinians waited 9 months and more out of 10 months, and set a precondition right off the bat even though they committed to no preconditions." There is no other way of describing this statement than as a lie. The Palestinian insistence that the negotiations' starting point should be the existing agreements to which both Israel and the Palestinians signed onto is not a "condition." Israel's insistence that these agreements be ignored is a condition. It is therefore Israel that imposed conditions for the negotiations, not the Palestinians.
Netanyahu and his Likud Party have popularized a slogan that Palestinians only "take and take" while Israel's many "concessions" go unacknowledged. It is a myth that has become deeply ingrained in Israel's national narrative. The truth is the precise opposite. Palestinians have made a concession to Israel that is entirely unprecedented. In 1988, the PLO agreed formally to recognize the legitimacy of Israeli sovereignty within the 1967 armistice border, an area that includes fully half the territory that had been recognized as the legitimate patrimony of Palestinian Arabs in the UN Partition Plan. This reduced the Palestinians' territory from 43 to 22 percent of Palestine while enlarging Israel's territory from 56 to 78 percent.
The first public acknowledgment by an Israeli government of this unprecedented Palestinian concession (unprecedented because, as was noted in the Security Council's Resolution 242, territory cannot be acquired as a result of war, irrespective of who is the aggressor) came unintentionally from Shimon Peres earlier this year. When challenged to defend his claims for the importance of the Oslo Accords (for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize), Peres said, "Before Oslo, the Palestinian state's size should have been according to the 1947... UN map. In Oslo, Arafat moved from the 1947 map to the 1967 one. He gave up on 22 percent of the West Bank. I don't know any Arab leader who would give up 2 or 3 percent. He gave up 22 percent."
Instead of acknowledging that this concession was a gut-wrenching Palestinian contribution to peace, Peres described it as "our [i.e., Peres's] greatest achievement." Unsurprisingly, his statement has not put an end to the calumny peddled by Ehud Barak and other Israeli leaders that Yasir Arafat's real intention all along had been to salami-slice Israel's territory until it is eliminated -- a charge made by Barak as he was busily confiscating Palestinian territory for the expansion of Israeli settlements at a rate that exceeded even the settlement expansion overseen by Netanyahu. It is a charge that was only recently repeated by Israel's deputy prime minister and minister for strategic affairs, Moshe Ya'alon, who attributed this intention to President Mahmoud Abbas as well.
Equally misleading has been Netanyahu's repeated declarations that a peace accord depends on Palestinians matching Israel's "painful concessions" with their own painful concessions. In fact, no one has ever asked Israel to make any concession to the Palestinians -- whether territory, water resources, Jerusalem or sovereignty. All of these concessions are to be made on the Palestinian side of the 1967 border. No concessions were asked of Israel on its side of that border.
Netanyahu's offer of painful Israeli concessions is a deception. Unless, of course, Netanyahu meant to apply the term "painful concessions" to his willingness to return to Palestinians a part of their own territory, all of which -- up to the 1967 border -- is universally recognized as being under Israeli occupation, and therefore subject to the Fourth Geneva Convention's strictures that absolutely forbid the transfer of the occupying power's population to those territories. If that is what he meant, what Netanyahu was telling Abbas is that Israel expects to be rewarded for returning some of the territory it unlawfully confiscated from the Palestinians by having Palestinians concede their right to the balance of their territory that Israel helped itself to.
By getting the U.S. and the Quartet to applaud this offer, Netanyahu can fairly be said to have done for peace diplomacy what Bernard Madoff has done for the investment industry.
Henry Siegman, director of the U.S./Middle East Project in New York, is a visiting research professor at the Sir Joseph Hotung Middle East Program, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.