Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

On ABC Lateline, Palestinian official's veiled rejection of Israel's existence

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ABC TV Lateline's Ali Moore interviewed Palestinian Authority official Nabil Shaath last night about the PA's UN statehood bid. Shaath , an experienced statesman, gave what on the surface may be perceived as a compelling argument for supporting the statehood bid; however, further analysis reveals inherent problems in his argument.

A key point that Shaath was attempting to put across was the PLO's supposed recognition of Israel:

Up till this minute, Israel have not recognised the right of the Palestinians to a Palestinian state on the border of '67. We still recognise Israel as an Israeli state.

..What really is at question is whether really it is right to recognise Israel as a Jewish state when 22 per cent of its population are Christian and Muslims. I wonder if it is right for Israel to ask about that 20 years after we started negotiations. Mr Netanyahu was the prime minister in 1996, 1999 and he never asked us to recognise a Jewish state. He only wanted, and we changed our charter to accommodate him, to recognise Israel as an Israeli state, regardless of the religion of its occupants, which is the same reason why we recognise Australia as an Australian state and not a Christian state and we recognise Italy not as a Catholic state, but as an Italian state.

For starters, this claim is very misleading. When Israel refers to itself as a "Jewish state", it refers to a state with Jewish character from a Jewish tradition, the realisation of the national movement of Jewish peoplehood. This is similar to many countries around the world that associate themselves with a particular historic or ethnic tradition while still permitting religious freedom - a pertinent example being England, which is officially a Church of England state.

The central weakness of Shaath's claim, however, is in his understanding of "recognition". Take for instance, the following excerpt:

[Netanyahu] has been in full occupation of our country for years, 62 years, and we have been in negotiations now for 20 years of these 62 years, and 18 years ago we signed the Oslo agreement that required in three years the soldiers of Israel to withdraw from all the West Bank and Gaza and in five years that we should have an independent Palestinian state, ending all the Israeli occupation. Israel never complied with any of these, [emphasis added]

Critically, Shaath's claim of 62 years of occupation takes us back to 1949, at which point Israel existed in the land that is internationally recognised to be Israeli territory. In 1949, the West Bank was occupied by Jordan and Gaza was annexed by Egypt - a state of affairs that continued until June 1967.

It is in this light that one should interpret Shaath's call for "a Palestinian state on the border of '67". If the borders that he takes issue with are the ones that have defined Israel for the last 62 years, he is unequivocally stating that all of Israel is an "occupation" and calling for an end to its existence as a state. Regrettably, this is consistent with the messages that the PA broadcasts to its own people with the emphasis that it gives to the demand of return to Israel proper (Shaath stressed this in his Lateline interview). Palestine Media Watch is constantly translating material from Arabic showing official PA outlets referring to areas inside the pre-1967 lines, in which Israel has incontrovertible sovereignty, as "settlements" and Israel's very existence as an "occupation".

As this blog reported in July, Shaath has referred to the two-states for two-peoples solution as "unacceptable", he tactically supports the two-state solution as a manoeuvre only for the creation of two Palestinian states side-by-side, one possibly still called "Israel" in the interim, but certainly not the Israel that the UN admitted in 1948.

Even giving Shaath the very generous benefit of the doubt, recognition from the PLO is not the sole requirement as the PLO is no longer the sole representative of the Palestinian people. When questioned on the issue of Hamas, which shows an irredentist refusal to recognise Israel coupled with an unashamed commitment to violent resistance, Shaath stumbled, admitting that his organisation had no control over Hamas before promptly changing the subject and returning to attacking Israel.

Yet despite all of this, in the ABC interview Shaath still disingenuously claims that the PLO has acknowledged Israel:

18 years ago we signed the Oslo agreement that required in three years the soldiers of Israel to withdraw from all the West Bank and Gaza and in five years that we should have an independent Palestinian state, ending all the Israeli occupation.

Israel never complied with any of these, and the withdrawal they have done early in the game, they simply turn around and reoccupy the territory...  we have recognised the state of Israel in 1993 and we have not changed one minute our recognition of Israel.

Here his truly misleading stance is exposed. There were two things that the PLO agreed to do in 1993 - one was to recognise Israel, the other was to renounce violence. The continued terror attacks throughout the 1990s and, as we can see by the subsequent escalation in 2000 until Israel successfully quelled the "Intifada" through effective security measures, the organisation in fact did neither. Both sides were also required to psychologically prepare their people to make the compromises necessary for peace, but, while Israel did so, the Palestinian Authority to this day maintains a relentless campaign of incitement against Israel and glorification of terrorists in its media, its education system and its mosques.

Most importantly, there is one - and only one - reason why Israel did not recognise a Palestinian state in 2000 as agreed under the Oslo accords. At that time, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak was in intense negotiations with then Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, supervised by then US President Bill Clinton. The talks culminated in a comprehensive peace offer from Israel, conceding to the vast majority of the Palestinian demands. Palestine was to be established in all of Gaza and 95% of the West Bank, the 5% of the West Bank that was lost was to be exchanged for equivalent land in Israel, Palestine would include East Jerusalem, there would be recognition of the Palestinian refugee problem.

The reason an independent Palestinian state was not "recognised" 11 years ago was that the Palestinians walked away from the table. The same opportunity arose in 2008 with an offer from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and again the PA, under Abbas, walked away. In New York on Friday, Mahmoud Abbas stood under the same roof as Benjamin Netanyahu, and yet he bluntly refused to say so much as a word to him face-to-face.

When Shaath blamed all of his statehood woes on Israel, there was a huge part of the story he was not prepared to reveal, acknowledge or confront.

Daniel Meyerowitz-Katz

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