February 3, 2010
What Is a 'Legitimate' Palestinian Grievance?By Joel B. Pollak
The day after President Barack Obama delivered his State of the Union address, he was ambushed by a question from an anti-Israel student at a rally in Tampa, Florida:
The president declined to answer directly and was clearly flummoxed, answering with what used to be called a "Bushism": "The Middle East is obviously an issue that has plagued the region for centuries."
He continued by offering support for Israel's security and the two-state solution, broadly reiterating the stance taken by past presidents and a bipartisan majority in Congress.
Yet there was something new in President Obama's answer.
"Israel has to acknowledge legitimate grievances and interests of the Palestinians," he said, in exchange for Palestinian recognition of Israel and renunciation of violence.
The term "legitimate grievances" seems innocuous enough. Yet anti-Israel activists have long used it as code for absolutist Palestinian demands, such as the "right of return," which would destroy Israel if implemented.
Radicals have also used the term "legitimate grievances" to link the Palestinian cause to criticism of the United States and the War on Terror more generally.
For example, Richard Falk, the 9/11 conspiracy theorist who is now the United Nations special rapporteur on Israeli violations of Palestinian rights, wrote in a 2004 article attacking America's "imperial grip" that the Palestinian cause could "allow for a revival of attention to an array of other legitimate grievances around the world."
On the one hand, there is nothing wrong with acknowledging the legitimacy of both Israeli and Palestinian aspirations. On the other, the president used the term "legitimate" to describe only Palestinian "grievances," and he gave no indication as to which grievances his administration considers "legitimate" and which it does not.
President Obama has used the term "legitimate" in troubling ways before. In 2008, he told David Brooks of the New York Times that terror groups such as Hamas and Hezb'allah have "legitimate claims" that they could achieve more successfully if they renounced violence.
In fact, both groups are devoted to the stated goal of destroying Israel, aside from whatever other "claims" then-Senator Obama imagined them to have.
For many of Israel's most hostile critics, the Jewish state's very existence is a "legitimate" grievance of the Palestinian people. They blame Israeli independence -- not the war with which Arab states greeted it -- for Palestinian statelessness.
The use of the term "legitimate" in that radical context is calculated to deny Israel's legitimacy.
President Obama probably deserves the benefit of the doubt. Yet he followed his comment about "legitimate grievances" with a dig at Israel's government and the voters who elected it: "The Israeli government came in based on the support of a lot of folks who don't want to make a lot of concessions."
The remark, while intended to flatter Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's recent peace overtures, portrayed ordinary Israelis as hostile to peace and cast their free political will as problematic -- or even illegitimate.
Congress ought to insist that the Obama administration clarify its position on "legitimate" Palestinian grievances as soon as possible.
Do those "legitimate" grievances include an insistence on the "right of return"? Do they include hostility to Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem?
If so, then the administration's diplomatic efforts are encouraging extremism, not peace. And what appears on the surface to be equal empathy for both sides may not be so "legitimate" after all.
Joel B. Pollak is the Republican candidate for Congress in Illinois's 9th district, and the author of Don't Tell Me Words Don't Matter: How Rhetoric Won the 2008 Presidential Election.