The Big Picture on Why the Palestinians Always Say 'No'

Addressing the Brookings Institution on December 2, 2011, U. S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta rebuked Israel for not doing enough to promote peace with the Palestinians, demanding that Israel's leaders "just get to the damned [peace] table."  But the notion that Israel bears any (much less primary) responsibility for the absence of peace or Palestinian statehood is a difficult case to make.

During the British Mandate, the Jews of Palestine twice agreed to peace based on the country's partition into Arab and Jewish states -- first at the time of the 1937 Peel Commission Report and second with the U.N.'s historic 1947 partition vote.  Both times the Palestinian leadership bluntly declined the offer.  The same answer was given when Levi Eshkol discussed Palestinian autonomy with West Bank Arab "notables" (1968), when Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat signed the Camp David Framework for the West Bank and Gaza (1979), and when Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert made their respective statehood offers to Yasir Arafat (2000-01) and Mahmoud Abbas (2008). 

The most obvious reason for all this Palestinian naysaying is that national expression for Palestinians has never been the goal of the "Palestinian" movement.  The true goal (pursued in concert with the Arab world at large), is, and always has been, the eradication of Jewish national expression in Judaism's ancestral homeland.  No one, perhaps, has expressed this fact more succinctly than PLO executive committee member Zahir Muhsein, who told the Dutch Newspaper Trouw in 1977, "The Palestinian people does not exist. ... Only for political and tactical reasons do we speak today about the existence of a Palestinian people, since Arab national interests demand that we posit the existence of a distinct 'Palestinian people' to oppose Zionism." 

The assault on Jewish national identity, however, is actually part of a more pervasive strategy pursued by Islamists throughout the Middle East.  "Since the fall of the Ottoman Empire and Western decolonization," writes Professor Walid Phares, "dominant ethnicities in the Greater Middle East [i.e., Arab, Persian and Turkish] have subjected regional minorities to territorial and political repression on the one hand, and cultural and linguistic suppression on the other."  Well-known examples of this assault on ethno-religious identities include Turkey's Armenian genocide (1915-23) and Saddam Hussein's use of poison gas against Iraqi Kurds. 

It was hoped that 2011's "Arab Spring" might lead the region toward greater democratic freedoms, but as the dictators fell, a less agreeable picture emerged.  Libya and Egypt have moved inexorably toward sharia law (which traditionally treats non-Muslims as subjugated second-class citizens).  The peril has already been felt by Egypt's Coptic Christians -- 100,000 of whom have fled the country since the fall of Hosni Mubarak.

Many Westerners assume that Muslims are the indigenous people in Arab lands.  In fact, there are a multitude of ethnic Christian minorities throughout the region whose heritage antedates the Muslim conquest.  The Copts are such a people.  Christianized in the 1st Century AD by Saint Matthew, the Copts date their ethnicity to the days of the Pharaohs.  Since the Muslim Conquest in the 7th Century AD, they have endured unceasing second-class citizenship in their own homeland.  Having no territorial ambitions, the Copts, who constitute at least 10% of the Egyptian population, have long striven for basic civil rights -- including the right to speak the Coptic language, which is presently outlawed and kept alive only in Church prayers.  Far from bringing relief to Christians, Egypt's "Arab Spring" has magnified their torment.  According to a May 2011 French news report, "an explosion of violence against the Coptic Christian community" has been in train since Mubarak's fall.  On September 30, 2011, for example, Muslim vandals in the town of El-Marinab set fire to St. George's Church.  When members of the Coptic community attempted a peaceful march to the Maspero state TV building in protest, Egyptian soldiers drove armored personnel carriers into the crowd, crushing a number of protesters to death.  The TV station, meanwhile, falsely proclaimed a threat to the regime, thereby inciting anti-Christian riots in Cairo.

Iraqi Christians are another case in point.  Iraq's Assyrian (Orthodox) and Chaldean (Catholic) communities were Christianized in the 1st Century AD, but their ethnicity dates to the Ancient Assyrian Empire.  Since Saddam Hussein's fall in 2003, Assyrian Christians have come under increasing attack by the Muslim majority.  Predictably, the U.S. withdrawal in 2010-11 sparked even more anti-Christian violence.  The worst instance occurred in October 2010, when al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists burst into the Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad and opened fire on the congregation, killing priests and parishioners alike.  When Iraqi security forces attempted to intervene, two of the attackers detonated suicide vests.  In all, 58 worshipers were killed and many more wounded. 

Since 2003, an estimated 800,000 of Iraq's 1.4 million Christians have fled.  The unprecedented exodus has prompted Iraqi Christian leaders to demand an autonomous province guarded by Christian security forces in Iraq's Nineveh Plains region.  Meanwhile, many Assyrian émigrés have settled in neighboring Syria, only to face fears that they will be sent fleeing again should Bashar Assad's regime fall.  Lebanon's Maronite Church patriarch has spoken publicly on the topic, saying, "We are with ... reforms and human rights [in Syria,] but we hope the price will not be the same as what happened in Iraq."

Other examples are legion.  Lebanon's Maronites (and other Christian sects) accounted for 54% of Lebanon's population in 1932.  The PLO ravages of the 1970s-80s, the 1975-76 Civil War, and, more recently, maltreatment at the hands of Hezb'allah have lowered this figure to an estimated 30%-40%.  (During the 2006 Lebanon War, Hezb'allah terrorists fired rockets and mortars from Christian neighborhoods hoping that Israeli return fire would strike innocent Christians.)  In southern Sudan, 2 million African Christians and animists have been killed in a decades-long struggle for autonomy from the domineering Arab north.  Even the "long-suffering" Palestinians have found opportunity to persecute Christians.  When the Palestinian Authority obtained control over Bethlehem in 1994, the city had a 60% Christian majority.  Anti-Christian violence and intimidation since that time have caused a general flight.  By 2001 Christians accounted for just 20% of the population, and they continue to leave.

The list goes on -- and it constitutes something more than simple persecution of Christians.  Walid Phares has termed it "the negation of cultural identity" of targeted minorities living in the "circle of Arab states."  Arab and Palestinian attitudes towards Israel are simply further examples of the ongoing process.  For what is the Palestinian refusal to allow Jews to pray on the Temple Mount (Judaism's holiest site) or their denial of the existence of a Jewish Temple there (even as they labor to destroy priceless Temple artifacts from beneath the Mount's surface) or their official Palestinian Authority maps (showing Israel wholly replaced by a Palestinian state) if not an attempt to negate Jewish cultural identity in Judaism's birthplace? 

In viewing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Leon Panetta has demonstrated an inability to perceive which side is obstructing peace.  Perhaps if he takes a step back and looks at the big picture, he will see things in sharper focus; for it is the regional Islamist aspiration to suppress non-Muslim ethno-religious identities -- and not a lack of Israeli pacifism -- that explains why the Palestinians always say "no."

Jack Schwartzwald is a clinical assistant professor of medicine at Brown University and the author of Nine Lives of Israel (McFarland Publishing, Spring 2012).