Ira Chernus  




If you read a roadmap carefully, you can usually tell what’s around the next bend in the road.  To predict what comes next in Israeli-Palestinian relations, you need a roadmap and the latest news.  But it all depends on where you get your news. 

If you get all your news from mass circulation media in the U.S., you are being told that there is a fork in the road, coming very soon.  One path leads to peace, via a new Palestinian leadership that stops the terrorism.  The other path leads to more Palestinian terrorism, more Israeli counter-violence, and seemingly endless conflict.  It’s up to the Palestinians.  They caused the problem, so they must choose which direction the Middle East will take.  That’s pretty much the way the mainstream press here portrays the story.  

If your news comes from more diverse sources, you know the situation is more complicated.  You know that there is serious doubt whether any Palestinian leaders can prevent all violent attacks against Israelis.  You know that Israel has kept up its state-sponsored violence against the Palestinians, ignoring calls by the Bush administration to abide by the roadmap, which requires restraint from both sides.  You know that some Israeli analysts, and some of Prime Minister Sharon’s own advisors, see this as a calculated move by Sharon to undermine the roadmap before it can be tested out. 

In this broader news context, things around the next bend look somewhat different.  The choices that Palestinians make may not matter very much.  Some Palestinians will surely continue to resist the roadmap, since it envisions a limited kind of freedom for the Palestinians on a limited amount of their own land.  Whatever other Palestinians say or do, this rejectionist minority will continue to be righteously indignant.  The more the Palestinian leaders repress the rejectionists (which is what the roadmap requires, according to Israel), the more indignant the rejectionists will become.  A small minority among this minority will surely find a way to kill more Jews. 

The next step along this road is tragically predictable.  Sharon and his government will “discover” that the new Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abas, is no different from Yasir Arafat.  All the labels pinned on Arafat will be transferred to Abas:  “supporter of terrorism,” “no partner for peace,” “failed leader,” and—that most damning word of all in today’s political discourse—“irrelevant.”  Sharon will continue to insist that he really would make peace, if only there were a relevant leader on the other side who wanted peace. 

If your news comes only from the mainstream media, this will sound perfectly plausible.  After all, isn’t Palestinian terrorism the main roadblock to peace?  What’s a peace-loving Israeli government to do?  That’s the way our mass media, and the Israeli government, tell the story. 

Again, if you have a broader news context, you know that Palestinian violence does not simply appear out of nowhere.  It is not an inevitable fact, rooted in some supposedly ahistorical Palestinian hatred of Jews.  Palestinian violence is just one half of a circle of violence.  The other half is perpetrated by uniformed Israelis, carrying out their government’s orders.  If you ignore that other half, as our news media so often do, you fundamentally misunderstand the problem. 

In the end, the success or failure of the roadmap depends on how we talk about it.  If our discourse is framed by the premise that Palestinian violence is the primary problem, the roadmap does not have a chance.   As long as Israel makes no change in its policies, there is no way the violent minority of Palestinians will change their policies. Soon, Prime Minister Abas is bound to be declared “irrelevant.”  Then the Israelis are bound to give up on the roadmap.  That approach is doomed to fail. 

Sharon and his government surely understand this simple fact.  They will use the roadmap’s failure as justification for even harsher occupation policies.  Extreme right-wing views will become more popular— like the idea of moving all Palestinians to Jordan.  That’s the view espoused by Israeli Cabinet member Bennie Elon in his recent tour of the U.S., where he was loudly applauded by right-wing Christian audiences.  Palestinians will be outraged and harden their opposition to compromise with Israel.  An end to the violence will become harder to find, or even imagine.

If we want language that matches reality and may lead to peace, we will recognize that Palestinian and Israeli violence forms a single circle, each feeding the other.  We will demand that both sides scale back their violence simultaneously.

Since Israel’s violence is state policy, while Palestinian violence comes from essentially uncontrollable non-governmental groups, we may even expect Israel to do more in this initial phase.  This is not a question of moral right and wrong; violence from both sides is equally wrong.  It is a question of practical self-interest for Israel.  If the Israeli government wants security for its citizens more than anything else, there is no escaping the logic:  Israel can, and therefore should, act more quickly than the Palestinians to scale back its violence.  Israel should also change the framework of the discourse, encouraging all of us to see the violence on both sides as equal parts of the problem. 

Unless those things happen, Israelis must expect more attacks and more fear.  If their own government will not take these steps, they should pay attention to the more skeptical among their media analysts, who say that the Sharon government does not put security at the top of its agenda.  According to the skeptics, the Sharon government wants to undermine any hope for a viable Palestinian government.  It wants to see the Occupied Territories so torn by strife, so ungovernable, that the world will accept permanent Israeli control there. 

I hope these skeptics are not right.  But if the Sharon government does not begin, now, to accept its share of responsibility and fulfill its obligations under the roadmap, it may be hard to believe that it really wants security and peace.  We can all help the process by rejecting the misleading, simplistic story told by our own mass media.