Sunday 26 January 2014

They can’t both be right… can they?

The 1936-1939 'intifada'
In 1936, violence erupted in what was then the British Mandate of Palestine.  The Palestinian Arab leadership, which – much like today’s – appealed to both religious and xenophobic emotions, had unleashed that violence against the British army, against Palestinian Jews and against those Arabs it perceived as less militant and somewhat disposed towards an accommodation.  In short, what was going on was an ‘intifada’, although the term had yet to be coined.

The Peel Commission on 'field research'
Eventually, the British army put down that uprising – and did so with an iron fist.  Some 4,000 Palestinian Arabs were killed by the army, in addition to another 1,000 or so killed by fellow Arabs.  In total, around 15,000 were injured; more than 12,000 were detained, of which 108 were executed by hanging; some were exiled.  The violence had claimed the lives of 262 British servicemen and 300 or so Palestinian Jews.

But, before resorting to military repression, the British Government tried something else: it sent a Royal Commission to investigate the root causes of violence – and to suggest solutions.  Led by Earl Peel, the Commission spent a couple of months in the Mandate; its members visited the place, spoke with local British officials and interviewed the leaders of Jewish and Arab communities.

Haj Amin Al-Husseini
leader of Palestinian Arabs, Grand Mufti of Jerusalem.
The Peel Commission report assigns him
responsibility for the violence.
The Peel Commission’s report concluded that the two communities would never be able to peacefully share power in the same country; the solution had to be partition into two states: one Arab and one Jewish.

As for the causes of the ‘intifada’, the Commission unequivocally blamed the Arab leadership, while implying that the Jews had actually showed restraint.  

But one of their conclusions was – in my eyes at least – more important.  Irrespective of who was to blame for this and that, the Peel Commission stated, this was “fundamentally a conflict of right with right”.

Predictably, both sides focused on the practical recommendations, as did the British Government.  Arab leaders rejected them out of hand; the Jews disagreed on the details, but hinted that they would be willing to negotiate.  Faced with Arab leadership’s unwillingness to even discuss, the British Government chose ‘the military solution’.

David ben Gurion
leader of Palestinian Jews
The “right with right” assessment was ignored.  And yet, a violent conflict is but a disease in the body of mankind.  And how can one cure a disease while ignorant of the diagnosis?

On the other hand, how can both sides in a conflict be right?  Surely one of them has to be fundamentally in the wrong?  Human beings are conditioned – perhaps by a combination of natural sense of justice and high doses of Hollywood fiction – to think in terms of right vs. wrong, good vs. evil, heroes vs. villains.

Actually, conflicts of ‘right with right’ are very common, even in everyday life.  I have the right to do everything I please in my own home, don’t I?  It’s an obvious and absolute right, ‘innit?  Yet if I choose to play very loud music in my home, I will impinge on my neighbour’s equally obvious and absolute right to have a quiet evening in his own home.  At which point, we’d have to work out a way to accommodate those two conflicting rights.  Which is another way of saying that each of us would have to give up some of our rights, however ‘obvious and absolute’ – to make room for the other side’s ‘obvious and absolute’ rights.  Instead of the full extent of their ‘rights’, the two sides will – hopefully – end up realising their most essential interests.

Of course, that approach only goes for ‘right with right’ conflicts.  If someone had stolen my wallet, I’d be disinclined to reach any ‘accommodation’ with the thief; frankly, I’d kick his butt and put him in prison if I can.

It’s 2014.  Since 1936, there've been a few wars and intifadas, terrorist acts, reprisals – and much, much suffering on both sides.  We’re still talking about two states because, for anyone equipped with both logic and moral compass, it’s still the only just solution.

One of the few photos showing the two negotiating sides together.
So why is it so difficult to implement?  As I’m writing this, Palestinian Jews and Arabs are once again engaged in negotiations, with US mediation.  But nobody seems to believe this new round of negotiations stands any chance of succeeding.  And why would they?  The very same process has failed before.  So expect the same cycle of mutual recrimination, finger pointing and perhaps violence, with the rest of the world once again taking sides, a few according to their sense of ethics, most out of prejudice or selfish interest.

Parroting biased activists, superficial journalists and politicians with an axe to grind, some in the West will blame “Israeli occupation” and “settlements”.  But how can the 1967 occupation of the West Bank be the root cause of a conflict that was raging as early as 1936?  If the West Bank is the problem, then why has the Arab side refused to even contemplate peace between 1949 and June 1967, when the West Bank had been firmly in Arab hands?

If the West wishes to understand what the problem really is, should it not listen to the parties involved?  Too many Westerners seem unable to do that; or indeed see past their own paternalistic image of ‘natives’ squabbling over a few meagre assets, unable to ‘share’ like civilised people.

Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki
Only a few days ago (on January 20th, 2014), Palestinian Authority’s Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki, has granted an interview to the London-based Arabic newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat.  Mr. al-Maliki spoke about the peace process and referred explicitly to the difficulties encountered.  One would have thought that opinions expressed by the Foreign Minister of one of the parties involved would represent hot news.  Yet none of the British mainstream media outlets seem to have noticed the interview – let alone quote from it.  The BBC continued to air ‘opinion items’ consisting mainly of interviews with… its own hapless Middle East correspondents; the broadsheets, from Guardian to the Telegraph, continued to publish ‘editorials’ written mostly by activists posing as ‘experts’.

Here is – translated into English – a key fragment from the interview, as published in Asharq Al-Awsat:
Journalist: “You said that there are a number of contentious issues. Which is the most intractable?”
Foreign Minister al-Maliki: “This is the issue of recognizing the Jewish nature of the Israeli state. This is a sharply contentious issue. It would be dangerous to recognize this because this would mean our acceptance of the dissolution of our own history and ties and our historic right to Palestine. This is something that we will never accept under any circumstances. Acceptance of this would also raise fears about the fate of the 1.8 million Palestinians living in Israel. They are already second-class citizens, so how will they be affected by the Judaization of the state? This also raises questions about the [Palestinian] refugees and the right of return. So this is something that we absolutely cannot accept.”

To those in the West who wish to listen and learn, Mr. al-Maliki’s words (spoken in Arabic to an Arab audience) should be full of significance.

It is not ‘land’ that the PA Foreign Minister indicates as “the most intractable issue”; it is not even Jerusalem or Al-Haram Al-Sharif.  Rather, it is recognising Israel as the country of the Jews.  And why?  Although Mr. Al-Maliki mentions “also” other concerns, they surface more like afterthoughts.  The main reason why, in its Foreign Minister’s view, the Palestinian Authority “will never accept under any circumstances” Israel’s Jewish character is that such acceptance would signify conceding the Palestinian Arabs’ “historic right to Palestine”.

And herein lies the problem; because an accommodation – any conceivable accommodation – would obviously imply exactly that: giving up the “historic right” to a “Palestine” seen as including Israel.  Just as the Jews would have to give up their “historic right” to the entire Biblical Land of Israel.  Remember ‘right with right’?  When two rights conflict, accommodation requires that both sides concede part of their respective rights, to make room for the rights of the other side.

What Mr. Al-Maliki says is that the Palestinian Authority “will never” give up the grudge; that grudge will remain in place “under any circumstances”, including the circumstance of peace.  So how would that be ‘peace’?  Doesn't ‘peace’ imply a final settlement?  How is that compatible with continuing claims of “historic rights” to the other side’s country?

In contrast, Israeli leaders do not seem to have any problem with the ‘Palestinian’ character of the neighbours’ future state.  Or indeed, with its ‘Arab’ or even ‘Islamic’ character.  All of which are clearly proclaimed in the Basic Law of Palestine (adopted by the Palestinian Legislative Council in Ramallah, on March 18, 2003):
Article 1: Palestine is part of the larger Arab world, and the Palestinian people are part of the Arab nation.  […]
Article 4: Islam is the official religion in Palestine.”

So why seem Israeli leaders – including the much-maligned Netanyahu – more willing to give up their “historic right”?  Because they – and the vast majority of Israeli Jews – have come to see the conflict as one of ‘right with right’.  Once that is accepted, the conclusion becomes inevitable: whatever rights we may have – or believe we have – will have to be curtailed to make room for the other side’s rights.

Conversely, that is not what the Palestinian leaders believe – and not what they tell their people.  The Palestinian narrative is still very much ‘right vs. wrong’.  A narrative in which the Jews (portrayed at best as ‘foreign immigrants’ or ‘colonialists’ with no connection to ‘Palestine’ and at worst as eternal schemers and  ‘source of all evil’), ‘stole the land’ from the ‘indigenous’ Palestinians.

It is interesting to look at how ‘history’ is described on – of all places – the official website of the PLO Negotiations Affairs Department (emphasis added to highlight the most ‘loaded’ terms):
“The Jewish immigrants advocated for turning Palestine into a Jewish state, despite the fact that the majority of Palestine’s inhabitants were non-Jews. […] With increased calls by Jewish immigrants to colonize Palestine at the expense of our rights and aspirations, relations between our native Palestinians and the burgeoning Jewish immigrant population soured. […] The new, unilaterally declared, state of Israel denied us the right to return to our native land and instead seized our property. Thus, Israel condemned two-thirds of our people to life in exile and occupied 78 percent of Palestine

The text above screams ‘right vs. wrong’; it contrasts the “Jewish immigrants” with the “native Palestinians”; the former have bad intentions – the latter ‘rights and aspirations’.

As I've shown above, ‘right vs. wrong’ conflicts are not resolved through negotiation and accommodation, but through resort to ‘justice’.  Which is precisely why the Palestinian leadership needed to be – in undiplomatic terms – dragged kicking and screaming to the negotiations table; and why they seem intent to leave that table as soon as possible, to pursue their ‘cause’ in various ‘international fora’.

So what’s the point in negotiating?  We find an insight in an article published by Mr. Ali Jarbawi,
former minister in the Palestinian Authority and professor of political science at Birzeit University:
“Palestinians should continue negotiating in order to satisfy the international community and gain further support abroad for their cause. […]  Small gains […] should be pursued so long as Palestinian leaders avoid signing any final-status agreement that would require them to renounce Palestinian national rights at this stage — since such a deal would be patently unjust. […] Palestinian negotiators […] should accept that the struggle against Israel is a long-term one.”

Clearly, until and unless such attitudes are changed, the negotiations stand zero chances of succeeding.  The West cannot ‘will’ such attitudes away; and pretending they don’t exist is ostrich strategy.  The West also cannot ‘impose’ an agreement; even if it tried (good luck with that!), such imposed ‘peace’ would soon unravel, probably into something worse than the current situation.

So what’s to be done?  Well, for starters the West should demand that both actors – if they desire any kind of support – should publicly declare their recognition of the conflict’s ‘right with right’ character.  Which means recognising that the other side is there by right, not sufferance.  Moreover, that recognition should be not just declared, but adopted as policy; which means unequivocally expressing it in everything from schoolbooks to state television programmes.

And – if they really want to help end the conflict – Western governments should do something else, as well: they should clearly signal their displeasure with those manifestations, in the West itself and elsewhere, that seek to assign blame and encourage ‘right vs. wrong’ attitudes.  I'm talking about the choir of brainwashed Western ‘useful idiots’ who have appropriated extremist terminology and practice – from re-writing the history to promotion of boycotts.

Look, for instance, at a ‘Kairos Britain’ document; one passage deals with the ‘British responsibility’ for the conflict (an item of Arab propaganda I've dealt with before):
[M]any Christians feel, as we approach the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, that Britain should issue an apology for our broken promises: we effectively gave away another nation’s land, and subsequently failed to respect the human and political rights of the indigenous non-Jewish peoples.”

Note how the passage above resembles PLO’s ‘history’ quoted before.  The same distorted view: the right-less immigrant Jews vs. the indigenous Palestinians, the rightful owners of ‘the land’.

'Kairos Britain' seeks to endorse a movement launched
in the West Bank by several Christian clerics.
Both movements view Israel as the 'wrong' party in the conflict.
Of course, this is a fringe view.  Sure, the boycott promoters make much noise and little actual damage.  But the problem is: that’s not how things are seen from Palestinian quarters.  Most Palestinians do not read English; they live in dictatorships in which the flow of information and the public debate are tightly controlled.  ‘News’ like the passage above pass through that filter and are even embellished; opposite views are blocked.  As a result, Palestinians live in a ‘world’ which, almost unanimously, encourages the ‘right vs. wrong’ view.  How, then, can they be expected to accommodate ‘the villains’?  Why would they concede anything, when ‘the entire world’ tells them that they are the only ones with ‘the right’?

Ironically – but tragically too – these Western ‘Palestinian supporters’ are responsible for the perpetuation of the conflict and the resulting, unnecessary suffering.


  1. This - " The violence had claimed the lives of 262 British servicemen and 300 or so Palestinian Jews." - I think is an error. The Sefer Hagana has 525 Jews killed by Arabs in 1936-39. Other sites have 415. The Mandate Report for 1938 notes 204 Jewish civilians killed and the 1936 Report (April to October) has 80 and so, taking into account the rest of 1936, 1937 and the beginning of 1939, I would suggest 300 is far too low a figure.

    1. Thanks for your comment. The source for my number is Benny Morris. However, he is not infallible and you may well be right in your assessment.

  2. Tom Bowden has 547 (

  3. Very interesting and clear-sighted post. But what if one side says is a matter of right and justice is not that at all, but a cause that is so wrong that if its true aim was spelt out, nobody would support it at all? The reason why there has been no peace to-date is because the Palestinian side have concealed their genocidal aims towards Israel in a crusade for national rights. In fact, there is ample evidence, if only people would pay attention to what Arabs say instead of indulging in wishful right-v-right thinking, that Palestinians are not interested in their own national rights, only in denying the Jews THEIR rights.
    Israel has all the best arguments for justice on its side (see my blog, - if only it would use them.